Sunday, 20 March 2011

An unprecedented success

As I write, the league stage of the 2011 World Cup is over and the top eight teams have qualified for the quarter finals. Out of the eight, 7 teams were expected to make it to the quarter-finals anyway. The only question we had in our minds was whether the eighth team would be West Indies or Bangladesh. That team is West Indies and as expected they have not beat a single side ranked above them.

And so the world cup stands exactly where everyone knew it would stand long, long ago when the groups were drawn out. Nothing else has gone as expected. This world cup has produced more humdingers than the last two world cups combined. England have had everyone on the edge of their seats with 5 cliff-hangers in 6 games, Pakistan have thrilled- as they always have, India and South Africa produced an unforgettable game that had fans from both sides chewing their nails till the very last over.

At the end of the group phase, we can say that this world cup is an unqualified success. Having followed every world cup since 1996 closely, this makes it my fifth world cup and assuredly, this is by far the best world cup I've ever seen. Anyone who has followed the game as long as I have would recollect how boring the last two world cups were. The 1999 world cup was only marginally better. Although the quality of the cricket in that world cup was marginally better, there were few truly exciting games if you take out the two matches between Australia and South Africa.

Another fact that has taken everyone off guard has been the scores. Pretty much everyone was expecting lifeless pitches, ridiculously uneven contests between bat and ball and a scores of frustrated, heart-broken bowlers. Instead there have been several sub-250 (a few sub-200) scores, many of which have been successfully defended or chased with considerable difficulty, not least the game between Pakistan and Australia where a score of 176 proved a challenging chase. For that matter South Africa managed to lose a game chasing just 174 to win. Hopefully at least now the administrators will realise that its not an endless procession of boundaries but a contest between bat and ball that makes for riveting cricket.

Most importantly perhaps, this world cup has shown that there still is life in the 50-over format of the game. The drama and excitement in this world cup has answered all doubting Thomases who were calling for an end to 50-over cricket (including this writer incidentally). There's no doubt that given the right conditions and the right mindset, 50 over matches can still produce edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Perhaps what has contributed to it all is the fact that there has not been a single dominant side. Most teams have looked good and even brilliant at times and yet none of them are looking unstoppable. All the sides look vulnerable and beatable on any given day, which means that there is no saying which way the world cup is going from here- quite unlike the last two world cups when Australia were the best side by a country mile. There is no side that can honestly claim to be the best of the lot. Ultimately what will seperate the eventual champions will be their big match temperament and/ or the fact that one side is going to have a better day than its opponent in the finals.

Whatever happens from here on and irrespective of how the remaining games turn out to be, there's no doubt that the 2011 World Cup is going to be the best world cup since the '87 world cup, when West Indies still ruled the game, when Gorbachev was still presiding in the Kremlin,the license raj presided in India and Sachin Tendulkar was not yet in the team.

Accidentally or by design, cricket's showpiece event has finally produced a sparkling contest which will be remembered for an age. God willing, there will be many more to come.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A historic day for Indian cricket

It was 14th March 2001. I was still a few weeks short of my 20th birthday, about to appear for my BCom final examinations, which were to kick off in a few weeks time. After spending whole days at classes over the last few weeks, I decided to take a break that day and skip my classes. That decision had nothing to do with the test match currently on. Out in Calcutta, India were 264/4, 28 behind the Australians after following on, trailing 0-1 after a three day thrashing in the first test Bombay. We wll knew that defeat was a mere formality.

Sometime past eleven that morning, I got tired of studies and decided to take a break. Shock, horror: the overnight pair of Laxman and Dravid were still around and India were already a few runs past the Australian total. I was rejoicing at the fact that India were putting up a fight- not something long suffering Indian fans like me who had followed our team through the 90s were used to.

As India's total went past 300, I started telling my mother that 'for all you know' a heroic win could be on the cards. Her expression showed an even higher level of skepticism than mine. India were supposed to stage heroic fightbacks after all was lost and fall apart when it looked like a miracle might just about happen. Indian fans would take comfort in the 'heroic/ valiant fightback', which glossed over the fact that our team just didn't have the stomach for a scrap and had not won a single major win abroad since the mid 80s, when Gorbachev's glasnost' was in its infancy and Rajiv Gandhi was doing his best to ease the license raj.

But something miraculous happened. At the end of day's play Dravid and Laxman were still around and India were 307 ahead with six wickets in hand. Defeat had been averted and the more optimistic ones among us were hoping for a win. But given an attack that boasted of Venkatesh Prasad, Venkatpathy Raju (if indeed its possible to boast about having those two in an attack) and two young bowlers called Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan, India had as much chance of winning as that of Quaddafi introducing a constitutional democracy in Libya.

The following morning- 15th March 2001- I had far more important lecture. I naturally went for my classes. Those were the pre mobile-phone (only people who were rich or at high positions could afford mobile phones back then), pre Barista/ CCD, pre-multiplex days. The only way one could follow the game on the go back then was by listening to radio commentary and the walkmans we used to carry around usually had the option of switching over to radio. It was still the era of audio cassettes. CDs were considered to be the 'latest technology' but most of us still preferred audio cassetes as CDs were more expensive.

As it happened, a guy in my class- one of the abnormally optimistic guys who actually believed in the probability of an Indian win- had brought his walkman with him. How he managed to keep listening to the walkman while the lecture was on, I have no idea. Nevertheless, we listened eagerly as he updated us on the scores. With seven wickets in hand at tea, the Australians were just looking to play out time- not unlike we, the poor students, who were now just playing out time after several hours spent trying to grasp the intricacies of Accounting, Costing and the Income Tax Act, 1961.

It was with some relief that we walked out of class during the tea break. Our friend, the optimist, had long since resigned to a draw, given the impossible task of taking 7 wickets in 192 balls that India faced at tea. At least a heroic draw was infinitely preferable to a heroic defeat. With the good old college days all set to get over in a few weeks time, that was some solace.

As we started sipping our chai (and some guys, their cigarettes), our friend the optimist decided to check out the score. The look on his face was unmistakable; something extraordinary had surely happened. The first thought that came to mind, was whether Gilchrist was smashing our bowlers around as he had done the previous week in Bombay. Were we going to lose after that heroic fightback? God forbid!

But the news we got was completely different. Australia were 9 down. India were just one wicket away from the impossiblest of wins! Was this possible? Could India actually win? We were confronted with a possibility all of us hoped for but none, save the most wildly optimistic, had expected. There were just 40 odd balls left to be bowled. The break was now over, the class was to resume, but who cared about a cost accounting lecture now? Those were the days when we could miss college, turn up late for lectures, sit in the canteen or go hanging out with friends while we had lectures on in college. Remember them?

And then suddenly this guy started screaming "Out!". Our whole group started screaming in joy. For once, dream had become reality. For once, India had pulled off an impossible win, not taken solace in a 'heroic' fightback. After 16 wins on a trot, Australia had finally been stopped dead on their tracks by a beleagured side fielding a second string attack that missed Srinath, Kumble and Agarkar to injury. All that after following on! Only twice before had a team won after following on, England winning on both previous occasions and Australia, ironically, at the receiving end of all three defeats.

Postscript

Exactly a week later, India pulled off a win in a nerve-wracking test in Chennai to take the series 2-1. That win give the Indian team the confidence that they could compete against the best. In just over a year, a team that had not won a single test match abroad against quality opposition in 15 years had registered path-breaking wins in three different countries en route being labelled as "Team India" by Geoffrey Boycott because for the first time in living memory, this group of eleven players looked like one team. The tag 'Team India' sticks to the Indian side to this day.

The young men who made that impossible win a reality went from strength to strength. Within a generation, they had won a series in England after 21 years, won a series in the West Indies after 35, won in New Zealand after 41 years and beat Pakistan in their own patch for the first time in their cricketing history. There also was a historic draw in Australia which meant that India became the first team since West Indies a generation ago to come back from a tour of Australia with the trophy in hand- all that apart from reaching the finals of the 2003 world cup and a historic victory to take the first ever T20 world cup. Ten years after that seismic win, India are ranked the world's No.1 team.

With college days now a distant memory, this writer missed watching most of the key moments en route that historic milestone, stuck as he was with office work. With passage of time cricket started mattering less and less, to the point where its now ages since I last sat down and watched a whole session, leave alone a whole day. There were deadlines to be met and even when there was none, there were bosses who expected people to show up on time. The endless commute to and from work meant that there was precious little time to relax. Under the circumstances, there were far more pressing matters to take care of whenever spare time was available. Needless to say, cricket came somewhere close to the bottom of those priorities.

And yet the passage of time and the change of circumstances has done nothing to dim the memories of that historic day in 2001. It was perhaps fitting that a miracle like that should have happened on the anniversary of the day when the very first test match of all time kicked off.