An electric wave of slogans and chants resonated through the Wankhede. “Yuvraj, Yuvraj” the chorus seemed to agree upon. The cheering was contagious. It lured every person in the stands to join in. And, almost everybody did.
Yuvraj Singh was in next. Harbhajan Singh had sent Deepak Hooda back to the dugout. Yuvraj walked out with a lazy gait. Like he always had, he walked as if he was oblivious to the rumble in the stands.
Later in the over, Yuvraj got into his stance to face his first delivery. Harbhajan, at the end of his mark, ripped the ball in his hands. The “Yuvraj, Yuvraj” chants now had competition. “Bhajji, Bhajji”, the Wankhede echoed too. It was Yuvraj against Harbhajan. But, more importantly, the clock had been rewound for the Indian cricket followers. Here were stars from India’s most recent favourite cricket generation. These stars might be falling but they still have the sparkle to light up a stadium, if not a nation, as was witnessed at Wankhede on that April evening.
Through the Indian Premier League this year, Harbhajan, Yuvraj, MS Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra all took turns to shine. By the end of it, they made it an IPL to remember for the cricket romantics of their generation.
On that stuffy April evening, Harbhajan’s crafty spell architected a victory for the Mumbai Indians over the Sunrisers Hyderabad. His variations fought off a David Warner storm. Warner had reverse-swept Harbhajan’s off-spin for an elephantine six. Unperturbed, like the Harbhajan of the old, he tossed the ball again. This time, he beat Warner in the flight and found his top-edge, which was pocketed by Parthiv Patel.
Turning back the clock for Indian fans
Harbhajan went on to pick up eight wickets in the season. While the number was not eye-catching, his guile and impeccable economy rate of under six and a half in this slam-bang version of the game was. It was only because the Mumbai Indians had to plan according to the opponents that they preferred the leg-spin of Karn Sharma to Harbhajan’s off-spin in the last couple of games.
Yuvraj Singh may not have come off in Mumbai, but he did in Hyderabad on a couple of occasions, and in Delhi. The exaggerated bat lift and the flamboyant bat swing combined to bring out the most elegant of drives each time Yuvraj was in flow. The hooks, pulls, punches and lofts are all a reminder of Yuvraj in his heydays, and they were all out in their full glory each time Yuvraj produced another one of his specials.
In fact, when Yuvraj set the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium ablaze with the stunner to announce the season open in the first game of this year’s IPL against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, the rise of the old guard should have been preempted.
Yuvraj first played for India in 2000. In the same ICC Knockout tournament, Zaheer Khan made his international debut as well. Now 38, Zaheer was not sure of playing the IPL this year. Post his international retirement, he had hinted that the 2016 season could have been his last.
Instead, Zaheer decided to captain the Delhi Daredevils one more time. The left-arm pacer is one of the greatest India has ever had. His consistency and his reverse-swing will be spoken of whenever pacers are discussed in the annals of Indians cricket. But without any cricket for the entire year and having spent more time in the commentator’s box, his left wrist was not expected to weave magic. There were doubts on whether he would manage to remain fit through the season, in fact.
But like his contemporaries, Zaheer managed to put on one final show for the supporters of the game. Ten wickets from a season of IPL he was not meant to play or expected to last was an impressive return. And, certain spells were reminders of what the Indian cricket fan will miss once Zaheer has bid adieu for good.
The Zaheer-Nehra callbacks
In a spell reminiscent of a decade ago, Zaheer reduced Rising Pune Supergiant to 34 for 2. He had packed off the openers by getting the ball to move evidently. He finished with three wickets in the game at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium. But, it was in the return leg that Zaheer produced his delivery of the season.
For years, Zaheer had castled the sumps by swinging the ball in between the bat and pad of great batsmen like Graeme Smith and Michael Vaughan. It was Ajinkya Rahane’s turn to be bewildered now. After falling to Zaheer in Pune, he was stunned by a beautiful delivery from the left-armer that shaped in and destroyed his stumps after going through his bat and pad. Rahane was one of India’s finest present batsmen, yet he was lost for answers against Zaheer, a few years after the pacer had hung his boots internationally.
But at a time when Zaheer tormented international batsmen regularly, Ashish Nehra was his perfect ally. Nehra made a remarkable return to India’s T20 set up more than a year ago. And though his 38-year-old body was hampered by injuries this season, he too offered glimpses of the impact his left-arm pace had on opposition batsmen for all these years.
The way Nehra followed Dinesh Karthik, who had gone down on his knee in a bid to hit the delivery over the ’keeper, was an example of the pacer putting his experience to use. He even went on to take a three-wicket haul to help his team defend a total against the Kings XI Punjab in Mohali to serve another reminder of the fabulous one-day bowler that he has been over the years.
Gambhir, Dhoni still leading from the front
Then there was Gambhir, who needed no reminders to be served because he was enviably consistent. With two runs short of 500, he finished as the second-highest run-getter this season. At the age of 35. 14 years after his international debut.
Grit and determination were qualities that defined Gambhir’s game over the years. And they were brought back to the fore when he led the difficult chases of 160 against the Daredevils in Kolkata or the 182 against the Supergiant in Pune. It was best exemplified when he stood firm as his team wobbled in a tricky pursuit of 48 in six overs against the Sunrisers. It was the Eliminator, the rain had pushed the game past midnight and the Knights threatened to implode. That is when Gambhir characteristically took the onus on him to steady the ship and earned his side another shot at the final.
Gambhir’s Kolkata could not win a final berth but the captain had allowed his bat to do all that it could to ensure they have a strong season. But one man who had a hand in the Supergiant’s first summit clash appearance was Dhoni. He may not have managed to help Pune complete that one final step of ultimate glory, but his aura was in tact when the entire Rajiv Gandhi Stadium was in synch in its vociferous welcome of the former national captain.
Dhoni is revered as the greatest one-day captain the country has seen. He is thought to be the best finisher the game has seen. And, he had scored a century in his last outing in national colours in the one-day series against England earlier in the year.
Yet, a slow start to the IPL this year meant Harsh Goenka, brother of the Pune franchise’s owner, took to Twitter to take potshots at Dhoni.
The former India captain did not respond to it publicly. Instead, he decided to respond under the garb of the master of chases. Like he has for years, helping the country chase improbable targets, he produced a masterpiece to ensure the Supergiant can chase down a steep 177 set by the Sunrisers in Pune.
A few games later, when it mattered the most, Dhoni used his brute power to bludgeon the Mumbai Indians in their fortress – the Wankhede.
Dhoni would shrug his shoulders, get into position and wait for the delivery, and invariably be in a position to annihilate the ball. He dispatched the ball over the ropes on five instances and the Mumbai Indians ran for cover as he produced mayhem with his blade.
For that brief period, the packed Wankhede did not support the Mumbai Indians. The ‘Dhoni, Dhoni’ chants ascertained where they loyalties were. The packed Wankhede supported Dhoni. It supported the famed old guard of Indian cricket, like every venue in this IPL had.