At Oxford Chai Bar on Thursday afternoon, four elderly men are discussing cricket. They talk about Lala Amarnath, Fazal Mahmood, Imran Khan and, of course, Sunil Gavaskar. Someone mentions the game at the nearby Eden Gardens. The cricket die-hards aren’t T20 fans but keep a close and critical eye on today’s cricketers. “These boys can’t play spin. They should watch Gavaskar’s bat,” bemoans a gentleman.
A short walk from the ‘chai pe charcha’, across the maidan, is the Netaji Indoor Stadium. It’s adjacent to Eden Gardens. The atmosphere is very different from the laidback calm of the Chai bar. A chaotic queue of restless fans waits in front of the ticket window. Suddenly, the fans start shouting. Abuses are being hurled. Fears of a violent protest are rising. It’s all because of the ‘sold out’ placard which appeared some time back. Police intervenes, the crowd is dispersed.
Small disappointed groups head towards the maidan. They might even drop in at the chai shop. There would be more talk about the Gavaskar, Kohli and, of course, the India-Pakistan game at Eden. Like every cricket adda around the world, opinions would be formed and bets placed. Everyone would have their own favourites and predictions. It will be an exercise in futility. T20 format doesn’t give anyone an upper hand, when two almost equally-matched teams meet. Equations can change in a couple of balls. A dropped catch, an umpiring error can prove to be decisive.
Take India’s T20 international against Australia at the SCG on January 31. India went into the final over with 17 runs required off six balls.
Yuvraj Singh was facing Andrew Tye. It was the left-hander’s first innings in international cricket after almost two years and he had been struggling badly, scoring only 5 runs in the first 9 balls. His career had been edging closer to the precipice. But Tye started off with a length ball on the pads, allowing the Indian batsman to swing it to the fine leg boundary. The fast bowler repeated the error and this time Yuvraj hit him for a six over deep mid-wicket. India eventually won the cliffhanger with Yuvraj confirming his ticket for the World T20. Things altered in just two balls, for him and his team.
Cut to Shahid Afridi’s arrival press conference here; where he spoke about getting “more love in India than Pakistan”. A section back home vilified him for his comment. Even a PIL was filed. An out of form Afridi – 56 runs in eight T20 innings prior to the World T20 Super 10s match against Bangladesh — looked like a man heading to the exit door. But backed by the Eden crowd, the Pakistan captain scored a match-winning 49 off 19 balls and took two wickets to run away with the Man of the Match award. Suddenly, the retirement talks have been put on hold.
The dividing line between success and failure is very thin in the shortest format. Past performances don’t matter. History is irrelevant. Pakistan’s convincing win against Bangladesh and India’s batting meltdown against New Zealand would be of little consequence, when the match referee flips the coin in front of 67,000 fans. India’s superiority over Pakistan in the ICC tournaments would mean nothing. Pakistan’s all-win record in shorter formats at Eden, too, would barely have any significance.
Statisticians might point out, India don’t do well without Rohit Sharma or Virat Kohli performing. The hosts have lost only twice in the last 12 T20 matches. Against Sri Lanka in Pune, Rohit got out cheaply and Kohli didn’t play. Against the Blackcaps in Nagpur, both Rohit and Kohli failed to fire. But once again, it would be wrong to put much emphasis on that. Hardik Pandya can change the course of the match with three lusty blows. Mohammad Amir can do it with a couple of inswinging yorkers. Similarly, it would be a bit off the mark to label this as a contest between India’s batting and Pakistan’s fast bowling, for bowlers get only four overs each in this format.
Coming back to India’s 79 all out, R Ashwin said the team has already put it out of their system. “If at all there’s an international team who can put it behind and go forward, it is us. It’s not the first time that (has) happened to us. We have done it in the past. I can’t really put a finger and say why it is… We have it in us to come back from behind. That is what we are looking forward to.” Spot on. And with all due respect to Pakistan coach Waqar Younis, India won’t be under more pressure, a survival match notwithstanding.
On the match eve, as India arrived for their training session, Kohli walked up to Sourav Ganguly who was monitoring pitch preparations.
Greetings were exchanged before the two had a lengthy conversation, ostensibly over the nature of the surface.
The Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) president is personally surveying the centre square and so far, pitches here have had played beautifully.
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A true pitch gives equal opportunity to both teams, yet again making the favourites or underdogs tag redundant.