Nothing evokes the kind of passion in cricket fans that an India-Pakistan encounter does. They are a rare spectacle now, reduced to chance tie-ups in global tournaments. While there is not much to differentiate between the cultures and the people of India and Pakistan, the borders and the fences have been the playgrounds of politicians across generations. That is why India’s tour to Pakistan in the 2003-2004 season was so very special.
As usual, the cricket was hard to separate from politics. India was touring Pakistan for the first time since 1989 when they had played four Tests and drawn all four (the tour that gave introduced us to Sachin Tendulkar). In between, Pakistan had toured Indian in 1999 for a drawn series (the famous Anil Kumble ten-wicket haul). Outside cricket, the two countries went to war and Pervez Musharraf survived an assassination scare.
Nevertheless, the series happened. At such times, it is hard to keep focus on the games, but such high quality was at show that it almost subjugated and overshadowed the politics and the tensions between the two countries. For once, Ravi Shastri’s clichéd ‘cricket is the real winner’ seemed so apt.
Many stories have been written and narrated about that great series, but none better than from the pen of Rahul Bhattacharya, who wrote an entire book around the episode, titled Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour With India, 2003-04. It was also two teams that were probably fielding their all-time greats. The Indian team had Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan with Sourav Ganguly leading the side.
Pakistan’s team composed of Inzamam-ul-Haq leading the way with deputies like Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and Moin Khan at his disposal, and Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Shami taking the new ball. The photo of a victorious Indian team (who won the ODI series 3-2 and Tests 2-1) with Rahul Dravid screaming and visibly the most excited says how much the series meant to the Indians.
If reports were to be believed, the series attracted probably the largest number of crowds in Pakistan, the kind of numbers not seen in decades. Given the camaraderie off the field and the way Indians were treated, one could’ve been forgiven for believing a new partnership, alliance and relationship was in order, credit to Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Musharraf.
While that didn’t quite materialise, India and Pakistan did play bilateral series with more regularity for a few years; Pakistan toured India in 2005 and 2007 and then India toured Pakistan in 2006. As late as 2012, the two teams were involved in an ODI battle although the Test series were halted in 2007.
Once the cricket started, the din around political ramifications died down. It was fascinating cricket and the opener was a match for the ages, demonstrating why the charged-up atmosphere of India-Pakistan matches has such a strong allure. After one tour match where the Indians lost to Pakistan A, the first ODI was played at the National Stadium in Karachi on March 13th, 2004.
Pakistan won the toss and chose to field and India got off to a flyer, thanks to Virender Sehwag who smashed a 57-ball 79 with 14 fours and a six. India raced to 69 before losing their first wicket, Sachin Tendulkar, in the 9th over. Sourav Ganguly, who had sacrificed his opening position, added 73 with Sehwag and another 72 with Rahul Dravid. The batsman from Bangalore anchored the innings when India lost two quick wickets in the middle, being reduced to 220 for 4 with 21 more overs to go.
Dravid added 118 for the fifth wicket with Mohammad Kaif before losing his stumps to Shoaib Akhtar on 99. India lost their way a bit in the last couple of overs but still posted a mammoth 349 on an excellent track. Akhtar was the pick of the bowlers with figures of 2/55, Tendulkar the other big fish he had snaffled.
In reply, Pakistan started horrendously, reduced to 34 for 2, both their openers back in the hut. The big guns, though, held fort well. Inzamam delivered, leading from the front with a 102-ball 122. He added 135 for the third wicket with Yousuf (73) and 109 for the fourth wicket with Younis Khan (46).
When Inzamam was out nicking one to the grateful hands of Dravid, who during that period doubled up as India’s wicket-keeper, Pakistan needed 72 off 8 overs.
Razzaq’s cameo of 27 in 16 balls took them very close. But Zaheer Khan gave away just 8 in the penultimate over and defending 8 runs, Ashish Nehra bowled a sensational final over, giving away just 3 runs. Pakistan managed 344 for 8 losing the game by 5 runs. Nevertheless, it is still one of the biggest second innings totals in ODIs in a losing cause.
While Zaheer picked up three wickets, it was Murali Karthik who gobbled up the two big ones of Inzamam and Younis, although he did go for a lot of runs.
India were well-served by Kaif’s unforgettable catch running from long-off to long-on and diving full length. They also got lucky as Moin Khan couldn’t produce a Javed Miandad (coincidentally their coach) moment when he got a full toss from Nehra in the last ball of the game needing six runs and ended up lobbing a catch.
Pakistan had bowled an unpardonable 20 no-balls to go with their 10 wides, something that offset a new ball pair that was capable of cranking it upwards of 150kph at will. It was a start for the gods, of a series that lived up to the expectations set by that high-octane, adrenaline-pumping promise of the first match.