Sunday, February 18, 2007

Going out on a high and One Day wonders

The World Championship of Cricket was being contested between the 7 test playing countries and hence was as going to be as good as the World Cup.

When I learnt that India was slotted into the toughest group with Pakistan, England and Australia, my heart literally missed a beat. With a fairly dismal record in the previous year there was little chance of India doing well. Further, it was Gavaskar who was captaining India and not Kapil who had captained the team to victory at the Prudential World Cup with his attacking brand of cricket and captaincy, more in tune with the one-day variety than tests.

But what’s a fan who doesn’t expect the impossible from his hero and I hoped that Gavaskar will show some of those attacking traits in his captaincy. But what about his batting in one-dayers. He had never liked one-day cricket or at least that is what we perceived. Particularly in the recent past he chose to go down the order and missed a few matches here and there. It looked a grim prospect, especially when I considered that England and Australia had thumped India in the recent past that too in India and the fourth team in the same group, Pakistan had rarely lost to India in one-day matches and that is where I must begin on this series which still makes the chest swell with pride.

For the first match against Pakistan, India was playing an official day-night game for the fourth time only and that too after four long years. As usual DD was not proactive enough to show the matches live to begin with so we tuned up to the radio again to the familiar voices of Messrs. McGilvray, Jim Maxwell and others. Miandad, who was captaining Pakistan, won the toss, but Pakistan was soon in trouble, predictably because of Kapil Dev and unpredictably because of Sivaramakrishnan, the little leggie. This was SMG’s masterstroke. It was the first time in international cricket that spinners were used extensively and Gavaskar led the way with Siva and Shastri, inevitably bowling 20 overs in the ODIs. The wily little master saw the big grounds and knew that it will be hard to get the spinners away. After Pakistan was packed off for less than 200, Imran rattled the Indian top order which was sans Gavaskar again. But the master came in at 3 down and calmed Azhar down and himself played a calculated innings of 54 and by the time he went, India was almost home. Thus, the World Championship was off to an auspicious start for India.
Next came England and India rattled up a 240 odd score with Gavaskar playing another cameo at No.5 and England were blown away again. With this match India were in the semis, but they had to play Australia who were just regrouping under Border’s captaincy.
Before the Australia match the DD mandarins woke up to the possibilities and decided to beam the remaining India matches and the semis and finals live. A better decision could not have been made. This was the first time a match was being beamed live across the pacific and my glee was uncontrollable, especially with India doing well. Wiping my groggy eyes early in the morning, I got exposed to the wondrous world of Channel 9 for the first time live, with the legendary Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Bill Lawrie, Tony Greig and Max Walker and it was an experience that we have enjoyed ever since.
Gavaskar won the toss and put the Aussies in and immediately Binny and Kapil struck with 2 beauties to take out Robbie Kerr and Graeme Wood. Australia folded up for next to nothing and India again won on a canter to enter the semis confidently.

The semi-final against New Zealand was a cracker of a match and India’s most competitive. Gavaskar as was his wont in this series, won the toss and put NZ in and they put up a score of 200. This was the only match of the tourney where Siva did not pick up a wicket, but Shastri made up for it. The funniest moments were when Cairns was going hammer and tongs in his cameo and Srikkanth dropped a sitter of his. Minutes later Cairns again lofted again to wide mid-wicket and Srikkanth did not go for the catch. Gavaskar under his blue panama this time was seen fuming as he had a few angry words to say to Srikkanth and dispatched him to long leg. Lo-and-behold a couple of balls later Cairns this time deposited the ball into his throat. Srikkanth’s reaction after catching it was hilarious as was Gavaskar’s. The master was fooled for once by the vagaries of the great game and literally pulled his hat over his eyes!! The Indian chase was not as humorous and after Srikkanth fell cheaply, Shastri and Azhar were choked by the tight line and length bowling of the Kiwis. When Shastri got out Gavaskar wisely promoted Kapil ahead of him and then the spectacular run chase began. Both Vengsarkar and Kapil played some of the most outrageous cricketing shots of the tournament, with Kapil taking on Hadlee literally with four boundaries in an over. While his 4 sixes against Hemmings at Lord’s is still talked about, this was a more challenging environment and against one of the all time greatest swing bowlers. India thereafter made a meal of the chase and were in their 2nd World cup final in 3 years!

The morning of 10th March was a virtual picnic. I got ready as if I was playing in the finals! It was a mouth-watering prospect since Pakistan had upset the marauding West Indians and reached the finals to meet India again, though the crowd disparaging called it “Bus Drivers vs Tram Conductors”. Some racism or humour that, which ever you like to believe!

Pakistan won the toss and batted, but like the last time they were choked again in the field and by the magnificent spin bowling by Siva. The lasting memory of the innings is the ball that got Miandad, with a classic leg spinner’s delivery. It drifted in the air towards middle and leg with enough loop to lure the “wily fox” to dance down the pitch, dipping at the last moment and beating his bat spun across to reach Vishy Jr. who then removed the bails in a flash. Vishy’s keeping in that series was another feature which enabled India to not miss Kirmani. However Pakistan ended at 176 for 9, which was the first time in the WCC that India had not bowled out their opponents!

At the break we were all agog at the possibilities, but a little wary of what could happen after India themselves had got a mere 183 two years back and won the Prudential World Cup. But probably sensing that Indian chalked out the right strategy and as Shastri laboured to another half century holding one end up, Srikkanth and Azhar went hammer and tongs at the other end and India in the end had won the World Championship of Cricket comfortably. Our joy obviously knew no bounds. Gavaskar the man was held up on the shoulders of his colleagues. Interviews of his were carried out by Channel 9. Shastri was nominated the ‘Champion of champions’ by the jury for the award and Gavaskar was handed over the glittering trophy after a brief speech by Tony Greig.

When his time to speak Gavaskar gave a splendid speech and at the very end dropped the bombshell that he was ‘retiring’ from the captaincy. The master and his immaculate timing!
There was a tinge of sadness in me for knowing then that this was the last time that we had seen the great man captaining India, at the same time having the satisfaction in seeing him going out on a high. The stock of Indian cricket, particularly one-day cricket was very high at this point. Gavaskar then promptly took a dig at the critics of the team - who said that this was probably a fluke – that if two World Championships in two years is a fluke then they were like Rocky I & Rocky II!

Before we could get over the euphoria of the World Championship success India were soon off to the desert oasis in Sharjah for the Rothman’s Cup. Kapil was promptly named captain and a burning issue had been buried with one stalwart making way for the succession plan to fall into place.

India started their campaign, against Pakistan again and it was back to the radio again as college was given a skip on the Friday, but to no avail, seemingly. India capitulated against a rampaging Imran who it seemed was bowling cannons. A score of 125 was hardly anything to look forward to. India had defended 183 two years back but lightning doesn’t strike twice at the same place. 125 was way too low a score to defend and especially after Pakistan made a promising start, I turned off the transistor to go and have a bath and then sit down for lunch. Only when my friend called up I came to know that Pakistan had suddenly begun to lose wickets. Needless to say I was back to the reception mode again with the radio. The next hour and a half were riveting to say the least and by the time the match finished, India had bowled Pakistan out for 87 and Gavaskar who had not done anything with the bat had picked up 4 catches. Beating all odds India, were into the finals of this mini tournament.

The finals were to be played between India and Australia and another low scoring nail-biting affair unfolded in front of us. I specifically remember while chasing 140 odd, India were in tatters at 40 odd for 3 when Gavaskar walked in. From there on, on a dustbowl, and going by the commentators, and respectable ones at that, Gavaskar’s handling of the spin of Bennett and Mathews was masterly and along with Amarnath he weathered the storm and though it remained a short innings, it was instrumental in getting India through in the end.

India had won another tournament within a month and this time Gavaskar was adjudicated as the “Man of the Series” for his catching and the small cameo that he played in the final. For me these twin series finally saw Gavaskar having a happily marrying One-Day cricket for the rest of his career and I, the Gavaskar fan was richer for it!

An extra-ordinary one-day season had come to a triumphant end.