Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Resurrection and Redemption: Circle turns full in many ways for Pakistan

There are always times when one feels to be lucky to witness turnarounds. For these are moments when you would keep pinching yourselves in future for having missed some of the defining moments of human endevaour. Watching the World T20 final at Lord's on Sunday was one such feeling. As Afridi ran for the winning single off the leg bye, the mind wandered back to the past. As a child, those were the days of my 'initiation' into the game. As a primary school student, cricket then was defined by personalities. I only knew and followed one man, Sachin Tendulkar(even after years of maturity and growing up, I still have him as my favourite cricketer, ever watching his entry to the crease with the rawness of a six year old). The year was 1992 and I had not followed much cricket anyway then to have, kept track of India's progress-that was only dismal, except for their win against Pakistan and a narrow one run loss against Pakistan. On the day of the big final, I watched for the first time in a black and white television set in my school Games Room, the scintallating batting of the great man, Imran Khan and his protege, Inzamam (I used to then wonder how the school got a TV set in the first place!!). As a child, I was still unaware of the nuances of game as well as the timezones-as to how floodlights came to be used when the daylight was still out there outside!! After the completion of the Pakistan innings, the school was given half-day leave (still wondering why!!) and I was back home. There, I watched a left-arm fast bowler named Wasim Akram, destroying the English run chase and remember my mother tellling that Imran was spearheading this campaign for the memory of his mother. I even believed the team was ditto following the captain's personal efforts. Thus, as the light green coloured uniforms danced after that catch by Rameez, I suddenly felt that Pakistan was everything in world cricket. For many Indians, it was the 1983 win by the Kapil's Devils, that changed the way the game was followed in this country. However, those moments were only watched by me years later. Therefore, my cricket affinity and passion was only rooted after that performance in Sydney that January night by Imran and his hand-picked boys. Their passion and determination contained within it something unique, enough to propel a child to keep his own interest and passion in the game forever in life.

"Life turns Full Circle", that's how we describe turn-arounds. But in Lord's that Sunday, the turning of the wheel was not in one, but in many ways.But before getting to that, something on the final itself. It was bold statement; one may also call it a kind of 'catharsis'. More than the fact that both Sri Lanka and Pakistan were the best bowling sides in the final, thereby driving away the conventional notions of dominance of batsmen in the shortest format of the game, both the teams also had lots of excess baggage in the form of emotions within themselves. Of course, there was the trauma of the Lahore terror attack, through which the Lankans had gone through, and that was also something that sealed Pakistan's fate for hosting international cricket at home in near future. Sangakkara was having his first duty as full time skipper of Sri Lanka, taking over the reins from Jayawardene, and in fact, the Lankans were playing their first international tournament, after that traumatizing day in Lahore. Both the teams had come through civil strife in their countries. A civil war that was raging in the North and East had tormented Sri Lanka in ethnic terms for more than three decades now had just ended. Similary Pakistan had always been in spate, through instability, terrorism and lack of vibrant democracy. The latest offensive of the Pakistani Army in the Swat Valley also carried greater burdens in the minds of the players. Cricket is a great healer, a kind of balm that may soothe the wounds, even though it may not permanently rub off the marks, as remarked by Sachin Tendulkar after the Mumbai terror attacks. However, if even the game is able to provide some respite to the struggling masses, then atleast some part of the job is said to be done. This is what precisely happened on Sunday. Kumar Sangakkara and Younis Khan, leading their teams, were also sending a strong statement defining the strength, courage and mental preparedness of both the nations along with the entire cricketing world, cutting across boundaries. Statements that can never be written off, adding to the grit and glory of these 'demigods', who are also humans at the end of the day.

Now, to get back to the turning of the wheel. A few days, before the final, zapping through television channels, got me the opportunity to watch the highlights of the 1999 World Cup final-again at Lord's. On that day, Pakistan which looked the most dominant team of the entire season under the astute leadership of Wasim Akram won the toss against the Australians, who had kept their nerve in the semi-finals at Edgbaston, to defy Lance Klusner and South Africans. The mercurial captaincy of Steve Waugh also was visible in the forefront then. Despite winning the toss and choosing to bat, the mighty Pakistanis' who never looked like losing, were brought to earth by the guile and tweak of Shane Warne-who was the man of the match for his 4 wickets-and was ably supported by the rest of the pack. Bundled out for a mere 139 on that day, the Australians won their second World Cup by eight wickets and have ever since never let off their stranglehold on the world cricket's most premier trophy. Thus, watching the win of Younis and his team at Lord's was the first full turn of circle of life of Pkistan cricket. Perhaps, the Mecca of Cricket always has something in it for underdogs, for the big matches. India in 1983, Australia in 1999 and now Pakistan in another World Cup final.

Only two members of that 1999 World Cup side survived in the final match on Sunday-Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq. Afridi-whose age never seemed to grow and whose image as a 'dasher' slowly waning away from his lacklustre performances-and Razzaq-whose departure of the rebel ICL also depried them of a genuine all-rounder down the order. Along with his medium-pace and power hitting, Razzaq was instrumental in giving depth to the Pakistani team in that World Cup. He was also a difficult bowler to get away, bowling wicket to wicket, on a steady line and length. Afridi who took the cricket world by storm after the 'boom-boom' knock of hundred off 37 balls at Nairobi, slowly looked fading away. His on-and- off performances also did not do him any world of good. In fact, Afridi's performances also mirrored that of the Pakistan team as a whole. Inconsistency was something that always plagued them. Despite his usual poor form in the initial stages in this World Cup, he peaked at the right time, that in turn also led to his team's rise in fate. Although his batting was crumbling, he held his fort in his bowling, getting in those sharp leg-spin deliveries with precision. His two wickets off his miserly overs in the semi-final against favourites Soituh Africa best exemplifies this fact. His fielding standards also rose significantly. Perhaps, the best was that catch which took in the match against New Zealand, with the ball seeming to get away from him. Thus, both his bowling and his fielding complimented his batting. His promotion up the order replacing Younis Khan was also a boost. His rotation of the strike, preferring to take the singles in the final, was well combined with those 'boom-boom' hits. For once, his inconsistencies were forgotten. Similarly, the injury to Yasir Arafat and his timely replacement with Razzaq also swung Pakistan's fate. Combining with the lanky left-arm fast bowler Mohammed Aamir making his debut in international cricket, Razzaq used his experience with the ball in the form of his medium-pace to good effect. His sharp and disciplined bowling pepped up the Pakistani attack, right from the match against the Black Caps to the final. In fact, Pakistan bowled well to a plan in the final. Both Aamir and Razzaq combined well, in pushing short-pitched stuff to the Lankans, that led to the fall of in-form Dilshan. The new ball combination of Aamir and Razaaq made Umar Gul, retract as the first change bowler. He still finished as the tournament's top wicket taker with 13 prized scalps. The three crucial wickets by Razzaq had almost sealed the final in Pakistan's favour. Thus, the stand out performances of Afridi and Razzaq formed second full turn of circle for Pakistan.

Another fact was the T20 World Cup itself. The shortest form the game, that gripped the imagination of the game's lovers the world over, perhaps displayed its best in the first edition. That inaugural championship win by Dhoni and his boys, changed the way T20 was viewed in India. In fact, that brought cricket, hefty contracts, millionaire ownerships, and corporate sponsorships, marking a transformation of the image of the game itself. But just spare a thought for Pakistan. Again pooh-poohed by the bookmakers and experts, they made it to the final defying all odds. They almost clinched that trophy too that evening in Johannesburg, if not for the untimely decision of Misbah to select the wrong ball to scoop to fine-leg. That climatic evening in 2007 seemed a different proposition altogether in 2009. Misbah was in the Dug-Out padded up, when victory arrived. He may well exorcised his ghosts by this performance that had the stamp of authority. This was definitely the third full turn in the circle.

Ever since that epic final in 1992, Pakistan cricket has been perpetually in turbulence. Match-Fixing scandals, infighting, indiscipline, lacklustre performances, poor team selections, wrong training methods, revolving door policies, administrative goof-ups, mass exodus to rebel league and the unfortunate death of a master strategist, Bob Woolmer who was their coach. These factors that cloaked Pakistan cricket was also perilious for the team as a whole in displaying its best. Inconsistency and uncertainty have always dogged cricket in the country. The 'revolving door' selection policy in Pakistan only meant that there was no stability in the team. The many 'blink and miss' players for the team, only deepend the crisis. Indiscipline was also a serious concern. Shoaib Akhtar's tantrums and inconsistent performances along with his frequent break-downs are now part of cricket folklore in Pakistan. Missing drug tests, doping scandals and possessing contraband stuff - the off-field incidents have also blighted Pakistan heavily. This World Cup win, cascaded all the perils and took Pakistan to the pedestal of glory, mirroring efforts of Imran and his boys seventeen years before. Can anything be better than this fourth full turn of the circle?

To come to the recent past, international cricket has disappeared without any time-frame from Pakistan. The players and the fans have been starved off quality cricket in the country. Getting rusty in such situations is a common factor; luckily that did not happen as both Younis and Intikhab Alam filled in their roles as the captain and coach, very well. Terrorism had also severed Pakistani cricketers off their contracts in IPL-2. Many franchisee teams missed the services of the Pakistani cricketers in their ranks, who had actively taken part in the first edition. This deprivation and almost complete non-visibility of Pakistan from the international cricket scene, made people to write off the team. However, only when their backs are against the wall and odds are stacked heavily against them, Pakistan's true test of character and strength is brought forth. The 1992 World Cup was also similar, with them losing most of their matches until the rained-off tie against England. After that there was no looking back, as they went on from strength to strength. Similarly, this time, they lost both their warm-up games and even lost to England in their opening group match, making Younis Khan to remark that T20 was mainly played for the 'fun factor', sparking off criticism. Though they beat Holland to enter the Super Eights, they again lost to the Lankans. However, again the team came back winning. This hallmark of Pakistan overwhelming adversity with ease without doubt for me is the fifth turn in the circle. Perhaps this is the precise reason why being witnesses to 'turn-arounds' is a cathartic experience. The indomitable human spirit shows itself up displaying the true colours, in terms of essence, character and the self-belief.

Pakistan cricket's moment of reckoning is well and truly here. The wheel has rotated to its full. The fans across the country in Pakistan and all true followers of the game including yours truly are happy that the team has soared to new heights. One can only hope the ever-prevalent dangers that stalk and lurk side by side, proving to be the achilles' heal for Pakistan, are heavily guarded against. One also thinks emphatically that Pakistani cricket would turn new leaves in the coming days. The solidity of team strength, positiveness in the frame of mind of the players and passionate aggression-all traditional features of the game in Pakistan need to stay well and true. Of that long list of ever impressive legendary cricketers, from Kardar, to Fazal Mahmood, to the run machine in the form of Zaheer Abbas, the aggressive Miandad, the astute Pathan in Imran Khan, to the giant Inzamam, to the duo who hunt in pairs Wasim and Waqar.................the list is endless. For all those cricketers who have given everlasting memories to the countless fans, Pakistan as a team needs to get back that indomitable spirit. For there are many a six year old child out there, who want to be 'initiated' into the game, with the right spirit and attitude.

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