While there could be numerous factors that decide what constitutes the peak of sport, contests between legendary players is always up there. When you have two world-class sportspersons competing against each other, the spectacle is often at its pinnacle.
In cricket, while there have been many instances of superstars coming up against each other, one that stands out over the last 25 years is the one between Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne. On one hand, you had one of the most masterful batsmen of all time. On the other, you had a masterly bowler whose leg-spin bamboozled nearly every batter who faced it.
In 1998, the two players were at their respective peaks when Australia toured India and it was a contest that people couldn’t wait to witness. While that was the chief talking point going into the tour, there was also the matter of the team from Down Under having not won a Test series in India since 1969.
Coming into the Chennai Test, the first game of the series, Tendulkar and Warne had already faced off in a warm-up encounter that preluded the international matches. Playing for Mumbai, Tendulkar had played a dream innings, notching up a double hundred at a strike rate of over 100. Warne, on the other hand, had a match to forget, conceding 111 runs in 16 overs. While this might have only been a practice match, you could possibly say it played a significant role in what was to come in the following couple of months.
When it came to the Test series, though, it was Warne who won the first battle. In India’s first innings at Chepauk, Tendulkar looked to take the attack to the Australian leg-spinner like he had done in the practice match but was dismissed for just four with Mark Taylor holding on to a sharp catch at slip. While the visitors had got a first-innings lead of 71, the match was evenly poised when Tendulkar walked out to bat in the second innings. A fifty from Navjot Singh Sidhu, his second of the game, had seen India erase Australia’s lead and there was everything to play for with two days of cricket left.
The match situation nor the fact that Warne got his wicket in the first innings seemed to have deterred Tendulkar when he came out to bat on 9 March 1998. He didn’t take much time to get going, and once he did, there was little Warne or the other Australian bowlers could do to stop him.
He showed his intent by hitting a couple of boundaries on the off-side against Warne before launching an all-out attack on the Australian bowling. It didn’t matter if it was pace or spin, Tendulkar took on all comers. Here was a batsman who was batting at the absolute peak of his powers. And considering it’s Tendulkar we are talking about, this could very well be as close to the peak of batting in the history of cricket.
After not finding much success while bowling over the wicket, Warne decided to go around in an attempt to make as much use of the rough as possible. But that didn’t unnerve Tendulkar as he continued to have the great Australian bowler’s number, playing attacking shots with and against the spin. In fact, before the start of the series, the then 24-year-old batsman had former India leg-spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan bowl into the footmarks from around the wicket in the nets. Such preparations paid dividends when game time came around.
Tendulkar went on to reach his century from just 127 deliveries and after spending three hours in the middle, he had put India in firm control of the Test. He also put on century stands with both Rahul Dravid and Mohammad Azharuddin, both of whom scored fifties. Tendulkar continued to go after the bowling after reaching his ton, before the Indian innings was declared on 418/4. The Master Blaster, as he is affectionally called, was unbeaten on 155 and everyone were in awe of what had transpired.
Tendulkar hit as many as four sixes during this knock, the most he ever did in any Test innings. It was a splendid display of attacking batting by a player who was in peak form.
Chasing a target of 348, Australia were bowled out for 168. India would go on to win the series 2-1, with Tendulkar remaining in exceptional form through the summer. Just a month later, Tendulkar and Warne would clash in an unforgettable tri-series in Sharjah and it was the former who won the battle once again.
Australia would have to wait until 2004 to secure a Test series victory in India. While Warne retired with 708 Test wickets, he struggled against India, averaging 47.18. Against no other team did the spin great have a bowling average of over 30, which tells its own story.