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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.


Dhoni Personifies 21st Century Leadership

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It was 97 for 3 after 15.1 overs when MS Dhoni joined Gautam Gambhir in the second ODI in Nagpur and from here he gently nudged India to a position from where he and Suresh Raina could then ferociously turn the course of the match.

The first ball that Dhoni faced was a bouncer from Hilfenhaus; he didn’t pick it and took evasive action without his eyes on the ball. It hit him on the back of the helmet, but he was alive to the possibility of a leg-bye; and at the non-striker’s end he could even afford a smile.

The rebuilding process began with the scrambling for ones and twos; haring between the wickets and picking the odd boundary in between. The period reminded me of a brilliant half-century that Dhoni got against Sri Lanka and saw India home without hitting a single boundary in Adelaide last year. The 119-run fourth wicket partnership at over six an over was broken with the strange run-out of Gambhir—the second time he’s lost his wicket recently while backing up.

Raina joined Dhoni with 16 overs remaining and India in a good position with 216 on the board. The next five overs yielded just 22 runs as Raina had time to get his eye in. India was 251 for 4 in 41 overs when the deft stealing had been done and the loot began. And what a loot it was.

In the next 8 overs India plundered 98 runs as Dhoni’s bottom-hand and Raina’s innovative hitting mercilessly butchered the Aussie attack. Dhoni may have curbed his style with additional responsibilities but he showed how much muscle he can pack into those typical MSD strokes if the situation demands. He jumped from 90 to 108 with three bottom-handed sixes in four balls. Flat sixes and fours that went like tracer bullets flowed from his bat before he fell in the last over having made 124 in 107 balls. There was ample support from the two southpaws and Gambhir’s 76 and Raina’s 62 later gave the captain the license to kill.

After losing his first ODI series as captain against Australia at home 4-2; Dhoni has won every bilateral ODI series home and away. The losses have been in tournaments with a format involving more than two teams; the Kitply and the Asia Cup and the two World tournaments this year.

The two finals that India won in the last edition of the Commonwealth Bank Series in Australia are the crowning glory of India’s ODI achievements. Teams with big names on paper have played in the tri-series before and Australia has mostly proved to be too hot to handle in the finals. Dhoni got Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla in the playing XI in the finals. Praveen opened the attack and took two vital wickets and Piyush was given the ball when Hayden and Symonds were hitting the seamers easily. They justified the captain’s faith amply and Australia managed a gettable 239 in 50 overs.

It needed a big performance on the big stage to go past Australia; and a magnificent 117 not out by Tendulkar and his vigilant and daring 123-run partnership with young Rohit Sharma, who made 66, ensured that India went to Brisbane with a lead. “He has scored 16,000 runs. I haven’t even played 16,000 balls.” That was the pithy comment from Dhoni when asked, halfway through the CB Series, if he was bothered by his senior-most batsman failing to make big runs. When his experience and ability to fashion a chase in a big match was needed Tendulkar played the perfect innings in a perfect chase.

The business was finished in Brisbane and Dhoni stepped back a little and asked for the youngest member in the team; and a grinning Chawla held the trophy aloft. That and the T-shirt he put on a young Indian fan after the World T20 win symbolises his leadership.

His giving Ganguly those few overs to lead the Test team for one last time before bowing out showed the magnanimity of his leadership—and coming ahead of all the big names in the Mohali Test showed he can take tough decisions easily if needed. He does not shy from trusting a youngster at the deep end of the sea. He respects the present and the past achievers but is pretty-much his own man. He has no need to foist himself on the team or to seek respect and that is one of the reasons why he earns it so well. Dhoni personifies the leadership required for a 21st Century India.

Tendulkar Revels In Defying Crystal Gazers

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The Divine Balance

A battle within a battle is the additional spice that gives flavour to any cricket series. The 7-match ODI series between India and Australia is the battlefield after India’s first round exit from the Champions Trophy. The tale of two champions, Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar, is an indirect scrap within the direct clash. Tendulkar has had an indifferent start to the series; failing in the first two games while Ponting, with a first match 74, has started well.

After India’s first round exit from the 2007 World Cup, former Australian captain Ian Chappell in his column for Mumbai-based tabloid Mid-Day wrote: “If he (Tendulkar) had found an honest mirror three years ago and asked the question; “Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the best batsman of all?” It would’ve answered; “Brian Charles Lara.”
If he asked that same mirror right now; “Mirror, mirror on the wall should I retire?” The answer would be; “Yes.”

Ian is an astute reader of the game and his brother Greg a batting legend; but like ordinary mortals they too can and have been proven wrong. The biggest mistake in the 2007 World Cup, in my view, was to push Tendulkar down the order. In 61 innings at number four Tendulkar has 4 hundreds and 15 fifties at 38.84 with a strike rate of 77.08. At the top of the order he has 40 hundreds and 70 fifties at an average of 48.08 with a strike rate of 87.56—the simplest reason for where he should bat is in front.

I’ll come to the Chappell brothers later and pick a few points in the contemporary debate. After 18 Tests, Ponting had 2 hundreds and 6 fifties at 37.25 while Tendulkar at the same juncture had 3 hundreds and 4 fifties at 38.68; not any significant disparity. The difference was in the circumstances and the manner: ‘God is in the details’, as architect Ludwig Mies said.

Tendulkar was a name doing the rounds even before his debut as the cricketing grapevine circulates in Test-playing nations. Cricket journalist Mark Ray wrote in The Sunday Age of how he lingered at the nets to see India’s ‘Boy Wonder’ bat early in the 1992 Australian tour.

The Wisden Almanack report after the Old Trafford Test in August 1990 said: “Of the six individual centuries scored in this fascinating contest, none was more outstanding than Tendulkar’s; which rescued India on the final afternoon. More significantly, after several of his colleagues had fallen to reckless strokes, Tendulkar held the England attack at bay with a display of immense maturity.” He was 17 years and 112 days old at that time.

The legend, though, was born in the fifth Test played at the Western Australia Cricket Association Ground, Perth from Feb 1-5, 1992. The conversation in the Australian dressing room among sweaty and burly hard men turned to a cherubic-faced young boy about three months shy of turning 19 and born and brought up on low and slow Indian wickets. The boy had defied a steaming four-pronged Australian pace attack for over four hours on the fastest and the bounciest pitch in the world with a mixture of grace and power that his opponents found hard to fathom in one so young.

Merv Hughes cracked open a beer and turned to his captain, Allan Border; the tough Aussie credited with rebuilding the side. “This little prick’s going to get more runs than you, AB.”* Tendulkar had announced himself with a 148 not out in Sydney—the debut match of Shane Warne—but it was not until the fifth Test at the WACA, where the ball whizzed around his ears and he scored 114 that he made a major impression. “The one in Perth, he made them in tough conditions and he looked as though he was at home,” Hughes said.

The next time Australia played in a Test match in Perth with four quicks and no specialist spinner was on January 16, 2008 in the third Test against India. The Test where India became the first team from the subcontinent to win at Perth. The boy was too young in 1992 and in 2008 doubts lingered that the man may be too old; it didn’t matter to the man and like the boy he also reached Perth having made runs in Sydney—this time a 154 not out. Tendulkar made an audacious 71 before falling to an unlucky lbw decision. He finished with 493 runs at 70.42; his best ever return from any series.

The little master’s peak years in the mid- and late-nineties, when he decimated bowling attacks all around the world have been well-documented and can be left for this specific argument. On the third of November 2002 Tendulkar had 31 hundreds and 34 fifties at an average of 58.46 in 103 Tests; he was 19 hundreds and 18 fifties clear of Ponting. It was a gap that could only have been bridged if Ponting had a few out of the world seasons and Tendulkar remained stationary. That is how it went, almost.

The incredible passage of play from the Brisbane Test in 2002 to the end of the 2nd Ashes Test in Adelaide 2006 established Ponting as a modern great; he played 48 Tests and scored 21 hundreds and 19 fifties at a phenomenal average of 73.86 in this period. Perhaps the best run for such a lengthy period in the modern era. Tendulkar, in this period, played 30 Test matches and made 4 hundreds at 43.23—an injury-marred passage in which he underwent two surgeries and made three international comebacks.

After Adelaide in 2006 Ponting has played 29 Tests and added 5 hundreds and 13 fifties at 42.97. Tendulkar after December 18, 2006 has played 26 Tests and scored 7 hundreds and 12 fifties at 52.23. In the last two seasons the little master’s graph is again climbing; in the Test matches he has played with a combination of compact technique and eclectic stroke-play.

In the limited overs Tendulkar returned to the opening slot after the 2007 World Cup. In the 46 games after that he has scored three hundreds and 14 fifties at 47.04 and a strike rate of 85.39. All three hundreds have been match-winning knocks and two of them have been in tournament finals; seven of his fifties have been scores of 90 plus. He has scored higher than his overall average since the World Cup match. There is no one in the same vicinity to even think of any comparison here.

Ian Chappell wrote in a 2005 Mid-Day column after the Ganguly-Greg Chappell controversy: “However, if you don’t want to hear the truth, then don’t ask him (Greg) for a frank opinion. Greg Chappell grew up in a household where frank opinions were served up at the breakfast table more often than cereal and fruit juice.”

Being upfront is a virtue that our cricket administration or our administration in general can benefit from and there should be no issue with the Chappell brothers on that count. An honest mirror at this stage, though, would tell Tendulkar that his wish is the only command. He has defied enough studio pundits for any mirror to be able to speculate on his future.

The Chappell brothers, though, can benefit from an honest mirror, as it may tell them frankly that prophecy is not their strong point and they should resist playing soothsayers.

*Sources — Chloe Saltau for The Age and for stats and Wisden Almanack opinions — Crininfo and Cricinfo archives

The Greg Chappell Years

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Sometime in the spring of 2005, two Australians were among the contenders for coaching jobs in the sub-continent; in India and Sri Lanka—Australian legend Greg Chappell and former Aussie all-rounder Tom Moody. India’s deciding committee was impressed by Chappell’s presentation and his ‘commitment to excellence’ mantra was given a green signal. A few days later Sri Lanka signed Tom Moody.

When the Aussie legend took over the Indian team in the summer of 2005, India’s own living legend was in London for a surgery on his left arm after tennis elbow had forced him to miss the middle part of 2004. Ganguly was under some pressure after a poor Test series at home against Pakistan while Dravid was in the form of his life and had played some memorable innings 2001 onwards.

The Indian team left for Zimbabwe for a two-Test series and a tri-nation ODI tournament with Chappell as the coach and Ganguly as the captain. The fire that began in India’s tour to this landlocked country in the southern part of Africa; and the incidents that further helped its spread across the Indian Ocean caused ripples that were felt by the two cricketing nations of Australia and India.

This period of turbulence led to Ganguly being removed as captain and later dropped from the side. It is not possible to give an accurate account of the dressing room incidents and is prudent to just keep it as a background without delving into various versions. The return of Ganguly as a Test batsman in the South African Test tour though is a story of amazing human possibilities; he certainly made a statement and the manner of his run-making in Tests said a lot about his stubborn character.

After slightly over six months on October 25, 2005, Tendulkar opened his account in the second legal delivery he faced against Sri Lanka in an ODI in Nagpur. It was a ball that was full and a trifle wide outside the off stump; Tendulkar reached for it and the coruscating drive burned the grass on its way to the cover boundary. He was batting on 11 off 11 balls when he first faced Fernando, bowling his 2nd over; he missed the first ball and played a front foot drive off the second for no run.

The third ball was a relief for millions; it was a pick-up shot that sailed over the midwicket fence for a six. Tendulkar’s riposte to speculation on his future was nothing less than stunning; he made 93 off 96 balls. This was a start to the season where India won 6-1 against Sri Lanka, 4-1 against Pakistan in Pakistan, a 2-2 draw against South Africa and a 5-1 win against England.

India left for the World Cup in decent current form but crashed out in the first round and with it also ended the association of Chappell with the team. There are no questions about Greg Chappell’s place among the game’s batting greats but his coaching career is not above reproach or rather not as glorious as his playing career.

Greg Chappell then said that India would struggle in Australia with just one tour game well before the 2007 Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. Then about 12 days or so before the tour, the Herald Sun ran a story headlined “India ‘old and selfish’, says former coach Greg Chappell”. The story said that Greg expected India to be well-beaten.

Written by Ron Reed, the story talked about an absorbing and candid documentary on Chappell’s incumbency called Guru Greg. It also dealt with Chappell’s views on India’s World Cup debacle. “We came here with a flawed group and got the results we deserved,” he said. “If there is not an intention of change, there’s no point in me—or any other coaches, for that matter—getting involved. It’s very difficult to keep putting wallpaper over the cracks. The cracks have got big and the structure needs to be dealt with.”

The story said that the views of Chappell before India’s arrival would dishearten fans. “Chappell’s honest opinion has poured cold water on the hopes of many cricket fans that the Indians would provide a more competitive series against the Australians in an already dull summer of cricket. It is a depressing thought for anyone hoping for a more competitive series than Sri Lanka has been able to provide so far,” the story added.

A Test tour to Australia is the biggest challenge in the international calendar; and a series win on Australian soil the most-prized possession for a team and its fans. Have a look at the calendar and see if our cricket board has in any way facilitated the players in giving them the best chance of succeeding in Australia. The ODI season was packed till November 18th and the Test season went on till December 12th 2007.

The Indian team arrived jet-lagged and the solitary tour game was washed out and they had to badly-lose the first Test to acclimatise; although it was a surface that according to Australia suited India the most. At least a fortnight of total rest and then a conditioning camp followed by at least two if not three tour games would have been some justice towards the team. It may have also revealed form and adjustment factor and Sehwag may have played right from the first match.

Despite all the impediments; the players gave the Aussies a series that was a bit more than just competitive. India lost in Melbourne and won in Perth; the den where Australia used a four-pronged pace attack. Adelaide was a draw. And Sydney was the whole point.

Sir Neville Cardus once said, “There ought to be some other means of reckoning quality in this best and loveliest of games; the scoreboard is an ass.” So it was a 2-1 result in favour of Australia and Ishant Sharma, according to bowling figures just took a solitary wicket in the Australian second innings in Perth. The story beyond the scoreboard is the fascinating beauty of the game. Tendulkar ended the Test series with his best return ever; two big hundreds and two sizzling scores of 63 and 71.

The young team that came for the ODIs defeated the number 1 side in the world in their backyard by winning the first two finals of the Commonwealth Bank Series; you were right Greg, but the young team won it on the back of an unbeaten hundred and a 91 by the ‘legendary old man’.

When Australia came to India, Guru Greg was with the Aussie contingent in Bangalore but was nowhere to be seen afterwards. Ganguly had announced that it would be his last series and got a hundred in Mohali and debutant Amit Mishra took five wickets. India won by 320 runs.

Tendulkar rounded off another good series with a hundred in Nagpur and the captaincy baton passed to Dhoni. India won the series 2-0 to claim the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The Sachin Tendulkar chapter is in its most-beautiful phase and Greg Chappell could do well to remember that, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

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.

The Pakistan Factor

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As a team and as an opponent no one comes anywhere close to being as unpredictable as Pakistan. They have done it so consistently that it is near impossible to position them anywhere in the spectrum; they can be hopeless when they are favourites and can emerge winners when no one is giving them even an outside chance.

They have done it again in the T20 World Cup. South Africa were the clear favourites and the team that had all bases covered; won all their previous matches and having pace, spin, a reliable batting line-up and the best fielding unit. History has shown that on some days no team can prepare for Pakistan because even Pakistan does not prepare for such days. Pakistan’s other big win, the World Cup in 1992 also came out of the blue.

In the 1992 World Cup, Pakistan had lost to West Indies, India, and South Africa and then gained some momentum towards the latter matches. New Zealand on the other hand had won each and every match before running into Pakistan, they were on top of the table and would have remained on top regardless of the outcome of their last game.

Pakistan needed the result in its favour to qualify as the fourth semi-finalist, and had the Kiwis lost the match they would have had to line up again against the only team that had beaten them before the semi-final in Auckland. The formidable and in-form New Zealand batting collapsed for the first time in Christchurch; Wasim Akram and Mushtaq Ahmed the wreckers-in-chief. Pakistan chased down the 167 needed with seven wickets to spare with Rameez Raja accounting for 119 of them. …

Written by Deepan Joshi

June 21, 2009 at 7:36 am

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