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Is that even possible? A World Cup semi-final exit, and not blame anybody? What’s there to write? How will we exorcise our cricketing demons?

Put yourself in at 4/1 at the fall of Rohit Sharma’s wicket in the second over. You were there, weren’t you? Did you not chase that wide one outside off along with Virat? Were you not breathing heavy after Rohit fell? After the assurance of those five centuries was snuffed out in four deliveries?


When Trent Boult was running in like some break dancer in a black hoodie -  with those precise moonwalking steps and that gleeful glint in his eye, he had it all worked out. And Matt Henry, more mid-management banker than break dancer, what was he doing making the ball dance. Such deception broke the back of India’s batting. Slip sliding away.


9thJuly, 2019 seemed eerily familiar. It could be anywhere in the world. It had the stamp of Glenn McGrath bowling academy vs India in one of those games you were hoping to snap out of by now. But it crept up on you. India had no choice but to sleep on it, what else was there to do?


To overcompensate, Virat went across. And again. He plays these angles. Seven balls after Rohit fell, one snuck through, into the pads and out. When Virat is nervous, he wants to review. When he’s the captain, no non-striker will ask him not to. It delays things. It keeps him on the field longer. In the hope of the bowler overstepping, the ball missing, something. At 4/2, why wouldn’t you review? If nothing, just to stay on the ground a few moments more, to breathe, to feel alive in the game. If Virat could, he would munch on his protein snacks during those reviews. What did you do? Stare at the screen? Knowing only too well, it’s happening. Slip sliding away.


Much as Virat has a look that defies the slide, KL Rahul often wears one that is consumed by it. They are just a look and say nothing of what either batsman will do to push the slide back. But when Rahul fell, his dismissal had the stamp of slide-sucked-me-in. That’s what slides do, players have their ways to counter them – not often many succeed. Once in a freefall slide, the batsman is not on terra firma, instead, he’s being sucked into a whirlpool. Those padded up, waiting to walk in are waiting to slide through. Sacrificial lambs.


When Virat fell, did you not slide further. Did it not cross your mind, this could be over in a jiffy, in say, less than 20 overs? Why did the match not get over on the first day itself? Was it us who willed it not to go down to a 20 over shootout? Were we not responsible for the gift of the second day? Had we not asked for this? Running away from rain and Duckworth Lewis calculations? And here we were, in a similar 20 over shootout, with six fewer wickets.


So just as we blame the players, we blame ourselves. Our refusal to expect sport for what it is. A refusal to expect defeat.


When Kohli fell, Rishabh Pant walked in, somewhat cheerily, to play his 9thODI, his 8th innings, his 4th in this World Cup. By now, it’s best to forget whose replacement he was, because from where we are now, that’s too much of a dwell on the past.


By the fourth over, Dinesh Karthik joined Pant. At 5/3 it appeared even gloomier than the day before. The Indian innings was not even 20 minutes old.


Were you still there? Were you mathematically calculating acceptable, face saving margins of defeat?


For 25 minutes, Karthik put on a defence-ballet class. He defended as you would, your honour, your cricketing journey, your cricketing life. For, in a way, that is what he was defending. There he was, wedged in between, the wicket keeping future and past; looking as India has, for a meaning to its elusive keeping present.


How do you play, when each innings challenges you to rewrite your cricketing world? But here was Karthik, with that chance. It’s another thing, he gave that chance to Neesham, who accepted single handedly, also wrong handedly with such brilliance, it reaffirmed the slide to almost mythical proportions.


Perhaps, Karthik slid into a crack, but nobody was looking. All they saw was Neesham’s hand that emerged from a crack.


The Pant-Pandya partnership, although three shy of fifty, and one ball shy of 13 overs, seemed removed from the slide. There was an early Pant chance but there was bravado too – from 24/4 where else to go? Somewhat fitting, they both made 32, and seemed unfazed by the slide. When Pant fell, though not before hitting four 4s, going for his first 6, he was miffed. The frame captured Pandya’s expression – it didn’t give anything away. Pandya was as far removed from it as later, Dhoni would be from balls wide outside off.


What else is there to do but to remove yourself from the slide?


As for Jadeja, he was not just removed from the slide, he appeared removed from the game and himself. He was, by all accounts, having an out of body experience.


It took India’s 8th match in the World Cup to play Jadeja. This was only his second match in the tournament. In the warm up match against New Zealand, when India was 39/4, Jadeja came in at 8, smashing 54(50) that day.


If there was any pressure, Jadeja had transferred it on to commentary. Reminders of his First Class triple hundreds were oozing out of the box. FC reminders that would’ve made Gavaskar proud on his birthday.


From Day 1, everything Jadeja had done was nothing short of an eloquent cricketing matrimonial – Attractive fielder, highly qualified bowler and now – changes not just his complexion but the match’s too.


There was freedom that was far removed from the situation. Dhoni at the other end was doing his usual Dhoni things, also far removed from the situation. Slide? What slide?


Jadeja was swiveling at the crease, Jadeja was coming down the wicket, Jadeja was making India dream again. Jadeja had banished the slide.


In the end, he scored more than anyone, faster than anyone. There was audacity moulded with thought – there was on display skill, intent, bravado and with it fortune too.


Jadeja made the match worthy. He raised the semi final. He raised himself, his swordsmanship. Jadeja had taken his hurt and made it into something compelling.


Jadeja wanted to be more than a perception. He counter attacked a comment as much as the Kiwis.


And while we may not blame anybody, will it be incorrect to thank someone?


If one man’s counter to a perceived ridicule was such, just imagine what fruit a word tearing into the other ten would have borne?

First published here
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Oh dear, Vijay Shankar had a poor IPL. So poor, he went largely unnoticed. He hardly batted, he bowled even less. That he played as many as 15 games is an anomaly.

Just as Suresh Raina often appears to be India’s most enthusiastic player ever, Shankar could pass off as its least. He doesn’t pat players on their backside. What, he barely pats anyone. In return, it doesn’t appear as if anyone pats him. He seems far away, patrolling some boundary on a far off frontier, all by himself and his cutting chai. But if there’s an intruder, his eyes will shoot up from that chai and he will chase him down to the ends of the earth. Much like balls on the boundary. From his stupor, he instantly charges, chasing balls, much like cats chase rats.

They will say, if they haven’t already, that Vijay Shankar is an honest cricketer. That he is a trier. He gives it his all. That means little.

They said Vijay Shankar should never have been playing this World Cup. Not after the IPL he had.

Just as the IPL has created a supply chain of young, Indian cricketers, and forced us to take notice; it has forced us to scramble formats. Before the IPL, Virat Kohli commented that performance in the league will not impact World Cup selection.

Vijay Shankar’s name was in the World Cup squad. Nothing he did or didn’t do in the league altered that.

However, his name was not in the starting XI in India’s first match. Runs for KL Rahul in a warmup only added to his reputation. He slid in at number four, the position with a bamboo door.

But after Shikhar Dhawan’s injury, someone patted Shankar on the shoulder and said, “you’re playing tomorrow as a specialist fielder”. Shankar was drafted. Not as a player that India wanted but one they needed. He would be called upon much as one Subramaniam Badrinath was by CSK – if an opener and Raina fell early. The No. 4 batsman when the going wasn’t so good. Otherwise, you’re good to go when everyone else is gone. That could be as low as No. 6 or 7.

Against Pakistan, Hardik Pandya got groovy at four. Dhoni at five. Surprise, surprise, Vijay Shankar at six.    

Vijay Shankar’s beard is nothing like that of his teammates. His beard is more second year engineering than man in blue. On some days, Shankar leaves the hostel and shines.

Before that gloomy day in June at Old Trafford, Vijay Shankar had never played Pakistan before. But out of nowhere, the sun snuck through and so did he.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar walked off with more intent than Vijay Shankar walked on to finish that hamstrung over. What is intent? Shankar seemed secure to finish that fifth over. He didn’t have to worry whether his first ball should be quicker or slower, his speeds don’t have that variation. It would be either in the high 120s or the low 130s. It wouldn’t have the zip or bounce of Bumrah nor the exacting lines of Bhuvi.

Before Shankar was called to bowl those two deliveries, Pakistan was 13/0 off 4.3 overs. Two quicks at the top of their mental game were setting it up, ball after ball, more often than not, outside off.

Little did they know they were setting it up for Vijay Shankar’s first ball. It didn’t go past Imam-ul-Haq’s bat. It didn’t go past Imam-ul-Haq’s pads. It was fuller, possibly slower than anything bowled so far.

Haq went one way, the ball the other. Shankar’s arms appealed in a near perfect Y. Had it not been given, would it have been reviewed? Was it pitching outside leg? Was it hitting?

It didn’t matter. Pakistan did not review. It pitched in line and was hitting leg. Vijay Shankar had just taken his first wicket in a World Cup, his third in an ODI, in the fifth over versus Pakistan.

Virat Kohli could not believe it. In what will go down as the non-cricketing moment of the match, Kohli’s cracked up reaction summed it all up. in words, possibly –ISNE...Isne wicket lee...isne"(THIS…this has taken a wicket…this!”



Before Shankar, Kedar Jadhav’s wickets would evoke such hilarity.

Close to thirty overs later, Shankar took Pakistan’s sixth and last wicket – knocking over their captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed. In what could well be his last game against India.

Will Shankar play Pakistan again? Shankar only made his ODI debut in January this year. More in reaction to the gap left by Hardik Pandya’s misdemeanours.  

In 10 matches so far, he’s batted six times. Twice each at five, six and seven.

India is yet to lose a match where Shankar has not been called on to bat. When he bats, and is dismissed, there’s a Greek tragedy about his walk back.

Who more than Shankar would know, the opportunities coming his way will be no more than a trickle. What he makes of them will either define him as that first wicket guy against Pakistan or India’s wild card that came off at the World Cup.

Either way, Vijay Shankar has just the right lack of pace and aggression to be Venkatesh Prasad's true successor. Or Madan Lal’s? Or Roger Binny’s?

All had their World Cup moments and Shankar just had his. You know. You saw. As did that guy in his 3D glasses.

First published here

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It’s the summer holidays. The noon, June sun breathes fire down on a makeshift cricket ground outside DAV Public School, Chandigarh. There’s a bunch of boys, around eight or nine of them, ranging from 10 to 17. The tallest and oldest of them is unleashing a fireball, knocking batsmen over.

An audacious little kid roller skates right through the middle of the pitch. The fireball wielder has to stop in his bowling tracks. He hurls abuse in Punjabi, the kid snaps back. 
The bully hurls the ball at the kid. The kid catches the ball.

A good time to end it right there, instead, the kid asks for the bat.

More abuse follows, in a mix of Hinglish and Punjabi. The kid lets off a mock laugh, takes guard. The first ball is a beamer on the batsman’s throat. Though instead of clearing his throat, the ball clears what would’ve been a very deep fine leg, beyond the trees, beyond everyone’s sight and imagination.

The bully storms towards the kid. Before he can reach him though, he’s on his skates, away, as far as the ball.

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

Yuvraj Singh did not bat in his first ODI. Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid, Kambli did. Even now, on retirement, he seems like that cheeky kid. But he’s of a 2000 vintage. Grown in the Punjab, blossomed in Kenya. Against bullies again. Isn’t that the best way? Up against McGrath, Gillespie, Lee. There was no Yuvi-six in that innings. Studded with 12 fours it was. On October, 7, 2000, Yuvraj Singh was born in blue.

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

Over three years and 73 ODIs later, Yuvraj Singh made his Test debut. At home in Mohali. In his first Test, Yuvraj became familiar with the third result in a cricket match – a draw. After India slid to 18/3 and 128/4, he held back for a 5 off thirty minutes.

What followed was that Pakistan tour of 2004 best remembered for Sehwag’s triple at Multan, and India’s 2-1 series win. Somewhere in there was Yuvraj on his first away Test series. His first Test half century, first Test wicket, first Test century (on a green-top at Lahore) and Inzamam’s run out.

Yuvraj had to wait for India’s next tour of Pakistan for his second Test century. Yet again in a lost cause, was the finer-print in a Test career fraught with stops and starts already being written?

Yuvraj’s third century also came against Pakistan. In the same innings, Irfan Pathan scored his only Test century while Sourav Ganguly raked up his highest Test score of 239. India gallivanted to 626. Shoiab Akhtar bowled only 10 off Pakistan’s 150 overs.

Yuvraj did not play Pakistan again. Yuvraj did not score another Test century.

He played 40 Tests spanning nine years, seven against Pakistan. Overall Test average of 33.92. Test average against Pakistan 63.55.

What if Yuvraj had played more against Pakistan? What if India had?

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

But Yuvraj did play Pakistan again, albeit in an ODI. 18 days after his Karachi Test hundred, he scored another Karachi hundred – this time in a winning cause, batting at three. Yuvraj was man of the match, man of the series. By now you know, this kid never did things in half measures.

Yuvraj’s ODI average and strike rate both spike against Pakistan – from 36.55 to 42.50, from 87.67 to 93.47; sometimes, all an Indian cricketer needs for inspiration, is a Pakistani cricketer to play against, and vice versa?

The last time, Yuvraj played against Pakistan was in the Champions Trophy Final. Two years ago, but all those triumphs seemed like light years away.

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

How do you make your captain behave like a hooligan?

You team up with U-19 mate, Mohammad Kaif and win a seemingly lost cause. You make that day, evening for India, a memory of a lifetime. There will be bigger championships to be won, but that first definitive whack at a sport’s adversary, the knowledge that the foundations have been laid, there and then – that is power.

Armed with that power, Yuvraj scaled the World T20 in 2007, the World Cup in 2011. What he couldn’t scale was Test cricket. Perhaps, it was a different power.

Who knows, just as his timing of the white ball was unrivaled, his success at Test cricket required a restraint that wasn’t inbuilt in his game. Nor was there the audacity of a Sehwag that often surmounted that restraint.

A middle order of Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman in whites; sometimes, it’s tough to find a spot for India’s blue eyed boy.

Then there was every southpaw’s worst enemy – the off-spinner. Yuvraj himself admitted that he thought Muralitharan was the toughest he faced.

Who knows, maybe white was way too bland for this flam kid. By now, all those fierce splashes in blue have washed away the austerity of white; just as the splendour of those late night finishes have outdone the day game.

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?

***

Every year, IPL franchises outdid themselves in the Yuvraj chase. The promise of what could be far outdid what had been in the previous years.

In their pursuit, runs, averages were damned. Franchises just wanted a part of that Yuvi glory. In a sport often bereft of stars, here was one, although on the wane, still brighter than most.

In all likelihood, Mumbai Indians will be his team for keeps; in what capacity is uncertain, he could add to the super coach/mentor strength. Seated with his mates, Sachin and Zaks amongst other.

Before signing off for the season, he did play four games. Strewn across, were six sixes.

They were none like them in the IPL. They were sixes off Yuvraj Singh’s bat.

They were part of an earlier memory. A memory that came alive again. Pulled at a forgotten part of your cricketing heart. Pumped it. Thumped it. Made it alive again.  Almost at ease. As if it’s alright to look for pleasure in the sinful. That extravagance is acceptable. That it’s good to be king if just for a while. It’s good to be high and never come down. *

Was it all a dream, Yuvi?


*last line by Tom Petty from the song It’s good to be king.

First published here

    



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Delhi vs Mumbai at the Kotla. A bunch of Delhiites are supporting the Mumbai Indians. Or Sachin Tendulkar. By now, Tendulkar is fast moving towards the end of his IPL career; coincidentally, the end is nigh for Delhi Daredevils too. And Ajit Agarkar who slides over a Tendulkar on drive that goes for four.

Delhi vs Bangalore at the Kotla. Starc is stripping Delhi’s batsmen with his yorkers. Out of nowhere, Dr Luthria from down the road, emerges. He seems far more cheery than ever, announcing his exit with a Krishna-like swirl in the air, “Game is over, nothing left to see”.

A healthy couple, seated in front of me, hand 500 bucks each to their healthy kids for eats.

Delhi vs Deccan Chargers. A bunch of cricket bloggers, two from South Africa go to the Kotla, to be pierced by “Go Chargers Go”.  

First season, first game vs Rajasthan. Delhi had it all, won the match, but guess who went on to win the IPL?

***

Years back, if you told anyone that Delhi Daredevils will change its name and make a comeback for the ages; ‘anyone’ would say, “yeah right, just like Robbie Uthappa will?”

It’s unfathomable that Delhi is in the playoffs. It’s not like there are no traces of that bewildering old franchise. Some of that old skin is yet to shedded, but it’s way deeper that something has changed. 

Delhi Daredevils was in a sad loop, thriving on poor decisions, building on wreckages, with their only real equity as a brand being laughing stock options.

But hell, it was Delhi. And if by some misfortune you found yourself looped in their doom, it was doubly painful. It was best not to watch them. Unless your thing was to watch pranksters masquerading as professional sportspersons.

There wasn’t a thing Delhi hadn’t tried – they tossed together the cricketing equivalent of tequila, whiskey, rum, cocaine, marijuana, acid in any order whatsoever. Which is why, they continued to barf on the IPL with such hilarity. 

Breaking the Sehwag-Gambhir opening for David Warner was up there with letting go of Gambhir at the top of his game.

***

Now, after all those seasons, Shikhar Dhawan is back to where it began for him. Last season, so was Gautam Gambhir. So dramatic was that season, Gambhir is now campaigning in the elections.

Delhi also went through a season when James Hopes was their most accomplished batsman. Along with Venugopal Rao. Hopes is Ricky Ponting’s deputy now.

By now, ownership change, personnel change, logo change, jersey change, colour change, the name-change from Delhi Daredevils to Delhi Capitals, all have been documented. It may have been tempting to go with Delhi’s erstwhile name, Indraprastha, but perhaps Indraprastha Rajdhanis didn’t quite cut it.

So here we are. With an investment in the future, with some smart tweaks finally paying off to balance the Delhi portfolio. To identify that Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer and Prithvi Shaw are long-term investments – that will not be messed with was a start. No exits, no redemptions.

Shaw in only his second season shows how form or runs have not forced Delhi’s hand. Not as yet. Last season, he played nine games. Identified as a mainstay only after a few games. So far, in spite of his up-and-down form, he has opened in every match. The strike rate has dropped, as have the returns, but the backing has not.

On his day, Shaw is a match winner. There have been very few such days. But knowing that he will play every game, must count for something?

Rishabh Pant has possibly been India’s most scrutinized cricketer over the last few months. In his fourth IPL season already, Pant’s position is finally defined at four. Over the last three seasons, he’s played every Delhi game. From a force of nature; automatic transmission in previous years, in addition to the accelerator, Pant now has to be a clutch player too. There is the half century off 18 balls, but there are also innings that are run-a-ball before they cherry blossom and blind you with their magnificence.

While Pant’s strike rate, batting average and over-all returns have both dropped from last season, he’s been part of the engine room that’s driven Delhi to the play-offs.

16 sixes less, 35 fewer fours, appears Pant may be biting down much more than just his tongue these days. There’s much being made of him finishing games, but three not outs are writing a different ending.

Then there is the younger-elder statesman, Shreyas Iyer. Captain. No. 3. Communicator. Post-match eloquence. Mainstay against spin on the tired Kotla pitches. Iyer can pass off as an invisible captain. What, he was unfazed even after Delhi’s stormy collapse against Punjab. But it is his ability to turn it on out of nowhere, especially against spin (back-to-back sixes in a tight chase vs Rajathan) that demonstrate what he can be capable of.

When it doesn’t come off, he’ll just walk off with a shrug. He appears to be just one of the guys; in the dazzle of the IPL, that’s a welcome contradiction.

What more there is to Iyer, only Iyer can unearth from here. Beyond the runs, canny selections and bowling changes could be the key; bowling Amit Mishra for his full quota will be a start.

Across most seasons, Shikhar Dhawan’s returns have been similar. Blended with the unpredictability of smashing young Indian batsmen, Dhawan has worked as the near-perfect foil for Delhi’s top order batting.

While some of Dhawan’s dismissals appear almost as brazen as that of his brethren, it’s precisely a style of play and purpose that unites the team’s top four Indian batsmen.

On any day, Delhi can win big or lose even bigger. That they sealed nine wins in spite of the unfavourable Kotla pitch and bowling selections is creditworthy.

With Kagiso Rabada’s exit however, there is a definite downgrade in Delhi Capitals’ credit rating. From a triple A, it’s now hovering around A minus.

Rabada stopped Andre Russell with the yorker in that super over. Rabada stopped 25 batsmen. But Rabada couldn’t stop a niggle from making him back-off.

In Rabada’s absence, Ishant-Boult-Mishra stepped up. But without Rabada, there is no death bowler. Without Rabada, there is no bully-bowler.

***

By making the play-offs, Delhi has already crossed a bridge too far. From now on, they’re up against champion teams – first Sunrisers Hyderabad, 2016 champions; and next, if they win that game, against either three time champions, CSK or Mumbai Indians.

This season, Delhi has beaten both MI and SRH once but yet to beat CSK so far. If they are win the IPL, they will have to go past them – either on Friday in Visakhapatnam or on Sunday in Hyderabad.

That they won’t play CSK in either Chennai or Delhi is a start.

And if somehow they go past CSK, they will have beaten all seven teams.

If that isn’t a champion side, what is?

First published here
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How will you remember the IPL, five-ten years from now? What of it, will always stay with you?  What was that one night, that will shine brighter than all?

It won’t be who won, who scored how many, who knocked over how many batsmen. It’ll be about who was there.

Who continued to be there. Who was there, even when his team ceased to be. 

The man in yellow. The man who made a city yellow. Its people yellow. Its stadium yellow. Its fans yellow. Painted. Even when tainted, still yellow. It was, wasn’t it? Yellow? A sea of. A splash of. A splurge. A song. It’s on your lips, say it? It was all yellow.

The play was cold. Calculated. As the perfect cricketing murder on a cricket field. To finish the other. 

No matter what the build-up, the clues, the giveaways, the stand-my-grounds, the utter ridiculousness. No matter. It really didn’t matter.

The man would do what only he could do. Tease you, like he had so many times before. Kill you softly, with his cricketing cliché of a song.

Make you pull out your asthma inhaler. On the last ball of the 20th over again. 

Nearly kill you again. You could be blue, red, orange, pink; yet how would you resist the man in yellow.

***

IPL games aren’t supposed to stay with you. 8 pm, following day, you are already over the previous match. Its idiocy, miscalculations, bravado, dropped catches, required run rates, rants. That’s the price of binge watching. Unless.

Unless something else happens. Something that comes way out of the IPL script. A script written by the man in yellow.

“Not again?”

“He’s leaving it too late again?”

“But you know why he’s doing that by now?” It’s maths. Probability. To increase the chances of a win.

“Surely by now he knows better; he could do it before, not so any more.”

Few batsmen hit boundaries from the get-go. Somehow, what makes these situations priceless is the recognition that they can’t. Even if they could, let’s just assume they can’t. That’s one of the probabilities taken into account.

And by the time these other batsmen make it to the crease, it’s nearly closing time. That’s added pressure; not an assumption, a given. So here you are; Dhoni’s partner who has just walked in – not only can he not smash it across the ropes on his first few balls; there are very few balls left.

You could be a batsman in 3D glasses, playing video games, Dhoni will not give you the strike. This is Dhoni’s realm, and he makes the rules. For real. Virtually too. Bravo to that.

***

After all these seasons of yellow, a fresh dash of blue is supposed to match up, what, even outshine?

Rarely does a mention of Rishabh Pant not invoke one of Dhoni. What Pant can’t do, Dhoni can. What Pant can do, Dhoni can’t. It’s brutally competitive these mentions; as if neither player can be whole without the other.

So when Dhoni chaperoned CSK to within one run of an unlikely win against RCB, who else but Pant was summoned. Likewise for Dhoni when Pant stormed Jaipur’s citadel with four balls to spare.

Barely a week since the World Cup squad was announced, Pant served himself a reminder. That beyond a wicketkeeper, beyond a comparison, he is a screechingly unique batsman – with a batting voice like few others in the game.

One that can only be silenced at its own behest. That doesn’t need to assault the first few balls to rip apart a big T20 score.

Pant’s 3 off 6 in the 10th over to 23 off 14 in the 12th, mutated rapidly to a match altering 72 off 35 balls.

His technique was never pristine enough for the purists. Who’s that? Dhoni? Pant?

In Pant’s omission, the selectors may have done a huge service to the Delhi Capitals -  within a week, he appears to have grown up. Gone is the backbencher’s tickled grin. Gone is the mischievous chalk thrower. Gone is the compulsive chirper too? Who knows what Pant has become or can become – in his game, is an assortment of unlikely angles and strokes, uncommon to most Indian batsmen.

While most India batsmen tend to play in the V, Pant has always picked the arc of his alphabet. His cricket is combative, it appears both brave and foolish – his game is high risk, to back him is not unlike investing in an exciting small cap working out of a shed.


Once upon a time, a few perceptive men, invested in small cap Mahi and made it the blue chip MS Dhoni that we know today.

***

Rishabh Pant is 21. Dhoni pushing 38. Pant has played 5 ODIs, Dhoni 341. This is his 15th year in international cricket. While this is Pant’s third year, he is still not a mainstay in two out of three formats.

Until as recently as March this year, Pant was on track to make the World Cup squad – what went wrong? He played in India’s last two ODIs before the squad announcement – arguably his 36(24) and 16(16) were not enough.

Nor was the 23(19), the day before the squad was announced. Or the 46(31), a couple of days before that. IPL runs, though not quite finishing runs. More than all these runs, the slipups in those two ODIs, while keeping to spin may have cost him his spot.

In walked Chennai cousin, Dinesh Karthik, who didn’t score in his last ODI innings in late January. His 18(14) on squad-announcement eve, and 2(3) a couple of days before, didn’t deter the selectors either. Those 91 ODI games across 15 years, his T20 finishing form, keeping credentials, sealed the deal for DK.

As is often the case, the elders found comfort in the elders. The escape from Pant is temporary. Each game he plays in the IPL will be a reminder.


***

After CSK’s win on Tuesday night, Dhoni spoke of the returns on investment in Shane Watson. In spite of few scores of note, Watson was persisted with. Possibly because of the assured returns in the long run. Last year, he won CSK the title. Yesterday, he won them a game.

Watson is a tried and tested large cap. Yet in the IPL, few teams would’ve given Watson such a long rope. Watson said so himself. You know it too.

It’s time the Indian selectors, took a leaf out of CSK’s book. And took a punt on Pant. Isn’t that what Punter is doing?

Pant is not unlike Dhoni as a batsman. Both flam but equally unconventional and far from pleasing to the eye.

In the days and months that follow, Pant should extract whatever he can from the master. And hope that the man in yellow is up to some yeoman service.

After an entire generation of cricketers thanked Sachin, it could soon be Mahi’s turn to be thanked by upcoming wicketkeeper batsmen.

Welcome to Dhoni & Sons. Minds will open when questions are asked.  

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I often wonder about those that follow the IPL closely. Which is to say, I often wonder about myself.

While we slide into the 12th season, is it a bit too much to look for reason? Should it be played? That is still being asked. Should it be played so close to a World Cup – be it before one or after one?

Try as I may, putting that 2011 season behind me is not easy. Should it be? Please don’t say what happened in 2011. If you’re still wondering, please stop reading.

Oh, you’re still here. So you know, Sri Lanka lost the World Cup that year. The only way you can lose the World Cup is if you make the finals.

But India went a step further, and lost it too. Not the World Cup, but in the IPL that followed. They followed that with marathon Test losses in England and Australia.

Who won the IPL in 2011? Remember that one? Did you have to google that?

Dhoni did.

Who won the World Cup in 2011?

Dhoni did.

Who lost those Test series in 2011-12?

Dhoni did.

So, here we are in 2019. And there will be fresh answers. Can Kohli be the answer?

Can he win the IPL in 2019? Looks unlikely. But back in 2007, when Shane Warne’s Rajasthan Royals couldn’t get the ball beyond the square in their IPL opener, they looked unlikely winners too.

Warne possibly had more belief in winning the IPL then than Lalit Modi had in winning it with the IPL. And that is a lot.

Warne’s belief superseded his skills back then. And possibly those of his team. With that thought, he rubbed so much belief into that bunch that they ended up doing what they did.

RCB’s greatest strength, that works in unison, is the crowd chant at Bangalore’s M Chinnaswamy stadium.

Today, as for many seasons now, Kohli has failed to believe that he is RCB’s greatest strength. He believes, as do many that watch, that AB de Villiers is their greatest strength.

Whether those are appearances or fandom giving in to a spectacle, is of little consequence.

In spite of ABde’s spectacular 70*(41) vs MI, RCB lost. In spite of five wickets in hand. In spite of this and in spite of that.

After three matches and three defeats, RCB are at the bottom. Silver lining, they lost to the best three teams. The first defeat, more against a surface than a team.

The spotlight, as often has been in the recent past, will be on Kohli. Not just the batsman but the captain. How he walks out of Dhoni’s looming shadow and trusts his own instincts will be telling across the next two tournaments.

Whether he is prepared to walk past ABde’s aura and trust his own, could salvage RCB’s sinking season 12.

Opening the batting in 2016, Kohli clocked 973 runs. At 152, his highest strike rate for any season. Throw in all his four IPL centuries. KL Rahul too hit the high notes partnering him on top.

Now neither Rahul nor the opening remain. Instead, makeshift openers. If makeshift or half measures defined Kohli, he would be a fraction of the player he is.

But the World Cup looms and Kohli is in conservation mode. A mode that defies him from opening, scoring hundreds, winning games singlehandedly.

Top that, ABde comes in at four. If there is one lesson to be learnt from Sunrisers Hyderabad, it’s stack your best T20 batsmen upfront – David Warner and Jonny Bairstow open. And dent the opposition so hard, no body shop will fix them.

And if for whatever reason Kohli doesn’t see himself opening, then it’s time to push ABde to the top. Look no further than Rajasthan Royals to see what Jos Buttler’s definitive knocks on top achieve – strike rates well in excess of 150 opening the batting win matches. And mess with bowlers’ minds. So much easier for those that follow to feast on.

While leaders and batsmen such as Dhoni have dovetailed their ODI story into the IPL and thrived; it’s taken years of sameness in thought and personnel.

While Dhoni thrives on calm, does Kohli thrive on disruption? His batting order and bowling sequence is anything but that. Is Kohli’s disruptive veneer hiding a more conservative cricketing mind? A mind that brings on spin in the seventh over to Quinton de Kock? With an off-break bowler in the XI, why would you allow de Kock the breathing room for seven overs? And if Ali is too part-time, surely Chahal, often a power-play mainstay, should have gatecrashed de Kock’s party.

RCB’s third match, and Kohli opened the bowling with Moeen Ali. It’s another thing, Bairstow and not Warner took strike. 14 off the over. By the third over, Chahal was on. 11 off the over. Two overs and 25 runs later, Kohli dropped the spin option in the power play.

Then there is Kohli the T20 batsmen, not too unlike his ODI avatar. Scarcely playing in the air, unless a Bumrah bouncer (and IPL promo) beseech him to.

Even before season 12 began, Kohli was looking to mother his World Cup squad; to see if the workload could be balanced. Trouble is, there is very little balance in the IPL. In spite of doing away with some of its excesses, the itineraries and summer will be just as punishing.

Perhaps, it’s time for Kohli to adopt an approach that has served him well in Test cricket. Perhaps, it’s time for all of Kohli to be switched on.

Whether this means he opens or Parthiv doesn’t, it’s up to him. In sport, it’s tiresome to keep losing because of the same old mistakes. 

So far RCB has opened with Kohli/Patel, Patel/Ali, Patel/Hetmyer. Fourth match, Hetmyer/ Grandhomme? 

To stop worrying about Moeen and Partthiv’s utility down the order, could be a start. Once you’re not bothered about your No. 6 and 7’s batting, you’re already living in the moment.

And isn’t that what T20 cricket is about?

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Kedar Jadhav finishes a game. Remains unbeaten. After that, a Test series or some T20s are played and everyone forgets about him, what he does, what he can do.

In a few weeks, Kedar Jadhav will be 34. He made his ODI debut in 2014. He wasn’t a part of the 2015 World Cup. In all likelihood, he will play in this year’s edition. Doubtful though, he will he be part of India’s 2023 World Cup plans.

Kedar Jadhav is a transitory cricketer. It’s almost as if his sole purpose is this World Cup. He’s there to fill India’s many gaps. Whether he is the fifth or sixth bowler is unclear. He’s often an afterthought bowler. The kind of afterthought, that in hindsight seems should have been a much earlier thought.

When all else fails, there’s Jadhav. Or Kedar. Or whatever it is they call him. But he’s there. Even the batsmen that face him are not sure he’s there. Or for that matter, aware that he’s bowling. It seems like a swoopy dream that creeps up and goes on, over after over. And if for some reason, the batsmen feel he is uncalled for and should be dispatched – or they should be dispatched from the chains of the Kedar Jadhav dreamscape, they are dismissed.

Batsmen have the same zapped expression as Marcus Stoinis did when he was dismissed to Jadhav off a long-hop. Though in Jadhav’s case, it ideally should be called a short-hop. To try and pull Jadhav to the high heavens but fail to go beyond short midwicket is one of the mysteries of life.

But then isn’t Jadhav just that? An unknown. Just when the world thought they were coming to grips with the anomalies of Jasprit Bumrah’s action, they were faced with Kedar Jadhav’s inaction.

If he were any more languid, the pitch would be a sleeper car.  And so, Stoinis perished. As 25 before him. Perplexed. “What did I just do? What did he just do to make me do what I just did to me?” It’s quite inexplicable. For most of his spell, he’s mildly thudding it wide outside off, into a waiting Dhoni’s gloves or pads or shoes or whatever those Netherland deliveries deem to go to.

That Stoinis fell in Jadhav’s fourth over to give him his first wicket was a surprise. Jadhav is a partnership breaker. By now, it appears the batsman has fallen even before he’s bowled his first delivery.

First time Jadhav bowled in an ODI was under Dhoni’s captaincy - he had consecutive wickets in his second over. Yes, he was on a hat-trick. Whether it was an optical illusion that in the high hills of Dharamsala, someone could sling so low, accounted for Neesham’s dismissal who can say.

Neesham had been caught and bowled by Jadhav. In an instant, from 4780 feet, he had dropped to sea level. Till this day, Neesham hasn’t quite overcome the fact that he fell to Jadhav. In his drafts lies a tweet of the horror. Damned if you tweet, damned if you delete.

In the second match of that series, New Zealand was 115/1 off 20 overs. Who do you call? Partnership busters Jadhav & Co at your service. Third ball off his first over, Messrs TWM Latham were evicted.

Third match: 13th over, Jadhav has his prize, Williamson. In his second over. Later in the 30th over, Jadhav returns for his third over. And has his second prize, Anderson. And Latham again, in his fourth over. He then hands over to Bumrah and the regulars.

For Jadhav is irregular if anything. To describe his bowling is akin to describing a joke. Just, more often than not, the joke is on the batsman. Who are left mortified, did that just happen, much like after Stoinis claimed a bump catch. Uncanny, but Jadhav too claimed a bump catch. Nobody remembers his reaction. Doubt there was one.

Jadhav’s moment in the bowling sun though was when he ran through Pakistan’s middle order, 3/23 off 9 overs, thank you. Not surprising, he had the Pak skipper, Sarfraz Ahmed, in only his second over.

…..

Jadhav has not been dismissed in five of his last seven innings –  81*, 22*, 61*, 23* and 16*. On three occasions, Dhoni was unbeaten at the other end - 59*, 48* and 87*. Jadhav-Dhoni partnerships were 141*, 53* and 121*.

It doesn’t take a Trevor Chappell to tell you that Dhoni has unearthed something special in Jadhav. That’s something Jadhav will tell you all the time. Whether it is Dhoni keeping to Jadhav’s bowling or Dhoni-Jadhav talking their socks off through those long, meandering partnerships - by Jadhav’s own admission, Dhoni restrains him initially. No wonder the two love their long drives together, where Dhoni helms the wheel.

***

But what is it about Jadhav that gives the impression that he is not just a part-time bowler but a part-time batsman too? Sunil Gavaskar when exalting the likes of Virat and Rohit, went as far as to nail comparative perceptions that Jadhav was an ugly batsman.

Such is the visual impact of certain batsmen that their relatively low-key peers go largely unnoticed. It’s not too different for someone like Ambati Rayudu or Cheteshwar Pujara.

So if asked, what is your favourite Jadhav shot, you may be at a loss for an answer. In his comparative, Gavaskar praised batsmen such as Jadhav. That they hang in there and get the job done. That they are almost from the Dhoni school of thought – that there is no harm to bat ugly and win ugly as long as you win.

When you’re 95/3, with both Virat and Rohit out, it’s over to Rayudu, Jadhav and Dhoni. It may not be the most soul stirring displays of batsmanship, but scrap they will.

Nothing of Jadhav’s ODI batting numbers indicate a scrap however; a strike rate in excess of 100, a batting average of 47, and you’re tempted to say, hello flam!

 If Frodo Baggins were to ever wield a bat, he may not be too dissimilar to Kedar Jadhav. It may not quite be the Return of King Kohli, but he will traverse the dark lands of the middle overs and fight with trolls at the death.

Six of Jadhav’s first seven ODIs were against Zimbabwe in Harare. His first ton came against them. Hold it against him if you want. His second ton was against England. In his hometown, Pune. Hold it against him if you want. Both these were batting at 6, a position he’s come in at in 20 of his 36 innings. Add to that 13 times at No. 5 and 7, and you grasp what kind of crisis man Jadhav is.

Jadhav’s slogan could very well be – everywhere I go, it’s a disaster.

If everything was just fine, there would be no need for Jadhav. Some days, the top three see it through. But more often than not, they won’t. And the middle order will be called to clean up.

Kedar Jadhav is housekeeping. Behind the scenes. Low on glam. But there are days, when even the spotlight falls on him. Just as it did on a maid in Manhattan. That was JLo.

What will Kedar Jadhav become or not, who knows – till then, stay with those timely inside out cover drives and pulls in front of square. Sometimes, a cricketer is just about his cricket. And there’s no nickname needed.

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Or to write him off?

To know Krunal better, perhaps we could attempt to know India’s Twenty20 cricket better – Krunal made his T20 international debut a few months back, in November 2018. He’s played nine games so far.

Dinesh Karthik, now considered to be India’s T20 finisher has played 30 games. Over 12 years back, he played in India’s first T20 game. That was then the 10thT20 international being played.

The third T20 of the New Zealand series on February 10, 2019 was the 738thgame.

Rohit Sharma, the top T20 run getter, has played 93 games. Rohit did not play in India’s first T20 game. Tendulkar, Sehwag and Raina did. That’s how long ago it was.

Dhoni was the captain then. He would go on to lead India to victory in the first ICC World Twenty20 in 2007. Neither Tendulkar, Sehwag nor Raina featured in that final.

The evolution of a T20 team calls for brutal selections.

From that glorious Indian team of 2007, only Dhoni and Rohit remain.

It’s only in the last few years that India has balanced its significant ODI diet with more T20s. In doing this, it has grappled with acknowledging how ODI and T20 cricket are vastly different –  and require different skills and possibly different selections. While the transformation to picking lean IPL squads has been far swifter, India’s T20 unit has taken long to shed its excess ODI weight.

Where patience and building an innings are a virtue in ODIs, they are a luxury few can ill afford in T20s.

Where in the longer formats, bits and pieces players are exposed, a few overs of glory, make headlines and careers out of players.

It is still early days in Krunal Pandya’s international career. Yet it’s likely, he will continue to be a T20 selection – as much for his own skills, as for the lack of overall T20 skills of other candidates.

So, who are these other candidates?

Ravindra Jadeja – last played a T20 for India in 2017. In his 40 games, he batted only 18 times. Mostly at 7 and 8, with a strike rate less than 100, an average less than 10. The sample size is small and it’s possibly Jadeja’s lack of impact as a bowler as much as Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal’s ascent, that saw him lose out.

Jadeja’s economy is just a shade over 7, but it’s his 31 wickets off 40 games at a much higher strike rate that go against him – 26 to Kuldeep’s 11 and Chahal’s 15.

Kuldeep Yadav already has 35 wickets from 18 games at an economy of 6.72. Chahal has 45 wickets from 29 (economy 7.9) – while neither Yadav nor Chahal have any batting skills of note, it’s as much the attacking bowling option as their ODI rise that has nudged out both Jadeja and Ashwin.

R Ashwin’s 52 wickets from 46 games (economy 6.97) meant he too last played in 2017. Incidentally, both Ashwin and Jadeja last turned up in a T20I on July 9, 2017 – both ended wicketless, one went for 39 off his 4, the other 41 off 3.3 overs.

West Indies chased down 190 with nine wickets and two Indian spinners in hand.

There has been the brief flirtation with Axar Patel, but he mostly played against Zimbabwe when the mainstay was rested. 11 games, 9 wickets; batting mostly at 7 and 8, his numbers saw him last turn up for India close to a year ago.

Once upon a time, there was the Yusuf Pathan option – he too batted lower down, mostly at 6, 7 and 8 and was at best a part-time bowling option – bowling his full quota in seven of the 17 innings he turned his arm over. Yusuf opened the innings with Gambhir in that first World T20 Final. That was also his first T20I match.

The last time he turned up, the rain impacted both the match and his career. He did not bat, India lost to Duckworth Lewis in 7.1 overs, close to seven years ago.

Which brings us to Krunal Pandya. Elder brother of chat-show Pandya.

And significantly, part of a champion IPL team, the Mumbai Indians. (with so many coaches going, he can only hone his all-round skills)

Krunal turns 28 next month. He’s played just three First Class games so far. However, he’s heaved it in 71 T20s. He made his T20 debut six years back.

In the Hamilton decider, Krunal’s bowling was mauled for 53 runs. It seemed to be predictable hit-me bowling – but then, whenever any bowling is slaughtered, you don’t ask if it halal or jhatka. Either way, it’s slaughtered. And appears clueless, bereft of thought, variations, guile.

Krunal has a bowling economy of 8.72 rpo (almost identical to Yusuf’s). It’s a small sample size, but on evidence, his bowling (not unlike Jadeja’s in T20s and ODIs) does lack imagination – there is a sameness in speed, trajectories, lengths. Once a batsman has his measure, expect an all-out attack.

Which is where the wicket-gifts can happen. Just the other day, his 3/28 gifted him the Man of the match.

Such is the nature of the format that Krunal will have the occasional good days with the ball. To expect him to be the 5th bowler though is a bridge too far. It’s better if he starts as the sixth bowler and splits those four overs with another part-timer.

India was 145/6 after 15.2 overs when Dhoni fell. Kartik and Krunal, the last of the hitting ammunition dump. Krunal added 26(13).

Had India played a bowler instead of Krunal, India’s chase would’ve stopped after Dhoni’s wicket. Question is, would India’s target have been far less?

While Krunal has batted in only four innings for India (strike rate 156.81), it’s his batting numbers in domestic cricket that have pushed him to where he is – here too, his batting average of 27 and strike rate of 147 is uncannily similar to that of Yusuf Pathan’s. There are eight years between the two, but both play for Baroda.

Both are brothers of more illustrious fast bowling all-rounders; both pegged to be the next Kapil Dev.

***

Numbers aside, it’s Krunal Pandya’s obvious hitting ability. It appears to run in the Pandya blood. As too the cricketing smarts.

Only last year in Australia, after being walloped for 55 in Brisbane, he plugged it to just 26 two days later in Melbourne, and helped India square the series with a Man of the match haul in Sydney.  

For now, it might be best not to underestimate Krunal. If there’s a single to be taken, take it. The tail starts after him, not with him.

Then again, this could be a duel best viewed in a KKR vs MI match.

You can bet it will be hyped no end. Expect Krunal to add little to the hype though. He’s not much for a chat.

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Welcome back, Hardik.

Even if you weren’t 1/10th of the cricketer, even if you could just catch and field and were a bits and pieces all-rounder, it would be good to see you back.

But you are more than that. You flew in, and then you flew - what a catch that was. There is something about you, who knows, maybe even you don’t know yet what it is, but there are those that do.

Which is why, after Kohli, Rohit, MS, Bumrah, your name was inked in indelible marker to make that formidable India XI for the World Cup. 

Yet your name went missing. Just as every voice that could have made a difference went missing.

It took Rahul Dravid to speak up for you, in an equal measure of sanity and understanding.

And with that, somehow, things appear to have been sorted for now at least.

Perhaps a lesson for all cricketers: do not expect much from the administration. It’s beyond them. It reflects in the way the BCCI has been run, and far worse, how it fails to be run - with the added discomfort of a prop called the Committee of Administrators (CoA).

Were things better in Srini’s time? 

So, you’re back, Hardik. How does it feel? Like you got out of jail?

No, you don’t have to answer that. You don’t have to answer anything. 

You are not answerable. 

That’s what they wanted, and that’s what they should get.

Hardik Pandya has gone missing. In finding Hardik Pandya, again, India has lost him.

How hard we try and alter people. To make them suit our definition of what they should be like.

Great, Hardik Pandya is palatable now. You will see him as we have seen him for a while, pokerfaced, answering questions, so deadpan, when it’s only Manjrekar in the post-match.

Somehow, Manjrekar has drilled Pandya far more than Karan Johar ever did - in each interview, he has probed, skilfully, trying to eek something out, something about the other Hardik Pandya.

But that was cricket. Hardik Pandya was on his guard. His eyes still, almost lifeless, his demeanour almost solemn, as if Manjrekar was singing a dirge. 

That dirge which Karn Johar sang, camouflaged with a sexual surge.

Johar was his friend, buddy, this was Bollywood, not cricket; Hardik Pandya wasn’t a cricketer, he was so much more, Black Elvis had just entered the building.

Part 2

A while back, Hardik Pandya posted a video on twitter of his homecoming from an overseas’ tour - he surprised his father in the middle of the night, waking him up. A stunned father hugs his son, frantically. 

It’s a dramatic video. Hardik Pandya was dramatic. His father seemed dramatic too.

There are bits and pieces that people have seen of the Karan Johar interview. There seems to be plenty of hearsay too. I did watch the video, a few days after it went on air.

If anything, it was largely tactless of the two cricketers. Even naïve. Such a rarity on air, these days. Everyone is tutored enough to be the next Sushmita Sen.

These two, they would’ve made it beyond the swimsuit round. But not much further.

Part 3

On January 28, 2019, on his return, Hardik Pandya bowled his full quota of ten overs. In 42 innings so far, this was the 11th occasion that he had bowled all 10 overs. Two caught keeper dismissals, Pandya was pitching it up.

That not even player of the match, Mohammed Shami bowled his full quota, was a sign from the captain – we are behind you, Pandya.  


Part 4

It’s way too early to look at Pandya’s numbers and make sense of him as a cricketer. But in him, is India’s genuine search for a cricketing all-rounder. That’s how serious Indian cricket is of Hardik Pandya.

That Kapil Dev’s name continues to be thrown in tandem with his name, is not an accident.

In 11 Tests so far, Hardik Pandya already has a Test century and a five-for. He scored a Test 50 on debut, a Test century in his third Test. His 112 off 96 balls earned him Man of the match.

His match-turning spell of 5/28 at Nottingham was sealed with a run a ball 50. But those are just numbers. And with Pandya, they will, for a while, continue to be only a small part of the story.

Just as, India invested long term in Rohit Sharma, and is now served tons for fun, there is a deep squinting far-away look at the horizon for this 25 year old’s India future.

After Hardik Pandya sat on that Coffee Show, much of that promise was being ripped into – it may have been politically incorrect, even foolish, but none of that was, arguably, to do with cricket.

That he was on the show as a cricketer was not by accident either. He was not there as the painter who reds the town. But Johar’s batteries were all charged for ‘Gimme Red’.

What else do you expect on a Johar show? It’s not by accident either that a Bollywood icon claims to be a virgin on his show.

Anything goes. It’s just that these two cricketers, didn’t know better. It’s not as if either Pandya or KL Rahul will become saints after this incident; but don’t be surprised if they
sound like car nerds in their next interview-shoot. Maybe they will do an entire interview where car will be a metaphor for something else. With Queen’s ‘I’m in love with my car’ playing alongside.

Part 5

Here are two hugely successful guys in their mid-20s, with 10-12 years best of making the most of their gifts and talents.

Let’s back them. Let’s be their strength. If you love the game, know what it is that makes you love it – it is players like Hardik and Rahul that make those repeated curtain calls to the clamouring of crowds, after those mighty sixes – they are to the manor born, they are to the IPL born.

Whichever team they go to, and by the looks of it, Pandya won’t go far from the Mumbai Indians, will be enrichened by their funky town cricket.

They are, by virtue of their skills, flair, approach to the game, a toast to the game.

Not just the IPL, but who knows, to all formats. Which is why, in spite of Rahul’s repeated and often baffling failures, one Test series after the other, there is that glimmer of hope that he will come good. He too is a long term investment.

Part 6

But if this is how BCCI treats their long term investments, why grudge the bulls and the bears? In the aftermath of the Johar episode, the BCCI had pulled out of the Pandya-Rahul investment. It is a matter of both shame and regret. Which is where the Supreme Court and the CoA come in. The Pandya-Rahul affair is a pointer to a stinkier mess. It didn’t work well before the changes. But it’s far worse now. By tying the BCCI arms and legs, it’s Indian cricket that’s being kicked in the gut.

Part 7

Hardik Pandya was born on October, 11. Under the same sign as Sehwag and Gambhir. With a strange balance, comes an even stranger outspoken word and world way.

Try to curtail him at your own peril. And if you do, don’t be surprised that you may do more harm than help. Nurture him. He could win you more than the odd cup. More than the world?

Part 8

This should have been written much earlier. But it did seem almost premature to write it before Hardik Pandya’s return to the Indian side. Personally, I did feel bad for him, almost anxious for his career. In a way, the thought that we may not see Pandya play again for India, made me value him more than I ever had before.

Let’s lighten up now. Here’s to Pandya going red in the head for the fourth ODI.

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Let’s write about Cheteshwar Pujara today. Let’s write about him tomorrow. Let’s not forget to write about him on the day after that. Let’s write about him on Thursday and on Friday too.

For, on Saturday, 12th January, you will be unable to write about Cheteshwar Pujara. After five days, India will play Australia in a one-day game. These five days are all you’ve got to toast the man behind India’s first ever series victory in Australia.

What will you write about?

Whatever it is, make it no less than 1258 words. That’s how many balls Pujara faced in the series. By the time he faced his 1258thball of the series, on the second day of the Sydney Test, he was on 193, India 418, overs bowled 130, the Aussie bowling on its knees.

Had Pujara already won India the series? Was there anything left to play for, for India, for Australia? If rain had a mind, it didn’t think so.

Or had Pujara already won it in Adelaide? When Australia discovered they could eek out the openers early, but pricing out this guy at three was like climbing one of those Giant Sequoia trees.

What was the first shot that Pujara played in the series when he walked in at the fall of KL Rahul’s wicket in the third over. 3/1, beginning of the tour - What was it? Was it even a shot? Was it a pokerfaced bat he offered? Did he leave the ball?

It was a dot ball. One of the many balls he would offer a deadpan bat to.

Pujara’s innings lasted 376 minutes, India’s 388 minutes. Pujara alone faced 41 overs, India 88 overs.

A ball before India’s innings closed, Pujara was run out trying to retain the strike. Before this though, he hurled India from 210/8 to 250/8 and himself from 89 to 123 in less than five overs – what, he even entertained the cynics with sixes off Starc and Hazelwood.

India beat Australia by 31 runs at Adelaide.

In the second innings, the openers did Pujara a disservice by making him wait 18.2 overs.
Yet, he was unfazed.

His first delivery was defended. It was a dot ball. One of many.

Pujara 70, fell in the 87th over. His innings lasted 204 minutes, India’s 465 minutes. Pujara alone faced 34 overs, India 106.5 overs.

As in the Adelaide first innings, at Perth too, Pujara walked out in the third over. India 6/1.

His first delivery was defended. It was a dot ball. One of many.

Pujara fell in the 39th over. His innings lasted 151 minutes, India’s 452 minutes. Pujara faced 17 overs, India 105.5 overs

In the second innings, Pujara walked out to bat in the first over. He walked back in the fourth over.

His first delivery was left alone. It was a dot ball. One of only nine dots.

As the gap between India and Pujara widened, so did that between Australia and India. India lost by 146 runs.

In Melbourne, India’s new opening pair gave Pujara 18.5 overs to work on his dancing moves. A record of some sort.

His first delivery was ducked under. It was a dot ball. One of many.

Pujara, 106, fell in the 126th over. He alone faced 53 overs, India 169 overs.

KL Rahul returned for Sydney and Pujara stepped out early again, in the second over.

By the time Pujara had faced his 1204th delivery of the series, he had gone past Rahul Dravid, for the most deliveries faced by an Indian batsman in Australia.

By the time he faced his 1258th ball in Sydney (the most by anyone in a four Test series in Australia), he was on 193, India 418, the Aussie bowling on its knees.

Pujara 193, fell in the 126th over. He alone faced 62 overs, India 167.2 overs.

It was over. Bar the shouting, posing, dancing, interviews.


Cheteshwar Pujara batted for 1702 minutes ie 28 hours, 22 minutes in this series! That is like batting all by himself for an entire five-day Test match

***

Cheteshwar Pujara was Player of the match and series. He was also a statistician’s delight. In more ways than one, he had outnumbered Australia.

He did it by being true to himself and his batsmanship. For a batsman whose Test average has hovered either side of 50 for most of his career, to be brought under such constant scrutiny, says little about both the captain and coach that decide on the final playing eleven.

This is as much Pujara’s victory against Australia as it is Pujara’s victory against those that doubted him.

In the days that led to India’s series triumph, Virat Kohli said this of Pujara -

“He has been a lot more flexible in altering his game very quickly. From the last time he played in Australia, he has made a few changes to his setup, and that’s working for him. He is embracing the fact that if something has been told to him and he has to work on those things, he has worked on it,” 

Begs the question, why is ‘something’ never told to Rohit, Rahul and Rahane? If so, why do they not work on those things?

While this will be Virat Kohli’s victory, and to some extent even Ravi Shastri’s; it is a good time as any, to see how the captain remodelled his game, making it almost akin to that of Pujara’s.

But nobody said - How Kohli ‘has been a lot more flexible in altering his game very quickly’.

A strike rate comparison between the captain and his No. 3 -

In Adelaide: Pujara 50 and 34.8, Kohli 18.75 and 32.69 – India won  (Pujara 100)
In Perth: Pujara 23.3 and 36.36, Kohli 47.85 and 42.5 – Australia won  (Kohli 100)
In Melbourne: Pujara 33.22, Kohli 40.19 – India won – India won (Pujara 100)
In Sydney: Pujara 51.74, Kohli 38.98 – Draw (Pujara 100)

In 7 innings, Pujara scored 502 runs at 74.42, Kohli 282 at 40.28.

Kohli 177 runs (417 balls)
Pujara 222 runs (564 balls) After 4 Tests, if Pujara scores > Kohli, India will win the series. #AusvInd #EarlyBoredCall

In between was Rishabh Pant, 350 runs at 58.33. The second highest batting average was Mayank Agarwal’s – 65 for his 195 runs.

While Pant is 9 Tests old, Agarwal has played just 2. One is barely 21, the other 27.

Much like Pujara, neither Pant nor Agarwal are ODI or T20I stars yet. They are all making an impact through Test cricket. It’s unlikely either player will be fast-tracked into the squad for the World Cup either.

Unlike Pujara however, both will turn up for their IPL teams before the World Cup.

As for Pujara, it’s something of a blessing for India, that he went unsold in the last IPL auctions. On return to India, he will be playing in the Ranji Trophy. In the summer, he’ll be off to play County cricket in England again.

This time however, no man in his right mind will drop him for a Test match based on county form.

***

While much is being made of Pujara’s two left feet, and the mock Pujara dance to celebrate the series win, it hardly does justice to the batsman’s dancing abilities.

The phrase, ‘dancing down the track to spinners’ was made for Che Pujara.

Not since VVS Laxman, has an Indian batsman played Australian spin with such skilful moves.

But that is cricket. Not post-match moves.

When he isn’t coming down the wicket to spin, he’s standing there, tall, self-assured, the protector of a different realm – one that could fall anytime.

But not on his watch. Is he the Last Test Batsman?

Only a few knew it. And even amongst those few, there were those who wanted to unknow it.

***

Pujara will get you home. It’s just that he will take the long way. And when you realise, for a series that started on December 6, and ended the following year on January 7; there’s only one way home – the long way, Pujara’s way.

If you’re up to it, you can sing along, and dance to it.

Just don’t expect Pujara to join in. He’s the reason you’re dancing. The reason you’re singing.

Be thankful. Scarcely ever before has a straight bat achieved so much for Indian cricket.

Try and not be too crooked with it.

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