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The Nagpur Nightmare Can Haunt India

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In the build-up to India’s most-crucial Group stage clash, captain MS Dhoni in his pre-match talk a day before stressed on the importance of a start from the trio at the top that could then allow the explosive middle-order to play its A-game. “If we have slightly longer partnerships at the top, the explosive power of our middle and lower-middle order can be used more in the positive way,” he said.

Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, and Virat Kohli form the technically-accomplished core of India’s top order and Sehwag as a devastating plunderer completes the picture. On Saturday, when India came out to bat in front of a full house the tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Sehwag hit a boundary off the first ball and was then beaten a couple of times in the opening over by Steyn. Morkel came from the other end as Tendulkar took guard to face his first ball of the match. Unlike Sehwag, the Master betrayed no nerves and played his first ball on the up, right under his eyes, with his front foot movement so precise that it looked calibrated to the last millimetre. He opened his account with a single of that first ball and Sehwag was back on strike. The third ball took the edge and went slightly to the right of van Wyk, who couldn’t move a muscle as the ball raced to the fence and Sehwag got a reprieve.

Morkel was bowling with good speed and extracting disconcerting bounce making it difficult for Sehwag but Steyn leaked runs from the other end. Lance Klusener had said the previous day that playing at home India would feel the heat but it was the South Africans who looked dazed at the start. A regulation catch was dropped in the second over and the third over went for 14 with an overthrow that cost five and a huge wide by Steyn another five. Morkel overstepped in his second over and was lucky India couldn’t cash in on the free hit. It was a frenetic start despite Morkel keeping things tight by giving just 9 of his first two overs.

The momentum shifted decisively in Morkel’s third and the innings’ sixth over when the floodgates opened with three hits to the fence. At the end of 5 overs India had 33 on the board and they leaped to 70 in just three more overs with the help of eight boundaries; Morkel conceding six of them in his two overs. At the end of 15 overs the scoreboard read 128 for no loss; Sehwag was 62 in 54 balls and Tendulkar was 57 in just 37 balls.

On the big stage of a pressure game Tendulkar was at his absolute best and it is difficult to describe how beautifully and brilliantly he batted from that first ball onwards. It was a knock that had the stamp of inevitability. He knew he was going to get the runs and if getting them had meant dodging bullets he would have done that and yet stood his ground. Even by the lofty standards of the Master this was a special knock in a crunch game where the nerves could have been frayed at the start. A commentator reflected on the first 25 overs or so saying that amidst all the commotion at the centre—where catches slipped, the South Africans conceded extra runs on more than one occasion due to overthrows, the world’s premier fast bowler lost it in the third over of the innings and conceded 14 runs, and Graeme Smith didn’t know where to hide—one man was calmness personified.

There has been a lot of useless talk before the World Cup about doing it for Tendulkar; useless because the World Cup is not about individuals. But if one were to just consider it for argument’s sake then here was a perfect stage set by the genius and it only needed some backing up. India’s veteran cricket writer R. Mohan in his beautiful piece said, “It takes far more than the world’s greatest batsman to swing an ODI even if he is Superman who once scored a double century to seal a game.” In the 90s Tendulkar did it alone on many occasions as he knew that his wicket meant the game was done for India. This is a different team though and he may well have been under added pressure to play the big shots in the powerplay with the knowledge that traditional accumulation would deny his team extra runs as the power-hitters were in the dressing room. He now knows better.

Dale Steyn, the man of the match in Nagpur, picked up 5 wickets but for his first seven overs he toiled hard and went for 46 runs without a wicket to show. His partner Morkel bowled six overs for 50 runs with the wickets column being empty. The threat was not just taken care of but had been dismissed out of sight.

What then happened to India? How come the explosive batting line-up Dhoni was referring to went off like a cheap cracker? It wasn’t a choke as umpteen newspapers proclaimed in bold and big headlines on the front as well as the sports pages. A choke happens in a situation where a team has victory in sight but to get there it has to absorb some pressure (little or big) and not let the situation, the opposition, or its own hesitancy/lack of belief get to it—when it gets to the team you can say they choked. At 267 for 1 in 39.3 overs with Steyn having just three overs left and India having nine wickets in hand even the remote possibility of pressure had been taken out of the equation. What unfolded was far worse than a choke as India imploded without any pressure at all. And unlike a choke, where a team loses wickets by being tentative, India blazed its way to hell. They fuelled and lit their own pyre.

The first problem was the batting order and it started with number three. Gambhir is a really good player and if an early wicket had fallen he was an ideal choice but he has not been in the best of form and a crunch game was not the time where he should have been sent up to find his feet, especially after a blazing start. Virat Kohli has been in terrific touch for more than a year now and he also did exceptionally-well in South Africa earlier this year and India needed a player high on confidence and scoring freely without risk to allow Tendulkar to breathe easy for a while. Kohli at number seven is a complete waste as he is not someone who bludgeons the ball but plays conventional and smart cricket.

The combined average for Kohli at number 3 and 4 is 52.90 while at number 6 and 7 it drops to 12.66. Dhoni picked on the top order needlessly as they have done reasonably-well in the tournament and his emphasis on the explosive game of the middle-order belies its fragility and builds a case for wanton hitting.

South Africa was under the pump at 144 for 1 after 18 overs and Smith would have given his life for a sedate partnership compared to the carnage that had taken place. The next 18 overs yielded just 93 runs and South Africa clawed their way back into the contest. Even Tendulkar lost the pace of his innings with Gambhir finding it difficult to break free.

The bigger mistake was to send Yusuf Pathan up the order and I am not saying this out of retrospective intelligence. The move was disastrous for two reasons and the first is that the team management should have considered how Pathan has done in different situations. In 9 innings before Nagpur where he has batted up the order (batting positions number 3, 4, and 5) Pathan averages 14.11 with three ducks and two single-digit scores and not a single half-century—that average has now fallen to 12.70. In 26 innings at number 6 and 7 Pathan has an average of 42 with two hundreds and three fifties.

It is no secret that Pathan struggles against fast bowling and since India had already taken a powerplay, South Africa was always going to use their strength and would not have foolishly obliged the Indians by bringing on a spinner against Pathan. The other reason why his promotion was a mistake has to do with the message that it sends to the dressing room. It means that we are going hell for leather even at the cost of digging our own grave. Was the middle-order under undue pressure to cash in big time after a great start to demonstrate that the captain’s belief in their explosive abilities was not unfounded?

This game has made it clear that the explosive middle-order can implode any moment and they should be chastised for their approach rather than given encouragement for their suicidal ways. India’s middle-order showed a complete lack of understanding of the game’s situation. Dhoni himself could do nothing to take charge of the situation and shepherd India at the finishing line. It wasn’t an epic fightback that brought South Africa back into the game and Steyn didn’t bowl a hostile and unplayable spell. It was a complete abrogation of responsibility by everyone bar the trio at the top that let South Africa in.

Tinkering with the batting order was not a good example of out of the box thinking. A good one would have been to take the batting powerplay right after 15 overs with the instruction of playing normal cricket to Sehwag and Tendulkar. That would have caught the South Africans by surprise and it would have forced Smith’s hand to either bring back his strike bowlers, who had gone for plenty, or operate with lesser bowlers to two set players in a powerplay. Either way India would have benefited and could have been above 170/180 in 20 overs without breaking a sweat. And South Africa would have been gutted with the game killed for them.

Instead this game has thrown India’s campaign in disarray and though this team has shown character and bounced back on several occasions the biggest disadvantage here is the lift that the South African team would have got from it. They were dead and buried after the England game and were down and out against India after just 25 overs before India handed over the impetus to them. Graeme Smith saying that it is a massive win for us is actually an understatement.

There are matches that have little bearing on a team’s campaign bar their result and there are those that have psychological implications that go well beyond the immediate and sow seeds of self-doubt in the camp. This match potentially has the power of going beyond the Saturday and India would do well to remember the lessons and forget the game. How they bounce back from here would be the thing to watch out for and it would be very interesting to see their approach if they meet South Africa again in the tournament.

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On Brilliant Hitting And Great Batting

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The effort of the IPL sponsors and the marketers of the game got a great advertisement in the match between the Mumbai Indians and the Rajasthan Royals. This was a shorter form of the delight that IPL is hoping to cash on. Mumbai won the toss and batted first and got to a healthy 212 courtesy a good start and some wonderful middle-order batting.

The Mumbai Indians dominated the match for the first 27 overs with the Royals tottering at 43 for 3 which soon became 66 for 4 in 9.2 overs when Paras Dogra joined Yusuf Pathan. At the end of 10 overs the Royals were 69 for 4 and needed 144 runs in 60 balls. Pathan was 15 in 13 balls with a six and Dogra was 2 in 2.
It was that situation for which captains would tell you to go and knock the daylights out of the bowling attack without losing your wicket. Pathan got the message and played himself in before the carnage began with three consecutive sixes off Murtaza.

Dogra brought Pathan back on strike with a single and then it was 6446Wd4; 26 off Sathish. Then it was McLaren and again Dogra pinched a single and Pathan went 44Wd4Wd11; 17 in the over. Three overs leaked 62 runs and the match was alive with 82 needed off 42 balls.

Then there was some sanity as Tendulkar brought his two main weapons for an over each in a game where he was missing the magic of Harbhajan; who suffered a blow to his inner thigh while batting. Malinga and Khan gave 7 and 5 runs respectively to restore order and then Murtaza went for 11 in the 16th over of the innings leaving the Royals with 59 to get in 24 balls. Tendulkar needed two overs before he could go back to Zaheer and Malinga and with Pathan on 83 in 33 balls and Dogra on a boundary-less but calm 16 in 18 balls he picked the hard-to-get-under Jayasuriya.

The first three balls seemed to justify the decision with just singles coming and then Pathan launched into Jayasuriya and hit him for two massive sixes either side of a four—100 in 37 balls and Royals needing 40 in 18 balls. Sathish with a reputation of being India’s best fielder did a remarkable job at the non-striker’s end when he fielded and flicked Dogra’s drive to catch Pathan short and the Royals needing 40 off 17 balls.

That was when Dogra took over and the next four balls went 6, 6, 4, 4 and then he took a single to keep strike. The way the match had gone 19 off 12 balls should have been an easy ask but that is the value that regular good bowlers bring to the table. Zaheer Khan went for seven despite a first ball wide and Malinga was just phenomenal. He bowled a brilliant yorker and then ran Dogra out diving full stretch while picking the ball at the striker’s end. Next man was bowled and the buffer was more than enough for the brilliant Malinga to see Mumbai through.

It was a great effort by Pathan coming in at a hopeless situation and hitting cleanly and brilliantly. On October 4, 1996 at the Gymkhana Club Ground in Nairobi, a boy looking more than his official age of 16 years and 217 days and going by the name of Shahid Afridi came out to bat for the first time in his 2nd ODI match and made a 37-ball hundred against a Sri Lankan attack that had Vaas, Murali, Dhramasena among others. Andrew Symonds has a hundred in 34 balls.

Saying it was the best hitting I have ever seen is one thing and saying that it was the best innings I have seen quite another. It surely would not make the cut if I had to pick the 50 or 100 best innings I’ve ever seen but it would be right up there if I had to pick clean and brilliant hitting on a batting beauty with most of the runs coming off part-timers. Would Shane Warne pick him in the Test squad on the basis of this innings? Would the Generation X captain MS Dhoni consider it?

I would pick the 60 odd that Laxman made on a vicious turner in Mumbai against Australia or the 55 that Tendulkar made in the same game. What about the way Damien Martyn played in the 2004 series in India? The hundred that Steve Waugh got at the Eden Gardens and the ones that Brian Lara got against the Aussies. Haven’t Shane Warne and Navjot Singh Sidhu played enough cricket and seen much more to put a magnificent T20 hundred on the same pedestal as the runs scored in the heat of Test cricket?

Brilliant hundred by Pathan; chanceless, clean and brutal along with some deft strokes in a tough situation but give me Dravid, Ponting, Tendulkar, Gambhir, Sehwag, Jesse Ryder, Hussey, Jayawardene, Sangakarra, Kallis, Duminy, Clarke against a good Test attack or a recording of the double hundred that Sir Gary Sobers got against the rest of the world any day.

This is not to take away from the super effort of Pathan but this wasn’t even remotely close to the dozens of 50s that I’ve seen in tougher situations leave apart the many hundreds and the double and triple ones.

Indians are considered to be good players of spin and Indian wickets traditionally are suited for spin bowling and if Shane Warne wants to understand what I mean then he has to see that he never got a five-wicket haul in an innings against India in India till 2004 in Chennai. He took 6 for 125 in 42.3 overs in India’s first innings of 376 and it was a tantalising contest where rain on the fifth day was the winner and the match a draw.

In the last match of the same series in Mumbai, Michael Clarke took 6 for 9 in 6.2 overs in India’s second innings and still ended up on the losing side. Warne could never manage to bowl Australia to victory against India. He chipped in but he was never the one man responsible and here also Michael Clarke beats him. In 2008 in Sydney when the shadows were lengthening and it seemed that India would hang on for a draw with just about 10 minutes of play left and three wickets in hand, Michael Clarke took three wickets in five balls with his left-arm spin.

Does it mean that Clarke is a great spinner or does it mean that he’s had a couple of lucky days? Can Clarke be compared to the Wizard of Oz? As a spinner, Clarke would probably not make it to a good club’s playing XI while Warne would be a serious contender to a four-man bowling attack picked out of over a hundred years of Test cricket.

The T20 lesson: Enjoy the fun but don’t lose your perspective mate.

Phenomenal Tendulkar Kills The Debate

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Sachin Tendulkar is his own competition and it seems like he is quite unmindful of the fact that his business is the intrinsically-competitive arena of international sports. He keeps pushing his limits to come up with goods that no one else seems to be trading in. Yesterday he scaled a peak higher than the Mount Everest. A peak that did not exist before he set out to conquer it in the afternoon of February 24, 2010; just two months shy of his 37th birthday on April 24—and 22 years after he had shared that record partnership of over 600 runs that brought two schoolboys to the forefront.

Would Neville Cardus have called this Little Master ‘A devastating rarity: A genius with an eye for business?’ I presume he would have said something even greater as Tendulkar apart from being the efficient and consistent run-maker is also a classically-beautiful player to watch. He is efficient like a well-oiled and calibrated machine; only that no machine can be so joyous or can spread so much joy as the Little Master. He dedicated his innings to you and me; to the fans saying that their support was crucial during days when there was no rain.

His adaptability puts him way above any batsman who has ever played the game. The only comparison that makes some sense is with the great Sir Donald Bradman, who played just one form of the game and more importantly played his cricket in just nine grounds against four oppositions. Tendulkar, as I had mentioned in an article before, played on 32 different surfaces before he first played a Test on a ground where he had played a game before. One would have to seriously devote an hour or two to count all the various grounds where he has played Test or One Day International innings.

On top of that he has also had to live the life of a man who can’t pass through anywhere in India without everything going berserk. Tendulkar can’t go and hang around in one of his businesses on the eve of a Test match. Hell, he can’t even drive a car in his home country or go for a casual walk in any part of India. I can say it with certainty that if he lands up in a quiet hamlet like Dalhousie, the residents of the hills having a devil-may-care attitude would all congregate in the small and tidy Mall of the remote hill station to mob this phenomenally-loved son of the Indian soil. And I mean the old grandmas as well.

He adapts to alien situations and surfaces as if they were his backyard and is completely at ease with two diametrically-different forms of the game: 47 hundreds in Test matches and 46 in limited overs. With the kind of form he was suffering from around the injury years during the middle part of the decade that has just gone, it is an astonishing achievement that his Test match hundreds have caught up and then gone ahead of his ODI tally—the ODI numbers were much higher a few years ago.

Yesterday he made an unbeaten double hundred in a 50-over match against a very good South African attack on a surface that was good for batting. He got the strike on the third ball of the first over that Dale Steyn bowled and he played the first four balls that were shaping away right from the middle of the bat for no runs. One run came from that ideal first over where Steyn could not hold on to a tough chance that Sehwag gave on the second ball of the over.

Tendulkar took the first four balls to play himself in and then he hit two gorgeous fours off Parnell in the second over and then another one to Steyn in the third over and the rollicking show started. The BBC said: Tendulkar, whose previous best one-day knock was the 186 not out that he scored against New Zealand in 1999, is already the leading run-scorer in Test and ODI cricket. But to have reached such a landmark, with a single in the final over, only serves to underline his class and add to the legacy that already surrounds arguably the finest batsman to have played the game.

Tendulkar raised his 100 in 90 balls with the help of 13 fours; all of them odd in the sense that each one of them stood out as a perfect stroke. In his last two Test matches Tendulkar got hundreds against South Africa but got out shortly after that but here there was no letting up. Immediately after getting to a hundred he pulled Kallis for a four and then smashed one straight over the bowler’s head that went like a projectile. Then he took care of Duminy by stepping out to get his first six and drilled a four again over the bowler’s head. Karthik played a wonderful hand and was gone in the 34th over having made a very fluent 79.

In walked Yusuf Pathan and he negotiated Parnell’s over safely but without adding to the scoreboard. India took the batting powerplay and South Africa brought back Steyn for the 35th over. Steyn bowled full and outside the off stump and Tendulkar had to stretch to reach. The second ball had been dispatched to the boundary and Tendulkar missed the third and the fourth but he changed his plan for the fifth ball and walked across to the offside to flick the full ball between square-leg and mid-wicket. This is the order in which the runs came in the five power-play overs: 9, 8, 17, 18, 11. In five overs 63 runs were made and Pathan went from zero to 29 and Tendulkar added 33 to go up to 157 and there was a wide.

Then there was a sensational partnership of 101 in 8.5 overs and the only one of the innings that Tendulkar did not dominate in terms of runs as Dhoni shredded the attack. He was cramping a bit but he summoned the energy to reach the summit.

A blog in BBC began by saying: “How does Sachin Tendulkar do it? How does a 36-year-old cricketer stay at the top of the game for 20 years? How does he retain this insatiable hunger for achievement after scoring more than 30,000 runs in the long (Test) and shorter (50 over) versions of the game?”

He just simply loves doing it; his passion and love for the game makes it possible. The genius is constantly learning and is always working on his game. In the last tour to Australia when he scored a hundred in the Sydney Test he was asked in the post-day interview about the jinx of 90s that had plagued him throughout the previous year. Tendulkar said ‘I was getting into bad habits and I needed to break them this year’. Simply brilliant.

Since that day Tendulkar has made 8 Test match hundreds and 5 One Day International hundreds. The ODI hundreds were all hailed as one of his best until he went on to upstage them; the 117 not out he made while chasing in the first Commonwealth Bank Series final in Sydney, the 163 retired hurt he made in Christchurch where he could have got a double but he took the decision to not take a chance with a niggle before the Test series. The 138 in a final against Sri Lanka in Colombo was another match-winning knock; and then that tremendous 175 that could not see his side home but was hailed as his best-ever hundred coming under the pressure of chasing 350. Now he’s got the first double hundred in an ODI; an unbeaten 200 against a good attack.

The last word must go to one fresh and insightful voice in the commentary box; that of former England captain Naseer Hussain: “I have never quite liked comparisons between great players, but after Wednesday’s game it must be said—Sachin Tendulkar is the greatest batsman of all time.

Better than Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting, the other two great players of my era. Better than Sir Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border. And I would even say better than Sir Don Bradman himself.”

Eden Gardens And Post-Tea Ghouls

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India was almost there to make it two days in a row for them to get on top of South Africa and turn the Test match at Eden Gardens decisively in their favour but for the last six overs in which three quick wickets fell and the match was alive again. It has been a riveting contest for two days and India fought their way back into the Test valiantly from a seemingly-improbable position yesterday.

It was the magical combination of Eden Gardens and the Indian bowling attack, which had looked so out of sorts in Nagpur and for the better part of two sessions on Sunday, that turned the game on its head. With South Africa at 218 for 1 and both Amla and the debutant Petersen having reached their individual hundreds Sunday gave no intimation of the kind of dramatic turnarounds that have become part of the folklore of this magnificent venue.

Zaheer took over from a confidence-boosting spell by Ishant and got rid of both the centurions either side of tea. After tea when Harbhajan Singh was brought from the other end there were two new batsmen yet to open their account at the crease and two potent attacking bowlers operating in tandem.

The tension was palpable. You could see the destiny of the day and perhaps the match and the series precariously balanced as Harbhajan tossed the ball, got drift and some bounce. AB de Villiers used his feet to quickly reach to the pitch of a ball to defend it and then both Kallis and de Villiers stepped out to hit Harbhajan over the in-field for boundaries. Someone in the commentary box spoke about Harbhajan bowling just one maiden in Nagpur and that the pressure would not build if he went for runs. The fours came in the 60th and the 62nd over and they were both clean good hits. With two new batsmen, yet to reach double figures, stepping out to hit him over the top, Harbhajan needed no further indication to plot yet another episode of his serial killings. He kept at it.

Kallis and de Villiers were trying to upset the rhythm of Harbhajan; but the Turbanator is a sly fox with a good understanding of when to go for the jugular and from the moment Laxman took a blinder to send Kallis packing he was unstoppable. Harbhajan with a wicket in his bag is an entirely different proposition and this one was long due and Laxman did his bit to pluck a beauty running backwards after having dropped a sitter at first slip earlier. That was the beginning of the end.

It was the first ball of the 66th over and then there was the Harbhajan Singh magic show. With the first and second ball of his next over from round the stumps Harbhajan had both the south paws, in Prince and Duminy, dead in front of the wicket playing for the turn when the ball went straight. The batsmen plonked their pad to take the ball outside the line and play for the turn but the ball drifted in and pitched in line and went straight to have them both bamboozled and looking like ducks. Steyn survived the hat-trick ball by doing nothing silly; it was another lovely topspinner and he was on the backfoot with the ball missing the edge and the off stump by inches. It was pandemonium and de Villiers could not take it so he ran himself out. Zaheer picked the ball near short cover and in one smooth motion turned and sent it ripping towards the non-striker’s end to find the diving de Villiers short. Steyn looking gunned at the other end.

Today was good for India as their batting had not clicked in Nagpur and Gambhir looked solid with Sehwag and 73 runs came in just 9.2 overs. Gambhir’s run-out was unfortunate and though Sehwag compensated by making a big hundred himself he still would be kicking himself for a priced scalp like Gambhir needlessly getting out cheaply. Nine more runs and as solid as he was looking Vijay was back in the hut with India 82 for two.

Tendulkar joined Sehwag and tapped the first ball he played, a 147 kph full delivery outside off from Morkel, to point for a single. That was the beginning of an assured partnership in which Tendulkar gave another display of his class and his mastery. He played the ball with that natural and intriguing intimacy that he has developed in the last few seasons; something that can be metaphorically-likened to a completely in-sync romantic couple at ease with each other. He was solid in defence and gave no bowler even a hint of a chance. It was just beautiful batting.

Sehwag contributed 119 to the partnership and Tendulkar 106 and the runs came at a fair clip of 4.31 runs per over. The partnership was worth 249 runs and if Sehwag gave a few chances along with his exquisite strokes there was always the solid presence of Tendulkar to guide the partnership.

Alas, the twist in the tail came towards the end of the day and took some sheen off a day full of wonderful batting. Sehwag was the first to go, with a half-hearted drive to Duminy, caught by Prince at cover; the camera for a split second showing the anguish that it caused Tendulkar. With the partnership broken Harris went round the wicket in the next over and Tendulkar made his first mistake of the day and was caught in the slips. Steyn then uprooted the off stump of Badrinath and the game was more evenly poised than it was just half an hour before stumps.

The lead is only 46 right now and India should keep it in mind that the drama surely happens post-tea and if they can bat with application for two sessions before tea then it would not matter if the post tea ghosts of Eden Gardens surface again tomorrow.

Back To Where It All Began

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The South African cricket team has always done well in India after their return to international cricket at a packed house in Eden Gardens, Calcutta on November 10, 1991. It was an ODI that India won while chasing 178 but the result of the game was insignificant compared to the significance of the occasion.

In subsequent years South Africa has given India the toughest challenge at home in Test cricket. After the last Test in Nagpur the South African team is up 5-4 in their overall record in India in 11 Test matches. In contrast, India’s record in South Africa becomes worth mentioning only because in their last tour India managed to win a Test; their first and only one at the New Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg. The overall record in 12 Test matches is a dismal one win against six losses.

In year 2000 South Africa registered their first series win in India by winning the Tests in Mumbai and Bangalore. India won the 2004 series 1-0 after the visitors managed to draw the first Test in Kanpur with Andrew Hall opening the innings and making a resolute 163. Harbhajan Singh bowled India to victory at the Eden Gardens taking seven wickets in the South African second innings.

The 2008 series was a three-Test series that started with a high-scoring draw in Chennai. South Africa batted first and made 540 and India replied with 627; on the back of Sehwag’s second triple hundred (319 runs in 304 balls; his was the second wicket to fall with India’s total at 481). South Africa took a 1-0 lead in Ahmedabad where India was dismissed for 76 in the first innings that lasted exactly 20 overs; Dale Steyn picked 5 and Ntini and Morkel 3 and 2 respectively.

South Africa made 494 with Kallis getting a hundred and de Villiers an unbeaten double hundred. India lost by an innings and 90 runs after getting 328 in the second innings. It was India’s worst home defeat in 50 years and if there was any positive to come out of it then it was an 87 by Sourav Ganguly, whose fate was hanging in balance after a duck in the first innings and not much in the three Tests prior to Ahmedabad. The innings ensured that Ganguly would live to fight another day.

It proved to be the vital difference for India as it was the defiance of Ganguly that went a long way in helping India level the series at Kanpur. The wicket was a rank turner and South Africa made 265 batting first. Ganguly made an attacking 87 in India’s first innings with one senior and neutral commentator calling it as the best innings he had seen on a turning wicket. Ganguly ensured that in his last Test against South Africa he played a stellar role just like he had in his return to the fold during his warm-up 83 in Potchefstroom; an innings that paved the way for his remarkable Johannesburg comeback.

The 2006-07 Indian tour to South Africa is a perfect example of how to throw the advantage without resistance. After Johannesburg came the debacle of Durban; where at one point India could have pushed for victory and at all points could have fought for a draw but South Africa prevailed despite almost a day being lost to bad light and rain. India was all out in 55.1 overs as the light was dropping sharply on the fifth and final day of the Test. Half-an-hour of defiance from the top order would have made it so much easier for those in the lower order who went down fighting.

If Perth has become the symbol of prevailing in adversity then Cape Town and Durban are inexplicable debacles showing lack of self belief and failure to build the advantage for a historic away win. Dinesh Karthik opened the innings in Cape Town with Wasim Jaffer and Sehwag batted lower down the order. The move was a great success as the pair added 153 before Karthik fell for 63. India made 414 with Sehwag getting 40 in 50 balls at number 7. What could have been a decisive lead was whittled out by Boucher and Pollock combining towards the end and SA finished with 373 on the board. Sehwag had repeatedly failed at the top of the order and did reasonably-well when used at number 7 in the first innings yet the ploy was not used the second time around. The second innings woes of Tendulkar didn’t help the Indian cause though he scored runs consistently in the first innings. More than the runs and the wickets what separated the two teams was hunger and doggedness and South Africa did better on both counts.

Having come out of a match where they were comprehensively beaten in all departments of the game India now go to the Eden Gardens with a series loss at home and the number one Test ranking at stake. They have everything to play for and they could do well to remember that this ground produced a cricketer who many a times produced a gem when the odds were stacked against him and the team’s fortune was hanging by the width of a thread.

In Focus: ‘‘The Mumbai Meat Market’’

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“Say that cricket has nothing to do with politics and you say that cricket has nothing to do with life,” wrote journalist and cricket commentator John Arlott. It is a statement that can be appreciated by anyone who is aware of—or has even remotely tried to understand—how the game is run in his part of the world.

Let me say at the onset that just like millions around the world I enjoy watching the mercurial talent of Pakistan cricket and I admire the quality of players they have produced over the years. Sport, though, is not played in a vacuum and cricket at the international level, especially, is a game that has always carried the undertones of the social fabric between the opponents.

Last year it was the Pakistan Cricket Board that did not allow their cricketers to play in the IPL as a measure taken after the November attacks in Mumbai. India’s tour to Pakistan was never a possibility after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the worst nightmare of cricket unravelled in broad daylight in Lahore on the 3rd of March; when the bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers was ambushed on its way to the Gaddafi Stadium.

This year, at the last moment, the players have not been picked. May be the owners were concerned about the availability but Rameez Raza had a point when he wrote that ‘the assurances of selection and the clearances given to them by the Pakistan government to participate in the tournament gave rise to false hopes among the fans and the media. The subsequent process of elimination was seen by the public as political and undignified.’

That is about all that Pakistan can be legitimately offended by because specific permissions should not have been sought if there was even a modicum of doubt in the minds of the franchise-owners. The franchise-owners could have easily done this a bit more graciously and taken the business decision early rather than at the last moment when, for instance, the name of a player like Shahid Afridi was announced and there were no takers; in a format where he is more than just handy.

This is what Harsha Bhogle had to say: “We live in times of violence and hatred; there are many people who seek peace but equally some who seek to deny us what we thought was given. Sport cannot exist in isolation, cannot fly free from this cage of reality. We would love the two to be separated but that has never happened. In times of peace, or relative peace, we could produce the path-breaking tours of 2004 and 2006. Now we are all pawns in the drama our subcontinent is enacting and the cricketers are merely more visible pawns. The conspiracy that Abdul Razzaq talks about is the reality of our times. The IPL will be poorer for the absence of some extraordinarily gifted cricketers, but this is just another victory for those that infect us with hatred. To believe there is a conspiracy against cricketers from Pakistan is wrong. It is the times we live in.”

“Make way for the Mumbai Meat Market” was a captivating headline when the players went under the hammer in the first edition of the IPL. Many cricketers expressed disbelief at the amount of money that changed hands on that eventful day where players were traded like commodity futures minus the presence of any visible rationale that governs the various commodities exchanges.

Things changed after that first year, on every front, and we were told that team owners had learned more about how to spend their money while buying ‘their livestock’. On the political front the dynamics changed so much that the second edition of the Indian Premier League was possible only outside India, and was hosted in South Africa. This was also about time when cricket fans and cricket writers were finding it difficult to digest the nauseating speed of the shorter version (A topic for another post, perhaps).

The Pakistan cricketers would tell you, in less than a minute, that they are heroes in India. That wherever they go, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam, Afridi, Rameez Raza, and Imran Khan and Javed Miandad—in their cricketing avatar—can be mobbed for autographs or they may find themselves in the company of youngsters seeking some advice on any eternal cricketing problem. And I’ve just taken those few big names for we associate more with legends but the fact is that the team is respected, loved, and surprisingly even cheered and supported. We know how Umar Gul ran riot against New Zealand and Gul’s 19th over against South Africa at the World T20 semi-final, when South Africa needed 29 runs from 12 balls with Duminy and Morkel at the crease, has gone down in cricketing legends. I got a message from a friend in Mumbai saying ‘That Gul over was the best bowling at death I have seen since Ambrose and Walsh used to operate.’ We know your cricket; the news of Umar Akmal batting on any turf becomes a buzzword in India. So the reasons, of course, have not been cricketing because we love your cricket. In a way, though, they can be called reasons that make ‘sense’ if not ‘cricketing sense’.

To suggest that there has been any conspiracy is like listening to the ridiculous Hamid Gul and the entertaining Zaid Hamid; both good at using the spinning jenny to churn out preposterous conspiracy theories out of a non-existent yarn. Someone from India needs to apologise for the ‘corporate inelegance’ in which the matter was handled and it should end there.

I’ll touch on the politics now despite the fact that I don’t relish it as much as Test cricket; but in extraordinary circumstances the King becomes a subject and has to be dealt like one. The effigies being burnt in Pakistan and the matter being taken up with the ICC is just plain overreaction and carries no meaning; what carries meaning is again what Rameez Raza said ‘that India should have been large’. Pakistan also needs to be large and look within as the Indian government has observed and this is one of those few things with which the nation may agree with the government.

At the centre of all this is Mumbai; and the still raw, complicated and bleeding ‘Mumbai Meat Market’. The effigy burning only reminds me of the column Thomas Friedman did for The New York Times after the Mumbai attacks. This is an edited extract from Friedman’s December 2, 2008 article: “On Feb. 6, 2006, three Pakistanis died in Peshawar and Lahore during violent street protests against Danish cartoons that had satirized the Prophet Muhammad. More such mass protests followed weeks later. When Pakistanis and other Muslims are willing to take to the streets, even suffer death, to protest an insulting cartoon published in Denmark, is it fair to ask: Who in the Muslim world, who in Pakistan, is ready to take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people, not cartoon characters, right next door in Mumbai?

After all, if 10 young Indians from a splinter wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party travelled by boat to Pakistan, shot up two hotels in Karachi and the central train station, killed at least 173 people, and then, for good measure, murdered the imam and his wife at a Saudi-financed mosque while they were cradling their 2-year-old son—purely because they were Sunni Muslims—where would we be today? The entire Muslim world would be aflame and in the streets.

We know from the Danish cartoons affair that Pakistanis and other Muslims know how to mobilize quickly to express their heartfelt feelings, not just as individuals, but as a powerful collective. That is what is needed here. Because, I repeat, this kind of murderous violence only stops when the village—all the good people in Pakistan, including the community elders and spiritual leaders who want a decent future for their country—declares, as a collective, that those who carry out such murders are shameful unbelievers who will not dance with virgins in heaven but burn in hell. And they do it with the same vehemence with which they denounce Danish cartoons.”

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