Sometimes, just sometimes, a weakness can come out to be a strength. And that’s when victories are made.
The critical moment of the India-Australia game for me was in the 37th over. The run-rate required was now 6.00, tough on a pitch like this. Dhoni had once again gotten out cheaply and that too at a time when a captain’s knock was sorely needed. Raina, who had been warming the benches for most of the tournament and who had a bad match against the West Indies saunters into bat, with not really any kind of confidence or rhythm. The pitch had slowed down even further, India was slowly choking, the pressure of the occasion seemed to be sitting on their shoulders like a thousand Dolly Bindras and David Hussey, who had been bowling a while before, was proving to be quite a proposition, was running through his overs real fast . Now with Raina in and with his well-known weakness against fast bowling directed at his rib cage, Ponting decides to bring Tait back in, despite the option of Hussey who had been using the conditions better than any of the other bowlers.
The extra pace of Tait and Lee, with their pace actually bringing the ball onto the bat more comfortably on the slow pitch than Hussey would have, do the trick. For India. Tait bowls a bouncer. Raina gets away with an ungainly pull and Yuvraj, and we will come to him later, after playing a few dot balls crashes Tait for a four. When Lee comes into bowl next over to Raina, it is obvious the bouncer will be tried. It is. But the slowness of the pitch makes it something even he can handle, coming on comfortably and he crashes it for a four. Yuvraj then creams two top-shots. A reverse-swinging yorker is tapped to third man. And then an old-time 2007 vintage strike to point. Ponting gambles on Tait once again despite the decreasing buffer of runs. All he needs is Raina and the tail starts. But potty-mouthed “yellow yellow dirty fellow” Tait, trying too hard, sprays it around like a man with dysentery. Another bouncer to Raina, as predictable now as a SRK movie, sits up nicely and is pulled for a two. The match swings definitively over to India. And Raina, the bouncer bunny, has played no small role in it.
But wait. I am getting ahead of myself. When I woke up at 5 am in the morning, it was cold. And I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. No not because we were playing Australia which I felt we had to, if we wanted to become champions if only to put to rest the ghosts of 2003. It was because the pitch was the slow dusty type where the ball becomes progressively more difficult to hit as the game goes on, the kind of track I had seen so many times before in the subcontinent. It works perfectly when we win the toss. Which we did not. And to make things worse, Gavaskar and Shastri were commenting.
Nothing seemed to be going right in those early hours. True the Australians did not get off to a flier but the pitch was not that kind of a pitch and neither is Haddin a certain Mr. Gilchrist. As puffs of dust came off the pitch, my assessment was that 225-250 would be reachable. Anything above would be tough. To increase the sense of unease, Munaf was not only bowling badly but also made an useless “dekho na bhaiyya yeh kutte mujhe chhed rahe hai” type referral (which actually led to Bhajji not getting Ponting out later).
Ponting. Yes. He may have had a very disappointing series but today the man was “in the zone’ . Now I don’t know what it is about Ponting—maybe it was that incident in Kolkata in 1998 (thanks Samit for reminding us of it) where he was physically removed from a disco for “fishing outside the off-stump” and then dancing “akele akele”, an incident which he possibly took as personally as Gandhiji being thrown off a train. Whatever it be, this man just loves to give it to India.
No this was not 2003, the pitch was not as featherbed as in Jo’burg and Ponting today is not the Ponting of old in terms of eyesight and hand-eye coordination. Yet he dug in, working the singles and in generally grinding the Indians down in a tremendous display of dogged determination. And just to show that the serpent still carried the poison sac, he scored a century, took off his helmet and spat on the pitch.
Two things were special about India today. First the fielding with Raina being the most brilliant of them all. And second Dhoni, whose captaincy was atrocious in the South Africa match, was today perfect with his fielding positions and bowling changes. He kept on attacking throughout, with forward short legs and slips, knowing the importance of getting wickets on the track . But still with Australians playing the powerplay perfectly (Indians please note) and with David Hussey’s cameo, bringing back nightmares of Damien Martyn in that game we all want to forget, the total of 260 looked ominous.
As Sachin and Sehwag walked in, I did not know what to pray for—should Sachin score his 100th century or should he just makes a contribution? I did not want a one-handed Sachin show simply because India needed to play as a team, with contributions all around, if we were to show ourselves as contenders.
And they do exactly that. Sachin makes a fifty. Gambhir plays well before he gets in touch with the KKR part of him and runs himself out, yelling “behenc***” as he departs. Old-timers like me are rolling our eyes with a “Oh here we go again” before Ponting tries to bounce Raina out, Yuvraj gets stuck in to the bowling, Ponting starts shouting at the Indians for playing unfair on a overthrow till finally the twosome bring the team home.
Which brings us to the man. The Prince of Paunch. There are very few players I like to watch more than the Prince of Paunch, that high backlift and the punch through the line being to die for. Yet since 2001 in these ten years at the top, he has been one of Indian cricket enigmas—while people would say he is a superstar (he certainly has made a lot of money) one cannot but say that his entire career has been, by and large, a disappointment, given his potential. His Test career passed him by in 2007 despite the team’s best efforts to fit him in. And over the past year, he has, most of the times, looked barely match-fit. With his increasing waistline and double-chin and dodgy knee, he had started increasingly resembling a potential participant of a reality show rather than a sportsman. Things had gotten such that there was before the tournament a body of opinion that endorsed him being benched in order to play both Raina and Yusuf. It was only his recently much-improved bowling abilities and India’s woeful bowling resources which kept him in the team.
Throughout the tournament, he has bowled well. But his batting has never really looked fluent, never like Yuvraj at his best. True he was winning Man of The Matches but they were unconvincing innings, of a man playing more from memory than from anything else. But today, today Yuvraj rolled back the clock to some of his finest moments (the T20 World Cup). It’s not that he just batted well (which he did ) but he did that thing he has often not done all that well—-he took responsibility. With everything to play for and not much left in the Indian batting ranks, he stepped up to the plate and became what he always had the potential to become but never quite became—-the team’s backbone. And when finally the match was won, one could not help but applaud the strength of character he showed, especially creditable after the kind of year he just had had.
I would be remiss if I did not say anything about Ricky Ponting. As he stood defeated, with an expression of great sadness, I wanted to salute him for his contribution to the game, his greatness as a batsman and his indomitable fighting spirit.
No. Not really. I just wanted to shove the bird in his face and say (like I wanted to tell Miandad in Bangalore, 96):
On your bike,mate. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Yeah I know it’s unsporting. But as Ponting would say “Bite me”.
So the game with Pakistan looms. I will use a Shastrism cause I cannot think of anything better. This is as big as it gets. Pakistan has had a great tournament with Afridi leading from the front, crotch thrust forward. Their bowling is amazingly varied and in a similar situation as the Aussies, they would definitely have used the conditions much better. They bat deep and are right now, in their current form, strong contenders for the “Cricket cup, world cup”. [Video]
But India is getting there. They have had a mediocre tournament so far but today many of the vital pieces fell into place. “Raina vs Yusuf” was conclusively decided. The fielding was much improved. Chawla will sit on the bench where he looks very pretty. If there are concerns, its the batting form of Dhoni and even more importantly who should be India’s second seam bowler.
Even then after a month of pottering and Chawla-ing around, India finally look ready.
History awaits. And we, the fans, are holding our breath.
[Image courtesy: Rediff]