Sport is meant to be a celebration of life, an embodiment of the ideal and the representation of the best in man. Stripped of fancy words and trite pretensions, Sport is but a contest between individuals; a contest to be faster, a contest to be higher, and a contest to be stronger; simply, a contest to be better.
In cricket, the contest is between bat and ball; between the batsman and the bowler! A battle for supremacy.
In Mumbai, you can fit about 40 families into a space of 35*35 yards. Shoaib Akthar’s run up is 35 yards long. The batsman is a further 22 yards away. At that distance, the previous delivery is merely a memory and the coming delivery an expectation.
Shoaib Akthar starts his run up. Head down. Hair trailing. Then, he picks up pace. The trot becomes a run. He starts to look up, the hair is flying now. The image begins to blur. The crowd is on its feet. It’s a crescendo of noise. He’s not that far away now. The batsman awaits. He is alive, more alive than he will ever be. The memory and the expectation begins to fuse. It is curdling into reality now. The bat is no more a piece of wood; it is less of a weapon and more of a shield; ridiculously inadequate it might be, but a shield nonetheless. The helmet is not an ornament; it stands between a leather ball of 160 grams being hurled at 160 km/h and the human skull. The pads, the gloves, the arm guards, the abdomen guard, the thigh guards, the chest guard and the elbow guards; they all are ready for battle. Shoaib Akthar approaches the crease. At full speed. Hair flying. It is a side-on action. The left arm reaches out to the sky. The right hand holds the ball, poised to deliver. The left foot lands thunderously on the crease, the right foot an impossible distance away. The body is being stretched to its absolute limit. The blood is pounding and adrenaline pumping; the heart, nerve and sinew all function as one. The human body is not designed to do this. Shoaib Akthar bowls as fast as no human ever had and probably ever can. Shoaib Akthar then delivers the ball. There is a whirlwind of action, the hands, the feet and above all the ball move at an impossible speed.
There is the briefest of intervals. A moment in time; no more. The bowler has played his part. The ball has to travel 22 yards before the batsman can essay his response. A ball travelling at 160 kilometres an hour. It takes less than half a second; less than a heart-beat and a little more than an eye-blink.
Tendulkar is no God. Rather; he is a devotee. A devotee of Cricket. And like all devotees, he has his rituals. After each delivery, a small walk towards the square leg umpire. A shake of the head; almost as if to shake off the memory of the previous ball and to concentrate on the next one. He walks back to the crease. Gets into his stance. Adjusts his crotch; rather awkwardly. Looks up. Taps the bat. Stands still. Taps the bat once again. Now, it is a sight to behold; a sight to thrill the hearts of millions. If there is poetry in motion, this is art in stillness. Perfect balance, true composure and an absolutely still head. As the ball is released, there is now the slightest of forward presses, a subtle, almost indiscernible, shifting of the weight. The bat is poised to do battle, to pander to the whims of the genius wielding it.
India and Pakistan are twins separated at birth. This bitter but irrevocable relationship serves to amplify the animosity and to escalate the enmity; to magnify the madness and to reinforce the rivalry. It was always a fractious relationship. Within two months of the two nations gaining independence in August of 1947, the two infantile nations were at each other throats, fighting over that most cursed of heavens, Kashmir. Kashmir was once again the reason for the 1965 war. This was the largest tank battle since World War II. And then in 1971, the stupidest of ideas came to its logical and inevitable conclusion. East Pakistan and West Pakistan were separated by thousands of kilometres of enemy land. The idea was monumental in its sheer stupidity. Finally, it happened. India played its role and Pakistan was broken into two. The miracle was that it ever managed to last so long. Bangladesh was born. Pakistan seethed with rage and bristled with humiliation, vowing eternal revenge.
It was 1999. 28 years had passed since the last Indo-Pakistan war. It was the longest spell of peace that this part of the world had seen since 1947. But all was not well, certainly not. In these 28 years, these two proud nations had beefed up their military might manifold. Most alarmingly, both these nations had acquired nuclear weapons. No two enemy countries sharing a land border ever had nuclear weapons. Now, both India and Pakistan, had nuclear weapons. It was catastrophe in the making.
And then Kargil happened. As the battle raged on in the rarefied altitudes of the magnificent Himalayas, the world held its breath. Humanity was at stake. World War III was no longer in the realms of apocalyptic predictions; it was a distinct possibility. At long last, sanity prevailed. Pakistan withdrew. India triumphed. And the war ended.
This was Pakistan’s 4th defeat in as many wars. The humiliation was unbearable. But it was on the cricket field that Pakistan found redemption. They were the superior team. With four needed off the last ball, Javed Miandad counted the fielders on the field and then proceeded to render them irrelevant, as he swung a glorious six off Chetan Sharma to leave India weeping and disconsolate. The scars did not heal for a long time. They were the more glamorous team. They produced fast bowlers of the highest pedigree. Exponents of extreme pace and reverse swing, they could swing the ball corners at impossible pace. Shoaib Akthar was only the latest product in a lineage that included Sarfaraz Khan, Imran Khan, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram; but he was the fastest of them all. It was only in the late 90’s with the mastery of Tendulkar at its disposal, that India started to fight back but it was still advantage Pakistan.
And so the India Pakistan match of the 2003 World Cup inched closer. After the Kargil war, India and Pakistan had played all of seven ODI’s over a period of four years. Pakistan won five of those. Sachin Tendulkar had only one score of above 50 in these 7 matches and never once won the Man of the Match. But this was bigger than all of them. This was the World Cup. India had never lost to Pakistan in a World Cup thus far. The memories of the Kargil was still fresh and the memories of the Miandad Six still lingered.
India’s world cup campaign started disastrously. The signs were ominous. Just before the World Cup, India suffered a humiliating 5-2 loss over New Zealand. In the 1st match of the World Cup against lowly Netherlands, India batting 1st couldn’t complete its quota of 50 overs folding for 204 before scrapping through for a victory. In the next match against Australia, the crisis assumed proportions of a catastrophe. India was bowled out for a measly 125 before Australia romped home in an imperious manner, reaching the target in a little over 20 overs and with 9 wickets to spare. The morale was at an all-time low. The campaign had derailed even before it had started. The Indian fan, fickle at the best of times, let loose his ire. Houses of players were attacked and effigies burnt. Tendulkar, the statesman in the team appealed for calm and sanity. It seemed to work. He then proceeded to inspire his team. In the 1st five matches, he top-scored in four of them and scored a half century in the other. While victories against the African nations of Zimbabwe and Namibia were only expected, the rousing victory against England gave India a new found confidence. There was a spring in their step and swagger to their walk now. Ganguly had just introduced the team huddle and the team spirit and camaraderie was palpable.
But the next match was against Pakistan. On the auspicious day of Maha Shivaratri. This was the final before the final. All that came before would count for little. Victory and defeat would make heroes and villains respectively. Defeat will not be entertained, will not be tolerated and will not be forgiven. The build up to the match had been immense. In both the countries. But no one had to face more pressure than Tendulkar. He was India’s talisman and destiny’s favourite child. It was to him that India looked up to. To deliver victory and provide salvation, to restore pride and to keep the flag flying high. The weight of a billion on his diminutive shoulders. No one let him forget the match. Least of all, Shoaib Akthar. He had already hurled an open challenge to Tendulkar and had provoked the genius. From months before the match, from acquaintances to room boys, everyone wished him luck but they also demanded victory. The pressure would have broken smaller men. But this was Sachin Tendulkar.
This was Centurion in South Africa. The Cricket World Cup, 2003. The stadium was packed to the rafters. The noise was deafening, and the atmosphere electrifying. Flags waving, fans screaming and chaos all around. The stakes are high, almost impossibly high.
Pakistan won the toss and chose to bat. The task had just got tougher. Chasing in a high pressure World Cup match is never easy. Pakistan scored an imposing 273 runs led by a masterful century from Saeed Anwar. There had only ever been two higher successful chases in World Cup history thus far. India had never done this before. If there was pressure before, it had reached boiling point now. Tendulkar and Sehwag walked out to a cacophony of noise. Sehwag usually takes 1st strike. This time, Tendulkar insists that he will face the first ball. Too much is at stake and he wants to lead from the front. 13 runs had come off the 1st nine balls.
And then Shoaib Akthar bowled and Tendulkar exploded.
The ball is fast, very, very fast; as expected. But it is also short; and wide. Tendulkar bursts into action. The right foot moves back and across. The front foot moves forward ever so slightly and plants itself pointing to covers. The bat begins to describe its graceful but ultimately brutal arc. The hands extend outward to meet the ball. And as they do so, Tendulkar begins to extend like a coiled spring. As the ball meets the bat, inevitably the dead centre of it, the hands are stretched to their maximum limit and the back foot is in the air; the entire weight of Tendulkar rests solely on his front toes. The head is now facing point, almost telling the ball where to go. And as the bat completes its swing and the ball begins its momentous journey, Tendulkar rises clean off his feet and lands ever so gently back. The ball soars magnificently into the air. Shoaib Akthar, Sachin Tendulkar, the Wicket Keeper and the fielders, the thousands of spectators at the ground and the millions watching on television track the trajectory of the ball, holding their collective breath. The third man begins a half-hearted, futile chase in order to catch it; only to realize and surrender to the obvious. The ball deposits itself into the stands, a dozen rows beyond. The crowd erupts, commentators scream and the umpire raises both his hands. A statement had been made.
The upper cut for six effectively sealed the fate of the match. The rest is history.
Tendulkar’s upper cut six off Shoaib Akthar was India’s Miandad moment. After Miandad’s fateful six, India had won only 21 off the next 63 matches till the match in Centurion. After Tendulkar’s six in Centurion, India managed to win 22 of the next 42 matches against Pakistan. More importantly, the psychological advantage had shifted decisively to India. Pakistan never seemed to be able to win an important match against India after that.
It was but one moment; beautiful and profound, but also ethereal and ephemeral; glorious but all too transient. However, it was no mere contest between bat and ball, nor between batsman and bowler. It had the full weight of history behind it.
I am not suggesting for a moment that all these thoughts were going through Tendulkar’s mind as he played that immortal shot. That would be a fantastical proposition. In fact, for moments of sporting brilliance, the mind often has to be blank, focused solely on the task at hand. Bat against Ball; Batsman against Bowler. It appeared that as Tendulkar played that shot, he was guided more by adrenaline and intuition rather than by any strategy or wilful intent.
And yet, without exception, all great sporting moments in history are defined by the context they are contained in. Politics not only provides that context but also nurtures it so that they are forever steeped in immortality. Jesse Owens, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics of Hitler’s Germany, not only broke world records but shattered the hateful narrative of Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. Similarly, USA’s loss to USSR, in the Men’s basketball final in the Munich Olympics, its 1st loss since the sport began Olympic play in 1936, assumed Olympian proportions due to the cold war that was being played out between USA and USSR. ‘The Blood in the Water’ match between Hungary and USSR assumed significance as it was played against the background of the 1956 Hungarian revolution.
And so that Tendulkar six off Shoaib Akthar, that sent a billion into a joyful frenzy, in itself, a mere contest between bat and ball; attained sporting immortality.