March 31, 2011

Bad Pakistan triumph over Good Pakistan

The most-watched cricket match in the history of the known universe prompted probably the biggest single celebration of a victory in terms of the total number of people shouting “yippee” (or variants thereof) that sport has ever generated.

The most-watched cricket match in the history of the known universe prompted probably the biggest single celebration of a victory in terms of the total number of people shouting “yippee” (or variants thereof) that sport has ever generated.

The cricket did not match up to the pre-match hype. This was inevitable. The only way it could have done so was if Virender Sehwag had scored a 25-ball century, Sachin Tendulkar had posted his 100th India 100 before being carried away into the skies in a flaming chariot, Kamran Akmal had taken a series of sensational one- and no-handed catches, Asad Shafiq had run into a phone-box, whizzed round at high speed and emerged as an at-his-peak Garfield Sobers in a superman outfit with a Pakistan passport in hand, hammered his team to the brink of victory, before Virat Kohli came steaming in like Dennis Lillee’s pet wildebeest and obliterated the Pakistan tail with a blood-curdling barrage of 100mph yorkers, bouncers and googlies, before with four needed off the last ball Saeed Ajmal danced down the wicket to Zaheer Khan and reverse-cover-drove him off one knee in the air towards a diving Ashish Nehra on the boundary who caught the ball in the tips of his fingers to prevent it going for 6 before a passing kestrel pecked it out of his hands and dropped it on the ground in front of Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani who then ceremonially tied their feet together and jointly kicked it over the boundary rope for the tying runs, before saying “No-one deserves to lose this match,” then holding hands and launching into a rousing rendition of ‘Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong’ while the Mohali crowd harmoniously crooned backing vocals and all cuddled effigies of Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Regrettably for cricket as a sport, the TV companies and above all the poor old sponsors, this did not happen. What did happen was a game that, for the neutral, was compelling for a long while, but ultimately a little unsatisfying.

In the Pakistan v Pakistan match that is so often a feature of Pakistan matches, Bad Pakistan’s recurring inadequacies with the bat and in the field proved decisive, aided by a one-off shocker by their previously outstanding strike bowler.

Their two most experienced batsmen, Younus and Misbah, showed that in limited-overs cricket there can be a fine line between “wise old heads” and “doddery old codgers”, combining in a pensionable display of peak-time passivity that harvested just 24 runs from the first 65 balls they faced. This ratcheted up the pressure on their younger team-mates Shafiq and Umar Akmal, who promptly perished trying to force the pace.

Bad Pakistan’s fielders jumped on the bandwagon of friendly co-operation between the nations with a consummate object lesson in the art of dropping catches. They dropped difficult ones, they dropped easy ones. No blade of grass at the PCA was safe from a surprised ball thudding onto it from a fielder’s hands, muttering “I did not expect to end up here.”

Personally, as a cricketer who himself has shelled dollies other fielders would not even have considered were droppable, I could only sit back and applaud. The greats of sport save their best for the biggest stage, and Bad Pakistan again proved themselves among the greatest catch-droppers ever to have adorned the annals of the great game.

Bad Pakistan thus comfortably defeated another excellent display of spin-strangulation by Good Pakistan and their unexpected hero Wahab Riaz, who rumours suggest may have accidentally knocked himself out after dreaming he was a golf club and trying to drive a coconut 300 yards with his head, then waking up thinking he was Wasim Akram and scything down four of India’s top six. Some Pakistan v Pakistan clashes are timeless classics. This one was ultimately a little one-sided and predictable.

India, without being as impressive as in their outstanding quarter-final with Australia, again showed the resolve and calmness of potential champions. Their batting was patchy, two ultimately crucial cameos by Sehwag, brilliantly, and Raina, with cool determination, bookending Tendulkar’s fascinating struggle, which mixed tenacity, lashings of generously donated luck, and isolated outbreaks of his trademark strokemaking genius.

In the field, where they had been rather flaccid in the group stage, they were again focused and determined. Their bowling had seemed a major and potentially costly vulnerability early in the tournament, has been excellent in the knock-out games. Nehra and Munaf, who since the latter’s 4-48 in the opening match against Bangladesh had jointly taken 4 for 264 in 40 overs in matches against Test opposition, took 4 for 73 in 20 overs of probing discipline.

Thus Mohali, and the rest of India, could celebrate the twin joys of (A) India beating Pakistan, and (B) India not losing to Pakistan. Both of which seemed equally important to the supporters. Joy C – potentially winning the World Cup for the first time in 28 years did not seem particularly high on the fans’ celebration priority list. One even said to me: “I don’t care what happens in the final, this was the only game that mattered.” Which was both wrong and silly.

I will write tomorrow on the experience of attending this uberhyped clash of fierce sporting rivals, a momentous contest with a place in a World Cup final at stake. Was it (A) Unforgettable sporting theatre played out in a febrile atmosphere of tension and excitement; or (B) an 8-hour onslaught of decibel-loaded, jingle-spewing, atmosphere shattering noise pollution from the stadium PA system? Or (C) Both? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

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