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What if we decided not to blame anybody?

by Naked Cricket


Is that even possible? A World Cup semi-final exit, and not blame anybody? What’s there to write? How will we exorcise our cricketing demons?

Put yourself in at 4/1 at the fall of Rohit Sharma’s wicket in the second over. You were there, weren’t you? Did you not chase that wide one outside off along with Virat? Were you not breathing heavy after Rohit fell? After the assurance of those five centuries was snuffed out in four deliveries?

When Trent Boult was running in like some break dancer in a black hoodie -  with those precise moonwalking steps and that gleeful glint in his eye, he had it all worked out. And Matt Henry, more mid-management banker than break dancer, what was he doing making the ball dance. Such deception broke the back of India’s batting. Slip sliding away.

9th July, 2019 seemed eerily familiar. It could be anywhere in the world. It had the stamp of Glenn McGrath bowling academy vs India in one of those games you were hoping to snap out of by now. But it crept up on you. India had no choice but to sleep on it, what else was there to do?

To overcompensate, Virat went across. And again. He plays these angles. Seven balls after Rohit fell, one snuck through, into the pads and out. When Virat is nervous, he wants to review. When he’s the captain, no non-striker will ask him not to. It delays things. It keeps him on the field longer. In the hope of the bowler overstepping, the ball missing, something. At 4/2, why wouldn’t you review? If nothing, just to stay on the ground a few moments more, to breathe, to feel alive in the game. If Virat could, he would munch on his protein snacks during those reviews. What did you do? Stare at the screen? Knowing only too well, it’s happening. Slip sliding away.

Much as Virat has a look that defies the slide, KL Rahul often wears one that is consumed by it. They are just a look and say nothing of what either batsman will do to push the slide back. But when Rahul fell, his dismissal had the stamp of slide-sucked-me-in. That’s what slides do, players have their ways to counter them – not often many succeed. Once in a freefall slide, the batsman is not on terra firma, instead, he’s being sucked into a whirlpool. Those padded up, waiting to walk in are waiting to slide through. Sacrificial lambs.

When Virat fell, did you not slide further. Did it not cross your mind, this could be over in a jiffy, in say, less than 20 overs? Why did the match not get over on the first day itself? Was it us who willed it not to go down to a 20 over shootout? Were we not responsible for the gift of the second day? Had we not asked for this? Running away from rain and Duckworth Lewis calculations? And here we were, in a similar 20 over shootout, with six fewer wickets.

So just as we blame the players, we blame ourselves. Our refusal to expect sport for what it is. A refusal to expect defeat.

When Kohli fell, Rishabh Pant walked in, somewhat cheerily, to play his 9th ODI, his 8th innings, his 4th in this World Cup. By now, it’s best to forget whose replacement he was, because from where we are now, that’s too much of a dwell on the past.

By the fourth over, Dinesh Karthik joined Pant. At 5/3 it appeared even gloomier than the day before. The Indian innings was not even 20 minutes old.

Were you still there? Were you mathematically calculating acceptable, face saving margins of defeat?

For 25 minutes, Karthik put on a defence-ballet class. He defended as you would, your honour, your cricketing journey, your cricketing life. For, in a way, that is what he was defending. There he was, wedged in between, the wicket keeping future and past; looking as India has, for a meaning to its elusive keeping present.

How do you play, when each innings challenges you to rewrite your cricketing world? But here was Karthik, with that chance. It’s another thing, he gave that chance to Neesham, who accepted single handedly, also wrong handedly with such brilliance, it reaffirmed the slide to almost mythical proportions.

Perhaps, Karthik slid into a crack, but nobody was looking. All they saw was Neesham’s hand that emerged from a crack.

The Pant-Pandya partnership, although three shy of fifty, and one ball shy of 13 overs, seemed removed from the slide. There was an early Pant chance but there was bravado too – from 24/4 where else to go? Somewhat fitting, they both made 32, and seemed unfazed by the slide. When Pant fell, though not before hitting four 4s, going for his first 6, he was miffed. The frame captured Pandya’s expression – it didn’t give anything away. Pandya was as far removed from it as later, Dhoni would be from balls wide outside off.

What else is there to do but to remove yourself from the slide?

As for Jadeja, he was not just removed from the slide, he appeared removed from the game and himself. He was, by all accounts, having an out of body experience.

It took India’s 8th match in the World Cup to play Jadeja. This was only his second match in the tournament. In the warm up match against New Zealand, when India was 39/4, Jadeja came in at 8, smashing 54(50) that day.

If there was any pressure, Jadeja had transferred it on to commentary. Reminders of his First Class triple hundreds were oozing out of the box. FC reminders that would’ve made Gavaskar proud on his birthday.

From Day 1, everything Jadeja had done was nothing short of an eloquent cricketing matrimonial – Attractive fielder, highly qualified bowler and now – changes not just his complexion but the match’s too.

There was freedom that was far removed from the situation. Dhoni at the other end was doing his usual Dhoni things, also far removed from the situation. Slide? What slide?

Jadeja was swiveling at the crease, Jadeja was coming down the wicket, Jadeja was making India dream again. Jadeja had banished the slide.

In the end, he scored more than anyone, faster than anyone. There was audacity moulded with thought – there was on display skill, intent, bravado and with it fortune too.

Jadeja made the match worthy. He raised the semi final. He raised himself, his swordsmanship. Jadeja had taken his hurt and made it into something compelling.

Jadeja wanted to be more than a perception. He counter attacked a comment as much as the Kiwis.

And while we may not blame anybody, will it be incorrect to thank someone?

If one man’s counter to a perceived ridicule was such, just imagine what fruit a word tearing into the other ten would have borne?

First published here

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Of formats, doormats and Vijay Shankar – the one who came in unannounced.

by Naked Cricket


Oh dear, Vijay Shankar had a poor IPL. So poor, he went largely unnoticed. He hardly batted, he bowled even less. That he played as many as 15 games is an anomaly.

Just as Suresh Raina often appears to be India’s most enthusiastic player ever, Shankar could pass off as its least. He doesn’t pat players on their backside. What, he barely pats anyone. In return, it doesn’t appear as if anyone pats him. He seems far away, patrolling some boundary on a far off frontier, all by himself and his cutting chai. But if there’s an intruder, his eyes will shoot up from that chai and he will chase him down to the ends of the earth. Much like balls on the boundary. From his stupor, he instantly charges, chasing balls, much like cats chase rats.

They will say, if they haven’t already, that Vijay Shankar is an honest cricketer. That he is a trier. He gives it his all. That means little.

They said Vijay Shankar should never have been playing this World Cup. Not after the IPL he had.

Just as the IPL has created a supply chain of young, Indian cricketers, and forced us to take notice; it has forced us to scramble formats. Before the IPL, Virat Kohli commented that performance in the league will not impact World Cup selection.

Vijay Shankar’s name was in the World Cup squad. Nothing he did or didn’t do in the league altered that.

However, his name was not in the starting XI in India’s first match. Runs for KL Rahul in a warmup only added to his reputation. He slid in at number four, the position with a bamboo door.

But after Shikhar Dhawan’s injury, someone patted Shankar on the shoulder and said, “you’re playing tomorrow as a specialist fielder”. Shankar was drafted. Not as a player that India wanted but one they needed. He would be called upon much as one Subramaniam Badrinath was by CSK – if an opener and Raina fell early. The No. 4 batsman when the going wasn’t so good. Otherwise, you’re good to go when everyone else is gone. That could be as low as No. 6 or 7.

Against Pakistan, Hardik Pandya got groovy at four. Dhoni at five. Surprise, surprise, Vijay Shankar at six.    

Vijay Shankar’s beard is nothing like that of his teammates. His beard is more second year engineering than man in blue. On some days, Shankar leaves the hostel and shines.

Before that gloomy day in June at Old Trafford, Vijay Shankar had never played Pakistan before. But out of nowhere, the sun snuck through and so did he.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar walked off with more intent than Vijay Shankar walked on to finish that hamstrung over. What is intent? Shankar seemed secure to finish that fifth over. He didn’t have to worry whether his first ball should be quicker or slower, his speeds don’t have that variation. It would be either in the high 120s or the low 130s. It wouldn’t have the zip or bounce of Bumrah nor the exacting lines of Bhuvi.

Before Shankar was called to bowl those two deliveries, Pakistan was 13/0 off 4.3 overs. Two quicks at the top of their mental game were setting it up, ball after ball, more often than not, outside off.

Little did they know they were setting it up for Vijay Shankar’s first ball. It didn’t go past Imam-ul-Haq’s bat. It didn’t go past Imam-ul-Haq’s pads. It was fuller, possibly slower than anything bowled so far.

Haq went one way, the ball the other. Shankar’s arms appealed in a near perfect Y. Had it not been given, would it have been reviewed? Was it pitching outside leg? Was it hitting?

It didn’t matter. Pakistan did not review. It pitched in line and was hitting leg. Vijay Shankar had just taken his first wicket in a World Cup, his third in an ODI, in the fifth over versus Pakistan.

Virat Kohli could not believe it. In what will go down as the non-cricketing moment of the match, Kohli’s cracked up reaction summed it all up. in words, possibly –ISNE...Isne wicket lee...isne" (THIS…this has taken a wicket…this!”



Before Shankar, Kedar Jadhav’s wickets would evoke such hilarity.

Close to thirty overs later, Shankar took Pakistan’s sixth and last wicket – knocking over their captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed. In what could well be his last game against India.

Will Shankar play Pakistan again? Shankar only made his ODI debut in January this year. More in reaction to the gap left by Hardik Pandya’s misdemeanours.  

In 10 matches so far, he’s batted six times. Twice each at five, six and seven.

India is yet to lose a match where Shankar has not been called on to bat. When he bats, and is dismissed, there’s a Greek tragedy about his walk back.

Who more than Shankar would know, the opportunities coming his way will be no more than a trickle. What he makes of them will either define him as that first wicket guy against Pakistan or India’s wild card that came off at the World Cup.

Either way, Vijay Shankar has just the right lack of pace and aggression to be Venkatesh Prasad's true successor. Or Madan Lal’s? Or Roger Binny’s?

All had their World Cup moments and Shankar just had his. You know. You saw. As did that guy in his 3D glasses.

First published here

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Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

by Naked Cricket


It’s the summer holidays. The noon, June sun breathes fire down on a makeshift cricket ground outside DAV Public School, Chandigarh. There’s a bunch of boys, around eight or nine of them, ranging from 10 to 17. The tallest and oldest of them is unleashing a fireball, knocking batsmen over.

An audacious little kid roller skates right through the middle of the pitch. The fireball wielder has to stop in his bowling tracks. He hurls abuse in Punjabi, the kid snaps back. 
The bully hurls the ball at the kid. The kid catches the ball.

A good time to end it right there, instead, the kid asks for the bat.

More abuse follows, in a mix of Hinglish and Punjabi. The kid lets off a mock laugh, takes guard. The first ball is a beamer on the batsman’s throat. Though instead of clearing his throat, the ball clears what would’ve been a very deep fine leg, beyond the trees, beyond everyone’s sight and imagination.

The bully storms towards the kid. Before he can reach him though, he’s on his skates, away, as far as the ball.

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

Yuvraj Singh did not bat in his first ODI. Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid, Kambli did. Even now, on retirement, he seems like that cheeky kid. But he’s of a 2000 vintage. Grown in the Punjab, blossomed in Kenya. Against bullies again. Isn’t that the best way? Up against McGrath, Gillespie, Lee. There was no Yuvi-six in that innings. Studded with 12 fours it was. On October, 7, 2000, Yuvraj Singh was born in blue.

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

Over three years and 73 ODIs later, Yuvraj Singh made his Test debut. At home in Mohali. In his first Test, Yuvraj became familiar with the third result in a cricket match – a draw. After India slid to 18/3 and 128/4, he held back for a 5 off thirty minutes.

What followed was that Pakistan tour of 2004 best remembered for Sehwag’s triple at Multan, and India’s 2-1 series win. Somewhere in there was Yuvraj on his first away Test series. His first Test half century, first Test wicket, first Test century (on a green-top at Lahore) and Inzamam’s run out.

Yuvraj had to wait for India’s next tour of Pakistan for his second Test century. Yet again in a lost cause, was the finer-print in a Test career fraught with stops and starts already being written?

Yuvraj’s third century also came against Pakistan. In the same innings, Irfan Pathan scored his only Test century while Sourav Ganguly raked up his highest Test score of 239. India gallivanted to 626. Shoiab Akhtar bowled only 10 off Pakistan’s 150 overs.

Yuvraj did not play Pakistan again. Yuvraj did not score another Test century.

He played 40 Tests spanning nine years, seven against Pakistan. Overall Test average of 33.92. Test average against Pakistan 63.55.

What if Yuvraj had played more against Pakistan? What if India had?

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

But Yuvraj did play Pakistan again, albeit in an ODI. 18 days after his Karachi Test hundred, he scored another Karachi hundred – this time in a winning cause, batting at three. Yuvraj was man of the match, man of the series. By now you know, this kid never did things in half measures.

Yuvraj’s ODI average and strike rate both spike against Pakistan – from 36.55 to 42.50, from 87.67 to 93.47; sometimes, all an Indian cricketer needs for inspiration, is a Pakistani cricketer to play against, and vice versa?

The last time, Yuvraj played against Pakistan was in the Champions Trophy Final. Two years ago, but all those triumphs seemed like light years away.

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

How do you make your captain behave like a hooligan?

You team up with U-19 mate, Mohammad Kaif and win a seemingly lost cause. You make that day, evening for India, a memory of a lifetime. There will be bigger championships to be won, but that first definitive whack at a sport’s adversary, the knowledge that the foundations have been laid, there and then – that is power.

Armed with that power, Yuvraj scaled the World T20 in 2007, the World Cup in 2011. What he couldn’t scale was Test cricket. Perhaps, it was a different power.

Who knows, just as his timing of the white ball was unrivaled, his success at Test cricket required a restraint that wasn’t inbuilt in his game. Nor was there the audacity of a Sehwag that often surmounted that restraint.

A middle order of Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman in whites; sometimes, it’s tough to find a spot for India’s blue eyed boy.

Then there was every southpaw’s worst enemy – the off-spinner. Yuvraj himself admitted that he thought Muralitharan was the toughest he faced.

Who knows, maybe white was way too bland for this flam kid. By now, all those fierce splashes in blue have washed away the austerity of white; just as the splendour of those late night finishes have outdone the day game.

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

Every year, IPL franchises outdid themselves in the Yuvraj chase. The promise of what could be far outdid what had been in the previous years.

In their pursuit, runs, averages were damned. Franchises just wanted a part of that Yuvi glory. In a sport often bereft of stars, here was one, although on the wane, still brighter than most.

In all likelihood, Mumbai Indians will be his team for keeps; in what capacity is uncertain, he could add to the super coach/mentor strength. Seated with his mates, Sachin and Zaks amongst other.

Before signing off for the season, he did play four games. Strewn across, were six sixes.

They were none like them in the IPL. They were sixes off Yuvraj Singh’s bat.

They were part of an earlier memory. A memory that came alive again. Pulled at a forgotten part of your cricketing heart. Pumped it. Thumped it. Made it alive again.  Almost at ease. As if it’s alright to look for pleasure in the sinful. That extravagance is acceptable. That it’s good to be king if just for a while. It’s good to be high and never come down. *

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?


*last line by Tom Petty from the song It’s good to be king.

First published here

    



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