World Cup 2011 February 20, 2011

Two breathtaking days in Dhaka

Day two of my Asian cricket watching career
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Day two of my Asian cricket watching career. A stunning and joyous occasion for fans of cricket, Bangladesh, and the sound of 35,000 people hitting major decibel levels like Glenn McGrath used to hit a good length. But a slightly disappointing match. Bangladesh never looked likely to win from the moment that Virender Sehwag’s eyes fell deeply in love with a loosener by Shafiul Islam, and instructed Sehwag’s bat to tell the loosener the full extent of their affections by obliterating it for four.

Despite the long-inevitable Indian victory, the crowd treated cricket to an almost unbroken eight-hour noise marathon. In the early stages, they were cheering rudimentary pieces of ground fielding as if Nelson Mandela had just ridden into the ground on a unicorn, discovered a cure for all known diseases live on stage, and then breakdanced on his head to the tune of a Beethoven’s piano sonata.

The early fever was quelled by India’s two great openers, who were given the chance to dictate the match by Shakib Al Hasan’s decision to bowl first. It looked like it would take something special to remove Tendulkar, and it did. Unfortunately, that something special was not a devastating piece of bowling, but a piece of sub-schoolboy running between the wickets. Sehwag appeared to be preoccupied – maybe he was checking his emails on his Blackberry, or trying to remember a recipe for Crepes Suzette, or thinking about whether table tennis has any rules. Whatever it was, he was not paying attention, the TV replay showed Sachin Tendulkar narrowly short of his ground by approximately 19.8 yards, and the dismissal uncorked a Jeroboam of bedlam in the stands.

When asked afterwards if he felt he had done anything wrong, Sehwag replied “not much”. Perhaps the impression watching from the roof of the press box was misleading – perhaps it was Tendulkar’s own fault. Sehwag explained further: “He was calling and I was not listening. And I was looking at the ball.” This man is a hero – if that constitutes doing “not much” wrong in a needless run-out, let us all hope he really, genuinely messes up a single at some point in the tournament. It could be spectacular.

Other than that little glitch, cricket’s greatest cavalier was almost perfect. If you can score 175 off 140 balls, even on a flat pitch, and then have learned sages in the press box comment that you have played “with uncharacteristic restraint”, then you are, certifiably, supernaturally good at batting. His innings, well supported by Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli, force-jammed that cork firmly back into the Jeroboam bottle.

The build-up to this game had a sense of a new beginning for cricket. The match itself was a decisive reassertion of the status quo. From Sehwag’s first-ball clonking of Shafiul to the cover boundary, India’s powerhouse batting issued a strong-worded press release to the other teams in the tournament, but it was never tested, and their bowling was mostly competent without fully allaying any fears that it might be vulnerable somewhere along the way. Bangladesh’s batsmen scored enough runs to ensure this comprehensive defeat was not the statistical and psychological drubbing into which it could easily have turned. The expectancy balloon may have been punctured, but at least it wasn’t stamped on, javelined or fed to a bear.

So, the festival is underway. For me, Dhaka and Bangladesh have been a captivating delight. The atmosphere in the stadiums on the two days so far was unlike anything I have ever witnessed. Admittedly, I have not witnessed especially many things in my very British life, but these have been two breathtaking days. When that over by Sreesanth went for 24, it felt as if the stadium was about to blast off into space (where zero gravity might have nullified some of India’s advantage). For the second consecutive World Cup match in Asia featuring India, the stadium was aflame. Metaphorically here, literally in 1996. More on this in the first World Cup podcast, coming up on Monday, including a “Guess What Happened On This Ball Based On The Noise The Crowd Was Making” quiz.

Now begins the more testing part for the tournament – the elongated group phase, with some potential mismatches looming and the perennial problem of the neutral match. It will be fascinating to chart its progress. The schedule and format leaves this World Cup vulnerable to a serious loss of momentum. Will the fans elsewhere embrace it with Dhaka’s mesmeric, untainted enthusiasm? Can the Bangladesh team keep that enthusiasm burning? Can the Canada v Kenya match-up enthuse the people of Delhi sufficiently to ensure a 48,000 sell-out in March?

As Aristotle used to say, “The potato is out of the oven, but only the fork will tell us if it is cooked.” Admittedly, he used to say this when he was very old, a little confused, and living in a home for retired philosophers, and no one really knows what he was talking about (particularly as potatoes were unheard of in Europe at that time, even to a brainbox like Aristotle). They just used to pat him on his clever head and tell him he was right. But let us hope that by April, the jubilant fervour of Dhaka is not merely a hazy memory of what might have been for the World Cup and for cricket.

EXTRAS

Every time I go to see India play a World Cup match, someone scores exactly 175. At between 125 and 127 runs per 100 balls. It is starting to become tedious. First Kapil Dev spanks a century-and-three-quarters off 138 balls at Tunbridge Wells in 1983, now Sehwag plonks the same score off 140 deliveries in Mirpur in 2011. When will it end? They will be queuing up to bat against England in Bangalore.

I wrote in a recent blog about that legendary 1983 match, and being too scared to ask for Sunil Gavaskar’s autograph. Yesterday, 28 years later, my Cricinfo editor introduced me to him, and the great opener rectified that regretful outbreak of boyhood cowardice. It felt a bit odd asking for an autograph as a 36-year-old, but given that in essence it was merely the completion of a request that began internally when I was eight, so it’s fine.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer