ODI cricket is losing its relevance? The Asia Cup is an unglamorous appendage shoe-horned mindlessly into a packed calendar? Try explaining that to the teeming thousands who turned up at the throbbing and heaving Sher-e-Bangla Stadium to root for their side in the finals. For the record, Bangladesh lost their nerve after getting tragically close, in the process conceding the title to Pakistan by a two-run margin. But only a harsh judge would quibble about the final result at a juncture so momentous in a cricketing nation’s history. After 12 years of being also-rans, Bangladesh finally came of age in the Asia Cup. And it was no flash in the pan performance either – they were easily the most consistent side in the event and, perhaps, with a sprinkling of big-match temperament, would have taken the big prize as well.
Shakib Al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal showed their class right through, but the real heroes for Bangladesh were the lesser names that put up their hands at various stages. Nasir Hossain, Nazmul Hossain and Nazimuddin showed that Bangladesh are finally ready to play as a team and that’s a victory in itself. India, who allowed their obsession for a mindless milestone hamper their chances of winning a match, will perhaps be the last team to ever under-estimate Bangladesh’s menacing abilities in the ODI format. Sri Lanka have plenty to think about after a depressing season, their woes exacerbated by a cash-strapped board that doesn’t pay salaries. Pakistan have reason to smile, finishing with the silverware in an ODI event after drawing blanks in similar conditions against England. But the biggest gain to cricket itself is the heart and spirit shown by the home team and the support the tournament received from an adoring public. Bangladesh – the team and the people – have finally arrived. And how!
When Sachin Tendulkar made his debut in 1989, Brian Lara was an unknown name outside Trinidad. Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan were still learning the tricks of tweak in domestic cricket. Ricky Ponting and Rahul Dravid wouldn’t emerge for another six years, and Adam Gilchrist not for another 10. Jacques Kallis didn’t even have a team to play for, since South Africa were still in the Apartheid era. Tendulkar was a legend by the time each of these men made their names. He’s outlasted almost all of them, and as a batsman, racked up numbers out of any of their reaches. And these are the immortals of modern cricket that we are talking of!
On 16th March 2012, when Tendulkar turned Shakib Al Hasan to the leg side and ambled across for a single, an entire nation breathed a sigh of palpable relief. For more than a year, the quest for the 100th 100 had hindered Tendulkar’s batting, and to an extent the spirit of India’s cricket itself as World Cup euphoria fizzled out in a series of disasters in England and Australia. Not that he needed a unique calling card to reaffirm his unmatched greatness, but Tendulkar now has one that will stand for everything he has accomplished. Every cricketing legend has one such catchphrase/number that defines the essence of their cricket – objective in some cases like Bradman (99.94) and Muralitharan (800), but purely subjective for others like Shane Warne (Ball of the Century) and Dravid (The Wall).
Tendulkar’s calling card will always be ‘100 100s’ – the unattainable Everest of batting brilliance. No one is ever going to come close to the heights he has scaled. Ricky Ponting once threatened to finish with more, but with his career drawing to a close, he is still 29 centuries away from a 100. No one else has even 60 – Kallis is third with 59, and Lara ended with barely half the number – 53.
How tragic then, that the 100th 100 came in a match that was a microcosm of the burden Tendulkar has carried through his career. Against the weakest Test playing team, on a flat track, India’s bowlers fell short of defending a strong score, but one that could have admittedly been stronger if not for Tendulkar’s cautious batting. Tendulkar scored a century, yet India lost – a lot has changed since Tendulkar made his debut, but some things have stayed the same.
The Delhi duo at the top of the Indian batting line-up is now a triumvirate. Trium-Virat to be precise! Virender Sehwag’s controversial exclusion from the Indian side garnered most of the headlines in the lead-up to the Asia Cup, coming in the background of the disastrous tour down under. Certain sections of the media played up rumours of a rift within the broken Indian team, with Virat Kohli’s elevation to the role of vice-captain ahead of Gautam Gambhir allegedly leading to friction between the two.
If there was a rift it didn’t show in Mirpur as Gambhir and Kohli waded into their favourite bowling attack yet again. The same pair had set up the platform for MS Dhoni in the World Cup final last year, and had reaffirmed their love for the Lankan attack during the scintillating Hobart chase during the CB series. Their centuries today – tenth career tons for both Kohli and Gambhir – and 205-run stand extended their aggregate against Sri Lanka to a whopping 873 runs, second only to the legendary pairing of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. Riding on their platform, MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina unleashed hell in the last 10 overs to launch India past 300.
The return to subcontinental conditions was always going to help the Indian batsmen find their feet, but it was also going to expose their limited bowling resources. Mahela Jayawardene systematically set about dismantling them as Praveen Kumar and Irfan Pathan suffered for their lack of pace. Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara put Sri Lanka in control after Tillakaratne Dilshan’s early wicket. Jayawardene’s fluid wrists proceeded to find gaps in the outfield that the Indian bowlers never knew existed!
Irfan’s ability to generate movement got India the vital break, when Jayawardene edged an away-swinger to MS Dhoni. Thereafter, R Ashwin took charge with his assortment of offspinners, carom balls and armers, slicing through the middle order to revive India. Irfan and Vinay Kumar closed out the game easily as India surged to a 50-run win, their Australian worries forgotten for the moment. Can they sustain the resurgence through to the end of the Asia Cup?