“Millions of Indians will lustily cheer every wicket
taken by the Men in Green and go into raptures of delight whenever a
Pakistani batsman hits a boundary.”
Yeah, right. You can just see those frissons of delight passing through the national psyche, can you not?
That’s Partho Bhaduri on the front page, no less, of the Times of India. And reading that made me realize, not for the first time, what suckers we in the media are for the obvious narrative. India’s fate depends on Pakistan!!
Ooo — the delicious irony of it all, happening just days after India
had played its first cricket match with the Land of Lashkar after 26/11.
Shashi Tharoor, the Twitter-minister, posted about this last
evening; Partho and his mates have peppered the print media with riffs
on this theme; the TV channels are getting nicely warmed up as I write
this… and yet, have we done full justice to the tremendous potential [Excuse the emphatic itals in this post, please -- too much Dan Brown lately] of this story?
And then there’s the conspiracy angle. Will Pakistan want India in the final? Younis Khan says so,
but can we trust him, can we take his word for it and hope that
Pakistan will pull out all the stops? Isn’t it more likely that
Pakistan — who, as we all know, we can never really trust — will play
just below par in order to do the dirty on India? Imagine what a laugh
they will have in the dressing room after they’ve contrived to
lose to Australia, knowing that the old enemy, still engaged in its own
game against the West Indies, now has to go through the motions
knowing that its last remaining hope has been scuppered!
Oh for a Subhash Ghai, a Sunny Deol, to do full justice to such a compelling storyline. What drama! What conflict!
Item one, the outcome of the Pakistan-Australia game does not hinge
entirely — or even remotely — on whether Pakistan wants India to
progress or no. The Aussies under Ponting have, thanks largely to
England, rediscovered a large part of their mojo; there are signs that
the arrogant self-belief that characterized the team in its pomp is
gradually coming back. More to the point, the Aussies are playing very
good one day cricket just now; the skipper is back in form and that
fact alone makes a tremendous difference to a team that only lacked for
its one surviving member of the fabled world champion outfit to lead
Around him, the various bits and pieces are slotting nicely into
place to a point where they are not missing Michael Clarke all that
much; Mitchell Johnson cementing his place as a high quality
all-rounder gives them that additional edge; and if Nathan Bracken’s
absence hurts the bowling lineup, Brett Lee is getting more into the
groove with each outing. Plus, Australia is at its most dangerous when
it is winning consistently.
Whether it fiddles
with its lineup or not, Pakistan will have its hands full with the
opposition in the game slated to begin early this afternoon — to
suggest that the outcome merely hinges on whether Younis and his men
want to do India down is ridiculous. The team is playing more than
decent cricket, but the catch with Pakistan is that spectacular
explosion and sudden implosion are two sides of a very thin coin [while
on which, what fun if Pakistan actually implodes today -- television
talking heads can live off that for the remainder of the tournament].
Beyond all of that is the fact that India has not, in this
tournament, had the look of champions — or even of a team deserving to
be in the top four. The batting has been patchy, the bowling has
oscillated between the good and the wild, the fielding standards are a
disgrace, and MS Dhoni is gradually finding out that an ability to keep
his cool is a virtue that cannot paper over every crack.
It had to happen — this after all is the Indian cricket team, and
it is therefore axiomatic that any rise in fortunes will be swiftly
followed by a precipitous decline. Thanks either to a beneficial
alignment of the planets or a fortuitous alignment of various talents
and form or both, Dhoni hasn’t felt real pressure since taking over the
captaincy — but that time had to come. He is still the best bet for
captain, and not merely in the short term — and if you take a long
term view, it is good that his thinking is being tested now, rather
than a lot closer to the next World Cup.
Mercifully, there is about Dhoni a touch of ‘if you can keep your
head while all about you are losing theirs’, as exemplified by this media interaction where the bulk of the questions appear to be about Pakistan. The money quote:
“Pakistan will not play their XI thinking if they win,
India will qualify,” he said. “Whatever they need to experiment they
will do because they have qualified, they will look at the future. They
might try out their reserves. It depends on them, what they want to get
out of the game. I don’t think they will consider that if they win and
if we win comfortably against the West Indies, India will qualify. I
don’t think that will be an issue.”
‘Pragmatic’ is the best way to be for the Indian captain today –
focus on the game, use it as an opportunity to begin treating the
symptoms of decline, and the heck with whether you make the last four
Given the players that form part of the squad, there are no tweaks
India can make to its lineup that can substantially alter its fortunes
– the best possible XI seems to be the one that took the field against
Australia. Change, hopefully, will be in the attitude — there has been
more than a touch of the defensive about the side in these last two
games, and that is not a mental makeup guaranteed to get you very far.
Of the many things Dhoni said in his press conference, there is one bit I disagree with:
The likes of Ishant and RP Singh were also well down on pace, but according to Dhoni, that wasn’t as much of a concern as their erratic line and length. “It’s
not about bowling 140 or 145-plus,” he said. “At the end of the day,
you have to bowl the right line and length to the batsman. If you
see the South African bowlers, they were among the quickest in the
tournament but they were also fetched for runs. That means it is not
about the pace, it is about where you are bowling and what field you
have got. So I don’t think pace is the only criteria, it is line and
length, the swing and the movement that you can get.”
I seriously hope that is not what he is telling Ishant [and yes, I
believe he is a serious talent, and hope he gets his game back on track
soon] — because the two things are not mutually exclusive. It is about
bowling the right length and line, yes, but if you can bring pace to
the package, so much the better. The South African example is not well
taken, because it largely is about Wayne Parnell who, not to put too
fine a point on it, bowled crap. Crap at some pace yes, but still crap.
The antidote to that is not to drop the pace down by 10-15 ticks,
because all that does is make you a medium paced trundler. A fast
bowler’s rhythm is different from a medium pacer’s — things fall into
place when he is running in fluidly with the intent to bowl as quick as
he is capable of. Tell him to slow down, and the natural rhythm is
automatically disrupted, control is lost, and rubbish results.
For all the hype, India has nothing really to lose in this game –
so I’d seriously hope Dhoni goes into the Wanderers and slips the leash
on not just Ishant, but the team as a whole. If there is one change I
would make in the unit that has played thus far in this tournament, it
is to do away with its defensive, almost apologetic, mindset and to get
out there buzzing with testosterone that might have come from last
night’s nookie, but which I hope comes more from a realization that
even absent Viru, Zak and Yuvi, the team still has enough skill to play
A good game today likely won’t get India into the semis — that is
miracle territory. But a great game at the Wanderers will reverse a
collective mindset that is increasingly unsure, tentative, and if that
is the only outcome of today’s game, I’ll still take it, and smile.
PS: Anyone watched the New Zealand-England game yesterday? There was
for me one moment worth noting, and it came at 66/0 at the end of the
first ten overs of the Kiwi chase. England, battered into submission by
McCullum and Guptill, was clearly looking forward to the end of the
mandatory power play overs so Strauss could spread the field and give
his bowlers a bit of elbow room to try and rein things in. Kiwi
vice-captain McCullum promptly called for the batting PP — brilliant,
I thought. Too many captains in too many games use the power plays by
rote where, ideally, it should be used as an unexpected weapon to
disrupt the opposition’s game plan.
One of these days, someone will hopefully look at a sizeable sample
of the last ten overs of matches in the pre-powerplay era, and contrast
that with a similar sized sample of games where the PP was taken in the
last ten overs, and tell me why it makes sense to hold the batting
power play for the death, when teams with wickets in hand go hell for
leather in any case.
PPS: Besides two games to follow, I’m trying to get the edition done
a day earlier than schedule. Busy, hence, and likely to be largely
absent from here. Random match thoughts, as always, here.