Monday, March 27, 2023

9 points: Lessons from the 1992 Cricket World Cup

1991-92 was a glorious time to be initiated into cricket.  I was 10 years old and in sixth standard, in school.  Sachin Tendulkar was 18 years old and the gold standard in cricket!  A 5-Test series and a triangular ODI series were the twin preludes to the 1992 ODI World Cup down under.  Amidst the shambles that was the Indian batting line-up, Sachin was setting the tone for the decade to follow.  If he was in, India could win.  If he was out, the rest was a rout.  Pardon the painful alliteration but you get the gist!  But as much as Sachin was every Indian cricket fanatic’s hero, the tourney itself offered riches that extended beyond the lone star of the Indian team.  

The format of the 1992 World Cup was strikingly simple.  9 teams.  Everyone played everyone else.  If you won, you scored two points.  If the match was tied or washed out, the teams shared a point.  (That the latter was going to be a decisive factor was something that even the world’s best gamblers would not have bet a penny on.)  And the top four teams on points would play in the semi-finals.  Among the semi-finalists, New Zealand scored 14 points, England 11, South Africa 10 and Pakistan…9.  Yet it was Pakistan who ended up lifting the cup.  As I reflect on what made Pakistan win the cup and how some of the other teams lost key games (or in the case of India, lost the plot!), there are 9 lessons that I wish to recollect from the cup. 

9. “Teams win matches, not individuals.”

That was the title of the then Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin’s column for The Indian Express the day after India bowed out of the tourney with 5 measly points from 8 games.  While he makes some valid points in his article in a rather candid manner, what he failed to state was that he, as the leader, did little to make the 10 other members cohere as a team.  Their solitary bright spot was against the eventual winners, Pakistan.  Though Sachin was the man of the match, several Indian batsmen and bowlers had bright moments.  It was a team win.  But that was at Sydney, arguably India’s favorite ground in Australia.  But when their best laid plans came apart in the face of a Brian Lara attack or a Mark Greatbatch assault, there was no leadership, no novel tactics, no teamwork.  India’s lack of progress was not for lack of players who could not march.   It was because they did not have any directions. 

8. The Proteas’ Inequation: The Whole > Sum of its Parts

Both New Zealand and South Africa turned in some stellar performances in the world cup.  South Africa, despite not having the cheek of the Kiwis, was a team whose whole was more than the sum of its parts.  They did not have any superstars in their batting line-up.  Yet, led by the warhorses Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten, they put up competent totals.  Their bowling was painfully homogenous – everyone seemed to bowl right-arm medium pace!  But they had a star in the lightning-quick Allan Donald.  And they had the jaunty Jonty Rhodes in the field.  Even if they failed to reach the finals, the fact that they reached the semis despite their long apartheid-related isolation from cricket was an example of how to function as a team and punch above their weight.  The exact opposite of the Indian team, I hasten to add.

7. Nature Strikes Twice.  Sometimes thrice.

Every cricket fan who claims to be one would be familiar with the infamous rain rule of this world cup.  Where the chasing team, in the event of rain, had their target reduced by the number of runs scored in the least expensive overs they bowled.  The rain kept taking turns helping and hurting the teams.  There is this prevalent myth that the washed-out game against England (where they were all out for 74 and yet secured one point) was the biggest factor in Pakistan reaching the semis with 9 points.  It is only partially true.  They were in a superb position against South Africa, with Inzamam-ul-Haq in sublime form, when the rain made 211 from 50 overs, 194 from 36.  That they lost by only 20 runs should tell you that they could have bagged two points if not for the rain.  So, no, let’s not deprive them of due credit. 

But the Indians were the ones most hurt by the rain.  If they got lucky versus Zimbabwe, they lost the Australia fixture because of the rain and did not get a chance to bag two points against a weak Sri Lankan side.  I suppose luck or lack thereof doesn’t always come with any reasons or explanations.  It just is, good or bad!

6. The Puzzle of Bits and Pieces

Commentator and former cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar incurred the collective wrath of a nation when he called Ravindra Jadeja a “bits and pieces” player.  I am not sure if he would have been denied entry into the Buckingham Palace had he said the same about some of the English players.  For this tournament, they picked the likes of an ODI specialist like Dermot Reeves and a restrictive off-spinner like Richard Illingworth.  While these players were no slouch in the format and did make a reasonably positive impression, they did not have the match-winning class of England’s own David Gower, the doughtiness of a Mike Gatting or the mischief of a leg-spinner like Pakistan’s Mushtaq Ahmed.  In essence, these bits and pieces players did fit into the puzzle assembled by their captain Graham Gooch.  But they did not have the x-factor in them to puzzle the opposition.

5. Don’t think out of the box.  Just throw out the box.

New Zealand’s innovations, be it Dipak Patel’s opening spells as a tidy off-spinner or Mark Greatbatch’s blitzkriegs as an opening batsman, are the stuff of legend.  Like England, the Kiwis too had ODI specialist bowlers like Gavin Larsen, who excelled on their slow, low pitches.  But the difference was what they did with these players.  Martin Crowe did things like giving bowlers two to three over spells and constantly rotating them and…yes, puzzling the opposition.  It was as though the captain did not want to beat his opposition as much as he wanted to outwit them.  His batting, of course, was a huge factor in helping his team outmaneuver every opposition except, of course, Pakistan.  It took the genius of an Inzamam-ul-Haq – his 60 off 37 in the semi-final still ranks as one of ODI’s greatest knocks - to knock them out.

Onto the final four.  I am dedicating all four of these to Pakistan, out of respect for their unlikely yet amazing victory.

4. Luck is where preparation meets opportunity

It is one of several life lessons that Randy Pauch shared in his “Last Lecture.”  Sure, Pakistan had their slices of luck during the tournament.  While Martin Crowe’s injury preventing him from leading their defense in the semi-final is often cited as a lucky turn of events for Pakistan, what is often ignored is that Crowe would have ideally chased after winning the toss since they were making mincemeat of their opposition while chasing.  But on the day of semi-final, rain was predicted.  Fearing the rain Gods a little and the rain rule a lot, Crowe decided to bat first.  So, you could argue that things were loaded in Pakistan’s favor.  Yes, they had luck.  But luck alone did not win them matches.  In the league phase, they were the only team to beat New Zealand.  And in the semis too, it took the temperamental genius of Inzamam and the steadying influence of veteran Javed Miandad to push them over the line.  So, yes, they had the opportunity offered by lady luck.  But boy, were they prepared to make full use of it!

3. Short-term gains are as bad as long-term losses

Can you imagine Wasim Akram slowing down his pace?  No, that is not a rhetorical question.  It was posed in a way to Imran Khan after a league game.  The reason being that Akram had had a torrid time with no-balls and wides in the initial phase of the tournament.  He had raw pace but zero control.  But while Imran Khan may not be an eloquent speaker, he was an astute leader and a clear thinker.  He made the point that Akram’s core strength was his pace.  And he did not want his protégé to lose that.  He knew that he had others like Aqib Javed to steady the ship even if Akram went off-kilter.  He knew that Akram could sway matches as much as he swung the ball.  And swing, swerve and sway were exactly what he did, at blistering pace.  Ask Allan Lamb or Chris Lewis if you’d like!  When we pause to reflect, one realizes that a clear-headed leader who has no place for myopia in his vision, will see everything ten steps ahead of others.  And that is what Imran did with Akram.  If not for liberating Akram to bowl to his strengths, he may have made him feel shackled.  Instead, he unleashed the ‘cornered tiger’ onto an unsuspecting opposition!

2. Trusting them more than even they ever will  

Both Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mushtaq Ahmed have waxed eloquent on Imran around how much he placed faith in their abilities.  Just like Sunil Gavaskar used Laxman Sivaramakrishnan as an attacking wicket-taking option in 1985, Imran knew that he could not expect consistency or steadiness from Mushtaq as much as he could, guile and mischief.  Similarly, he had seen enough early signs of Inzamam that despite a strictly ordinary performance (save the gallant effort versus South Africa) in the league stages, he pushed Inzamam to play the semi-final despite him feeling unwell.  The impact of placing trust cannot be easily measured.  But by the same token, it is equally undeniable. 

1. “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

This quote, attributed to author Paulo Coelho, was embodied by Imran Khan and his fierce, single-minded determination.  Of all the 9 captains, it is possible that Imran wanted this Cup the most.  He wanted it badly.  He wanted to win this, to raise funds for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, named after his mother who died of cancer.  He had tried once in 1987 but failed to go past the semis.  At 40, this was his last chance by a distance.  His individual contributions in this cup are noteworthy but they were hardly World Cup-winning material.  But he was Captain Exemplar in the way he anchored the mercurial yet brilliant team through troubled waters, to glory.  His own anchor was the Cancer Hospital.  He wanted it badly.  And the universe helped him achieve it.



Anonymous said...

Point number 1 is so much inspiring and so positive

Zola said...

Superb! Superb! I need oru naal casual leave (Simla Special) to stabilize the nostalgia that you've triggered - same for comments. Not even sure where to start and where to end. This Cup has so many interlinked memories outside cricket as well.