Column | Dream start for Team India

Men in Blue
Ravindra Jadeja, third right, celebrates with teammates after dismissing Haris Rauf to end the Pakistan innings. Photo: PTI/Kunal Patil

A sporting event gets elevated to the level of classic when it creates moments that stay in one’s memory forever. The final of the ICC World Cup 2019 was a game that would go down in the annals of cricket as one of the closest ones ever played, where the winner could not be decided on cricketing merits despite the Super Overs being bowled. No one who saw that contest would forget even a minute of it. Similarly, the match between Australia and South Africa in the semifinals of the 1999 edition, which ended in a tie, would remain etched in the minds of all those who witnessed it. Contests between India and Pakistan in the arena of International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup, carry with them the aura to elevate them to the level of sublime, both on account of outstanding individual performances and edge of the seat excitement. The fire and brimstone that these clashes have generated since 1992, when they first met in this championship, have elevated this to the status of a “marquee” contest, watched by people across the globe.

Each of the seven clashes between the two sides from 1992-2019 produced not only nerve wracking suspense and thrill but also images that fans of the game would cherish forever. The picture of a teenaged and still baby-faced Sachin Tendulkar exulting after dismissing the dangerous Aamir Sohail in 1992; Venkatesh Prasad giving a fitting reply to Sohail who had earlier taunted him by clean bowling him off the very next ball in 1996; skippers Wasim Akram and Mohammed Azharuddin hugging each other and waving to the crowds in 1999 when the match was played in the shadow of a war being fought in Kargil; Tendulkar’s monstrous assault on Pakistan bowlers in 2003; Tendulkar holding the Indian innings together in 2011; Virat Kohli’s brilliant century in 2015 and Rohit Sharma’s blitzkrieg in 2019. Each of these images carry tales aplenty and therein lies the enchantment of these contests.

Though World Cup has provided the arena for evolution of India-Pakistan matches into high-profile games played in uber-pressure environment, the foundations of this rivalry in limited overs’ cricket was laid in a stadium built amongst the sand dunes at Sharjah. It was Javed Miandad’s last-ball sx off Chetan Sharma in the finals of the Australasia Cup in 1986 that changed the contours of this contest once and for all times. The huge and opinionated audience that the matches have tended to generate since this game ensures that neither side can afford to end up on the losing side without considerable loss of face and dignity. The fervour and hysteria generated when the two teams meet each other in World Cup is such that fans in India take solace from the fact that their side did not lose to Pakistan even if the performance of the national squad is otherwise insipid!

Great champions always reserve their best for special occasions. The best barometer for testing Tendulkar’s greatness is his performances in the high-pressure cauldron of India- Pakistan matches sn World Cup. There was not even one game where he did not leave behind his firm imprint. He was man-of-the-match on three occasions - 1992, 2003 and 2011- while in 1999, he was second highest scorer for India besides taking the crucial catch to dismiss Moin Khan, who was threatening to take the game out of India’s hands. In 1996, besides partnering Navjot Sidhu in a 90-run opening stand, he bowled five tight overs, which gave his skipper the luxury of playing an extra batsman. After Tendulkar retired from international cricket, Kohli has stepped into this role almost seamlessly, though he cannot bring to the table the all-round skills that the former was blessed with.

Did the game on Saturday rise to the level of a classic? As contests go, this was an average one with Pakistan batsmen unable to put up a total score that could challenge the Indian willow-wielders. The atmosphere at the Narendra Modi Satdium in Ahmedabad was tremendous with more than 1 lakh spectators watching the proceedings in person at the venue. The mammoth stadium resembled a sea of blue, with fans decking themselves in the colours worn by the home side. The enthusiastic cheering for the Men in Blue and high decibel level support added to the ambience, creating the aura that this clash invariably generates. One felt a tinge of sympathy for the Pakistan players who would have felt unnerved to walk into this cauldron.

Jasprit Bumrah
Jasprit Bumrah, centre, celebrates the wicket of Mohammad Rizwan. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist Lav

Pakistan started off well but the side’s relative inexperience was exposed once they lost skipper Babar Azam in the 30th over. They were sailing comfortably with the score board reading 155/2, with Babar reaching his half-century and looking good for another one. It was at this juncture that Mohammed Siraj, who had not touched top form in the championship till then, produced a peach of a delivery that went through the defences of Babar. This was the trigger for Indians to raise their game , while Pakistan collapsed like a house of cards. Kuldeep Yadav dismissed Saudi Shakeel and Ifthikar Ahmed in quick succession to seize the initiative for India. Jasprit Bumrah sent his home crowd into raptures by bowling a brilliantly disguised slower delivery that came in sharply after pitching to break the defences of a well settled Mohamad Rizwan and uproot his off stump. He followed this by clean bowling Shadab Khan who was beaten all ends up. The loss of five quick wickets in quick succession rattled the Pakistan dressing room and the remaining batsmen succumbed without putting up a fight. The loss of eight wickets in a span of 80 balls on a pitch that held no terror for the batsmen told its own tale.

India reached the target of 192 in style, knocking it off in a mere 30.3 overs. Rohit Sharma showed his class again while Shreyas Iyer helped himself to an easy half-century and was at the crease with K L Rahul, the hero of the win against Australia, when the winning runs were hit.

Babar told the media before the start of the match that India’s 7-0 record against his team in World Cup matches did not worry him. He also added that all records get broken sometime or the other. However, it was not the fate of his side to stop this winning streak that India has been enjoying for the last 31 years. Paksitan were outplayed by a side that was superior to them in all departments of the game.

Men in Blue
Mohammed Siraj, second right, celebrates with teammates after removing Abdullah Shafique. Photo: AFP/Punit Paranjpe

In conclusion, it merits being mentioned that the day belonged to Indian bowlers. All of them, with the exception of Shardul Thakur, bowled exceedingly well and were rewarded in equal measure. It is no easy task to stage a strong comeback after the 30th over in a limited overs game and turn the tables on a side that was dominating with the willow till then. This is especially so when the match is played on a pitch full of runs. It was only in the fitness of things that Bumrah, the acknowledged leader of the bowling attack, was chosen as the player of the match. He has been in great form since the championship began and and it was his brilliant bowling in the middle overs that knocked Pakistan out of the game. A fast bowler who can be as effective in the middle and end overs as he is with the new ball is an asset for any skipper. With this performance, Bumrah has served notice that he possesses the skillsets to enter the pantheon of cricketing greats.

The Indian team management headed by skipper Rohit and coach Rahul Dravid could not have asked for a better start for the side in this championship. Victories, by convincing margins, over Australia and Pakistan in the first week of the tournament justifies India’s ranking as the top side in the world. The good form of all players, absence of injuries and the quick recovery of Shubman Gill from an attack of Dengue all auger well for the side.

Though the performances of the home side gives cause for a good amount of cheer, it is too early to get into the celebratory mode as there are five more weeks to go before the final. Winning the World Cup requires copious amounts of good fortune besides the players maintaining top form and peak physical fitness. The national side and the fans need to keep their heads down, stay humble and focus on the matches ahead if India are to do an encore of 2011.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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