In the set of riveting cricket clashes that have surfaced throughout the entirety of the game’s history, a clash between India and Australia is one of the biggest manifestations of a rivalry on the cricket field.
The sheer history of Indo-Aus battles laced with the prowess of modern cricketers ensures a gripping contest when both the teams go head-to-head against each other, especially in the longest format of the game.
Since the first Test series between the two nations in 1947-48, Australia have dominated the battle of the two nations and it was not until the first Border-Gavaskar series in 1996/97 that India started to find a rather large foothold to get the better of their long-time rivals.
One such instance that defined India’s commanding performance against Australia was Sachin Tendulkar’s match-winning 155 not out, a knock that created headlines after the right-hander thrived on his constant practice to make a mockery out of Australia’s best spinner at that time, Shane Warne, in the second innings of the first Test in the 1997-98 season.
Here, we try to turn the clock back in time and re-live the magical performance that turned the series on its head.
The battle for supremacy
Days ahead of the first Test on 6th March in Chennai, the battle between Tendulkar and Warne that was set to take place was seen doing its rounds on national television and newspapers.
Tendulkar, in a bid to hone his skills against the leg-spinner, had summoned ex-Indian leggie Lakshman Sivaramakrishnan to bowl at him. After endless practice sessions and a practice match where he thrashed Warne all over the park, it seemed as if the advantage belonged to Tendulkar ahead of the first Test.
Tendulkar succumbs to Warne’s guile
India started well with Azharuddin winning the toss, opting to bat first in hot conditions. Nayan Mongia and Navjot Singh Sidhu got India off to a flying start with a 122-run partnership before Mongia fell to Kasprowicz. In the following over, Sidhu was seen walking back to the pavilion, falling short of his crease to a throw from Mark Waugh.
In walked Tendulkar with the score reading 126-2. The first ball, and the Little Master got rid of his butterflies with an uppish off drive between Warne and mid-off for four. The battle had only begun.
In the very next ball, Warne produced a ripper that beat the defence of Tendulkar. The following delivery saw him pitching the ball in the same area albeit this time, the ball found the edge of the Little Master’s bat and settled into the hands of Mark Taylor, who pouched it without any trouble.
Tendulkar had to walk back after scoring just four and Warne had won the first battle. With a clever mix of pace and variation assisted by vicious spin, the leg-spinner went on to pick four wickets in the first innings, restricting India to 257.
Ian Healy’s 90 and India’s spin strategy
Australia had restricted India to 257 primarily due to the efforts of their spinners who picked four wickets apiece. Going into the match with three spinners in the bowling line-up, the Indians were expected to cause some trouble to the visitors.
Australia started laboriously, going at only one or two runs per over. Assisted by the purchase and spin off the track, all of a sudden, the Aussies were reduced to 201-8 with the Indian spinners thriving on the conditions at hand. Kumble already had four wickets to his credit, while Raju had two. Rajesh Chauhan was a touch expensive but did his bit to make sure the pressure was always on the Australians.
When it seemed as if India would run away with a lead, Ian Healy forged an important partnership with debutant Gavin Roberston to give Australia a healthy lead. While the pitch was still spewing poison, Healy cleverly nudged his way to an important 90 while Robertson essayed his strokes to perfection, contributing a vital 57 to take Australia to 328.
Australia had a decent lead of 71 runs and with the threat of Warne and Roberston looming large, India needed an important contribution from their batsmen to lay out a strong challenge for the visitors in their final innings.
The match had entered the fourth day and India were given a task to erase the lead early on in the day. Mongia and Sindhu were fresh from their century partnership in the first innings and strode out to the middle.
However, Greg Blewett struck the first blow, removing Mongia for 18. Navjot Singh Sidhu and Rahul Dravid then joined forces and tried to steady India’s ship but after a handy 72-run partnership, Sidhu fell to Robertson.
Almost similar to the situation in the first innings, Sachin walked in to rousing cheers with the score reading 115-2. After playing out a couple of deliveries, Sachin faced Warne for the first time in the second innings.
The battle commenced rather easily for Tendulkar, a flick towards fine-leg adding two more runs to his tally. A couple of deliveries later, Warne erred in length and was aptly cut away to the boundary. The Master Blaster had asserted his dominance early on.
With the spinners unable to cause problems for the pair at the crease, skipper Mark Taylor opted for pace in the form of Paul Rieffel but things did not change. Tendulkar was looking in ominous form and brought up his half-century with a couple of runs before lunch.
The post-lunch Tendulkar
With the lead already over 100 and eight wickets in hand, India had gained an upper hand prior to lunch courtesy a well-crafted 64-ball 50 from the Master Blaster. The Tendulkar-Dravid duo had done well to combat the Aussie bowlers on a crumbling pitch.
Post lunch, Warne opted for his ‘around-the-wicket, target the rough’ tactics that were meant to put Tendulkar in deep trouble. However, the Little Master had done his homework and was ready for anything Warne had to offer. Taking guard almost outside the leg stump, Tendulkar slapped a ball through the mid-wicket-mid-on gap that travelled to the boundary in a matter of seconds.
Tendulkar had already gained a mental edge over Warne. A couple of balls later, he padded away a harmless delivery that pitched way outside the leg-stump and followed that with a huge six over mid-wicket to get the crowd in a dizzy. The Aussies spinner was feeling the heat and was visibly perplexed by the way Tendulkar was treating him.
The post-lunch strategy that Tendulkar had in mind seemed puzzling to the Australians. Nothing could stop runs from his free-flowing blade. Blewett was treated with equal disdain, one of his deliveries nonchalantly lofted over the long-on region for a maximum.
Soon enough, Warne was again summoned to have a go at Tendulkar. Credit must be given to Warne as he was producing an inhuman amount of spin, however, he was erring on length quite often and was being cut away with disdain by the Little Master, who was not going to miss out on such opportunities.
Robertson was recalled into the attack, only to become a victim of the sheer elegance of the Mumbaikar. The off-spinner gave the ball a lot of air and sensing the opportunity, Tendulkar danced down the track, connected perfectly and sent the ball soaring into the stands. It was a marvellous batting display, a counter-attacking innings that was causing serious problems for the visitors.
The century and beyond
Mark Kasprowicz was thrown the ball and in his over, Tendulkar brought up his 15th Test hundred with an enticing leg glance for a boundary. He took off his helmet and soaked in the applause. After all, everyone knew the importance of this innings under the circumstances. The hundred had come in quick time, off 127 balls laced with 10 hits to the boundary and four over it.
But the Master Blaster was not done yet.
A couple of short balls from Kasprowicz were dispatched to the boundary. The first one was muscled away to the square-leg fence and the second, cut away with authority. The lead was building and the pressure was mounting on the visitors.
An innings that was defined by aggression was suddenly showcasing exemplary finesse when Mark Waugh was brought on to bowl, hoping for a stroke of luck. However, two beautiful late cuts through the vacant slip region from Tendulkar’s blade meant the move had severely backfired.
Having led India to a position of strength, Tendulkar drove Robertson down the ground for a single to bring up his 150 and the team’s 400. The lead had swelled to 328 and Tendulkar had managed to score more than one-third of the team’s total. A couple of overs later, Azharuddin decided to declare and the target for Australia was set at an improbable 348 runs.
An improbable chase for Australia, an important victory for India
Set a target of 348 runs for victory, the Australians started off in a horrible fashion. The openers and the nightwatchman, Blewett, were sent back to the pavilion on the fourth day itself and the next day, Australia were given the task of battling against the Indian spinners on a crumbling pitch.
It was a lost cause for the Australians and they eventually fell to the guile of the Indian spinners. India claimed the first Test by 179 runs and Tendulkar was given the Man of the Match award for his sensational 155-run unbeaten innings.
In conditions that were favourable to spin bowling, Sachin Tendulkar had essayed perhaps one of his most cherished Test performances. A 155-run knock off just 191 balls with 14 boundaries and four sixes spanning three hours and 11 minutes was the major driving force behind Australia's downfall.