HISTORY IS written by the victors, it is said, but in sport, the autobiographies of the van- quished get read too.
Sachin Tendulkar's methodical disman- tling of Shane Warne during the 1998 sea- son is no folklore. It is a well-documented story that has insight, and also intrigue. At a time when Warne's laudatory obituaries have needlessly side-stepped his underper- formance on those India tours or airbrushed the reasons for it, the iconic contest needs what movie-makers say a Rashomon treat- ment-different interpretations of the same event by the individuals involved.
When excerpts from the biographies of Tendulkar and Warne mutate, an unheard version of one of Indian cricket's favourite cricketing tales is born. Disclaimer: Warne, by his own admission, ended second-best to Tendulkar, who was in the form of his life. But like always, the greatest leg-spinner with the biggest heart never gave up.
India loves to talk about Tendulkar's preparation for that Test series, him facing Laxman Sivaramakrishnan on scuffed-up pitches, those against-the-turn sixes in Chennai, and the Sharjah Desert Storm a month later. But there's no mention of Warne's dodgy shoulder and a depleted Aussie bowling attack.
Dig more and one unearths a lesser- known eyewitness account of an insider to give a final twist to the face-off that Tendulkar has called the "most intense of his career". Saving the curator's googly to the world's most famous leggie for the last, first a primer.
On that 1998 tour to India, hyped as the ti- tle fight with Tendulkar, Warne didn't get what he wanted. Not even a simple toasted cheese sandwich.
Early on that trip, the team hotel's eager to-please room service staff stuffed the breads with ham, tomato and onions, even when the Aussie star's order clearly men- tioned 'just cheese'. After Warne sent it back, it would arrive minus the tomatoes. Rejected again, the waiter still couldn't get it right. There was cheese, but ham too. "I tell you what, mate, I'll have a plate of French fries," Warne would write in his autobiography No Spin.
On the central square, on match days, Warne would even be denied fries. Tendulkar, to the delight of a delirious na- tion, hogged the happy meal.
It was an era when cricket, officially a team sport, got into the habit of moonlight- ing as an individual gladiatorial contest too. Tendulkar, Warne, Brian Lara and Muttiah Muralitharan had it in them to reduce the 20 others on the field to props. They had charisma and the gravitas to make their own sub-plot more relevant than the main story- line. Those were times when Indian fans would be going home singing, dancing and celebrating a Tendulkar hundred, even if India had lost the game.
Any combination of these four superstars pitted against each other would guarantee packed stands and TRPs, but still Warne vs Tendulkar remained the big-ticket event. They represented two spell, shatter the dream. This was an unfa- miliar script, the spin magician, for once, was a blonde white boy.
It proved to be a battle for the ages. Till date, sports channels keep playing reruns. First in Tests and later that Desert Storm ODIs in Sharjah - games tattooed on the nation's collective retina forever - Tendulkar demys- tified Warne. That March-April of 1998, those dreaded school exam months nationally, the Tendulkar legend grew. Grapevine has it that across the country, there was a collective dip of marks that year.
It was the series that made Tendulkar the Greatest, and also the Richest. In 1999, Don Bradman would invite both Warne and Tendulkar to his Adelaide home and declare to the world that the Indian star reminded him of his playing days. It was as if a whip had been issued, every living Aussie turned into a bona fide Tendulkar fan overnight. On conquering Warne, Tendulkar attained saint- hood. Mascarenhas kept adding zeroes, the Tendulkar deal was now worth Rs 100 crore. Indian cricket had changed forever, all be- cause of Tendulkar, and also Warne.