Winning a match single handedly is a great feat but when a player wins a tournament for his side virtually off his own bat it is an achievement unparalleled. But perhaps it will not come as a surprise when it is pointed out that the cricketer involved was Sachin Tendulkar.

By April 1998 Tendulkar was not only one of the two best batsmen in the world (the other being Brian Lara) but was also the biggest name in the game. And the legion of Indian fans in Sharjah gave him a rapturous welcome when he arrived with the team to participate in the Coca Cola Cup tri series with the other teams in the fray being Australia and New Zealand.

Australia were the favourites on form and reputation and things moved according to predictions in the first round of matches. Australia defeated India by 58 runs and New Zealand by six wickets while India got the better of New Zealand by 15 runs. According to the format of the tournament the contestants had to play each other one more time and the two top teams would contest the final.

An Australia - India final looked certain but New Zealand threw a spanner in the works by defeating India by four wickets. Australia according to expectations beat New Zealand by five wickets to make sure of a berth in the title clash. But their opponents were not known when the final league match between Australia and India commenced. New Zealand’s surprise victory had opened an avenue for them and the pressure on India was intense.

Much would depend on Tendulkar who had notched up scores of 40, 80 and 38 in the three matches. But India’s task became really tough when Australia winning the toss posted 284 for seven in 50 overs thanks in the main to a splendid unbeaten 101 by Michael Bevan. Soon the calculators were out as during the break there was a dust storm which hit the stadium resulting in a slight delay.

The target was now revised. It was no longer 285 from 50 overs but 276 from 46 overs. To qualify for the final thought it was enough if the Indians got 237 but that was far from easy against an attack that included Damien Fleming, Michael Kasprowicz, Tom Moody, Shane Warne and Steve Waugh.

Openers Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly put on 38 runs and then Nayan Mongia (35) helped the maestro add 69 runs for the second wicket. But India faltered when skipper Md Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja left in quick succession making the score 138 for four after 29 overs.

Joined by VVS Laxman Tendulkar now took complete charge. With breath taking shots on both sides of the wicket he reached his hundred and finally the first objective – making the final – was reached. Tendulkar was finally out at 242 to the last ball of the 43rd over after hitting 143 off just 131 balls with nine fours and five sixes. India ended with 250 for five and though the match was lost by 26 runs the Indians lived to fight another day thanks to the heroics of their best batsman.

The final was held two days later and it turned out to be Tendulkar’s 25th birthday. Would he give a birthday gift to the nation? That hardly seemed possible when Australia put in to bat ended with 272 for nine in 50 overs.

This time Tendulkar and Ganguly (23) put on 39 runs before the latter fell in the ninth over. Mongia (28) was happy playing a supporting role during his second wicket partnership of 89 runs with Tendulkar who by now was in rip roaring form, doing pretty much what he liked with the bowling. Mongia’s departure brought in Azharuddin and even the touch artist was content playing second fiddle to Tendulkar who was simply unstoppable. He reached a second successive hundred – his 15th in ODIs – and now accelerated further.

Mark Waugh became the sixth bowler to be deployed by his brother Steve but Tendulkar continued with his pyrotechnics. When he was finally out at 248 in the 45th over victory was round the corner. Tendulkar’s masterly 134 was compiled off 131 balls and he hit 12 fours and three sixes. Azharuddin left a couple of overs later after playing a little gem of an innings of 58 off 64 balls leaving Jadeja and Hrishikesh Kanitkar to apply the finishing touches. The winning stroke was made with nine deliveries to spare.

So Tendulkar did give this cricket crazy nation a gift to remember on his birthday.

An Indian triumph in Sharjah was a rare occurrence. Only four months previously the Indian team had been jeered as they lost all their three matches in the Champions Trophy at the same venue. Tendulkar had been the captain and the abuses must have rankled. But this triumph shaped almost entirely by one man was something to remember for long.

The stadium erupted as Tendulkar stepped forward to receive his man of the match and man of the series awards. The crowd gave him a standing ovation as he went around the venue in his brand new Opel car given to him for his stupendous performance with the team members piling on to share the glory. But the last word must come from Shane Warne. “I was hit by the best batsman in the world’’ said the world’s best spin bowler and in a touching gesture he sought Tendulkar’s autograph on his shirt.

In 19 overs in the two matches Warne had conceded exactly 100 runs without taking a wicket and could not bowl even a single maiden over. His one sentence and gesture conveyed the extent of Tendulkar’s dominance and put the two match winning hundreds in proper perspective.