August 03, 2020
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The Indian Choke Trick

The Springbok brand of ‘Total Cricket’ shoots a blank on sudden death day

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The Indian Choke Trick
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THERE were four copies of The Guinness Book of Classic Cricket Blunders at the bookshop of The President Hotel when the South Africans checked in. It probably shows how they hate to leave loose ends in their game, or at least that they are cricket-literate as much as they are coldly clinical, but all four tomes were snapped up by the visitors. And one of them found its way to room 1409 occupied by Bob Woolmer.

That November night, as the South African coach and his wards returned from Wankhede Stadium, a reputation as Champion Chokers enhanced further, Woolmer could have done two things: added a chapter all his own on what went wrong in the Titan Cup final, or flung the damn thing into the Arabian Sea. For, in just three hours that evening, the question "Cricket: Art or Science?" had been settled slightly (and mercifully) in favour of the former.

Sachin Tendulkar’s buoyant boys came in like a deadly ‘desi’ virus for Woolmer’s laptop, consigned his pile of Confidence Music—even the Tchaikovskys—to their rightful place, and showed there’s more to the sport than just plotting projectiles and assessing angles. And the cliche about cricket’s glorious uncertainties, in grave danger following the Springboks’ stupendous run, survived.

As the visitors collapsed short of breath when it mattered most, the second time in eight months, it was just as well that two of their countrymen—Neil Parkinson and Fred Botha—had left. The SA Airways personnel, who had ferried their heroes here, were beaming at the end of the first half. And as duty beckoned them for a night flight, India’s 220, they were sure, would help Hansie Cronje hold aloft the Cup and erase memories of the World Cup disaster.

But the echoes of one Congressman’s claim in Delhi—that the law will take its own course—resonated here in Shiv Sena country. As dusk fell and Alan Donald, who hadn’t batted in a one-dayer all year, fell first ball to former Titan employee Anil Kumble, it was clear the law of averages had come home to roost. Much as Cronje had hated hearing the phrase the evening before. A bit like Narasimha Rao.

The ‘Himalay Putra’ who rose to receive the sleek 8 kg cup was not actor Vinod Khanna’s son Akshaye, as the Made-in-Hungary megavision screen screamed, but the Son of Sahyadri who tossed right on home soil and opted to bat first. After pepping up his boys in a rugby-style huddle before going to field, Tendulkar totted up his first (and India’s 12th) title triumph. Earning Rs 3 lakh from the sponsors, Rs 15 lakh from the cricket board, Rs 10 lakh from the Maharashtra government. And the goodwill of crores. "Tendlya, Shubh Hona Maangta," a liftman at Taj Mahal Hotel had told the Indians as they left for the game. Shubh Hua! If the Border-Gavaskar Trophy heralded Dussehra last month, the Titan Cup ushered in Diwali. But before the fireworks lit up the Wednesday sky to exorcise the demons of defeat that plagued the new captain, it was the heart stopping wins against the Aussies in Bangalore and Mohali that paved the way.

The cynics will call this a fluke win. But that’s the charm of McCricket. Champions are made and unmade in 100 overs. For India, this was a day when everything fell in place from over number 51. They bowled, fielded and caught well, and showed how crazy this game can be (as world champs Sri Lanka have been discovering at Sharjah.) A team which wins six matches in a row loses the crunch one. A team which limps its way to the final, walks home winner. The much-hyped Sandeep Patil comes a cropper as manager. The more modest Madan Lal hits pay dirt in his very first outing.

It was a bit like the World Cup quarter-finals at Bangalore. Ajay Jadeja’s knock (43) made the difference for the home team. And rash shots by the opposing captains ensured it was curtains for their sides: Aamir Sohail perished to Venkatesh Prasad there; Cronje to Robin Singh here.

The big difference: while the hosts came back from the dead against the archrivals, Prasad and Kumble had shut all the escape routes here. Under lights, the South Africans stared into the darkness far too often to be bowled out for the first time in the series. And Woolmer’s boastful claim of having a gameplan for every situation bombed.

 Doomsday prophets who, at dinnerbreak, were guessing just which over the Spring-boks would win were within minutes being asked to jog their memories on when India last won a major trophy (the Asia Cup, Sharjah ’94-95). As Azharuddin snapped up his 100th, 101st and 102nd catches, and Jadeja, Joshi, Singh and Rahul Dravid dazzled on the field, the sequence 7-7-6-6-3-0-0 looked not like the scorecard of a topline team, but like some hip telephone number.

 "They won’t make another 60," said R. Mohan of The Hindu as the visitors tottered at 62 for 4. In disproving that, Pat Symcox and Dave Richardson underlined the team’s credo that carries them this far so often: "Every day is a challenge. Everytime you walk out. There’s nothing as a final. The challenge is to win every game."

 It was also a bit like 1983. Like Kapil’s Devils, the Indians here were the underdogs. They had nothing to lose. Woolmer’s team had it all down pat. But how the best laid plans of mice and men can fall flat. As H. Natarajan of The Indian Express wrote: "Mohammed Ali cocked a snook at opponent Joe Frazier by saying that he has two chances: slim and none. Ali’s gift of the gab boomeranged. He lost."

EVEN Tendulkar didn’t seem to have a chance against such a well-oiled assembly line. At the pre-match briefing, he drew an easy-to-understand analogy for reporters: "It’s like writing an article. You have to start somewhere. If you don’t, you get nowhere." The nice thing about the Titan Cup win is the journey has begun.

After a long time, the team is beginning to jell although how much of it is by accident and how much by intent is unclear. Azhar is enjoying (and endearing) himself like the Azhar of yore. Srinath may have bagged just one wicket in the tourney, but he’s bowling better than ever before. Prasad is getting used to handling the new ball, Dravid has settled nicely into the middle order. And then, there’s Saurav Ganguly

Woolmer, who was born in Kanpur, says he’s never seen an upsurge of talent like this in India before, making it difficult for him to keep track even with his computer. But he admits he’s more than a little baffled by the enormous difference between game-plans the Indians employ in each match which gets reflected in the varying outcomes: "If they are playing by instinct, why does it click one day and not the next?" 

That’s the still-present danger. Socking it to them in the one-dayer was one thing. The real thing begins November 20 in the Director’s Special Test series. ‘White Lightning’ Alan Donald, with Rs 3.5 lakh worth of watches, bracelet, rings, ear studs and cufflinks (the burden of being man of the series), will have a point to prove. As will his pipped-and-piqued colleagues.

The flip side: the gap between Tendulkar and his batting mates is still to narrow. After six international series this year, there is still no settled playing XI, and no end to the problem of openers in sight. Mired in their middle-grade moorings, they are all still too safe, too secure to attempt the outstanding. 

"The selectors made a mistake in omitting the ‘asli’ singer for the Singer Cup," Sanjay Manjrekar, who sings his teammates‘ favourite numbers in ‘Rest Day’, had crooned in a television interview. But after he had scratched around for 31 balls as Tendulkar’s newest partner in Mumbai, there’s no doubt who was on song: Fanie de Villiers.

A superlative catch to snap up Srinath demonstrated the return to complete fit-ness of The Miser, who put sore eyes and limbs to good use by adjudicating the Miss World contest in Sun City last year. What it also proved was that although Jonty Rhodes may get all the wah, wahs, it takes ten others to tango for a champion side. Tiny Ten’s ten did this evening. 

"Are you ready to join Demolition Man?" asked posters all over town. Just how many will rally behind dismissed municipal commissioner G.R. Khairnar no one knows. But some 50,000 joined the city’s Arnold Schwarzenegger Jr as he took the trophy from Chief Minister Manohar Joshi.

 There was no victory lap, but the first strains of the shehnai and the last trains from Churchgate served notice: this was an occasion for joy, not remorse. For, the win was over the mighty; over the most scientific, most focused, most fit. 

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