Friday, March 18, 2011

The World Cup is still fresh

Whoever first recognized that cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties would have loved to be in the subcontinent at present to witness live some of the most exhilarating cricket matches played back to back at breakneck speed. If the first seventeen days of the tournament were marked by a tie, an upset win, a suicidal loss and some top class display of individual brilliance then the following ten days have been about confidence and resilience. In a matter of four weeks all those doubters and critics of 50 over cricket have been put to shame and it has brought forward their shallow understanding of the subject on which they make their living on. It is true that most of the matches involving the associate nations have only been of academic interest but given the overall success of the world cup the Irish coffee, maple leaves and sundry have contributed in extending the variety of the menu card on offer; the turnstile attendance for Australia’s matches against Kenya and Canada at Bangalore’s M. Chinnaswamy stadium stand as a testimonial to the statement. Indeed decades ago CLR James was right to point, “What they know of cricket, who cricket knows.”

Predictability was the norm of the world cup’s fixture and in no way did it arouse the sentiments of a cricket lover as the quarter finalists and their table position were pretty much given much before the Visas of the players were stamped. In Group A, New Zealand was always expected to make into the next round but their track record of nine straight losses in the sub continent in the preceding summer had raised questions about their credibility against the top teams but the notions changed when all hell broke loose on 8th March at Pallekelle as Ross Taylor finally quit hibernation to celebrate his 27th birthday in style. His talent and ability to clear the fence had always been a reason for awe but for a career spanning over 5 years he had hardly ever influenced the result of a match singlehandedly. His popularity had always hinged on a few brutal hits there or a couple of exquisitely timed shots here which were invariably supplemented by the cardinal sin of throwing away his wicket either because of his alter ego or some reckless shot selection. Just three centuries in 102 matches had always made his resume look incomplete. However his first innings of high class repute against Pakistan which included his team massacring 95 runs off the last five overs not only gave him an entry to a party that had been begging his entry since eternity but also toppled all pre calculations with respect to the table position.

All this would not have been a reality had Kamran Akmal latched on to a sitter just when Taylor was still figuring out in the middle. Unfortunately Akmal’s performance both in front and behind of the wicket has been much below the par of a school cricketer and it only raises suspicious eyebrows that go beyond the cricket field for the history he comes with. It is a bad advertisement for the entire cricketing community and the faster the puzzle is solved the better it is for all. New Zealand might still be the fourth team to qualify from its group for the quarter finals; much depends on their result against Sri Lanka tonight but for sure that carnage against Pakistan significantly enhanced the stakes of the tournament and also gave their perennial tag of dark horse a timely boost. In the hindsight it was a match that warmed up the world wide audience for some bigger test of their nerves.

At Nagpur what seemed to be India’s day of batting dominance till the sun was shining all of a sudden looked like an attempt by the batsmen to rush into the dressing room for an ice cream eating competition. 9 wickets for 29 runs is absolute bizarre and no justification can provide any logic to it. Such score lines are common at age group competitions but for that to be a reality at international level requires some special skills by those who scripted it. Sachin Tendulkar might have registered his 99th international century but before anyone else he would have been disappointed by the pattern that is clearly evident. It is one thing that both his centuries at this year’s world cup have not taken India to victory but more importantly he has thrown away his wicket twice in the batting power play just when he looked set to launch an onslaught. Against England and South Africa the deliveries that have produced his wicket had punishment written all over it but in an attempt to improvise he made the bowler look good. What has happened after his dismissal is there for all to see. 16 wickets for 62 runs!

It is an indication that if the little master is set, it will benefit the team if he plays for the entire 50 overs and the power hitters can revolve around him. Considering India’s dismal record in the batting power plays it would be apt to not aim high in those five overs instead use it as a platform to go for the slog in the final overs. Whatever said and done 296 was a good score to defend and India’s bowling and fielding, presumably the two weak links rose to the occasion to make a match of it. MS Dhoni’s decision to bowl a pacer instead of a spinner in the last over was a logical one and considering Ashish Nehra’s stupendous exploits in the 50th over of a cricket match in the past, a win was all likely a formality but cricket is a funny game and it was not to be the Delhite’s day. However that should not take anything away from the spirited performance the boys put in the park after undergoing the worst batting slump in recent times. It takes some mental strength to do that and the fact that they managed to pull up the socks augurs well for team India. Now the equation is as simple as winning four matches on a trot to spark celebrations among a billion.

West Indies are a lower rated team than Bangladesh in the ICC rankings and no one can throw more light on it than England. If the loss against Bangladesh was difficult to digest then the win against West Indies have made them the hot favourites for this world cup. The Englishmen have been the talk of the town for their role in making this world cup one of the most open tournaments ever played but they would have loved a better association than this with the mass. Their unpredictability has been both their strength and weakness in the six group matches and with seven points in their kitty they should be wondering how easy it was to top the group and simultaneously must be thanking Lord for coming to rescue just when it mattered the most. Their storyline resembles a lot of similarity with teams who have come from behind to win the world cup in the past (1983 – India, 1987 – Australia, 1992 – Pakistan, 1999 – Australia) and there is no reason why they cannot script their first world cup championship title from hereon. The fact that their best cricket in this tournament has come against higher ranked teams make them spicier than ever before. Quarter finals here they come!

Ireland has just beaten Netherlands in an inconsequential Group B match which means that they have successfully chased more than 300 runs twice in this tournament. It leaves the analysts to wonder how the group of death would have looked like had the Irish managed to get past the Bangladeshis in a low scoring thriller. Take a bow Ireland. More cricket should follow their way. Similarly if Bangladesh win against South Africa tomorrow then it will be a dream come true for ICC as till the last match scheduled on 20th March between India and West Indies the final standings of the table would not be known and who would have guessed when the fixture was drawn that this would be the case! However it looks like South Africa have survived after choking against England and for them to be beaten again will need some really good cricket by the opposition. This world cup might also be their time to live to tell the tale.

In between all this Virender Sehwag has managed to score a boundary off the first delivery of all the 5 Indian innings so far. It is an insignificant occurrence but it does matter to us Indians who are so obsessed with records and statistics! So far 37 matches have produced 16230 runs for the loss of 554 wickets in 3168.2 overs but this world cup is far from over. The world cup is still fresh.

As this article is about to be published, Kumar Sangakkara has scored his first one day international century since June 2008 to help Sri Lanka post 265/9 against New Zealand. However the news that hurts is that an Indian umpire on liaison duty with ICC for the world cup has been removed from the committee for sharing inside information in a sting operation carried on by a news channel. No Indian ever since the retirement of AV Jayaprakash has been a constant in ICC’s elite panel of umpires and now this. What more needs to be said?

Sidhanta Patnaik

18th March 2011, 7.27pm

Marathahalli, Bangalore

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