Mondays were the worst when it came to school life. The early morning routines, followed by the long hours in class would be one of the hardest things I had to do in school. I was about to be six years old in April 1999 and most of my memories around that age are just a collection of blurry images with very few specifics. But 17th February 1999 was one of those days that got engraved in my memory.
After finishing off school, I took the usual school pick-up auto back home. As the driver took me through the narrow streets of the emerging city of Coimbatore, only one thought was on my mind. I asked the auto driver whether he knew what had happened. Even though my Tamil was still basic, I could make out that he had no clue. Carrying a bag filled with the usual moot textbooks and the traditional lunch basket, I ran towards my building wing and climbed up six floors. On my mother opening the door, I threw myself onto the sofa and switched on the TV to tune into the match. It was the tea break in the inaugural Test of the Asian Test Championship between India and Pakistan in Kolkata.
I asked my mother, looking tired (probably due to my two year-old brother’s tantrums), the question that had been on my mind for the entire ride from school, “How much is Sachin batting on?” She replied that he got out first ball. That cannot happen. My five-year self disbelievingly replied,”This is Sachin Tendulkar, he doesn’t get out without hitting fours and sixes”. Mother, knowing that I wouldn’t have believed a word she said, suggested I continue watching the tea break programme, to wait for the lunch session highlights and made her way back to the kitchen.
The wickets highlights flashed up and I saw this bowler for the first time, with the long wavy hair and a run up that started beyond the 30-yard circle. I did remember some conversation about this bowler from my classmates or my parents about somebody named Shoaib, that he was fast and dangerous, but I didn’t really care, until I saw that highlights package.
I saw Rahul Dravid bowled by a ball which did the most incredible thing. It was full and swung a mile in the air. Before Dravid could get his bat down, the leg stump had already been uprooted. Then my ‘hero’ was shown batting to the same bowler. I could read the score next to his name, ‘Sachin Tendulkar b. Akhtar 0 (1)’.
The ball was exactly the same, it was full and swung in towards the batsman. The only difference was that it took out the middle stump. A jubilant Shoaib Akhtar fell on his knees, with his arms spread wide, as if to suggest that he had just conquered the world. Why wouldn’t he feel that way? He had just picked up the wicket of the world’s best batsman with the first ball he had bowled to him. Plus, he had just handed Sachin Tendulkar his first golden duck in test match cricket. His teammates ran towards him like they were hyped up on sugar candy. I remember the image of the crowd at Eden Gardens, looking disappointed and some of them even started walking towards the exits in disbelief. Maybe they had a tear rolling down while they were walking back, like I had, sitting on my couch and seeing what had transpired.
I hated the man for a very long time, for the arrogance, for the on-field banter and most importantly, for tainting the image of one of the two heroes in my universe (the other being Batman). I was overjoyed when I saw Sachin smash him around the park in the World Cup match in 2003, especially the cut shot over third-man for six. That’s what heroes are meant to do. Shoaib eventually did get him out on 98. I was dejected that the three figure mark eluded the great man, but my soul was satisfied.
It’s been eighteen years since that day, and today, nearing the age of 24, I feel privileged to have seen him bowl in my lifetime. On listening to him on various channels and interviews, you understand the man behind the ‘aeroplane’ celebration. Every thing he did on the field was with the heart of a young boy who hailed from Rawalpindi, a boy who threatened Waqar Younis that he will take his place in the team, playing for his country and taking on the world.
Over the years, we mature as cricket fans, helping us realise that it’s only the passion to be the best that drives these legends to do extraordinary (and some not so extraordinary) things. Maybe that’s how rivalries in sport work, we hate them with a passion when they play against our side, and after they have finished their careers, we reminisce about them with the same passion. I feel honoured about the fact that I will be able to tell people that I was a witness to the episode when the Rawalpindi Express, in all its might, steamed towards the bowling crease at the Eden Gardens and rattled the cricketing world with just one magical delivery.
While the world celebrates the birthday of the modern great AB de Villiers, I will remember 17th February as the day Shoaib Akhtar’s long lasting legacy was born in our minds and the cricket world.
Watch what he had to say about being a fast bowler.
Check out what he has to say about reverse swing and bowling on flat tracks.
For more of Shoaib Akhtar’s interview, check out the article by clicking HERE.