Every once in a while, cricket has personified the coveted title of ‘Gentleman’s Game’. We have witnessed moments when on-field actions have transcended the mind-barriers of victory and defeat, thus helping capture the true essence of sport. The 1999 Chennai test between India-Pakistan was one such classic. Which truly lived up to the occasion and firmly established Chennai’s ‘sporting crowd’ reputation. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the inventors of the game would have had similar pictures in mind as the one that unfolded in Chennai. It was a renewal of the mother of all cricketing rivalries. India and Pakistan face-offed after over a decade of the ceasefire. A cliffhanger of a match, see-sawing till the very end. It would have even tested Nostradamus to predict the winner.

It was a chilly Sunday afternoon of January 31, 1999. With the usual power cut in our colony, we had to resort to radio’s running commentary. The streets in my hometown wore a deserted look as if the human race was on verge of extinction. It wasn’t the dip in the temperature rather, some extra-terrestrial forces that kept everyone home. It was the Great Man himself, all alone and standing tall against arguably the then planet’s best bowling attack, which included the trio of Wasim, Waqar and Saqlain at the peak of their prowess. It seemed as if God, with the bat in his hand, just wanted to have a ball.

Riding on Afridi’s 141, a blinder of an innings, Pakistan set India a challenging target of 271 runs in the final innings. The chase couldn’t have started more disastrously. India lost both its openers with just 6 on the board. On a rapidly deteriorating pitch, with Pakistani bowlers breathing fire, in came Sachin Tendulkar, looking to make amends to his first innings duck. These are the kind of situations that separate men from the boys. Sachin took charge but kept losing partners at regular intervals and India was left teetering at 82 for 5. Then Sachin and Mongia, defying the spirited Pakistanis, combined for 136 run partnership and guided India to a relatively comfortable position. Soon, Mongia fell to a brain-fade moment, but Sachin kept battling the opposition bowlers as well as his aching back. Despite the immense pain, he was executing his shots with surgeon like precision; while painkillers and a bag of ice cubes provided him the interim relief. However, to the sorrow of the millions of Indians, Sachin’s lower back had already decided to betray him at this critical juncture.

With pain threatening to get the better of his patience, he decided that an all-out attack was the only option left and started taking the calculated risks. And then came the heartbreak moment, as if somebody had made the entire nation mute. In 92nd over of the innings, Sachin misread a Doosra from Saqlain and lofted a miscued shot to Akram. When Sachin was dismissed, India needed a meagre 16 runs, with 3 wickets in hand, but as history would have, India ended up on the losing side.

After taking India agonizingly close to the target, he had to walk back crestfallen. It was a masterclass of skills, technique, physical endurance, patience, strategy – it had everything a cricket purist could ask for. His gladiator-esque innings lasted close to 7 hours. Saqlain Mushtaq, once in an interview said, “Sachin’s wicket in the 1999 Chennai Test remains my most prized possession even today."

Though, it was Pakistan, who came out triumphant. But, the post-match scenes at the Chepauk might have misled you to believe otherwise. Contrary to what one might have expected, the crowd, instead of heading home, stayed at the ground and cheered the winning Pakistani team as they took a lap of honor. They had come in huge numbers to support the home team but were still gracious enough to acknowledge the fact that the opponents were slightly better on the given day. It was an unforgettable moment. I am yet to come across a parallel for this gesture anywhere else in world sport. When the entire 40,000 crowd gave a standing ovation to the players of ‘the enemy’ nation, it made everyone realize how sport can act as a tool to bridge the gap between the two warring nations.

Shaharyar Khan, former PCB Chief and the then Pakistan Team’s Manager, in his book “A Bridge of Peace” rightly mentioned that “the positive goodwill that the Chennai crowd emitted surpassed anything that had happened at the popular level in 50 years of Indo-Pak relations”. It was a victory of the sport. On-field performances of players, as well as the crowd’s behavior, won many a heart. 31st January remains a date that every Indian cricket-lover still remembers, albeit with a touch of sadness.

(Cover Photo: Indian fans give the Pakistan team a standing ovation)