The greatest Test innings in adversity by the world's best batsman failed to bring victory for India, who capitulated abysmally after Sachin Tendulkar's departure at 258, 13 short of the victory target of 271 on the fourth day before a noisy crowd at the Chidambaram Stadium. The world's best off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq showed his resilience with a five for 93 haul. It gave him ten for the game and is one he will remember for a lifetime.
Pakistan defeated India - another classic rivalry - in a thrilling First Test at Chennai. Pakistan was the winner but so was the game of cricket as the Chennai Test ended in a grandstand finish. Like two punchdrunk boxers the teams kept going at each other stumbling and falling many times but drawing on hidden reserves to keep the contest alive till the very end. One can't remember such a tight finish in a Test in India in recent memory and although this one didn't quite go all the way to the wire as the Tied Test here 13 years ago, it was every bit as good a game of cricket. At 82/5 India was down and out but four hours later at 254/6 it was Pakistan which was on the mat and then there was one final twist to the tale as Pakistan squeaked home by 12 runs.
No one would grudge Pakistan their victory, certainly not the crowd at the stadium which cheered the Pakistan team as they went on a victory lap, maybe not as vociferously as they would have applauded an Indian win, but still as a collective reaction it had loads of symbolism. After all this was not just a game of cricket, the emotion-filled buildup to the series had ensured that it would transcend sport and become a milestone in the love-hate relationship between the two countries. It was also a marvellous advertisement for Test cricket, the one-day version just an ersatz imitation of the sustained thrill and excitement that the five-day contest can generate.
The agonisingly changing fortunes of the game saw India lose Rahul Dravid early to a classic ball from skipper Wasim Akram in his second over of the day. Questionable umpiring decisions of New Zealander Steve Dunne saw skipper Azharuddin and Saurav Ganguly prised out before lunch to have India in the dumps at 86 for five.
Azhar's front foot was well down the wicket as
Saqlain beat his bat. Ganguly was given out caught by Moin Khan
who took the ball which bounced off the ground after it hit the
shin pads of silly point fielder Azhar Mehmood, substituting for
Inzamam. The umpire consulted colleague Ramaswmay to check if
Moin had taken it clean off the ground but he appeared to have no
doubts about the earlier action. So quickly did it happen and so
prompt was the appealing and so hoarse and persistent, one may
add, as it was all day.
India surged back with a 136-run sixth-wicket stand between Tendulkar and Mongia. They ground out 61 runs in the two hours to tea. Saqlain teased and tormented the two and when he was not around, Afridi's legpinners, with the threat of a an illegal one that Dunne kept looking for from square-leg, occupied the minds of the batsmen no less.
After tea Tendulkar began to stamp his authority, savaging four fours in an over of Saqlain - a pull to midwicket, two paddle shots to fine leg and a hoick across the line to the midwicket fence. But in the same over, Tendulkar gave Saqlain the charge and got a bottom edge which Moin dropped and also fumbled with the stumping. Incidentally, Tendulkar has never been stumped in his entire Test career. and now the pressure was turned back and there followed conference after conference among the senior pros of the Pakistan side.
Mongia decided to ease the pressure on his skipper who was feeling spasms in his right side. He slammed Waqar Younis, with the new ball, to long-on and spanked a back drive off Akram. The pressure got to Mongia suddenly after three hours of restrain and self-denial. He attempted to slam Akram into the Wallajah road but only gave Waqar Younis a steepler which he did to the unabashed glee of the visitors.
The floodgates had opened for sure. Drooping Pakistani shoulders lifted after this. And their fielders began moving on electric heels when Tendulkar had a Mongia-type rush of blood. Tendulkar, by now was visibly tired and suffering from spasms in his back, seemed keen to finish the game in a hurry and stepped out and cracked Saqlain two bounces into the sight screen and pulled him for four more to square leg. He tried to loft the next ball over the bowler and ended up holing out to Akram at long off.
With 17 more to get for victory, Pakistan were back in the hunt. And in no time Pakistani heads on those very drooping shoulders were bowing to the soil in gratification for a famous victory that will go down in folklore when the chequered history of flickering cricketing ties between the two countries is recalled.
One's mind went back to 1986 when India, chasing a victory target of 221, capsized for 204, giving Pakistan a 17-run win and their first series triumph in India at Bangalore. Sunil Gavaskar had stood like a king round a crumbling empire with a glorious 96 then. Like Sachin Tendulkar, here, with a 136 in 405 minutes facing 273 balls with 18 fours.
Gavaskar was here to see another Indian side choking and he was well qualified to advise his successor not to ever leave a job he could perform himself for others to finish. Tendulkar, like Gavaskar then, had the consolation of the man-of-the-match award. But Tendulkar had back spasms and couldn't make it to the presentation. One suspected the mental hurt was far more than the physical one.
Still it beat one's thinking as to why he didn't call for medical help and a take a bit of a breather when he was under duress. Just as Shahid Afridi had done the previous day under similar circumstances. Had he done so that may have prolonged the agony for the opponents.
In the wake of Sachin's dismissal those 17 looked like 71, for two of the world's best five bowlers Akram and Saqlain began tightening the noose and India's bowlers walked like zombies into the into it. Anil Kumble may be forgiven for he had no idea umpire Ramaswamy would choose this day to redfine the leg before wicket dismissal law which shelters players planting their foot well down the wicket. But Sunil Joshi's arm, that had swung a long on six off Saqlain moments earlier when Sachin was around, grew heavier in his absence and he gave a tame return catch.
Last man Srinath, who has been known to tonk a few in calmer times, was helpless as Saqlain's topspinner crawled between bat and legs on to the stumps. One by one the Pakistanis grabbed the stumps as objects that would tell the tale of a piece of history..
In a match that saw several stand-out individual performances Cammie Smith deservedly gave Tendulkar the man of the match ahead of Saqlain and Afridi and if not for anything this match will be remembered for two things - one for the sheer genius of one man who almost converted a certain defeat into one of the greatest Test match victories of all time and another for the sportive fashion in which the enormous Chennai crowd gave the visitors a standing ovation as they took their victory lap; something unthinkable in the wildest dreams of fanatic fans across the borders of the two countries.