With most of the 19 matches in the first two weeks of the world cup being mismatch between the contenders and number fillers it is still early days but what is surprising is that despite the 8206 runs scored for the loss of 283 wickets in 38 innings on the flat pitches it is the bowling performances that have caught attention. The inflated egos of the batsmen might be getting bigger with each passing day of the tournament but their role remains secondary and any team aspiring to finish on the podium with the trophy on 2nd April 2011 it is their bowlers who have to be the main actors of the script. So far Pakistan, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa have solved the equation and the faster the other teams get their priorities right, the better are their prospects of smiling in Mumbai four weeks from now.
As a 17 year old kid Shahid Afridi was first picked in the Pakistan side in 1996 as a leg spinner but within a couple of matches he recorded the fastest one day international century and ever since his role in the team has been assumed as that of a batsman who can bowl fast and flattish leg spin during the middle overs. Though it has taken 15 years to put things in perspective yet Pakistan supporters must be thanking their stars that the leg spinner has finally fulfilled his potential just at the right time on an occasion that they so desperately want to champion. For anyone who has been following his cricket ever since he was appointed as the captain of Pakistan’s limited over side it should be no surprise that he is topping the bowling charts of the world cup so far. Hearing him speak in interviews and other forums communicates that he is an honest soul who does not hide his expressions and after ICC’s no-ball verdict against the culprits he now has full control over his team and that is bringing out the best in him. This is probably the first time in his entire career that he is enjoying his cricket to the fullest and that is visible in the results he has been producing consistently over the last 8 to 12 months. Seeing him bowl; skidding it through the surface and hurrying through the overs reminds of a school boy who is fidgety until he finishes his homework so that he could concentrate on other important things in life. If that is not enough then his variations have been difficult to pick up for the batsmen and the audacity to go for referrals without consulting the wicket keeper after being turned down on a leg before the wicket appeal reveals the zone of confidence he is in right now. He loves the spotlight that has come along with the added responsibilities and along with Waqar Younis has turned this bunch of erratic cricketers into a business unit solely aiming at the top prize.
A line up that can afford to bench the talent of Ajmal Shahzad; it is strong message being sent out to the opponent. So far they might have faced only one stiff opponent in Sri Lanka yet the way they successfully defended a paltry score of 184 against Canada shows that they are working to a plan. Abdul Razzaq might have lost his pace but his years of experience cannot be of much better use than now. Not only he is using the crease exceedingly well but also is making the ball talk both ways. Umar Gul might not have got into full action in this tournament but he is warming up well for the big matches that start in a couple of weeks from now. And finally Shoaib Akthar’s peach of a delivery to dismiss Mahela Jayawardene gives an indication that he has understood the importance of cutting down on pace and concentrating on precision.
Having taken 29 wickets for 516 runs at the rate of 19 runs per wicket, Pakistan so far look to be the only team that can successfully defend anything below 300 runs and for them to reach there they have the experience of Younis Khan and Misbah-Ul-Haq. Umar Akmal looks to be slowly getting into the groove of living up to his potential and more often than not Abdul Razaq and Shahid Afridi will have off days with the bat but the day they switch on, God save the opponent!
There is no better sight than a fast bowler steaming in to rattle the woods of a batsman hence setting in fear in the minds of the opposition. By bundling out two sides for a combined total of 173 runs; West Indies has displayed some breathtaking bowling. Netherlands might not have ever faced the pace of Kemar Roach but his second successive man of the match performance against Bangladesh in their backyard shows what his talent is capable of achieving single handedly. Their approach in a virtual pre-quarter final against the host nation made all to stand up and notice as they virtually shattered Bangladesh’s dream of proceeding to the next round. Another important cog in this wheel is the left arm spin of Suleman Benn, who to the naked eye might appear as one of those cricketers who is aloof of his surrounding but he is as cunning as a cricketer can get and is a master in the art of choking the batsmen. For someone opening the bowling for a team that is legendary for its fast bowlers, he has a big shoe to fill and for now he has been doing it the best. They are slowly getting their act together and there are still a few gaps to be filled in their armour whose answers will be clearer when they meet the big nations but till then it is all about rejoicing the sensational performance of Kemar Roach.
Lasith Malinga’s absence turned out to be the difference between Sri Lanka’s 11 runs loss to Pakistan and the huge expectations of their fans. When he was brought into the eleven against Kenya, the slinger used his toe crushing yorkers to affirm his value as a hot property in world cricket and there will be more on offer in the days to come. Australia’s bowling is being well led by Mitchell Johnson but so far their opponents have been weak to say the least. Similarly South African spinners have come to the party but their big tests will begin in the quarter-final stage. New Zealand is one team that needs a special mention not for any superlative performance but for having recognised their weakness and playing within it. Having realized that they do not have the fire power to explode top oppositions they have made it a point to crush the weaker teams in order to enhance their net run rate and their approach has literally booked them a place in the quarter-finals.
Beyond the on field cricket action, if the unparliamentarily words of Canada’s Balaji Rao that the stump microphone captured were unpleasant to the ears then the news of West Indies team bus being stone pelted in Bangladesh does not do any good to the game’s richness in the subcontinent. Just when appreciations were flowing in from across the world for the spirit of the Bangladesh crowd and the manner in which they welcomed the world cup, the parochial act of a handful has put a black spot on the country’s international image and has brought shame and displeasure to all. It was not the fault of West Indies for the spineless show of the Bangladesh batsmen and if the fans could not muster the courage to appreciate the bowling display of Roach and company inside the cricket field then they had no rights to act like animals beyond it. Someone has to teach those barbaric people that once the 100 overs of a cricket match are over, the visiting players and officials are guests in a country that is thirsty for tourism revenue.
On a parting note I just collected my tickets from M. Chinnaswamy for tomorrow’s game between India and Ireland and something within me says that Virat Kohli will produce a Sunday special innings.