Sunday, December 27, 2009

The best I have watched

The other day, ( I seem to notice that is how a lot of my posts begin and therefore the unwillingness to change it) on my way to a cricket match (which shall feature later) I was narrating to the fellow travelers incidents from various matches that I have witnessed from a seat in the cricket stadium. It is then that I realized that if I made the list of the top moments that I have watched it would pretty much be a compilation of the top cricketing moments of the past decade from an Indian perspective. Here goes the list, not in any particular order.

India vs Pakistan, Chennai, 1999

This is one match no one on either side of the subcontinent's Line of Control would forget for the rest of their lives. For the 40000 odd who were present on that fateful final day, this was one of those matches which came closest to satiating all the human sensory needs. The final day began with India looking set to push on to an emotional victory with two of their best batsmen in at the start of the day. One of them would last not too long and the other would not last long enough. One got out to a peach of a delivery and the other would deliver possibly the greatest innings in a losing cause. And in the midst of all this to add to the drama was what in gully cricket terminology was a 'one pitch' catch to dismiss Saurav Ganguly. As India lost their top order barring Sachin within 100 runs, it seemed like it would be a much shorter stay at the stadium than most of us had anticipated. This was until Mongia showed exceptional grit and in his company Sachin began to blossom. This was not so much an innings of booming cover drives and sweeps over midwicket for six, but instead it was a lesson in geometry. So well did Sachin work the angles that it seemed like no field set up could contain him. He repeatedly swept Saqlain, then the biggest threat in a super star studded Pakistani bowling lineup, fine to collect two runs. As the match seemed to drift away from Pakistan, the crowd started to get into the act. As Salim Malik walked back to his position at deep midwicket, the loud cheers from the crowd got his attention and in his typical nonchalant style he conveyed back to the crowd that it would only be a matter of time before Pakistan would regain control. And surely enough within the next 20 minutes, Mongia took the ugliest swipe possible to hole out to Waqar off Wasim's bowling. If ever there was a cricketing definition of kamikaze, this was it, except of course the fact that this was an act of stupidity and not bravery. Sunil Joshi was the next man in and his straight six into the sightscreen produced a thumping noise which reverberated around the ground. This joy was however to be short lived and in its place descended a pall of gloom. Sachin got out holing out to Akram at deep cover attempting a swipe over midwicket off a Saqlain doosra. What followed after that was a procession by the Indian batsmen, from the pavilion onto the pitch and back. India would go on to lose by 12 runs and this defeat would forever rankle Sachin and the rest of the Indian public forever. What followed that though was unprecedented. As Wasim Akram and his men somehow got a brain wave to take a victory lap, what must have been apprehension about the reception they'll get turned into astonishment. As the Pakistanis made their way around the ground, the spectators stood up to give them a standing ovation, in a gesture which would go on to heal the wounds of the past in a manner which could seldom be achieved through diplomatic measures. The power of cricket and sport in general to act as a healer was made evident that day.

India vs Australia, 3rd Test, Chennai, 2001, 5th day

India had completed one of the greatest test victories just a few days back and here in Chennai they were on the verge of completing perhaps the greatest come from behind series victories. India began the day needing to skittle out the Aussies quickly and Steve Waugh was the one man who was capable of tying up the loose ends for Australia and India needed to get him out early. And they did and quickly Harbhajan wrapped the innings up and picked up 8 wickets in the innings. The atmosphere was terrific as the target was not that big a challenge and India had plenty of overs to achieve the same. Each one sitting in the stands knew they were going to witness something special. And special it was. After SS Das had got out early, local boy Ramesh and by now Indian super hero VVS Laxman set the stadium alight with some breathtaking strokes until a terrible mix up did Ramesh in. After a flurry of boundaries Sachin would also return to the pavilion and the usual death like silence ensued. As more wickets began to tumble the hearts began to flutter. Chennai 99 was back to haunt the crowd. But at the other end it seemed like Laxman could no wrong and while he was there a sense of calmness prevailed until Mark Waugh decided to take matters into his own hands. Literally. Laxman pulled an absolute half tracker from Miller with a power he was unknown for. If I had been a little older my eyes wouldn't have moved fast enough to catch what has been the best catch I have ever witnessed in a cricket stadium. The ball had well passed Mark Waugh when with a full stretch dive Waugh caught the ball. All with his usual grace well intact. All hope suddenly seemed lost. India had done it again. After snatching victory from the Aussies in the previous match, they now seemed determined to return the favor. A couple more wickets fell. Surely, it was going to be one of those romantic stories with a tragic end. Harbhajan Singh strode out to bat and one sensed the script writer had it written to perfection. With Dighe digging in, India crawled to very near the finish post. A Dighe drive through the slips had Warne running after the ball at a speed not seen from him since he was a teenager. Harbhajan drove McGrath powerfully and just as the crowd thought it was all over, the ball would go straight into the hands of the cover fielder. Again, a powerful drive. Again straight to the fielder. And then it happened. For a second or two my mind went blank. I could see nothing, feel nothing. It was the same for the more than 40000 who had assembled that day. And then the stadium erupted. India had WON! They had beaten the world champions. And this day was etched in my memories forever.

Saeed Anwar, 194, India vs Pakistan, Chennai 1997

This was my first match in a cricket stadium and what an initiation it would prove to be. A contest with lesser happenings might have possibly meant I would never return to the stadium. This was a battle. Nothing less. India and Pakistan facing each other on the 50th year of independence for both the nations in an tournament aptly named the Independence Cup. It also meant it was 50 years since some of the bloodiest scenes witnessed in the Indian subcontinent. India had won the war at the World Cup the previous year and this was their chance for revenge. And for some reason Saeed Anwar seemed to have taken it upon himself to exact that revenge. I think I may be pardoned if I say I don't remember much else about the match apart from his innings. Shahid Afridi was supposed to be the danger man. The man most likely to cause utter destruction. So when he was sent back early, India would have safely assumed that they were not going to face a huge target. Anwar, though, had other ideas. Though his entire innings was brutal in its impact and beautiful in its execution, one particular aspect stood out. Anwar's savage attack on India's best bowler. In a span of half a dozen deliveries, Anwar had lofted Anil Kumble to three sixes in the long on and midwicket region. As Anwar got closer and closer to the world record, the buzz in the crowd grew louder. And as he passed the world record, I am sure for some time he would have thought he was playing in Lahore or Karachi for such was the ovation he got. To be honest, it would not be an exaggeration to state that every single spectator felt a tinge of sadness when Ganguly took a stumbling catch at short square leg to dismiss Anwar, six short of the first ever ODI double century, a feat no one came close to beating till February 24th 2010. More importantly, that day, I learned how important it is to appreciate good cricket and a great innings.

Sehwag 81 off 68 balls, India v England , Chennai, 2008

Seldom does an innings lasting 68 balls so dramatically change the course of a test match. And to think that the change of course took only half the 68 deliveries in the real sense is what is even more fascinating. India had toiled long and hard in the field that day. Dismissing England was proving to be much more difficult than had been imagined. Strauss especially was playing out of his skin and his century in both the innings looked like pretty much sealing the match for England. Through a combination of some reverse swing and inspired bowling, India managed to skittle out the lower order and a declaration by Strauss left India with seemingly a little too much to do. Through a couple of days in the match I had the opportunity to sit with the Barmy Army and it was an experience by itself. To see such a bunch of dedicated cricket fans and to witness their singing and cheering for their cricketers was a reassuring sight for a cricket addict like me. Through most of the fourth day, the folks in the Barmy Army had been singing and dancing and throwing taunts at the Indian fans. Until Sehwag started his blitzkrieg. The home crowd found its voice and the Barmy Army lost theirs. Brutal cuts, upper cuts and a lot more never seen before , never after seen shots were unleashed by the man. It seemed only a matter of time before he got to his century. But alas, he fell victim to Swann late in the day. As he trudged off the pitch, one felt that while he had every right to be disappointed, we the crowd had nothing to complain about. Tendulkar and Yuvraj would lead India to a famous victory the next day, but for once even the commentators and the match referee got it spot on in handing the man of the match award to Sehwag.

More to follow in Part 2!

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