Loneliness. A word normally associated with film stars at their peak, psychopaths, serial killers, STD/ISD/PCO booth owners, Indian Post Office personnel et al.  And in the world of sports, supposedly, with long distance runners.

But in a team sport like cricket? Is it possible to hear its sharp footfalls during a gripping 100-over battle like we saw today?

The lonely three

Shikhar Dhawan might agree. A fantastic Test debut was followed by a masterclass in one-day international cricket at the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013 where every step he took resonated with confidence, even greatness. And then inexplicably, there were mistakes, mediocrity and intense self doubt. The last three months in Australia seemed to have pushed him into a world of loneliness where the bat was heavier in his hand, favourite shots disappeared from his armoury, the shoulder started drooping and everyone seemed to be asking – how long will the rope be for you, mate?

Mohammad Shami would be familiar with the malaise too. Till a year ago he was touted as India’s long-awaited successor to Zaheer Khan, a swing and pace exponent who filled-in a huge gap in India’s fragile bowling. Then a series in England turned out to be not so bountiful in terms of wickets and the harsh Australian conditions almost broke him. Wickets dried up, batsmen hit him all over the park and the lethal swing was nowhere to be seen. He was replaced, but others fared much the same and Shami was brought back again but the spark was missing. As he sat looking woebegone in the dug-out the despair and loneliness was all too palpable

And then there is the amazing Misbah ul Haq – Pakistan’s inspirational captain. The game has thrown everything at his face – years of initial struggle to make the national team, playing for a team wracked with internal strife, international cricket discontinued at home following a deadly terrorist attack and finally being asked to develop, manage and lead a team sky high on talent but massively inconsistent in performance. Misbah was the oldest player in the field today. He was also the fittest (if Wasim Akram is to be believed) as well as their premier batsman and ODI finisher. And the loneliest, given the number of times he runs out of partners as his brilliant team implodes around him.

But there was one thing common to these three cricketers today and that was the way they went out and exorcised those demons of loneliness.

How they did it

Shikhar’s strong and chanceless 73 off 76 balls laid the foundation for the Indian innings. Experts had talked about his impetuous shot selection and lack of application and he answered them all fluently.

Mohammad Shami bowled like a demon possessed and found within himself reserves of energy and guile which gave him a rich haul of four wickets. He might not have been the quickest or the most economical but this spell would have given him back his confidence. The fact that the Indian team and its millions of supporters can depend on him to run in fast and strong at the beginning of an innings seemed to have brought the smile back to his face again.

And spare a thought for Misbah. He came in when Pakistan had made a slow but bright start and was probably expecting to feel his way into a big partnership. But then I may be wrong. Maybe Misbah has stopped dreaming of such things. Why? Because his team just cannot manage to rally around this sensational middle order finisher. Little wonder that he is yet to hit his first ODI hundred in spite of being the joint fastest scorer of a century in Test cricket!! Misbah was yet again left standing at the non striker’s end, a lonely sentinel presiding over a ruined citadel. And what an innings he dished out which would have made you feel that he was playing a completely different match!! Till he was there at the crease, every Indian fan would have had just that teensy weensy bit of panic curled up cozily at the back of the brain!

Like the final

For the record, the match itself was played like a World Cup Final. The city of Adelaide and the ground was filled up with fans from the subcontinent who happily cheered right through the match for both sides and seemed to enjoy the cricket more than fear the result. The lead-up was befitting a World Cup Final as media networks quickly moved away from political stories and lotus versus broom discussions to big stories on the India- Pakistan rivalry. But it was heartening to see the camaraderie in the banter between fans, experts and players alike.

Shikhar and Virat laid a brilliant foundation to a strong total of 300 for Team India after Dhoni won the toss and decided to bat first. Virat went onto a well made century after a couple of scares but Suresh Raina warmed everyone’s hearts with that Afridi like cameo of 74. Pakistan bowlers looked good but not world class. The 7 footer Mohammad Irfan was played out well and the spinners on operation did not have the magic of a Saeed Ajmal to make a difference.

When it was Pakistan’s turn to bat, the total looked like a mountain but not like an Everest. And they started off in brisk fashion till about the 20th over when all hell broke loose. Wickets suddenly started falling regularly and as Misbah stood and smashed the ball around like a colossus the rest of the team just gave in meekly as the innings closed at 224.

But now the reality check. India has won its first match. But this was the first match of a 45 day long tournament for both teams. The way the groups stack up, unless either team has a real off day both are slated to make the quarterfinal knock-out rounds. And as the experts keep pointing out, three good matches at the business end of this event will give any team the Cup.

But in spite of all that, those demons of loneliness will still play a part, I feel, in the back of Shikhar, Shami and Misbah’s mind. Whether they come back quietly to haunt them or get banished with great pomp and vigor, only time will tell. Till then let us sit back and quietly congratulate both teams for giving us a good old fashioned India-Pakistan contest where cricket, thankfully, was the winner.

Rathindra Basu lives, breathes, sleeps sports and is forever waiting for the next Indian sporting triumph. Since this usually takes much time and infinite patience, he listens to music, reads voraciously and eats almost anything that moves!