What does the crowd do when their beloved team loses a Test match to its arch-rivals just by a whisker? Gives the winning team a Standing Ovation. A standing ovation? Isn’t this something quiet unthinkable and way too unreal given the degree of fervour that binds cricket and its fans together in India? But, that’s what the crowd at Chennai’s MA Chidambaram stadium did. It was the last week of January 1999 and India and Pakistan were playing their first Test match of the series. The match was slated to be played in Delhi, since miscreants had dug up the Kotla pitch in protest to Pakistan team’s visit, Chennai got the opportunity.
It was the first ever cricket match I watched in a stadium and even after 19 years I still can recollect the memories vividly. Pakistan was playing a Test series in India after a gap of nine years and local boy Sadagopan Ramesh was making his debut for India. There were around 3000 police personnel deployed in the stadium and we had an armed cop standing near us in the Bharat Petroleum Stand, in all the four days of the match. We weren’t allowed to carry even water bottles inside.
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It was an evenly poised match with India scoring 254 in reply to Pakistan’s 238 in the first innings. With Afridi’s 141- it was his first Test hundred in his very second match- Pakistan posted a score of 286 in the second innings. The hosts needed 271 to win the match and it was naturally a challenging score as the MAC pitch was known for its unpredictability in the fourth inning. At the close of day three India were 40 for two with Dravid (8) and Tendulkar (20) at the crease.
On the fourth day the stadium was nearly full to its capacity of 40,000. Wasim Akram clean bowled Dravid for 10, soon Azharuddin and Ganguly followed him to the pavilion with single digit scores. The crowd started to grew pessimistic. But, when Mongia joined Tendulkar at the centre and started scoring runs hopes were revived and the duo scored a splendid 136 together. The Little Master was playing a wonderfully gritty innings with flawless strokes against the bowling of Akram, Younis and the mercurial Saqlain Mushtaq.
There was this relentless, deafening chant of ‘Sachin, Sachin’ in the stands as Tendulkar neared his century. As Tendulkar scored his 100th run the stadium erupted in joy and the euphoria was indescribable. Spectators took to revelry unmindful of the armed cops around them; a missile of a water pocket flew over us and landed on the fence with a thud, less than a meter away from Ijaz Ahmed fielding at cover boundary. Mongia scored a very important 50 before being dismissed by Akram. The Little Master too fell, to a floating doosra of Saqlain Mushtaq, but not before scoring a magnificent 136, leaving only 17 more to be scored by the four tail-enders. That day ricket’s gods were with Pakistan. Akram and Saqlain cleaned the tail with just 4 runs added to the score and the visitors won the match by 12 runs.
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The entire stadium fell into a deep, shock induced silence. Soon after the fall of the last wicket, Pakistan skipper Akram knelt down and kissed the ground, a few more too joined him. Security personnel cordoned off the Pakistani players encircling them with a rope. Jubliant Pakistanis celebrated their thrilling win jumping in joy and hugging each other. Then something happened. Defying the security Akram came out of the circle by lifting the rope; one by one all the Pakistani players came along with him. They took a lap of honour; as they waved to the crowd the crowd heartily reciprocated, it shed its gloominess down and stood up applauding the winners. It turned out to be the most beautiful and moving crowd gesture in the sporting history of the two countries. Later Akram said in an interview that it was his best moment in India. Cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle described it was his all-time favourite moment in the history of cricket.
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