Good Pak/Bad Pak

There’s a case for calling Pakistan the Goran Ivanisevic of team sports. Goran, who at 29 parlayed a wild card [more like a sympathy card, really] into his first and only Wimbledon title in 2001, had however a third variant besides the good and the bad: the persona he dubbed ‘Emergency Goran’ [a choice collection of Goran quotes here].  It is here that the Pakistan team has differed from from the maverick Croat in recent times: the team has no ’emergency’ version capable of pulling cricketing aces out of its pack. Or maybe Pakistan does have a third version: the ‘rubbish’ one Kamran Abbasi speaks of here.

There was a brief spell of play when I — and what seemed like the half of Pakistan that had packed the stands at The Oval — thought the side would make England pay for its crap play in the tournament opener, and for what Andrew Miller characterized as its obsession with the Ashes.

Shoaib Mallik had taken a good catch to get rid of Ravi Bopara; Kevin Pietersen, who sat out the first game citing a dodgy Achilles tendon, had repeatedly thumped the ball hard only to find himself denied by excellent fielding at shortish cover and mid on, and Pakistan seemed to have found the wind beneath its wings. England’s hope had limped — metaphorically, though the Achilles seemed just fine — to 3/7, and even one of those runs was courtesy a misfield by Saeed Ajmal, and was looking a bit pressured.

Cue the fourth over. Luke Wright swung, the ball flared off the bottom edge down to third man where Umer Gul got into picture-perfect position to field — and let the ball go right through his legs. Which was bad enough — what made it worse was that he seemed to find it all highly amusing, as did his captain [who later was to say he was perplexed by how badly Pakistan had fielded] and several of his mates. A delivery later, KP got the strike and Yassir Arafat served him up a no-ball in the form of a nice high full toss to smash over mid on; the re-bowled version of that ball was an a la carte half volley KP smashed into the stratosphere.

From that point on, there was little point watching — Pakistan appeared to figure there was no point trying, really, and to the disgust of the fans, put on one of the most inept fielding displays seen in recent times.

Almost every post-match report I’ve read has taken a passing jab at KP’s ‘Achilles’. Here’s Mike Atherton, who also makes the point that England got lucky to face, in a death game, the one team that looked even more ill-prepared than itself. And here’s Paul Weaver in the Guardian on cricket’s diva:

Kevin Pietersen is the diva of cricket. It is not enough that he is respected; he demands to be loved too. He probably had it inserted in his recently drafted central contract. And how the crowd adored him here last night.

Before the match – the match England had to win – he was seen feeling his stricken achilles with a grimace as a great prima donna might stroke a delicate larynx before taking the stage at La Scala.

Returning to the side to play England’s most important innings, he said afterwards: “It was a huge evening; I was desperate to play. I’ve never had an injury that has kept me out, which has been hard to deal with. I reckon I’m about 70% fit. Hopefully that is the last of it now because I just love playing.”

Pietersen has been bleeding lately and his blood has marked all our clothes. He has been bleeding since the start of the year, when the captaincy was torn from him. King Lear, who was mad, demanded love from his daughters; Pietersen, it seems, insists it is forthcoming from every one and his performances feed from that affection.

Unable to see the considerable part he played in his own downfall it is as if he has been sulking ever since. His performances, in the West Indies, in the Indian Premier League and this summer, have been ordinary, certainly by the standards of this extraordinary cricketer.

Would he play in this crucial match? How England yearned for him and how he lapped up that yearning. He would come riding to England’s rescue but not before he had milked the full drama of the situation.

Writing off the ball, Tanya Aldred points at the full houses that have greeted the World Cup thus far [startling it’s been, too — back in Bombay, I find it difficult to whip up enough enthusiasm to watch these early exchanges, and many friends seem to share that same feeling of ennui] and says that these crowds contain within them the ECB’s greatest challenge.

And so to today — and another death game, this time for Australia who, after being thumped by Chris Gayle the other night, now go up against a Sri Lanka being led, for the first time in this format, by Kumar Sangakkara. On that game, and all else, tomorrow.

Bhimsen: Episode 49

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The dust cloud approached rapidly, but at this distance it was impossible to tell if it was friend or foe. I halted the Matsya troops and quickly organized them into a defensive formation.

“It is the Matsya banner — this must be Prince Uttara returning,” my charioteer, who was standing up in the chariot and peering into the distance, announced suddenly; at my signal, he whipped the horses and raced the chariot forward towards the advancing troops.

I was apprehensive – had been ever since I had learnt from King Virat that while we were off recovering out cattle from Trigarthan’s raiders, Prince Uttara had led a section of the Matsya army against the attacking Kauravas.

“He has never fought a battle — he is just a boy,” King Virat lamented, while ordering me to take our troops and rush to help. “And they tell me he has taken that eunuch, Brihannala, as his charioteer!”

That was at the insistence of Draupadi, who in her guise as Malini told Queen Sudeshna that Brihannala had served for a time as charioteer to no less than Arjuna himself.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud at the sight: holding the reins of the lead chariot sat Arjuna, still dressed in the garb of a woman.  The flowers braided into his hair, and the soft colors of his robe, presented an incongruous sight in tandem with the breastplate and arm protectors of the warrior. I noticed he had Gandiva, his favorite bow, slung across his shoulder.

“I have told them not to breathe a word of my part in the battle,” Arjuna said, as my charioteer took over Prince Uttara’s reins and Arjuna jumped into my chariot. “The Kauravas will have known it was me even with this disguise, but I thought it best for now to let Uttara pretend he had won the battle.”

It was, Arjuna told me as we drove at a leisurely pace back towards the palace, a surprisingly easy affair. “Uttara was brash and boastful when we set out, but once we left the palace he panicked, like I thought he would.”

Arjuna had driven the chariot to the grove in the forest where, before entering Matsya, we had hidden our weapons. They were tied neatly in individual bundles; I had climbed the tallest tree I could find and stashed them in the forks of branches.

I found a skeleton in the forest and with a rope, tied it to one of the lower branches so passers-by would see it. I learned later that locals had spread the story that the tree was haunted by the ghost of the person who had committed suicide – the story spread and so did the fear, to the point where no one would go near the place.

Armed with his favorite bow, and with his quiver packed with the weapons he had acquired during his travels, Arjuna handed over the reins to the young prince and directed him to drive towards the enemy.

“It wasn’t a very large army,” Arjuna told me. “Some 400 soldiers – they must have planned a quick raid to try and uncover us. But all the main warriors were there — Duryodhana leading, Karna, Kripa, Drona…” Bhisma was there too but he stayed in his chariot off to one side, watching but taking no active part in the battle.

“I wasn’t sure about the quality of the Matsya army and whether they would take orders from me, so I decided to take the Kauravas by surprise. They were drawn up in battle array, clearly waiting for us to get within arrow range. I stopped just short, and shot a stream of fire arrows, the Agneyastra, and built a wall of fire just ahead of the Kaurava army. Their horses panicked; there was much confusion.”

Under cover of the flames Arjuna attacked the leaders, cutting down Duryodhana’s horses, then Drona’s. “The one who gave me the most trouble was Kripa,” Arjuna said. “The others proved easy to handle, but Kripa fought back and he was good – I had to kill his horses and charioteer with poisoned arrows, the Nagastras, and render him helpless before he gave up.”

It was the first opportunity my brother had to try out his newly acquired skills and weapons, and he was ecstatic at the outcome. “The Nagastra is okay, but the Agneyastra is key – just fantastic,” Arjuna said with the enthusiasm he reserves for talk of war.

“I hadn’t realized it before, but it’s not the fire alone that makes the arrows so deadly, it’s the accompanying smoke. The powder you coat on the arrowheads produces clouds of thick black smoke – it hangs over the opposing army, confusing them, and lets you get closer and attack.”

But it was his newly developed ambidextrous skill, Arjuna said, that paid the richest dividends. “You know how when skilled archers face each other, we organize our own defenses to counter the style of the opponent. All those hours of practice I put in during my wanderings paid off – I kept switching the bow from right hand to left, changing the angles of attack and breaching their defenses with ease. Duryodhana and Drona had no clue how to handle my attacks; they were among the first to retreat.”

His duel with Karna, brief but intense, was what pleased Arjuna the most. “The suta putra ran from the field, bleeding,” my brother laughed. “I was battling Kripa when he attacked me. I shot an Agneyastra between his horses. They panicked and before they could recover, I cut down the lead horses with poisoned arrows. He jumped off the chariot and fought on foot; I switched hands, cut down his bow, pierced his armor, wounded him high on the shoulder with that other arrow I showed you, remember, the one with a crescent head? I was getting ready to kill him with a Nagastra, when he turned and ran, like the coward he is.”

We drove through the gates of Matsya and went our separate ways. Arjuna, who had removed his breastplate and armguards and given me his bow and quiver to hide, went back to his room in the ladies’ quarters and I, suddenly assailed by the hunger pangs I had been denying in course of a very long day, slipped into the kitchens to see what I could find to eat.

Over the next three days, Matsya celebrated the triumph of its young prince. The king and courtiers fawned over Uttara and made him repeat endlessly the details of the battle; the ladies in waiting dimpled at him and fought each other for his favors.

To his credit, Uttara seemed embarrassed by all the unmerited attention. Arjuna later told me that the prince had sought him out, protested that he didn’t deserve the honors being heaped on him and said he was going to tell the king the truth. At my brother’s urging, the young prince reluctantly agreed to keep up the pretense for a few more days, and personally ensured that none of the soldiers who had gone with him to fight the Kauravas spoke of what had actually happened.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, I was part of group serving a sumptuous celebratory lunch for the royal family and close retainers, when a messenger came rushing up with news that a half dozen chariots flying unfamiliar insignia had been spotted racing towards Matsya.

“Be ready to meet whoever it is with force, if need be,” the king said to me.

“O King, I suspect you won’t need force –if my guess is right, you will accord these visitors royal honors and make them welcome,” Kanka, who was seated among the favored courtiers, said.

Minutes later, the royal herald entered the chamber to announce the arrival of Krishna of Dwaraka and his retinue. King Virat hastily rose to do the honors; to his surprise, Krishna went straight to Kanka and bent to touch his feet. He then accepted Virat’s obeisance, and said, “Where is Brihannala?” Krishna asked. “Have your herald lead me to him!”

Satyaki, meanwhile, had also paid his respects to Kanka. Perfunctorily saluting King Virat, he ran up to where I stood among the other cooks and helpers. We embraced.

PostScript: Traveling back to Bombay today; no other updates till tomorrow, folks.