Clayton Murzello: A turmoil-free Nidahas tri-series

Mar 08, 2018, 08:16 IST | Clayton Murzello

Recalling the 1998 event in Sri Lanka which had no team-media tensions which are so common on present-day cricket tours

Sourav Ganguly cuts a cake to celebrate his 26th birthday in Colombo on July 8, 1998
Sourav Ganguly cuts a cake to celebrate his 26th birthday in Colombo on July 8, 1998

Clayton MurzelloWhen India figured in Sri Lanka's first Nidahas tri-series in 1998, current stand-in captain Rohit Sharma was only 11, head coach Ravi Shastri was only in his fourth year as an international commentator and young Turk Washington Sundar wasn't even born. Sri Lanka, the World Cup winners, were still proving to be unconquerable a good two years after their famous 1996 triumph. And your columnist was on his first international tour.

At the time, the sports pages were dominated by the football World Cup in France and the Akai Nidahas (meaning independence) Trophy attracted only a small media contingent.

The teams (Sri Lanka, India and New Zealand) and journalists stayed at the Taj Samudra. The players are easier to approach while on tour, I was told by seasoned journalists, and they were right. In those days, there were neither media managers, nor formal press conferences before and after a match, except for the final. And only on some occasions did you need to check with the coach — Anshuman Gaekwad — before interviewing a player. The quasi press conferences did not have arguments and tensions like journalists experienced on their recent tour of South Africa.

Back to 1998. The tournament was marred by rain. In fact, the Galle leg of the tournament was completely washed out. India started the tournament in sterling fashion, with an eight-wicket win; their first ODI victory over Arjuna Ranatunga's men on Sri Lankan soil in nearly four years.

India's next game was against New Zealand. They did well to restrict their Kiwi opponents to 219-8 at Premadasa and were cruising at 131 for two when the heavens opened. This led to an abandonment, with both teams earning a point each. However, had the rain come four balls later, India would have lost through the absurd rain rule. There was no press briefing to find out what India skipper Mohammed Azharuddin felt about this what-could-have-been scenario. So, deep into the night, I mustered up the courage to knock at Azhar's door.

He had just got out of the shower and listened to me patiently. Not wanting to be controversial, he shrugged off the unfair rain rule at first, before getting more expressive. “The rule has to be simplified,” were his parting words. With India still unbeaten in the tournament, we moved to Galle, where three games were washed out. The Sri Lankan board wanted the tourists to make up for their rain-ruined Galle games in Colombo, but the Indians didn't want to play on their scheduled off days. The host board was not pleased and the Indians were accused in the media of not adhering to the spirit of the game. India and Sri Lanka finally managed to lock horns 11 days after their first clash in the tournament. This game was at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) and was restricted to 36 overs per side.

Chasing a gettable 172 for victory, India lost Nayan Mongia, Azhar and Ajay Jadeja in the space of two runs and were rescued by a 63-run stand between Robin Singh and Ajit Agarkar. Sanath Jayasuriya, who didn't exactly hit the high notes with the bat, struck with the ball – to claim the last four Indian wickets for only 18 runs. India's eight-run loss was heartbreaking and, at the High Commissioner's party that evening, the sombre look on some of the Indian players' faces said it all.

One's heart went out to Robin. He was on the field for more than 100 minutes for his half century, got utterly dehydrated, vomited and had no option but to take a risk and go for a big shot.

The following day, I interviewed Robin while he was in the hotel's swimming pool. At the same time the previous evening, he was fighting body cramps for 45 minutes in the SSC dressing room.

Our pre-final 'conference' was held at the poolside. Azhar and Gaekwad had to answer questions from only four touring reporters. Sachin Tendulkar (128) and Ganguly (109) reserve their best for last – a then record 252-run opening stand at the Premadasa. Agarkar gets Jayasuriya again, but Aravinda de Silva carves a brilliant hundred and Lanka get close to pulling off yet another final victory, only to be thwarted by Kumble's brilliant last spell.

The team's midnight return to the hotel coincided with Ganguly's 26th birthday. A cake-cutting function was held in the lobby, before the Indian team celebrated their six-run win after a mentally-draining final in a small hall. The media were invited for the bash and I managed to interview man of the match Tendulkar in one corner of the party room.

We then learnt that some players were uncomfortable with our presence, so we were glad to leave. I had to interview coach Gaekwad and he promised me he'd give me time after the party. He knew I would be working at the business centre of the hotel. True to his word, he was there within an hour, ready to be interviewed. Those were the days.

mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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