Despite talk of downplay and treating it 'like any other match' – the importance and tension of the India-Pakistan match in the 2003 World Cup was unmistakable.
Captain Sourav Ganguly senses it. 'One of these days someone will have a heart attack going through this,' he says.
On the morning of the game, Lata Mangeshkar sends a message to the Indian captain which read: ‘Dear Sourav da, the whole country is behind you. We are sure you will lead India to victory’.
The team is set to leave the Sandton Sun hotel in Centurion at 7:50 am, but many players are early at breakfast, another sign that this is not ‘just another game’. The venue for breakfast has been shifted from the hotel coffee shop to the special team room to keep fans at bay.
Breakfast is eaten in silence but there is a lively action on the TT table. Mohammad Kaif routs everyone with aggressive forehand strokes, then announces he is ready to take on the Number 1 seed Sachin Tendulkar who, meanwhile, is focussed on consuming fruit and cereal.
Players make their way to the waiting bus, through a side exit to escape the crowd in the lobby. Sachin, Sourav, Rahul (Dravid), Kaif, (Virender) Sehwag are carrying their music players and match bats. What could they do with the bats the night before in hotel rooms? Play shadow defensive shots, perhaps practice imaginary drives or just keep them the way a soldier feels comfortable with his weapons sitting next to him .
India Arrive at The Venue
The Pakistan team is already at the ground – SuperSport Park – ahead of the Indians, with loud music blaring from their dressing room. Wasim Akram sees the Indians get off the bus and gives a friendly wave.
The teams go down the 65 steps from the pavilion to the ground and as directed by respective trainers, complete identical physical conditioning and fielding drills.
The Indians are not the most athletic team in the competition but, compared to the Pakistanis, are definitely fitter and faster.
Saeed Anwar, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis are players from the slow motion era of cricket, all great players but not the type to be made fielding captains, even of a first-class side.
Referee Mike Procter drops in to have a chat, he gently reminds players about completing overs in time and making sure batsmen cross on the field but, it seems, he wants to deliver a more subtle message. This match, he says in a serious voice, is a huge opportunity to perform – and also a great responsibility.
Basically, the referee was saying cool it folks, don’t do anything silly which provokes charged fans and sparks ugly incidents. This is an important contest, he went on in a round-about manner, a big advertisement for cricket and everyone is looking closely at what happens on the field. Clever, I thought.
The Mooted Handshake
Before the start there was another reminder that this was a special occasion. Ali Bacher, the World Cup supremo had requested that both teams send out a message of friendship and sportsmanship to avoid anything untoward happening with spectators in the packed stand .
According to the agreed arrangement, both teams would meet on the ground, shake hands and exchange souvenirs just before the batsmen went in.
When this idea was mooted Pakistan agreed instantly, after which a public announcement was made, the media informed, and photographers lined up near the bottom of the stairs leading to the dressing rooms to record the event.
At the last moment there was a rethink in the Indian team when a senior player questioned the wisdom of making such a gesture. If this is just another game, he reasoned, why make a dosti statement for Pakistan? Why are Ali Bacher and the ICC suddenly behaving like the UN, he wondered.
Pakistan Manger Shaharyar saab, a distinguished career diplomat is guardedly non-committal. The Pakistan team is okay, he said, either way. That left the ball in the Indian team's court. After quick consultation, the team decided to go through with the initial plan and make the 'friendly' gesture.
The team descended down the Centurion steps, in the knowledge that sudden cancellation by India after a public announcement was made would be misunderstood as a deliberate snub for Pakistan. Waqar and Sourav exchanged team ties and quickly embraced, players shook hands in front of a noisy, full house.
The brief 'friendship' ceremony was over in less than a minute.
Sachin After The 98
Normally, after a match-winning innings, players celebrate, shout, scream with delight and rejoice when the batsman returns. But not a word is said as a drained Sachin Tendulkar, after a spectacular 98 where he smashed Waqar and Wasim, returns to the dressing room. He sits in a corner, deeply disappointed he did not close the game, as teammates leave him alone, giving the master space.
Sachin watches his dismissal being replayed on the TV screen. After a long time, John Wright goes across, pats him on the back but says nothing. Someone helps him take off his pads. Sourav claps silently from a distance, acknowledging a great knock and a brave effort.
After a few hiccups, India wins – and only then does the silence in the dressing room break. There are high fives all-round, clapping, shouting, jhappies and handshakes. Sourav sprints down to greet Yuvraj Singh and Rahul Dravid as they come in, the Pakistanis, slowly walking up the 65 steps, reach across to congratulate the Indians, Abdul Razzaq and Anwar come into the Indian dressing room to wish players.
The Post-Match Presentation
Sourav wants the entire team out for the presentation, a gesture aimed at the Pakistani and Indian fans. There is one voice which favours caution (why change tashan, kahin aage latak jayen) but barring a tired Dravid, the boys go down to the field. Before that, Harbhajan Singh gets an Indian flag and waves it proudly throughout the ceremony.
Sachin, recovering from cramps, walks with a limp, is greeted with a cheer so loud it could be heard in Pretoria, a half-hour’s drive away. He is moved by the response of fans but when someone commiserates for his missing out on a hundred, he says the team comes first, winning matters, hundreds will come.
There is khushi and celebration, players hang around at the ground to enjoy the moment, as John says, and be with one other. Beer is passed around, is refused by most but some brave ones have a swig, grimace and shift to Diet Pepsi.
Sanjay Bangar and Sehwag are strict no alcohol types, both are chided by a senior who asks: kab tak butter milk or doodh piyoge?
While others are over the moon, John is typically underplayed, unemotional and unexcited. Yet, even he can’t conceal happiness – this is a big, big win, a huge mountain climbed for the team and for him.
Jubilation at Home
Sachin calls home, is greeted by wife Anjali, who takes the phone near the window so that he hears the crackers bursting outside. There is more noise than Diwali, she says. Sourav receives a similar response about the noise level from his wife Donna in Kolkata. People have gone mad in India, says Sourav, adding that it is a great feeling to be able to put smiles on the face of Indians.
Kaif, calm and collected, is in a daze but reports of wild celebration and rejoicing in India leave him a bit cold. Extreme behaviour is not good, he says. Yeh kya? Kabhi gaali aur kabhi itni khushi?
This, however, is hardly the right time for such deep reflection as the players are on a high. The Indian team is criticised for lacking killer-instinct, for crumbling under pressure, for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – today all these cliches are disproved. The team won not by fluke or chancy umpiring but through ruthless, professional play.
Pakistan were outplayed.
A Moment With The Master
The mastermind Sachin Tendulkar rates his blistering innings as one of the best of his illustrious career. “This was my day,” he says with disarming modesty . “From the beginning I picked the ball up early.”
I ask whether an inner rhythm determines his style of play. Batting is instinctive, he replies. Sometimes you feel good from the start, sometimes you struggle but today there was so much time that balls close to 150 kmph looked like 130 kmph!
Why did he refuse a runner till very late? I like to take my runs. I know how hard I have hit a ball – the same message does not go to a runner. How important was the Pakistan match for him?
He said, “I have been thinking about this for more than a year.”
(Amrit Mathur is a senior journalist, former GM of the BCCI and Manager of the Indian Cricket Team. He can be reached at @AmritMathur1)