ICC Champions Trophy has a new winner

The ICC Champions Trophy 2017 is over. Pakistan are the unexpected champions. Congratulations to the winners. I am not sure they are the deserving winners of the Championship, though. Sure, they played well on the day against India. But, one does not get the impression that they can sustain this. Much of the post-match commentary is emotional exultation in the victory of the underdog. There is no drama or story in the victory of the favourite team. The emotional outpouring, in itself, is a sign of the unsustainability of victory. There is still a sense of disbelief about it and correctly so. Emotions do not produce champions. Application does.

It is hard to resist the thought that the result dictates the justification of the methods and tactics and not just their intrinsic merits. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, commentators let ends justify or glorify means. In doing so, they celebrate chance; they praise brilliance but not hard work. The occasional flashes of brilliance make good copy. Sustained hard work is admirable but hard to emulate. Hence, they do not inspire poetry. But, that is what makes cricket teams and nations winners over a generation or two.

Pakistani cricketers have plenty of talent. That has never been in doubt. Over the last several decades, they have produced exceptional cricketers. Not all of them have shown application or stuck to a straight path. Only under Imran Khan did the team look like a professional outfit over a sustained period. He groomed a team although Misbah-ul-Haq and Wasim Akram had arguably better records as captains. If you are interested in the records of all Pakistan captains, then this article is for you. The current Pakistani team has plenty of question marks over sustained application. Sarfraz Ahmed, the Pakistan captain attributed the victory to God. He is right. The team does not look like it can achieve them with its efforts on a regular basis.

The victory on Sunday had lots of drama but it was not a comprehensive victory over India. For that, I would choose the Sri Lankan victory over India. That was clinical domination. Their batsmen were more systematic and purposeful than lucky. The way they deconstructed Ravinder Jadeja was impressive. Pakistan did not come anywhere close to them in the batting department. Their bowling was much more incisive, of course. More often than not, Pakistani bowlers have made the ball talk and sing. That is a compliment.

Unfortunately, the reliable Jasprit Bumrah went for twelve runs in his second over. Then, he no-balled on a delivery that took the edge and went to the wicket keeper. Inside edges missed the leg stump and ungainly heaves landed between fielders. Bails refused to fall.  Pakistan referred and got a verdict overturned. Indians thought too much about a review and did not get one. When fate reprieves a batsman who was out at three and he goes on to score a century, one must realise that it was not meant to be one’s day.

There are many interesting similarities between this match and the World Cup final of 2003. On both the occasions, the Indian captains won their tosses and invited the other team to bat first. Now, as then, India came into the finals on a high. It had decimated Pakistan in the semi-final. Here, they defeated Bangladesh rather easily. The totals of Bangladesh and Pakistan were close. Then, Zaheer Khan conceded fifteen runs in his first over, peppered with no balls and wides. Bumrah began better. But, in his second over, he emulated Zaheer Khan conceding twelve runs.  One big difference between that match and this one is that Srinath leaked plenty of runs that day whereas Bhuvanesh Kumar stood tall amidst Bumrah’s day off. India conceded 37 extras that day in 2003. On Sunday, it conceded 25 extras.

India’s top scorer – Sehwag – was run out on that day. A similar fate befell Hardik Pandya on Sunday. Against Australia, India was perhaps in the match until then. Similarly, notwithstanding Pakistan’s bowling brilliance, another five overs of Pandya and the match might have been a lot closer, even if the result would not have changed.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could talk of selection mistakes made by India. Not that they would have made a big difference to the outcome on a day like June 18. But, still good to reflect on some of the possible errors. They are not exactly Monday morning quarterback wisdom although I am writing this on a Monday morning!

The wisdom of playing two spinners is fair game for questioning. After the Sri Lankan victory over India, I did tell a few who cared to listen that Jadeja perhaps needed to be rested. He was not the same force as he was against the Australians in the Test series. He went for big runs on Sunday and eased the pressure on Pakistan when, at one stage, five overs went for just 20 runs. India was turning the tide back and Jadeja pushed it back to Pakistan. One can blame it on too much cricket but far too many cricketers in the world can complain of that these days. So, it won’t wash. In any case, his sacrifice of Hardik Pandya deserves a response from the team management. It was very unprofessional.

Whenever I watched Ashwin Ravichandran in this tournament, he did not strike me as the same bowler. His aggression was not there. I did not get the impression that he was looking for wickets. He was going through the motions anxious not to be hit for runs. Usually, when one is anxious, one’s mission fails. That is what happened to him. So, the team management could have thought harder about playing both. In fact, in one of the warm-up games, Mohammed Shami looked keen, purposeful and fit.

Similarly, Kedar Jadhav does not inspire confidence as a one-day batsman. Ajinkya Rahane and Dinesh Karthik do. Kedar’ fielding mistakes were quite a few, throughout the tournament. It goes for Yuvraj Singh too. He has done a very good job for India over the years but he has become a slow mover and does not bend down as quickly as he should or used to. In his prime, he was a brilliant fielder.

Ajinkya Rahane’s mindset impressed me the most in the fourth Test against Australia in Dharamsala when two quick wickets had fallen. It was in the fourth innings of the match. He was the captain. He came in, took charge and broke free of the mind games that small total chases play on players. He went after Hazelwood and ensured that the match went India’s way without any further hiccups. That was leadership. One must mention here the contrasting style of Ashwin Ravichandran. He dropped a sitter in the slips then and looked at the ball, looked at the skies and looked at the other players as though everyone else were to be blamed, except himself. I had noticed this tendency even in some IPL games in the past. He needs to reflect on it. Else, he cannot be a leader of men.

One final thought on cricket itself: The boundaries have become excessively short. The game has tilted far too much in favour of the batsmen. Youngsters get the message that the game is all about lofted shots with bigger bats. Just as there is a debate in tennis about the rocket frame, the cricket bat’s thickness should be circumscribed. Cricket needs bowlers. Batsmen cannot hit by themselves. Just as there is a sex ratio imbalance in some countries due to male bias, the game’s administrators should not create a batsman-bowler imbalance. It is easy to pander to the lowest common denominator of entertainment, akin to WWF Wrestling. Cricket used to be more sophisticated.

Postscript: In a blog post covering India’s defeat in a cricket match against Pakistan on Sunday, the 18th of June, it would be a big omission not to cover India’s achievements on the same day.  In the World Cup Semifinal League Hockey Match, India beat Pakistan by 7-1. Indian Badminton player Kidambi Srikanth beat an unseeded Japanese player to win the Indonesian Open Super Series title. In the semi-finals, he had defeated the top-seeded Korean player.

A good result for Virat Kohli

It was the best result for Virat Kohli in the end. What? Have I lost it? No. Stay with me. I wrote, after his stunning performance against Australia, that his self-belief was staggering and that it was even frightening. On Thursday evening and in the build-up to the semi-finals match, the ‘frightening’ part had taken over. In an oft-seen and familiar story of media and the man making each other, taking turns, Kohli’s persona had taken on a much larger-than-life image. Against Australia, he was focused and he allowed himself the luxury of a pumped fist only after a six in the closing overs of the game that brought India closer to victory.

But, here, it was half substance and half show. No doubt that he batted brilliantly again in the final overs but there was the showmanship, unmistakably, which was missing in the ‘quarter-final’ match against Australia. There was no rudeness; unsportsmanlike behaviour or anything like that. But, the image appeared just a shade bigger than the man. I could have been imagining too.

So, when he came on to bowl – I must say that it was a good decision – and took a wicket, it appeared that he could do nothing wrong. Dhoni trusting the man of the moment to turn dust into gold seemed like a brilliant instinctive play. It was not to be. The winning runs were hit off Kohli.

Turn to Chris Gayle. This match was billed as the contest between Kohli and Gayle. Kohli had played his part. A circumspect Gayle did hit a boundary but his attempt to be too responsible made him miss a dipping full toss. Had he batted with his usual attitude, he might have whacked it for runs, if not a six.

So, in a way, both the showmen came up short in their own ways, when it mattered. That might sound too harsh, in particular, as a judgement against Kohli. But, I suppose you get the drift. It is not a sporting judgement but a philosophical one. It matters for the game that it happened. Far more importantly, it matters to them that it happened. It is good to come down to the earth. It is more secure when the feet feel the ground beneath them. It is a different matter altogether that they may not see it this way. The system is organised in such a way as to prevent them from seeing it. But, if they can and do, they will stay and shine for long.

Kohli would have realised that there are limits to what he alone can do. Who would have thought that India would pick up two wickets off two no balls and a brilliant catch by Jadeja and Kohli would end up as a six! What a fantastic drama! Sure, most Indian fans would not have seen it that way. There was no place for fun and enjoyment amidst all the flag-waving, face paints and cupped faces. Pity.

The match, nay, this tournament, has been a victory for the Indian philosophy of Dvaita (loosely put, there is ‘us’ and there is God) over Advaita (God is intrinsic to humans). No, do not get me wrong. West Indies was not representing the Dvaita School and the Indian team the Advaita School. Hardly.

I just felt, after the match, that there had to be a God who not only had a wicked sense of humour, irony but also brilliant in story, screenplay and direction.

The memories of T-20 World Cup that preceded this one seem like a blur to me, perhaps, because I did not follow them that closely or I did and I had forgotten. That is something to remember as Indian fans fret over the defeat over the weekend. It ain’t going to last. Media and the marketing machineries will create the next mania and soon. They have to move on and so will we.

For now, however, for sheer drama, this T-20 World Cup ranks at the very top. Slow wickets, low scores and tense finishes. Batsmen not always dominating. Great sporting feats, reminders of mortality and the drama. India won when they did not appear to deserve it – against Bangladesh. Against Australia, India won when the match appeared all but truly lost. Here, India lost when they thought they had won! Humans and mortal, after all.

Such fantastic drama could not be spontaneous. It is the work of a brilliant story and scriptwriter and Director. There has to be a God – extrinsic to us – who keeps humans dancing at the end of the string, he manipulates so brilliantly.

Now, let us come to cricket. I could watch the match from the 13th over of the Indian innings. After hectic two days in Bangalore attending a Board meeting, I made it to the airport by 6 PM itself, anxious to catch the match from the beginning. My flight to Singapore was at 11 PM. I did not expect the Singapore Airline check-in counter to open before 7. They opened at around 7:35 PM. The departure hall in Bangalore airport has no TV. Immigration counters were thinly manned. By the time I made it to the lounge, 12 overs were gone. There was a bit of a lull in the Indian innings between overs 7 and 12. Those six overs yielded ‘only’ 43 runs. But, that is normal. It is hard to complain about the batting performance when the team puts up 192 on the board. I thought the score had at least a 10-run cushion for India.

Things went according to plan, for India, that is. Nehra bowled tight. Whenever he is hit for a four off the first ball, Ashish Nehra bends his back more and manages to produce a tight over despite that. He did that again in this match. Ashwin had been a disappointment against Australia and against West Indies. Perhaps, a spinner does not need to have such a big final delivery stride. Well, that is hindsight wisdom. Some have criticised Dhoni for not giving more than two overs to his star bowler. But, the man watching the bowler from behind the stumps knows his rhythm. I think Dhoni was right to ‘rest’ Ashwin after two overs, in both the games. One more ego downsized, at least for the moment. Around the 12th over of the West Indies innings, it dawned on me that they were very much in the game. So it turned out. I liked the way that they kept going. No matter there was dew and the ball was wet, it is not easy to chase 192 in the semi-final of a major tournament.

Whichever team won, I was inclined to bet on England winning the tournament. They appear a more complete unit compared to others. But, after this win for West Indies, the eventual winner has become that much more difficult to predict. For a sport-fan and a sporting fan, that is the best thing to happen.

As for India, there is no shame. Except for those two no balls, India did not do much wrong. They bowled eleven wides and won against Australia. Here, they did most things right and lost. Enjoy the irony of life. It was just a cricket match.

(Cross-posted here)