Monday, March 30, 2015

World Cup 2015 - A Memorable Journey, A Sad End

A day after the Valentine’s Day, sometime around noon, Mohammad Shami’s bouncer to Younis Khan looked menacing. Younis Khan tried fending it awkwardly. But the ball was too good for him.
Younis Khan  - caught Dhoni bowled Mohammed Shami  6 
India’s world cup had started.
I woke up at 6:30 AM today and switch on the TV only to realize that it was over. A four month long tour with last one and half month as world cup was over. Now no more cricket in the early morning. For a cricket fan, nothing can be more refreshing than getting a dose of channel nine’s broadcast early in the morning. That’s why I have always loved Australian tours. They don’t make you wait for what you want most – watching cricket. All you need to do is get up and it would be on TV – lush green outfields, wonderful camera work, voice of Mark Nicholas and quite often a contest between bat & ball.
And then, cricket in Australia is never boring. Grounds are big. Pitches have bounce. Commentators are good although they are fast becoming DJs.
There is always some amount of chirping going on. You can always feel the unease. You can always feel the thrill. You are almost always on the edge.
I will always remember 1983 for its memoirs. That’s how most of us know about that world cup. Reading about Kapil’s 175. Yashpal’s 89. Kapil & Sandeep Patil running back to pavilion after winning the Semi Final. Sandhu’s in swinger. Viv’s assault. Kapil’s catch. Holding’s LBW. Kapil lifting the cup.
For 28 years, we were served with these scenes so many times that it had become boring. Absolutely boring.
1987 was about Sidhu’s sixes, Kapil’s sweep and Australia’s resurgence under the reign of Bob Simpson & Allen Border.
1992 could have been the best world cup – channel 9, colored clothing, best format, Jonty Rhodes. Alas, we were too incompetent. It was the worst world cup I had seen. Or so I thought.
Playing at home, we were favorites in 1996. Lot of hype was built around our preparations. Well, that all fall flat when we missed a simple run out in our opening match against Kenya. In the first match itself we were exposed. Everyone knew we had only one weapon – Sachin Tendulkar. He slipped in Semi Final. Rest as they say, is history. Whatever followed that night is forgettable. But we still remember Kambli’s tears. Yes we do.
While team was strong on paper in 1999, I never got the feel if we had a Team. It was a bunch of individuals showing their skills on the ground. Result was expected.
We had a really strong team in 2003. Batting line up boasted of people who are counted as one of the greatest of the game. Bowling was no less. We fielded well. The team was strong. Unfortunately, we met a team in the final which was one of the greatest in the history of the game.
2007 never happened.
I will always thank the victory of 2011 for relieving me of watching highlights of/reading about 1983. We were good. Even if the format was more challenging, we would’ve won. Playing at home was our advantage. If I will remember 1983 for previous generation’s world cup, 2011 gave me my world cup. Oh that six by MSD – the ending was perfect from a man who so boringly talks about the process.
Not many had given a chance to Team India before 2015 started. We crashed out in Semi Final. Barring Times Now, I am not sure if many would be complaining about the end result. Oh yes, we didn’t win the cup but end result as top four isn’t bad either.
To me, beauty of 2015 was not the end result. Such was the format that reaching QF was never a doubt for a team which was ranked in top three before the tournament started. Team would’ve needed to play horribly bad to not make it to last eight and I knew my team’s name wasn’t England. After that, trophy was just three lucky nights away. We got lucky on our first such night. Alas, that’s where it all ended.
To me, I will always remember 2015 not for the end result but for the journey. The bowling which looked laughable took 70 wickets in 7 matches. Shami almost always provided early wickets. Umesh Yadav was our X factor. Mohit provided control in middle overs. Ashwin became an off spinner.
Fielding was the best I have ever seen. With an off side packed with Raina, Dhawan, Rohit, Jadeja, Virat, Rahane often meant that grounded shots were going to fetch nothing. MSD was diving to take catches meant that slip catchers could cover more area than they normally did. Ashwin could be hidden in the field. Well, this all was expected. Unexpected was Mohit Sharma becoming a run out expert. Unexpected was Umesh Yadav running out David Millar. Unexpected was India’s fast bowlers diving for catches. It all happened. The intensity in the field was heartening to see. We wanted to win. Yes we did.  
Batting was good. Dhawan scored a 100. Kohli scored a 100. Raina scored a 100. MSD got back his finishing touches. Rahane showed he can attack. Oh yes, even Rohit scored a 100.  
MSD’s captaincy was brilliant. He kept the slips, regular and not just his favorite leg-slip, on even during the middle overs. Seeing Umesh Yadav’s penchant to bowl leg stump line, he gave him a field packed on that side of the ground. Use of short stuff was perfect. Ashwin was used as a wicket-taking option. There was plan for most batsmen – bowl short to Amla, bowl short to Younis Khan, keep cramping Gayle, suffocate Ireland with spin, let ABdV take a chance against Mohit Sharma’a arm.  
MSD was aggressive. His captaincy was unorthodox. Sometimes it was so unorthodox that it became inexplicable. Try giving me a reason for keeping that man right behind himself? Unless he was hinting BCCI that it’s time we start preparing a backup keeper, I don’t find any other reason for that field placement.
We were always expected to win against Pak and we won. We weren’t expected to win against SA and we thrashed them. Rest were no match for us.
And then, it all fell apart. It all fell apart an opposition which exposed our weakness which wasn’t exposed till now. We played with six batsmen who couldn’t bowl. We played with five bowlers who couldn’t bat. We didn’t have batsmen who could scare the opposition. We didn’t have bowlers who could take wickets at will. Team relied on clinical performances. Team played like a precision of a surgeon – finding the weakness, injecting the anesthesia, using the scalpel and operating the patient. But then, sometimes you need a butcher to counter a monster – someone who doesn’t have a weak spot, someone who doesn’t let you inject the anesthesia, someone who breathes fire. That’s when it all fell apart. We failed to act as butchers.
In 2011, we had X factor of Sehwag as batsman who often set the tone at the start. Remember his cameos? We had X factor of Yuvraj as all-rounder who won matches both with bat and ball. You cannot forget him, can you? We had X factor of Zaheer as a bowler and he provided wickets every time he was called upon to bowl. Alas, all three had fallen apart well by the time we reached 2015. Dhawan was no Sehwag. But Sehwag in 2015 wouldn’t have been better than Dhawan. Jadeja of 2015 wasn’t even a shadow of Yuvraj of 2011. But Yuvraj after 2011 did worse than Jadeja in the same period. Zaheer in 2011 had 11 years of international experience. Shami came after 2011.
We had the best possible eleven. Problem was, that best possible eleven wasn’t good enough against Australia.
That’s where it all fell apart. In the semifinal.
We couldn’t find an answer to Steve Smith all summer. We didn’t in the semifinal either.
We couldn’t stop tail-enders from playing cameos.
We didn’t know how to bat if we lost wickets early against a quality bowling attack.
We didn’t know how to not lose wickets in a heap against a quality attack.
In short, we couldn’t find out a way to beat Australia. That’s where it all fell apart.
Now the morning schedule will have to be changed a bit. I can sleep late. No more Star Cricket early in the morning. A bit of news and then I can go back to watching music channels. People at home will be relaxed. My ferocity to own the TV remote would drop down drastically. The terrorizing aggressive dare-you-touch-the-remote cricket fan will give way to a docile okay-you-watch-I-will-go-take-a-nap common man. There will be withdrawal symptoms but they can be cured with the dose of IPL – something much less in intensity of international cricket but good enough to ensure my blood doesn’t run out of its regular dose of cricket. There will be another time for the world cup. And that another time will keep me occupied in the evenings – England it will be.
There will be new players in every team. Lot of new captains. Lot of new strategies. A new kind of cricket.
Oh yes, there may not be someone named MSD.
Throw from mid-wicket was perfect. Maxwell had one stump to aim at and aim he did. MSD was run out. That was surprising. Well, it was more surprising to see MSD not even trying to make his ground. Maybe he had given up. Maybe he knew India’s campaign had ended. Maybe he knew it was way beyond his reach by then.
Well, I didn’t. I still had hopes till he was batting.
But with his wicket, world cup 2015 ended for me as well.
MS Dhoni - run out (Maxwell)               65 
Final on 29th was just a formality and for academic interest.
(Image courtesy Mid-day)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dear Sydney!!!

Dear Sydney,
Let me start with a song.
 The winner takes it all
 The loser standing small
 Beside the victory
 That's her destiny
Oh the song from ABBA. Nothing captures the brutal reality of life in a more apt way. And in a cruel way. Nothing captures the truth better.
Sydney Cricket Ground. And truth is what we shall all face tomorrow. In SCG. Sydney Cricket Ground. That circular part of your body located at Moore Park Road.
SCG has always been one of my favorite grounds. No, no. I had never personally visited the ground till 2014. But I always liked it. The sound of it. Not sure when did it start.
Maybe it was in 1992 series when the only test we competed was played in Sydney. I had read before that match that it turns there hence should suit India in case they play a spinner. We played four pacers. On final day, Manoj Prabhakar was doing something he did as his last appearance for India – he bowled off spin. Tendulkar took a wicket. Ravi Shastri took four. Australia drew the test. They won other four.
Maybe it was VVS’ 167 which won my heart. On that forgettable tour of 1999-200, VVS’ 167 was the only positive one could take out.
After that, VVS changed as a batsman.
He played in Eden. Year was 2001. After 2001, everything changed in cricket for us.
God showed the world something it had never seen in 2004 on SCG. He showed us how to make a double hundred. A double hundred without playing a single cover drive. Not a single cover drive. None. Zilch. Nada.
Even a loss in Sydney 2008 turned things for us. We spanked Australian ego of considering Indians a pushover on fast bouncy pitches. Perth was victory. Sydney was inspiration.
Oh yes, we won first final of CB series in Sydney. Sachin got a 100. More than that, he was still there when MSD scored the winning runs. MSD must have been disappointed. Winning stroke was a four. Not a six.
Dear Sydney. You have always provided me reasons to like you. They all are in SCG – that circular part of your body on Moore Park Road.
Then there is that most beautiful view of sun setting behind the pavilion. That’s one of the best views for a cricket fan. My only regret during my visit to SCG in 2014 was that I couldn’t see the sun setting behind the pavilion. I couldn’t have seen it that day. Not only because there aren’t any visits for tourists in the evening but also the clouds. But come 2015 and I would like to see something. I would like to see Sydney do what it has always done. I would like SCG to give me one more reason to like it.
Just think of it. We landed in Australia with one of the weakest teams ever. Earlier teams have always had better bowlers – a Kapil, a Kumble, a Harbhajan, a Zaheer.
Who did we have this time? I don’t even remember.
Yet we competed and competed well. We did lot better than 1999. If we had bit more luck, we might have done as well as 2004 or surely better than 2008. I am not even naming 1992 or 2012. For me, those series didn’t happen. No, they didn’t.
Even though we lost the test series by a margin of 2-0, there was lot less shame in it than earlier losses. We made people appreciate our performance. Friends in Australia tell me that people loved the way we played. It was all in papers. Last month when I was in a pub in Melbourne, I bumped into a stranger. The moment I told me where I was from, he was going all gaga about how good Kohli is. He asked me if I was there for the world cup. I replied with a sad face that I would be going back next week. He asked me who I think would win the world cup. There was just one answer he could have got for me. “Mate, Kohli is your man if you are going to do it” was his parting reply.
Okay, we were nonexistent in the ODI tri series. I wish the tri series itself was nonexistent.
Come the world cup. 2015. The #WontGiveItBack propaganda. The Mauka Mauka hype. The everything.
Lot of people had given up hope. Lot of them were wondering if it would be like 2007. I was wondering if there was a world cup in 2007.
But I knew, like last time, it wouldn’t take lot to change perceptions. Such is the format that 3 lucky nights can turn you from a hopeless side to a world champion. In my mind, there was never any doubt of not making it past the league round. Challenges were always going to appear after that. But yes, our performance in league stages was going to tell a lot of things. It was going to build, well, momentum.
It started. And as it did, we were there.
We were there doing everything we could and we should.
We were there winning.
Pakistan was never going to have any chance against us. Never.
I had no doubt that we would lose to South Africa. After all, they had all the artillery – the best fast bowler in the world, and opened who scores 100 faster than Virat, Faf, a 360 degree batsman, Philander, Morkel, fielding and above all, aura. I forgot they lacked one quality. One quality they’ve always lacked. One quality which always makes them lose when they mustn’t. Calmness.
After victory over South Africa, we weren’t going to lose. Bangladesh in Quarter Final was just a mere formality.
And we have done well. This team is weaker than the one we had in 2003. There is no God, God of off side, the name who named God of off side as God of off side in the batting line up. Our bowlers were laughable till this tournament started.
This team is weaker than 2011. We played at home in 2011. And we had Yuvraj. Oh yes, the unplayable Zaheer. And yes, the God.
This team was weak to start with. Openers weren’t settled. Middle order was too reliant on one man. Best finisher hadn’t finished a game in 2 years. Spinners were competing with the medium pacers for pace. Medium pacers didn’t have pace. This team was weak.
But as an eternal optimist, I had hope.
Just before the world cup started, I had written a piece in hope. Hope that more sounded like a wish. The wish has come true till now. All wishes have come true till now. And unlike most wish lists we have, this wish list isn’t endless. This will end. This will end soon.
Dear Sydney, it will end in two steps.
First of that step would be tomorrow.
To all the matches we have lost to Australia this summer, to all the sadness of losing, to all the sledges, to all the rubbing in the salt, to all the everything else, I sincerely request you to be nice on one last occasion. I request you to be nice to us tomorrow. I know you have a friend called truth who is always desperate to bite. Please ask him to spare the color blue.
Dear Sydney, give me more reason to like you. Let that reason emanate from that circular part of your body located at Moore Park Road. Let than reason emanate from SCG.
As the lyrics of that song say
The Gods may throw a dice
 Their minds as cold as ice
 And someone way down here
 Loses someone dear
Please make sure that loser isn’t me. Please.
A Fan.