Sachin Tendulkar drove the Opel Astra on the Sharjah greens. His teammates piled over it for the lap around the ground as a capacity crowd sang, “Happy Birthday to you.”
The surreal scenes in the oasis made millions more fall for the sport. It gave the dreaming nation more reasons to aspire and celebrate. Such joyous feats were indeed rare.
India had won the Coca-Cola Cup 1998. They had triumphed over the best.
Could there have a better advertisement for the car manufacturer in the Indian market? Fifty years post-independence, this was a nation that dreamed, and as the upper-middle-class population ballooned, so did the aspirations. From winning on the field to being a role model on how to conduct off it, to amplifying brands and selling products – there was one man, revered, respected, idolised, followed, and most importantly, loved.
Eight months after an independent India turned 50, its favourite child Sachin Tendulkar turned 25. Years on, India recalls the day and the week with great delight.
Australia were peaking in the late 1990s. By this time in 1998, they were the No.1 ranked ODI side. You had to be special to be able to score an ODI hundred against them. But then, on this occasion, Sachin Tendulkar scored two that too in run-chases and in a span of 48 hours. They came in the harshest of conditions.
Throughout the 1990s, Tendulkar bemused the fraternity and made them drop jaws with the amalgam of artistry and brute with the willow. He had captured the imagination of the sporting globe. But April 1998 saw him mark a new chapter in his glorious cricket journey – a phase that walked him to the hall of legends.
Before that, 1997 was a forgettable year for Indian cricket in terms of performances. If the defeats in South Africa and West Indies weren’t embarrassing enough, there came the Sanath Jayasuriya mauling at Colombo. Even in the 50-over format, India also had a dismal run in the Independence Cup at home, then the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka, lost in Pakistan and then at Sharjah in December.
Barring the 4-1 win over Pakistan in the Sahara Cup at Toronto, India didn’t have many smiles to boast. However, it was a year when Sourav Ganguly found his foot in international cricket and became invaluable.
Tendulkar, the ODI cricketer, seemed burdened with the captaincy. The year saw him score 1,011 runs from 39 ODIs at 30.63.
By the end of the year, Tendulkar lost his national captaincy, and the cloak once again fell upon Mohammad Azharuddin.
Sachin Tendulkar embraces 1998
In January 1998, Indian cricket lived one of its finest moments when they beat Pakistan in the third final of the Independence Cup in Dhaka. India chased down 316, then the record highest chase in ODIs.
Free of the captaincy burden, Tendulkar presented an ultra-aggressive version of himself and won the Player of the Series.
He wasn’t done. The Australia tour of India was billed as the Shane Warne-Sachin Tendulkar contest. In a remarkable exhibition of batting during the Tests, Tendulkar demolished the Australian attack to help India win the Test series 2-1. Another Player of the Series arrived in Tendulkar’s way.
Though Tendulkar got a hundred in the tri-series that followed, he didn’t get enough runs but compensated with wickets. His hundred against Australia at Kanpur was his first ODI ton after 33 games. Despite winning all four matches in the league stages, India lost the final to Australia.
The arena soon shifted to Sharjah for the tri-series- Coca-Cola Cup.
Australia won their first three matches and expectedly marched to the final. India’s only win came against New Zealand in the first match of the tournament courtesy of a Ganguly hundred but lost their second match to the same opponents.
India had to win their final round-robin match against Australia or ensure they were ahead in terms of New Zealand’s run rate.
On a scorching summer day in Sharjah, Mark Waugh’s delightful 81 and Michael Bevan’s unbeaten 101 saw Australia to 284 – the highest score in the tournament. Anything around 300 was considered unbeatable in that era. Three months back, India had chased down the world record 316 against Pakistan in a tournament final and therefore, the fans pinned their hopes on the side.
The unbearable heat forced Tendulkar to rush back to the dressing room during the innings break and dip his feet in an ice bucket. He felt the heat steaming in through the shoes.
Tendulkar, who had dismissed Mark Waugh in this game, had managed scores of 40, 80 and 38 in the first three matches. But to chase down 285 against the Shane Warne-led Australian bowling attack, Tendulkar had to produce something more special.
Trivia: Till then, only West Indies had successfully chased down such totals against Australia. In March 1995, they chased down 287 for a win at Georgetown. Two years later, at Brisbane, West Indies gunned down 284. On both occasions, it was Carl Hooper who led the charge.
Australia missed Glenn McGrath in their attack, but Damien Fleming was bowling very well. Tendulkar set the tone for the chase with consecutive sixes off Michael Kasprowicz in the sixth over. Tendulkar slapped the leather over deep mid-wicket on both occasions.
Ganguly, the lone Indian centurion in the series thus far and India’s hero in the 316-chase, fell for 17 to Fleming, which meant Tendulkar had to bat through.
Nayan Mongia was promoted as a pinch-hitter.
“Anshuman Gaekwad [Indian coach], Azhar and myself as vice-captain took that call to push Mongia up the order. The idea was we should get off to a good start and score some quick runs upfront. That was the period when pinch-hitters had become a trend. In the Titan Cup, played in India [in 1996], where I was the captain, I used to send different batsmen as pinch-hitters, including the likes of Javagal Srinath against South Africa in Rajkot. The whole idea was to take the opposition by surprise, and it sometimes worked as it did against Australia in Sharjah,” Tendulkar would recall years later to ESPNCricinfo.
Tendulkar held one end, whereas Mongia took on the spinners and seamers as they added 69 from 80 balls for the second wicket. Skipper Azhar and Ajay Jadeja were out soon, with India reeling at 138 for four after 29 overs.
Then hit the sandstorm.
“The storm was an experience. I had never seen anything like that. I feared I would get blown away by the storm. It was very scary. It was known as the sandstorm match rightly, and I could feel the power of the wind.
“(Adam) Gilchrist was the only one next to me, and I just wanted to hold on to him. Such was the force of the wind. I wanted some support because it was like a whirlpool and I thought I might be sucked in by the force,” Tendulkar remembered in a chat with Sportstar.
The 25-minute halt gave India a revised target. They needed 276 runs off 46 overs and 237 to qualify.
Chasing over eight per over in the pre-T20 days was unthinkable. And Tendulkar had to do it all by himself. He was going for the win as he thought it would hand India a psychological advantage for the final. By the end of the knock, he had caused enough damage to the Australian psyche.
The storm may have stopped, but Tendulkar didn’t. His version of the desert storm took the Aussie bowlers in a whirlpool. There followed a range of incredible strokes, and he ran like a man possessed. VVS Laxman’s job was to give him the strike. And once, when Laxman thought differently, he managed to earn the wrath of the Master and heard an earful.
“They were doing their best to keep me off strike while my partner VVS Laxman was doing his best to make sure I faced the bulk of the bowling. Looking back, I feel I owe him an apology, as at one point, I lost my temper with him when he refused a second run, thinking I was in danger of getting run out. I just wanted to play every ball I could,” Tendulkar recalled the partnership of 104 runs off just 84 balls.
India secured qualification in the 43rd over and Tendulkar fell with 36 still needed for a win off 19 balls. Attempting a hook off Fleming, Tendulkar missed it and the umpire wrongly judged it caught behind.
One hundred and forty-three off 131 balls was Tendulkar’s highest ODI score and the best he had played in the format till then. India didn’t cross the line but made it to the summit clash.
Those who watched the spectacle live were in for a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
Australia vs India – Coca-Cola Cup 1998, Match 6: Brief scores
Australia 284 for 7 (50) [Mark Waugh 81 (99), Michael Bevan 101 (103)*; Venkatesh Prasad 8-0-41-1] beat to India 250-5 (46) [Sachin Tendulkar 143 (131), Nayan Mongia 35 (46); Damien Fleming 10-0-46-2, Tom Moody 9-0-40-2] by 26 runs (revised target)
The final was less than 48 hours away. The fatigue and excitement of the desert storm meant little physical and mental recovery for the Master. The next evening, Mark Mascarenhas threw a party on the eve of Tendulkar’s 25th birthday.
“My worry was I needed time to recover for the final. After the desert storm match, I remember entering my hotel room around 2 a.m. The next day there was dinner by the Sharjah Cricket Board, and once again, it was a tiring day.
“There was a birthday cake for me, and believe me, when we went into the final, I had not fully recovered. After the match, I was completely sapped and had to sit for an hour or so with my feet on ice. It was incredibly hot that night,” Tendulkar later told Sportstar.
The following day, Azhar surprised all by electing to field in the final. It seemed the call was right when Australia were reduced to 26 for three. Gilchrist, Ponting and Moody were back in the pavilion. But this was Australia, and they had specialist batters till #8. Bevan (45), Steve Waugh (70) and Darren Lehmann (70) helped Australia to 272.
It was too much of an ask for the birthday boy to repeat his feat from the other day. But expectations still remained high. Champions are, after all, built of different mettle.
Ganguly was again undone by Fleming, and Mongia joined the Master in the ninth over. The duo added 89 for the second wicket off 93 balls, with Tendulkar batting like a man on a mission.
Unlike the other day, to India’s glee, Tendulkar found support from his captain. His 120-run stand with Azhar was a spectacle. Elegance through his magical wrist, Azhar used the bat like a wand, whereas Tendulkar cut, drove, pulled and flicked imperiously to dominate the show.
Well past his 15th ODI hundred, the birthday boy smacked a six off Kasprowicz to welcome him in the 45th over. The straight six found the Sharjah roof. Two balls later, the knock was cut short courtesy of a terrible leg before decision from umpire Steve Bucknor.
Maybe on those two days, poor umpiring calls were the only way to send Tendulkar back. But he had done enough to ensure the victory would be easy.
Australia vs India – Coca-Cola Cup 1998 Final: Brief scores
Australia 272 for 9 (50) [Adam Gilchrist 45 (60), Michael Bevan 45 (63), Steve Waugh 70 (71), Darren Lehmann 70 (59); Venkatesh Prasad 10-1-32-2] lost to India 275-4 (48.3) [Sachin Tendulkar 134 (131), Mohammad Azharuddin 58 (64); Damien Fleming 10-1-47-2] by 6 wickets
Tendulkar would own 1998 with 1,894 runs from 34 ODIs at 65.31. He slammed nine centuries and seven fifties in the format. His strike rate of 102.2 came in the era when anything over 70 was considered very good.
He played only five Tests that year, scoring 647 runs at almost 81.
Top run-getters across formats in 1998
|M Waugh (AUS)||35||45||1,791||47.13||153*||56||4||8|
Tendulkar tormented Australia throughout the year and even with the ball.
Tendulkar against Australia in 1998 – All formats
No wonder Sir Don Bradman invited Tendulkar for his 90th birthday that year, finding his batting similar to his.
Tendulkar graced the sport at the highest level for 15 more years, providing fans countless of memories and made a mark as one of the most spectacular athletes of all time.