Mohali ODI was by far the greatest showdown of the game of cricket and it evoked appropriate interest commensurate with the excitement it had generated. Not only that the cricket-lovers were excited, even the political leaders could not escape the excitement. It led to high-profile dignitaries visiting the stadium and discussing politics while watching the match. Pakistani prime minister, who went along his team on the invitation of his Indian counterpart, broke the ice with the arch-rival and both the countries came out winning the Mohali semi-final, even though the match was lost by the senior players. Either it was the political outcome of the match or some players played exceptionally brilliant that Pakistanis are prepared to accept the defeat with grace and receive the team warmly. This is extraordinary reaction in extraordinary times.
At some point over the next couple of days, Pakistan will come to understand just how close they actually got – with this side whom few gave a chance – to getting to a World Cup final. The margin of defeat looks comfortable enough but there wasn’t a whole lot between them and India, ultimately, other than a safe pair of hands somewhere, anywhere in the field.
According to a report by NDTV, there are many frustrating ways to lose a game, let alone one as big as this, but few gnaw away at reason and rationality quite like those lost to dropped catches. In this age of the instant vent and search for a “match ka mujrim” (criminal of the match), Misbah-ul-Haq’s mysterious innings is already being pilloried in Pakistan for its poor pacing. The reaction is misplaced and overdone, for the pitch wasn’t given to fluent stroke-play, particularly after the ball softened, and there had already been some momentum-losing poor shots earlier from the openers. Blaming the batting in any case misses the point. Pakistan are never comfortable chasers and 261, in a World Cup semi-final, at the home of the opposition is an entirely different kind of 261 from the ones they might chase down in a bilateral series in the UAE. The point is, they shouldn’t have been chasing that much in the first place.
There are some truisms in cricket that Pakistan quite brazenly and joyously ignore; leading among them are those to do with catching. They win matches? Yes, but not as much as scoring runs and taking wickets, thank you. They once dropped Graeme Smith five times as he ground out 65 in an ODI in Lahore, and still won the match comfortably. They dropped seven catches in an innings in New Zealand in 2009-10 and won the Test comfortably. These are to recall just two examples from a sizeable sample. But there are some rules in life you cannot defy, some batsmen you really cannot give a chance to. And if you give Sachin Tendulkar four chances – not one but four! Tendulkar! – you cannot expect to win a game, no matter what else you do. It was one of Tendulkar’s least fluent recent innings as well, but in the drops of Misbah, Younis Khan – their two best catchers -Kamran Akmal and Umar Akmal, went the game. It is as simple as that.
It wasn’t – as it never is – just the runs that came after the drops, though Tendulkar did add 58 runs after the first chance went down. It was the mood that was lost each time. The first spill, with Tendulkar on 27, came as Pakistan were beginning to regain their senses after Virender Sehwag’s early blast. Tendulkar had just survived two torrid overs from Saeed Ajmal and a seminal moment was at hand.
The second, on 45, came the over after Gautam Gambhir had gone. Momentum again was at stake. The third came a few overs after Wahab Riaz’s two-wicket over left India in a position of real danger. All chances, incidentally, were created by the tournament’s leading wicket-taker, the man to whom Pakistan look for inspiration, for breakthroughs, for controlling the middle overs of the game, their captain, a man who thrives on taking precisely such wickets, Shahid Afridi.
The effects of this on a game cannot possibly be calculated, except to say the obvious, that it changes everything and goes beyond runs alone. Who knows what target Pakistan could have been chasing? There was another, less important, miss later, on 81, but a miss nonetheless and none of the outfield catches were difficult.
It is sad – but also predictable – that ultimately it came down to Pakistan’s fielding, for that is the one area they have really worked hard on in training and actually thought about methodically, making sure for once of placing the right fielders in the right places. Younger players have come in who genuinely enjoy fielding, a couple of older ones have led the way. They have been very sharp as they were against Australia but also still capable of sudden, unexpected tragi-comedy as against Sri Lanka at the R Premadasa in the second half of the hosts’ chase and today. Overall, they have been considerably better than before, in particular with the energy they have brought on to the field. But there is much, much more to be done. If they are skilled and contrary enough to get away with it against most sides and players, to expect to do so against the game’s greatest modern-day batsman, in such a setting, is to expect miracles.