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Knocking Around the Nets


By Raul, 22 Mar 2004
March 25 2004

After all the uncertainty and foot-dragging, the historic Friendship series between India and Pakistan is finally underway. This reporter shall attempt to watch the matches, scour the news sources and put together a reasonably regular update column for readers here. The editor welcomes any feedback. THE REAL ‘ASHES’?

The first few matches of the India-Pakistan Samsung ODI Series not only saw a ridiculous run-glut of astronomical (or is that comical?) proportions on bowlers’ graveyards, but also provided an opportunity for fans to enjoy a whole range of emotions: from the ecstatic to the hopeful to the despaired, in no particular order. Amidst serious concerns of security surrounding the first ever Indian tour to Pakistan in over 15 years, the stories pouring in appear to have one common thread: the overwhelming sentiments surrounding India’s visit after such a long time.

Surely, there is no rivalry in cricket that generates so much passion and excitement? The last Ashes series in Australia was not even half as exciting as a contest, leave alone the antics of the Barmy Army. The gestures of goodwill and friendship on this tour have been palpable among the cheering, flag-waving throngs. Unfortunately, the standard of overall cricket on display hasn’t been up to the highest mark. Chalk it down to pressure or rustiness, what we have seen so far have been unimaginative selections of playing elevens to field placing by rote to thoughtless bowling tactics featuring downright indiscipline added to remarkably poor throwing skills in the field. The only saving grace has been some very effective batting, ranging from the brutally honest to the divinely delicious. Notable mentions: Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Youhana, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Afridi and Hameed. A special mention goes to the cleanest striker one has seen in recent times: Abdur Razzaq.

THE FANS

The fans have been unanimously the best part of the tour so far. Not only the Indian players, but even the media contingent has been bowled over by the knowledge and respect of the fans in Pakistan. Even a cab driver can be engaged in a cricketing conversation, although the average Pakistani fan tends to betray a more than passing fascination with raw pace.

There was a report of a bunch of Pakistani fans cornering Sachin Tendulkar for autographs as he exited the toilet of the flight that took them from Lahore to Karachi. They claimed there was no other way they could’ve met the Indian living legend in the flesh, on the field or off it and couldn’t control their excitement at their good fortune.

Even on the field, the fans have been largely appreciative of any good performance by the Indians. When Dravid got bowled off the inside edge on 99 at Karachi, the crowd cheered for Shoaib Akhtar. But as soon as Dravid started his slow walk back to the hutch, they rose as one to applaud what had been one of the classiest displays by Dravid in ODI cricket. When the Pakistani chase began, the crowd at first didn’t believe it could happen. However, as the Inzamam-Youhana partnership hit its stride, they began to noticeably perk up. They cheered every boundary as their team began conjuring up a remarkable chase. It evolved into wild shouting and dancing in the stands as Razzaq waded into the Indian bowlers. But a pin drop silence ensued when “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is Mohammed Kaif” happened to come out of nowhere to pull off an astounding catch while avoiding a grievous collision with Hemang Badani. Then, the cheering built up again to another crescendo until the last ball of the last over, when Moin’s hoick was pouched by Zaheer to cap a superb last over from Ashish Nehra that sealed India’s win and silenced the crowd for the second time. But again, the crowd slowly erupted into a long ovation that saluted a terrific effort from the tourists. Ganguly has acknowledged the crowds in every interview he has given since landing in Lahore. So give it up for the Pakistani crowds so far, from whom Eden Gardens’ crowds could learn a thing or two. The Karachi crowd, in particular, has reason to be aggrieved for not being awarded a Test match this time around.

SECURITY

The security has been stiflingly effective for the Indian contingent. But what about the regular fans who have gone across the Wagah to follow the fortunes of their team? So far, there have been no reports any untoward incidents. If anything, the PR machines have been at full throttle, with the Ten Sports coverage even latching onto a huge banner in the crowd that had both countries’ flags upon it and the motto: “One Blood.” Even the unflappable Indian skipper admitted that the security was “unprecedented and a unique experience.”

This has forced some of the Indian cricketers to think up creative ways of spending their down-time, since simply walking around to se the sights is practically out of the question. Tendulkar is reportedly practicing his putting in the hotel lobby using an open soda bottle as a hole. Dravid and Kartik found the opportunity to sneak in a quick visit to Takshila. Yuvraj Singh was invited home one evening for dinner to Shoaib Akhtar’s house. V.V.S. Laxman and Tendulkar appeared in a polio-awareness campaign on Pakistani TV. Ganguly, unfortunately, has been battling the flu ever since he landed and has been keeping a low profile.

COVERAGE

The televised coverage reached an audience of millions of viewers across continents. But the fractious issue of rights and free trade became serious enough to leave many fans uncertain until the last minute about the availability of telecast within India. Ten Sports finally reached an agreement with Doordarshan, with reports in some sections claiming Abdul Rehman Bukhatir (the Ten Sports CEO) wanting the Indian government to resume participation in cricket tournaments at Sharjah in return for his cooperation vis-à-vis future telecast rights of Indian cricket. The telecast rights for forthcoming Test series featuring India will be up for grabs later in the year. The BCCI had discontinued cricketing ties with CBFS and Sharjah in the wake of the match-fixing imbroglio.

The coverage rights in North America were acquired by Echostar who failed to come up with an agreement for streaming the feed across the Internet in time. This meant that a large number of fans with access to broadband could not access the event. At the time of writing this column, willowtv.com was still negotiating to come up with a suitable package for North American customers in time for the third ODI match on March 19 at Peshawar. Many fans the US and Canada flocked to local video parlors, Indian stores and restaurants, who charged anywhere between $5 and $10 per head for viewing each match. Some cinema houses in states as wide apart as New Jersey, Ontario, California and Texas organized advertised viewings of the matches as well. Others simply pooled together and bought into DISH Network packages at $200 for the whole series, including the Tests. Students were the hardest hit, since many schools had spring break, which meant no opportunities for networking and setting up the DISH telecast in time for the first ODI.

LAST WORDS

Ashish Nehra is out for the series, possibly even the Tests. Amit Bhandari is coming in as a replacement. All that rookie talent begs the question: why is our bowling coach Kapil Dev Nikhanj not with this young team? Zaheer Khan seems badly lacking in confidence, while Irfan Pathan’s only outing was hugely forgettable against the Pakistan ‘A’ side. If Khan doesn’t recapture his rhythm in the ODIs and Kumble doesn’t recover in time (which looks likely), the Test series could end up as three dull, tall-scoring draws. Maybe it’s time to pitchfork the “Bharuch Bijlee” Munaf Patel (who bowled reasonably well on a “paata” pitch in the recent Mumbai-Hyderabad Ranji semifinals, taking four wickets) into the fire? Or perhaps his Mumbai team-mate Avishkar Salvi, who made a comeback in the same match? All said and done, after all the brouhaha over these lopsided batting fests comes to an end, the real cricket starts only on March 28 at Multan. How India fares in it will come down to the performance of the rookies and Ajit Agarkar’s match-fitness.

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