Sunday, June 21, 2009

Well Done Pakistan!

Cricket has a strange way of thumbing down its detractors. Nothing epitomized this more than the two teams who squared off at the hallowed turf of Lords on the evening of 21st June 2009 for the World T20 finale. One, bloodied by a civil strife that has earned itself the inglorious sobriquet of being a commensurate end to a decade long of human sacrifices. The other, just a little more than a month back, must have been wondering if they would have a country to go back to, should they ever leave it. As if, it were not enough, these were the very individuals who were victims of the horrific incident at Lahore where cricketers came under fire, this time from real bullets and effectively pushed back Pakistan's chances of a hosting any home series to the stone ages.

And yet, they were there, shoulder to shoulder, head to head, man to man! Pakistan and Sri Lanka, at Lords (how I wish it was at the Gadaffi or at Kandy), at this hour, have proclaimed to the world, that Cricket would tower over all, and should it be besotted by the evil machinations of depraved souls, it would, by its inner cosmic brilliance, that we otherwise know as the human spirit, triumph over such dastardly acts with characteristic panache.

Sri Lanka started off as favourites, alongside South Africa after the poster boys of the games were sent packing. West Gayle Indies kept the Caribbean Calypso humming whilst Ireland demonstrated how a ragtag bobtailed, but committed outfit can upstage the best at the highest stage. However, no one, not even their most ardent supporters would have given Pakistan a ghost of a chance to qualify for the semis, let alone get past them. Their preparation was chickenfeed compared to the kind of practice other teams had received at the international arena and it was by and large accepted that the only green at the World Cup Semi finals would come from the South Africans. The thought gained ample credence with their first match and while Younis Khan didn't exactly meet Yatzhak Rabin's fate after the latter's fatal handshake, he realized the full fury of a nation dismayed at the F word. Somehow, they stumbled, whined, dropped catches, fielded abysmally, spoke in Hindi and Urdu at presentation ceremonies and yet managed to get to the semi finals, surprising aficionados before exploding into an array of brilliance that has defined Pakistan cricket's soul. Be it Gul's rapier like thrusts at the death or Afridi's vaunted batting abilities, South Africa would rue the fact that once again, when it mattered the most, individual brilliance laid low all the previous hard work that they had put in.

And so the supremely disciplined warrior met the brightly plumed Phoenix rising from the ashes. I can't recall when was the last time, I'd followed a cricketing event that did not feature India, so keenly (probably the '05 Ashes).

Dilshan discovered the law of averages catching up with him, as his favourite scoop shot landed in the fielder's hand before a run had been scored, instead of over the ropes where he intended to send it. Match on! Like his team, Abdul Razzak was back after a hiatus, and he expressed himself alike a performer who needed to remind the world what a loss his absence had proved to be. The opening bowlers came steaming in and by the end of the Powerplays, four of Sri Lanka's feared top order were back in the, dugout.

Enter Sangakarra, and Lord's was swathed in sheer class and mesmerism of his batsmanship. While the Men-in-Green kept it tight, Sangakarra shepherded the innings with an elan that would have probably prompted the great Sir Neville Cardus to say, "Is this really happening, or is it a Midsummer's Nights dream?" He found an Angel(o) in Mathews and the duo plundered 59 in the last 5 overs to give a fighting total for the bowlers to defend.

It was not to be. This was to be Pakistan's day and nothing, and nobody was going to take it away from them. Pakistan, never really had understood the merits of teamwork. They have however, more than made up for it with their individual brilliance (unsurprisingly, most of them have come against India). The first of it, today came from one of their openers - Kamran Akmal. The Sri Lankan bowling attack would give any team a run for their money and win nine out of ten times. Today was the tenth time! The opening stand of 48 in seven overs gave Afridi the perfect pad to launch his onslaught. He reserved himself for delivering the knock out punch and with uncharacteristic restraint, displayed a facet of his game that can restore his image of being the feared batsman that he once was. The Lankan bowling gave nothing away and on the field, they swooped upon the ball like hawks on their prey. This wasn't a finale to be remembered for breathtaking strokes, endless sixes, booming drives and ridiculously impossible totals. This climax was ordained by sheer grit, tussle and ultimately the passion of one triumphing over the tactical error of the other.

Two moments were game breakers in the Pakistan innings. Both were engineered by Afridi, and it was as much a testimony to his skills and belligerence as to his emerging maturity as regards the game. With the asking rate creeping up, thanks to some restrictive bowling, Sri Lanka called upon that old Wizard, Muralitharan, to knock the stuffing out of the opposition. In a rare moment, it was Murali, who was taken apart by Afridi as he blunted the master bowler, depositing him over midwicket and then scything past extra cover. Its a tribute to the Lankan attack, that throughout, they didn't loose their grip on the match, any assault notwithstanding, upto the last three overs, where the requirement was still 26. It was here, that I felt, that the Lankan Capt. committed the greatest blunder by giving the ball to Udana, especially as he had overs left from Jayasuriya, whose final analysis read - 2-0-8-1. Afridi tore into the greenhorn's inexperience, and the latter in the face of such a relentless hammering, succumbed by dishing out juicy full tosses that were also deemed as no-balls. By the time, the over ended, Pakistan had the match in the bag, with only 7 to get. Malinga, who had rocked South Africa in the World Cup two years back was called upon to do an encore, but ended up with a delivery down the leg side that left the formalities to be fittingly concluded by the Maverick who went by the name Afridi.

It was important for Pakistan to have as much applied the ointment of victory on a nation craving for some achievement, as it was to have exorcised the ghosts of the defeat at the hands of India two years back. Against all odds, the bubbling bunch of ill-matched and temperamental world beaters came together to tango in a rhythm that saw them get the better of a Lankan team that was the closest thing to perfection. The image of Afridi's outstretched hands, as his team mates ran out, endeared itself to my memory, as I realized that I was about to say something, I'd never envisaged myself to be capable of - WELL DONE PAKISTAN!

April 2010 beckons...