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Beyond the giants, here’s to India’s team of ants

by Gaurav Sethi

On 18th September, Khaleel Ahmed made his ODI debut for India. Ten days later, he was smiling goofily with the Asia Cup. A Cup that refused to let go of the 20 year old. The most enduring image of this tournament will be a beaming Khaleel with the Asia Cup all to himself.  Thrilled, alone, gripping on to a trophy like it was some wicked tickling mechanism.

Khaleel did not play in the finals. But he did in two games, bowling his full quota, with four wickets to show for his smiles.  In these two games, he was part of a win and a tie. When Ravindra Jadeja was the last man out against Afghanistan, Khaleel was not out on one. His partnership with Jadeja lasted six balls – it took India from 245 to 252, from a defeat to a tie.

In his excitement, as the Indian team came together for the Asia Cup champions photograph, a mirthful Khaleel even indicated something to a dour Ravi Shastri. Why didn’t someone just go and interview him? Khaleel, not Shastri.

The Asia Cup needed a signature, one that was beyond runs, wickets, sweat, temperature, something to lighten the rigours of this last ball victory. Out of nowhere, closing in on 2 am IST, there he was, the cup-magnet. Our very own silent movie.

One that started with Bumrah being rested for the Hong Kong game. Enter Khaleel. Defending India’s 285, bowling his fifth over in his second spell; Hong Kong 175/1 with more than a sniff – Khaleel traps Nizakat Khan lbw for 92. End of game. (While Shardul Thakur’s four overs went for 41, Bhuvi’s nine went for 51; Khaleel’s 10 went for 48; 3wickets too.)

In Khaleel’s second match against Afghanistan, both Bumrah and Bhuvi were rested. This was two days before the finals. Khaleel’s opening partner, Deepak Chahar went for 37 off 4, and the other seamer, Siddarth Kaul, 58 off his 9. Khaleel bowled his 10 for 45, with a maiden and the wicket of Nabi on song. After Nabi’s wicket, Afghanistan added just 8 off the last 2.3 overs. Near perfect. As was Khaleel’s one run. In a tied match, that’s more than enough, right?

Khaleel Ahmed bowled with pace and smarts. While the other seamers were way below par, he held his own; and India did not regret the rest to either Bumrah or Bhuvi. Who knows, that break might well have been the difference; that relief camp of one more rest day, before going into the tight final.

Jadeja came in after Hardik Pandya and Axar Patel went out with injury. He batted twice in the Asia Cup; in the tied match and in the finals. Those two tricky chases will stay with us in sepia. The stop-start-halt-go-won-lost bends; and at its mind-bending best, Jadeja seemed to be there. Even though he wasn’t there at the end, he ensured somehow, it wasn’t a bitter end.

He smiled with hilarity right in the midst of the madness of the finals. It wasn’t as if he was mocking Bangladesh or himself, he was chilling. It was the deepest of breaths, that wears even better with the face breaking into a shiny happy people song like smile. It’s not the end of the world kind of resigned smile. The kind of smile that disarms a nervous partner, a jittery viewer; that conveys, it’s a game. That all those years of work can’t be wrong. That losing here will not make them wrong.

Something for every player and fan to know, learn; to try and unlearn the load, the guilt, the hatred, towards players, towards teams.

And so Jadeja smiled just like that. A smile that broke through his Tagore beard. It was almost learned. It knew. Even if we don’t win this, by now we have enough experience to tie it. Who knows, maybe that’s what he joked with Bhuvi.

Ten runs shy of Bangladesh, Jadeja fell. He knew it, the umpire didn’t, the keeper did, the reviewer did. Three against one are damning odds. A smile-less Jadeja walked off. Another 20-something knock in what would be Dhoni-time. Had MS been picking him all these years in CSK for this?

You just believe in certain players. In that slide, that stop, that look, that aim, that throw, that run out. It’s what takes 120/0 to 139/4, to 222 all out.

To the difference between winners and what could have been?

But at the very end, on the last ball of the Asia Cup, the two batsmen standing, one more than the other; saw India cross that blurred, white line. So far, both had done far more with the ball. Kedar Jadhav bowled in five out of six games but had to bat only thrice. Two of his six wickets came in the finals – the first broke Bangladesh’s 120 run opening stand. The second, Mushfiqur Rahim’s, confirmed the collapse at hand.

Kuldeep’s 10 wickets, 3/45 in the finals, bowling at the death, added life to India’s chances – none more than match-maker Liton Das’ in the 41st over. Of Bangladesh’s 188 then, Das alone made 121.

Later, Jadhav’s 23 and Kuldeep’s 5, sealed the game. KP ran into them as they returned from that winning run. In comparison to a towering KP, both looked like likeable little Hobbits. Jadhav as Frodo Baggins, Kuldeep his accomplice, Sam Gamjee. And to think, they pulled this all off in the Ring of Fire.

Beyond Khaleel, Jadeja, Kedar, Kuldeep; there’s one more, not in the playing XI, but one who’s remembered for the wrong reasons; the most ridiculed Indian cricketer ever perhaps; and now coach.

While everything cricket is debatable, it’s a good time to congratulate Ravi Shastri on the win.

He’s much more than a meme. And in his own way, we must believe, he has the best interests of Indian cricket at heart.

So what if it doesn’t always seem that way.

(Ravi Shastri was at the crease of the tied Test with Australia. Like Jadeja versus Afghanistan, he too was batting at No. 7. That day too, the last wicket was of a left arm spinner – Maninder Singh. Also on the second last ball in the over. Also in the third week of September, 32 years apart)

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