I am sure that the debate will be an endless one as to whether Azharuddin made the right decision in opting to field after winning the toss against Sri Lanka in Calcutta. I fully agree with the view that we should have batted first. And when I saw Ashish Kapoor turning the very first ball when he came on to bowl, my worst fears were confirmed.
There was no way any team that was batting second could have managed a 200 total. To say that the wicket prepared for the semi-final game was absolutely atrocious, would be to understate the obvious. It was shocking that such a wicket indeed was offered for the game in the first place. I, for one, will squarely blame the Board of Control for Cricket in India for preparing a pitch which was a batsman's nightmare.
In this context, the pitch at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, for the game against Pakistan, was ideally suited to a one-day bash. The Calcutta authorities should have ensured that both the teams had a fair chance of winning by preparing a decent pitch with good bounce. But what we saw the other night was a mine field of a pitch.
After the win against Pakistan, the Indians appeared rather over-confident going into the semi-finals. The team's think-tank also erred in adopting a very rigid strategy which obviously revolved around getting the two Sri Lankan openers, Sanath Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana out cheaply. The plan was to use Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath in the opening spell to deny the openers any cheap runs. But when both left in the very first over, Azhar should have shown flexibility by using Venkatesh Prasad, instead of Kumble, to open at the other end.
With both Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana dismissed, there was no need for Kumble to bowl the second over. Under the conditions, Prasad, who bowled very well against Pakistan and was brimming with confidence, was certainly a better bet than Kumble. Perhaps, Azhar was so focussed on the game that he slipped up.
Coming back to the matter of pitch and the toss itself, the Indians, and specifically, Azhar, forgot the golden rule—never bat second on a new wicket. Obviously, they did not consult the ground staff about the state of the pitch. Had they done so, then I am sure, Azhar would not have fielded first.
The Sri Lankans, despite the poor start, did well enough to reach 250 and all credit should go to Aravinda de Silva and Roshan Mahanama, both of whom batted extremely well under pressure. The Sri Lankans never panicked for a moment and played fantastic cricket all along. This has been the main feature of their performance so far.
It is easy to criticise India for poor batting when they chased. But given the crumbling pitch, it was indeed a very difficult proposition to even bat, leave alone run up a score of 250-plus.
The batsmen found it difficult to pierce the inner circle of fielders and once Sachin Tendulkar departed, the rest followed. However, to harp on the point I made earlier in this column, it was a disgrace that such a wicket was prepared for a game of this importance and stature.
As far as the crowd behaviour went, I, for one, wasn't surprised in the least. Calcutta has a history of violence during a cricket game. The West Indians, under Gary Sobers, experienced some torrid moments in 1966, it was the same with the Indian team when they lost to the West Indies in under four days during the 1983 series. The Indians were subjected to abuse, both physical and verbal, and we had to carry our helmets right up to our rooms in the hotel to protect ourselves from stones and other missiles that were thrown at us.
What happened on Wednesday night was a crying shame. Clive Lloyd, the match referee, had no other choice but to call off the game and award it to Sri Lanka, who in any case, were certain to make it to the final even if the match had continued. Of that, there was no doubt, whatsoever.
We were fortunate against Pakistan at Bangalore. Quite surprisingly, Waqar Younis was clobbered in the end overs and that made the difference between victory and defeat. I was surprised to read reports that the Pakistanis did not give their all during the game. I could see it in their faces and expressions that they were very focussed right through. Under the circumstances, it is hard to believe that 20 players on the field can relax and let go of the match.
There is one other aspect that I would like to touch on and it concerns this business about bribery and betting. I readily concede that both these factors have become very much a part of today's game. Betting is for sure, while bribery is something that cannot really be proved conclusively. In Sharjah, for instance, betting on matches is heavy and just about everyone knows about it.
It is something we have to live with, though I feel sad that cricket's fair name is increasingly getting tainted by all these allegations.