Glen Maxwell became the toast of the cricketing world when he single-handedly piloted Australia past a spirited Afghanistan in a crucial league match of the ongoing International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup. Australia were staring down the barrel when they lost their seventh wicket, with the scoreboard reading just 91 runs, exactly 200 behind the total posted by their opponents. But Maxwell played the innings of his life, striking 21 fours and 10 sixes enroute to an unbeaten 201 off a mere 128 balls, which ensured that Australia were through to the last four stage.
Records kept on tumbling one after the other after Maxwell launched his assault on the hapless Afghan bowlers. But more than the records, what was on display was a demonstration of sheer grit, fortitude, determination and tenacity, which elevated this innings to the category of an epic in cricketing folklore. On a pitch at the Wankhade stadium in Mumbai, which was not easy to bat on, Maxwell withstood tremendous pain and fatigue to carve out a modern day classic in limited overs batting. The heat and intense humidity of Mumbai brought an attack of severe cramps that made even the act of standing up straight a task of heroic nature. But he braved the physical discomfort and agony and continued to score runs at will. He took to hitting boundaries and sixes with gay abandon, with barely any movement of feet, when it became impossible for him to run. He was given excellent support by his skipper Pat Cummins, who batted carefully and allowed his partner to go hammer and tongs at the other end.
Afghan players would rue the sitter that Mujeeb Ur Rehman dropped at short fine leg when Maxwell miscued a sweep shot, with his individual score on 33. Before that he had another close shave, when after being declared dismissed for Leg Before Wicket, it was found, on review, that though ball pitched in a line between the wickets, it had bounced higher than stump height. Maxwell made full use of these two lucky escapes to pummel the Afghan bowling into submission.
Maxwell’s super human effort which rescued his side from the throes of a certain defeat and catapulted them to the semifinals has justifiably evoked comparison with another knock of legendary proportions that turned the fortunes of his side 40 years ago. India were staring at defeat against a lowly-placed Zimbabwe, having lost five wickets for just 17 runs, when Kapil Dev, the Indian skipper took charge. Kapil began cautiously and guided the innings through the initial phase to ensure that collapse was stemmed. He opened out only after Syed Kirmani joined him at the fall of eighth wicket, with the score at 140. After that Kapil brought all his big hitting prowess to the fore and went on a rampage, belting Zimbabwean bowlers to all parts of the ground. Kirmani could contribute only 24 in the unbeaten 126 run partnership for the ninth wicket. A tight spell of bowling with the new ball by the Indian skipper put Zimbabwe effectively out of the match.
The real impact of Kapil’s knock was that it spurred the Indian side into believing that they could perform the impossible. The game at Tunbridge Wells would turn out to be the turning point in the history of Indian cricket as it set the squad on the road to winning the 1983 World Cup, an achievement that neither the team nor its followers believed possible when the championship began in England. The innings played by the skipper inspired the side to great heights and they proved to be an unstoppable force in the matches that followed, where they defeated Australia in the final league game and humbled the fancied England in the semis before shocking the mighty West Indies in the final.
Another innings that contributed in a similar vein towards changing the fortunes of a side when they were in a position of despair was Steve Waugh’s unbeaten 120 against South Africa in the Super Six game at Leeds in the 1999 World Cup. It was a do-or-die situation for Australia as a defeat would have knocked them out of the championship. South Africa were the favourites to win the tournament and getting the better of them was no easy task. This task appeared downright impossible when, chasing a target of 272, Aussies found themselves in deep trouble with three wickets down for a mere 48 runs. At this juncture, Waugh joined Ricky Ponting at the crease and set about repairing the damage. He was helped early in his innings by Herschelle Gibbs who dropped an easy catch, but he started dominating the bowling soon after that. Such was Waugh’s mastery with the bat on this day that even the normally aggressive Ponting chose to play second fiddle and allowed his skipper to lead the charge against the South African attack. Waugh stayed till the end and guided his side to a six-wicket win.
Australia went on to win the semifinal against South Africa, after this game ended in a tie, based on their victory in the Super Six match. Following that, they overwhelmed Pakistan by eight wickets in a one-sided final to lift the trophy. An analysis of the performance of the side tells us that the Aussies started playing like champions after Waugh’s knock took them to the last four stage. That innings motivated them into believing that winning the championship was within their reach and the entire squad moved into top gear in the games that followed.
However, Maxwell’s innings contained one additional factor that neither of the above knocks could boast of. Though India were in dire straits at Tunbridge Wells when Kapil walked in and Australia were badly placed when Waugh joined Ponting at Leeds, it could not be said that either side was staring at defeat by a huge margin, which was the position the Aussies were in at Mumbai, when Maxwell took charge. Afghanistan were on top and needed to pick up only three more wickets to win the game while Australia faced the huge challenge of scoring another 200-plus runs. The equation was too heavily loaded against the Aussies that a win appeared out of the realm of the possible. So it can said with conviction that Maxwell scripted a great escape for his side.
In this regard, this match had plenty of similarity with the one played by the West Indies against Pakistan at Birmingham in the inaugural World Cup in 1975. Though the West Indies were universally recognised as a strong side, Pakistanis were no pushovers having in their ranks such splendid players as Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Wasim Raja and Sarfraz Nawaz, besides an astute captain in Mushtaq Mohamed and a debutant who went by the name of Javed Miandad. Batting first, Pakistan posted a total of 266/7 in the allotted 60 overs. The Pakistani bowlers led by Sarfaraz, who picked up four wickets, used the conditions well and kept the West Indian batsmen on a tight leash. Wickets fell at regular intervals and West Indies were 64 runs away from the target when last man Andy Roberts joined wicket keeper Derryck Murray at the crease. The pair stuck together and batted without nerves, taking care not to lose any opportunities to keep the scoreboard ticking. Frustration at not being able to break the last-wicket partnership drove the Pakistani bowlers to despair, resulting in a some loose deliveries, which the pair capitalised on with relish. Finally, in fading light, Roberts pushed Raja to midwicket region and sprinted across to take his side past the finishing line, with only two balls remaining. It was a masterly exhibition of batting under intense pressure by Murray and Roberts, who virtually stole the match away from Pakistan.
The beauty of a brilliant performance in the theatre of sports is that it evokes memories of splendid achievements of the past. In this context, Maxwell’s knock becomes more significant than helping Australia to ease into the semifinals or serving as a source of inspiration for the his teammates in the matches ahead. It has lit up this edition of the championship which was beginning to take a dull and staid look with not many unpredictable results and lack of close finishes. The innings also brought to mind images of similar occasions in the past when amazing turnaround in the fate of games and related fortunes was brought about single-handedly by one individual in a team sport. Further Maxwell also proved that mind can conquer the challenges thrown up by the body, provided it is supported by grit and will. The game and its followers will forever remain indebted to him for this sterling show with the bat.
Well played, Maxwell. The epic that at Wankhade will live in the hearts of fans of this sport long after this championship has concluded and its embers have stopped smouldering.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)