On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

South Africa And India In Wonderland: “Curiouser and Curiouser!”

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It says something about Australia—and a whole lot more about the other world teams—that with just two seasoned world-class batsmen, two proven performers with the ball and aided by an all-rounder with reasonable experience they comfortably won the Champions Trophy.

Out of the line-up that India faced when they last played Australia in March 2008—the two finals of the Commonwealth Bank Series that India won—only five familiar faces lifted the Champions Trophy. With this win, Australia is back to the top of the ICC ODI rankings; followed by India, South Africa and New Zealand. South Africa and India are very confounding cases; both of them were jostling for the number one position for quite some time before the Champions Trophy. The consistent cricket that they have played over a year reflects their rise in ODI rankings.

Their performances in big tournaments, on the contrary, can best be defined by the immortal words that Lewis Carroll gave Alice in his masterpiece Alice in Wonderland: “Curiouser and Curiouser!” These words came to Alice after she fell down a rabbit hole and was so bewildered by what she saw that she even forgot to speak proper English. It is since then used as literary shorthand to describe wonder and disbelief; and the kind of perplexity that India and South Africa display in major tournaments.

With the 2007 World Cup in sight, Aussie legend Greg Chappell was taken as India’s coach in May 2005 and fellow Australian Tom Moody took over Sri Lanka. In far away South Africa Mickey Arthur replaced Ray Jennings as the national coach. The first big World tournament for the new coaches and their teams was the 2006 Champions Trophy in India.

India was knocked out in the first round at home. South Africa reached the semi-final but got blown away by a Chris Gayle tropical storm that hit Sawai Mansingh Stadium, Jaipur. Gayle blasted 133 not out and the Windies chased 259 with 6 overs to spare. Australia routed the West Indies to claim the only silverware missing in their impressive collection.

In the last 6 world tournaments going back to the 2004 Champions Trophy in England; South Africa have not reached a single final and India have crashed before the first hurdle 5 times and they eventually won the solitary event where they went ahead; an uncanny position for consistently-winning teams.

India was out of the 2007 World Cup in the filtering process of the initial stage. They lost two of their 3 qualifying matches. South Africa got to the semi-final, and Smith said he’s never seen the squad so confident after winning the toss against Australia. That became a non-issue as the ‘Pigeon’ was on full flight that day in St. Lucia; nibbling the heart of South African batting and leaving them bleeding at 27 for 5 in 9.5 overs. McGrath got Kallis, Prince, and Boucher in his first spell. Australia trampled South Africa on their way to the final.

Greg Chappell resigned after the World Cup, having spent 18 months with the team and Moody moved on from Sri Lanka. Dhoni led a young Indian team that had an indifferent start to the inaugural World T20 championship in South Africa and faced two must-win games against England and the fancied South Africa.

Yuvraj came in to bat with India at 155 for 3 and 3.2 overs left against England; he was on strike when Stuart Broad came in to bowl the 19th over. It was a spectacle or a bloody carnage depending on how one saw it; 6 massive sixes in six balls got Yuvraj to 50 in 12 balls. He used the depth of the crease with great anticipation to get under the ball and time it beautifully, without ever committing early. With 218 runs on board, England fell short by 18.

The last match of the Group stage between South Africa and India was an organiser’s delight: all three teams—South Africa, New Zealand, and India—had a chance to go to the semi-finals with the probabilities in that order. After a bad start, a gritty performance by Rohit Sharma (50) and Dhoni (45) got India to 153. Two great moments in the field and three perfect deliveries reduced SA to 31 for 5 inside 6 overs. Boucher and Morkel took the score to 97 for 5 in 16 overs; 29 needed in 24 balls to qualify and 57 to win; South Africa finished on 116 for 9 in 20 overs.

In the semi-final Yuvraj came up the order and was brilliant again: 70 in 30 balls. India posted a healthy 188 and Australia fell short by 15. Dhoni and his young team lifted the championship in a fight-to-the-finish final with Pakistan.

The defending champions crashed out of the 2009 version at the first hurdle; losing all their three big games. South Africa was brilliant throughout and had accounted for everything, even for the inherent unpredictability of this format.

Pakistan reached the semis in tatters; their journey was nothing short of miraculous. It can be best described by the modifiers used in headlines after they lost to England. Sloppy Pakistan face litmus test—this classic was before the Netherlands game. Then rusty, lacking discipline and erratic; the analysis after the New Zealand match said Charismatic Pakistan.

The semi-final for which South Africa had accounted for everything, they could not account for one man; neither with the bat nor with the ball. Afridi came in at number 3 and made the fastest fifty of the match in 34 balls; very slow by his standards—since he has an ODI hundred in 37 balls against Sri Lanka. His bowling figures were 4-0-16-2; the only bowler to take two wickets and the most frugal. With 29 needed in two overs, Umar Gul bowled the 19th over, perhaps the best over at death that cricket has seen for a while. Just six singles and the buffer of 23 for the last over was more than enough.

When Pakistan met Sri Lanka in their Group match at Lord’s on the 12th of June, the green and blue intermingled; they stood alongside each other in their first meeting after that Lahore morning. And after the wheel turned a full circle to bring these two teams as final adversaries, it became an event that transcended sport. That this final was being played was in itself an immensity that made the game and its result completely inconsequential.

As for India and South Africa, the perplexity is at the opposite ends of the spectrum—India’s bane has mostly been the first hurdle, in fact the first match; and for South Africa it has usually been near the end. India needs to wake up and get their act together for the first match and South Africa needs to avoid sleeping near the end.

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