Monday, December 4, 2023

How did Ashwin plan for the ball that mattered at the MCG? 

I would never again be disparaging T20 cricket for it cleared the one test at MCG I always held against it: Inability to submerge you with emotions which were deeper than a mere victory or defeat.

That till now was largely the preserve of Tests where hope and despair, jailed and bailed came and went one way or other which tore you up on all sides. 

That utter helplessness is not too dissimilar if you survive an avalanche or a hurricane, a house on fire, your beloved in life’s final moments or you car-learning kid pressing on accelerator when all she looked for was brakes. 

Cricket could take you to those depths, be it Bangalore or Oval (both courtesy Mr Gavaskar); a Kolkata (Laxman) or a Sydney (MonkeyGate) and it didn’t all need to be players only: Sometimes a finger up by umpire could give you a tied Madras which you remembered after decades. 

T20 never did it for me. Three hours are too short to leave you in an emotional wasteland. When batsmen can’t get hundreds and bowlers those fivers, when slips become redundant and goalkeeper is dressed up as a wicketkeeper, when a miser is preferred to a hustler, it’s nothing better than a gig made honourable by money merchants. 

But this night at MCG, where the players carried the weight of their nation’s history to a colosseum, packed as it once was for gladiators for the Romans, the Gods took kind on the game. T20 was freed from its golden cage with a match which would stand the test of time. 

How could you and I be all Kohli when Babar-Rizwan less Pakistan could still give the captain the 160 he had put as a marker? When our Western invaders—they always galloped down from there—scythed through even without Shaheen Afridi tasting the blood in the pond? When a callow Arshdeep Singh was good enough upfront to be given the 19th over which launches million memes on Indian bowlers? A Bhuvi whom we all suggested should be done with in first eight overs? 

Ashwin You Beaut!

It’s a long walk climbing down the stairs in your spikes, gloves in hand, 90,000 in your ears, heart in your mouth, out in the middle of an endless MCG, having undistinguished yourself in the field and at bowling crease, asking for a leg-stump guard for that one ball on which hung the mood of 1.4 billion people. 

If there was one man India would’ve wished for the moment, it could only have been R. Ashwin. As I would come later, there are only handful in Indian cricket to have kept their wits when the deck is on fire. For reason is never bobbing clear above the emotional sludge. 

But here was Ashwin, cool enough to put himself in the bowler’s shoes rather than premeditating a stroke. 

Here I bet a challenge: anyone who has ever lifted a bat in his life, all your legends or all those just out of diapers with a plastic willow, would instinctively look to hit a ball for how else the bloody needed run would come? There was officially no other ball coming at MCG that night. Who would have the brain-fade to let the ball go? 

But Ashwin suggested he is making room for the offside, only to pull himself in as the bowler fired a wide down the leg-side. As if he wasn’t playing cricket but looking at pieces on the chessboard. He preferred to second-guess than pre-meditate and be in a bind. 

It wasn’t over. His wiliness had conjured up an extra ball in the game. Now what? Again Ashwin read the bowler perfectly: Nawaz would be a fool to dart in anything outside the line of stumps for fear of another wide. And that’s how it unfolded, Ashwin coming on to the front foot, and trusting his hands to lift it over mid-off when a mere push or a drive could’ve still brought about a run-out. Ashwin trusted his hands, and not his legs, which we all know aren’t his strongest asset in a cricket arena. 

No sooner it was over, Ashwin was all forgotten: Cameras were panning on Virat Kohli, the skipper lifting his former captain on shoulders, Pandya rinsing his hair, a grateful dressing room climbing over the Knight of the night. Nobody was looking for the man who stood between a win and a loss. The man who gave his colossus non-striker the moment of his life; as if those omissions of his name from the players’ sheet while Kohli was captain is too small a matter when it comes to the common jersey they were wearing that night. 

Who have been such Ashwin-isque in Indian cricket—forget the format—unflustered, unfazed by enormity of the moment? Sehwag and Dhoni without a doubt; Vishy and VVS from our South in longer format; as one must give it to our two Mumbaikars, Gavaskar and Tendulkar; and Kapil Dev of course. And then you start running out of names. 

And who would be your all-time choice for the 19th over? Bumrah and Bhuvi at his best for sure. Thereafter you again have too many numbers to fill on the white sheet. 

You see, that’s what this night has done to me. T20 cricket has seduced me out of my confines. It’s also a moment for our cricket administrators to commit to Test cricket if they want to enrich countless lives and not impoverish them as being is presently done to by betting mafias under their benign gaze. 

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