Monday, July 15, 2013

A tale of two wickies - Dhoni and Haddin

Last week I saw two heroic wicket-keepers. One of them pulled off an astonishing win with 15 to get off the last over of an ODI, and the other one brought his team to within 15 runs of what would have been a fantastic victory on the fifth day of a Test match. Both had only Number 11 for company.

MS Dhoni does it time and again, almost on cue, and yet it never ceases to amaze you. India and Sri Lanka can't quite match an Ashes rivalry, but they have been the dominant ODI sides on slow wickets for some time now. They met in the World Cup final and this time it was the final of the triseries in the West Indies on a Port of Spain pitch more sluggish than the one at the Wankhede.

India had a very modest 202 to chase but the target kept receding as the ball got older and softer. When the ninth wicket fell in the 47th over with 20 more to get, you wondered if Dhoni could do his Houdini act yet again. The odds kept getting longer as last man Ishant Sharma could barely survive, let alone rotate the strike, and Dhoni was literally hamstrung too, as his muscle strain had not recovered fully when he decided to play the final.

Only five runs came in 16 balls after the fall of the ninth wicket, as Dhoni played out Lasith Malinga's last over to protect Ishant Sharma, who then poked and prodded his way through the Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews' last over. That left Dhoni with 15 to score in the final over by newcomer Eranga, who could bowl at a fair clip but had never been in such a situation.

The Eranga over was always going to be the make or break one for Dhoni, and he called for his tree-trunks of bats to be brought out. He went through his ominous routine of taking a few swings with two bats in hand, then flexed his muscles and settled at the crease for the final over.

The wise heads in the Sri Lankan camp meanwhile counselled the anxious Eranga. He was probably advised to keep it full and wide, in order to stay out of range of Dhoni's helicopter. The first ball was perfect, just inside the guide line for a wide, and Dhoni's arms nearly came off their sockets as he took an almighty swipe and missed. The next ball was a little straighter and a tad shorter, which was enough for it to go sailing over long off for a six and a half. The third ball was short and wide for variety, and it got smashed to the point boundary. The fourth one was on a length and Dhoni connected with a slash through extra cover for a flat six. QED.

Brad Haddin of Australia had a far more intricate problem on the final day of the first Test of the Mega Ashes. Jimmy Anderson was unstoppable in the morning as he picked up the seventh, eighth and ninth Aussie wickets with balls that pitched in line and jagged away. The England captain had taken the new ball and it nearly did the job of finishing the match off quickly.

But then, Australia have had this thing with eleventh men in this Test match. It was 19-year-old debutante Ashton Agar who turned the match around in the first innings. This time it was the turn of James Pattinson to prove he was no number 11, after Ashton had been promoted in the batting order.

Batting got easier too as the ball got older and Anderson hobbled off with what looked like a groin strain, but was in fact a cramp, if the English camp is to be believed. In any case, Haddin and Pattinson had no trouble handling Finn and Broad and even the off-spinner Graeme Swann, who had been projected as the Aussies' nemesis. They were sensible in their approach, leaving or defending the good balls, and having a go whenever the bowler strayed into their zone of hitting. Slowly but surely, they whittled the target down from 80 when the ninth wicket fell, to just 20 at lunch.

Anderson took the ball after lunch, England's last throw of the dice. He was steady and did get a hint of reverse swing, but hardly looked the threat he was in the morning. But this is where the game starts getting played in the mind more than in real terms. Until now, Haddin and Pattinson had had nothing to lose, because the Aussies had virtually no hope when they were nine down. With only 20 to get, and a lunch break to ponder over it, the game took on a different avatar.

The plan should have been to keep going as they had done before lunch, happy to stay at the wicket and wait for the bowlers to come into their zone. Anderson especially, England's main weapon, had to be left alone; the runs could be got from the other end.

Admittedly, it's an unfair comparison between an ODI and a Test, but you couldn't help thinking how Haddin wasn't quite a Dhoni once the finishing line was in sight. The Indian keeper was ice cool in sticking to his gameplan, refusing to take any liberties with Malinga, even as the asking rate climbed almost out of reach. Haddin, on the other hand, could not resist poking at an Anderson ball wide outside off-stump, from which he could have got a single at best. His strength is on the on side, not playing away from the body on the off. The price he paid for a wrong choice of a ball to score off was heavy. The inside edge was picked up by both stump microphone and Hotspot and it was all over.

In the end, they were both heroes, Dhoni and Haddin. And all forms of cricket are alive and well, thank you.

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