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.

Indian cricket and India

I recently read that both Imran Khan (former Pakistan cricket captain) and Sunil Gavaskar (former Indian captain) have blamed the Indian Premier League for the decline in cricket standards in India and for other ills that go beyond skill in the game of cricket. Test cricket may be boring but that is what hones skills, character and much else. Without that foundation, the superstructure of the glamorous 20-20 game would not be possible. Administrators, cricketers and others missed that vital and yet obvious link. Indian cricket is fast becoming a laughing stock. Combined with its hubris, Indian cricket is set for a big tumble. Indian cricket holds a mirror to India, at large. But, as with cricketers, many Indians refuse to look into the mirror because they know that they would not like what they see in it.