March 30, 2011. As passion and excitement reached fever pitch and pressure suffocated the two teams, India overcame Pakistan at Mohali to proceed to the final of the 2011 World Cup. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the day of dropped catches and strange strategies.
It went beyond the cliché of excitement reaching fever-pitch. The fever had risen in leaps and bounds and the nation had been plunged into a state of delirium.
The country had become crazy, and for once madness associated with a sport seemed to step across the fine boundaries of harmlessness.
The passion for cricket, famously flowing through the veins of India, had been transformed into a narcotic. The media peddled packets of the addictive stuff, in vile mixtures of information and misinformation, refined and crude. The fire was fanned into fanaticism.
The cricket team was not supported — they were held at ransom, and the pay-off could be nothing short of the World Cup.
The quarter-final against Australia had already tested the limits of jingoism. When captain MS Dhoni had fiercely cut a short ball from Brett Lee and Michael Clarke had flung himself to hold the catch, the acrid fumes of burning hatred had seemed to envelope the nation. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina had succeeded in safeguarding the supposed birthright of every fan, taking India to a convincing victory. But, the writing was absolutely clear on the wall. Defeat was no longer an option for the Indian team.
The pressure had accumulated to bursting point.
And in such atmosphere, India took on Pakistan at Mohali in the second semi-final. Seldom had a sporting encounter had so much at stake.
Some responsible media houses did make an attempt to remind spectators that it was just a game, and grace in defeat was defined dignity in sports. Such rare words of wisdom made as much effect as silent whispers amid t raging typhoons — submerged under the millions of voices clamouring for blood, victory and reflected glory.
Things were not much different across the border. The weight of expectation and the dread of failure loomed over the pitch as the two captains tossed the specially minted coin.
As usual, MS Dhoni played down the enormity of the occasion as he tossed the specially minted coin. The Indian captain cited the CB Series, Twenty 20 World Cup final alongside this one, ostensibly unable to make up his mind as to which was the biggest match. But, the tension in the air as the Indian batsmen walked out could be sliced off with a knife and sold as packaged nightmares.
As so often happens in such pressure situations, the quality of the match turned out to be extremely mediocre — and in some respects, bizarre.
It was Pakistan who showed signs of nerves as Virender Sehwag blazed away. A boundary crashed through the covers off the third ball. Off the third over, Sehwag plundered five fours off Umar Gul — three on the onside and two on the off.
Sachin Tendulkar started timing the ball sweetly as well. By the fifth over, India had posted 47. The hosts had got off to a flier.
It was Wahab Riaz who checked the flow of runs with the first strike, and he was to do it all through the innings. He struck Sehwag on the pad, and even the reviews did not help the batsman after umpire Simon Taufel had raised his finger.
Then came the peculiar phase when Tendulkar rode six-fold blessings of fortune. Lefty Gomez, the old American baseball star, had famously said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Tendulkar had always been one of the best ever. Now, for one innings he was transformed into the luckiest of them all. And, while he punctuated his escapes with some excellent strokeplay, it remained one of the least convincing innings of his career. Yet, the butter-fingered Pakistanis ensured that he top-scored with 85.
At 23, umpire Ian Gould declared him leg before off Saeed Ajmal. A long deliberation followed between the two batsmen and the master indicated that he wanted the review. Hawkeye showed that the ball had pitched outside off, hit the pad on the middle and was spinning down the leg. The decision was overturned, and Ajmal remained baffled for days.
The very next ball saw another long third-umpire decision that eventually went in favour of the batsman. Tendulkar, beaten by a doosra, had his backfoot momentarily in the air but had just about managed to ground it as Kamran Akmal whipped off the bails.
At 27, he went for a pull and was put down at mid-wicket by Misbah-ul-Haq;at 45 Younis Khan dropped him at cover; at 70 the ever obliging Kamran Akmal floored him behind the wicket; and at 81 Umar Akmal let the ball slip through his fingers.
Ajmal finally got him, caught low down in the cover by Afridi. By then, Pakistan had let the match slide from their grip. None of the other batsmen had made runs. But, the largesse of the fielders had allowed Tendulkar to proceed along his scratchy innings. By the time he departed, India were on a reasonably respectable 187 for five by the 37th over.
Riaz had already sent back Sehwag, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh first ball, and now he claimed the wickets of Dhoni and Zaheer Khan as well. His fantastic effort earned him five for 46. But, Suresh Raina batted around the tail to propel India to 260. It was not the biggest of totals, but they had deserved much less. The Indian batting was palpably ordinary, but the Pakistan fielding was abysmal.
The curious chase
For a while it looked as if Pakistan’s opening batsmen would make amends for the poor show on the field. Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Hafeez started fluently, putting on 44 in nine overs, before a slower ball from Zaheer had Akmal square drive straight to Yuvraj.
Yet, with Ashad Shafiq stroking the ball well, and Hafeez looking confident, Pakistan progressed steadily enough to 70 in the first 15 overs. And then came the moment of brain freeze.
Munaf Patel, who had been taken for quite a few, pitched full and outside off, and the opening batsman, of all things, tried a paddle sweep. The ridiculous edge went straight to a delighted Dhoni. Pressure has been known to result in folly, but this was stretching the limits of stupidity.
Veteran Younis Khan took his time to settle down. The asking rate started climbing from around five and a quarter to the regions of a run a ball. Dhoni introduced Yuvraj Singh.
Throughout the tournament the left-armer had been handy with the ball. Now he struck in the third over. Shafiq went back to cut and the ball went on with the arm. The stumps were rattled. The Indians were charged up. The overly partisan crowd hooted the batsman back.
In his next over, Yuvraj tossed it up, and Younis went for the drive. Raina jumped to take the catch at cover. The well-laid trap had snared the victim. The odds were now loaded in favour of India.
Misbah-ul-Haq played in the same mould set by Younis — slow, steady, safety-first and baffling. The required rate shot up. Young Umar Akmal reacted brilliantly in contrast. He latched on to a short one from Yuvraj and essayed a magnificent pull. It sailed over mid-wicket for the first six of the match. And when the left-arm spinner pitched up, he sashayed down the track and hoisted him over the sight screen. Things started to look bright again for Pakistan.
And then Harbhajan Singh produced one of the balls of the tournament. From round the wicket, he bowled one went straight through. Umar covered his stumps and swished at it. Somehow it beat everything in the way and struck the off-stump.
Soon Abdul Razzaq played down the wrong line to an off-cutter from Patel, his off-stump rendered askew. It was 150 for six. The asking rate had trickled past eight.
However, it would take a few good strikes from captain Shahid Afridi to set things right. The batting power-play was yet to be taken. The flicker of Pakistan hope remained alive.
There was an omen of destruction when Afridi smashed Yuvraj to the cover fence. He had to do something special with Misbah almost stonewalling at the other end. Afridi looked around the field, picking his spots.
But, now, Harbhajan sent down a rather horrible full-toss. Afridi swiped at it baseball style, his bat swinging like a primitive scythe. The ugly top edge went high and swirling to cover where Sehwag waited patiently underneath before pouching it. Seventy seven were required off 49 balls, and Misbah was on 26 from 50.
Wahab RIaz skied an Ashish Nehra delivery to Tendulkar to make it 199 for eight. After another ball, at the end of the 45th over, with just two wickets in hand, Pakistan had no option but to take the final power-play. Why it had been delayed so long remains a mystery till this day.
On the stands the Indian spectators were busy taunting and ridiculing the Pakistani batsmen for every failed effort, and every dot ball. To accept this as excitement and passion would be overstepping the most lenient boundaries of honesty provided to a historian. It was deplorable — fanaticism at its worst.
In the 47th over, Umar Gul was trapped leg before by Nehra. The decision went up for review, but the ever-reliable Simon Taufel had got it right once again.
At long last Misbah opened up. Three boundaries and a six tried to catch up with the asking rate which had bolted for greater heights during his earlier tardiness. But, he had left the charge for too late. Off the penultimate ball of the last over, the game already lost, he swung hard. The ball gained height rather than distance. Virat Kohli ran in from long-on to hold the catch. India had triumphed by 29 runs.
The old and the young
The two nations had met for the first time in a World Cup game way back in 1992. That day a pivotal role in the Indian victory had been played by an 18-year-old Sachin Tendulkar. Now, he was more than twice as old, but yet again held aloft the Man of the Match award. It was five out of five for India against Pakistan in the World Cup. Tendulkar had played all of them and had been the Man of the Match in three.
While both sides had been affected by the suffocating pressure, the Indian professionalism on the field was a striking contrast to the lackadaisical Pakistani effort. The first extra was conceded in the 37th over which underlines the discipline of the attack.
Celebrations broke out across the nation, the ominous disquiet during the match giving way to unbridled revelling.
The gracious way of accepting victory and defeat was perhaps demonstrated to the millions of fans by the two young daughters of Shahid Afridi. Disappointed with the defeat and rather cross with Misbah, they nevertheless lauded the team for their showing in the tournament.
If only the world of cricket fandom was blessed with even a tiny fraction of the maturity of these two lovely little ladies.
Brief scores: India 260 (Sachin Tendulkar 85; Wahab Riaz 5 for 46) beat Pakistan 221(Mohammad Hafeez 43, Misbah-ul-Haq 56) by 29 runs
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)