The 90’s was a turbulent decade for Indian cricket. The team had not won a test match overseas in the entire decade, sans one against Zimbabwe at Harare right after the minnows got their test status. Most of the times, it was about individual performances winning them games rather than the entire team coming together and putting up a good show. However, India had maintained an impeccable record at home and had in fact, not lost a single home test series in the entire decade. But they were to face their biggest challenge at home when Pakistan visited India for a two test series in the winter of 1998-99.
Escalating political tension between India and Pakistan throughout the 90’s saw the two teams refrain from playing each other for bilateral series. They played each other in a lot of one day games in neutral venues like Sharjah, Toronto and Sri Lanka. There were only two instances of the two teams participating in one day tournaments on each other’s soil. Pakistan took part in the quadrangular Independence Cup in 1997, organized to commemorate 50 years of India’s independence. New Zealand and Sri Lanka were the other two teams. Few months later, Indian team led by Sachin Tendulkar went to Pakistan to play a three one day series, which they lost 1-2. Apart from that, there was of course, the high voltage quarter final of 1996 World Cup, which the two teams played at Bangalore.
So, when it was decided that Pakistan would come to play a two test series in India, excitement of cricket fans on both sides of the border reached frenzy. Radical Hindu groups however vehemently opposed the series. Shiv Sena, in fact, went to the extent of digging up the pitch at Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi, the venue of the second test. Amid murmurs of Pakistan board cancelling the tour and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s assurance of full protection to the players, the series began.
Both the teams were evenly matched on the field and were coming from two bad series. India was coming from an unsuccessful tour of New Zealand while Pakistan was grappling with a surprise test series defeat at home against a spirited Zimbabwe.
Pakistan however had a solid team on paper. Starting with the explosive opening pair of Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi and followed by a middle order comprising of old war horses like Ijaz Ahmed, Inzamam Ul Haq and Saleem Malik, they had their batting in order. However, like always, their main strength lied in their bowling. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were all set to unleash their reverse swing skills against the Indian batsmen in what could possibly be their last test series against them. With off spinner Saqlain Mushtaq and leggie Mushtaq Ahmed, they also had a very good spin attack.
Indians were having some serious issues with their opening. They had decided to do away with Navjot Sidhu and instead gave chance to Tamil Nadu left hander Sadagopan Ramesh who opened the innings with VVS Laxman. After the inexperienced openers, however came the middle order, considered one of the best in the world with Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Mohd Azharuddin and Sourav Ganguly. Indian pace attack with Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad was perhaps just a tad behind their famous Pakistani pace counterparts. And then there was Anil Kumble, the leg spinner, who had engineered almost all of India’s famous victories at home in the 90’s.
The First Test
The first test played at Chepauk in Chennai, is the most high voltage test match I remember watching. This was a game where every session swung like a pendulum. Batting first, Pakistan could manage just 238 in their first innings. ‘Jumbo’ Kumble had already got at work, picking up 6/70 on a pitch which was showing major signs of becoming a dust bowl on the first day itself. Saqlain responded with a fifer as India took a lead of just 16 runs, riding on half centuries by Dravid and Ganguly.
In the second innings, however, Pakistan got off to a blistering start with Shahid Afridi scoring 141 off just 191 balls, perhaps his best test innings. When it seemed that Pakistan would score above 400 and take the game away from India, Venkatesh Prasad came out of nowhere with an absolutely magnificent spell. He returned with figures of 6/33, his best in test cricket. The spell was particularly important because it helped to bundle Pakistan for just 286, thus setting India a target of 270.
However, even that target was going to be a handful against the Pakistani bowlers on a fifth day track, now resembling a minefield. Writing on the wall became clear for Indians as half of their side was sent packing to the pavilion with just 83 on board. Sachin Tendulkar, perhaps played his best as well as his most tragic test knock, that day, as he took India inches close to victory with a brilliant 136. While he managed to tackle the Pakistani bowlers, he couldn’t defeat an aching back pain which bothered him throughout the innings and eventually got the better of him. India lost the remaining wickets in a heap and finished just 12 runs short of the finishing line.
The Second Test
The second test in Delhi was poised at a critical juncture. Losing the Chennai test so narrowly had hurt the Indians badly while Pakistanis were rejuvenated. Azhar and his team knew that the Indian public wouldn’t be kind to a series defeat at home against the arch-rivals. Wasim Akram’s men, on the other hand, were looking to create history.
India batted first at Kotla and huffed and puffed while putting on 252 in the first innings. Opener Sadagopan Ramesh, playing his second test scored a brisk 60 while captain Azhar top scored with a fighting 67. Saqlain Mushtaq continued his terrific form with third consecutive five wicket haul. Some really tight bowling from Indians however got Pakistan out for 178 in the first innings, fetching them some valuable lead. Spinners inflicted the maximum damage, with Kumble picking four and Harbhajan three.
In the second innings, Indians came up with their best batting effort in the entire series. Ramesh, handled the Pakistani pacers brilliantly and scored a sedate 96. Sourav Ganguly got an unbeaten 62 and put up a valuable partnership with Srinath who came of age with the bat to score 49.
A target of 420 runs was never going to be easy on a deteriorating Kotla wicket which was keeping low, but the Pakistani openers started as if they meant business. Batting in one day mode, Anwar and Afridi took the Pakistan total past hundred in less than twenty five overs. Signs were ominous for the hosts and if anybody could stop this juggernaut, it was Anil Kumble.
Kumble Takes Over
Soon after lunch, Kumble struck the first blow by getting Afridi caught behind. There were doubts over the dismissal and Afridi himself showed his displeasure quite openly. Kumble struck again in the same over by getting Ijaz Ahmed trapped leg before.
Inzamam-Ul-Haq is a man who revels in this kind of situation but he dragged one from Kumble on to his stumps before he could become a threat for India. Mohd Yousuf (then Yousuf Youhana) was then trapped plumb in front of the wicket in the same over and at 115/4, the visitors were looking down the barrel.
Saeed Anwar, had looked the most comfortable in negating Kumble till then. He was actually looking good for a hundred but fell for 69, caught by Laxman at forward short leg. Two overs later, wicketkeeper Moin Khan departed, caught by Ganguly at slip.
Two veterans Saleem Malik and Wasim Akram tried to steady the ship with a 58 run partnership. However, Malik had a hamstring injury and ‘Jumbo’ took the advantage of that by breaching his defence with a quicker delivery.
By that time, the result of the match had become a foregone conclusion. What people were excited about was whether Kumble would be able to create history at Kotla by taking 10 wickets. The leg spinner soon brought himself at the cusp of history by dismissing both his spin bowling counterparts, Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq in successive deliveries. He was now at the brink of achieving the rarest of rare feat in cricket.
Skipper Azhar told Srinath to bowl wide of off stump for next couple of overs so that Kumble can have a go at his record. Srinath didn’t have to do that for too long. Kumble got Pakistan skipper Wasim Akram caught at forward short leg and the entire stadium erupted in joy. He became the second cricketer after England’s Jim Laker to take all 10 wickets in an innings. India won the match by a huge margin of 212 runs and leveled the series. And the legend of Anil Radhakrishnan Kumble, a shy man from Bengaluru was to continue for many years to come, scripting numerous memorable test victories for India, both at home and away.