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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A trip down nostalgia lane - Prudential World Cup 1975

It must be counted as a blessing that the World Cup comes around only once in four years. There is plenty of cricket, especially limited-overs cricket, to fill this four-year interval. If the evidence of the recent CWB triangular series is anything to go by, any series with more than six or seven games becomes too much of an ask for the audience to follow and, but for the dramatic turnaround in results towards the end of the series, most of the games leading to the finals were consigned to history almost as soon as they were done and dusted.

The World Cup, coming as it does once in four years, thankfully has no such attention concerns to worry about. Much like the Olympics and the football World Cup, far bigger sporting events around the world, the cricket World Cup has the ability to leave you with memories for a lifetime.

My first memories of any cricket World Cup are incidentally memories of the very first one – the Prudential Cup of 1975. As I have mentioned elsewhere this first edition has a special place in my heart. I was not yet in my teens then – and that meant my images of cricket and cricketers had a touch of dreaminess about them. Not a little due to my circumstances in those 70s.

I had no TV spouting cricket images at me – all I had was the sports page of the daily newspaper (more specifically, The Statesman, Calcutta edition). And the reigning sports magazine of the day, Sportsweek (edited by Khalid Ansari) with its sister publication, the World of Cricket (also known as WOC).

Of course there was radio – thank God for that. The unforgettable radio commentary of the day helped me conjure images of the action as it happened. But for the most part, it was left to my imagination to provide the moving images of a Vishy square-cut, a Gavaskar straight-drive or the armer delivery from Bedi flighted across the batsman. Any commentator can only do so much.

I am afraid I am digressing here but I cannot help thinking of how things have changed – so much for the better. Television ? Probably in the cities of India (which excluded me), that too black-and-white. And most decidedly Doordarshan.

Internet ? Inter-what ?

Those of you who have spent their entire early life without TV or Internet (and have had to scrounge for news, pictures and statistics) will be able to relate to my experiences above. For the rest (which I am sure is the far larger number), my apologies if I sound like somebody from another planet.

Coming back to the first World Cup of 1975. Whether it was my limited access to information in those days or the absence of much trumpeting about the tournament, I cannot say for sure, but I most certainly do not recall much hype around the event. Excitement yes, hype no. All I remember is this was to be the first cricket World Cup ever (sponsored by Prudential Insurance in England and therefore called the Prudential World Cup). For the next few weeks I would be totally bowled over by this event and the sports pages of the Statesman (I think there were only two in those days, maybe a World Cup special third page) would be devoured in a manner one would associate more with a famished urchin having his first meal in a week.

There were only eight teams taking part. South Africa was still facing the apartheid ban and that meant the six Test-playing nations (West Indies, Australia, India, Pakistan, England and New Zealand) would play for the Cup, together with two “associate” teams, East Africa (comprising players from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) and Sri Lanka (then not accorded international cricket-playing nation status).

For the record, I did not have any particular expectations from India for this World Cup. It was all a bit new at that time. That there was a World Cup happening – and all world cricketers would be playing at the same time – was enough to keep me hooked to every single match. Except for the East African and to some extent Sri Lankan players, every other name was a reasonably familiar one. And the thought of having Thommo/Lillee bowling to Lloyd/Kallicharran on the same day that the Hadlee brothers would be bowling to Sunny and Vishy a few miles away was a mesmerizing one. I know it sounds silly now but I was not used to so much cricket action at one time.

In the context of the mood at that time, that India did not even make it to the second round hardly mattered. That they got mauled by England in the opening game was hardly a surprise. The Indian players had very little experience of limited-overs international cricket - and it showed. Besides, one can only suspect that for some of the players, the memories of that depressing, demoralizing, emotionally-scarring tour of just the previous year may not have been completely erased from their minds. For me and most Indians, it was a case of déjà vu – Dennis Amiss against India, another big hundred ! India’s reply to 334/4 was 132/3 – and this in 60 overs ! I was listening to the commentary – but there was no sinking feeling during the game. My premonition about India in England, having its roots firmly in the 42 all out experience of a year earlier, had ensured that the sinking feeling would manifest itself well before the start of the game. Amiss and co. were only giving the coffin of my hopes a decent burial.

The next Indian game was about as farcical as they come. As if rising from the grave, and avenging the insult at the hands of England, India put down an East African side with a ruthlessness that I wish they had shown against their quality opposition just a few days earlier. Bishen Bedi’s figures are worthy of framing for posterity : 12-8-6-1. As Gavaskar and Engineer completed a ten-wicket win for India by knocking off the required runs without any problem whatsoever, it gave India something to celebrate – and hope too. All that stood between India and a semi-final spot was New Zealand. (England had beaten New Zealand in the league game so it was either India or New Zealand for a semi-final spot).

I remember that game against New Zealand very well. It is in games like this that you tend to get most disappointed. Not just because these are crunch games, but because you feel your side is good enough to put one across and clinch a win.

But when you are playing New Zealand, and you have managed to put up only 230 on the board, you need to get Glenn Turner out early. He was the Dennis Amiss of that New Zealand side, at least as far as India was concerned. It was a reasonably close game – but I always knew that as long as Turner was not dismissed, India would not win the game.

So that was the end of the road for India. Venkataraghavan’s captaincy had this to show – a thrashing from England, a farcical win against East Africa, a poor showing against New Zealand. Result : a first-round exit.

East Africa, duly thrashed by New Zealand and England, ensured that these two teams qualified for the semi-finals.

The games in the other group were closer games. Australia beat Pakistan – thanks to that man Dennis Lillee and you could not help feeling sorry for Sri Lanka as they were destroyed by the West Indies.

But the match of the tournament, at least before the finals, was the West Indies-Pakistan game. Pakistan had the upper hand throughout – they had scored a very respectable 266 and had West Indies on their knees on 203 for 9. And then something went terribly wrong for Pakistan. They could just not finish it off. Deryck Murray, the wicketkeeper and No.11 Andy Roberts, just hung in there – and, to everybody’s disbelief, 4 balls into the last over, they managed to knock off that winning run to send Pakistan to a shock defeat – and effectively knocked them out of the World Cup. Their last game against Sri Lanka was rendered inconsequential.

The last league game between Australia and the West Indies was also rendered inconsequential but is best remembered for one thing – a blistering Kallicharran attack on Dennis Lillee. In the course of his 78 off 83, he had a sequence of 27 off 10 (44414604) – something not particularly uncommon in today’s world but unheard of in those days.

The semi-final line-up was England up against the “old enemy” Australia while the West Indies took on New Zealand.

The England-Australia game was another classic – drama of the highest order. One man, little-known Australian swing bowler, Gary Gilmour, suddenly burst onto the scene with what must be considered the best all-round performance in a World Cup game, probably ever. He ripped apart the England batting with figures of 12-6-14-6 as England were shot out for just 93. But even that was not enough of a performance because before he knew it he was coming in to bat with Australia 39/6. It was very much England’s game at that moment but nothing could go wrong with Gilmour on that day. He was cool, collected – and with a run-a-ball rate (not that the run-rate mattered), he ensured that Australia got home with no further loss. Australia 94/6 and on their way to the finals.

The other semi-final held no such drama as it went on predictable lines. The West Indians were just too good for New Zealand and, with the help of another sparkling Kallicharran innings, also made their way comfortably to the finals.

So there it was – the match-up for the final that probably made the most sense. Australia vs the West Indies. Two star-studded sides – and it was anybody’s guess how the final would go.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The West Indian captain, Clive Lloyd had till then had a relatively quiet World Cup, quiet by his potentially destructive standards. But if he had to pick one innings to let himself explode, he could not have picked a better or more important one. The stage, the occasion must have all contributed to the significance of the moment for the captain as, with veteran Rohan Kanhai playing an ideal foil, he played an innings of the highest quality to get the West Indies to 291 – a fairly imposing score.

That Australia got close is due largely to their last-wicket pair of Lillee and Thomson, probably one of the best fast bowling combinations ever but hardly known for their batting. They who put on a nerve-wracking 41 runs for the last wicket – and it was only a run-out that saw them fall short of victory just when they had it in their sights. Years later, when I saw an interview of Thomson on BBC, he referred to that game and said that that run-out really hurt because they had come so close that he thought they had done the difficult bit and just needed to finish it off.

That Australia did not end up holding the Cup is down to largely one man. Viv Richards. No, it was not his batting that made a difference. Then, he was not the legend he was to become in later years. What many do not know is that in the first few years of his career (till I think he was affected by injury), Viv Richards was one of the best fielders in the world. As he showed the Australians on that day in June 1975. He effected three run-outs – opener Alan Turner (who was batting very well on 40) and the two batsmen that Australia would have depended on the most - the Chappell brothers, Ian and Greg.

It was a memorable final – in fact, it was a memorable tournament. And a huge success. The World Cup, for all the initial doubts about its viability, was there to stay.

For me personally, that World Cup was not just about a tournament but about the atmosphere, the times that were then prevalent. I have many sweet memories of cricket in those days and I guess the World Cup of 1975 just encapsulates many of those memories for me. Maybe this is what makes it so special for me. The only comparable one personally for me is the 1983 one – but that is for different reasons altogether !

I am sure each person has his favourite World Cup edition – and I will not be surprised if for many it is the one that is the first edition that they followed in their lives.

Whatever it is, each World Cup has enriched our cricketing experiences. Let us hope this one, the first being hosted in the Caribbean, is a resounding success and further adds to our rich reservoir of memories.

For players may come and players may go but these memories go on for ever.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The excitement's building up !

It is World Cup time again – and, as one would expect, the mania is sweeping the cricket world.

It is the hottest subject of discussion, squads (now announced by all participating countries) are being animatedly discussed and, as we get closer to the actual event, we can bet that betting on team and individual performances will only increase. Unfortunately, it is a reflection of the times that injuries are as much a routine headline item nowadays as the game itself.

Not a day goes by without an interview with either a coach or a player. Players who have made it to the squad talk about the excitement they feel. And players who have not, understandably more muted, wish their team-mates good luck. Players of yesteryear, now self-professed experts on everything ranging from selection to strategy, talk about what needs to happen to bring home the World Cup.

All in all, this is a great time to be a cricket fan. For many, disillusionment may be just round the corner but the journey is often as much a source of enjoyment as the destination itself.

Those of us who are true fans of this game (and that pretty much includes everybody reading this, I would expect) will know what I am talking about. The game of cricket, with its twists and turns, with its pitch conditions and weather dependencies, with its Hawkeye and consequent umpiring debates, with its economy-rates and strike-rates, lends itself very naturally to all sorts of analyses. One can rest assured that every form of analysis will be carried out in the next few weeks. Thanks to the internet, online reporting and blogging, this has become that much easier.

It is probably safe to say that World Cup fever would be highest amongst that most emotional breed of cricket fans - South Asians. Or to put it more accurately, reflecting today’s increasingly visible presence of South Asians worldwide, fans of South Asian origin wherever located on the globe. This bunch, bred on a recipe of cricket from a very early stage in their lives (in some cases, possibly as a substitute for a harder-to-obtain material need in life known as “food”)) can be counted upon to follow each game, especially those involving their home teams, ball-by-ball – with further pre- and post-match analyses.

The World Cup is being played in the Caribbean – which, if I am not mistaken, means late night viewing in South Asia, going well into the wee hours of the morning (especially if you include highlights and post-match analyses). Add to this the sleeplessness you anyway have when your team has had a bad game (or excitement when your team has had a good one) and it is a safe bet that there will be several red-eyed South Asians at work or school the next morning.

The media will do its bit to keep everybody hooked to it. The World Cup comes around once in four years and, while there are countless limited-overs tournaments played every year, everybody knows that this is the big one. Even those of us who swear by Test cricket as being the “purest” version of the game make an exception for this one tournament. World Cup performances are remembered and passed on from generation to generation – and true to style, get more legendary status as time rolls on.

I still remember the first day of the first World Cup (Prudential World Cup) of 1975 when England opener Dennis Amiss massacred the Indian bowling (poor Karsan Ghavri the most hapless bowler of them all) and Indian opener Sunil Gavaskar retaliated with a defiant, if somewhat snail-like and inadequate by galaxies, reply on India’s behalf. It was the same day that Glenn Turner, that under-rated New Zealand opener tore apart the East African attack (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda then played as East Africa) a few miles away.

It feels like yesterday. The World Cup may not have had its most auspicious opening game but, as the tournament went on, the games got better and better, closer and closer (it does not get much closer than that remarkable West Indies-Pakistan game) and by the time the semis came along – and Aussie mystery man Gary Gilmour did his magic – the tournament had caught on with the public.

The final was a magnificent game in itself, every bit fitting of a World Cup final. Clive Lloyd was majestic, Rohan Kanhai signed off with a polished half-century , Viv Richards – then yet to become the legend of later years – sparkled in the field, effecting some crucial run-outs and the last-wicket Australian pair of Lillee and Thommo, better known for their bowling partnerships, fought hard and inched close to the West Indian score, only to have their dreams shattered by, what seemed to be the most fitting manner of dismissal of the day – a run-out.

Like I have said earlier, it feels like yesterday. And it was all of 32 years ago. This inaugural edition of the World Cup will always have a special place in my heart. It was played in times that would be unrecognizable today, media coverage was nothing like it is today, the game itself was different - for example batsmen had no helmets to protect themselves - even the number of overs played was 60 compared to today’s 50. Maybe part of my nostalgia is derived from the fact that I was not even in my teens then – so I had a very different, more innocent, view of the game then than I have now.

Since then, there have been seven World Cup tournaments. Different players, different venues, different rules, different strategies, lots of expectations, some disappointments. Several memorable moments – each World Cup has just added to the memories and the excitement of being a cricket fan.

I cannot wait for this ninth edition. Whichever team wins it finally, whichever captain holds that Cup, one thing we can be assured of – lots and lots of fun and excitement.

If Rahul Dravid and his team-mates hold that Cup on the 28th of April, I will obviously be a very happy man but, in any case, it is for the fun of following the game that we come together and I would like to just wish all the teams the best of luck and say “may the best team win”.

Bring it on.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Tumble, bumble, familiar stumble

When 26 from 36 with 5 wickets in hand becomes 11 from 6 with 2, the batting side would seem to have got itself into a situation. When that side is India, you somehow get the sinking feeling that the situation is heading in one and only one direction - and that is antarctical.

I am in no mood to discuss the details of today’s game. It is pointless to discuss what went wrong for India and where. Was it the captaincy ? Was it the bowling at the death ? Was it the batting that failed to accelerate sufficiently enough to put the result beyond doubt ? Was it the fielding that looked as sharp as an elephant’s foot ? Was it because some key players were unavailable for the game ? Was it that Sri Lanka raised its game when it mattered and India could not ? Or was it just a combination of these ?

I do not know and I do not care. Every time there is a poor performance, there always seems to be an explanation of some sort for it from the team management. Like the Indian public will now be happy that the defeat has been explained, so things will be better from that moment onwards. Like the team management itself really believes whatever it is dishing out after every game as a matter of routine and conformity with media requirements.

All I know is that India had no business, NO BUSINESS, losing this game from the position it was in. That Sri Lanka stepped things up after some initial wayward bowling, that their fielding throughout was outstanding is something you have to expect from any non-minnow side. So let us not appear to be surprised by this performance by Sri Lanka.

Some suggest that these matches are just “trial” matches for evaluating players’ preparedness for the World Cup and therefore should not have much credence attached to them. I cannot entirely agree with this. While individual players may be shuffled around, finally the eleven players who make it to the field are expected to collectively demonstrate their resolve to WIN. And if India points to the absence of Yuvraj, Zaheer and Agarkar, Sri Lanka can point to the absence of Murali and Vaas for this contest. There is no point talking about individual players – let us not even go there.

As is so often the case with Indian defeats, it is not the defeat itself that is so frustrating. It is the manner of defeat that makes the Indian cricket fan feel really let down. That the Indian cricket team (or should that be the BCCI team ?) manages, time and again, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is something that the Indian public has got so much inured to that it would seem to have made even the Indian management blasé in their post-match discussions.

Judging by the comments from the team captain today, I could not help getting the feeling that Rahul Dravid’s comments after the game were full of platitudes and, to put it bluntly, a whole load of unrefined manure. I have a huge amount of respect for Rahul Dravid the batsman (and I have said this many times) but Rahul Dravid the captain still seems to me to have way too many question marks about him to convince me about his suitability for the role.

Here are some examples of his post-match comments today.

"We just didn't really chase well, in the sense that we kept losing wickets at regular intervals. We needed one of our set batsmen to go on and get a big score and finish the game off but we just couldn't achieve that today and it is a good lesson for us."
How many times have we heard this sort of comment ? Does it really help ? Has the Indian team EVER learnt from any defeat ?

“They fielded really well. I don't think we fielded that badly. Our outfielding was pretty good today. Some of their throwing from the deep was pretty exceptional and some of the catches towards the end there were really good. Those catches probably turned it for them at the end."
Sorry Mr. Dravid but either your standards have dropped dramatically or you are in denial.

"I wouldn't say we were complacent”.
On this comment, I am totally with you, Mr. Dravid. The team was not complacent today – it was plain incompetent.

“If one batsman can go on and get a big score, he generally ends up on the winning side”.
How’s this for a comment, Mr. Dravid ? “If one team scores more than the other team, that team (Duckworth-Lewis situations excepted) is generally the winner.”

And on Sehwag, this is what Mr. Dravid had to say :
“He batted quite well for the period he was there. I am sure he will be disappointed with the shot that he played. But he looked okay till then. It's just a question of him now trying to get that big score. Today was a good opportunity to do that, set the pace and stay and bat till the end but he got out. But he looked okay till then”.
Ever thought of joining politics, Mr. Dravid ? Or perhaps we should raise that fence a little more so that it becomes just a bit difficult to sit on it ?

This one match may not matter in the grand scheme of things. In the eternal search for those straws to clutch, one can only say that perhaps a reality check, so close to the World Cup, may not be such a bad thing after all. One can only hope that, come the World Cup, the Indian team (or should that be the BCCI team ?) raises its game to a level that when games get close, they close the game.

On the evidence of today’s game, I wouldn’t hold my breath.