Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Congratulations India

What a performance! What a game!! A world cup final- an India v Pakistan final, last over, India 1 wicket away from victory, Pakistan one blow away from victory. Could even the greatest script writer have conjured up not just those countless twists and turns, but that incredible finish? As likely as not!

Leave aside the outcome for now, and cast your memory back to a strikingly similar finish 21 years ago. It's friday and it's Sharjah. Pakistan need 3 runs to win the finals, India need 1 wicket. The bowler: Chetan Sharma from Haryana. Sharma comes running in and at the last moment (by his own confession) changes his mind and decides to bowl a yorker. The ball turns out a full-toss. Come back to the present: 4 balls left, 6 runs to win, Pakistan one blow away from victory, India one wicket. The bowler: another Sharma from Haryana- this time Joginder Sharma. Misbah ul Haq comes down the wicket to hit the ball straight (as Shoaib Malik later admitted) and changes his shot at the last moment.

The results are identical, but equally contrasting.

But that was not the only crucial moment that India grabbed, even if it be the one that will be remembered for an age to come. There were countless moments in the World Cup that India grabbed: moments when the game could have shifted the other way.

Go back another 10 days, and we have a similar scenario: Pakistan need 1 run off the final ball to win the game against India. The batsman? Who else, but Misbah Ul Haq, who had brought Pakistan back from the dead! Haq gets run out and its a tie! India grab the bowl out and in the process, become the first ever team to win a cricket match 3-0!

Zoom another week ahead: India v South Africa, with the hosts looking assured of a place in the finals. India needing to win it outright to qualify for the finals. South African captain Smith flashes hard and Dinesh Kartik at second slip (yes indeed: second slip in a T20 game!) pulls off a blinder. Within an hour, India are into the semi finals; South Africa are out of the world cup yet again.

The next day, India v Australia- the Semi Finals, no less. Australia are cruising along at 156-3 after 16.3 overs. 21 balls, 33 runs required; easy target for Australia. Suddenly, B-A-N-G go Symond's stumps. 3 overs 30 runs to go: Harbhajan Singh produces an incredible over. Barely 15 minutes later, India have knocked Australia out of the world cup; its an India-Pakistan final!!

So what was it that this Indian team did better than most predecessors? Perhaps the simplest answer is: grab the decisive moments. It would be fair to say that Dhoni was remarkably pro-active- something few Indians captains have ever been. How many times have we seen Indian captains allow games to drift, waiting for something to happen?

Granted that Dhoni had his share of luck and that all his moves came off spectacularly and that it may not always work the way it did in these two weeks, granted that he may not always win all the crucial tosses as he did here, but it was something more than just luck. Go back to the league game against Pakistan, when the outcome was to be decided by a bowl out and remember who Dhoni picked to bowl? Harbhajan Singh, Robin Uttappa and Virendra Sehwag (no longer remember who the other bowlers were). Whom did Pakistan pick on the other hand? Mohammed Asif, Umar Gul and Shahid Afridi (once again not sure who the others were).

And so Dhoni gave it to two part-timers, while Shoaib Malik didn't. But the logic was simple: slower bowlers were more likely to hit the target than quicker bowlers, for whom the ball not only swung, but who would be bowling off a shorter run-up which was bound to disturb their rhythm: simple logic... or was it? One week later, against South Africa, R.P. Singh snaps up Gibbs and what does Dhoni do? Bring in a second slip! Could you imagine a second slip in a T20 game? Two balls later, Smith edges the ball and Kartik at second slip pulls off a stunner. Come back again to the finals: 5 overs gone, restrictions off but Dhoni decides to retain an extra player in the ring to stop the easy singles. India slow down Pakistan and in the end, the match is won by a measly 5 runs.

And so 3 different games and three different moves by Dhoni, all three of them highly unconventional. How many Indian captains can you remember, who dared to be unconventional? How many Indian captains would have told his players "just enjoy yourself, don't worry about the result"? No one who watched the T20 World Cup could deny that the cricket India played was high-octane, thrilling, tantalising... you could go on looking for adjectives. It was simple, uninhibited cricket by a young team, led by a captain who understood that the best way of playing is to enjoy what you're doing, that cricket after all's said and done, is only a game. And let's not forget that Dhoni is also that player, whose under construction house in Ranchi was demolished by angry fans barely 6 months ago.

And yet, 6 months later, India's first round exit at the World Cup is long forgotten. 11 young men, who between them averaged under 24 years of age brought home the World Cup! The contrast between that team of 6 months ago and this team are easily discernable. Whereas that was a team of careworn veterans who looked inhibited by expectations, aspirations and their own reputations, this was a team of youngsters who grew up post-liberalisation, a young team that worried little about expectations or reputations and importantly, believed that nothing was beyond them.

This was a reflection of new India, of 2000s India.

And yes, to conclude, let me point out one astonishing coincidence. The last time India won a World Cup, back in 1983 (when most members in the current team weren't even born) Australia's first game was against Zimbabwe, which produced a shock upset.


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