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By Partab Ramchand
As a very young cricket fan I remember listening to the BBC commentary on the England - Australia Test match at Old Trafford in 1961. It remains one of the most famous Ashes matches as Australia recovered from a seemingly hopeless situation to register a 54-run victory and retain the "urn". England requiring 256 to win in 230 minutes were 150 for one thanks to an explosive 76 by Ted Dexter. At this stage they needed 106 runs in 105 minutes and the stage seemed set for an England win that would put them 2-1 up in the five-match series with one to play.
Richie Benaud, leading Australia, however never gave up. He led from the front famously bowling his leg spinners into the rough from round the wicket and was chiefly responsible for a collapse that saw England slide to 201 all out. But more than his bowling that brought him figures of six for 70 it was Benaud’s captaincy that was hailed by the commentators and in the press reports that followed. There he was goading his players along, never for a minute believing that his side could lose. Always optimistic, he remarked to one of his players during the change over "well, we can’t draw this match so we will just have to win it".
The Aussie will to fight back, their traditional belief that no match is lost till it is won, was instilled in my mind from that match onwards and fortunately over the years, first as a cricket fan and then as a professional cricket writer for over 40 years, I have hardly had any occasion not to believe in their ability to fight against the odds and emerge winners from seemingly hopeless situations. Wednesday night’s IPL match between Rajasthan Royals and King’s XI Punjab was a case in point for the winning team was led by an Australian who is widely regarded as the best captain the country never had.
If any further proof was needed, it was provided by Shane Warne’s leadership qualities at Mohali. He has rightly been given credit for his team winning the inaugural edition of the IPL two years ago. He pulled off the incredible feat with a team that was short on experience and had players hardly known even in Indian cricket. But Warne nurtured their youthful exuberance, goaded them on by making them believe in themselves and leading from the front as only he can. This infectious no-holds-barred enthusiasm rubbed off on the youngsters and the result was an unexpected triumph.
Warne the captain was again at his best on Wednesday. The zip in his bowling might be a thing of the past, not surprisingly, for he last played international cricket in January 2007. But the fire in his belly, his hunger for success is still very much intact. It was a match Rajasthan Royals had no chance of winning. In their quest of a target of 184, the home team was very much on target thanks to an explosive start. When Manvinder Bisla was out in the eighth over after a timely cameo King’s XI’s target was just 99 runs in 12 overs an asking rate of eight an over – eminently gettable with wickets in hand. In fact Ravi Bopara and Yuvraj Singh brought the asking rate to just under eight during their all too brief third wicket association.
It was a situation tailor-made for Warne the captain who loves braving the odds. Never losing his faith in his team, never losing the hope that his team could still win he continued to switch the bowlers all the while making timely changes in the field. As wickets fell under the relentless pressure exerted by Warne one could see his grip tighten. The field was spread in a tight arc and the bowlers responded magnificently. Every time the batsmen hit the ball it went straight to the fielder which meant only a single resulted making the job that much tougher for King’s XI. In desperation when the batsmen went for big hits the ball landed in the fielder’s hands and ere long it was clear that the hunter had become the hunted. Rajasthan Royals were winning from a losing position and King’s XI were losing from a winning position.
The IPL has succeeded in exploding many myths about Twenty20. It is not exactly a batsman’s game for bowlers too have had their days in the sun – or nights under the moon! Modest totals have been defended successfully, a bowler has taken a hat trick, others have ended up with economical figures even while taking wickets. One must realize that in this abridged version it is not just the bowlers who face the pressure of being hit for fours and sixes every time. The batsman too is under the intense weight of expectations. There is just no time to get your eye in with the result that the slog starts virtually with the first ball. Under the circumstances a miscued or rash stroke is always on the cards and this is where the bowler scores a point. A couple of dot balls and again the batsman is under tremendous pressure to get a move along and this has led to a dismissal as we have seen so often in Twenty20.
And as Warne has showed there is a place in the game’s shortest format for strategy and tactics too. There are aspects associated with Twenty20 that are heartening even for the serious cricket follower. Indeed it can be argued that captaincy in this format is more difficult than in Test cricket or ODIs since the skipper has to make all the decisions like in the other formats but here the thinking has to be swifter. One false step and the team could well be out of the game. This is where intuitive captains have succeeded for in Twenty20 you can't wait for things to happen; you have to make things happen.