I had no idea of what I was setting myself up for when I accepted an offer from some friends to travel to South Africa for the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 2007 and write for the website they were managing. A votary of the conventional cricket, there was some skepticism at the back of my mind when I allowed myself to be talked into the assignment.
A journalist friend of mine from Bangladesh, asked me what I would do at T20. It is for P3 reporters, he taunted. But I had made my commitment to watch the cricket for whatever it was worth and enjoy the opportunity of watching the game. Perhaps, pegging expectations low helped and I have a feast that I am unlikely to forget in a hurry.
Two weeks after the first ball was bowled, I was at the Wanderers, soaking in the excitement of covering the final between India and Pakistan. Had someone told me a fortnight earlier that the sub-contintental neigbours would be playing for the $490,000 top prize, I would have laughed it off as wishful thinking. But two amazing weeks changed all that.
My experience over the fortnight made me believe that game is for the smart cricketer, the fan in a hurry and the young journalist who can find new ways to describe the whole range of emotions that players and fans alike go through in the span of three hours at each match.
I had not even settled down in the press box at the Kingsmead Cricket Ground in Durban when New Zealand pace bowlers Shane Bond and Mark Gillespie claimed four Kenya wickets for one run in the first two overs. The excitement hadn’t stopped flowing.
There were so many wonderful memories even before the final. A tie in the India-Pakistan league game and then the bowl out that saw India win 3-0. Indian left-hander Yuvraj Singh’s six sixes off England pace bowler Stuart Broad, Australian paceman Brett Lee’s hat-trick, Pakistan leg-spinner Shahid Afridi’s nagging accuracy. Some stunning games tested my nerve, too.
I had never imagined that I would be at a T20 final and one featuring India and Pakistan at that! The Wanderers provided a great atmosphere, thousands of Asians filling in what they call the Bull Ring, waving flags of the two nations and inspiring the DJ on location to play music from the sub-continent. There really was no time to do anything but keep eyes on the ball during the thrill-a-minute contest that advertised the beauty of T20 cricket.
I have been to Test matches and one-day internationals featuring the two teams in India and Pakistan and in one-day games in places like Sharjah, Colombo and Old Trafford and Southampton in England and Adelaide in Australia. And have felt the needle, becoming an unwilling party of the hype that surrounds such matches. Happily, that needle has been absent – or so I believed.
I have had goose pimples at cricket grounds many times but never like I did when the teams had lined up for the national anthems of the two countries at the Wanderers. Jana Gana Mana and then Pakistan’s Pak Sarzamin resounded at the stadium. It was only in Adelaide and Melbourne earlier this year that I had an even greater experience.
There was no time to chew finger-nails or even think of thumping hearts as India’s bowlers dug deep in their self-belief in successfully defending its low total of 157 for five to lay its hands on the ICC World Twenty20 crown with an emotional six-run victory over Pakistan at the magnificent Wanders.
There could not have been a more hard-fought contest than this one, with there being many heroes again, the team being the biggest. Gautam Gambhir (75) and Rohit Sharma (30 not out) managed the Indian innings at either end of the 20 overs and helped India to 157. Rudra Pratap Singh and man of the match Irfan Pathan took three wickets each to keep India in the hunt.
Pakistan had its stellar performers too. Umar Gul led the bowling as Pakistan kept India’s batsmen in check, the two spinners Mohammed Hafeez and man of the series Shahid Afridi were instrumental in applying the brakes in second quarter of the Indian innings. And when it batted, opener Imran Nazir (33) and Misbah-ul-Haq (43) kept their chins up.
The strapping Umar Gul strode the magnificent stage like a colossus, denying India’s stroke players the chance of breaking free and put Pakistan on top. He came up with a figures of three for 28 in four overs to finish the tournament as its leading wicket-taker with 14 scalps.
On a sluggish track, Gul bent his back to extract disconcerting bounce. Known primarily as a swing bowler, he shouldered the responsibility of marshalling the bowling at the death by landing the ball in the right areas and prised out the wickets of Yuvraj Singh (14), Mahendra Singh Dhoni (6) and Gambhir (75) in his final three overs.
The Pakistan spinners Mohammed Hafeez and Shahid Afridi stifled India in the second block of five overs. They conceded just 29 runs as India crawled from 40 for one in five overs to 69 for two. It would be been fewer had the two left-handers Gambir and Yuvraj Singh not pinched 11 runs from Afridi’s third over. But the spinners had set the stage for Gul to stamp his
After Gul got one to rise more than Yuvraj Singh expected. The Indian left-hander, who had been quiet at the start in the hope of being able to hit out later, attempted a pull but could only top-edge the ball. Gul got under the skyer and inspired Pakistan to tighten the grip by getting rid of India’s top gun.
He followed it with Dhoni’s wicket in his next over, bouncing a couple of short pitched deliveries at the Indian captain and followed up with a yorker at 140kmph. Dhoni was unable to get between ball and wicket. Gambhir followed in Gul’s next over, attempting a paddle off a slow yorker but only offering short fine leg a sharp chance.
Gambhir, of course, played a lone hand for India, scoring his 75 runs off 54 balls (eight fours, two sixes) and showing character. With Virender Sehwag not recovering from his hamstring strain suffered during the semifinal against Australia, the onus was on the left-handed opener to ensure that India would not lose too many wickets upfront to Mohammed Asif.
Had it not been for an enterprising 30 by Rohit Sharma – showcasing the never-say-die approach that carried India so far – India would have finished with a score lower than it finished with. Even then, India never found the momentum after the two spinners had applied the brakes in that second lot of five overs and ended up with 16 runs fewer than the average first innings score at the venue.
India’s two left-arm seamers made the difference between winning and losing, when the bowlers were left the task of defending 157. With Mahendra Singh Dhoni leading the team with a calm and assured head, the team embraced the never-say-die spirit to keep Pakistan at bay, especially after Nazir gave the chase a fantastic start with 21 runs off S Sreesanth’s first over
Pathan finished with three for 16 – a perfect response to Gul’s figures of three for 28. He claimed the wickets of Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi in an over to swing the game India’s way until Misbah-ul-Haq waded into Harbhajan Singh by hitting the off-spinner for three sixes in an over. The faster bowlers returned to stop the Pakistanis in their track.
With Sohail Tanvir also claiming two sixes of Sreesanth, Pakistan was in the chase but the fast bowler claimed his revenge and then bowling the final over, Joginder Sharma got Misbah-ul-Haq to play the lap shot to the man at short fine leg to complete an amazing win and cap a tournament in which the Indians died several deaths but refused to give in.
And as the DJ played the title track from Chak de! India, there was not a dry eye in the stadium. The Pakistani fans were in tears that Misbah-ul-Haq took the side so close and could not seal the win. The Indians could not control their emotions any longer and let the tears flow. Some tried to sing along and realized their voices were choked.