Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Last Stand

There was always going to be enormous interest in this series. For one, after 8 years a full-strength Pakistani side was crossing the border to lock horns against India who having beaten the Sri Lankans were on a high. The mercurial Imran Khan was leading the Pakistanis where Kapil would lead a strong Indian line-up.
All of us expected a hard fought series and hoped for an Indian win to avenge the ‘last ball 6 at Sharjah’ and the previous drubbing that they took in Pakistan 4 years ago.

The lung opener as was becoming the custom was the 1st ODI at Indore, which India lost narrowly.

It was now time for the real business to begin, the 1st Test at Madras. Pakistan choosing to bat first were in trouble before Imran played a captain’s innings and Pakistan ended up with 487 late on the 2nd day. It was flat pitch and when India ended the day without loss, I could not wait for the rest day to get over, to watch the Indian reply. Though Srikkanth played a blinder and hogged the limelight, my eyes were pinned on Gavaskar, who was himself playing a blemish-less gem and around tea when on 91 he got out to a sucker ball from Qadir, I felt like kicking myself. How could he miss out on that 35th century! India nonetheless on this brilliant platform built up a small lead and by the last day the match was dead – a draw. More importantly Gavaskar had made an auspicious start to the series.

The scene shifted to the 2nd Test at the Eden and true to his word Gavaskar announced his unavailability. The man had stood his ground and thus had brought an end to a relentless unbroken run of 106 consecutive tests which was then a world record! Arun Lal replaced him and did well for himself with two fifties in the match. However, the charm of watching the first day’s play was definitely missing with the great man absent. The memory that remains is a placard at the ground seen on the TV screen “Sorry Sunny, forgive us”. However, as it would pan out in the future, fate had decided for Gavaskar not to play another international match a Calcutta!
India did well after a shaky beginning and with a bit more of imagination from the skipper could have had Pakistan on the ropes. Nonetheless, this test was consigned to the bins of history as another draw, the only event being Gavaskar, rather his absence.

The 2nd ODI also at Eden (with the master missing again) saw Srikkanth tear into Pakistan but in the end India flattered to deceive again as Salim Malik carved out a miracle. Result – Pakistan leading by 2-0.

The 3rd Test was going to be at the brand new stadium in Jaipur, but was remembered for all the strange reasons. Gavaskar came back. Younis Ahmed played for Pakistan after a decade and a half. The Pakistan Prez was at the ground and on the 3rd day play was abandoned as Pakistan complained that the pitch had been tampered with. The match though, begun in stunning fashion. Imran came into bowl to Gavaskar first ball, takes inside edge, raps him on the pads and flies to slip. Stunned silence at the ground and in front of the TV! India though managed to recover and another dull match met a stalemate once the 3rd day was abandoned. In India’s second innings which was only of academic interest, Gavaskar got to 24 before he spooned a catch off Tauseef, but he had inched closer to that magical ‘five-figure’ mark, the Everest of Test Cricket.

The scene now shifted to the ‘Motera’ for the 4th Test. I hoped that there won’t be anymore postponement of history and that the 10,000th run will come here itself, which the master was shy off by on 58 runs. But he was to wait till the 3rd day before he could lay hands on his bat. Pakistan played out a dull and dreary 2 days for all of 395 runs and finally it was Gavaskar’s turn. He started in a serene manner, as if this was going to be it and though it was a slow innings, there was a touch of inevitability to it and finally late in the day he first reached 50 and then with that late cut off Ijaz Faqih, he had scaled the peak, the first human to score 10,000 runs in Test Cricket. The euphoria had to be seen to believed. Crowds came on to the field encircling him like bee on honey, showering him with garlands of flowers & rupees, one touching his feet, some wanting to hold his hands, some just wanting to touch this son of the soil that had made India proud. I was getting a bit worried though, thinking what this prolonged break would do to his concentration. He didn’t fully recover and just when I thought that he has seen the day through to come back again and score that elusive century, he fell minutes before close, lbw to his great adversary Imran. The rest of the match was bore except for the first signs of greatness that a young fast bowler of 21 would go on to achieve, in a matter of few minutes Wasim Akram cleaned up the tail.

So the series stood at 0-0 with one to play. There was heavy criticism in the media in the dull and dreary series that was being played out, with neither side taking any chances and the flat beds that the grounds were dishing out.

So when the 5th Test at Bangalore began everybody expected another belter on which the batsmen would have a field day. What got dished out was a mine-field as a result, what we witnessed was a gripping test match, which yielded the wrong result for an Indian fan, but it tested all the batsmen’s techniques and in the end we witness ‘the last stand’ beyond compare, talked in the annals of Indian cricket as one of the top 3 innings played on a difficult wicket in India. But to follow the pattern, Pakistan won the toss and batted and were routed on this under-prepared pitch by Maninder for 116. India started well, Gavaskar and Srikkanth, studies in contrast, one meticulous and technique personified while the other belligerent and attacking. But Srikkanth went soon followed by Gavaskar and then Vengsarkar who had now grown in stature took up the cudgels and with mixed aggression scored a fine 50 to take India past Pakistan with only five wickets down. The pitch however was rapidly deteriorating and Tauseef and Qasim in tandem ran through the rest and India were left with only 29 in the kitty. Pakistan in reply, sent in Miandad to open to take advantage of the new ball and though they started off well, Javed soon fell trying to take on Shastri. But Maninder bowled poorly at this crucial juncture and the Pakistanis built up a lead brick by brick. Towards the end a fighting 40 by Yousuf saw Pakistan go past the 200 run lead. At the half way mark of the Test, India were set 221 to win the Test and the series.

At this juncture it would be good to note that no one in the Test match had survived at the wicket for more than 2 hours. Only Imran barely managed it in the 2nd innings score of 39. By this time it was clear that considering the condition of the pitch and the two wily veterans, Qasim and Tauseef (backed by an inspiring and innovative captain) would make life difficult for the Indians.

The last stand

Under excruciating pressure Gavaskar and Srikkanth came out to open the innings for India. Pakistan started with Wasim and Qasim right away. India made a cautious beginning with Srikkanth also emulating the master’s quiet mood. After half an hour and just when we were settling in front of the telly, Wasim produced two body blows, first getting the break-back to trap Srikkanth LBW and then off the very next ball got Amarnath to snick one to Yousuf. It was a stunning display of seam bowling on a dusty spinner’s pitch. Till then while Gavaskar was handling him expertly he didn’t look like the great-bowler-to-be that he went on to become. Pakistanis, after this went about with additional springs in their steps and the spinners started bowling with umbrella fields. With the ball getting older, the pitch was starting to play up now and we had dark forebodings of things to come over the next day or so. All hopes now rested with Gavaskar and Vengsarkar. If only they could have a century partnership. For an hour or so it looked as if our wishes would come true. Vengsarkar was looking increasingly comfortable and Gavaskar while giving an exhibition of perfect defensive play, concentration and temperament while the opposition left no stones unturned to disrupt it, kept talking to Vengsarkar to egg him on. However, this probably got to the latter a bit when he lost his timber to Tauseef’s guile and India were back to its familiar position of the last decade; chances of winning or saving a match entirely depending on Gavaskar. More, the keeper, inexplicably promoted ahead of Azhar, came, fumbled for a while and went. Azhar who followed him did not look too much out-of-place and this instilled some hope in us. The master duly completed his 50 and at close India stood at 99 for 4 with Gavaskar after batting in excess of 2 and a half hours was 51 not out with the young Azharuddin giving company.

There was tension all around for the next day, which was a rest day. For all practical purposes Pakistan looked to be in the driver’s seat. On a pitch like this, batting was becoming a lottery and though India had 6 wickets in hand they still had to get in excess of 120 to get. The papers quoted Imran saying that there was only one thing that stood in the way of Pakistan’s first series victory in India – Gavaskar’s wicket. Nothing new, said I and my pals!

Day 4 began amidst nerve-racking tension. I dreamt over the previous night – Gavaskar had made a century and India had won by a wicket – and therefore woke up groggy and tired with the tension. The Tauseef-Qasim duo started on a relentless pursuit of Gavaskar’s wicket. The going was slow, but on a snake-pit such as this, every ball was like a harbinger of doom. The master resumed from where he had left off. Picture of concentration, determination and godly technique. The spinners were bowling vicious square-turners now. Some balls were keeping low while some others jumped like a torpedo, some stopped while others scooted through. Still, for an hour or so, Azhar, under close supervision of Gavaskar, fought on till he scooped up a return catch to Qasim and the Pakistanis rejoiced. Shastri came and in his usual dogged fashion dropped anchor, where Gavaskar pushed for the singles and twos and played a couple of gorgeous square-cuts to take India to 150. If only Shastri could stay with the master we thought. He wouldn’t, having got a rush of blood, he missed the flight of another ball from Qasim and was out ct and bowled just like Azhar before him, 155 for 6. Less than 70 to get, could Kapil do a mini Turnbridge Wells here. For the next 15 minutes we hung by the thread, when a hapless Gavaskar watched Kapil go for a wild slog to only get bowled by Qasim again. 161 for 7. It was clearly a day when the genuine batsmen had failed him again while he waged a lone battle, so what could the tail do now for him. Binny came in and his initial moments did not give much hope though he tried manfully.
Gavaskar on the other hand was giving a master-class in classical batsmanship. The stroke of his innings was one which the ball did not touch the bat! A ball from Qasim which looked innocuous dropped on length and Gavaskar made a forward movement only to find it spitting out of the pitch coming towards his shoulder. In a split second he altered his balance, dropped his hands and swayed out of line, as any batsman would do to a bouncer from a fast bowler. The commentators, Akash Lal and MLJ on TV went into raptures. There were very many such ‘sunny moments’ during the innings which remain etched in memory.
Slowly but surely he reached his nineties and India into the 170s. Now the target was less than 50. At 180 for 7 with 42 more to get, it seemed that, if Gavaskar stayed India would do the near impossible. But tragically it wasn’t destined to be. At this score and with Gavaskar on 96 playing for a believe-it-or-not five and a half hours he received a ball from Qasim which pitched just in front of his pads and kicked up from good length and though he tried to take the hands away at the last moment, he couldn’t the spitting cobra took the shoulder and went to Rizwan standing in slip who along with the orchestra from fielders started dancing with joy. The umpire, Ramaswamy had raised his finger with a million dreams lying in tatters. Needless to say despite some unorthodox and iffy hitting by Binny India was never going to make it. They ultimately fell short by 16 runs and the series was lost. Till date 17th March remains the most disappointing day in my cricketing memory, where another dozen runs from him would have got India the win and a century for the master. If this innings didn’t deserve to win a test match, then none do. If only Vengsarkar had stayed a bit longer, if only Shastri and Kapil had not thrown their wickets away! If only.....

After such a pulse-numbing test match with the wrong result, I had no interest left in the remaining one-day matches and it was fine for the fact that India got walloped in the ODI series and thus ended the season whose pains will refuse to go away for a long long time.

‘96’ on screen

Like in case of some of his other later centuries I have this innings of SMG on video and often watch it on a gloomy day (cricketing or otherwise). Through the grainy colour recording one could still feel the sense of pride, pain and the pinnacle that batting can reach when a master technician is tested. The sure footwork, the soft hands, the balance, the judgment and most of all the temperament exhibited by SMG on that day, which turned out to be his last test innings is a sheer visual joy to behold. He scored only 8 boundaries in that innings which lasted 264 balls and 5 and a half hours which is acknowledged by all, barring the cricketing pop-corn generation of today, as THE best innings played by any one against quality spin on a snake-pit, in the post ‘un-covered’ pitch era. In hindsight, though India had lost, it was a victory of all that is pure in craftsmanship of a great batsman in the late afternoon of his career. I could wish to be born again to watch an encore of an innings like that.

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