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Emergence of a new superpower- England overpowers India at Lord’s

If you were one of those who followed the first test over
the last five days, you will have no doubts whatsoever in your mind that
England was the better of the two sides and India kept playing catch up all the
time, only to succumb before the sun had set on the pristine turf at Lord’s.

It had started on the first day itself when England was put
into bat when the clouds were thick and Indians wanted to make first use of the
conditions to their favour. It was not to be as the four pronged Indian attack
was reduced to three when Zak limped off the field clutching his hammy. In one
stroke of ill luck, Indians were pushed onto backfoot, and chased the red
cherry all over the park with Kevin Pieterson making merry and short work of
some friendly fare dished out by the three man Indian attack, supported for a
short while by MSD. In the final analysis that knock proved to be the
difference between the draw and loss for India. Win of course was out of question. 

It wasn’t Kevin alone. On day 4, when England looked in bit
of a trouble with Ishant finding elusive rhythm over a period of some
sensational fast bowling, Prior (103*) and Broad (74*) put their hand up to
resurrect the England innings from a perilous 130 odd for 6. Ishant had bowled
with a lot of fire to take a page from Broad’s book to bowl full and mix it up
with some peppery short stuff to create a semblance of chance for India. It was
not to be as Harbhajan struggled to keep the pressure up and Ishant tired out
after a marathon spell of 11 overs claiming three in the first session. From
thereon it was a Prior and Broad show on the Broadway of Lord’s. India had a
mammoth task of chasing 458 with well over four sessions remaining to play out
for a draw. Well that was the only positive result likely for India. England
was moving in for the kill.

India has showed a penchant to fightback from unlikely spots
in recent times with someone or other putting a hand up to save the day when
the going got tough. But this England bowling attack was equal to the task. The
signs were ominous for India after Gambhir was injured fielding at short leg
and Tendulkar was out with a viral fever for the entire of day 4 and could bat down
the order on the final day.

Anderson led the attack superbly to claim a fifer that he
will cherish for a long time. He removed Dravid with an out swinger early in
the day and then kept a tight leash on Tendulkar throughout his stay at crease.
On the other end runs were hard to come by and threat of wicket loomed large
all the time. Even the sublime Laxman was fooled into a needless pull scoring a
resilient but inadequate 56. Dhoni’s troubles as a captain followed Dhoni the
batsman and he perished after poking at a delivery outside off stump to Prior.
It was a matter of time from thereon.

In a losing cause, Raina decided to bring out the choicest
of strokes in his armour to score a glorious a half century, which he will
remember for the occasion, if not for the end result itself. Indians tried
their best to hang in, only to see them slip inch by inch into the deep abyss
of defeat as the day progressed.

England combined the fine all-round show with some good luck
to gain the one up advantage over India. As a captain Strauss has reasons to
believe that he has the best bowling resources to decimate the best batting
line-up in the world and the competent batting unit to take full advantage of
any largesse by the opposition bowling.

Dhoni’s men now face an uphill task ahead of them. The first
test has opened the potential of this English line-up to him. Bhajji’s lack of
wickets, injury to Zak and Gambhir, Tendulkar’s tentativeness (or the burden of
the 100th every time he walks into bat) and his own batting form
will be some of the issues that he will have to address when India walk in for
the next test on Friday. He doesn’t have to look further for inspiration. It
was Stuart Broad, the man everybody raised their eyebrows on, who came to the
party with a fine all-round performance to clinch the 2000th test
for the nation who gave cricket to the world, at the home of cricket.

As the number one test team India have the knowhow and
pedigree required to come back from the brinks. They have shown the penchant to
fight and have held better than most of the Indian visiting sides. The next three
tests will prove whether they can hold their own against a team that threatens
to take over the mantle of number one. It will make for a gripping watch.


PS: Who is your
MoM? I thought Broad had an upper hand over KP. He will sure be chuffed at the
panel apart from the guys who dropped so many catches off his bowling to deny
him a fifer.

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Magical Dravid, mesmerizing Broad claim honours

After claiming the first bout of the battle, England is
moving in for a kill with a clinical bowling performance on day three of the
Lord’s test riding on a brilliant day in the park for the comeback man Stuart
Broad (4/37). His spectacular show with the ball has reduced Rahul Dravid’s
fine century to more of a consolation for team India.

Facing an uphill task of chasing the first innings total of
474, Indian batsmen struggled to come to terms with the swing and pace of the
english pace trio of Tremlett, Anderson and Broad. Combining admirable
together, the trio kept the pressure on the famed Indian middle order
throughout the day to skittle the Indians out for 286, for a strong first
innings lead of 188, which could well prove to be the match winning one.

The incisive English bowling exploited the part sunny, part
cloudy conditions to the hilt. Gambhir and Mukund started in an assured manner
at the start of the day against Anderson and Tremlett to put up a fifty plus
opening stand. The introduction of Broad into the attack changed the equation
dramatically, who bowled with a lot of intent and aggression, in a bid to
justify his inclusion ahead of Bresnan. His strategy of keeping the ball up to
the batsmen paid rich dividends as he got rid of both the openers, inducing
them into false strokes, only to see their woodwork unsettled. Before being
lured, Mukund played a promising hand and went on to score an admirable 49,
mixing solid defence with some fine strokes on the leg.

As Tendulkar walked in to accompany Dravid, the anticipation
around the ground was at the hilt. Tremlett tested the master with some fiery
outswing bowling, keeping him on the toes all the time and was successful in putting
the sense of doubt in the master’s mind. The sense of occasion may have been
playing on the master’s mind as well. Despite his obvious struggles, Tendulkar and
Dravid gave the glimpses of their class by executing some delightful strokes to
take India to 100 for 2 at lunch.

The positive start by Indians post lunch was short lived
with Broad back into the attack. He first pushed one up to snare the edge of
Tendulkar’s blade sending a hush around the ground. The 100th 100 at
Lords has to wait for the time being. In the same over, Broad caught the edge
of Laxman and Dravid, only to see the chances going begging down, Strauss and
Swann being the culprits. The respite proved short lived as Laxman’s brief stay
at the crease ended with a soft dismissal, when he timed a drive off Tremlett
too well to be caught in the deep. Sensing the opportunity, England put the
pressure on Raina straight away who went for a forgettable first ball duck,
playing across to a Swann delivery, only to see Billy’s crooked finger going up
to a vociferous LBW appeal.

The rest of the day was to be reserved for a poetic
resistance by Rahul Dravid. In a refreshing change, he looked willing to attack
from ball one against the guile of Swann, who turned fair and was game to toss
it up. As the English pace battery ran in to test his skill, Rahul brought the
silverware from his treasure and spread it around to regale the packed Lord’s.
His knock was the glittering lining to the dark clouds of India’s disappointments
in the day.

At the twilight of his career, Rahul brought all his
experience into play and proved that grace and style are not the personal
fiefdom of VVS alone. He was tight in his defence and was sublime on his feat.
You had to be blind to miss the beauty of his strokes and deaf to miss the
collective sighs of “shot’’ emanating from the background in the commentary
box. When on 94, Rahul went onto the backfoot, balanced himself in the thin air
and caressed the perfectly good length delivery from Tremlett to the cover
fence to race to his highest score at Lord’s. 

In company of a daredevil Praveen
Kumar he saw India through the first hurdle of avoiding follow-on and dutifully
brought up his first hundred on the meccah of cricket driving Tremlett through
long on. It was the kind of knock that will add greater credibility to the honour
board at the Lord’s.

Broad was possibly unlucky to miss out on a fifer as
Anderson cleaned up the tail, but his performance ensured that India remained a
poor starter in the first test of an away series. He showed what the right
length is to bowl on this pitch which still has a lot in it for the bowlers as
well as the batsmen. Towards the fag end of the day, England reached to the
security of 193 runs lead without losing a wicket and two full days to force a
result.

Entering Day 4, Indians have their task cut out, as it looks
increasingly clear that they will miss out on the services of Zaheer in the
second innings, who batted with a runner in the first innings. Only an abject
failure from England in their second innings and a colossal batting from
Indians on the last day may see this test slipping away from the grasp of the English. 

Heartening fact- Indians have shown the heart for the fight if not the skill to
last. Let’s see if they cover that base in the next two days. Whether they do
that or not may be a matter of speculation, but what remains a fact is that
that Sachin will get one more crack at the illusion and Laxman will get one more
chance to play the redemption song, in the company of ever reliable Rahul. Stay
tuned for more. This test is not getting over without its share of drama for
sure.   

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England wins bout one of the golden battle

Even if you were away on another planet and returned just in
time to catch the happenings on Lord’s over last two days, you wouldn’t have
missed much- barring the hype and hoopla around the 2000th test of
course!

What began as a game of verbal volleys between two teams
contending for the test no. 1 spot, if not the championship itself, at the home
of cricket; and a freewheeling contest for journalists and part time pundits to
stamp their expertise through articles that were part fun, part romance, and
banal at other times, has given way to a gruelling contest that promises to be
a thriller- rain or no rain, result or no result!

When Dhoni won the toss at the Lord’s amidst the thick cloud
cover, India chose to throw the first dart at the English with Zaheer and
Praveen looking to wrest the early initiative with some immaculate swing
bowling. Like the two boxers are weary of each other’s strengths at the start
of the bout and want to use each second to assess the strengths of the
opposition, Zaheer and Strauss played a bit of a cat and mouse game to provide
a slow and sedate start to the game, with none willing to give each other an
inch. At the other end, Cook and Praveen were playing a perfect foil to the
main battle.

After Zaheer tucked one in to Cook and got his number, it was
time to shift focus to Strauss, who weathered the early storm, got a bit
comfortable after a while and then lost his concentration marginally to hook a
skier to be comfortably caught on the fence. With two main openers back and
Zaheer looking menacing, the tide was to turn. With Kevin and Trott looking to
settle themselves in, Zaheer pulled a hamstring and left the four man Indian
bowling unit hamstrung with a pulled a hamstring. Before leaving the field
hobbling, he had induced an edge off Trott which a tardy Dhoni had left a
little too late for Dravid to react. A chance that India would go on to regret
as Trott went to score half of his average score at Lord’s- a healthy 70
nevertheless.

At the other end, Kevin Pietersen had borrowed Rahul Dravid’e
genes (or jean’s if you may like) to bat in a fashion that would have shocked
his followers on Twitter or any other place where people chose to follow the
game these days. He bid his time and paid undue respect to the depleted Indian
bowling comprising of a little shorter than the ideal Praveen, a back to his
erroneous ways Ishant and none too threatening Bhajji. Bell on the other end
took a toll on some lacklustre bowling as sun baked the pitch at Lord’s to a
perfect cookie.

In a move that was part desperation and part bravado, Dhoni
decided to let Dravid do the keeping duties and decided to run in for his
military medium pacers on a track that afforded him both ways movement. How
Pietersen survived a caught behind chance will be a case heavily argued in the
courts of ICC against UDRS in near future. Enough has been written about it
anyway.  

With Zaheer out of contention, one man who has been more
under rated than what his bowling has deserved, chose to rise to the occasion.
Praveen Kumar utilised his natural gifts to the best to get rid of Trott, Bell,
and Morgan- the last two off consecutive balls. The tide and luck was turning
India’s way one thought as England found themselves at 270-5 from an impressive
270-3.

Matt Prior it has to be said that has a bat broader than his
gloves! He decided to step up to the plate as Kevin started looking more
assured and approached to a well earned century. Bhajji and Ishant bore the
brunt of Prior’s swagger to yet again hand over the initiative to England and
Prior duly reached his 50. Praveen Kumar was not done for the day. He came back
to claim Prior and Broad, yet again of the successive deliveries to claim an
immensely satisfying fifer at the Lord’s.

With Swann at other end, Kevin decided to have some fan. Ishant
Sharma and Bhajji got a quick reminder of his monstrous ability with the bat, and
so did Suresh Raina who got duly deposited over the long on gallery en route to
Kevin’s double, a feat he achieved cutting Praveen past a diving square cover.
It was an effort that would have made Spanish bullfighter proud for its sheer
bravado, warmed a marathon runner’s hart for its stamina, and left his critics
eating the humble pie.

In the last couple of hours England gave away their waiting
instincts to launch into the Indian attack. It was a statement that will not be
lost on the Indian batting line-up. England has thrown its hat into the ring
and has scored the decent first hand. The Indian batting unit now have a challenge
that could see their reputation soar or dwindle based on the results they
produce in their first innings. The setting though is perfect- a historic ground,
a hospitable track and some history that reckons to be written in golden words-
just the recipe that Indian’s have thrived on past few years.

So far so good dear
god- or good Lord. You seem to have written the first two chapters of this game
well. I will stay awake tomorrow to see what you have in store for us. Let me
sleep for now with the images of day three already running on the silver screen
of my mind’s eye.

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The Legend of Lord’s

What goes around comes around. Back in 1884, when the
English took on the aussies on what was to become the home of Cricket, little
would have the suited gentleman sitting on the Pavilion end balcony imagined
that the same hallowed turf will host the test no. 2000 almost 127 years later.

The ground itself has changed its colours in keeping with
times, but has retained the quintessential charm that it had since the early
days. Today it has a seating capacity of more than 30,000 and houses the MCC
museum that preserve the remnants of Cricketing history and legend, including
the much venerated Ashes. The media-Centre is a state of the art single shell
aluminium structure juxtaposed against the old pavilion and has earned critical
acclaim- RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture in
1999. One visit to the meccah of Cricket and even the most reluctant of Cricket
fans will come out a changed man; such is the blissful aura that surrounds this
place.

2000 test matches sure is a landmark that makes you sit up
and notice. Of the 2000 test matches, played till date, a little over hundred
test matches (120 at the last count) have been played at the Lord’s, yielding
result in more than 70 of such encounters.

Whether the ground made these battles legendary or the
battles made the ground legendary is more a matter of speculation, coloured
deeply in the subjectivity of individual opinions. Simply put, it is hard to
say. Fact remains, it is one ground every cricketer dreams of stepping his foot
on, wants to give his best to earn the respect of the knowledgeable Cricket
fans, and earn the place on the roll of honours that one can become a part of
after you score a century or take a fifer.

Some of the players have left an indelible impression on the
history of game by coming up with performances that are etched as much in the
minds as on the roll of honours. Lord’s refused to lose to English between 1932
and 2009, and saw many legendary performers including legendary Don Bradman (a
sublime 254 in 1930), and modern legends like Warnie and McGrath (his 8/38
being the best at the venue) reserving their special for the home of Cricket.
For the succour of English, Gooch has the highest individual score of 333* (and
century in the next innings) against Indians scored in ‘90. Botham has the
highest tally of wickets (69 from 26 innings), but is better remembered for his
exploits off the turf.

Among the Indians, Dilip Vengsarkar has made Lord’s his home
away from home scoring three back to back centuries each time he visited Lord’s
in ‘82, ‘86, and ’90. Of the total of five tests that India has won at Lord’s,
only one has come at Lord’s back in ‘86 backed on Dilip’s century and some
spirited bowling performances by Kapil, Chetan Sharma,  and Maninder Singh. India won the series 2-0
and had a perfect opportunity to go 3-0 up. But that had to wait till the
English visited India in ’93, under the leadership of Azhar, who too has a
century at the Lord’s, albeit in a losing cause in ‘90.

Despite the lacklustre results at Lord’s, it has a special
place in the heart of Rahul Dravid who made his debut (95*) in ’96 along with
Saurav. The bunch of Indians waiting to take on English, unlike the earlier teams,
is a test no. 1 and is expected to do better than the history suggests. The
English side is looking at this series as their opportunity to take a crack at
test no. 1 status on a ground on which they have traditionally had an upper
hand against Indians. There is a small matter of Sachin Tendulkar having not
scored a century here, just like Dravid and Laxman, but is now looking for the
much spoken about century no. 100. The war of words is heating up and is
already making the global warming experts fret.

Summary- there is one more legend waiting to be written. We
have just a few more hours to go before umpire says play and the bowler runs in
to bowl from the pavilion end with a slope that will make the ball duck in. The
magic is about to unfold and I am ready to engulf myself. Just like you I
believe.

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The Twilight Warriors

We are a just about a week away from the start of the Test
series in England. The speed with which a new series arrives at us can leave
even the diehard Cricket fans fatigued. Too much happening, too much to catch
up, and too much to remember all the time.

Remember Suniel Shetty waking out of his Honeymoon bed and
walking straight into the battlefield in the movie Border, every moment being
killed by the thoughts of parting with his new found love and hoping the
morning after will never arrive? Indian Cricketers might have felt the same way
about touring the West Indies right after they had won the world cup. What made
the matters worse was the fact that West Indies is no more a force to reckon
with, nor was Chris Gayle playing. With some of the big players opting to rest
and others injured, India’s first ever series win in ODIs as well as test
series, remains more of a footnote than the significance it would have deserved
otherwise.

Not everything was
lost though. They say that a man’s true colours are revealed when nobody is
watching him. With empty stadiums and an opposition that can be best described
as overcooked daal, some of the Indian youngsters looked as out of place as a
first timer may look on the streets of Amsterdam! All said and done, Test
Cricket is a real man’s world and not withstanding their exploits (!) in
shorter formats of the game, the likes of Virat, Badri, and Vijay came out
looking a little sheepish when they came out of those ‘spicy’ lanes.

All was not lost though. What proved too spicy for the
younger lot, has been a staple diet for the war veterans like Rahul and Laxman,
the two seniors who were fit and fresh to tour the West Indies. Unlike
Tendulkar, who is an automatic selection for any format of the game that he
chooses to play, Rahul and Laxman have to make do with whatever Test Cricket
that comes their way. With the experience and calibre that they have, even the
best West Indian bowling would have been a “bit of a bore” for these guys, who
have made grinding and winning a habit of sorts.

Rahul Dravid is a bit of an enigma for me. Every time he
walks upto the crease, he seems to be fighting two demons at once- the bowler
who runs in and the critic who is too eager to right the epitaph of this great
wall of Indian Cricket. He looks down, leaves a lot outside off, scampers for a
single which looks like a well earned reward for his toil, then wipes the sweat
dripping from his helmet, and perennially looks like struggling to win a battle
in his mind than on the pitch. And yet he comes up with a sublime 112 in
Kingston when chips are down to give India a one leg up advantage. It is
fascinating to see him winning the old way, where grit and gumption are virtues
bigger than frills and flamboyance.

Laxman however is a study in contrast, though he also
inherits the same “what’s the hurry” gene that typifies Rahul. With him at the
crease, runs flow with the surety of tides that hit the shore on a calm day,
creating patterns that leave the onlooker hooked. It is an experience that is
spiritual, yet entertaining. With all the languid grace and style that he
exudes, Laxman, like Dravid is a fighter who revels in the adversity. Looking
at his saviour acts, it won’t be long before that someone comes up with a
Laxman Chalisa! He scored three half centuries in the last two tests in West
Indies and was a reason why India looked like getting close to winning those
tests, despite the lacklustre performance from the rest, barring Raina and
Mukund.

Come England and Sachin will join these two legends of the
game. It will be fascinating to watch these three take on the English who look
like a confident and well balanced unit. Historically, the troika has raised
their game against stronger opposition. In the twilight of their careers, expect
nothing but the best from these ageless wonders. There is some record or other
that beckons every time they step on the green these days, Sachin’s 100th
international century being one such. For an Indian fan, there is always
something to watch out for whenever these three play.

Wagging tongues and false sense of bravado is an English
trait that may play into the hands of the Indians. We will know come 21st.

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Wanted: More Bang for the Buck!

In the fast evolving world of IPL, reputations matter little, and so do promises. In those two crazy days of auction what we saw was, a reflection of the world that we live in. The world whose dictionary figures the word ‘return’ much before the word ‘investment’.
Gone are the days when IPL was a perfect retirement destination for Cricketers looking at making a fast buck while they enjoyed rich Indian culinary, figured in some ad campaigns, and generally had a more hectic time off the field than on the field.

In keeping with its growing stature, IPL may be premier, but in its execution, it is becoming phenomenally professional. For once we saw the franchisees choosing their bets with their heart than with their heads (more worldly wise can call it strategies, the economically bent can call it sense of commerce). This no non senses approach to selecting new teams threw up some surprises and some soul stirring disappointments.

One of the country’s biggest Cricket brand- Royal Challengers Bangalore, gave ample evidence of staying true to its brand promise “game for a challenge” by going for players who could fit into RCB’s ‘scheme of things’, than just being brand ambassadors or poster boys. The current selection has done away with a lot of players that made RCB such a household name by choosing to go for players who will give them- you guessed it right- better returns over investment!

For all their reputations and history, players like Sourav and Rahul are beyond their prime and in a short and snappy format like IPL may struggle against the leaner and well oiled players.

As a player, Sourav’s time is up and we all will love to see him move on into a role like Jumbo’s at RCB. There is after all nothing quite as agonising as seeing an icon struggle against new blood, and nothing quite as inspiring as an icon goading the youngsters to do better. To agonise or to inspire? That is the choice Dada needs to make now.
This preference of ‘value’ over ‘brand recall’ was further highlighted when players like Sanath and Lara were overlooked too. Imagine what a fabulous marketing strategy it was to put Sanath with Sachin in last two editions, or the magic it would have been to see Sachin and Lara send fielders on a leather hunt in this edition? Wishful thinking. Sanath struggled last year and Lara hasn’t been on the scene since Atal Bihari Vajpayee paused it a day! Bringing them on board may have added a touch of glamour, but not reflected too well on the results. Ultimately it’s the results that keep the fans coming back to the stadiums more than the possibility of romantic unions!

This single minded focus on adding to the team strength based on the form factor has ensured that the teams like RCB, MI and CSK now have a better balance in terms of skills on board. The legacy skills have been done away to further bring done the cost of maintenance and the savings have been invested in state-of-the- art modern systems that promise ‘up-to-the minute’ value realisation. In line with that thinking, there are a few surprise hires and some new turks earning way more than the older and more famous counterparts. I am kicked to know how the now strengthened outfits like RR, DC, and KXIP counter the growing popularity of big three teams.

The concoction is now ripe to unsettle old balances and will add a new spice to the contest. It will be interesting to see how the old dogs take to the new streets and settle their ‘personal and commercial scores’ when the ball rolls on April the 8th. Game is on you know!

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India vs SA: Won All!

So we may not have the test series in South Africa, but what team India has definitely done is come out with their Number One status suitably intact. So much so that, even after suggestions from Smith prior to the series that India may not be real Numero Uno, he admitted in the post match presentation party that playing against the number one side in the world was a challenge that he and his team enjoyed!

At 1-1, it looks like fair reflection of the way the test series panned out. Having taken a drubbing in the first test, cat calls were out and India were under a real pressure. But the way Gambhir and Tendulkar batted in the second innings of the first test gave us the hope that all was not lost and if we decided to put our foot down, we can make proteas work hard, on greasy green tracks!

When the caravan entered Durban, where goats would have relished the track as much as the faster men, South Africans were already dreaming of a 3 day demolition of team India! After losing the toss, Indians were put into bat and hardly made the proteas work hard and were bundled out for a near 200 score. Having carted the Indian bowling attack in the first test, South African batsmen were high on confidence and had reasons to believe that they could go 2-0 up. This is where India caught South Africa napping.
With Zaheer back into attack and Sreesanth fired up after Smith’s jibes, batsmen found the going tough with Bhajji taking full advantage of a track that offered bounce and turn. India’s first innings lead of 72 was to prove vital as was the 96* scored by Laxman in second innings. Ultimately, South Africans succumbed by 87 runs to help India square up the series. By this time, a battle of verbal volleys and finger crunching bouncers had reached crescendo. In Zaheer’s company, Sreesanth was a bowler reborn, swinging prodigiously, and unsettling the likes of Kallis with ‘once in a lifetime delivery.” We are going to Capetown and its game on!

For once Dhoni broke his toss jinx and put South Africa into bat with conditions nicely balanced in favour batsmen, bowlers, and even umpires ;)The stop start innings of South Africans was greatly helped by Kallis who scored a dream 162 to help them to a respectable, if not insurmountable total of 364. Kallis got his own runs and egged the tail on to wag, frustrating Indians in the process. When Indians came into bat, Dale Steyn literally started spitting venom. What do you do when a 140+ kph scorcher pitches full on middle and leg and then curves out to hit off? I don’t know. Ask Pujara. Or Dhoni. Or Tendulkar who played and missed, but gritted on like only he can. For once, we wished Master could raise his game to match upto Kallis, no discredit to both when I say that. The epic battle between Steyn and Tendulkar went the master’s way and he ended up pushing India just a couple of runs ahead of South Africa with his own score reading 146. The 51st hundred, a tough one, crafted in the company of Bhajji and Zaheer who refused to buckle down.

Smith for once tackled Zaheer well in the fourth innings and looked set to get a big score before Bhajji got him to go on the backfoot to get a well planned leg before. Before too long on fourth morning, Turbunator managed to send India’s tormentor Amla back playing an aaam stroke. At 130-6, and Boucher badly out of form only a miracle or great Indian generosity could have helped South Africa. Generosity it was. Ishant doled a number of harmless pitched up deliveries on middle and leg to let Boucher settle down. Such was the manner in which Boucher and Kallis grinded the Indian pacers that Dhoni had to summon the magic of Tendulkar to break the partnership. I wonder, why doesn’t Dhoni use Tendulkar more often? Or Shewag for that matter? These two are master readers of a situation and can out think many a batsman.

Dale Steyn and Morkel aggravated India’s heartburn in the company of rock solid Kallis who notched up yet another century. Hats off to the man who stood for the team’s cause when it needed him the most under the most gruelling of circumstances, not to mention the pain induced by side strain. At the close of play South Africa had set India a mammoth 340 to chase on a now slowing 5th day Newlands track.

Only the romantics would have thought of an Indian win chasing a 300 plus total when a lot was at stake, the crumbling track and raging Steyn notwithstanding. There was no way in the world Indians were going to chase after Smith had committed the tactical mistake of playing too long on Day 4. That told you one thing. Even Smith did not want push for an outright win knowing how well experienced the Indian batting line up is. He couldn’t have paid a better compliment to a visiting Indian team, historically known to buckle under foreign conditions.

Indians played safe. Gambhir took a blow on his elbow, gritted his teeth, and came back to thwart the South Africans. A naturally attacking player, Gambhir showed that now he is a matured batsman who can control his urges and game like a saint. Sehwag however knows no such finesse and goes for temptation whenever it appears before him.  Long story cut short, Indian batsmen kept their elegance and bravado safely tucked in the confines of dressing room to negate any chances of Dale sneaking through. After giving Dale and Morney an over each with the new ball, Smith realised the folly of trying to break up the defences of Laxman and Tendulkar.

The draw then is a fair reflection of how the two teams played in the series, matching each other strength for strength, blow for blow, and word for word. One however does feel that, Indians had a decent chance of winning the third test and the series had the pacers applied themselves a little better. But that’s what sport is. When everything seems lost, there is someone who stamps his class and writes a redemption song. Like Boucher did. From a psychological point of view though Indians can come out feeling the better of the two knowing that they pushed South Africans real hard in at least two tests out of the three played in their own backyard.

Ultimately, this is what the test Cricket is all about. A test of character, as much as the test of skills. Both the teams gave a great account of both the facets of the game and crowds just loved it! How I wish we see more of these epic battles!

PS: This series will ‘also’ be remembered for Tendulkar’s 50th and 51st, Steyn’s unplayable outswingers, Kallis’s absolute mastery over the art of batsmanship, and not to forget Sreesanth the bowler when he is under control :)

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Imagining Future! After the Big three.

Ever since, Saurav walked into the sunset, bidding adieu to
a resurgent Indian team, the talks of retirement of the other big names like
Sachin, Rahul, and Laxman were thickening like the winter fog that covers the
Northern part of this country. That fog dims the vision and sends shivers down
the spines of our northern brethren. The possibility of the retirement of the
Big Three though seems to have an effect that envelopes pan India in terms of
the fan base that gets affected by the very thought it.

For a decade or more, since Rahul and Saurav, walked in at
Lord’s together, with Sachin being the lead anchor, the Indian batting has
often sported a look that’s a mix of aggression, dour defence when needed, and
effectiveness under most circumstances. When Laxman joined this trio, it got a
silver edge in terms of sheer poetry in motion. If these four were a picture of
absolute strength in the middle, the very momentum for India’s surge was
provided by a very competent Sehwag. As the runs kept coming in and laurels
followed, the time was ticking in the background.

After a late fight back in his career, Saurav had had enough
and was the first to call it a day. With Rahul, Laxman, and Sachin, all pretty
much in the same bracket, we expected the great Indian cycle stand to kick in.
But that wasn’t to be. All these men are made of sterner stuff. If Rahul is defiant
in his defence, Laxman is still at his sublime best and can still give the
opposition a hard time, as seen recently during the Australian Test series.
What to say of Sachin? The master just looked up the sky for the umpteenth
number of time to score his 50th.

But as they say, time and tide, waits for none. By the very
looks of it, the big three will retire in a space, not farther apart.
Technically speaking, Rahul and Laxman are out of the scheme of the shorter
versions already and Tendulkar only plays it selectively. Purists and Pundits
alike agree that the void created by these gentlemen can be filled up
relatively easier in the shorter formats than the tests, the format which
separates the men from the boys! The fact that the Rainas and Kohlis of this
world have found a comfortable beginning in the ODIs does substantiate that
assumption a bit.

In the test matches however the story is different. This
format demands as much of skills, as it demands the appetite for application,
and the experience needed to see the tough moments through. This is exactly
where the trio was so good at! They placed a premium on their wicket, almost
always raised their game to a different level when they ran against the top
teams and were at exceptional level of fitness even in the twilight years of
their career.

The skills can be honed, what of the experience? That can
only come with playing the hard way in the middle on tracks that are greener
than ‘hara mirch’ and crumble faster than you can spell ‘cookie’. Luckily enough,
some of the young blokes are getting a decent run with these guys and can learn
rapidly by talking to them about situations, oppositions, and the mental
aspects so needed to excel and sustain at the top of the game.

Potential wise, there is no dearth of talent. Under a
captain like Dhoni, many young Indian batsmen can aspire to fill in the void
left by the Big Three. The names that come to my mind are those of Cheteshwar
Pujara, Murali Vijay, and Virat Kohli. There are many others waiting in the wings
like Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, and Suresh Raina who with some maturity can
aspire to be mentioned in the same breath, but that will come with time.

Cheteshwar has the technique and right mix of aggression to
be thought of as next Dravid. Whether he will become the next Wall, will be
subject to how much premium he places on his wicket and can be banked upon as a
safe house on the crucial number three spot. The range of strokes that Virat
Kohli possesses is a good indicator of his skill. His recent showings in ODIs
are a source of much expectation from him in the longer format of the game.
Murali, by the looks of it, has the same elegance in the way he wields his
willow and has the natural instinct to attack, much like Laxman. Gambhir has
already proved that it can be done, with his exploits as an opener and has made
us get over our obsession with Saurav as an opener.

Let us remember that the art of batsmanship, like the fine
wines, matures over a period of time. Rahul’s defence, Sachin’s complete authority,
and Laxman’s grit under pressure were grafted over a period of time. It is
their sheer dedication that ensured that they perfected their art to a level
which can only be termed as ‘aspirational’ to the batsmen of modern era. To
live up to that benchmark, the new lot will have to withstand the initial
scrutiny, steer clear of momentary distractions, and single mindedly focus on
the cause of the team. If they do that, I am willing to look beyond the near
future into a promising new age of Indian batsmen dominating the world stage.
Just like the Big Three did. Amen! J

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The Tendulkar Days. An memoir.

Statistics are easy to capture in numbers. But what of memories? Only words can aspire to do justice to the couple of decades (and counting!) of memories that Tendulkar has created in our minds. To a generation, he has helped us forget our daily miseries, helped us connect with the strangers on street when somebody asks “Tendulkar kitne pe hai bhaai?”, go wild in our celebration when he reaches yet another landmark, and look forlorn even if the thought of his retirement crosses our minds. 

My earliest memory of a Cricket match is when my Gramma used to shout at my cousins for watching gigantic West Indians hurling the red cherry at short statured, pity invoking Indians, who hopped, skipped, and jumped. They did pretty much everything apart from putting the blade to the ball, much to the chagrin of Indian supporters. Then one fine day Kapil paaji ran backwards to claim the catch of his lifetime and cup that we cherish till date. Finally, he reversed the tide in favor of small statured but by now emphatically celebrating Indians. All of eight or something, seeing a bunch of adults going crazy, I assumed that this must be pretty special. Cricket had finally caught up with me and Kapil became the latest addition to 33 Crore gods that Indians revered. 

My first super hero Kapil paaji soon had to share my mind space with a little boy with creaky voice who appeared in a commercial alongside him. Almost, of his son’s age, he matched paaji yard to yard in what looked like a quick sprint. When Paaji huffed with a smile “Boost is a secret of my energy”, he completed it without breaking sweat, “Boost is secret of our energy.”That commercial beautifully captured the moment when two generations of Indian Cricket shook their hands to signal the change of batons. The beginning of end of my first super hero gave way to the birth of my life time super hero. Sachin Tendulkar, or tendlya as I fondly remember calling him, had arrived. Little would he have known then that what he said in that commercial would go on to boost the confidence of a nation that was waking up from its long slumber and propel it to become a super power, both on the field, and off it too.
 

The Cricketing world took notice of this little sensation when he smacked Abdul Kaadir for four consecutive sixes. If that was his way of announcing his entry on the world stage, it was also the beginning of after school Cricket matches, post match gup shups and crazy hunt for TVs whenever India played a Cricket match. To watch him bat alongside Kambli in initial days made for compelling viewing. Kambli being Kambli, he succumbed to the fame and adulation that most child prodigies fall to, and withered away leaving his old school chum lonely in the big bad world of grown up Cricket. Sachin did not lose heart though and battled it out gamely. He looked down, marked the leg stump guard, and got ready to face yet another delivery from bowlers who stood at least a couple of yards above him. 

Once he got the first one in Manchester, there was just no looking back. Like they said in Hutch Commercial- wherever we go, our network follows- whichever country Indians set foot on, Tendulkar scored a century. In terrains as tough as Perth in Australia, as tricky as Napier in New Zealand, and as teasing as Premadasa in Sri Lanka, Sachin scored everywhere, on tracks that teased and turned, or had enough to make the ball dart and bounce. 

With his presence in the middle order, the fortune of Indian Cricket was changing for better. Such was the effectiveness of his batting that it made the captains that he played look far better than they actually were. In Sachin’s company, Azhar started attacking like only a nawaab can, strokeless beauty in Siddhu found an assertive expression and Nayan Mongia danced down the track, a al Tendulkar, to send Shane Warne long and deep over the sight screen. What Tendulkar started off in ’92 on the Perth wicket, culminated into a total dominance of Indians over Australians in the “Dessert Storm” era. The all conquering aussies had found their nemesis in a batsman that the great Don Bradman himself admitted to be playing “pretty much the same way as I did.” Tendulkar was all of 25 then. 

Tendulkar’s free flowing, attacking style and sheer dominance was one of the biggest factors in getting more crowds to the stadium- be it tests or ODIs. He was the batsman a layman paid his day’s wages to visit the stadium for the first time. He was the wicket bowlers desperately prayed for. When all others around him were failing, he was the one we kept our TVs on for. His enduring battles with the likes of Warne, McGrath, DeVillers, Donald, Caddick, Brett Lee, and Akhtar were the single biggest draw for a Cricket lover. 

Henry Olonga’s only claim to fame is the short ball that got Tendulkar by surprise and the silent assault that Tendulkar subjected him to in the very next game. Poor Heath Davis ran truck loads of sweat and took an eternity to complete an over when Tendulkar was on full song on a balmy Bangalore night. When Caddick got a little too sure of Tendulkar’s weakness (any, if at all) and proclaimed that he had got the measure of the master, Tendulkar came a step down and hooked him to the farthest Corner of the ground. When all seemed lost, Azhar joined forces with Tendulkar to show the battery of Donald, McMillan, and Snail that there was more to Indian batting than just the elegance. However hard he may have tried, Akram, that sultan of swing, could not come up with an answer to Tendulkar’s dominance in the epic 2003 world cup semi final. 

For a long time now, whenever he is at crease, Tendulkar threatens to alter the very definition of Cricket that it is team game. It’s the battle within the battle that really pulls the fans inside the stadiums. Fans from across the nations, across cultures, who speak different languages, wear different clothes, and revere different gods, find a common unifying chord and sway to the tune of “Saaaachin, Saaachin, Saaachin…” Amidst that rising crescendo, master himself looks a picture of absolute calm, hiding a steely resolve beneath the aura of absolute invincibility. 

As the decade of nineties came to a conclusion and moved into the first decade of the 21st century, players like Saurav, Rahul, and Anil joined forces with Sachin to give birth to a Indian team that could challenge any team, on any turf. The advent of instant Cricket and the young brigade led by Maahi led India to a position that no one would have thought of in the Kapil era. 

A lot has changed between the day Kapil lifted the cup in 1983 and Sachin looked heavenwards for his 50th century. Captains came and went, injuries occurred and healed, the impetuous hook gave way to calculated graft, the overt aggression changed into an insatiable appetite for perfection, why just that, an underdeveloped third world country grew on to become a worldly wise confident Indian state. For me, Tendulkar lives beyond numbers. He lives in the confines of my being. In my prayers, every time I bow to almighty. To thank him for all the joy that surrounds me and giving me the courage to dream on.

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He is angry. Very, very, angry.

Why dont you practise your running between the wickets before you step on the field next time? screamed a spectator near the sightscreen. A disgruntled batsman was returning to the pavilion after running himself out the second time in as many games. It didnt help the matters that this classy right hand middle order batsman was determined to prove a point or two to the national selectors. They had decided to keep him out of the fold against the series of Australia.

I will come over and break your head, retorted the batsman to the spectator, before entering the pavilion fuming, damaging the chair midway and throwing the bat away in disgust. He disappeared in the dressing room to cool himself off. His tantrum could not escape the eye of the match referee. He was docked with a reprimand, a level II offense and 100% of his match fees. That would seem little in the larger scheme of things.

On the tour of West Indies he was troubled by the bouncing beauties. His silken touch deserted him and before he could fathom it, he was side lined in favour of other promising talents. For someone who started his career on a brilliant note in the 2007 edition of T20 world cup and then boosting his reputation as a solid middle order batsman on a tour to Australia, this was a bolt from the blue. A test of character was on cards for the batsman who was looked upon as Indias next big batting hope- Rohit Sharma.

Going back to the domestic circuit and his IPL team, he dug deep and desperately tried to get some runs to get him back into the reckoning. There were starts that looked promising but nowhere a big score that will ring in loud. The recent Western Zone T20 league started off on a good note for him with a couple of brisk forties against his name. In his previous innings, he ran himself out with Jaffer on the other end when he looked set for a big one. Chasing 178 to win against arch rivals Maharashtra, Rohit had a golden chance to redeem himself. He got in early and middled whatever little came his way. When he was at 5, a cover drive by Jaffer was fielded superbly by Kiran Adhav and in one swift motion he shattered the stumps at non strikers end. Rohit dived but to no avail.

A collapse later, Mumbai handed Maharashtra a well deserved victory. Having qualified for the knockout stage, the loss would do little damage to the Mumbai team. But with that outburst, Rohit has inflicted immense damage upon his chances of a quick comeback. Good batsmen can get away with bad form, but never with the boorish behaviour, especially during a run drought. To make matters worse his outburst will see him out of favour with the spectators whose support can do wonders to a batsmans fortunes. Rohits vulnerability to provocation may become his biggest undoing, especially against the opposition trying to expose any chink in the armour of the batsman.

All is not over for Rohit, at least not yet. He will get his chances. He is young and is blessed with a world of talent. As he goes along, he will learn that runs will come by if he keeps knocking it over. What will help him return at the highest level and live up to his potential as a true legend, is the ability to retain your composure through thick and thin. He doesnt have to look too far for inspiration though. His idol, Sachin Tendulkar, is a legend in his own right, as much for his ability to deal with circumstances with an even head, as his sublime ability with the bat. Sachin is humble to the game, to his talent and to the people who look upon him to carry off the burden of their expectations. That is the reason why he is worshipped by one and all. If Rohit doesnt learn this lesson soon, someone else will. That will confine Rohit to the too talented, but too little to show for it list. I sincerely hope he is not the next name on that list. Enough said.

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