It was 1989. After more than 11 years of dictatorial rule that had ended the previous year, and with Benazir Bhutto as prime minister, Pakistan was taking baby steps towards re-establishing democracy. Meanwhile, India was preparing for another democratic election.
At the time, cricketing relations between the two volatile neighbors were thriving. Pakistan had returned with a Test series victory over its ‘nemesis’ in 1987 and, two years later, had also won the six-nation Nehru Cup (ODI tournament held from Oct 15 to Nov 1, 1989) on Indian soil.
The Indian tour party arrived in Pakistan in November, just a couple of weeks after Pakistan returned victorious from the Nehru Cup. The series would’ve been touted as a ‘revenge’ series by any modern day Indian captain but, in those days, there was no such word in the Indian captain’s dictionary. On the contrary, the Indian team, under the leadership of Kris Srikkanth, looked more interested in making friends in Pakistan.
The news about the ‘kid’ cricketer in their side made half of Pakistan fall in love with the visiting Indian team even before they had crossed the border. That wonder kid was Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, whose first class cricketing endeavours were already making headlines in newspapers in India.
In spite of his heroics with the bat, two out of five members of the selection committee had been reluctant to include a 16-year-old in the team, to face the deadly pace and swing of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. But the selection verdict had gone in favour of Tendulkar by 3-2.
When Sachin Tendulkar walked out to bat for the first time in Test cricket, wearing somewhat idiosyncratic batting pads and a white helmet, the Indians were reeling at 41 for 4 in the first Test at Karachi. As a boy who had recently fallen in love with the game, I was watching the Test match on our 20-inch Philips TV and I immediately felt that someone from ‘my generation’ had taken guard at the National Stadium pitch.
Recalling the 16-year-old Indian who came to Pakistan as a boy, connected with young Pakistanis as one of their generation, and returned home a man
Tendulkar’s juvenile appearance felt out of place in a Test match setting; he looked more like a young lad surrounded by a few bullies in a school playground. But in reality, his presence on the TV screen touched a little chord in every young boy’s heart in Pakistan — every young boy who had experience of batting in the streets until dusk every day.
The sight of the young Tendulkar gave a glimmer of hope to every street cricketer that, if a ‘boy’ could make it to the highest level, so could they. Yes, Pakistan’s Mushtaq Mohammad had made his debut at the age of 15, but that had happened in 1959, before the television era, which would not have had the same impact. Plus ‘my generation’ had not even been born then.
I remember watching in awe Tendulkar’s on-drive for four against the bowling of Waqar Younis — his first ever boundary in Test cricket. But my joy was shortlived; Waqar didn’t take long to beat young Tendulkar’s bat and bowled him. Though he made only 15 runs, in my opinion, his innings was far from a failure. He had faced 24 balls, in which he hit two 4s against the bowling of Waqar Younis, who was also making his Test debut. Younis, who sported a thick moustache, certainly looked a tad bit older than his ‘documented age’ of 18.
In the second Test match at the Iqbal Stadium Faisalabad, in his second Test innings, Tendulkar reached his first milestone in Test cricket — he made a half-century. He was involved in a 143-run partnership with Sanjay Manjrekar and made 59 runs, before Imran trapped him LBW. It was quite evident that he looked more assured in that innings. In the third Test in Lahore, he scored a gritty knock of 41 runs off 90 balls.
If I say so myself, I was quite a studious boy, but one subject, mathematics, always remained Greek to me. So it was in my maths class that I decided to take out my tiny little ‘Ear AM Radio’ from my school bag and put it against my ear and covered it with my hand. My posture falsely portrayed that I was listening to my teacher with immense attention but, in reality, I was listening to the running commentary of the Pakistan and India Test match.
By that time I was so engrossed in the series that I had no other choice but resort to subterfuge to satisfy my craving for information about the Test match proceedings; especially the progress of Tenulkar, who was ‘one of us’.
That was perhaps the most ‘adventurous’ thing I did at the time, but it was nothing compared to a 16-year-old playing a courageous knock in the fourth and final Test, played at Sialkot.
The Indians were onerously placed at 4 wickets down for 38 runs when Tendulkar started to rebuild the innings. The pitch had plenty of green on it and Waqar Younis’s vicious bouncer hit Tendulkar on the nose, which made it bleed.
It was reported in the press that Pakistan skipper Imran Khan came to Tendulkar and asked him to rest and resume his innings later, but the young boy decided not to go off the field. Tendulkar made a match-saving 57 off 134 balls. Perhaps that was the precise moment when a 16-year-old boy became a man.
After the hard-fought drawn Test series, the two teams headed north towards the North West Frontier Province (now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to play the first ODI in Peshawar.
There, due to a heavy downpour and a wet outfield, the umpires thought that the ground wasn’t fit enough to stage an international one-day match but, still, considering the presence of a large crowd, they gave the green signal for an exhibition match. The festive status of the match lifted ‘pressure’ from everyone involved, and a 16-year-old virtuoso wasn’t an exception.
Perhaps the Almighty had a script ready to put young Sachin Tendulkar on the road to success. First, a knock on the nose in Sialkot which hardened him, followed by a ‘friendly’ match in Peshawar, in which he batted without a care in the world, with utter confidence and self-assurance. I remember watching him coming down the wicket and smacking sixes off the bowling of Mushtaq Ahmed and Abdul Qadir. I can never forget that smirk on the late Qadir’s face, as if he could tell that the little maestro had arrived.
My elder sister was an avid listener of music on the BBC radio show ‘Multi Track’, which she used to tune into on a shortwave radio. It gave me the idea that, if there were music available, it only made sense that cricket commentary must also be accessible.
Eight months down the line, when Tendulkar made his first Test hundred at Old Trafford in Manchester, I was fortunate to be able to sit in my room in Pakistan and listen to the BBC Test Match Special commentators describing it. On that day, it became clear that the boy, who had made his debut in Pakistan a few months ago, was now a grown man, ready to take on the best bowlers of the cricketing world. And that he did.
India produced quite a few world class batsmen in the 1990s, with the likes of Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly, but Sachin Tendulkar was nothing short of a phenomenona. The world may remember him simply as India’s greatest batsman, but for yours truly, along with many other Pakistani youngsters who saw him make his Test debut in Karachi, Tendulkar will always have a special place in our hearts.
Because at that time, he was ‘one of us’ — the boy from my generation.
The writer tweets @CaughtAtPoint
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 16th, 2021