Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the build-up to 2019 World Cup in the countdown of the greatest moments in the tournament’s history. You can read the entire series here.
Sachin Tendulkar has made more scores over fifty, hit more centuries and scored more runs than any other cricketer in World Cup history, but there is one innings that would have given him a rare degree of satisfaction.
It was an innings that he had been thinking about for a year before he finally had the chance to play it. It was played over and over in his mind during that period, he shadowed every stroke, figured out strategies that he would use against each bowler and yet, on the night before the game, he practised some more in his room.
Any India-Pakistan match has an edge to it but the 2003 World Cup, for Indian fans, had a different vibe to it. The side had been transformed under the captaincy of Sourav Ganguly. It was aggressive, it had belief, the batting no longer revolved just around Tendulkar and the pace attack was the finest India had seen in a while.
The Pakistan side wasn’t bad either. The batting included Saeed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and others. The bowling was perfect for South African conditions — Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Abdul Razzaq and Shahid Afridi.
The crowds turned up early on March 1 — flags waving, chests thumping, face painted. Each set of supporters making their identity clearly known. There was no scope to fence sit on this one.
Batting first, Pakistan put up 273/7 thanks largely to Saeed Anwar’s classy century (101 off 126). The next highest score was Younis Khan with 32.
Given the depth of talent their pace attack possessed, Pakistan went into the second half of the match slightly ahead. They had put up the runs on board and surely the pressure of the occasion would play a part too.
But almost everyone forgot to factor that force that Sachin Tendulkar, at his best, could be. The right-hander was at his audacious best right from the start — attacking with genius, hitting the bowlers to both sides of his wicket, off front foot and back and perhaps, more importantly, not once did he seem to get carried away.
A shot that still stands out in memory was a six over third man. The day before the game, Akhtar had said: “I am going to bowl really quick, I am fired up and I will go flat out. If I get my rhythm right, I am not going to let the Indian batsmen have an easy time.”
Well, he was never allowed to get his rhythm right. Running in off his long run-up for his first over, the paceman bowled the fourth ball a little wide and Tendulkar instinctively attacked the delivery with relish to send it flying for six over third man.
The next two balls were hit for four. The first was helped along to square leg boundary but the second was typical Tendulkar — a step across to the off-stump, presenting the full face off the bat to the delivery with no follow through, but the ball sped past the bowler for a four down the ground. All timing, all class. Eighteen runs came off the over and Pakistan immediately took the world’s fastest bowler out of the attack. The withering assault settled India’s nerves.
A few balls later Virender Sehwag copied the master and hit Waqar Younis for a six over third man. At the end of five overs, India’s score read 50/0. It was a dream start and it was way before the Twenty20 era.
But then Younis struck a double blow in the sixth over of the innings. He removed Sehwag and Ganguly off successive deliveries. A spanner in the works? Maybe but on that day, Tendulkar was going to stop for no one.
On 32, he gave a chance. Razzaq failed to hold on to a difficult chance at deepish mid-off. Wasim Akram cursed. Perhaps, he knew that they wouldn’t get another opportunity.
Tendulkar brought up his fifty [his 60th ODI half century] off 37 balls with another six — this time off Younis. It was perhaps the greatest exhibition of one-day batting in a World Cup — The right-hander was manipulating the field as only he could. Pakistan had placed an off-side field, so the master batsman would repeatedly roll his wrist and send straight deliveries to square leg boundary.
A 102-run stand with Kaif followed and throughout it, the one thing that stood out was how badly Tendulkar wanted to play responsibly. Once when he let the ball go through the keeper, the crowd applauded. They appreciated the thought, they connected with his drive and they wanted the win as badly as him.
As the innings went along, Tendulkar was hampered by a leg injury. It got worse the longer he stayed in the middle and by the end, he was hobbling but his commitment to the team’s cause was great. He did not want to throw this away — by the time he was finally dismissed, he had scored 98 in 74 balls. A quicker, almost unplayable delivery from Akhtar reared up, caught the splice of the bat and Younis, at gully, took a fine diving catch.
Pakistan had simply no answer to his genius on that day. But when Tendulkar reached the dressing room, he was bitterly disappointed at not closing out the game himself. He sat alone, drained, looking at replays of his dismissal as they showed on the television. But Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh closed out the match in a calm manner.
Tendulkar rates this blistering innings as one of the best of his illustrious career.
“This was my day,” he later said. “From the beginning, I picked the ball up early. 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.”
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