Batted for Yuvi in Lord’s chase: Kaif
Mumbai, July 13: Every sportsman longs for that one career-defining moment. An indelible memory that will speak to fans of the game across generations. On July 13, 2002, Mohammad Kaif lived that moment in the NatWest Trophy final against England at Lord’s. A decade since India chased down 325 in that ODI, players and spectators still remember the match like it happened yesterday.
“It was our ninth or 10th final in a row and we had lost all the previous ones,” Kaif recalls. And after England had set India a mountain to climb, he says, “All heads in the dressing room were down, thinking, ‘Right. There goes another final’.”
“But the seniors stepped up to motivate the team. [Sourav] Ganguly made a simple game-plan of reaching 100 in the first 15 overs without losing wickets and then taking it from there. [Coach] John Wright played a big role in calming the players down. He said, ‘The first part of the game is gone but we still have the remaining half in our hands’”, Kaif remembers.
Skipper Ganguly walked the talk and scored an aggressive half-century in a 106-run opening stand with Virender Sehwag. For the next 30 runs, India lost their top five batsmen, including Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. In walked Kaif, stunned by the collapse. “Honestly, when I walked in to bat, I thought we had lost the game and there was no way we were going to win it,” he admits.
One look at his partner, though, changed the pessimism into determination. “When I went out there, I saw how Yuvraj [Singh] was fighting. He was very positive and didn’t let any bowler get on top of him. I was just looking at him from the other end and thought, ‘Winning or losing doesn’t matter here. I just have to be with him and support him. If I get out here, it will be the biggest let down of my life’. I had to be with him, that’s all.”
Two youngsters, desperate to produce something special for their country, set out on the daunting journey. “We just kept telling each other, ‘Fight it out, get close to the target. If we’re doomed to fail, we must go down fighting’.”
The partnership ended on 121 runs when Yuvraj departed for 69. “I thought it was Yuvraj and I who would finish the game. When he got out, there was obviously added pressure on me. But that partnership had put us in a position from where we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I just told myself to enjoy [the game] and watch the ball.”
After Yuvraj’s departure, Kaif had the infamous Indian tail for company. He was pleasantly surprised when he found support there. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything from the tailenders. I thought whatever was to be done, I had to do it on my own,” Kaif admits. “I must credit them for the way they stood by me. Bhajji [Harbhajan Singh] chipped in with a quick 15 runs and Zaheer [Khan] ran well with me and held his nerve till the end.”
Kaif recalls the last two overs of “hide and seek” vividly. “Nasser Hussain wanted Zak on strike in the last over to [Andrew] Flintoff and he brought mid-off and mid-on up as I faced the final ball of the 49th over. I had no option but to go for a big one. I went straight down the ground but got an edge which flew to third-man boundary,” he says, describing the shot as the “luckiest and thickest edge” of his cricketing career.
That four left India with two runs to get from the final over, bowled by Andrew Flintoff. Zaheer was on strike but Kaif had a lot of work to do at the other end. ”I was tense but I had to calm Zak down. Nasser Hussain had brought all the fielders close to stop the single. After the first two dot balls, Zak got panicky. I went up to him and said, ‘Don’t panic, we’ve still got four balls to score two runs from. But if you think you can pull off a big one, go for it. You’re not obliged to take a single and give me the strike. You have the opportunity to finish the game as the fielders are all inside’. However, he did the right thing and tapped the ball for a single. I had to dive to complete that single. Michael Vaughan tried to hit the stump but missed it and we took off for an overthrow. That was the winning run!”
The pictures of what followed were as newsworthy as the win. Sourav Ganguly took his shirt off and waved it animatedly on the Lord’s balcony before charging down the field and tackling Kaif onto the ground.
Kaif’s voice is full of emotion as he recounts the story. “Ganguly is a very passionate and aggressive captain but I did not expect that kind of reaction from him. I saw him wave his shirt and couldn’t believe he did that. Probably Andrew Flintoff’s reaction [to the victory] at the Wankhede Stadium a few months prior to that was on his mind. After I went home, I saw it a thousand times on the TV.
“I was also taken aback when I saw him charging into me. He jumped on me and just didn’t let go for about three or four minutes. I somehow managed to save my back from getting injured. From the corner of my eye I could see Sachin, Dravid and [Anil] Kumble waiting for Dada to leave me so they could hug me. It was a huge moment of my life. I was only 22 then and getting such an emotional hug from the captain who had backed me throughout and given me a place in the team was a huge thing for me.
“The England players all looked stunned. They were dazed by what had just happened. They couldn’t believe they’d lost the game. That night, the whole team went out [to celebrate]; even seniors like Sachin, Dravid and Kumble who generally prefer to rest in their rooms.”
But it wasn’t until he had returned home to a hero’s welcome that Kaif realised what he had achieved. “The kind of reception I got at my hometown, Allahabad, was something else. When I got off the train, I couldn’t see the road. It was filled with people. They ushered me into a jeep, people waving all the way through. It takes about 15 minutes from the station to my house but on that day it took me an hour and a half. That’s when it all sunk in and I realised I had done something special. It was then that I decided to keep the bat and gloves I used in that match as memorabilia. They’re still here with me,” Kaif reveals.
That match successfully erased the tag of ‘bad chasers’ that was attached to India’s ODI squad for years. It instilled a self-belief in the Indian players that led to the side winning a record 15 consecutive ODIs chasing, in 2006.
“It instilled confidence not only in us players but also in the fans back home; they now believed we were good enough to chase down any target. At that time we had players like Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly and Kumble in our team who were expected to win matches for India. But on that day, Yuvraj and I showed that Indian youngsters too were capable of handling the pressure and pulling off unlikely victories,” Kaif beams.
It was the day that a skinny, shy boy from Allahabad would etch himself in the memory of cricket fans all over the world. “Even now when people see me anywhere, in a train, a restaurant, flights, all they want to talk about is that game. The moment they see me, they connect me with Lord’s 2002.”
Those 87 runs scored in 75 balls at Lord’s, one of cricket’s oldest homes, define the cricketer Mohammad Kaif.