If you are connected to Cricket in any possible way, whether as a fan, statistician, marketer, memorabilia collector or even as a backyard practitioner, then you’d know the relevance of scoring a century. Common wisdom says and perhaps rightly so, that it’s the centuries that matter. It’s the three figure scores that will get you your following, not the fifties as such.
But is that true for every occasion?
Frankly speaking, it doesn’t matter that Sachin Tendulkar fell in what they call the ‘nervous nineties’ on seventeen odd occasions during his ODI career. For not every knock could’ve culminated into a hundred. And not every knock could’ve been like that breathtaking ninety eight that came on March 1, 2003 in a high-octane World Cup contest against Pakistan.
Ever since his 98, Sachin Tendulkar went on to score a fifty on thirty four more occasions. But none of those knocks have gone on to achieve a cult-like status as his dazzling 2003 world cup inning.
Sachin Tendulkar’s 98 is cricket’s version of a beautiful artsy film that didn’t get the Academy Award, for it didn’t lead to a century but cultivated a global fanbase. It’s like someone driving a vintage Enzo Ferrari in today’s world buzzing with long-range electric vehicles.
It’s transcended generations and outlived time and may stay like that always.
Perhaps it may not be futile to suggest that even some of his hundreds aren’t as famously recollected as the Centurion knock wherein he fell short of a hundred by the scant margin two runs.
But it’s in these microcosms and margins where cricket thrives and legends are forged. And Sachin Tendulkar opted for the picture perfect occasion, the grand contest against Pakistan, to get his bat to do the talking pushing fans to the edge of their seats in the sport’s grandest fiesta.
Though Cricket in those days was different and heck, we are talking two decades in the past. It hadn’t yet overly become a batsman’s game; there were no free-hits, five wides weren’t yet introduced to pinch the already aching bowlers and field restrictions didn’t castrate the bowling sides.
Those were the days where a 270 on the board assured the side batting first that they had their nose ahead in the contest. A 280 of the nineties era could well be equated to a 320-like total that teams dish out quite frequently on flat tracks nowadays.
So it was particularly special that Sachin Tendulkar went on about taming Pakistan in the days where cricket was evenly poised between the two sides. Typical of any rip-roaring world cup team that had plenty of runs on the table to mount a fearsome challenge, Pakistan gave it everything to accumulate what you’d call a very healthy total.
They were right in the game and would have felt, especially at the back of a beautiful Saeed Anwar-powered 101, that they’d prevail, except Tendulkar had other plans.
While 273 on any day would look still chasebale, that you had to do it against a side that had an arsenal of pace bowling legends in Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, and Shoaib Akhtar made the challenge a fiercely onerous one.
And beginning in grand fashion, Tendulkar was a sight to behold as he’d execute a picturesque backfoot punch to the covers off Akram to get things underway for his team. One recollects even today Ravi Shastri exclaiming, “Tendulkar on his way in spanking fashion!”
But that was just the start of the spanking. Although what Tendulkar did in just the second over of India’s inning would go on to become the single-most loved stroke of that unforgettable day. The headliner of that immensely-loved contest at South Africa, much like a captivating book cover of a page-turner.
Frankly, long before we fell in love with Dhoni‘s helicopter stroke, there was Sachin Tendulkar and his six over point, the kind of stroke that Akhtar may still not have forgotten and it’s been nineteen long years.
What most remember is the statistical output of the stroke for which Tendulkar reached out to a particularly shorter one delivered by the then-fastest bowler of the world. What we’ve conveniently forgotten is that the ball was delivered at 150 kmph.
Nevertheless, right after that scorcher came a screamer, Tendulkar middling a quicker one bowled at around the middle and leg to the fine leg boundary. The poise of that shot, the follow through. All magic.
Shoaib was stunned, the crowds weren’t in anyway. You could sense it, you still can from your YouTube screen that it was to be Tendulkar’s day as it eventually turned out to be.
In some ways India’s cruising start indicated a sign of things in today’s fast-paced T20-obsessed day and age. India were 48 inside 5 overs.
Interestingly, Sehwag and Ganguly falling within a space of a few deliveries did nothing to dissuade Tendulkar. If anything, the flurry of wickets emboldened the master’s resolve further.
Though you had to say even destiny that day was on the ‘God’s side as Abdul Razzaq dropped a sitter off Wasim Akram in the seventh over and Tendulkar earned a lifeline. But he improved upon that error immediately as he’d offer a glowing cover drive off Waqar in the eighth over as if the rare mistake hadn’t happened in the first place.
He’d soon whip the dangerous pacer to mid wicket for another sensational boundary. Then came that stroke that compelled the great Robin Jackman (who passed away in 2020), to exclaim, “Oh.. goodness me.” Akram pitched one just short of length only to see Sachin carve it for a glorious off drive.
For the sheer magnetism of his batting and the high it delivered fans, Tendulkar was the drug dealer, dealing in boundaries. He’d quickly touch what would become his 60th ODI fifty when a craftily executed stroke to the mid-wicket was overthrown to the boundary.
Tendulkar was on fire and there was only one way you could stop him; square him up against the fastest missile in Pakistan’s arsenal.
The master was on 98 with his team on 176-3 in just the 28th over when Akhtar was brought on for a second and as it turned out, successful spell.
Perhaps sensing that the only way Pakistan could crawl back into the game was by removing the dominant bat of Tendulkar, Akram went for the kill. And it worked.
Finally, on the fourth delivery of Akhtar’s over, Tendulkar couldn’t keep out of harm’s way; a cracker of a short delivery around the off stump saw the right hander getting into an uncomfortable situation to lift an easy skier to the point fielder.
The ploy with the faster, shorter one had worked, Pakistan did pick up Tendulkar but the damage, you could see, had already been done. Only 97 were needed with over 22 overs remaining. Enough for Yuvraj and the Wall of Dravid at the other end to bring India home.
But from the point he walked out to bat, asking Sehwag, who’d usually take the guard first up for India to retreat to the non-striker’s end until his walkback, Sachin Tendulkar was in his elements. He epitomised the man with great will who’d slay the dragon and in the end, it turned out to be just that.
Every batsman at some point in time makes that sad ninety something but only a Sachin Tendulkar could have turned a 98 into a legend that’s recounted even today.