As any loyal fan of Indian cricket would agree, we have our fair share of biases and perceptions. That is why we love to see our favorite players win and hate it when they are beaten by anybody. And as any sports fan would agree, many of these perceptions change over time, mainly due to a renewed perspective and some rather heart-warming incident on or off the field.
I was a fan of Tennis before I became a Cricket fan. My idol growing up used to be Boris Becker. Steffi Graf was soon added to my list of idols thanks to her outstanding play. As a result whenever Becker or Graf played a match I never supported their opponents and if my favorites happened to lose, I was never sporting enough to admit that they were beaten by a better player. Two players who often got the better of Becker were Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. And I never liked them for it. But as a few years went by and each established his status as a world-class player I became more appreciative of what they had achieved and I even became quite big fans of them.
In cricket too the tale was similar, with my perceptions changing about three different entities. The first of these was the former Pakistani captain Inzamam-ul-Haq. India and Pakistan being traditional rivals in cricket, I never really saw why Pakistan (and Imran Khan in particular) kept talking of Inzamam as one of the best batsmen in the world. Apart from some very good performances in the 1992 World Cup, he never seemed like a player in the same league as Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar. He relied so much on his skill with the bat that he tended to ignore the other attributes of a batsman, like running between the wickets. This insouciance endeared him to many, but it often made him a comical figure on the field, responsible for running out himself or his partners several times. Added to this was the fact that prior to 2000 he had very few “big” innings in tests and ODIs, and he had a disastrous showing in the 2003 World Cup with just 16 runs – tragic for a person talked of once as Pakistan’s answer to Tendulkar or Lara.
What changed my view of Inzamam was the series where India visited Pakistan in 2004. In the very first ODI match India piled a mammoth 349 for 7 and Pakistan seemed totally out of the contest for a long time, crawling to 77 for 2 in 16 overs, with Inzamam at 15. Though Pakistan began counterattacking, the run-rate kept spiraling up. By the thirty fifth over the asking rate went past 9 per over. And then Inzamam happened. Without ever giving the impression of slogging, he unfurled his full repertoire of strokes and rapidly changed the complexion of the game. Swing, yorker, full-toss and spin were all treated with utter nonchalance as the asking rate of 9 now just needed to be sustained for a few more overs – a much easier task than doing it for a full 15 overs. Indian captain Sourav Ganguly was feeling the heat as nothing he tried seemed to work. As luck would have it, an exceptional catch by Rahul Dravid was what it took to terminate an exceptional innings. Inzamam was given a rousing ovation as he returned to the pavilion, but with his dismissal India managed to close out the match. For the first time I felt that had Pakistan won the match I wouldn’t have grudged them their victory. And it didn’t feel like blasphemy.
I got to see a lot more of Inzamam in the next few years, really liking what I observed. He seemed to have mastered the art of absorbing pressure during the chases in high-scoring ODIs, never letting the required run rate bother him. He advocated the philosophy that if you kept playing steadily, cutting out undue risks and dealing in singles and occasional boundaries, you will reach a situation where you will have enough wickets in hand and the run rate will not look so daunting after all. From that point you can make extremely successful launches for victory. This worked quite well for him, often at India’s expense.
The second case where I started feeling differently was with the English cricket team. Traditionally England always seemed like a bunch of whiners, complaining at the first opportunity about having to play in the Indian sub-continent. They always seemed to have issues adjusting to extraneous factors like heat, food and lack of night-life, but instead masked their inability by blaming the purported issues with security. Eventually England would field below-strength teams for touring India, that too more as an act of kowtowing to India’s financial might in the game rather than actually having an interest in doing the tours.
Then came the terror attack in Mumbai in November 2008, engineered by Pakistan-based terror groups. Terror attacks anywhere have major repercussions on the ability of life to function as normal. It was a really gloomy time in India and cricket was the last thing on people’s minds. At this juncture the English team chose not to abandon their tour of the country and came over for a two test series. The only change was that understandably instead of Mumbai the first match was moved to Chennai. The fact that the first match was a cracker is besides the point. England proved themselves to be winners simply by turning up to play when citing reasons of security would not only have been excused, but would have actually been thought desirable.
This single act made me a major fan of the English cricket team and ever since, I have supported them in any contest not featuring India. Over the last two years the ECB has done a lot of good karma. They agreed to host a test series between Pakistan and Australia as being a “home series” for Pakistan at a time when no international cricket matches can be scheduled in Pakistan. The concept of karma is indeed working out very well for them as their team has been extremely successful in all forms of cricket for a while now. Here’s wishing them very well for the upcoming Ashes!
The last cricketer to have changed my perceptions actually did so as recently as last month – Ricky Ponting. Truth be told, Ponting has been another player about whom the hype I felt has been unjustified. He has been found out by good fast bowling (Andrew Flintoff in the Ashes and Ishant Sharma quite regularly being two bowlers that spring to mind) as well as good spin (Harbhajan Singh having marked him as his “bunny”) and he doesn’t seem to be doing very well in the captaincy department after the mass exodus of his team’s stalwarts (Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist). I had also thought of him as being perennially arrogant, a rather poor sport and a very sore loser.
But in the recently concluded series against India I saw a new side of Ponting. He marshaled an inexperienced team fairly well and gave the matches everything he could. He was also seen congratulating the Indian players for their victory, not just by shaking their hands as a gesture of formality, but by actually smiling at them and talking with them with an arm around their shoulders. And what I found most disarming was his thanking of the Bangalore crowd for their sporting behavior, though the crowd had been quite a disgrace when it ca
me to the Australian innings, even booing Ponting himself when he walked out to bat.
In my book, in cricketing terms Ponting will never be as good as Lara or Tendulkar, his 2 world cup victories as captain of the Australian team notwithstanding. A world cup victory is a measure of good teamwork and brilliance from quite a few members of the team. Rarely has a single individual been instrumental in taking a team through the league matches and the knockouts right to the prize. That is why a genius such as Lara only once managed to take his team to the World Cup semi-finals (in 1996, against Australia), when the rot in the WI team had set in. In four other attempts (1992, 1999, 2003 and 2007) WI failed to pass the league stages. Of course, Lara in one-day internationals (ODIs) was a very different player from Lara in test matches, where he was absolutely brilliant. Ditto for Tendulkar, whose exploits succeeded in getting India to the semi-finals in 1996 and the finals in 2003, but India got blanked out on both those occasions, in 1996 due to incompetence and in 2003 due to an utterly dominant Australia.
In general Ponting’s form has tracked the same trajectory as Australia’s – he has been dominant with Australia at the top, and quite a disaster otherwise. That would explain why a few years ago he seemed all set to overtake Tendulkar in both, the total number of runs scored in tests and the total number of centuries. However, with the decline in his team’s overall fortunes both these records seem safe with Tendulkar for the next few years at least.
But back to the story, it is his recent behavior that has made me warm up to him. So much so that in a recent discussion after ESPN’s All-Time XI, I actually had Ponting in my all-time XI for ODIs, picking him to replace Lara because of his superior performance. Mind you, though, the ESPN XI dealt with the test teams only, while the ODI team was something my friend and I were dabbling with. Given Ponting’s age, I would be surprised if he regained his peak form. However, here’s hoping he has a smooth ride to his retirement.