The two-Test series against Pakistan was crucial in more ways than one. It was our first Test series against them in nearly a decade, and with the World Cup coming up in a few months in England, both sides were eager to gain a few psychological points. Pakistan prevailed in the first Test at Chennai by a narrow margin. Our objective in the second Test at Delhi was crystal-clear: Victory at all costs. It had been a while since we had been beaten in a series at home. In fact, Pakistan was the last team to have done so, in 1986-87. We wanted to maintain our impressive record at home.
Pakistan were set 420 to win with almost two days to spare. On a wicket that was steadily deteriorating, it seemed a tall ask, but their opening combination of Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi gave them a start. They went into lunch undefeated, and with over a hundred on the board.
Although the target was still a tall order, the onus was on us to break the partnership. I knew I had to raise my game. There was something that told us that it was a matter of taking one wicket. A new batsman would find it very difficult to get going on that strip, and we sensed that one scalp would put the cat among the pigeons.
Sachin (Tendulkar) did his bit to turn things around. He started handing my cap and sweater to the umpire at the start of an over, in an attempt to ‘bring me luck.’ He wasn’t doing that all the time, but it so happened that whenever he did that, a wicket fell!
The floodgates opened with Afridi’s dismissal. I wanted to keep him as quiet as possible. He got a nick, and Nayan Mongia did the rest behind the wickets. The breakthrough had been affected. Ijaz Ahmed, the new man, had this habit of plonking his front foot down the track. I decided to bowl one that was right up to him. The cherry hit him right in front, and the umpire raised his index finger. We were on a roll.
I was lucky with Inzamam-ul-Haq’s wicket. He had committed himself to the front foot, and played away, only to inside-edge the ball onto the stumps. Yousuf and Moin khan followed soon after. Anwar’s wicket was special, for he was batting well, with over fifty runs to his name. I tried to break his concentration by switching from over the wicket to around, and back. He was taken at short-leg. That made it six wickets out of six, and it was at this point that I started thinking in terms of bettering my previous best of 7-49. Mind you, I wasn’t thinking about taking all ten wickets! The Tea break came at the right time as I was tiring after having to bowl non-stop in that session.
Post tea, wicket number seven came, and it was followed by numbers eight and nine off consecutive balls. It was only then that the entire team got together to confront the possibility of a ‘Perfect Ten.’
I will never forget how my team-mates rallied around me. Javagal Srinath was bowling at the other end when the ninth wicket fell. He bowled wide of the stumps. Obviously, he wasn’t bowling to take a wicket! Waqar Younis, the last man, went for a heave in that over, and skied the ball in the long-leg region. I don’t think Sadagoppan Ramesh, or for that matter, any fielder in the history of the sport, would have been shouted at by his team-mates not to catch the ball, when they were fancying their chances of going for it! ‘Sri’ was among those who shouted the loudest!
It was flattering, and at the same time, embarrassing. It wouldn’t have been fair had a bowler of Sri’s calibre been forced to bowl another over like that. I made my way to the top of my bowling mark, Sachin providing me with his good-luck routine : I was on a hattrick at the start of that over, and very nearly got Wasim. We had surrounded him with close-in catchers, but mid-on and mid-off had been pushed back to allow a single. However, I realized a couple of balls into the over that Wasim wasn’t going to take a single, and so we brought them in.
The ball that finished the match pitched on the perfect length, took the edge of Wasim’s bat, and Laxman snapped it up at short-leg. What followed is a blur.
It dawned on me some time later that the ball was missing. I asked Laxman, and he said that he had hurled it in the air after taking the catch and not seen it thereafter. The mystery was solved by Venkatesh Prasad, who had pocketed the ball, and then maintained a stoic silence as I attempted to locate it. He waited for an hour before gifting it to me!
It was a great day, a memorable day.