Sachin Tendulkar’s Test debut: A moment India did not get to see

Kaustubh Mayekar | Abhishek Mukherjee
Sachin Tendulkar © Getty Images

November 15, 1989. Sachin Tendulkar set foot on a Test ground for the first time. Unfortunately, pre-satellite television India never got to see the moment, for Doordarshan was busy covering ongoing elections. Abhishek Mukherjee relives the agony millions of Indians bore in their hearts as India embraced the new decade amidst political turmoil.

It is easy for me to claim that I had followed Sachin Tendulkar since his earliest days. I can easily reread the official autobiography or watch the biopic, and feign.

But I did not, and I do not blame myself for that. It was impossible for a Calcutta schoolboy to follow the career of another schoolboy (in Bombay, too) in the 1980s. I had the intentions, but not the resources.

In those days, even international cricket used to be restricted to grainy telecasts on Doordarshan, often punctuated by UGC programmes and feeds from random tours by the Prime Minister. There was another hurdle to contend with if weather deteriorated.

There was radio, of course, but unless you were geeky enough to catch the shortwave, you would have to restrict yourself to only the international match India were playing at that point. If All India Radio was kind, they allowed you some domestic matches — of course, if they did not coincide with international matches.

That left us with print. To be fair, newspapers dedicated substantial chunks (even outside the last page) to cricket. Your state team got some coverage. However, as the matches went less and less relevant to your location, the pieces got smaller and smaller.

In fact, I had overlooked a small piece on Sachin’s amazing feats (the scanned copy of its photograph was doing rounds on social media some time ago). It was probably of the same size as that of a matrimonial ad.

Our perpetually hungry, cricket-deprived generation had to rely on the affordable yet delectable trinity of Sportstar, Sportsworld, and Sportsweek. Features, numbers, photographs — you had everything.

There were some grainy photographs of Tendulkar on the newspapers once he was picked, but the text focussed more on his age. The first image of Tendulkar, I vividly remember, had appeared on Sportstar just before the Indians left for the 1989-90 Pakistan tour.

Tendulkar was seated on a red sofa-set with Salil Ankola and Vivek Razdan, the other two Indian uncapped cricketers on that tour. He looked a couple of years younger than the sixteen-year-old they claimed him to be. The head was tilted slightly to his right; there was a forced smile on the face; and he was looking at a point around the photographer’s shoes.

It was certainly not the best possible first impression one could have had.

The Doordarshan snub

The 9th Lok Sabha Elections were contested that year. It was a historic moment, for Indian National Congress was famously ousted from the ‘throne’ following a collective effort from several regional parties. Support came from BJP and CPIM as well. VP Singh, leader of Janata Dal, became India’s seventh Prime Minister.

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India would run through a succession of Prime Ministers. India would witness six of them between November 1989 and March 1998 — and that included a five-year tenure for PV Narasimha Rao. No, there has been nothing of the sort in the country before or after the era. India was stepping into a unique phase in her brief period as a Republic.

Unfortunately, elections often come with collateral damages. The one in 1989 hit Indian cricket-lovers in a way that could never be undone.

You see, the elections were contested on November 22 and 26. As a result Doordarshan decided to give the first two Tests of the series (starting November 15 and 23) a skip.

This baffled millions across the nation. Yes, elections were important, but why this sudden anti-cricket mission? Granted, there was only one channel, but surely the first Test (or at least parts of it) could be telecast live? Surely they could not skip an India-Pakistan contest for the sake of pre-election programmes (that were often punctuated with Hindi movies)? Surely not?

This was not the first time that cricket-lovers in India were thus bullied. As mentioned above, telecast was brutally interrupted to show a politician inaugurating an event or delivering a speech. But there was more.

When Viv Richards’ West Indies (no less!) toured India in 1987-88, Doordarshan had officially decided to not telecast the Tests live. The focus was on limited-overs cricket, so why bother? Thankfully, good sense prevailed; and if we go by rumours, the decision to telecast the Tests was finalised the evening before the first Test at Kotla; and India witnessed an epic contest on television.

Sanjay Manjrekar would have wanted things to happen the other way round: the debutant’s face was smashed by Winston Benjamin during the Test. Unfortunately for Manjrekar, India saw that wretched moment live, but did not get to see the first two Tests of the most outstanding series of his: at Pakistan in 1989-90, Manjrekar would score 569 runs at 95.

Morning, November 16

It is difficult to imagine how things used to be like in 1989. Today’s fans have the option of live streaming of varying degrees of legality. In the 1980s, cricket fans were left at the mercy of Doordarshan. And barring the hardcore followers of cricket in Bombay, a similar fate befell upon everyone.

For some reason, there was no radio coverage either. This meant that we had to wait till the evening news to follow the score. This was not an ordinary contest, remember? An India-Pakistan Test, no less…

I devoured whatever little information newspapers provided (why did they always seem so inadequate?). There was news waiting for me — us — perhaps the most significant one when it came to Indian cricket in the 1990s.

The Test was significant for Indian cricket in more ways than one. After much deliberation, the selectors had decided to axe Mohammad Azharuddin in favour of Raman Lamba. I was caught in two minds about this, since like most children of the 1980s, I had found my heroes in both men: debonair, dashing, stylish to the core, supremely talented with bat, and electric on the field.

Lamba was supposed to play. That was what he knew. That was what we knew, for that was what the newspapers had claimed on the morning of November 15, and there had been no update since then.

On the morning after, we got to know that Lamba had pulled out with a toe injury and Azhar had played after all (how are you supposed to feel if two of your heroes fight for a spot?). Later in the Test, Azhar scored a quick 35 in each innings. These were not earth-shattering scores. However, when combined with a world record-equalling 5 catches in the first innings, they were enough to seal a spot for him in the Test side.

Four Tests later he would lead India, and lead them through the 1990s. Indian cricket would change in all possible ways after that.

There was the scorecard, one row for a batsman, but bowling figures written in a paragraph. I did not need to double-check that Javed Miandad and Imran Khan were unbeaten at stumps on Day One (I did, in the end).

The “yet to bat” information was not provided. Had we had access to that, the name of another debutant — a legend, no less — would have appeared that day. India would hear of Waqar Younis next day.

Later

Tendulkar eventually emerged on Day Two. He was probably slated to bat at No. 5. However, that young fast bowler called Wasim Akram took out two quick wickets while his debutant partner Waqar got another at the other end.

Manoj Prabhakar emerged at 13 for 3. Tendulkar’s entry was delayed till 41 for 4. The boy hit two fours in his 15 before Waqar bowled him. Video highlights of the cameo are available on YouTube now. There was an on-drive that hiccoughed its way along the rugged turf. There was a deft steer past backward point. And then he was bowled through the gate.

But what is the point? It is not live; it is not 1989; I was supposed to watch this live in 1989 and lie to the current generation about how those two shots were enough to identify the genius in Tendulkar…

As for the match, it took some rearguard action to help India avoid the follow-on, with Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev, and Kiran More contributing in contrasting styles.

India, asked to bat four sessions or chase 453, chose the former and finished on a healthy 303 for 3. They batted well, but to be fair, Waqar had to leave with a strained back after bowling 2 overs, thus reducing Pakistan’s pace attack to Wasim and past-his-prime Imran.

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Oh, and this time Shastri was promoted to 5. Tendulkar batted only once on debut.

And what were we doing when India were battling hard to save the Karachi Test? Why, waiting for next morning’s newspaper, of course!

Pakistan were in the hunt at Faisalabad as well, having reduced India to 290 for 6 after taking a 135-run lead, but India saved the Test again. This time they batted for five sessions.

And what were we doing? Do I even need to mention?

Normalcy restored only in the third Test at Lahore — unfortunately, the drabbest of draws on the flattest of pitches. In the fourth, at Sialkot, Tendulkar was felled by a rampant Waqar. It was followed by, as we all know, a stern but almost inaudible main khelega.

We all know the rest. And the 24 years that followed.

But whatever happened after that, despite numerous YouTube reruns of a 100-Test-spanning career, it will remain a fact that India never got to see the moment Sachin Tendulkar was awarded the Test cap or the first ball he faced at the highest level.

Brief scores:

Pakistan 409 (Shoaib Mohammad 67, Javed Miandad 78, Imran Khan 109*; Kapil Dev 4 for 69, Manoj Prabhakar 5 for 104) and 305 for 5 decl. (Shoaib Mohammad 95, Saleem Malik 102*; Kapil Dev 3 for 82) drew with India 262 (Kapil Dev 55, Kiran More 58*; Wasim Akram 4 for 83, Waqar Younis 4 for 80) and 303 for 3 (Navjot Sidhu 85, Sanjay Manjrekar 113*).

Man of the Match: Kapil Dev.