This was a match that nearly did not take place. Till Saturday evening there was a huge threat that the game might be a nonstarter on account of incessant rain in parts of England. This fear was reflected in the prices of tickets in the black market; what was previously quoted at GBP 500 had come down first to 350 and then offered at 250 on Saturday afternoon. But the Rain Gods chose to smile on cricket fans and showers stopped miraculously on the night before the match and Sunday dawned with a clear sky. Meteorological department informed that though it would not rain in the forenoon light showers with breeze was a possibility at around 3 pm. This reassured one that the “Mother of all matches” in the ICC World Cup 2019, the clash between India and Pakistan, would take place, though there was a distinct possibility of the game becoming a truncated one.
Old Trafford was a sea of blue by the time one reached the ground. One had expected to see a large contingent of supporters for the Pakistan side but only very few were visible (and even audible!) on the ground. Almost 90% of the spectators in the stadium had come to cheer Team India. They had come armed with drums, saxophones, whistles, flags etc, while the gentleman selling tricolour and whistles outside the business did brisk business!
It is a matter on record that India plays above their potential when they take on Pakistan in a World Cup match. Even during tournaments where Pakistan were evidently a stronger side, as was the case in 1992 and 1999, India had managed to defeat them. On the other side, Pakistan almost always manages to put on their worst performance when they find themselves pitted against India on cricket’s biggest stage. This aspect was in full evidence at Old Trafford right from the time the game commenced.
The fact that the pitch at Old Trafford is batsman friendly and loaded with runs is no secret. Hence conventional wisdom demanded that side that won the toss should bat first and try to pile up a huge score. Though many sides have been successful, of late, in chasing targets in excess of 300 runs, there is no doubt that an asking rate in excess of six runs per over brings pressure on sides batting second. Further, Met department had predicted a rain-free morning and showers in the afternoon, which would make batting second more difficult on account of likely disruptions and conditions favouring seam bowling. However, Sarfaraz Ahmed, the Pakistani captain, decided to bowl first after winning the toss, thus letting go of a proverbial gift horse that landed on his lap!
Bowling first after winning the toss places onus on the bowlers to give early breakthroughs. Pakistani bowlers not only failed to do so but were guilty of not bowling to any plan. They used the short ball liberally and on this slow wicket this was an invitation to the batsmen to play the hook or pull shot, which the Indian opening batsmen did with consummate ease. Mohammad Amir, the most impressive of Pakistani bowlers, started with a maiden over but soon got called by the umpire for running on to the pitch twice. If he had repeated the offence one more time, he would have been barred from bowling again in the match. These warnings forced him to curtail his follow-through, which, in turn, affected his rhythm, leading to a barren opening spell. It is an unpardonable sin for a fast bowler to be warned for running on to the pitch in this age, when they are assisted by a plethora of coaches and trainers on every aspect of their craft.
Another interesting aspect was that Pakistani bowlers and fielders played the match like millionaires, not bothered to the least on account of steady leakage of runs. There were few diving stops and rarely any attempt to prevent singles from being converted into twos. There was an interesting spectacle during the 37th over, when the score was in the region of 220 runs for loss of one wicket, when they employed a slip fielder, though neither Rohit Sharma nor Virat Kohli, the batsmen at the crease, had edged any ball during the previous 10 overs! There could not have been more easy ways of gifting away runs in a limited-overs’s match.
Rohit Sharma was the hero of the day for India. He has earned a reputation for being a batsman who loves to perform on the big stage and he demonstrated this skill once again by sculpting a brilliant innings of 140 runs, which came off only 113 balls. After an inside edge that streaked to the fine-leg fence in the first over that he faced, there were no false shots from his blade as he went on to destroy the Pakistani attack in a systematic manner. He guided KL Rahul to a half century while forging a 136-run opening stand, which was followed by a 98-run partnership for the second wicket with Virat Kohli. The excellent form displayed by Rohit since the beginning of the championship augurs well for the national side who are playing like a well-oiled machinery without any fuss or hiccups.
If Rohit Sharma was the cause of Pakistan’s poor performance with the ball, the cream of their batting line up was sent back to the pavilion by left-arm spin bowler Kuldeep Yadav. Chasing India’s total of 336 runs, Pakistan appeared to be on course towards launching a frontal challenge on the target when Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam added more than 100 runs of the second wicket. When Virat Kohli, usually the most reliable of all Indian fielders, dropped Fakhar off the bowling of Yuzvendra Chahal, a mild sense of panic and worry arose in the Indian camp. However, Kuldeep chose to make a strong statement at this juncture when he clean bowled a well-settled Babar with an absolute beauty. He followed this up by having Fakhar caught at short fine leg off a top-edged sweep, pushing Pakistan on to the ropes.
Skipper Kohli now went for the kill as two new batsmen were at the crease. He brought Hardik Pandya into the attack and the all-rounder justified the confidence that his captain had in him by striking twice off successive deliveries to remove Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik. This double blow was the final nail in the coffin of Pakistan from which they could not recover. The rain that came on later shortening the number of overs and redetermining the target score became only a statistical highlight as India had by then emerged as comprehensive and authoritative victor in this contest.
The most abiding memory from this match for this cricket lover was not the action on the field but the atmosphere that permeated the entire stadium once it became evident that match was in India’s bag. The few Pakistanis in the crowd had disappeared by this time. The entire stadium was celebrating with people dancing and singing and chanting slogans in praise of the national side. Drinks were in free flow and it was like one huge wedding party where everyone was in a state of extreme joy. People hugged each other to soak in and savour the lovely moments presented by the national side. The exhilarating feeling of joy and pride coursing through the body is something that would remain permanently etched in one’s memory.
Thank you, Virat Kohli and Team India for the excellent victory!
Thank you all cricket lovers who witnessed the match at Old Trafford, Manchester, for the wonderful memories you gave that one would cherish forever!