In case you haven’t done it already, go here now — and try replaying the 12th game of the FIDE world title fight between Anand and Topalov. If time is of the essence, fast forward to move 28 and play through from there, for a classic demonstration of attacking chess from the wrong black side of the board.
And then think back to the magnitude of the effort it took for Anand to retain his title. Ever since Topalov, at the start of the 12-game championship round, announced that there won’t be any quick draws [the move played to Topalov’s strength, as he is renowned for his stamina in long games; against that, Anand is known for offering quick draws in games where he sees no immediate benefits, and conserving his energies for games where he sees distinct possibilities], the pressure has been on Anand to survive, mentally and physically, a tournament Topalov had just made more grueling.
You had to believe, during the back end of the tournament, that the pressure was getting to Anand. In game 8, he lost from what seemed to be an drawn position and allowed Topalov to draw level; in the 9th game, Anand meticulously prepared what seemed to be a commanding position and then repeatedly missing winning lines to allow his opponent to escape with a draw.
To shrug off both the serial disappointments and his own mental fatigue, to turn the pressure back on his opponent, and to ratchet up the pressure to the point where Topalov, almost novice-like, grabbed at a pawn that was laced with poison and to then capitalize on that blunder with an inch perfect handling of the middle/end-game — totally epic, on the scale of achievement.
Against that, yesterday also witnessed a once-proud team plumb unsuspected depths. Batting first and needing to put on a big score in order to pip Sri Lanka by a 20-run differential minimum, India seemed well set at the halfway stage, with 90 on the board and 9 wickets in hand. And then it spectacularly blew it, making a mere 73 in the final ten overs while losing four wickets — against which Sri Lanka, which seemed in trouble at 53/3 at the half way stage, piled on 190 runs for the loss of two additional wickets in the back 10.
That is the statistic that caught the eye — but what remains in the mind the afternoon after the defeat is a series of impressions. Of an ‘attack’ without a strike bowler [Harbhajan Singh, who had to play that role in a side where Zaheer Khan was way under par, ended the tournament without a single wicket to his name. He is bowling “beautifully”, commentators repeatedly told us — but whatever the artistic merits of his bowling, the central fact is that he could never strike]. Of a team that seemed to have been picked from a home for the walking wounded — a clearly unfit Gambhir, a Zaheer Khan who seems to be suffering from some mysterious injury that comes and goes, a Praveen Kumar who had to leave the tournament halfway through, to join the long list of Indian ‘pace bowlers’ in various stages of injury and rehabilitation, a Yuvraj Singh whose tournament and indeed recent form was best encapsulated by that moment, in the early part of the Lankan innings, when he let a ball pass through his palms, and between his legs… Add to that the ‘form’ of that fearsome finisher, Yusuf Pathan; the presence in the side of Ravindra Jadeja, whose preparation for this tournament consisted of practicing in the backyard with his brother; the lack of clarity about Rohit Sharma’s presence in, and utility to, the side… India has stumbled badly before — actually, thrice in world level competitions in the past 12 months alone — but rarely has the team under MS Dhoni looked quite so shambolic.
The television channels are already well into their “post mortems” — which in the case of that medium takes the form of handing out knives to all and sundry and inviting them to have a go. “Play more, party less” is among the more temperate bits of advice streaming in from the junta, and from there it gets worse. 24 hours later, this too will pass, and the knife wielders will be presented with a new target for their SMS-es.
I figure on putting my own thoughts on hold till the dust settles [and I get out of wall to wall meetings in Delhi, and get back to Bangalore, where there will be more mindspace.
In the meantime, appreciate your thoughts. Forget about the match itself — when you think, macro, about the Indian team in T20s, what thoughts occur to you?
PS: Am back in Bangalore late tonight and at work sometime tomorrow, but I suspect it will be Friday before I am settled and back on this. Talk to you then.