April was never the cruellest month. T. S. Eliot got it all wrong; at least, in the case of Sachin Tendulkar and Kochi. For Sachin, who is gearing up for the last two games of his glittering career, April was always special when it came to playing in Kochi.
The first time the Little Master played in Kerala was on a bright April day. His best-ever bowling performance in a one-day international also happened in April, and it was on another balmy April afternoon that Sachin scalped five Pakistani batsmen. Of course, not to forget, Sachin was born on an April day (April 24, 1973) and got his first Ranji Trophy double ton (for Mumbai against Tamil Nadu, 2000) in April again.
When Sachin came to play in the one-day game for the Choice Cup, organised by Tripunithura Cricket Club, at the Ambedkar Stadium on April 7, 1991, he was not a star yet. He had made his Test debut two years before, on November 15, 1989, against Pakistan at Karachi; (Perfect timing, isn’t it? For Sachin has chosen another November to hang up his boots) and had cracked his maiden ton in England in a match-saving effort at Old Trafford in 1990. The limelight was clearly on some of the stalwarts of Indian cricket like Sunil Gavaskar, G.R. Viswanath, Kapil Dev, K. Srikkanth, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammed Azharuddin, Syed Kirmani, Mohinder Amarnath and Ravi Shastri.
Playing alongside Sachin in the side led by Gavaskar in this game (the other side was led by Kapil Dev) was former Kerala skipper K.N.Ananthapadmanabhan. “I knew Sachin as we had met during the India under-19 coaching camp held in Mumbai (1988-89). A certainty for the India side, Sachin chose not to go citing school exams. That was when he was selected for the Pakistan tour. In the Choice Cup tournament I remember taking a catch to dismiss Srikkanth at mid-on off Sachin’s bowling. He used to bowl medium pace those days. Since, I was the only local connect he asked me a lot about Kerala, Kochi and cricket here,” remembers Ananthapadmanabhan.
Very few cricket fans know that Sachin loved to bowl fast and even attended the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai in 1987 hoping to become a fast bowler. Dennis Lillee, who was in charge, was ‘unimpressed’ and suggested that Sachin focus on batting.
The organisers remember the short, curly-haired, shy boy who played the game with utmost seriousness. When he came on to bat, for the first time on a Kerala ground, his curls hiding behind the rather over-sized helmet, his pads rising almost to his hips, there was that air of anticipation, excitement in the crowd, something that happened every time Sachin stepped on the field, anywhere in the world.
“Sachin’s talent was obvious though there were a galaxy of stars for the Choice Cup. I remember Kapil Dev telling me that he was the player to watch for. My memory of Sachin is that of a shy, young boy who mostly kept to himself at the dinner we hosted. Looking back I’m happy to have been part of the event; Sachin’s first match in the State,” says Jose Thomas, Chairman, Choice Trading Corporation Ltd.
Before that historic one-day international in Kochi against Australia on April 1, 1998, a match that everyone would remember, Sachin played a Deodhar Trophy game against North Zone at the Corporation Stadium, Kozhikode (1992). He was bowled by Maninder Singh for eight and never got to bowl in a low scoring match.
The 1998 India-Australia ODI was memorable in many ways. It was the first-ever one-day international to be held in Kochi; the massive Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, bursting at its seams, proclaimed itself as a new cricket venue; India scored a thumping win, and of course, saw Sachin return with figures of 10-1-32-5. These remain his best bowling figures in international cricket.
“That match showed what an intelligent cricketer Sachin was. He read the pitch, knew he had to bowl as slow as possible, held the ball back and had the Aussies in all sorts of trouble. This spell revealed his sharp cricketing brain,” says international umpire K.N.Raghavan, who was third umpire for this match.
Watching this game from the packed galleries was S. Sreesanth. This was the first time he was watching Sachin Tendulkar ‘live.’ Little did Sreesanth know that two years later he would be bowling to the Master at the nets. “I was in Class XI when I was called to bowl at the nets prior to the India-South Africa one-dayer at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (2000). I bowled to Sachin, three balls. He asked me to stop as I was too slow. The first time he talked to me was at the 2003 World Cup camp in Bangalore. I was a ‘nets-bowler’ and at the end of a session I went up to him, introduced myself and we talked for a while,” Sreesanth reminisces.
The fast bowler, flooded by memories of Sachin, picks a few other unforgettable moments with the Master. “At the end of the Challenger Series (2005)where I was Man of the Series he came to me and said that I had done well and said, ‘hope to see you in the Indian team soon’. It was Sachin who handed me the India cap at Nagpur (2005) and I cannot forget him coming home for dinner with the rest of the Indian team when they came to play the Aussies in 2007.”
Sachin plays his last two matches this November. Surely, November will go down as the cruellest month. As one that sucked out the colour and grace from the world of cricket.