Three runs in six balls. With the West Indies staring at the finish line in the last over of the Under-19 World Cup final, the effervescent Gidron Pope exhorted his teammates and support staff in the dugout to get off the edge of their seats and stand near the ropes as one, with their arms around each other shoulders, to root for Keacy Carty and Keemo Paul. The duo had quelled an Indian comeback with a responsible partnership, reviving the West Indies from 77 for five, and brought them onto the cusp of history. The Cup was about to touch the lip. With a couple of singles the scores were tied. The West Indies had come this close on the back of singles — the big shots that they all love to play were mostly kept in the bag.
Khaleel dug the third ball short, Paul went for the pull only to top edge it. It flew over the keeper’s head, and the batsman ran. At the same time, the human wall standing beyond the deep cover boundary ran too, towards them. The Indians looked distraught — Avesh Khan even cried — as the teenagers of the Caribbean slid around on the ground like a bunch of first graders. Shamar Springer was the doing his chest-roll dance, Pope broke into the Gangnam style jig. Hetmyer and Carty, who shepherded the tricky 146-run chase with a counter-intuitive 125-ball 52, were giving interviews. What was Keemo Paul, who made an equally crucial 40 off 68, doing? You looked around and spotted him. He has dropped onto his knees and touched the ground with his forehead. And he stayed in this position for a long, long time. This World Cup had taken a lot out of him, and this was his release.
The turning point
It could safely be said that the most significant moment in the West Indies’s campaign in Bangladesh wasn’t Rishabh Pant getting stumped by Tevin Imlach of Alzarri Joseph in the first over of the final; or the wicket of Sarfaraz Khan when he was trapped in front trying to play across the line; or even Pant putting down Paul and Carty behind the wicket. In fact, it didn’t even occur on Sunday. It came in their final league match against Zimbabwe on February 2 at Chittagong.
Three runs in six balls. The spotlight was against on the Guyanese lad who idolises Shiv Chanderpaul. Except, on that day, he had a ball in his hand, and had to defend those runs.
Sports journalists, not unlike war historians, are perennially in search of a turning point — that one moment that, according to them, influenced the outcome of an event more than others. Often this exercise is reductive, done as it is with the benefit of hindsight. But Paul ‘Mankading’ Richard Ngarava indeed was a game- and tournament-changing moment, in a similar way as Courtney Walsh not Mankading Saleem Jaffar was in the 1987 World Cup.
In what was the final over of that virtual quarterfinal, Paul steamed in, perhaps without even intending to bowl that ball, and just flicked the bails at the non-striker’s end. The batsman looked stupefied, as did the umpires. After checking with captain Shimron Hetmyer if he wanted to go ahead with the appeal, they went upstairs. In the replays, Ngarava was found to be a couple of centimeters out of his ground. The West Indies were through. However, no sooner had he finished celebrating than an ordeal began for Paul. There is always a stigma attached with Mankading, even though it’s perfectly within the laws of the game, and the Guyanese all-rounder was trolled on social media.
Social media trial
Paul turns 18 next week. He is a juvenile. In mainstream media, you are not even supposed to name a juvenile if he has committed a crime. Paul had committed none. An even bigger irony is that it’s a developmental tournament. You ought to be allowed to make mistakes here — if it was indeed a mistake — and be gently encouraged to learn from them. Instead, many a current and former international cricketer became witness, jury and judge, and held the West Indian guilty as charged.
“He was hounded on social media. There were some pretty influential people who went after him on Twitter. What we did was that we tried to shield him from criticism. We kept him away from social media for a few days,” a member of the West Indian contingent said after the final.
That became a rallying point for the West Indies and Paul. In the quarterfinal against Pakistan, he came and whacked 24 runs of 16 balls as the West Indies sprinted away to a five-wicket win. In the semi-final against Bangladesh, he took three wickets in three overs towards the end to reduce the hosts to a below par total. “I think the Zimbabwe win and the whole Mankad issue, whether you agree it was right or wrong, some of the issue that was said about Keemo Paul and team, I mean they are Under-19 cricketers for God’s grace. I think it was kind of disgraceful some of the comments I read in the media and heard from these people. That seemed to have galvanised the team. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, because they just lifted their game after that,” reckoned former pacer Ian Bishop.
And against India, too, Paul removed Avesh Khan and Ricky Batham and stopped the tail from wagging after Alzarri Joseph, Chemar Holder and Ryan John had run through the tournament favourites’ batting line-up. Later in the day, he joined Carty when the West Indies had lost half the team with nearly half the chase still left. The Indian spinners, led by Mayank Dagar, had given their team a whiff. Paul offered a chance off the left-arm spinner Dagar in the 35th over, but Sarfaraz Khan spilled it in the slips. He was batting on 10 then. After that point, Paul largely restrained himself. At one stage the West Indies played two back-to-back maiden overs as the equation became 44 off 60 balls. It may not seem much in modern-day game, but it was an old-fashioned ODI. The tension was building. India were not going out without a fight. Paul then played a release shot, a straight six over long off against Dagar, India’s best bowler on show. There was no looking back after that.
“You just have to know how to manage the pressure, just know how to be confident. Learn from it. You have to take in some things. Just stay focused and do what you are doing. In pressure situation, I just clear my mind. It motivates me. I always want to win and do well in the game. Pressure situation motivates me,” Paul had said on match eve.
With the West Indies needing nine runs of 12 balls, Paul offered a chance. An uppish shot off the left-arm spinner Mahipal Lomror was put down at deep cover by Avesh. Thereafter, the march to victory with singles began. Carty would bring up his fifty before Paul would gently guide one to midwicket for the sixth single of the 49th over. Three runs in six balls, then. Back where it all began.