Ten years ago, I had no idea of what I was setting myself up for when I accepted an offer from Yahoo! and its associates to travel to South Africa for the inaugural ICC World Twenty20. A votary of the conventional cricket, there was some skepticism at the back of my mind and 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 in the Press Box at the Wanderers, soaking in the excitement of covering the final between India and Pakistan. Had you told me a fortnight earlier that the sub-contintental neigbours would be playing for the $490,000 top prize, I may have laughed it off as wishful thinking. But two amazing weeks changed all that.
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. India’s Jana Gana Mana and then Pakistan’s Pak Sarzamin resounded in the Bull Ring.
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 have felt the needle, becoming an unwilling party of the hype that surrounds such matches. Happily, that needle was absent in Johannesburg – or so I liked to believe.
There was no time to chew finger-nails or even think of thumping hearts as I watched India’s bowlers dig deep in their self-belief in successfully defending its low total of 157 for five to lay its hands on the crown with an emotional six-run victory. There really was no time to do anything but keep eyes on the ball during the contest that introduces us to the thrill-a-minute T20.
There could not have been a more hard-fought contest than the inaugural final, with there being many heroes. 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.
Gambhir had, played a lone hand for India, scoring his 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-hander 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.
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 returned with figures of three for 28 to finish the tournament as its leading wicket-taker with 14 scalps. On a sluggish track, Gul bent his back to extract disconcerting bounce.
Hafeez and 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 have 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 class,
Known primarily as a swing bowler, Gul 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 in his final three overs.
India’s two left-arm seamers made the difference between winning and losing, when the bowlers were left the task of defending 157. With 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
Irfan 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 tracks.
With Sohail Tanvir also striking 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 fine-leg to complete an amazing win and cap a tournament in which the Indians died several deaths but refused to give in.
I looked back at the fortnight and believed that T20 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.
There were so many wonderful memories already. 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, 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.
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 aghast 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 realised their voices were choked.