Of the two semi-finals, the New Zealand – Sri Lanka clash was like an appetizer before the main course : the India – Pakistan collision . New Zealand had done extremely well to get to the semi-finals but hardly anyone fancied them over Sri Lanka. In order to win , the Kiwis would have had to had a blinder of an innings from Brendon McCullum, Ross Taylor or Jesse Ryder and that didn’t happen . The first six NZ batsmen all reached double figures but the top scorer was Scott Styris with only 57. Bowling with swing and pace , Lasith Malinga took three wickets and , in his final home match , Murali grabbed two more . The Kiwis total of 217 was not competitive and Sri Lanka knocked off the requisite runs without too much of a problem. There was a brief stutter when both Sangakarra and Jayawardene departed with Sri Lanka in the 160’s but that’s all it was as Sri Lanka won by 5 wickets.
The manner in which Sehwag opened the Indian innings brought back memories of Sachin’s incredible assault on Shoaib Akhtar in the 2003 World Cup.On that occasion , Sachin plundered 18 runs off one over from Shoaib and knocked him out of the attack. This time, Sehwag smashed Pakistani’s best bowler, Umar Gul , for five boundaries in Gul’s second over and Gul was ineffective the rest of the way. After that terrific start though , wickets fell regularly as medium pacer Wahab Riaz justified his selection over Shoaib Akhtar and took 5 for 46. If only Pakistan had held on to their catches India would have been in deep , deep trouble but you can’t let off Tendulkar five times in one innings ( in an ODI at that!!) and not have to pay for it . Sachin’s scratchy 85 and a sensible knock of 36 by Suresh Raina saw India stagger to 260 , a total that I thought was far from reassuring.
The way in which Pakistan started only heightened Indian fears. Kamran Akmal and Mohammed Hafeez got off to a good start and Asad Shafiq carried on where they left off . At 103 for 2, Pakistan looked to be in the driver’s seat but Yuvraj Singh’s twin strikes that sent back Asad Shafiq and Younis Khan competely turned the match around . When the dangerous Umar Akmal departed to make it 142 for 5 I ,and a billion other Indian fans began to breathe a little easier. With Afridi’s dismissal , the end was in sight and ,with Misbah unable to accelerate, the match wound down to its inescapable conclusion .
Pakistani fans are blaming Misbah for the defeat but that is unfair . Certainly he has to bear some of the blame, but not all of it . It seems to me that the biggest reason for the loss was an attack of the jitters that afflicted the entire Pakistani team . How else can one explain so many dropped catches ? Again , during the run chase , after the fall of the first three wickets the Pakistani batsmen seemed to let their nerves get the better of them . They just didn’t seem to be batting to plan as they lost sight of the objective and the run rate kept rising. Misbah’s innings reminded me of the time when India lost because Sunil Gavaskar carried his bat for a snail paced knock of 65 even as the match was slipping out of reach . He seemed then to be more intent on not getting out rather than in going for the runs . Yesterday , Misbah did the same ,taking singles and playing dot balls when what was needed was fours and sixes. Of course , some of the credit must be given to Dhoni and his men who kept up the pressure with some tight bowling and fielding .
Still , Pakistan can be proud of their showing in this World Cup. Given the turmoil and the repeated scandals that have afflicted the side over the past 2-3 years , they did extremely well winning their group and making it to the semis. One wonders how much better they would have been if they’d had the services of Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Aamir and if the side had been set , without all the infighting and changes of captaincy. Kudos to Shahid Afridi who has matured immensely since his early days and has led the side with dynamism and enthusiasm . Idon’t suppose he will be around much longer so I’ll applaud him now for the excitement that he brought to the game .
As for India, I’m not one of those who think Dhoni is a ‘lucky’ captain.I think he has made his own luck with a mixture of shrewdness and nerve. Sure , he has made his mistakes every now and then but, along with coach Gary Kirsten , he has molded this team into a never-say-die unit that will fight to the last ball. In the process , he has improved his wicketkeeping and curbed his attacking instincts to become a more responsible batsman . If he has had a lean spell with the bat , I blame that on the pressures of captaincy. In the past , Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid suffered similarly when they were captains . Dhoni should be given credit for the incredible burden that he carries … Wicketkeeper , captain and batsman . He has always put the team before himself, and now more and more of the other players are following his example.
My one criticism of Dhoni is that he sometimes sticks with his ‘favorites ‘ a little too long . Such was the case with picking Nehra over Ashwin for the semi-final . Yes , Nehra did bowl well yesterday and justify Dhoni’s faith in him but , on form , Ashwin was the better choice. Did Dhoni ‘know ‘something or was he merely lucky ? It’s a question that cannot be answered. Dhoni himself has said that he misjudged the pitch and thought it would be better to go with a paceman rather than a spinner. Maybe so , but I do hope that Ashwin is chosen for Saturday’s final . He is a wicket taking bowler , handles pressure better and is infinitely better in the field.
It is amazing to me thatthere are still some who want to tear Sachin Tendulkar down. They are fond of pointing out that when Sachin scores heavily , it has often been in a losing cause and that India have not won on those occasions . I don’t understand the twisted logic that makes them somehow conclude that this somehow makes him selfish.Here is a player who is one of the greatest cricketers of the modern era and who is beloved all over the world for his sportsmanship and artistry. Yet , in his own country , there are those who would denigrate him saying that he is selfish and plays only for himself . Two or three years ago , when he was going through an extended lean patch , I thought the time had come for him to retire but he has since rebounded and is playing some of the best cricket of his career. Time and time again , he has rescued India and willed them to victory.Yesterday’s knock of 85 may have been full of chances but , without it , India would have been in dire straits. Still , one know -it -all felt compelled to comment to Cricinfo that ” … Sachin did not score a century … and India did all right..” Truly , a prophet is without honor in his own country.
Saturday’s final will be another tense match and I know a billion Indian fans will be waiting with bated breath for an Indian victory . However, many cricket followers in other parts of the world will be rooting for India , or rather for Sachin, because a World Cup victory would be a fitting exclamation point to his glittering career . If God has anything to do with it , those wishes will come true !!