Moss Side, Manchester. The ground beneath English feet is paved with Indian sandstone. In fact, around this city and even across the country. No wonder, Indian natural stones are the second-biggest Indian export after iron ore in minerals. The English are obsessed with Indian sandstones in particular. Their driveways are paved with them and their homes are tiled with them. Retro-style, durable, cheap, and good-old nostalgia. Just like this World Cup in some ways.
What a difference two games have made to this tournament. It started with Sri Lanka’s lone but epic contribution when they beat England, triggering chaos. England panicked, raising hope in teams like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan, in particular, kept winning after that but when England started to recover with wins, threatening to anaesthetise the tournament again, New Zealand stepped up with three straight losses that dragged the World Cup right down to the wire. And then, just when things seemed to settle down, the second tournament-turning game came along when South Africa beat Australia – and the feet beneath the cricketing world once again slipped.
It’s been all retro thus far. 350 plus totals, they said, teams have huffed and puffed to chase 250. Big players usually dominate World Cups; Rohit Sharma, David Warner, Kane Williamson, Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult and the like. Apart from Shaheen Afridi and Alex Carey, most of the top performers have been known names. 10.30 am starts and no floodlights meant tosses shouldn’t matter as much with the dew factor, they said, but again retro style, win toss, bat first has more often than not worked.
Two new balls might hamper spin, they said, but that tribe has been doing all right. Modern fielding is so sharp that we see breathtaking catches but many a catch has sunk to the green English grass. The English have been training for slip catches with a set of foam stumps to mimic last-instant deflections off the wicketkeeper’s gloves. Of course, all that intense micro-management is better than going through the motions but it reflects how things haven’t always gone according to expectations in this tournament.
Even the English booing is a cliché. Not born out of impulsive reaction but a mass-produced emotion of sorts. Ahead of every game, the media would ask a player, he would utter some tripe that gets transferred onto television and print, and the next day, more of the same from the crowds. Sometimes it feels nothing of consequence erupts spontaneously. Even the hitting from the batsmen. The World Cup has seen some wonderful hitting, but without any associated violence. It’s beautiful and boring, if you get the idea. Shahid Afridi would have sneezed in contempt if he isn’t promoting his autobiography that he hasn’t read.
Sand-stoned Manchester and India. Robert Clive, a “unstable sociopath”, in the words of historian William Dalrymple, the man called Clive of India, and the man who engineered British rule in India with his association with the East India Company, spent his formative years in this city. Clive, known for the battle at Arcot that defeated the “Carnatic” and then the Battle of Plassey that helped British annex Bengal, grew up in Manchester with his uncle.
When he was seven, his uncle would write to his father about his penchant to fight and rowdiness. As he grew up, fanciful tales built around him – setting up a protective racket in town, expelled from numerous schools – and so his father sent him to India as a clerk with the East India Company in Madras. He unleashed much mayhem in India, looted its wealth back to his home, almost single-handedly laid the foundation of the British Empire.
Later, once he returned to his homeland, he would slit his throat and be quietly buried in an unmarked grave that was discovered years later. In Dalrymple’s telling, in 1765, around the time Clive entrenched himself as the governor of Bengal, a Mughal official named Narayan Singh, said, “we have to take orders from a handful of (English) traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms?”
Barely five kilometres from where Clive grew up in Manchester, a cricket ground would come up which would now host a World Cup semifinal involving India.
History, often brutal when associated with India, is littered across streets and graves in England but this has also been the land where since then, Indians have come in droves to build a life for themselves. As in life, as in sport, as that cliché goes. Manchester might have been the place that produced India’s greatest villain, so to say, but now in sport it’s been assumed that it would provide a free passage to the World Cup final.
In fact, it has already been assumed that India would walk over New Zealand. The reasoning is that the Kiwis are usually champions of World Cup semis, and barring the last edition, that’s where their inspiring journey ends. And the reasoning is based on the fact that New Zealand have lost their lost three games – one decently close against Pakistan and then two horrible defeats. Not a bad deduction, one might say, but those three pitches were slow and sluggish. And only Kane Williamson had the game to bat on those tracks. As one saw in the match between Australia and South Africa, Manchester can throw up a batting track with 300+ totals.
On such a track, New Zealand won’t be the team that one saw in the last three games with no one barring Williamson having any clue on what to do to buy a run. Would the bruising losses leave psychological scars that they can’t recover from? It’s a lovely line when one hears it from the voice of Ravi Shastri, the commentator, but Shastri, the coach, won’t be buying that. Well, he shouldn’t.
In the end, it might come down to whether Boult can take down Sharma early. If anyone can, apart from Mitchell Starc, he can. Bend the ball in, make Sharma move, force him to flick square – and hope for the best. If that happens, it’s game on, folks. Else, India dominate, go to the final in London.
But if that happens, the others have to work hard to earn that passage. And on a flat track, New Zealand’s batsmen can come into the picture. Of course, India would still enter the game as huge favourites, but why not hope for a good close game?
Hope is what Friedrich Engels, the father of communism, might have clung on to when he lived in Manchester. He arrived as a fresh-faced 22-year old in 1842, on exile from Germany. Another father worried about his son (he was called “scabby sheep of the family” by his wealthy factory-owning father) and sent to Manchester to reform himself. Instead, he grew even more radical here. Asa Briggs wrote in his book Victorian Cities: “All roads led to Manchester in the 1840s, the shock city of the age … If Engels had lived not in Manchester, his conception of class and his theories of role of class in history might have been very different. He might not have been a communist but a currency reformer.”
As it turned out, moved by industrial degradation, Engels wrote “The condition of the working class in England,” here in Manchester, the manifesto of Communism. He would also meet Karl Marx at the oldest library in UK, the Chethams’s, which still exists in the city. The desk where Engels and Marx sat is still out there and in 2017, a statue of Engels came up in a public square – a development that the many Ukrainians in the city didn’t like.
Hope would also be New Zealand’s overriding emotion as they walk into Old Trafford on Tuesday morning. They are led by a world-class batsman and a pretty good leader, quietly ambitious, who likes to lead by example. One thought does pop up though: In this scenario when they have lost three in a row, would they need someone like Brendon McCullum, who could be all bombastic with his batting and an extrovert who liked to dream big and tried to infuse the same in his men. Williamson’s batting coach David Johnston doesn’t quite see it that way. “He is a very level-headed chap with great understanding of the game. All through his life, he has been the captain at various sports. It comes naturally to him and he is at home as a leader.”
Also, one suspects they are at a place they would love: those three losses have meant that they have again retreated to being underdogs, and nobody loves living in that illusion like the Kiwi cricketers. The fans dread the hope, and are at home in despair. They have got what they wanted and now let’s see what they conjure from it.