The breaking moment!

imageIt was concentration, just before half time. Perhaps perpetrated by frustration or by a needless desire for Liverpool to score a goal. The 33 year old, took his eyes off the ball and it slipped under his foot. Next thing you know, there is a goal forty yards away and the goal keeper is picking the ball out of the net. Liverpool are one down and lose that day.

On such fine margins are fates decided. Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool manager would say, “hey, the slip was not even mine”. True you cannot legislate for such things. Especially, if it is your most reliable player. But stuff happens. Fact is that the Steven Gerrard slip cost Liverpool the Premier League title. Something broke that day, in the hearts and mind of the Anfield dressing room. It was never the same again.

I have seen this before. There are times when you give your all, you believe intensely and you are actually good enough. Its the real thing and the world believes also. You have your hand on the prize and everything in fate is going for you. But fate has something else planned for you, just before the final line. When it happens, the final last moment failure is too big to handle. It breaks you.

Back in 1982, Brazil had the World Cup in their hand. There were no equivalents in the history of football, barring Puskas and his Hungarians of the 1950s. Tele Santana and his team seemed in-human. They floated on the ground and created magic, which I have not seen again in these forty plus years of watching football. Never will, because football has become too safety first and structured. Watching them quietly was Enzo Bearzot, grizzled professional and a knowing Italian. He saw things which no one else saw. On that fateful afternoon in Barcelona, Paolo Rossi, rose out of a disastrous World Cup, to score the most famous hat-trick in football. Brazil lost, just! It broke all of us. I saw many friends cry that afternoon. But it definitely broke Brazil and Tele Santana and they were never the same again.

Coming into the 1999 final, Pakistan looked the real deal. We had beaten the Aussies at Headingly, a couple of weeks before and we looked like champions. The fastest bowler, the wiliest left armer, the best spinner and two of the best all rounders. Then we had very good batsmen. That was the team. It was a mature team, with a combination to fit. One just felt right. When I arrived at Lords that morning, the only misgiving was a fresh looking pitch. It looked like a Brisbane pitch on the first day. It was. Our team, on a high and expecting things to role their way, collapsed that day. It was built on a belief, which was based on the normal English summer conditions. We lost badly and for me its the turning point of Pakistan cricket. We lost a lot more that day. It broke us and over the next decade and a half we have never fully pieced it together again.

So to Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool manager. For twenty plus matches, he created a sublime attacking machine. Its philosophy steeped in offence, it simply scored more than it let in. It was exhilarating to watch and for a few months we all believed in the magic. Then it happened and we came down to earth. It broke him and I think, he did not have the wherewithal to repair the heart. In todays world of commerce, even sports is subservient. Success is the only answer. BR found that out. He has been dismissed as Liverpool’s manager.

For Liverpool I will say, what I have said these forty four years. You Will Never Walk Alone. For Brendan Rodgers, a thank you for the 2014 season. Good luck for the future. There may be other pastures, where this wound may heal.

*picture courtesy Premierleague.com

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The ICC Champions Trophy – a tournament too far

ICC Champions TrophyMemories, happy and sad moments, all flavour our lives and make us what we are in the present. My own long affair with cricket comprises just such memories, cherished possessively for decades. And it matters little if the original event was bad, because nostalgia acquires a character of its own, beyond good and bad. In the case of the ICC Champions Trophy, fifteen years is a long time to build memories. Yet, if we be honest, do we really remember any games in the Champions Trophy?  

Well some of those memories have morphed into images of Jamshed Dasti* spitting fire and fury on TV, denouncing Pakistani cricketers. That he was talking about a most brilliant game between Pakistan and Australia in 2009, was a travesty. In all these fifteen years of the Champions Trophy, this game stands out. A typical, out of the blue performance, when all seemed lost for Pakistan. And we almost made it too! It was odder still that it is the only game in almost six decades, where Indian spectators were whole-heartedly cheering Pakistan on. Had Pakistan won, India would have got through to the semis. That was not to be in the end.

 

This was our jewel of the ICC Champions Trophy. Others stand out, but maybe for the wrong reasons. A daft semi-final in 2005 in the Rose Bowl, with the day grey, the clouds low and the ball jagging around everywhich way. That our erstwhile captain Inzimam chose to bat first is a cricketing mystery to this day. Our batsmen duly obliged and were bowled out for 130 odd and the match was handed over to the West Indies. Not that this was so bad! One saw a most fascinating run chase by lower order batsmen in the subsequent final, in bad light, as the West Indies carried the day against England, with a 71 run unbeaten 9th wicket stand.

 

The fates seem to have conspired against this tournament in the past. So, incessant rain led to one tournament in 2003 being shared by the finalists India and Sri Lanka, with both designated days rained out. Could you do that in a normal tournament? No final at all and yet two winners.

 

Memory then harks back to the 2000-1 final. I can remember sitting back in the Pepsi conference room, watching the demolition of India by Chris Cairns. Watching cricket on a workday? But that’s fine, remember Pepsi was the official sponsor of cricket in Pakistan and this was just part of work. That innings of Cairns remains the best individual innings played in Champions Trophy history. New Zealand was dead and buried, five wickets gone and Cairns just upped the ante and took the trophy out of the grasp of India. An incisive century, which you wish some Pakistani would make in a run chase. Something like, Inzi’s 60 in the semis of World Cup 92. 

 

The Champions Trophy was born out of ICC’s need to bolster its coffers. It would allow the coins to jingle in a non World Cup year. Unfortunately, like the old personal computer being superseded by the present tablet or the beef burger making the bun kebab obsolete, so the T20 took the heart out of the Champions Trophy. The crowds, sponsors and excitement migrated to the later format. A rationalization ensued and so 2013 is the year of one final farewell tournament.

 

So what of our beloved Pakistan? We have won everything in our cricket history. Test matches (home and away); World Cups (One day and T20); Sharjah; Australasia Cup; Nehru Cup; and Sahara Cup. Alas no Champions Trophy! We have made it to 3 semis out of six tournaments- an appearance every alternate tournament. Each time we have entered the semis as clear favourites and yet circumstances have intervened.  Maybe that is why I think this tournament is jinxed. Maybe that is why the memories are short. My inner self cannot but look at the world of cricket through a Pakistani kaleidoscope.  A tournament too far! Besides, this next tournament is the 7th and out of sequence for an alternate semi-final appearance. But then, Jamshed Dasti dominates the imagination…I can see him waving the Pakistan flag at Lords…after all we might break the jinx, this one last time.

 

*Jamshed Dasti is a parliamentarian, who showed a lack of understanding of cricket and in the aftermath of the PakvAus game, made some outlandish accusations.

 ** The photograph is taken from the official ICC, FB page.

When cricket was white and pure

From 1977 to 2012, the game has changed face and, to many, has become more entertaining. PHOTO: AFP

Lord’s, 1982. When Imran Khan threw the ball to Mudassir Nazar, a collective groan went up. England were nine without loss as I watched sitting on the rickety benches positioned on the cover boundary. Sarfaraz Nawaz had gone off from a suspected side strain.

Nazar, as he ran into bowl, looked like Shoaib Akhtar from where I was. I saw him bowl, saw the batsman leave and Wasim Bari dive behind the stumps but I didn’t see the ball. Suddenly, England were nine for three – Randall, Alan Lamb and David Gower all back in the hut. Pakistan went onto win that match by 10 wickets.

Earlier, in January 1977, the team had to make 32 runs as the whole of Pakistan tuned into proceedings from the Sydney match. There was Majid Khan facing Dennis Lillee. I couldn’t see the ball as Majid was beaten. Sadiq Mohammad and Zaheer Abbas were already dismissed and Lillee had hit Majid on the head. I remember shaking – was it the cold or was it the tension, I didn’t know. Another bouncer, but this time Majid deposited it into the stands. Pakistan won by eight wickets.

Things have changed now. Some changes are visible – the advent of Twenty20. But the neutral umpires (you have to watch an Indian umpire in Bangalore 1987 to appreciate that), the helmets and the pitch covers too; the uncultured slash from Virendar Sehwag over third-man or a Shahid Afridi miss-hit for six.

When I was in school, I was expelled from the second-XI for lofting the ball twice in an over. I’d spend hours in front of a small radio, tuning into Test Match Special. There were no talks of money, no fixing issues but just pure love for a game of nobility. No endless analysis and, above all, no Facebook or Twitter ‘experts’ sharing their views.

The game has moved on a lot from the days when the world was still young. My first experience of National Stadium Karachi was the same as Lord’s: No chairs, just steps and no shamiana cover either. It was tough going. You dare blink risking missing a wicket or a six. But it was spontaneous and passionate. Today we see replays but can’t appreciate the game. The serious spectator has disappeared with the space taken up by the Twenty20 enthusiasts. Even at a run-a-ball required, players and spectators still want to see a slog. The ‘we will make them in singles’ just doesn’t exist anymore.

It was a quiet and non-commercial game back in the day, before Kerry that is. With money came great things like affluence, viewership, fairer umpiring, innovation and improved fitness. Experience was made to last and the spectacular became imperative. Pitches were toned down, the game shifted towards batting. Tail-enders started hooking and pulling without fear. Fitness improved careers and ‘gods’ were created, greater than the game itself.

Cricket died and was cremated. Now we have less skilled players and, at times, it becomes excruciating to see batsmen not capable of concentrating or being squared up. So while the spectator experience has improved considerably, the quality has gone out of the game.

I lament for the game which I loved but there are very few who hear and understand.

Read more by Sarfaraz here or follow him on Twitter @Sarehman 

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