Long after he had retired from the game, long after the instinct for combat had presumably dulled, Sunil Gavaskar was playing for the Indian media in South Africa. At 0 for 2 he walked in to partner a wide-eyed Calcutta journalist. A couple of running misadventures later, Gavaskar told the journalist something he had told a lot of other young men: "When you are representing India (even if for a media team) remember you are the last man in. Don't leave anything for the next man."
Last week in Chennai the story came back to life as Gavaskar watched the best batsman in the world lay the spread on the table and leave before the party started. Early that fourth morning manager Anshuman Gaekwad was apprehensive, sitting quietly in the annexe to the dressing room. Then, as had happened against the Australians in Chennai last year, Sachin Tendulkar walked up and said, "Manager I will do it for you, don't worry." Said Gaekwad later, "I had tears in my eyes."
Tendulkar went on to play one of the greatest innings in Test cricket but he didn't finish the job. That three batsmen scored six runs between them before he came in to bat and four batsmen scored another four after he left was poor consolation. In Gavaskar's book, Tendulkar should have closed the match. Knowing Tendulkar, in his book too it would have been the same story. Not surprisingly, he wept at the end.
Why did he play that shot, people asked in hushed tones because they wanted an answer but did not want to be seen to doubt Tendulkar's commitment. I asked Sanjay Manjrekar, who has seen Tendulkar closely, and his answer was revealing. "When he plays shots like that, we think he is taking a risk. He doesn't because his level of confidence is so different. As a comparison, if I was on 99, the way I would think of pushing for a single is the way he would about hitting over long-on. To him it is just not a risk." Debatable too was the team management's apparent reluctance to send out a runner for Tendulkar was clearly suffering. Akram, the opposing captain, was mystified as well: "If Sachin was batting and experiencing cramps I would have sent a message asking if he wanted a runner, given him a break, given him water." Gaekwad refutes the criticism. "How do people know I didn't offer him a runner or treatment? We did, but he said, 'No, I want to finish off the game'."
While no one doubts Tendulkar's effort, nothing can mask the fact that India choked again and that irrespective of what happens in the second Test in Delhi there is a scary pattern of behaviour here. The target in Chennai was 270, a little larger than at Barbados in March 1997 and in Harare in October 1998. But the result was identical. At Bridgetown, chasing 120, India collapsed to 81 all out and against Zimbabwe, on a good track and against strictly average bowling, fell short by 61 runs when they only needed to get 234. Even Gaekwad, who defends India against being a one-man team, admits, "We have a habit of leaving it to the next guy."
There's a message in history. Apart from a great day at Port of Spain in 1976 when India made 406 for 4 in the fourth innings to win, India have never successfully chased more than 256 in the fourth innings of a Test match to win. In one glorious phase from 1976 to 1979, India made more than 400 in the fourth innings three times but each time they got a very good start. In two of those three efforts Gavaskar made centuries. As Bishen Bedi says, "Despite my differences with Sunny, he had great character, he would never have allowed this to happen." Gavaskar knew that it was essential that the openers provide a solid beginning in a run chase for that is indeed half the job done. We have, quite ridiculously, reached a stage where anything the openers provide is regarded as a bonus and till this changes India will always struggle. At Barbados, the first two wickets fell for 16, in Harare they managed 6, in Chennai they managed 6. That makes it difficult for Tendulkar to get going for he enters a situation where the bowlers are fired up, not ground down.
Why India falters requires serious examination. Bedi says India's lack of physical fitness affects their concentration. He believes too that this is a generation to which the national colour has lost some of its value. Coincidentally, in New Zealand, Gavaskar was livid when he found Indian players had handed over their INDIA shirts to the cheerleadersin the crowd.
Akram meanwhile appeared as if he were playing for his life. As if a victory here would ensure that all those bribery charges would be forgotten. Akram dismisses such notions but it was interesting to see a Pakistan team, known to be divisive, being called into a rugby-style huddle by their captain every morning. On the second day, Akram was even thumping the grass in a show of passion, not to mention thumping the ball down the pitch in a stunning exhibition of fast bowling. No longer can he bowl those 10-over spells, but his five-over bursts pack in more variety than most bowlers would show in a day. Watching Akram bowl to Tendulkar, Michael Holding said: "These are two of the greatest players the game has seen. I wonder if people have realised what they have missed in the last 10 years."
Test matches come and go but this one will remain etched in the memory; most of all for the moving response of the Chennai crowd. In terms of spontaneity, it reminded me of the lit torches that appeared, almost as if someone had pushed a button, at the Eden Gardens after India had beaten South Africa in the Hero Cup. But for sheer melodrama, there was nothing to match this. The great moments in history are always unrehearsed, aren't they?
And so the media which came to this series in search of a great story finally got one. But with a little twist. Like twin antennae, their eyes and ears were searching for anything that would symbolise hatred and violence. From across the world they came, the Los Angeles Times and the Italian Corriera dela Serra, the London Times and the Daily Telegraph to record the story of two countries about to wage a war on a cricket ground. With microphones and recorders, they asked questions of each other, looking for the headline quote and sound bite. But the galleries at Chidambaram Stadium gave them something else to write home about.
Holding was right after all. On the field and off it, people had been made to miss too much.