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Tendulkar Time

Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. Nov 14, 2013, the first day of the second test match.  It’s the evening session. After West Indies were bundled out for a measly 182 in their first innings,  India begin their innings rather smoothly and briskly. The West Indies bowlers are delivering on a plate for the Indian openers and they are taking full toll of it. Murali Vijay drives one past the bowler, a picture perfect on drive. No, not quite though, everything is perfect except for the fact that it is played by the wrong batsman. We wish if it had been played by the number 4 batsman, the man who is assumed to have patented that shot.

We personally don’t want to see him coming out to bat today. What if  he gets out today itself ? We don’t want the main act to be finished, done and dusted, within the first day. There should be something to look forward to on day 2. We want to feel the anxiety and thrill over a Tendulkar-to-bat day overnight. We want to be a part of an early morning crowd thronging into the Wankhede stadium anticipating something special. 

Shikhar Dhawan pulls out his favourite sweep shot against Shillingford and top edges it. That is very much against the run of play, we think.  Chetheshwar Pujara joins Vijay, the duo which knows how to string together big partnerships. Surely they will play nightwatchmen to Tendulkar, we hope. But after two balls, Vijay gets an inside edge to backward short leg. He looks disappointed, rightly so because he has been batting beautifully. The umpire consults with the Third Umpire for the no-ball, but everyone knows that it’s only a formality.

Vijay walks back and we can now see ‘The Man’ coming down the stairs. It’s not clear from our end. We are at the North Stand exactly opposite to the players pavilion, but we can see it in our mind, Tendulkar putting on his gloves through the steps. We can hear the decibel levels going several notches up as he takes each step towards the middle. In fact we are contributing to the noise even though we are tensed. The guard of honour from the West Indies players is already in place. The umpires also join in. Tendulkar reaches the middle now. 

The grand entry

The grand entry

It’s 3.30 only now. The play can be extended to 5 pm if 20 more overs are not bowled within the scheduled close of play. That’s a lot of time and overs. I am trying to tell myself to concede the fact that I might have to leave the stadium disappointed today. The fun might well be over by stumps. But there’s Virat Kohli anyway. What a treat watching him has been of late. What about a swashbuckling knock from Dhoni tomorrow. It’s going to be entertaining in any case. But even then we badly want him to stay not out at the close of play.

What can be done to make sure that Sachin doesn’t get out. The first and the easiest step is not to sit. Nobody is sitting in the crowd anyway.  The first ball, he survives, bounces short of  the short -leg fielder. There is real tension in the air. You can cut it with a knife, but you can never make it subside. My friend is urging people to keep quiet and not to put the master under pressure with the Sachin- Sachin chants that have been resonating around  Wankhede. What an absurd request by him !

An over later, it’s Shillingford again to Tendulkar, his nemesis from Kolkata. In fact, off spinners have been fancying a bowl at Tendulkar for a while now. He needs to get off the mark. He plays an ugly hoick across the line and manages to pick up a single. It’s felt as if it is a release shot.  He won’t be emulating Bradman in his last test, after all.  I am trying to make sure that I stay in the perfect position. I don’t want to jinx him in anyway possible. If  Tendulkar’s quest at the crease is for balance, ours is also for balance of a different kind. A balanced state from where we can let him play without getting out, simple. If that means keeping even the tiniest piece of paper around us in the exact same position as it was for the previous delivery, then so be it. It’s an esoteric superstition that only cricket fans can understand.

Tendulkar is beginning to hit his stride. He has already hit Shillingford for a couple of boundaries. The crowd is beginning to loosen up. But I can’t do that just yet I feel. I am ready to stand up for the whole innings if needed, I am ready to repeat the routines if that keeps him going out there in the middle. Shillingford is the main danger, I feel. My friend is telling me that Shillingford hasn’t yet hit the right length to trouble Tendulkar. I understand that, but I reply to him saying that he will hit his length the very next ball. I often try this counter jinxing technique with Tendulkar, where I think or speak about all the possible harmful things that can happen to him while batting.  It can be a ball that keeps low all of a sudden, I picture him squatting and getting bowled. It can be a ripper of an off break going through the gates. It can be him trying to play a cute paddle and missing the ball and finding himself dead in front of the stumps or it can be an umpire trying to show his ability to not be swayed by emotions and thus giving a marginal decision against Tendulkar. I have gone through all such scenarios in my mind. Hopefully I have counter jinxed them all for Sachin.

Pujara is turning over the strike at will and Tendulkar is looking more and more assured at the crease. But all the setting up work could come to nothing in the next three overs. Darren Sammy bowls a loosener, or is that the best he offers. The straight bat meets the ball, not much of a  follow through. Mid on fielder can fetch the ball from the boundary. Now that is a perfect on-drive. Everyone around knows that this is special. We are high-fiving with people we don’t even know. There is a genuine sense of satisfaction on everyone’s face. We are no longer clapping and praying for a toothless old master, we are cheering on and witnessing the real master who has just produced his trademark shot. There are people who have spent the same X as us or less than X or more than X for their tickets. But everyone now feels as if whatever has been spent is well worth it.

The day is over. Sachin is batting on 38. The perfect scenario. Next day will turn out to be a full house. Pujara’s score and  India’s total score ? Most people don’t know and they don’t care about it too. To be fair, we too are not aware of the overall picture. We are walking by a maidan after play and someone asks us what the state of the match is. “Sachin not out on 38” . He asks for nothing more too and goes away. Has he smiled hearing the news ? We want to tell it to everyone, spread smiles all around and just basically cherish those moments.

******

Day 2 arrives. The moving day of a test match these days, except that for this match, the game has moved forward a lot on the first day itself. We are sitting on seats that offer the best view from the North Stand, upper level. We know that today someone will come demanding our seats (theirs in fact) showing the seat number. We reach two hours prior to the game. But that is of no use now as more and people come saying “yeh, mera seat hai, please move”. 

Thus we are now sitting on our original seats. The view is not as perfect as it was before. But why bother about that, we never thought we would be able to get in and there were days when we might have had wished to become a fly on the walls of Wankhede for this match to get a piece of the action. So let’s settle and enjoy Sachin or get really nervous for him. Sachin looks relaxed today morning. This is not a fresh start for him it feels. He is trying to dazzle the crowd one last time.

He goes for that favourite upper cut despite a third man fielder is being stationed. For a moment, I think it’s over. No, the umpire hasn’t heard anything and he is safe for now. May be it’s time to become more careful now as a spectator. We shouldn’t be betraying him in this last hurray. I start to follow a pattern of pre-ball routines that will serve Tendulkar well in the middle. I look to the scoreboards to my right and left one after another before every delivery that Sachin faces.

It seems to be working wonders. Sachin drives Tino Best past mid off for a four to reach his half century. ‘Sachin, Sachin’  gets louder and more importantly happier by the minute. Our throats are working overtime, but not everyday they have to do this. We are talking among ourselves that Tendulkar seems to be in that zone. Moreover he is determined to show off. He is happy to go for shots and risk his wicket in the process. Tino Best has been following through on the pitch and coming very close to Tendulkar at the strikers end, trying to upset his concentration with some words and stern looks. After the end of an over, Sachin goes past Best who is on his haunches and seems to have gently tapped on his head. This is a master of 24 years of experience cherishing every moment of this grand finale.

First over after the drinks break, fifth ball. Has he caught it ? We know it’s over. Tendulkar is gone for 74. How did it happen ? Have I violated my balance ?  Have I been sitting when the ball was bowled ?  More importantly, what should we do now ? Stay silent and analyze that dismissal ?  But before that we have to  give that rousing applause for one last time for Sachin seems to be in no mood to hang around. He walks back pretty quickly and takes off his helmet within the field itself. That’s so rare, I’m thinking. He turns around and raises his bat acknowledging all sections of the crowd.

Not again!!!

Not again!!!

We are pretty sure that we have seen the last of  Tendulkar with a bat in hand and while it lasted,  those 2.5 hours in all, they epitomized our life thus far. It’s one big emotional roller-coaster that we are parting with, one that has been enjoyable all the way even through the tensions and the apprehensions, one that has made us do all sorts of weird things, and one that has made us look forward to another day in life.

Our message to Sachin!!!

Our message to Sachin!!!

*****

P.S : I miss those days, those days from two weeks back when we were on a massive mission, a challenge indeed where we had to be single minded and give all our attention to the task at hand to succeed. That was the biggest hunt for tickets for a cricket match we ever had to do and for sure will remain the biggest in the future too. The group we had created for conversation on the topic was buzzing always. In fact, it was the only group with so much activity that I have ever been a part of.

“Hey, I  found a guy on Twitter, he has tickets for North Stand”. “I got the number of a guy from Internet, who seems to be an MCA member or he seems to know someone from the MCA”.  “Good, keep in touch with him”, “I think  X  is a decent buy, but try to bring it down to X- Y “. It went on like that for two weeks and finally we got our tickets for an amount that we still thought was too high, but after all, this was no ordinary occasion. This was the curtains coming down to our childhood, or more clearly our life thus far. We just had to be there at Wankhede for the farewell and we managed it. Thank You Almighty for making it happen.

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That On-Drive

A report from the first day of the historic final test match of Sachin Tendulkar played at the Wankhede, Mumbai on Nov 14, 2013.

This post first appeared on Manorma Online on Nov 14, 2013.

*****

So much has happened over the course of the day. But in the end, what remains in my mind is only the deafening noise accompanying a short man to the field, the sacred turf where he was identified as a child prodigy. Since then he has gone on to conquer the world, moreover conquer our hearts. Our relationship with Sachin Tendulkar has always been about urging him to make us feel good, make us sleep better. It was no different today as well, when he came out to bat.

Mathew Hayden describes the Indian worship towards Sachin as a frantic appeal by a nation. Today, that frantic appeal had a demanding tone to it, a demand arisen purely out of the understanding of the fact that this would probably be the last chance for us to take solace in Tendulkar. Tendulkar came out to bat when India lost their second wicket, that of Murali Vijay with the score on 77. But the whole day, it has been about Tendulkar only.

The morning when I reached the Wankhede, an hour before the start of the match, there were long queues already in place with people wanting to get in and be a part of this historic occasion right from the very first ball. India won the toss and put West Indies into bat on a pitch which had good carry for the bowlers and a bit of sideways movement. Whether it’s his last match or not, whether he is actively involved in the play or not, one cannot escape the ‘Sachiiin Sachiiin’ chants in a ground in India. At once, Sachin himself gestured towards the crowd suggesting that it should not be all about him and that the bowler is the one in need of all the backing when he is charging into bowl.

West Indies lost Chris Gayle to a sharp and well directed short delivery from Mohammed Shami who seemed to be carrying his form from the Kolkata victory to here also. Darren Bravo played some attacking shots against Ashwin but fell prey to him just before lunch. West Indies finished the first session with the score on 93 for 2. Indian captain MS Dhoni must have thought about giving Tendulkar a bowl at some stage in the match, because the crowd was constantly in his hear with “We want Sachin, We want Sachin” .

Dhoni resisted that temptation and the main bowlers were more than par for the course as the second session saw a collapse from the West Indies team that has become a characteristic of their test performances in the recent years. The middle and late order batsmen were sorted out by the Indian spinners with sharp turn and bounce. Once Shivnarine Chanderpaul was caught behind off the bowling of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a procession of wickets ensued. Pragyan Ojha bagged a five wicket haul and Ashwin picked up three. West Indies were bowled out for 182 just on stroke of tea.

One interesting passage of play was when Sachin was employed to field at fine leg for a while. At first, there were only a couple of ball boys patrolling that area. They found a cute idea to get closer to the master. They picked up some bottles of water and went near him and offered that to him without him even asking for it. After a few minutes, when I looked towards the fine leg region, the ball boys multiplied in number there. Surely, the West Indies batsmen weren’t playing neat leg glances one after another for that area to be taken care of by so many kids. They were fulfilling their dreams, a dream most Indians would never be able to fulfill, be that close to their idol.

The third session started brightly for India with a solid and quick fire partnership between Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay. they scored at nearly a run a ball before Dhawan was out caught at deep square leg trying to sweep. By then people realized that Tendulkar batting today itself was a strong possibility and the collective wish of the crowd undid Murali Vijay who had been playing beautifully till then. Both the openers were snapped by Shillingford.

So the moment arrived, the moment everyone had been waiting for, but not expecting to come that soon. But that didn’t mean the crowd were any less pumped up in their reception for their hero. We all bowed down saluting the master. Once, twice, thrice and many more. The West Indies team members arranged themselves to give Tendulkar a guard of honour. He nodded to all the appreciations he was getting and took strike, not in any haste. He wanted the noise to subside so that he could focus better. The noise never went meeker. But this was Sachin, he had been to all the rigorous examination by his loyal fans. He knew he couldn’t afford to disappoint his people, both the screaming ones in the crowd at the Wankhede and the millions tuning in from all over the world.

He brought out his A game in place for the biggest of farewells ever known in sporting history. There was a certainty in his footwork today. He went back and forward with clockwork precision and smothered the off spin of Shillingford who had troubled him at the Eden Gardens. He was adamant in punishing any loose delivery that came his way.  Then late in the day, when West Indies captain Darren Sammy brought himself to bowl, Tendulkar came up with his signature shot, that on drive, that head going towards the offside and that bat coming down in perfect perpendicular and meeting the ball dead center. The ball raced away to the boundary and that was relieving for everyone. All is well with the Tendulkar world. He finished on 38 not out at the end of the day. The fans can now have a good night’s sleep and come back hoping for more vintage mastery. But most will concede that that on-drive has already given them the value for their money.

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November 19, 2013 · 7:38 am

Grand Farewell – On the Eve

30 hours on a train. I have never been a complete a rail junkie to enjoy a trip like this without any boredom. What if at the other side of the journey awaits you the daily routines. That’s not something to look forward to. But one thing that  kept me going without any desperation was the fact that I had a lot to look forward. I reached Mumbai very late tonight, the city every cricket fan would want to be in at the moment. A cricket match is about to be played between India and West Indies. Yes, West Indies is playing in this series if anyone needs a reminder. But here, it has all been about one man and his farewell to the game he cherished more than anyone ever did.

The grand farewell party is upon us or it has been going on ever since Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement on October 10. I can remember the days when I used to wait and watch the post match analysis of matches in which Sachin had performed well  to hear all the praises showered on him by the experts. Every word on him or by him, said or written was a treasure. I somehow found them quite reassuring that my love for him is justified after all.

But these days, it has become very hard to keep track of all the Sachin articles and T.V. shows since there are too many. In fact we were too busy with our herculean efforts for getting tickets for the match so that there was simply no time to keep abreast of all the side shows accompanying this massive retirement celebration program. Finally we managed to get three tickets for prices that are undisclosed (Like they do in Football transfers). The mechanism of ticket purchasing itself is worth for a novel,  I believe.

We are staying at an Uncle’s place in Mumbai and he told us that in 1976, he purchased his flat for the same amount as the cost of our three tickets combined. The flat still serves him well. We only hope that the memories from here over the next five days will go on to serve us through out our lives.

Come on Day 1, enchant us.

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In Appreciation of Men In Blue

‘Men in Blue’, Blue brigade’, ‘Bleed blue’, these are  words that we are all familiar with.  The common factor in all these is Blue, the color of our national cricket team’s kits in limited over formats. For the last decade or so, it has always been blue, and frustratingly enough, similar tones of blue for long periods. If we look around team kits of all other ODI teams, they mix it up often enough to kill the boredom associated with that familiarity.  There was one appreciable change in mid 2009 when India adopted a darker blue, which was received well by fans as it exuded more confidence than the lighter shades of blue. This piece is however not about jersey colors,  it is about the men who wear them, Team India, our ODI team.

The last decade has often been looked upon as the most successful in Indian cricket’s history. The best highlighted  have been the successes we have had in Test match arena and rightly so.  But let us have a look at our ODI exploits for the last 13 years or so, which have some high points over the course of time.  We always have had strong batting line ups and much of our success hinged on our batsman either putting up huge scores on the board or chasing totals down. They flutter too along the way, but they often responded to the team’s call.

Sourav Ganguly took over as captain of the team in 2000.  The unsavory match fixing episode of 2000 meant stalwarts like Mohammad Azharuddin and  Ajay Jadeja would never ever play for India. For all the brilliance of Sachin Tendulkar in the 1990’s, it would be unfair to overlook the contributions of players like them for whatever little successes we have had in those times. But the team under Ganguly was something different. They started to hunt down chases. If Jadeja and Robin Singh often used to get us so near to an otherwise improbable target, Yuvraj and Kaif started to win it for us. Rahul Dravid started to play the floater role in the middle order. He literally had to keep his pads on always once he started to keep wickets for India in ODIs.

Natwest Trophy 2002

Natwest Trophy 2002

Sachin Tendulkar started to play the percentages more, yet on any given day he would unleash his majestic stroke play against the best of  bowlers.  Ganguly started to pollute his silky smooth stroke play with odd agricultural heaves, but in the process became a much more dangerous batsman in the format. Sometimes, he even outscored Tendulkar in some big century partnerships. Then Sehwag came along and outscored and out-thought everyone. Even after Dravid became the captain, our batting continued to flourish. We became chase masters in ODIs by winning 17 matches on the trot under Dravid. Players like Kohli and Dhoni have now taken that chasing mastery to an all together higher level. MS Dhoni arrived on the scene as a hard hitting wicket keeper batsman, but showed enough cricketing acumen to be elevated as the captain of the team in 2007. He re branded his batting by mixing a bit of Javed Miandad street smartness into the old power game of Dhoni. That deadly combination meant his became the most important wicket in the Indian line up.

CB series 2008

CB series 2008

Under Dhoni’s captaincy players like Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina became permanent fixtures in the team. The hitting prowess and the fearlessness they showcase, makes India a watchable side even for fans who aren’t Indian supporters. If we look at the statistics, most of the batting records in this format during this period are set by Indians. They have successfully chased down targets of over 300 as many as 13 times in the history which is almost twice the number of the second team in that list, Sri Lanka with 7. Well, that attributes to one thing most people would find as India’s major weakness, the bowling. To chase down over 300 consistently you need to concede that much first.

When we compare the Indian ODI sides over these period to that of the likes of the Australian or South African outfits, it’s the bowling that looks pale. Bowlers like Ajit Agarakar, Ashish Nehra and Irfan Pathan have had their moments, they sometimes managed to get that new ball talking and get that yorker on the spot in tense finishes but bowled some filthy stuff along the way too. Zaheer Khan burst onto the scene in the 2000 Champions Trophy and by and large carried the bowling spearhead role for a long time.  Anil Kumble sparingly appeared in ODIs once Harbhajan Singh made his presence felt. Harbhajan for a long while was India’a 40-1  bowler, figures which needed other bowlers to chip in too to have a match winning effect.

Asia Cup in 2010

Asia Cup in 2010

India have achieved some memorable ODI wins too during this period. Natwest Series win in 2002 constitutes a seminal moment in our cricket. That same  team reached the finals of the 2003 world cup on the back of some solid all round performances led by Tendulkar who batted through from one innings to another in that tournament. In 2007, out of nowhere, India won the inaugural 2007 World T20. Then at home under Dhoni in 2011, won the world cup healing the wounds of that first round exit in the 2007 world cup. Yuvraj Singh showcased his true potential as a match winner in both these world cup victories. In between all these they won ODI tournaments in Pakistan in 2004 and 2006, Sri Lanka in 2009, Australia in 2008, England in 2002, West Indies in 2011, and New Zeland in 2009 to go with many bilateral tournament victories at home. They also won the Asia Cup in 2010.

World Cup 2011

World Cup 2011

India never had the intimidating aura of the Australian sides of Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting. An Australian victory during their period of invincibility was received with a casual appreciation of the obvious, while every Indian victory on the big stage was always a cause of celebration. An emergence of a new team spirit was lauded even when there was hardly any personnel changes in the team.

Now, the Indian team is  in the middle of a Champions Trophy campaign in England. They have mostly surprised the pundits with their showing in this tournament. But what they are doing is actually putting together those facets of  their game which have all worked pretty well before too, may be not always simultaneously. Most of the players in the team have reasonable experience at the international level, so it is not a team of rookies by any means. Dropping non performing senior players have helped too. It helped to rejuvenate the fielding unit and also to give Dhoni more of a free hand to assert his personality on the team.

So is it Dhoni’s team now ? Dhoni is as much a man who polarizes opinion as Ganguly does. He is the punching bag, the whipping boy for many Indians, for reasons which are unknown. If there are any reasons, then it must be non- cricketing ones. Ganguly formed a team of highly skilled, competitive players who expressed on the field and never backed away. If the same theory applies here too, then Dhoni’s team would be playing hard cricket, but treating it just as a game and they would always be playing with a smile. They may collect some more trophies in the process.

P.S: This post may appear as a one eyed view on the Indian team, an eye of a fanatic supporter. Indian team have had their fair share of losses too. If we go by the stats from the start of 2000 to up until now, India are placed only in the 4th position based on Win/Loss ratios in ODIs, behind Australia(2.64), South Africa (1.81), Sri Lanka (1.36). India have a ratio of 1.34.  I have written this post just to express the joy of a fan when his team tends to do well and how these victories make an everlasting impression on our mind.

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Desert Storm Chapter

Sports come up with a lot of intangibles that we often find ourselves emotionally attached to. Moments and memories illuminated by persons and places. We all have our own collection of such precious pieces of memorabilia. Without us even noticing it they grow on us and they make a huge impression on our consciousness. They sometimes form a chapter in our life which goes well beyond the number of pages it should in a completely rational world.

Then one day we happen to read or hear somebody else saying something about that same thing, our very own personal treasure. We often feel that something is not right about this. “Will justice be done to that jewel in the realm of  our memory ?”, we fear.  “Nobody would or could appreciate and revere this as much as we do!”, we prejudice. So now I run that risk of writing about something that adorns the forefront of our cricketing memories. It started only as one of those many tri nations series in Sharjah in the year 1998, but in the end it became a folktale in our lives.

Yes, I am after the Desert Storm, those April nights in Sharjah. If we go by exact dates the desert storm happened on 22 April 1998.  But without what followed on the 24th of April , would it have become an iconic moment of this magnitude ?  So I would like to call this chapter ‘Desert Storm April 22 – 24, 1998’.

We often hear quotes like “Where were you when the Desert Storm happened ?”. But what if  the answer is  that you were in your bed at home, thinking about the game, cursing the cable connection for not having the channel telecasting the match. You wanted to go to a distant relative’s place where it was available, but then as a 9 year child you also wanted to hide the fact from people around you that you are somehow addicted to this game of cricket. Internet, live score updates and live streaming, you never saw it coming then. You picked up the newspaper the following day and had that mixed feeling reading the match reports. You couldn’t have written a better script, you felt rejoiced and you wouldn’t get to see something like this live in the future, you got despaired.

But within a few days you managed to get to see the full replay of the matches, yes replays, not highlights, definitely not the half an hour shows that we are presented with these days on T.V.  That was to be the beginning only. You would go on to watch it time and time again for a million times since then. But still missing out on them live hurt you for a while. You started asking people whether they had managed to see it live, and if they had, you would think how lucky they were then.

sachin

Coming back to the highlights shows, on the field, Sachin had already been your king but they introduced you to a voice that was to become a household name in the coming years. Tony Greig all of a sudden would become your favourite commentator.  ‘Whaddaplayer’ gave you goosebumps every time. And every time he said ‘Sachin tendulkar wants to win this match’, after he had managed to get India qualify for the finals, you would hold your breath and watch it even more closely as if expecting him to do it this time. But that was never to be the case, every time he would get out to Damien Fleming, “Tendulkar is walking”, Greig would say, everytime.

But the best part about them is that the highlights of these matches are often shown back to back, one after another. In the finals, you knew that Shane Warne would come around the wicket at once, and Sachin would greet him stepping down and hitting over long on and you cherished everytime the look on Warney’s face. Was he really swatting flies or was that a gesture of the disbelief on the treatment he received.  You preferred to believe the latter.

Sachin_Sharjah 2

On days when there would be no friends to play in the evening, you would recreate the match situations in your mind and replay the shots all on your own. You would run down the ground and play a front foot pull. You would then have a look at an imaginary Michael Kasprowicz in front of you and have a nod at him suggesting that you had his measure. You would scamper between the wickets, and after reaching the century, you would be pretty particular about not removing your helmet, there wasn’t one in any case.  You would acknowledge the applause with that bat with an MRF sign holding it horizontally, not lifting it above your shoulder.

But the most you had done in stretching your imagination is when, you would assume a sandstorm blowing around you, all opposition players and umpires lying on the floor covering their face, you having that determined look on your face ready to counter the next ball, not even closing your eyes. Yes, you realized then that the Desert Storm chapter had really grown big on you.

Happy Birthday, Desert Storm (April 22-24, 1998), Happy Birthday Sachin Tendulkar.

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Why We Should Bet On Pujara

“Hi I can predict the result now. 3-1. Sorry but that’s what going to happen. Watch out!”   11;32 AM, 24 Mar

“Don’t think so Pujara to win it for India chasing 200”. 11:34 AM, 24 Mar

These are two messages interchanged between myself and my brother in law who is settled in Sydney, Australia. It happened during the first session of the third day’s play between India and Australia at Delhi in the fourth and last match of the test series. He was predicting an Aussie win. Please don’t get me wrong, it was not because he wanted Australia to win that he suggested this but it was because he always believed in their fighting spirit and he expected them to come up with one last effort to save themselves from the humiliation of a 4-0 whitewash. Don’t know why I said that Pujara would win it for India. Pujara is relatively new to International cricket, but somehow I felt that he is not one to fail in these circumstances. Thanks to some impressive rearguard action by Peter Siddle, Australia managed to take their lead past 150. But the 200 mark that I predicted was a long way off as India needed only 155 to win and make history by clean sweeping a series of 4 or more tests for the first time in the history of Indian cricket.

Then Chetheshwar Pujara came out to open with Murali Vijay and India started scoring easily and even though 4 wickets were lost, an Indian win always looked like a formality to be completed . Pujara stroked all around the ground and against all bowlers too. He was so much at ease on a difficult wicket to bat on that even his teammates too appeared to be batting on a different track to him. He finished unbeaten on 82 from 92 balls.  So that was it . The series was over. 4-0 to India.

Later that evening I had a discussion with one of my cousins who is also as much a cricket buff as I am. As usual we discussed at lengths about all that happened in this match. Even though most of what we said were Tendulkar centric, like how he now finds it difficult to come on to the front foot and smother the spin while defending and how he would fare in South Africa and all, there were other things too like how Rahane had squandered an opportunity and how Jadeja had turned into a true match winner. Then there was Chetheshwar Pujara. There was no pleasant surprise about his performance. It was pleasing but not surprising we felt.

One of the things we both concurred about Pujara was that he always seems to be in control of the game, not just his own game,  but from the team’s perspective too. He just has that innate ability to score at just about the right pace that the situation demands of him. Often he has been compared with Rahul Dravid, but from the evidences of what he has done so far in his career, his game has more resemblances to other number three batsmen like Ricky Ponting and Hashim Amla. By no means, he is already in that league but we felt that he provides that right mix of caution and aggression that the team needs.

A sight that may become so familiar

A sight that may become so familiar

Let us have a look at his career so far and the major innings he has played in test match cricket.  India were chasing 207 to win the match in the fourth innings in his debut match and as part of a team strategy to distribute experience across the batting line up uniformly he was promoted to number 3. He played positively and scored 72 off 89 balls.  It was a very modest target and it was Pujara’s approach that helped to make light work of it.  After his long lay off from International cricket because of injuries, Pujara came back to the team to play against New Zeland in 2012 and marked his comeback with 158 in the first Innings at Hyderabad.  India were batting first and their score of  438 was more than enough to make the New Zelanders bat twice and secure victory.

Then his next big score came in the first test against England. There again in the first innings, he scored 206, his first double hundred and that laid the foundations for an easy victory by the fifth day morning.  Then in the second test match at Mumbai, he played an innings which required more skill and temperament than his double hundred at Ahmadabad because the pitch at Mumbai had some demons in it. He scored a patient 135 spending more than 7 hours and helped India post a respectable 327 in the first innings. But Kevin Pietersen’s all conquering return to England team meant that Pujara’s innings was all in vain and was overshadowed. Sadly he was not able to carry on with that good form through the rest of the series and India lost the series 2-1.

In the series against Australia, in the second test match at Hyderabad, he scored his second double hundred. With a partnership of 370 runs with Murali Vijay for the second wicket, he shut the door completely on the Aussies.  He was the aggressive partner in their stint at the crease and scored 204 runs with 31 boundaries. If Australia had any hopes of a comeback in the series, that was sealed there with that dominant performance from Pujara and Vijay. The last match in the series was played on a rank turner at Delhi. Pujara had already scored an impressive 52 in the first innings before his second innings heroics of 82 not out.

One of the striking aspects of all these scores is that it shows that once he gets in, he rarely gives it away. Out of the 7 times he has gone past 50, he converted 4 of them into hundreds and 2 of those into double hundreds.  Now, that is a very impressive conversion rate. More than the numbers, it is the influence that his scores have had on the outcome of the matches, that is to be taken into account. There are obviously some weaknesses one can identify with Pujara like his not so agile running between wickets and that tendency to sometimes play down the wrong line against spinners. But the results he has produced so far gives us hope for another great period of Indian batsmanship. Along with Virat Kohli, Pujara could become the mainstay of India’s batting for the next decade and if the signs hold true, we may get to witness more brilliantly orchestrated knocks and more great victories in the future.

Late that night I again got a message from my brother-in-law.

Wrong Prediction from here. Perfect prediction from there. Well done, talk to you soon “. 5:05 PM, 24  Mar

“I just got that feeling like Ravi Shasthri does so often ” 8:25 PM, 24 Mar”

I replied !!!

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Sehwag, Legend? Could Have Been? Could Still Be?

Legend. That’s one word that is thankfully not being overused in these times of superlatives in sports, especially cricket. We use ‘brilliant’, ‘magnificent’, ‘super’ and even ‘great’ so liberally that they have lost the weight that they ought to carry with them. But somehow, we tend to be a bit reluctant to use the word ‘legend’ to describe cricketers and it is not to be heard thrown around in search of a filler word for the sake of non stop commentary. In fact, the very first time I even associated cricket and the word legend was while watching the T.V series ‘Legends of Cricket’ on ESPN. It really helped me in getting to know some of the stalwarts of the game from yesteryears and those rankings made a lasting impression on me.  But as is the case with everything, with time those rankings are bound to change. New players would come into the game, new records would be created, new historic moments would be played out, and of course  new legends would be created.  One such player who entered the scene around the turn of the new millennium was Virender Sehwag. He showcased a brand of cricket that was never heard of before, one that only he could try, he created new records too, those that are never even dreamt of before, and he made us fiddle with idea of  of that legend tag to qualify him for a while.  But now, after his international career has found new depths, has he really made into that league?  Whatever that be the case, let us now think about how we should remember Sehwag and how he fills that jigsaw puzzle of cricket memories in our mind.

Debut Century

We should remember him for his non sensational debut for India in 1999 against Pakistan at Mohali.  For playing an uninhibited innings and picking up three wickets to set up a win for India against Australia on his comeback trail at Bangalore in 2001.  For playing that hurricane knock at Colombo against New Zeland. For surprising all us with his debut hundred in Bloemfontein against South Africa, a country where traditionally most Indian batsmen had struggled in the past.  For forming a partnership along with Tendulkar that was reminiscent of that 1996 Cape Town classic written in the folklore of Indian cricket by Tendulkar and Azhruddin. For batting without any pressures or hesitancy of a debutant.  For making us feel a bit guilty for not appreciating his efforts enough at the time as we were too caught up in the Tendulkar classic that was unfolding at the other end. I would like to recall something the former England captain Michael Vaughan once said, that he quite liked the fact that he had to come to bat in his debut match while everyone else around him were failing, against South Africa. He said that it did take a lot of pressure off him and allowed him to play without any fear of failure. Likewise Sehwag too might have enjoyed the fact that he had to come in after a batting collapse in his first match.

Then what are the other things in his early career we should remember Sehwag for?  For becoming a fearsome opening batsman in ODIs within the next year or so. For making potentially difficult run chases look like cakewalks for India with his onslaught at the top of the order. For giving us the impression of a Tendulkar clone in his stance and sometimes getting us confused as to who’s who while they were batting together.  For parting with his preferred position in the middle order in test matches to fill the opener’s slot and for backing his ‘see the ball- hit the ball phiolsophy’. For ‘seeing the ball like a Football’ on most occasions and for making even the best of bowlers think if they could trade bowling for something less taxing.  For letting captains around the world know that the standard three-four slip and gully would not work against him and for forcing them to come up with some innovative field placings. For making a mockery of  tactics by some of the great captains of the times Steve Waugh, Nasser Hussain, Graeme Smith, Inzamam-ul- Haq, Kumar Sangakkara, Stephen Fleming, Ricky Ponting and many more. For teaching us that big scores in test matches could be made consistently and there are ways other than the Marvan Atapattu school of batting to make them regularly.

Sehwag early years

Then what are the numbers that we should fondly remember Sehwag for ? 195, 309, 155 , 164, 173, 201, 254, 180,  151, 319 , 201 *. These are the scores he made in the innings in which he had crossed 100 during the period from December 2003 to July 2008.  Not a single score of under 150 in that list. For coming up with some strange theory on why he manages to score those big hundreds so often.  If I ‘m right, he once said something along these lines that after scoring a hundred he would try to score even more quicker because the more time you spend on the wicket you are more closer to that moment of being dismissed and so he would like to score as many runs as he could before getting out and that naturally would lead to those double hundreds and triple hundreds. It was something that defied common cricket logic but we should remember him as not one for conventional cricket wisdom. One that is not much into history of the game either. One that didn’t find it shameful to ask “Who’s Vinoo Mankad ? “after his opening partnership of 410 with Rahul Dravid against Pakistan at Lahore in 2006 that fell just 3 runs short of the world record opening partnership of 413 runs made by Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy in 1956.

What are the moments that we should remember Sehwag for in the later half of his career? For that second wind from early 2008 to 2011. For that successful opening partnership with Gautam Gambhir that was a major catalyst to India’s rise as the No.1 test team in the world. For being a key component in India’s World Cup victory in 2011. In almost every game he managed to give India that initial impetus though he hadn’t always kicked on and made bigger scores in that tournament. For showing his clarity of thoughts in the biggest of stages. Two of enduring images from the World Cup were when Sehwag had asked for reviews of his LBW decisions in the semi finals and finals. He felt the need to save his wickets,  so he straightaway asked for the reviews without consulting his partner. For  breaking the record of highest Individual score in ODI cricket with his 219 against West Indies in late 2011, that one record that seemed destined for him all the way.

Sehwag spects

Then there are some not so nice things that we should remember him for. For the well publicized, less than cordial relationship with Greg Chappel. For the alleged captaincy ambitions and the dressing room split up with MS Dhoni.  For the extended run of lack of form for the last couple of years culminating in his booting from the team. Sehwag coming out to bat with a spectacle to aid his vision was one of the most symbolic events of recent Indian cricket history.  The man who was once renowned for his great hand eye coordination now reduced to some one who need help to enhance one of his most natural gifts. At the end of it all, the question remains:  “Has he made himself a legend of the game? or the more important question now is “Will he get a chance to redeem his path to become one?, a chance to belong where he should ideally be and to make himself a household name for the coming generations through another of those ‘Legends of Cricket’ series.

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