Kochi hosted its first ever One-Day International (ODI) on April 1, 1998. This was a big occasion for the administrators of Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) as well the cricket lovers of the state who had longed for international matches to be held regularly at one venue in their state.
In the 1980s, two ODIs were held at the G V Raja Stadium in Thiruvananthapuram but it soon emerged that the ground did not possess the required size or other facilities for conducting such encounters. An attempt to have a match with a touring West Indies side at Kozhikode in 1994 turned out to be a fiasco. Finally it was after the construction of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium at Kochi that a match with a touring side (South Africa) could be held in the state in a befitting manner meeting all the requirements, both on the field and off it.
The cricket loving fraternity of Kerala was in a state of heightened excitement when Australian side led by Steve Waugh took on India under Mohammed Azharuddin. It was a high-scoring match with nearly 5,80 runs being scored on a pitch that earned praise from both captains. Almost 70,000 persons had crammed themselves into the stadium, which was bursting at the seams. But the spectators were extremely orderly and well behaved and enjoyed the game despite their obvious discomfort, which was made worse by the summer heat and high humidity. But at the end of the day's play, they went home happy on account of India winning the match and for watching a day of high quality cricket.
The highlight of this match was undoubtedly the bowling of Sachin Tendulkar. Renowned as the best batsman in contemporary cricket and one who could be compared with the best of all times, Tendulkar was expected to light up the venue with his patented strokes. But he had a forgettable outing with the bat scoring only eight runs, falling to paceman Michael Kasparowicz.
When Australia started their chase of 310 in a whirlwind manner, with openers Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh putting on 100 runs in the first 10 overs, Indian hearts skipped a beat. Though the frenetic pace of run scoring slowed down after the dismissal of this pair, the visitors were kept in the race by Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan who brought up the 200 in 30 overs. At this juncture Tendulkar was handed over the ball by Azharuddin.
Tendulkar had earned a name as a useful bowler who could bowl according to the demands of the situation. He could bowl orthodox leg spin and possessed a nasty googly which could come a long way back into the right-handed batsman. But more importantly, he could be very effective on pitches which were getting slower as he could ensure that ball did not come on to the bat thus making the batsman lunge or heave at it, forcing them to commit mistakes. He had demonstrated this skill during the semifinal of the Hero Cup at Kolkata in 1993 when he bowled the last over against South Africa who needed only six runs to win the match but fell short by two runs.
Tendulkar straightaway landed the ball on the good length spot and started getting good turn. He held one back tricking Steve Waugh to hit back a tame return catch. Couple of overs later, he had Darenn Lehmann caught plumb in front and soon afterwards had Bevan beaten in the flight to be stumped by Nayan Mongia. By this time Australia had been pushed back to the ropes and there was little hope for any recovery. But Tendulkar was not finished with as he scalped Damien Martyn and Tom Moody to complete a superb spell with figures of 5/32 from his allotted 10 overs.
As the third umpire for the match, I was watching the game in the company of Peter van Der Merwe, the former South African player who was the ICC match referee. I was astounded by the control that Tendulkar had on the ball, pitching exactly where he wished it to, and getting the precise amount of turn that he wanted to impart. Peter was equally surprised and said at the fall of Moody’s wicket, “He is bowling better than Warne today!”. After this performance there was no doubt who would be the man of the match, as even Ajay Jadeja’s century paled into insignificance in comparison. The crowd went wild when Tendulkar held aloft the award and acknowledged their cheers.
Happy hunting ground as a bowler
The Maestro played three more times at Kochi and incidentally returned one more five-wicket haul, against Pakistan in 2005. He bowled the full quota of 10 overs against South Africa in 2000 and it was only in his last appearance in this venue, in 2007 against Australia, that he did not have much work to do as a bowler. His figures of 5/32 against Australia remained the best bowling performance by Tendulkar in international cricket. By some strange quirk of fate, he could not score even a half-century in any of the matches he played here. Thus, Kochi would hold the unique record of being the only venue in the world where Tendulkar’s exploits with the ball far outweighed those with the bat.
Tendulkar’s special relationship with Kochi stadium was strengthened when he decided to sponsor the Kerala Blasters Football Club, the city based Indian Super League (ISL) franchisee, in 2014. Initially he owned 40 per cent of the shares, which was diluted to 20 per cent couple of years ago.
Tendulkar has now decided to severe his connections with the club by selling his shares to actor Chiranjeevi and movie producer Allu Aravind as per reports. The presence of Tendulkar never failed to bring a huge roar of approval from the large crowds that filled the stadium to watch ISL matches at Kochi. It must also be said that his attendance was a huge motivation for the side as well. His involvement with the team and league was complete to the extent that when the KCA wanted to host an ODI at this venue this November, it was Tendulkar’s statement to the effect that ISL matches should not be interrupted that forced it to make a retreat and decide to conduct the match in Thiruvananthapuram.
What would Tendulkar’s exit mean for the ISL and Kerala Blasters? During the four years since its commencement, the ISL has established itself as the premier football tournament in the country. The matches attract huge crowds, especially at Kochi, and the presence of foreign players has added to the quality of football on display as well. Blasters finished as runners-up in 2014 and 2016 and has generally been considered as among the top five sides of the league comprising 10 teams from last season onwards.
Though Tendulkar’s decision would reduce the celebrity quotient in the stadium, the supporters of the side would continue to flock to see the matches irrespective of who owns the franchisee. Thus, Tendulkar parting way with the league and the franchisee would not materially affect their fortunes.
Tendulkar’s move to sell off his stakes, like his decision to buy the shares of the franchisee in the first place, is primarily a business move. Decisions are taken in the world of money and commerce based on facts and analysis of risk, without any element of emotion. Thus, the bonding that Tendulkar must have felt with this stadium and the turf here would have been swept aside by the fusillade of facts and figures supporting the recommendation that he offload his shares. The only casualty in the process is the average cricket fan of Kochi who was getting used to seeing the “God of Cricket” grace the city and share their excitement by his presence during ISL season every year.
There is one more significant development to be mentioned as Tendulkar closes his two decade relationship with Kochi stadium that began in 1998. Cricket has developed strong and deep roots in Kerala during this period with many players from the state taking part in Indian Premier League and the representative sides faring better in the national championship. However, Kochi, which had emerged as the cricketing headquarters of the state since 1998, is all set to yield that place to Thiruvananthapuram, largely on account of the decision to conduct the next international match allotted to KCA there. By virtue of his intervention in favour of football, Tendulkar appears to have written the epitaph on international cricket at Kochi stadium at least for the near future.
However, the decision to divest his shares in Blasters will not completely cut off Tendulkar from Kochi. He continues to be the brand ambassador for IDBI Federal Insurance who are the chief sponsor of the 'Spice Coast marathon', one of the best organised events of its kind in the country. It gave the runners a great thrill when Tendulkar flagged them off at sharp 4 am as they set out on the long distance run. It remains to be seen whether football’s loss would be marathon’s gain in terms of more runners joining the fray from this year onwards but Kochi would be wishing that the marathon goes from strength to strength and continues to retain the affection of Tendulkar so as to preserve the city’s special connect with the “God of Cricket”.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)