Remembering Kolkata '99, when Shoaib Akhtar announced himself in two balls
Two balls, two wickets, 20 years ago. Cricketing milestones run the risk of being ambushed by a glut of numbers; not this one. On that hot afternoon on 17 February 1999, in the second session of the second day of the inaugural Asian Test Championship, when eight-Test old Shoaib Akhtar stood on his mark to start a run-up whose terrifying beauty was yet to define him, he didn't possibly know of the glory that was destined to come his way.
India versus Pakistan was, well, India versus Pakistan. Those were the days when hyperventilation and rhetoric had not yet hit the roof, but issues not pertaining to cricket surely did dictate sporting ties between the two neighbours. Matters had come to boil last summer when both countries conducted nuclear tests, and barely four months from that hot afternoon in Kolkata, they would engage in a bloody conflict in the northern hills.
When Akhtar began his run-up, his collar up and brows raised, it can be safely assumed that history, if not context, was among the last things that crossed his mind. He just wanted to bowl. Fast.
So he runs in, arms flailing, legs thumping, heart pounding, chest heaving, hair flowing, hormones flying. By the time he is halfway into his run-up, Rahul Dravid has tapped his bat twice. He was still a mile or two from becoming India's 'Mr Dependable', but paeans of his water-tight defence were being penned by the connoisseurs already.
Dravid's backlift was small; a natural tactic for someone whose primary instinct is to play the ball close and late. The stance looked uncluttered " still head, steady arms, steely eyes. Whether the same could be said of his mind is something we may never know.
Akhtar enters the final stretch. They call him the 'Rawalpindi Express', and the engines are whirring at full throttle. The cameras hoisted behind the sight-screen are relaying images; moments later, some of them would become lasting vignettes.
Akhtar's lean, shivering frame hurtles along the Eden baize, he leaps and twists on the left of the umpire, his left arm comes down as a powerful lever, the right arm goes up like a javelin. There's nothing poetic about this action. It's raw and frightening.
Akhtar doesn't like them slow. Years later, he would claim that his peak years as a fast bowler were behind him by the time he made his international debut. Vanity or wisdom, who knows?
The first ball of the day's 51st over that has just left Akhtar's grip is on its way. It comes into Dravid from off to middle stump, and the ramrod straight batsman begins his forward press.
Just then, like a loose maple leaf undulating carelessly in thin air, the ball begins its sudden, sharp descent; its natural course altered by a holy kalma that Akhtar might well have recited before letting it go. The ball takes right, Dravid's bat goes straight, and the five-and-a-half ounce object of Akhtar's desire whistles through the gap.
When was the last time you saw stumps uprooted in an India-Pakistan game? Bangalore 1996, perhaps, but that was more a result of the pace generated by Aamir Sohail's inside edge, which ironically, was a function of Venkatesh Prasad's lack of pace. This one's different.
If the sound of timbre is what fast bowlers live for, the clatter of leather meeting the wood on full is what they will die for. Dravid's leg stump lies flat, the middle stump stands with a slant, almost looking down on its fallen partner with a considered query.
Hello, what just happened?
Akhtar is still in his follow through when Dravid's dour defence is breached. He breaks into a guttural cry and keeps running, applying the handbrake only after he has reached the departing batsman who is yet to leave the site of destruction. The cameras don't capture his face, but if they did, one is certain that considerable dabs of white could be spotted crisscrossing Dravid's face.
Fear is the word that sportspersons fear most, and that reverse-swinging yorker could well have awakened some underlying bugbears in the Indian camp.
The crowd " 100,000 of them, no exaggeration " went quiet for a moment and delirious the next. The fall of India's second wicket (this though was the third of the innings; Anil Kumble, the nightwatchman, was the second to go) for a few years preceding this Test, had become a cause for mini celebration across the country, for it meant the arrival of its favourite batsman.
India are just 38 runs behind Pakistan's first innings tally of 185 with seven wickets in hand. Big deal, eh?
Decibels rise. Dravid crosses the ropes, still befuddled. A short, 25-year-old passes him on the way in, and enters the cauldron without as much as looking at his outdone teammate. A costly miss, one can say with a hindsight advantage of 20 years, but could a simple input " that the ball was reversing " have prevented what was to come?
Those were the days when India's chances depended, almost entirely, on this curly-haired man. Sachin Tendulkar was yet to cross the 5,000-run mark in Test cricket, but no one who had watched him bat doubted that he would end up with 15,921 runs 14 years later.
By the time he walked in to face the young Pakistani tyro, he had already carved his twin epics in Sydney and Perth, dismantled Shane Warne in Chennai and Sharjah, and just 16 days earlier, had played what would eventually go down as one of the best of his 51 Test hundreds " incidentally against the same opponents " in Chennai. If that last innings, a tragic 136 on the crumbling Chepauk, broke him, now was the moment of redemption.
In drawing rooms across India and Pakistan and wherever people from the two countries lived, prayers began. Rituals were reminded, nails were nibbled, Gods were goaded, spirits were summoned; if only they could stop time. Seconds ticked away, bloating the drama and converting tension from an irksome back-hopper to a nasty, tangible lump.
Tendulkar swiftly walks past the looming shadows of the pavilion, steps into the sunlight and a volcano of sound erupts in the bowels of Eden Gardens. It's a familiar feeling for Tendulkar " he has been dealing with attention and expectation ever since he hit a century on first-class debut " but this must be surreal, surely, even by his rockstar standards.
Not many in the field know it, but Akhtar loves attention too. His penchant for fast wheels is still undocumented, but fast he is. In his 15-month stint in Test cricket, he has built a steady reputation for pace, albeit 18 wickets in his young career tell precious little.
Tendulkar reaches the crease, and the stadium is shaking with the tidal wave of sound. He swirls his right wrist, fastens the gloves, hops, squats, looks around for the fielders, hits his crotch, twitches his legs, and takes guard. Under the blazing sun, in front of a deafening audience, against an opponent he is not allowed to fail, the world's best batsman brings his bat down with clear, neat taps. Ready.
Akhtar, his collar and spirits higher, begins the run. Quick powerful steps matched with unreal noise that has hit the crescendo in a divine rhythm. Akhtar's neatly-arranged hair fly back, his left arm comes down, right arm shoots up and releases a comet that leaves a hot trail of invisible flame. He has just delivered the ball that would define him in more ways than one.
This one starts a bit wider, from outside the off-stump. Tendulkar, yet to become the patient accumulator of the following decade, shapes for a booming drive down the ground, but the ball has come in a fair bit, and at genuine pace. A slight shuffle of the back leg, a short forward press, and the big, heavy bat comes down like a sledgehammer, only to meet the hot air of expectancy.
Tendulkar straightens from the futile follow-through, and behind him is revealed a welcome note from Akhtar " a golden duck and a middle stump on the ground. Tendulkar doesn't bother to look back; he quietly unfastens his gloves, tucks the bat under his arm, and leaves.
Hello, what just happened? Shoaib Akhtar has checked in.
Bristling tension gives way to mortal silence. This could be the only incident of 100,000 people losing their voice in a singular, fleeting moment. Only 11 cacophonous Pakistanis are heard, the loudest among them is, of course, Akhtar. He runs with his arms afloat and kneels on the Eden pitch in a Christ-like pose. His face shines in the refulgent glow of success and the improbable accomplishment of having history and future at his feet.
Akhtar exchanges hugs and high-fives, and moments later, looks slightly embarrassed by what he has just achieved. The clatter of stumps is the death knell of India's hopes, though the match is still wide open. Eventually, Pakistan would win it on the fifth day by 46 runs, but it's hard to contest that India's will to fight was snaffled in those two deliveries.
Saeed Anwar and Javagal Srinath had an excellent match too, but hardly would you remember a five-day match for two balls bowled two decades ago. The Test itself ended in front of empty stands due to crowd trouble and turned out to be the last of the three Tests India and Pakistan would play in the next five years. Could there be a better memory to hang on to?