March 1987 threw up a day that I still remember with intense clarity. It was the finals of the Matunga Gujarati Seva Mandal (popularly coined MGSM Shield) at the Dadar Parsee Zorastrian pitch at Major Ramesh Dadkar Maidan. I was captaining my school, IES English versus our staunch rivals, ShardashramVidyamandir (English). Both these teams invariably met either in the quarters, semis and finals of various school tournaments and had a reputation for producing close, nail-biting results.
It had been a year since the IES team had won the Giles Shield (only the second time in the school’s history since the late 70s under Sanjay Manjrekar). That team comprised Mumbai under-15 regulars — captain Kedar Godbole, Manish Karande a fine off-spinner and myself among others. We had beaten the likes of Anjuman Islam, St Mary’s, Balmohan, Shardashram Vidyamandir (Marathi and English) on our way to the title with Kedar getting more than 600 runs and myself averaging in the respectable 40’s.
However, the quarter-final versus Shardashram English at the RBI pitch at Azad Maidan was the closest we came to losing. On a bad, rain-affected pitch, a 13-year-old Sachin scored a mature 48 before finally getting out to a mistimed sweep against our star left-arm spinner, Rahul Hirlekar. His wicket dramatically turned the tide in our favour. In the end, we won a great, close match.
Even amidst our jubilant celebrations, I remember the curly-haired Sachin looking absolutely inconsolable in the tent. In the year that followed, Sachin had started to threaten opposition teams with his performances and we were aware of this fact as we approached this final of MGSM Shield in March 1987. The Shardashram English team, captained by Abhijit Tatkar, a left-arm fast bowler, had a formidable line-up comprising the likes of Vinod Kambli and Mayur Kadrekar.
Kedar was not playing due to a serious injury and I was given the honour of leading the team in his absence. Most of my team members — Manish, Rahul, Aniket Karnik, Amit Gadkari and myself were in good form and thus, the team was oozing with confidence. The track was a beauty for batting and it was decided that I would opt to bat if we won the toss.
Call it a quirk of fate, but there was a last-minute change in our decision after I won the toss and we elected to field instead. As I was conveying my decision to my counterpart Abhijit Tatkar, an obviously excited Sachin rushed forward. “Amhi pahele batting karnar? (We are going to bat first?)” he enquired. I will never ever forget that brightened (and serious) look in his eyes — simply because I experienced a transient feeling that I had made a huge mistake by putting them in. That feeling dissipated as we put Shardashram on the back foot in the first hour of the match. Both Vinod and Mayur were out. They were three wickets down for next to nothing and our bowlers had their tails up. In came Sachin to bat and we said to each other — ‘last hurdle.’
The next two hours can be described in two words — shock and awe. Shock at the way he had improved as a batsman within the past one year and also because of the way he terrorised my fielders and bowlers and destroyed their mindsets. The awe was at the composure, quality and ruthlessness of this stroke play.
I had been playing with and against him since around 1983, and here he was, four years later, playing at a level vastly difficult to comprehend in the world of upper end school and college cricket, which had a number of excellent players at the time. Playing on the ground that we were, it was taken for granted that fielders would have to cover a certain distance to get the ball back after boundaries hit by good batsmen, but Sachin’s boundary hits went far too many yards beyond.
Our two best bowlers, key players in Mumbai junior cricket themselves — got hit for three to four boundaries per over, all of them to the farthest ends of the maidan — Matunga Gymkhana pavilion on one side and Dadar Union on the other! It was a scintillating display of brute strength coupled with exquisite timing — the same kind of timing that only a Gavaskar or a Vengsarkar seemed to possess, when we used to watch them practice in the nets before a Test match. Even at the age of 14, the innate sense of timing, the perfect body balance and his repertoire of every shot in the book and more was clearly and starkly visible.
During those two hours when he scored a double hundred, I also got a glimpse of another habit that was to soon become his trademark. Sachin was on 96 and he went for a six. To add to my misery as a captain, I dropped the catch on the square leg boundary and as the ball rolled past the boundary line, Sachin completed his century. The next 100 runs came twice as fast as the first and remained a blur in my already numbed mind.
We fought gamely thereafter. To complete my misery, I was run out after a defiant 52. In the end we were clearly beaten by only one player. Even then, he was a captain’s paralysing nightmare, out to single-handedly dominate good, strong opponents. Today, I look back to that day comforted by the fact that I was amongst the first but certainly not the last of the captains (some of them were the best captains and cricketing brains from around the world) who felt the same sense of despair for close to 25 years since March 1987.
At the end of the day, Manish cried in the dressing room — that was a traumatic day of mauling for him, I made an observation. If I understood anything about world cricket, this guy was already there and was it possible that he would play for India soon? If he didn’t, then I didn’t understand the game at all. I was relieved that my understanding of a world-beating cricketer was not wrong when he was selected for India a mere two years after our match.
I was in my first year of medical school when Sachin made his Test debut. My college mates used to wonder where I got this confidence in predicting that Sachin will not only handle the Pakistani bowlers but will even dominate them – a certain Abdul Qadir will remember his day of misery after those towering sixes over his head. And I am sure Manish must have had a quiet smile finally. As a proud cricketer myself, I did not reveal to them that fateful day of March 1987.
Today, as a pancreas cancer surgeon, specialised in some of the most demanding and complex surgeries by any standards, I am increasingly aware that one is only as good as one’s last operation, and there is a heightened sense of appreciation towards the importance of playing a flawless innings every time I walk into the operating theatre. To see this gem of a player perform with sustained high levels of excellence over a career spanning 25 years has been a joy and privilege unparalleled. For him, that day in March 1987 was just another statistic, one among the many he was going to accumulate in the years to come. But for me, it remains an unforgettable memory. Sachin, thank you for the memories!
* Dr Shailesh V Shrikhande is Professor and Chief of Gastrointestinal and Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary Cancer Surgery at Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai. He represented Mumbai under-15 and under-17 cricket teams from 1983 to 1986.