How bitter still our World Cup?

EVEN amidst the Babel of Noises that was the World Cup, the sadistic conclusion drawn by our own billiards guru stood out like a sore cueing thumb the day after All India had kissed Mandira goodbye.

RAJU BHARATAN

A Sachin caught in the third eye of the storm? No fear!-Pic. REUTERS

EVEN amidst the Babel of Noises that was the World Cup, the sadistic conclusion drawn by our own billiards guru stood out like a sore cueing thumb the day after All India had kissed Mandira goodbye. Wrote Michael Ferreira, turning the `pen' knife in the wound: ``At considerable risk to life and limb, I have to say that, if we won the World Cup this time around, the effects would have been felt for the next 50 years. Every other sport — already reeling drunkenly from the effects of barren sponsorship, tepid public interest and unenthusiastic marketing — would have had to shut up shop and quietly die. My grim prediction made in 1983, that India was degenerating into a one-sport desert, would have been confirmed and sooner than even I suspected.''

So we have at least one ex-World Champion almost rejoicing at India's not having emerged as the new World Champion! Maybe Michael Ferreira is `on the white ball' in making the pungent point he does. But was March 24 the time to make it — on the morrow of sorrow for the entire nation? There is hatred and hatred but no hatred like cricket hatred! Having said that, the hour to introspect, for Indian cricket, is certainly here. It is all very well to argue that we made every post except Australia a winning one in World Cup 2003. The cold fact remains that we stumbled not once but twice against Australia. The first 9-wicket surrender to Ricky's Aussies was a traumatising happening that touched the nation's psyche. Stung to the Ashish-Zaheer-Srinath quick, Sourav & Co. here pulled up their socks in such a heady huddle that `The World As A Cup' became the vision of the nation. If only we had displayed the wit to listen to the timely warning administered here by Barry Richards, after our runaway 91-run semifinal rout of Kenya. ``A win over minnows Kenya is not the ideal preparatory ground for the World Cup final against such tough opponents as the Aussies,'' tartly observed Barry. ``What India nee ed, before the World Cup final, was a razor-keen contest, pitted against far stronger opposition than Kenya.''

This Barry Richards viewpoint sadly failed to register on a Sony viewership (46 per cent of them Mandirapturous women) already in a state of euphoria. Indeed, in the way the Aussies faced up to Kenya in their Super Six encounter, we had a vital clue to how to approach the World Cup final. If surprise Man of the Match Asif Karim (8.2-6-7-3) gave the Aussies such a pre-semifinal fright, it was by pinning the reigning champs on the back-foot. Here was a tell-tale guideline to Sourav. If at all Sourav was going to insert Australia on the moisture-laden Wanderers wicket, the instant idea should have been to play Anil Kumble. Anil's opening the bowling would, on a wicket yielding bounce and turn from the word ``Play!'', straightway have put the Aussies on the Asif Karim back-foot.

This was the only rational mode to get Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting early — lbw, or caught behind, or snapped up close in — while such attacking batsmen were still fresh at the crease. At some fairly early point, Harbhajan Singh, buzzingly, could have joined Anil to turn the screws further. Just an idea. But it could have worked! Only, Sourav was stuck with the fact that it was his neo-pace trio that had worked the oracle for him through 8 matches running. Legitimately did Sourav entertain the fear that delaying the advent of this pace trio (as a combo) could prove counter-productive. But then, in the Final bowling analysis, the implacable adversary Sourav was up against was the Ugly Aussie — wanting fair pace on his bat from the outset. This exactly was what Gilly got from a Zaheer charged with seeing that Sourav's decision to bowl first did not go for a toss.

A Zaheer `intent' upon venturing to `intimidate' the Aussie openers from the first ball — surely such a crucial decision could not have been made on his own? I say Zaheer was trying the aggro, so early, at the instance of his Dada captain and Dada captain alone. Sourav's style has been to mount the Arjuna Ranatunga style of verbal `offensive' on the foe from the word go. Zaheer therefore was merely carrying out the command of his captain in bad-mouthing the Aussie openers. It had worked for Sourav against Steve's Australia in the two Tests we so nerve-tinglingly won in March 2001. It failed, as a daringly defiant ploy now, because Zaheer Khan, still verbally seasoning, lost line-length rhythm in administering the Aussies a dose of their own oral medicine.

Initially I thought Sourav was being big-hearted in not opting to name his pace trio as the culprits in foiling his bowl-first plan. But the truth here obviously is that Sourav was in no moral position to pillory his pace trio, since Zaheer's show of tongue was part of Ganguly's own grand design to subdue the Aussies in their own Lehmann lingo. That the idea misfired from the nervy opening over itself is the reason why Sourav conveniently dismissed March 23 as ``just one off-day'' (in the World Cup) for his super quicks. Some day to `hand' pick to go off-line! Yet Sachin, for one, could not hold himself as he received his pyrrhic prize as Man of the Tournament. Sachin zeroed in on our pace trio as the men who ``failed to put the ball there'' — to leave him with a near insuperable target of 360 to cut through with his MRF blade.

That Sachin (4) himself went up like a fireball, only to land as a lily white ball (in Glenn McGrath's hands), left Ten, too, in no posture to fault our quicks. For all that, Steve Waugh, I say, was not being strictly fair in writing that he saw ``the fear of failure'' in the Elfin One's eyes. Steve had said it, in a different way, in his `Waugh Zone' column before. But still what he now wrote is worth quoting. Stated Steve: ``I did feel a little sorry for Sachin Tendulkar with the weight of expectation on his shoulders as he walked out, knowing he needed to score a big hundred for his team to be (in with) any sort of a chance. I think it's the first time I've seen fear in his eyes and the weight of a nation's hopes crushing his focus.''

If, in the teeth of that 360 target, fear did indeed grip Sachin, would the Tiny Ten have opted to take first strike himself instead of yielding it to Sehwag? ``No fear!'' I say to Steve's reading ``fear in his eyes''. Sachin here just thought he would swiftly ``read the line'' and get after Australia the `whirlwindfall' way he had done, in that Ten tone-setting 98, against Pakistan on March 1. That Ten failed to come off this one time is the rub of the green cap the Aussie flaunts. The Pakistan target of 274 had been tackled, via Sachin's MRFiesty blade, by seeing that India raced to 50 in 5 overs. Ten had, willy-nilly, to aim at some such touchstone now, looking to how 360 was the Mirage from which to let fly.

During his 36 in the earlier group match against Australia, Ten had discerned that nothing really could be accomplished by staying put in the Kangaroo-occupied rectangle. So he opted for the Kapil Daredevil course in a bid to fire from the hip. The hype accompanying Ten's earlier buccaneering World Cup batting now worked against him. That Veeru Sehwag remained untouched by it all is the roly-poly man! Accept the ground reality that Veeru would get a Sehwagonload of runs only once in five innings. When he has all the luck in the World Cup! No one, not even Australia, could thus halt Veeru, once his star-turn came. Veeru's 82 off 81 balls (10 fours, 3 sixes) certainly saw the Kangaroos going hopping mad at a juncture when they thought all was over bar the Harbhajan clouting.

Ricky Ponting, as the Aussie to `cap' it with 8 sixes & 4 fours in that 121-ball 140 (bat in hand), could afford to be magnanimous in his victory utterances. Yet it is Steve Waugh who put his finger on what precisely still ailed Indian cricket. Wrote Steve Waugh a full `Octagon'-8 days before the Wanderers final fiasco: ``Having played a great deal of cricket against India, I know that they are a team that play with a lot of emotion, which can consequently lead to extreme highs and lows. When things are going well, they ride the wave of goodwill and expectation and can prove to be an unstoppable force. Their body language and demeanour change from being reactive to proactive and their on-field play has more purpose and authority about it. It is in these situations that the opposition come under pressure. Especially if Tendulkar, Sehwag and Ganguly get a roll on together. When India post big totals, they are a team full of enthusiasm, energy and a positive vibe, which in turn lifts their fieldsmen and bowlers.''

So, in order to post a tall score, should India have batted first in the final? To quote Sourav himself in the matter from what he wrote during the World Cup semis stage: ``We have a terrific bowling attack which is capable of picking up quick wickets — if there is moisture on the pitch.'' Was Sourav's India, then, placed manfully enough, on that Wanderers wicket (laden with moisture), to pursue its strength — asserted by Ganguly himself as: ``Put up a good total and defend it, that's when we are the most dangerous''? Such a decision to bat on March 23, could it have metamorphosed our team's entire outlook? South `Africannon' Barry Richards (who should know) does not think so. Wrote Barry: ``Sourav Ganguly did the right thing by opting to bowl first when he won the toss at the Wanderers. Had Ricky Ponting won it, he would have done the same thing. His bowlers would probably have bundled out India for 150 — the conditions were so much in favour of the bowlers.''

Going by this — ignoring Ricky Ponting's glib post-final claim that a toss-winning Australia would have batted first — the task of opening on such a wicket would have been too much even for `The White Richards'. Leave alone Brown Blaster Tendulkar. Remember, Barry Richards is an opener who, in his career, struck as many as 9 first-class centuries in the 35 overs usually bowled before lunch. If such a shot-maker did not feel assured about opening (while batting first) on this Wanderers wicket, did Sourav really get it wrong? Just accept that the Sunday of March 23 was predestined to be the end of the World Cup — for India! Even while spurning Navjot Singh Sidhu's end-March 23 STAR dictum: ``Beating Pakistan was still as good as winning the World Cup for India!'' A sick Sardarji joke, as Khushwant Singh saw it.