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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Chennai, You did the Game Proud

Out of the blue floated the name Chetan; presumably it was a mom calling out her son’s name.  That really stopped me in my tracks. This mom’s yelling of Chetan sent me into a state of phobic horror – a name that easily brings a swarm of butterflies fluttering in my stomach, and to most of the Indian fans who watched Chetan Sharma cringe at that defining moment.

It is all etched up in memory. The day of reckoning had arrived -The day when India and Pakistan put up an almighty contest on the cricket field. It was at Sharjah this time.  The match was taking us youngsters to the edge of the precipice; then the steep fall into the pits happened all of a sudden. We, the starry eyed youngsters, had this delusion of India being on course to the summit, all along. How wrong we were, for the final over from Chetan Sharma proved to be a slap on all our faces.

What a match it turned out to be and what a champion Miandad was to pull the last ball victory. We could hear our heart beat every time Chetan Sharma ran in to bowl the last six deliveries. The final delivery was a lollipop. The next thing we knew was the ball sailing over the mid-wicket fence. Miandad is not someone who refuses to make victory his own when it is handed to him on a platter.

An emotional storm was brewing amidst us youngsters. The Indian loss, let alone the last ball Pakistan victory, had left us shaken and disappointed. We raved and ranted. It was not easy for us youngsters to come to terms with the result. Tongues were running away with expletives, in all languages.  Anger in full clip, we dissected all that had happened on the field, finally yielding to that one solid truth. Pakistan had outclassed the Indian side.  A bundle of nerves had been outfoxed by the nerves of steel.

An India-Pakistan match is not your ordinary cricket staple. It is a humdinger of a match; it is the test of your nerve. A victory for every Pakistani and Indian is a bee in the bonnet. Believe me; bats don’t get transmogrified into swords or the balls into bombs for that matter. There is something more hostile and excruciating than that. In a Churchillian turn of phrase, victory at all costs, victory even when odds are stacked up against the team, victory even when defeat is staring at the face of a team would be closer to the point.

Never ever blame it on the Indian or the Pakistani fans.  Patriotism is in excelsis, so they flaunt it. They have got their heroes pinned to their hearts, so there is no way that their heroes can let them down. They look at this contest as an acid test for their country's supremacy, and hence a defeat becomes irreparable, inadmissible, unacceptable and unpalatable. The high-octane fans cannot take 'Defeat' for a result.

Tongues swirling praises on the heroes in the morning would pour scorn by the same evening. Understandably, the charred dreams make the fans turn hostile towards their own heroes. Then what we know as sports moves into geo-political sphere. The political timber then stokes the fire of hatred and anger further. This is a match where heroes can be doomed to zeroes, mortals can turn immortals.

So much for the India-Pakistan encounter that it came back to haunt us. Champions Trophy 2017 it was.  Join the rumble of voices at the office canteens, college campuses and the bus stops to read the pre-match sentiment. Think-alike Harsha Bhogle and Ravi Shastri are out there as vociferous supporters of the Indian cause. They feel that an Indian win is inevitable.

It turned out to be so, and a one-horse race at that. Indian openers put on a solid partnership, followed by the sizzling stroke play of Rohit and Kohli. When Yuvraj arrived at the crease, he looked like the phoenix rising from his old self.  He was doing everything right. His eyes picked the ball as they would a football, his hands and feet were orchestrating a ballet of strokes, and the swing of the bat was near-perfect to stage that sweet cameo. His cameo strengthened the Indian cause. Then when we looked up at the scoreboard, it showed 319 at the end of the Indian innings.

That needed the Pakistani brilliance to eclipse the target, a tall ask nevertheless. So it proved as they floundered right from the start and with Duckworth-Lewis called into play; they were miles away from their target. The batting spine was so brittle that it broke their cause and of course their fans’ hearts.  India had scripted a convincing win over its arch rival.

Then came the Richard moment for the Indian fans - Cliff it was and not the Viv that comes to mind immediately when you are talking cricket.

Congratulations, And jubilations, I want the world to know I'm happy as can be.

Jubilation didn’t stop there. It took an ugly turn to wound the Pakistan fans. There were these creative trolls lampooning Pakistan cricketers, not in the best spirit and interest of the game. The trolls were mere signs that the contest had drifted away from the sporting arena.

Unforgiving the whole of Pakistan was. When the venting came, it took forms never seen before. There was this video going viral – A man rises from his seat in high dudgeon, inside four walls, lifts an object and smashes the TV screen. So much for the anger bottled up in him.

When we thought it was done and dusted for the nonce, we were utterly wrong.  India rendezvoused with Pakistan again at Lords. The final episode of the Champion’s trophy was coming to an exciting end.  For Pakistan, the journey from Birmingham to Lords must have been a soul-searching one. When they landed at Lords, their batting lit up the ground, bowling struck terror into the hearts of Indian players and fans alike.

The batting star for Pakistan, Fakhar Zaman, the unorthodox southpaw batted with murderous intent, toyed with the morale of the bowlers.  Left foot planted on the ground, right foot in the air, arms swinging wildly to swat the ball like a mosquito – Fakhar’s portfolio that day had many of this kind. Everything clicked for him and that day just belonged to him. Our own conjuror, Ashwin, had been massacred, conjured up for a run feast.  There was no stopping the Pakistani juggernaut.

India stared at a total of 338. Gargantuan chase it was going to be. On paper the batting looked rock solid, but seeing Amir breathe fire with the cricket ball, Indian batsmen gave in. Amir was seeking redemption at Lords. This was the very ground where he had been charged for match-fixing some years back. His eyes told it all. He would blow-off the steam in him. That he did with surgical precision - His anger, frustration and disappointment channeled into that fiery spell. Three Indian batsmen fell like pins. Indian hopes hit a new low. This time around, the Indian batting spine looked so weak and the surrender so meek.  Pakistan had turned the tables on India, lifting the Champion’s Trophy for the first time.

The voice of the cricketing fraternity pledging support to the Indian team seemed so low and lost in the din of the angry mobs. Untamed passions ran riot. Some cried their heart out, some smashed television sets, some set Indian cricketers posters on fire. Some even hurled abuses at players. The loss was turning out to be too personal for fans. The antics had left a lot to be desired.

The old exposition– Winning and losing are part of the game – was torn apart. Is ‘bad blood’ the only thing we get out of an India Pakistan match?

Rules apart, let us raise the voice of the exception – For any Chennaite will laugh it off, for he knows that he simply adores sublime cricket, adores any artist who can give them a taste of undiluted cricket. The Chepauk lore has it that any batsman from any part of the world will be cheered to the rafters when the batsman gets to the 25-run mark.

For another, a Chennaite will talk your ears off if he gets the chance to guide you through that sanctified test match staged at his very own MAC stadium. That happened in the year 1999 and the test match went on set a positive precedent.  Chennai and that distinguished test match ring a bell, for many. The test match also had all the makings of a thrilling Pakistan India encounter.

The match just had toil and tears for India. Until the last day of the match, the crowd did not know what was in the offing. The Chennai crowd had tucked into some brilliant batting, mesmerizing bowling and some memorable cricketing moments before they came back for the one last day. But the cream of the cricketing action was reserved for the final day. There was no guess work involved, for it was the little Master who stood there as the beacon of hope for all those who thronged the stadium on the final day. India was chasing 271 to win the game.

No matter what the situation is, when the little Master makes up his mind it invariably goes that way. On the final day, Sachin came out with that resolute gait – clear indication of his wanting to bat and bat until the final runs were scored. So he stood there tall among the ruins; showing incredible sangfroid when other batsmen succumbed to the tense situation. Sachin stood between Pakistan and victory until that back spasm caught up with him.

You could get a taste of all his imperishable offerings. The artistic jab of the back foot to send the ball to the cover fence, then that sublime cover drive followed by the paddle sweep and the Chennai crowd went crazy.  The exquisite square cut, the majestic pull shot, the delicate leg glance and then that one-and-only impeccable straight drive gave the crowd their money’s worth.

An innings of caution and aggression was about to come to an end. A moment of misjudgment, or was it the nagging back pain that pushed Sachin to go after that Saqlain delivery.  That was to bring about a tragic end to an otherwise heroic innings.  When Saqlain foxed Sachin, India went a step closer to the inevitable. The other batsmen were bundled out in no time.  Somewhere the voice of the Pakistan commentator Iftikhar Ahmed boomed those popular lines. So, the writing is on the wall…and Pakistan has…

Shell-shocked is the word closer to the emotions of the spectators at the Chepauk stadium, after that Indian defeat. Not an iota of imagination had led them to this result. As the crowd was rising from stupor, the Pakistan team was getting ready to go on a victory lap. The best scene was yet to come. Then that unforgettable event happened. Every individual in the crowd stood up and applauded the Pakistan team. That was a sight to behold.

Their pronounced act asserting the supremacy of sports – supremacy over individuals, regions and countries – was what that made Chennai the lodestar of sporting gesture. They came, saw brilliant test cricket and conquered the hearts of millions with that unabashed, unbiased cheering for the team that won, even when it was not their own.

Hail thee Chennai…you have done the game proud…