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Those horrible 45 minutes to perdition
Opinion

Those horrible 45 minutes to perdition

S.Sivadas

S.Sivadas

Call them chokers, call them ‘fugitives from the camp of victory’, India’s roller-coaster ride in the World Cup ended just within sight of the pot at the end of the rainbow. Sheldon Pollack was probably right about the race that lets every marauder run you over, and adore the myths with tragic heroes.

In the semifinals it was just so near but within the span of 45 minutes it was all thrown away. This sort of abdication has happened earlier as well in Plassey, this has happened in Panipat. In those 45 minutes of ‘unacceptably bad cricket’ lamented captain Virat Kohli, his side suffered a heart-breaking semi-final defeat against New Zealand.

Kohli recalled that traumatic moment, ‘We knew that we had a good day and we were proud of that effort. We thought we restricted New Zealand to a score which was chase-able on any surface. And (it was) a very professional effort with the ball in the morning. We felt we had the momentum and right mindset going forward.’

He was sporting enough to concede, ‘New Zealand deserve it, they put us under enough pressure and they were much sharper when it came to the crunch moments.’  And he summed up the overall performance, ‘At times, I think our shot-selection could have been better. That is probably the only thing I can think of. Otherwise, we played a really good brand of cricket.’

But those 45 minutes, that still rankled. Rohit Sharma, consistent run-getter with a string of centuries, out for one run, Rahul follows at the same score, and the skipper also for the same one run. Rain had interrupted the game all right and it had to be continued the next day and there was a break in the flow and a sudden loss of concentration. But for these lapses, and that too three in succession, did a mysterious cloud disturb their focus, as had happened somewhere else?

There had been issues that could have disturbed their concentration, even of the highly focussed Kohli, as had earlier happened with the number four slot. There were the rumblings over the dropping of Rayadu, who retired from the game altogether, or the dropping of Sami, and the position of Dhoni, whether he should have gone up at No. 4, or the induction of Ravindra Jadeja whom a former player had described as a ‘bit and pieces’ player.

And finally these two were the ones who redeemed the position with a 116-run partnership for the seventh wicket that nearly pulled off a victory. The ‘bits and pieces’ player was the top scorer with 77 runs and Dhoni was run out to a brilliant throw. And the 1.3 billion Indian fans were provided a glimmer of hope by their rearguard action, only to be let down, as had happened so many times.

All the planning, the specialist trainers, the battery of advisors, logistics managers, it seemed like a team of specialists at a corporate hospital with pulmonologists, and endocrinologists and dieticians and even counsellors in attendance. The debate about the fourth batsman went on for such a long time but when the crunch came, and the opening batsman Shikhar Dhawan got injured, the whole edifice crumbled. And for the crucial position the ‘bits and pieces’ player Vijay Shankar was sent. Two non-keeping wicket keepers were drafted as replacements for two batsmen who could bowl and the ‘bits-and pieces players’ bowling bits were barely used. This is what the team of specialists did and they could not spot a single specialist middle order batsman.

Now enters Dhoni who could be man for all seasons and his coolness has been legendary, and is on every billboard. He could bat at any spot from 5 to 7 and set the field even if he were not the skipper because he has the bird’s eye view of the field. Eventually he became the fall guy who failed to get India over the line. The problem with Dhoni, said an expert, was his inability to recognise that in a crunch situation, with Pandya or Jadeja operating, he should have been the sacrificial batsman going for the big hit. Instead, ‘he pantomimed the slowly-slowly routine of the nerveless finisher without the fire power to pull it off.’ Mind you, he had been doing this match after match.

This expert had support from an unlikely quarter. A Minister in Imran Khan’s government commented that the former Indian skipper deserved the ‘disgraceful exit’. Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s Minister for Science and Technology, tweeted of ‘Pakistanion ki Nayi Mohabat, NewZealand’ and went on to say, ‘Dhoni, you deserved such a disgraceful exit for polluting the gentleman’s game with fixing and bias.’

Pakistan fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar was magnanimous, terming Dhoni as an ‘absolute legend.’

‘Dhoni is an absolute legend. He is a great ambassador for the game. Till the time he was there, it looked like he would win the game for India. However, he was unfortunate and couldn't take India to the finals,’ said Akhtar, as he heaped praise. ‘Indian fans should be proud of the way their team played in the World Cup. ‘

New Zealand Captain Kane Williamson was equally magnanimous and conceded India could have won had Jadeja and Dhoni stayed longer at the crease. ‘With the new ball, our bowlers try to move the ball off the seam or in the air. Need to put pressure on that world class batting line-up of India. We knew that when the track slowed down, we had to squeeze. They showed why they are a world class side when they took it really deep to a position where they could have won it through MS and Jadeja. Our character was tested and we came out on top. On a particular day, anything can happen and it was a game of small margins. We are pleased to come across the line.’

Williamson was brilliant in rotating his bowlers and caught the eye with some unconventional field placements. No less significant was left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner’s role. His first spell (6-2-7-2) choked India and he finished with 40 dot balls in 10 overs! We should now stop talking about India’s batsmen being very good against spin. Over and over again, it has been seen they aren’t.

Support for Dhoni also came from an unlikely quarters when playback legend Lata Mangeshkar made an emotional appeal to him not to hang up his boots and serve the country for a long time. ‘Aye mere watan ke logo...’

Meanwhile, the unleashed fury of the one billion fans had to find one fall guy or some systemic flaw. And Kohli had suggested to the ICC to change in the format itself so that India play more matches instead of the protracted round-robin round.

This has been their worst defeat since losing against Bangladesh in Trinidad at the 2007 World Cup that led to their crashing out in the first round. That tournament started with four groups of four, meaning India, cricket’s most powerful economic draw, played only three matches.

At the behest of the Indian board, the ICC ensured such an occurrence would never happen again by extending the first-round stage, with each team guaranteed a minimum of nine matches this year. Kohli has now suggested the latter stages should be tweaked as well in the format for the World Cup to be held in India three years hence.

Meanwhile, the after tremors continue to be felt. While the coaching staff headed by Ravi Shastri were given a 45-day extension after their contract expired with the World Cup, the assistant coach Sanjar Bangur was not lucky. Actually it was Bangur who decided on Vijay Shankar for the fourth batsman spot. He has been under the scanner as certain sections felt he should have done a better job.

The bowling unit under coach Bharat Arun seems to have done exceptionally well and the fielding under R Sridhar had shown tremendous improvement but the fact they could not fix the number four spot has been a blot on the entire coaching contingent. The BCCI would, therefore, scrutinise the support staff processes and decision-making and come to a decision of their future. The present set-up of senior staff were at sea with the decisions being made and at the same completely ignoring the Cricket Advisory Committee that comprised Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly and VVSLaxman. ‘That’s a shame,’ said an official. So much so even a couple of players had sought former Indian batsmen for tips on how to correct their flaws and how to score.’