Friday, January 26, 2007

Agony - The old Achilles heel

The mayhem after the prime minister’s death was probably not the best back-drop for a long cricket series but one hoped that the cricket would prove to be the best anti-dote for violence across the country.

England’s cricketers surely would have been in no mental condition to play, especially after one of UK’s diplomats was assassinated a few hours before the series began.

Shrouded in such uncertainty, the cricket juggernaut unfolded. England did not exactly have a formidable team, with Botham not touring and Willis and Underwood having retired. The pace attack was new and the spin attack was run of the mill. The batting though good was not made of world beaters.

In my mind I had little doubt that India would go on to win the series and Gavaskar would score tons of runs, since now that the pressure of the record was gone and he could get more attacking in his captaincy as well. In the end, I wished I had reined in my confidence on the Indian team.

When the 1st Test began at Wankhede, we had no inkling as to what was in store for us over the next two months. An eighteen year old spinner with Shiva the destroyer in his name, decimated England over the next 4 days and India won quite easily in the end. However, Gavaskar had again got out close to the 30s in the first innings nicking one of Cowans to Downton and this was a jarring fact. However, with India winning handsomely one hoped for better days to come, since this was going to be a long series.

India then went on to lose the 1st ODI at Pune where Gavaskar scored a duck. By this time I was getting a strange feeling that he might be falling out of form, some how with the smoothness of his batting was not present.

By the time the 2nd Test began at Ferozeshah Kotla, Gavaskar went early and India folded for 300 odd. England on the other hand rebounded well with L. Sivaramkrishnan mystery being solved by their batsmen and they ended up taking a sizable first innings lead. India in the second innings began well and Gavaskar for the first time in the series was looking serene and sure as usual. He and Amarnath had taken India past the first innings lead by time on the fourth day. I was watching Gavaskar closely that day and he looked set for his 31st. There were hardly any balls that beat his bat and the spinners were handled masterfully. On that fateful last day of the Delhi test, disaster struck from all possible sides. First Amarnath went and then as Gavaskar was carrying on in his usual composed manner, Pat Pocock pitched one outside the off-stump and Gavaskar bent on his back foot to cut. It just turned out to be the first ball of the day that turned sharply while keeping low and beat Gavaskar’s bat to crash into the off and middle. He was gone for 65, which turned out to be his only half-century of the series. Despite this set back it was lunch and India still had more than half the side to bat. The match looked destined for a dull draw and now the only interest left was also gone a Gavaskar century. Instead the match turned on it’s head Patil and Kapil committed hara-kiri and the same duo of Pocock and Edmonds, who looked so innocuous while Amarnath and Gavaskar particularly were batting, ran through the rest of the side in a matter of minutes and left the spectators and the viewers like us shell-shocked. India then went on to lose the test by 8 wickets in one of the most remarkable reverses seen on Indian soil till then. I just couldn’t fathom the result, thinking if only Gavaskar had not played that shot, the century would have been his and a draw, which is a far better result than a defeat, but then he was done in by the ball of the match. Less said of the Kapil and Patil shot the better.

The Delhi Test debacle had to have its scapegoats with Kapil and Patil being dropped for the 2nd ODI and the 3rd Test to teach them a ‘lesson’. Though Gavaskar was seen as the villain of the piece, people forgot that he didn’t have a vote in selection and this was another section of the media trying to make the Kapil vs Gavaskar rivalry juicier if they could.

Needless to say with Kapil and Patil not there for the 2nd ODI India lost it despite a spanking opening partnerhip between Srikkanth and Shastri, with Gavaskar batting down the order again. Though India lost this match probably was the cornerstone for bigger things to take shape in the coming months.

When India arrived at Calcutta for the 3rd Test over the new year, we still hoped that the selectors will see reason and bring back Kapil for the match. That was not to be. It was a doomed test from the start, doomed to boredom and ill-will between the spectators and the home team with its captain at the receiving end. I have to admit that this was probably the most boring test match that I ever witnessed.

India won the toss and batted, very slowly at that. Gavaskar as was becoming his wont in this series, went early again and I was worrying whether this was going to be his second career slump after the 1980-81 season. But India thereafter played inexplicably slowly, with the only bright spot being a 21 year old Azhar announcing himself at the world stage. He became the first Indian to score a century on debut since Vishwanath. That made the event even more momentous and though the Eden crowd cheered him as we saw on the TV, but Gavaskar’s decision to bat till the 4th day lunch time probably blew the lid on the crowd who were already irate with Kapil’s exclusion. However, the behaviour that Eden displayed thereafter was unbecoming, throwing stuff and abuse at Gavaskar and his wife, Marshneil as they were coming out of the pavilion.

This was the second time in two years that Eden had abused and ill-treated SMG and one could see him fuming as he refused to bat in the second innings and sent in Prabhakar to open the innings with Shastri for the few minutes that were left.. The match itself petered into a dull draw but the bad taste of the crowd behaviour specially towards one of India’s favourite sons and its greatest icon still rankled. I was now convinced, having watched their behaviour the previous year that this was not the same Eden that I had always held close to my heart. The crowd mix had changed. Jingoistic mobs, faceless cowards who could only show their anger at a great cricketer without getting face-to-face and who otherwise were not fit enough to touch his feet. Gavaskar rightly at the end of the Eden Test vowed that he will never play there again, and for the rest of his career he kept his word!

With the series in stalemate, the selectors duly recalled Kapil back into the squad, but not Sandip Patil as Azharuddin had already taken his chance with both hands and thus a career was duly put to an end.

When the 4th Test at Chepauk began, one would have hoped for India to be buoyed by the return of the mercurial Kapil, instead the result went topsy turvy with new comer Neil Foster running havoc and scything through the Indian lineup. He nailed Gavaskar twice as we watched glued to the telly thinking that this was his lucky ground and here is where he got his 30th. The only bright spark was the batting of the ‘comeback’ man, Amarnath and the young wizard Azhar who now had 2 centuries in 2 tests. None of these achievements of course would console me seeing where Gavaskar’s form had headed. On top of that England gave India a pounding and now had virtually sealed the fate of the series by taking a 2-1 lead at Madras. The bowling looked lack luster and SMG’s captaincy ragged which I wondered must have been affecting his batting too.

Thereafter the remaining 3 ODIs were played which resulted in a resounding England victory by 4-1. Gavaskar times were getting be really bad times. The only glimmer of hope was that he got a few runs in these matches. Could we look forward to a glorious comeback at the Green Park?

Now that I was playing the local league and aiming for a berth in the U-19 team, I knew a few people to get tickets for myself to watch the 5th Test at Kanpur. There was also a local buzz due to the selection of Gopal Sharma, the local for the first time in a test match. I was at the Green Park after a gap of 5 years to watch a match and the first gift was the toss being won by Gavaskar. The tension within was palpable as Gavaskar went out to bat. Could this be the innings to give India a chance to square the series and that elusive century at the in-laws that I and thousands of others had been willing him to get over the last 9 years? Alas it was not to be. Soon his off-stump was sent cart-wheeling and he was sent to the pavilion by a Cowans scorcher as he walked into a drive. The interest virtually died at that moment, only to be revived much later in the day when Azhar started wielding his wand again and the possibility of an unprecedented 3rd consecutive century beckoned. At the day end when he was tantalizingly poised in the 90s our group decided to come back on the 2nd day to watch him complete history, which he duly did with a would-be trademark flick to midwicket. The rest of the match was drab and dreary and I didn’t take the trouble of following as we checked on the TV that England was amassing a total of their own.

Thus a bad series for India came to an end with disastrous results and Gavaskar’s captaincy and form coming under scrutiny. Once again he had done less than ordinarily against England. Even I was feeling that the captaincy was becoming a bother for him and whether he would be better without it. After all, my appetite for his batting and runs was still to be satiated. What was very surprising was when the selectors retained him skipper for the World Championship of Cricket to be held in Australia, which was virtually of the stature of a World Cup. Not a very successful one-day player till then, indeed not looking to take it as seriously as test matches, he was going to lead India’s campaign in a very challenging group which I learned had Pakistan, England and Australia with two going through to the semis. Tall order indeed!

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