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Will the real Man of the Match stand up? Babar Azam’s hat tip to finisher Khushdil Shah after award wapsi

Weekly Sports Newsletter: After Babar's veto at Multan, and his polite award-wapsi of sorts, it is safe to say that the dressing room hasn't always agreed to the official MoM decision

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi |
Updated: June 12, 2022 10:59:43 pm
Pakistan skipper Babar Azam (right) gave away his player of the match award to Khushdil Shah in the first ODI at Multan. (@TheRealPCB/Twitter)

Dear Readers,

At Multan the other day, Babar Azam first slayed the record for three successive ODI tons, and later, broke cricket’s age-old award ceremony convention.

Called to receive the Man of the Match for his 103 from 107 balls in the second game of the series against West Indies, Babar hurriedly walked past the puzzled chief guests – one holding the giant cheque and the other a trophy – and reached for the microphone: “Yeh Man of the Match mai Khushdil Shah ko dena chahta hu.”

Not waiting for anyone around him to second his motion or object to it; with a firm head shake, the Pakistan captain shouted out a loud and loving “Aaja” to his No.5, hitter of 3 straight sixes in the 47th over in what once looked like an impossible chase.

Still drying sweat from his 41 from 23 balls late sprint that took Pakistan home, the half-smiling 27-year-old Pathan from North West Frontier Province would take sheepish steps forward and collect his unexpected trophy.

Looking beyond the obvious cuteness of the moment, this was a significant moment for white-ball cricket and how the game’s shorter format has evolved in its appreciation of batting performances. It is also a subtle comment on how the Man of Match jury – mostly commentators calling the game – have been on many occasions banking on a simple ‘run-measuring scale’ to decide the MVP of the day.

After Babar’s veto at Multan, and his polite award-wapsi of sorts, it is safe to say that the dressing room hasn’t always agreed to the official MoM decision. Even fans have an axe to grind. Boos from the stands and angry social media posts of disagreement happen to be the common outlet of angst when people’s choice hasn’t been the same as that of pundits.

Babar’s intervention has opened a new debate. It has challenged the game’s set hierarchy. It’s a known fact that bowlers in cricket are constitutionally undermined. They are sweat-shop workers.

In the batting department, the discrimination was more subtle. The top-order, cricket’s creamy layer, has the game’s chosen one. In white ball cricket, the privileged Nos. 1 to 4 get more time on the pitch to settle, don’t have to face the palm-sweating run-rate pressure and enjoy the benefits of power-play restrictions.

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They have too much going for them, they are best placed to cross this run-obsessed sport’s much-celebrated milestones – the 50s and the 100s – making them perpetual prime candidates to win the MoM awards.

The Nos.5, 6 and 7 go by the swashbuckling name Finishers. They are engaging, daring and flamboyant. As is the case with most such, they have the hardest of tasks, no job security and their efforts are least rewarding. In most games, they need to score the most against the best.

Run-rate climbing, wickets falling and rivals closing in – it’s the time for the Finisher to enter the arena. Tigers let loose, Colosseum throbbing, the manic frenzy lending intimidating surround sound – that’s the stage setting for the gladiators to raise their game and deliver. It’s not ‘do or die’, it’s do or live a life of shame and get trolled on social media for life.

When Khushdil entered the Multan Colosseum, hosting their first match after the Covid lull, Pakistan weren’t odds on favourite to win. Babar had got out in the 42nd over. He had set the platform but it seemed shaky. The team needed to score at close to 9 runs per over.

Khushdil did his short recce of the conditions and seemed to have concluded that pacer Romario Shepherd would be the weak link where he would strike his hammer. He would plunder for 18 runs from 3 balls. No pre-meditation, no new-age innovation, no moving around the crease, three middle of the bat connections.

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A slower bouncer bowled outside the left-hander’s off-stump was clubbed over mid-wicket. Rarely has a cross-batted swipe looked so aesthetic. A low full toss on the middle, was rocketed, with bent knees and still head, to the sight screen. The third six, to a ball Test match length, angled going away, was carved over extra cover.

The equation after this deadly sortie was 24 runs from 18 balls. In the T20 era, those numbers are readings on the signage leading to a cakewalk. Khushdil would hit one more six and also a clever four to fine leg.

After the game, the PCB camera moved into the dressing room asking players to describe the knock in one word. Class, exceptional, super duper, incredible would be among the answers. The dressing room was impressed, their respect was earned. Babar by nominating Khushdil as MoM was merely acting on his team’s sentiment.

Relatively new on the circuit, Khushdil has limited online presence. One clip that catches attention is from a tape-ball game played in a festive atmosphere at an open sandy plain of Lakki Marwat, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. A few bushes, a handful of palms line along the ground. It looks like a hard place for flora and fauna to flourish here. Men with stony eyes, full beard and tough features welcome local hero Khushdil. They have warm smiles.

These games are virtual one-on-one batsman vs bowler face-offs. Fielders are irrelevant since running between the wickets seems to be considered too menial and an overly insulting enterprise. Everyone is a Finisher here, every ball needs to be dispatched over the palm trees. With cricket’s rapid baseballisation, batsmen will increasingly be seen swinging their bats at white balls. Without them knowing, tape-ball cricket was preparing batters like Khushdil for cricket’s evolution – overs shrinking, boundaries shortening and sixes raining.

Days after Pakistan’s unlikely win, South Africa too chased down an impossible looking big total in New Delhi against India. Another left-hander, David Miller, too does a Khushdil. In IPL this season, he too hit 3 sixes against Rajasthan Royals to win a crucial game for Gujarat Titans. Miller didn’t finish among the top 5 run-getters, he didn’t have a single three-digit score. KL Rahul had many more runs but his innings weren’t impactful. Miller, meanwhile, was the overwhelming people’s choice of being game-changer and match-winner.

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Jury might still be out, but a voice from the dressing room has spoken. It’s not always about how many you score, it was about when you score.

Please send feedback to sandydwivedi@gmail.com

Sandeep Dwivedi

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First published on: 11-06-2022 at 08:58:59 am

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