January 31 1999. Yes, it is 23 years but the image is so vivid in my mind that it could well have happened yesterday. Pakistan having just emerged victorious over India by 12 runs in the first Test at Chepauk take a lap around the ground to a standing ovation from the spectators.

Not for nothing are the Chepauk cricket fans acknowledged to be the most sporting and knowledgeable in the country. They had just seen India on the cusp of victory suddenly collapsing in a heap to lose a close match; they had seen a superb century by Sachin Tendulkar go in vain. But they quickly put all that behind them, hid their disappointment and the cheering for the Pakistan team was loud and long.

Wisden put it succinctly: ''The Pakistan team embarked on a lap of honour to a standing ovation from the Chennai crowd whose sporting behavior won much praise.’’ Pakistan coach Javed Miandad was so touched that he publicly saluted the sporting spectators with a ''Salaam Chennai’’.

Interestingly enough the match was not supposed to be played at Chennai. It was shifted from Delhi after protesters had dug up the pitch at the Feroz Shah Kotla grounds. Supporters and opponents of the tour had held processions in the major Indian cities and till the last moment it was not even sure if the Pakistan team would arrive and the Test series would be played.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee urged the Pakistanis to come, promising maximum security for both teams. Accordingly the MA Chidambaram stadium became a fortress guarded by some 3000 police and military officials. But well before the end of the game the talk was not of politics but of the thrilling cricket that was on view for four days. Indeed match referee Cammie Smith who was forced to warn the Pakistan captain Wasim Akram about the incessant appealing by close fielders during the tense final stages of the game added in the same breath ''it was such a marvelous match you could understand them getting a little carried away.’’

And as a contest it will certainly rank as one of the best ever India – Pakistan Tests. It had everything – high quality batting and bowling, the needle that is always associated with such high octane clashes and a close finish. Pakistan batting first were bolstered by half centuries by Yousuf Youhana and Moin Khan and posted a reasonable total of 238. Anil Kumble put in the star turn for India bagging six for 70.

Half centuries by Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly propelled India to a first innings lead of 16 runs but Saqlain Mushtaq shared the honours with a haul of five for 94. In the second innings as electrifying 141 by Shahid Afridi at the top of the order (he hit 21 fours and three sixes) put Pakistan in control at 275 for four. Inzamam ul Haq’s 51 also proved to be valuable but a dream spell by Venkatesh Prasad who picked up five wickets in 18 balls without conceding a run towards career best figures of six for 33 saw a steep collapse and Pakistan were restricted to 286.

Still a target of 271 was a daunting one and India looked headed for defeat at 82 for five on the fourth morning. Tendulkar and Nayan Mongia retrieved hopes of an Indian win with a partnership of 136 runs before the wicket keeper fell for 52. Tendulkar battling a back strain kept going before at 136 he essayed a big hit at Saqlain and holed out to Akram at mid off. He had batted heroically for 405 minutes hitting 18 fours. Now it was India’s turn to slide rapidly from 254 for six to 258 all out with Saqlain picking his second five wicket haul of the match.

A great cricketing contest had come to an end but what followed was even greater for the sport.