April 7, 2011

Beyond the Victory Lap!

Every generation has its "cockahoop" or "high-five" moment (or variants thereof). And as far as sport and cricket in India is concerned, Kapil's Devils' unexpected storming of the World Cup in 1983, which had hitherto been the undisputed and unclaimed fortress of the men from the Caribean, is what my mother's generation, and to a lesser extent my father's, will remember as the event that changed cricket and the perception of it in the India. Sachin Tendulkar was a ten-year old boy then; I was twenty-one months from being born; my home was only one of four houses in all of what is today called Madipakkam; my grandfather's house had an Uptron black-and-white television; Marina beach was still clean; my father was in Calcutta; and one-day cricket was, besides the once-in-four-years Prudential-hosted tournament, considered by many as a passing fad.

Fast forward a better part of twenty-eight years and our own generation's cricket moment has come with an entourage of moments that will remain indelible forever: if skipper Dhoni's bottom hand "deposition" over mid-wicket reminded us of the maverick who had specialised in finishing games with sixes before becoming captain, Tendulkar's being paraded on Yusuf Pathan's shoulders is something no Indian fan, let alone a Mumbaikar, will ever forget. Gautam Gambhir's dive during his over-my-dead-body innings of 97, which is as uncharacteristic as a Sehwag forward-defensive, that signified the importance and desperation fuelling India's most important one-day chase in years, Man of the Series Yuvraj Singh's deserving presence in the middle when the winning runs were "thrashed", the scenes at the Wankhede stadium and Ravi Shastri's ear-shattering screams, without which no Indian victory, however small, seems complete these days, will remain with us till sunset. Some may say that for a country with one billion people and A Sachin Tendulkar and one which is as mad about cricket as Europe is about soccer, if not more, twenty-eight years is a long wait. But now that the wait is over, it is time to sit and revel in a fine team effort.

A lot has been written about the role of Captain Cool and Coach Low-Profile in newspapers and websites in India's winning the World Cup. Almost every player, present or former, who has spoken about the victory has hailed Kirsten's role behind the scenes and Dhoni's role on it. The captain-coach duo deserves every bit of the laudation they have received. However, I have always been of the belief that a captain and coach is only as good as the team; to put it differently, a team may be skippered by a genius and coached by an astute person but it is the results on the field that will be feted or stigmatised and in that sense the Indian team as a whole stepped upto the plate.

Nowhere was the Indian resurgence more evident than in the form and intent of Yuvraj Singh who some said looked like he was pregnant during last year's IPL and who, to make matters worse, lost his place in the one-day clothes six months before the World Cup. To hit one of your lowest nadirs before a tournament of great importance and to emerge as the Man of the Series in the tournament, with four Man of the Match awards to boot, is the stuff of legend. Not for nothing therefore did coach Kirsten call Yuvraj's turnaround as one of the most amazing comebacks he's witnessed in the world of sport. And as one part of the world continued to bother and the rest wonder about when he would retire, Tendulkar reserved his two centuries for two of the better teams in the tournament in England and South Africa, besides setting up a sterling run chase versus Australia in the Quarter Finals and running up a fortune-assisted eighty-odd in the semi-final clash against Pakistan that took India into their second world cup finals in the last three attempts. Sehwag had earlier set the tone for the tourney in initimitable style with the blitzkireg 175 versus Bangladesh in what was labelled a revenge encounter for the 2007 sting and though he did not do much afterwards apart from presenting the world some astonishing cameos, Suresh Raina more than made up down the order when he got the chance towards the end of the tournament. Kohli too began the tournament with a hundred against Bangladesh and although he did not quite reach those heights again he reminded us throughout the tournament that he's a young man who will decorate the Indian middle order for some years to come. The signs for Indian cricket, at least in the shorter formats, remains bright. 

In the bowling department, it was interesting to hear bowling coach Eric Simmon's refer to Munaf Patel as an "unsung hero". Often has the medim pacer's temperament been questioned in the past, including by this author, but Patel came up with a steady performance that should not be glossed over in the final analysis. Ashish Nehra, though plagued by injuries, delivered his bit to the team whenever he played while Ravichandran Ashwin showed why he is Dhoni's talisman by bowling both economically and successfully whenever his captain asked him to open the bowling. All said, Harbhajan Singh was a disappointment for me although he looked to be coming into his own during the knock-out stages of the tournament. People have said a lot about Sreesanth - some unfortunately going to the extent of getting personal in ways that do not go well as far as I am concerned - and the Kerala pacer would know that he did not do much in the couple of games he got. I personally believe that Sreesanth is more of a test-type bowler, especially suited for conditions where the ball swings a touch. The game-breaker, though, for me  (except during the finals where Jayawardena's enviable artistry and Perera's calculated rush undid his unbelievable first spell which comprised five overs which seemed McGrathian and three maidens for a farthing!) was Zaheer Khan. If the ball that bowled Michael Hussey in the Quarter Finals was one of the balls of the tournament, the Yorker to dismiss Strauss on 158 arguably tops the list. Although a lot more expensive than the tournament's other leading wicket-taker, Shahid Afridi, Khan struck almost always when Dhoni brought him back before the ball change.

I did not see enough of the matches to assess the ground fielding but everyone seems to be of the consensus, especially now that the Indians have won the cup, that after sleepwalking through the league games, the boys really turned the screws in the knockout stage. Far too often in the past, the Indians have peaked too early going into tournaments and run out off steam at the half-way stage. But during this World Cup, it seemed like everything including their worst suit, the ground fielding, was 'destined' to peak at the right time. It was heartening to see Yuvraj Singh remind the younger turks Raina and Kohli as to how good he can be on the field and why he had made backward point his own position for many years. The inspiring yards, however, came from the older legs like Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan who also threw themselves with childlike joy and commitment to stop whatever runs they could, something that might have been invaluable during the final three games of the tournament.

Just before the start of 2010 the Indians received the number 1 test ranking and it seemed like they had hoodwinked the Proteas with the unsought help of nonsensical ranking technicalia in getting there. But there can be no such grudges with regard to the Indians winning the World Cup. As a skipper, Dhoni, as Venk aptly said, seems to have the Midas' touch: aside from having the T20 World Cup trophy and World Cup trophy in his cabinet, he has led the number 1 ranked team in the world well for over a year. No wonder, he now says he would love to repeat what he has accomplished. I generally refuse to get drawn into the debate of "best versus others" but I acknowledge the fact that Dhoni is amongst the best skippers we have had. His record vouches for that and as with most things in life Dhoni's ways are grounded in two simple traits (though to have them in the heat of battle makes him commendable): calm decision-making and backing his instincts even if he knows that the world (which the Indian media and spectators sometime appear like) will go hell for leather if he fails.

However - and I admit this also has to do with my being a nostalgia freak - some past greats cannot be forgotten during this glorious hour even though they were not part of this outfit. A decade ago when the match-fixing allegations rocked the cricket world and the Indian team needed an inspirational leader, it was Sourav Ganguly's mercurial personality and captaincy that gave the Indians a new attitude. While standing at Indian cricket's greatest summit, though some may dislike the superlative, we cannot forget Dada's contribution. Another great who never came close to winning a World Cup, and in my opinion the greatest cricketer India has produced, but whose commitment to the team cause, prodigious ability to bear pain and sincerity amid trials is second to none deserves a mention too: this World Cup is as much a gift to Anil Radhakrishna Kumble as it is to Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. They shelved Rahul Dravid from the one-day plans long ago and despite emotional biases I must say he may not have contributed much to this team: but as a man who kept wickets under Ganguly's captaincy for close to four years, all for the sake of team balance, exemplifying the ultimate spirit of being a team man and who for all the slings he has received averages close to forty in one-day cricket, I missed Rahul. Laxman's case is worse; in a fast man's game, Laxman's swiftness, or lack thereof, has meant that the Hyderabadi's incredible on-drives and silken cover-drives have not been seen in the one-day game for a long time. This World Cup is an ode, though, for the Bangalore-Hyderabad duo too as well as others who have given their best for Indian cricket in whichever form.

And why not?! When I, an Indian fan who has not held a bat for six years now, get a beer at 3 a.m. and celebrate the Indian victory with my German roommate whose only route to understanding cricket is through its likeness to baseball, feeling as if I have won something, every Indian who has done the hard yards on the field only to never end up where Dhoni and his men deservedly can deserve to feel proud about what they did wearing the Indian blues at some point in time in their lives.

And now that the cup is won, my favourite part of the cricket calendar awaits: no, NOT the IPL, but beyond: tours to the West Indies, England and Australia! I don't think India has toured any two of those countries during the same year in the twenty-six years I have been alive. It will be fun, and the Indians will be touted to win the tests and one-day series in these countries. Unless they play very poorly, they will probably meet those expectations. After all, they are now the WORLD CHAMPS!                  



The Venk said...

WI series will be a walk over! ENG would be tough and AUS would be also tough but i am 90 % sure we are winning down under :-D

Anonymous said...

Venks: when was the last time we, or anyone in our generation, said England would be tough but Australia can be beaten in their den? :D The world is coming to the cleaners! ;)

BUT... England's victory in the Ashes shouldn't distract us. England prepared religiously and had, almost through the series, the proverbial horses for courses. We may not be as good as England in the bowling dept downunder!

The Venk said...

Actually I think out bowlers would fare well! The England conditions are well suited for our dipply dopply pacers :-P. And our bowling enough to get those mokka Aus batsmen out :-P