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As Misbah ul Haq skied the fifth ball of the last over from Zaheer Khan, the crowd waited a few seconds in pregnant anticipation. Then Virat Kohli duly completed the catch and India had won the semi-final, beating Pakistan by 29 runs. The players broke out in raw cheer, the 30,000 watching intently danced to glorifying rhythmic chants, while many in the press box applauded. A few minutes later the two teams shook hands - the Men in Blue looked a little more than elated while the ‘Bunch in Green’ bore a dejected but proud manner about them.
Post the initial hurrah, the mind wandered across to 1996. That setting was a World Cup too, and the stage of the tournament in question being one prior to the present one! India had just beaten Pakistan in a mammoth quarter-final at Bangalore and headed to Kolkata to play Sri Lanka. The semi-final was to be a replay from the group stage when the Lankans had won comfortably at Delhi. The aura of victory however is very strong and it washes most doubts away with relative ease. Indian fans as it is doubt their cricketers very little when on the upswing.
Nearly a decade and a half later, one had the opportunity to chat with Sanjay Manjrekar who played in both matches. ‘Seeing the crowd support we couldn’t have possibly lost at Bangalore’, he said, before adding that, ‘victory against Pakistan tired us out emotionally.’ That part was missed out by most, a majority of them living in the City of Joy and it turned into angst when the Indians lost rather listlessly on a wearing pitch. The Eden Gardens was lit up in angry fires that night, fury burning in the mind of the partisan-crowd-turned-mob. That their team had figuratively won the World Cup in the previous match was forgotten, in a flash.
It is not that scenes in Mumbai on Saturday night will be equally ugly should the worst happen. Yet fear rankles when every newspaper you pick up on the morning after Mohali talks about the final being a pre-emptive cherry on top of a birthday cake that has already been cut. One particular headline stated that even winning the trophy will not top victory against Pakistan. Perhaps it was copied from one of the dailies from 1996. But what we all need to remember is that the party was cut short back then. It is all very fine to kick start celebrations now, but what is the point if the music stops at 11 pm?
Whenever possible, skipper MS Dhoni has tried not to come for the post-match press conferences. On more than one occasion he sent in man-of-the-match Yuvraj Singh and the last the Indian captain was seen taking questions at the end of a game was against South Africa. He walked in at Mohali, exuding his usual charm but more confidence. It was important that he did come, just like it was after the loss at Nagpur. That day in defeat, the many voices rising needed to be soothed. After beating Pakistan, it was necessary that those same voices didn’t get ahead of themselves, or atleast didn’t project that the team was getting ahead of itself. That their feet were firmly planted in the ground needed to be underlined and there isn’t a calmer person in this dressing room than the man who leads them.
It has reflected in the past as well, but none more so in this tournament. From the very outset it was clear that onus was more on getting to the knock-outs in whatever manner and then doing well in three matches therein. It was a risqué strategy - one that could have backfired - such has been the nature of this tournament and Group B especially. And it needed answers, especially ones pertaining to why a certain spinner was in the side and another wasn’t, or why two fast bowlers were in the mix and a third not considered after the first match. Even the batting – usually composed – wobbled at times and brought about some uncomfortable queries.
They were answered, all of them, in the press conferences and on the field. The latter part was always more important. And despite a little huffing, puffing in the group stages, there is only one match remaining in the knock-out phase and India are alive still. At Mohali, one of those inane puzzles reared its head again. Ashish Nehra came in for R Ashwin and surprised many, including the Pakistan team as Shahid Afridi claimed. In response, Dhoni admitted to reading the pitch wrong. Not many captains would do that when you have beaten your arch rivals in a World Cup semi-final. But then again, Nehra taking two wickets for just 30-odd runs in ten overs made sure that not many questions were asked in the first place.
The underlying point is, well, the unruffled face of Dhoni. His look didn’t change when India were in trouble as Wahab Riaz ripped out the middle order. It remained the same when Suresh Raina took the score to 260, only nearly competitive. It didn’t fluster when the opposition made a good start and it remained ever more the same when they collapsed, expectedly under pressure, a lot of which he helped create with his aggressive field settings. We have seen that same look all through these years – when the cricket is miserable or when he is selling something on TV. When they tied with England at Bangalore and when Nehra was plonked for a last over six at Nagpur, his grasp of the situation didn’t change. And it didn’t change in an unreal game, watched by billions the world over.
You don’t have to hope that Dhoni will be calm on Saturday. It is us who need to be so the two days in between March 30 and April 2, and depending on the result, perhaps also later!
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)