The imposters can take a break. The real thing is unraveling. The elimination phase of World Cup is far ahead, in excitement value, of IPL, for all the hype that IPL generates. Maybe, it has got to do with the draw. India-Australia in the quarter-finals and India-Pakistan in the semi-finals. I am tempted to spout the battered cliché, it can’t get bigger than this. Not even a mouth-watering Brazil-Argentina semi-final or final in a soccer WC. Even, a small fish like me has been turned into a mini-celebrity for a minute, when a reporter called me up to ask if we are doing anything special at our company for the India-Pak match.
There are cynics, or pragmatists, depending upon how you look at them, amongst us, who believe, it is all panning out as per the script. Frankly, for the spectator, does it matter ? If the bookies have scripted this story, then they are excellent screenplay writers, only faltering at the very end by opting for a lengthy anti-climax. Do we not enjoy a movie or a book, knowing fully well, that it is fiction? Are we not enthralled by Rajnikanth running on the sides of a speeding train, without wondering about the graphic designers and the extras behind the scene. In the same way, if Kamran drops a catch, as he is wont to, do not wonder who else is behind the drop. Enjoy the moment. Attribute it to incompetence. Do not insult, or glorify, incompetence by casting aspersions on the motives.
I cringe, whenever, any India player says ‘I want to win this world cup for Sachin’. All they mean is ‘I want Sachin to win this world cup for us’. Sachin is in such prime form that, despite his past record of often taking the team to the brink and falling off, we continue to dream of Sachin taking us to the mount, like we have done for over 20 years now. For the cricket chroniclers, Sachin playing bloody-nosed against Waqar and Wasim was the moment that heralded him. However, for the then-teenage Indian fans, the boyish Sachin announced his arrival with those belligerent sixers of the deadly Abdul Qadir, even as the erstwhile maverick Kris Srikanth was playing a sedate innings; it didnt matter then that this was in an exhibition match. It was against Pakistan that he went through his most heart-wrenching test innings at Chennai. It was against Pakistan, in the 2003 world cup, that he played his most significant one-day innings which, though it didnt transpire to be a century, paled the earlier desert storms. And, Pakistan it is, which is now before him, as the ultimate penultimate-hurdle.
Ponting, the contemporary batsman sniffing closest to Sachin, and hailed as a devastating matchwinner has ended his world cup career as a tragic hero. Will Sachin, the eternal tragic hero in big tournaments, seize his chance to wear the mantle of Ponting? He has conquered time, his opponents, critics, and an ailing body, to position himself to do that. He is at his subtle best form. It is not too much to hope he will do it.
If the unbearable pressure and the long-time failings of the great man catch up with him and he cannot close it out, the man most likely to fill in the void is Yuvraj. Coming into the tournament, with more eyes on his paunch than his bat, he has turned around the ball and his batting form. He is one of the best finishers ever for India, taking India to pulsating victories in the past in critical matches. He is no more the Indian Jonty. He is no more the hare between the wickets, much to the ire of his partners and captain. He will be better off if the team treats him as an Indian Inzy or Arjuna…both of them have proved that world cups can be lifted by calculating and capable sloths.
And quietly, and uncharacteristically, lurking behind the limelight is Sehwag. If Sachin is the visionary, Sehwag is the master of small dreams, who lives out every child cricketer’s dreams. Like hitting a six to get to a century. Like hitting another to get to the double (despite failing once before). And, like hitting one more to get to the triple. Even in a tournament, where he dozed off after the first day onslaught, he has realized his small dreams. Like hitting a first-ball boundary. Five matches in a row. Despite his relatively modest record in ODIs, if there is one player in any team that every opposition truly fears, it is Sehwag. The big bonus is that India doesnt crumble if Sehwag gets out, in stark contrast to the panic that Sachin’s dismissal triggers. There are capable accumulators in Gambhir, Kohli and Dhoni, and a potential game-breaker in Raina/Pathan, behind him.
Most analysts rate India’s batting lineup to be far superior to Pakistan. Going by the record book, that is a no-brainer. Where most of them falter is in rating the current Pakistan bowling attack to be superior to India. The late entry of ‘can-handle-pressure-better’ Ashwin and the form of Zaheer, puts this attack on par with Pakistan. If Akhtar plays, then, like Aussies found out with Tait, it is advantage India. It will be unlikely, though, that Dhoni will be able to match the pyro-techniques with gloves and fun-value that Kamran brings to the field.
An India-Pakistan match brings back a multitude of memorable moments. The last-ball six by Miandad. The last-over six by the now-forgotten-Chauhan and the last-ball four by another-forgotten-man-Kanitkar that erased the decade-long scar of that six. Jadeja showing the world how to smack Waqar yorkers. Prasad closing the door on a hot chase. Prasad doing it again 3 years later. Tendulkar’s six over point. Sehwag following up with a copycat shot.
Tomorrow, there will be 22 players on the field driven by passion, retribution, thirst, history, politics, economics and above all fear. And, there are a few more memories waiting to be etched collectively in our minds.
And, of course, there is a final 2 days later.