There’s a famous joke in Manchester. Whenever Sri Lanka play at Old Trafford, Manchester’s iconic cricket ground, Sri Lankan fans go up to stewards and inquire where the MuttiahMuralitharan Stand is? There’s no such stand at the ground, but it’s a reminder to the locals that the world’s highest wicket taker deserves a Stand at the ground as he mesmerised English batsmen during two seasons of County Cricket for Lancashire. Old Trafford, just a stone’s throw away from the world famous Manchester United football stadium, is the home ground of Lancashire.
Jokes apart, the Sri Lankans missed out on a semi-final berth in the ICC Cricket World Cup, with New Zealand overpowering them. The Kiwis earlier this week were playing the semi-finals in Manchester and their chances of qualifying for the final was next to nothing.
India were the tournament favourites and came into the semis with momentum behind them. New Zealand meanwhile had lost three games on the trot before the semis. India’s vice-captain Rohit Sharma had posted five hundreds in the tournament whereas the most hundreds scored by a single player across all World Cups is six. The Indian side looked invincible.
Chasing 240 to victory, India needed 24 from ten deliveries and out in the middle was the ice cool M.S. Dhoni, who had done it time and again taking his team to victory from points of no hope. Nobody reads situations of the game better than Dhoni and with him in the middle; it was India’s match. Then came the turning point of the game.
Lockie Ferguson, the New Zealand quick, whom Dhoni had flat batted for a six over cover point earlier in the over, bowled one on the leg-side and Dhoni managed to work that squared of the wicket and sensed two runs. Most batsmen would have settled for a single but this was Dhoni, the fastest runner between the wickets. More than the second run, he wanted to retain the strike with India well into their tail.
Martin Guptill, the New Zealand opening batsman had had a horrendous tournament up until that point. Just one half-century in nine innings in the World Cup and he was on the verge of getting dropped. Yet Guptill could make an impact on the field.
He sensed that Dhoni would attempt the second run the moment the ball landed on the leg-side and sprinted in from deep mid-wicket. The wicketkeeper Tom Latham too had given chase to the ball so Guptill’s options were few. He had to score a direct hit. Perhaps had Latham stayed at the stumps and Guptill returned the ball to him, Dhoni would have made it. Guptill threw down the stumps and found Dhoni one inch short. Manchester erupted. Guptill had sealed India’s fate.
Cricket shows us time and again how crucial fielding is. Former West Indian skipper Clive Lloyd, who won back to back World Cup titles once said, ‘catches win matches’. During his time, direct hits weren’t a fashion but it has gained momentum over the years and has resulted in many famous wins.
In 1998, Sri Lanka were chasing their maiden Test win in England at Kennington Oval. Alec Stewart, the England captain was fighting a lone battle and had become a thorn in the flesh. UpulChandana, perhaps the best fielder produced by the country, had come in for 12th man duty. Stewart in a bid to steal a single chanced Chandana’s arm and was run out via a direct hit. The rest as they say is history.
Sri Lanka used to set the benchmark among Asian nations when it came to fielding. The concept that some 20 runs had be saved on the field each day helped players to raise the standards and results were stunning. Sri Lanka’s fielding at the global stage was on par with that of Australia and South Africa and the likes of Roshan Mahanama, Sanath Jayasuriya and Chandana could challenge fine fielders like Jonty Rhodes and Ricky Ponting.
The current team of course has lost it completely. Drop catches and missed run outs have hurt the team badly and poor fielding is one major reason why Sri Lanka’s cricket has hit rock bottom. Various boards have tried several things to raise fielding standards but results aren’t showing. The desire to commit for fielding excellence has to come from players themselves. Hopefully they will learn from New Zealand. Single bit of excellence on the field has given them a place in the World Cup finals while the Indians are licking their wounds.
There are also other lessons too. The main one being that cricket is a great leveller. Guptill a miserable failure throughout the tournament had become an eventual hero. ViratKohli and his crew had been cut down to size. What a fascinating game this is. If only life could be like that.