Bright Trinidad eye a golden future
Long before this tournament started, most people knew that the seedings would count for little. Trying to predict who would make it out of the two group stages and into the last four was a bit like asking Messrs Armstrong and Aldrin what they expected to find before they took those giant leaps on behalf of mankind. In every sense, this Champions League was a step into the unknown - for the organisers, the players and especially the fans.
Conventional wisdom, seldom very wise, suggested that the three IPL sides and New South Wales would progress to the business end of the tournament, where there were millions to be gained and lost. As for Trinidad and Tobago, they were expected to enjoy the experience for a week and then head home, along with other "minnows" like Wayamba, the Diamond Eagles and the Otago Volts.
Cricket, though, is a game of delicious ironies. Back when West Indies cricket was at its all-conquering peak, Trinidad and Tobago were largely onlookers. Deryck Murray was part of the picture as Clive Lloyd's men began the ascent to the summit, while Larry Gomes and Augustine Logie were vital cogs during the decade of dominance. But in a team that could boast of Richards, Lloyd, Greenidge, Haynes, Dujon and a whole flotilla of world-beating fast bowlers, they were hardly marquee names. The one who should have become one, Ian Raphael Bishop, found his career cruelly cut short by a succession of back injuries.
By the time Brian Lara started obliterating batting records, the empire was in decline. Now, it's at its lowest ebb, with a squad comprising promising talents and mediocre has-beens doing duty at the recent Champions Trophy. In that time, Trinidad's stock has risen slowly, with victories in both four-day cricket and the slap-bang-wallop version of the game. Having once looked in from the outside, the tiny islands off South America now find themselves at the forefront of what many desperately hope will be a Caribbean cricket renaissance.
Make no mistake, world cricket needs a vibrant West Indies side. The spirit that the game's leading practitioners from the region brought to the game was unrivalled, the buzz unmatched. Whether you were a young teen watching from a makeshift stand at the University Stadium in Trivandrum or a larrikin viewing the game from Bay 13, there was eager anticipation the moment those magnificent men in maroon caps walked on to the field. Nine times out of 10, they annihilated your team, but in another sense they were "our" team, the players that we dreamt of emulating in parks and playgrounds across the world. Who didn't want to bat like Richards, or bowl like Holding?
On Thursday night, when Kieron Pollard took his catch that never was, you were reminded of CLR James and the descriptions of Learie Constantine from the 1930s. As tall as Usain Bolt and built along the lines of a decathlete, Pollard seems out of place on a cricket field. And while he doesn't bowl anything like as quickly as Constantine is said to have done, there's something about the way he thwacks the ball and the ease with which he covers ground while fielding that makes it easy to establish a connection with the cavaliers of a bygone era.
Those that don't consider Twenty20 a proper sport will consider it sacrilege, but a Trinidad victory on Friday night has the potential to be as significant as another success on Indian soil 22 years ago. Back then, Allan Border's Australians were no-hopers, but victory over England at the Eden Gardens proved to be the catalyst for a period of consolidation and hegemony that lasted two decades. The main difference between that team and this Trinidadian one was in the leadership. Border was a legend of the game who preferred to let his bat express his emotions, while Daren Ganga is a middle-of-the-road player who has managed to rouse his wards to superhuman feats while charming everyone with articulate and forthright views.
Ranged against him is Simon Katich, who would be a worthy captain for the national side if Ricky Ponting ever lost his appetite for the job. Unlike Ganga, Katich has had grizzled veterans to work with, but there have been touches of genius in the way he's arranged his pieces on the board. Both on slow pitches in Delhi and the bouncier ones in Hyderabad, New South Wales have been a notch above their opposition, except for the five-over Pollard whirlwind that clinched a game last week.
It's that unpredictability that gives Trinidad and Tobago hope. Whether it's William Perkins scooping a fast bowler to fine leg or Adrian Barath lofting one nonchalantly over extra-cover for six, they have a penchant for propelling the ball into what a rueful Andrew Puttick, the Cape Cobras captain, called "strange areas". "I have a sneaking suspicion that Trinidad and Tobago will take it," he said. "They have a little bit of an X-factor about them."
That sprinkling of stardust will be tested to the limit by a New South Wales attack in which Brett Lee has been peerless. Throw in Moises Henriques' happy knack of taking crucial wickets, Stuart Clark's parsimony and Nathan Hauritz's ability to turn new ball and old, and it's easy to see why they've come this far largely untroubled.
Not that Ganga's batsmen are the only ones with a license to thrill. Even if you get past David Warner and Phillip Hughes at the top of the order, there's a terrific middle order led by Katich to negotiate. And if the ruthless demolition of the Bushrangers was any guide, the big stage won't faze them either.
New South Wales, with apologies to Mumbai, Yorkshire and Barbados, are the most formidable side in the history of domestic cricket, having won the Shield 17 times before Sir Donald Bradman had even made his debut. No matter what happens in the inaugural Champions League final, that fact won't change. For Trinidad, always in the shadow of Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica, Friday is the day to target Goliath with stones and slingshot. Having already felled him once, they know it can be done.
If they can hold their nerve for three hours, a potentially golden future lies beyond the boundary. The Blues will scoff at the idea, but perhaps Trinidad needs this more. "We give our heart and soul," said Ganga. "For the 1.3 million watching at home and the 5 million across the Caribbean whose hopes rest on our team."
It's a burden that they've worn lightly so far.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo