Saturday, April 02, 2011
Of Gods and Men By M J Akbar Byword - India Today April 1, 2011 The first hint that divinity was involved in the battle of Mohali came when India won the toss. Till then, there were two opinions on the outcome. The rational analysis (which means, of course, only the British commentators) suggested that things seemed even: India can't bowl, Pakistan can't bat, and both can't field, so clearly a great match was in prospect. The sentimental view backed India. The true connoisseurs of cricket, the bookies, agreed: bookies earn international respect because they are the only ones who put their money where their mouth is. The players were professional enough to internalise their tensions as the ultimate test of nerves began; the stiffest upper lips at 2.30 p.m. were those of Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Geelani. Within less than an hour of play, during the 11th over to be precise, there came conclusive evidence that a story circulating through the SMS sprawl was in fact true. Apparently, when Pakistan began to plan for the Mohali encounter with India, their captain Shahid Afridi sent up a fervent prayer to god for divine help against India. God was sympathetic, but pointed out that this was impossible, since he, after all, was opening the batting for India. Maybe Afridi does not know India enough to understand the extent to which Sachin Tendulkar is treated as a god in India. Anyone human would have certainly been out in the 11th over: the finger went up for an LBW the first time, only to be reversed by the camera; and when, immediately after, Pakistan celebrated a stumping, the Great Camera in the Sky proved that a thin part of a Sachin toe, invisible to human eye, was on turf. Then, as if to confirm that destiny can be a tease, Pakistan dropped Sachin twice. Even the experienced and beady-eyed Yunus Khan dropped a dolly. By the time he reached 82, Sachin had been dropped four times, one chance easier than the other. I stopped counting after Pakistan dropped its sixth catch of the day. There is no earthly explanation for such phenomena; this was the handiwork of He Who Controls the Stars. Pakistan's brilliant bowlers, led by a superb Wahab Riaz, had our much-vaunted batsmen in turmoil:each time they took a wicket, there was national silence in India and doubtless a roar in Pakistan that shook Afghanistan awake. But Riaz had to deal not only with Indian opponents but also a powerful fifth column within his side. If Pakistan had been informed by their coach that cricket is a game in which you also have to take catches and stop the ball from reaching the boundary, India could have been out for around a 100 runs, the match over before sunset, and the Singh-Geelani summit held in the calm after the storm. But Sachin survived to score onethird of the total, even though on this day this god seemed to have lost faith in himself. A hundredth century was technically, only 15 runs away; and yet Sachin never seemed as distant from a century. Perhaps he got out because somewhere deep inside he felt that he did not deserve one on Wednesday. Never has Sachin scored so many runs in such misery. Misery is infectious. The great Indian batting stars looked far happier in the ads that challenged cricket on television screens than on the field. My lasting memory of Mohali will not be that of victory or defeat. In any case there will be controversy: why, for instance, did Afridi not take the powerplay when he was batting. I wanted India to win, and desperately: let me confess that I could not bear to turn up the volume of the TV in my office until Pakistan were four wickets down. When Shahid Afridi holed out trying to send Harbhajan to Lahore, the volume went up sharply. The abiding memory, however, will be the rediscovery of a god who was, on the day it mattered, only human; of a genius who played and missed, who changed his bat but could not improve his timing, and yet displayed in flashes the incomparable strokeplay that makes us bow before the immortal. This does not reduce my admiration for Sachin; if anything, it increases the awe, for you can get blase about the perfection of a god. It is only when a god slips that you recognise how difficult it has been to reach that pinnacle, and then to glory in it for two decades. The ascent of man is, after all, so much more fascinating than the descent of a god.