January 29, 2009

India draw first blood despite Jayasuriya, Dharmasena


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

India’s present lot of young cricketers have shown the mental strength to cope with the unforeseen and they displayed their growing stature by engineering an emphatic six-wicket win over Sri Lanka in the first ODI of the five-match series at Dambulla on January 28.

There were at least two unexpected things that could have derailed the Indians. One was the century of the veteran Sanath Jayasuriya and the other was the umpiring blunder of Kumar Dharmasena denying Sachin Tendulkar the opportunity of delighting the spectators.

But the credit belonged to the Indian youngsters, who were right behind their inspirational skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, to have done the job without showing any signs of nerves.

Jayasuriya has had reputation of being an India-killer having devastated them in the past as well. But having managed just 102 runs at average of 34 in the just concluded three-match series in Pakistan, it seemed extremely unlikely that the ageing warrior will score another fighting century.
Jayasuriya, now in his 40th year, played a superb innings to become the oldest centurion in the ODIs. His knock allowed Sri Lanka to raise a substantial total despite the excellent bowling and fielding by the Indians.

The Sri Lankans were off to a disastrous start when Tillakaratne Dilshan, the Man of the Series against Pakistan, was run out for a duck in the very first over of the day. It was left to left-handers Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara to counter the new ball operators. Zaheer Khan was treated with respect but Munaf Patel was taken for runs. 

The spinners, Pragyan Ojha, Yousuf Pathan, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma, bowled tightly after Ishant Sharma, the quickest bowler on show, had delivered another lively spell that’s allow even the likes of Jayasuriya and Sangakkara to score freely.

Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan returned to bowl with great control and they dashed Sri Lanka’s hopes of registering a mammoth total despite Jayasuriya’s knock of 107 at nearly run a ball.

The target of 247 in 50 overs was unlikely to test the Indian batting line-up but a shocking decision by Kumar Dharmasena early in the innings provided an opening to the home side. Dharmasena, now an international umpire, might have taken the stick at the hands of Sachin Tendulkar in his playing days but this was not a decent way to settle scores. He declared the Indian master lbw off a ball that pitched outside leg. 

Unlike the past, the Indians, however, were not bogged down after being at the receiving end of another harsh umpiring decision. Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina kept the scoreboard moving and their half-centuries put the visitors in a very strong position.

The momentum was kept up by Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, two of the most powerful strikers of the cricket ball, when Gambhir and Raina fell in quick succession. 

The spin duo of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, who pose the main threat to the Indians, was tackled with confidence and without taking risks. The tactics worked and with Dhoni in total command of the situation there was hardly a moment when India could have felt the pressure. Rohit Sharma also displayed great maturity by rotating the strike and waiting for the loose ball for the odd boundary. The target was achieved with minimum of fuss with as many as 11 deliveries remaining. 

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January 28, 2009

Shoaib Malik’s head on the chopping block


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Somebody’s head had to be put on the chopping block after the 234-run loss to Sri Lanka in the third and final One-day International at the Qaddafi Stadium, Lahore, and now it was the time for skipper Shoaib Malik to face the music. He has been replaced by Younis Khan.

Shoaib Malik, who never looked an inspirational leader, had been given a vote of confidence by the PCB only a few weeks ago but the scenario changed dramatically with the defeat in the recent ODI series against Sri Lanka.

Two wrongs don’t make one right. The PCB management, in the first place, should not have displayed so much faith in Shoaib Malik while granting him an extension very recently. Sacking him just on the basis of one series could spell further disaster for the team.

Shoaib Malik had been appointed the captain by the previous regime and the movers and shakers in the PCB should have reassessed him properly before venturing to repose total faith in him.

How a captain, who was showered with so much praise just a few weeks ago, could become a spent force overnight. The best time for the PCB, having so many outstanding cricketers in its management, to get away with him was at the time when his captaincy tenure had expired.

The same Shoaib Malik was being considered as a successful skipper when he led Pakistan to the most unbelievable of victories in the first ODI at the National Stadium, Karachi. It was really stunning to find the Sri Lankans getting rolled over in the manner they were in the opening game.

Sometimes unexpected and undeserved success also becomes the cause of a turnaround. False expectations were built after the first ODI and there was widespread resentment and anguish when the team was floored in the next two games. 

There might not have been this kind of fierce reaction had Pakistan been whitewashed in the ODI series in a normal fashion. There was a big difference in the level of two teams, in terms of experience as well as class. Sri Lanka didn’t play like Sri Lanka in the first ODI and people started believing that a similar pattern would be followed in the rest of the series. The story changed, however, when the Sri Lankans started to play to their potential. 

Poor Shoaib Malik had to pay the price of getting over-confident after the upset win in the first ODI. He was guilty of getting carried away, poking his nose everywhere. It was none of his business to warn his teammates during the course of the series. He seemed to have taken it for granted that his own future was absolutely secured and he had the power to call the shots.

What he had overlooked was the fact that arrogance is one quality that lets even the most successful conquerors down. He was guilty of overstepping his line and he has been taught a lesson right away.

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January 27, 2009

Naeem-ul-Haq sets cricket in motion in United States


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

No matter how developed the society may be and how established the institutions are in place more often than not it are the proactive individuals who become the catalyst in bringing about a change.

Cricket has a deep rooted history in the United States of America (USA) but it has remained a minority sport over the years and it continues to be that way despite the presence of a large number of expatriates from the nations that have excelled in the game.

While the International Cricket Council (ICC), the governing body of the game, remains engaged in promoting the sport within its own set of policies, one needs to recognize the contribution of the fellows who are devoting all their energies in helping the game survive and flourish in the USA.

One individual who has stood out in promoting cricket in the USA in recent times is Naeem-ul-Haq, a former first-class cricketer from Karachi, who has now relocated on the outskirts of Miami in Florida.

Naeem, who also played for his employers Pakistan Customs besides representing Karachi before migrating to the USA, has been working hard for the promotion of the game from the moment he landed there.

He has been actively involved with the Michigan Cricket Association (MCA), having worked closely with its livewire President, Shahid Ahmed, who has also moved there from Karachi.

Naeem and Shahid, although living thousands of miles apart in the USA, have done wonders by joined hands in promoting the game. The two Karachiites have taken the time out to work for the promotion of the game on a regular that’s indeed the key.

In the past we have come across some enthusiasts who emerged on the scene with high spirits but disappeared quickly when they found the going tough as cricket is not one sport that’s going to make waves at this stage.

Besides the high level of commitment, a lot of patience is also required to promote cricket in the USA. By the look of things Naeem and Shahid appear to be having the qualities that could signal a turnaround in the fortunes of the game there.

Their single largest contribution so far seems to be the Diversity Cup that they have been able to hold successfully in Michigan for the past few years. It has become an annual event in which teams from different communities take part every summer. They have already announced to hold this year’s Diversity Cup from July 3 to 5.

The legendary cricketers like Javed Miandad, Greg Chappell, Asif Iqbal and Mushtaq Mohammad have already been to Detroit and they have lauded the efforts aimed at popularizing the game that has so much potential.

Naeem, a qualified coach now, is lately in the process of launching the Florida Cricket Academy for which he has already obtained a piece of land in Fort Lauderdale. He is in Karachi these days and the main purpose of his visit is to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the famed Customs Cricket Academy, founded by Jalaluddin, the first bowler to have recorded a hat-trick in One-day Internationals.

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January 24, 2009

Sri Lanka finally play to their potential to pocket series


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Sri Lanka got into their elements in the last couple of One-day Internationals after horrible performance in the opening match. The moment visitors played to their potential there was no escape route for Pakistan.

The two massive wins recorded by Sri Lanka in the second as well as the third ODI confirmed that they were far superior outfit and their defeat in the first ODI was one of those things that one may not be able to justify purely in cricketing terms.

The Sri Lankans simply bulldozed Pakistan when they did look serious after the debacle in the first one-dayer at the National Stadium, Karachi, on January 20. They registered a comprehensive win at the same venue just 24 hours later and they annexed the three-match series with an even more emphatic victory in the third and final game at the Qaddafi Stadium, Lahore, on January 24.

Sri Lanka, after having failed to capitalize on the terrific start in the first two matches, opted to start off sedately and the acceleration was carried out at a later stage. The tactics reflected a lack of confidence in their middle-order batting that couldn’t fire in the previous two games.

Openers Tillakaratne Dilshan and Sanath Jayasuriya were given the license to play themselves in and play out as many overs as they desired. Jayasuriya, who is known and feared for his attacking instincts, was content in playing out the early overs and he exploded far too late from his own high standards.

Jayasuriya, having played some destructive knocks in his long and illustrious career, threatened to stamp his authority once more when he got into Rao Iftikhar Anjum in the 15th over the innings. But very fortunately from Pakistan’s point of view he miscued a shot just when he looked in complete command of the situation

Dilshan did not repeat his mistake of giving it away after having done all the hard work. He took his time in reaching his half-century but he played much more freely afterwards to keep the score ticking over. He batted until the very end and his second ODI century covered the failures of the middle-order once more. It was mainly due to his unbeaten 137 off 139 balls that Sri Lanka managed to get to a score of 309 in 50 overs.
Sri Lanka looked to their opening bowlers, Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara, once more and they rose to the occasion magnificently. Both of them swung the ball appreciably to capture three early wickets each to send Pakistan crashing to 22 for six in the ninth over. 

The result of the match and the series was never in doubt once the Pakistan top-order batting was blown away by the fast bowlers with the new ball. Umar Gul played some agricultural shots to delay the inevitable. His breezy knock saved Pakistan from the embarrassment of getting bowled out for the lowest-ever ODI score. It turned out to be a no contest as Sri Lanka completed a 234-run win.
The hosts were eventually all out for 75, the lowest ODI total at the ground that has been the scene of many high moments of the Pakistan cricket. 
The great off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan claimed his 500th ODI wicket when he castled Sohail Khan, playing his first match of the series.

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January 23, 2009

PCB chief optimistic about Asif’s clearance


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

The Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), Ijaz Butt, has expressed the confidence that the mercurial fast bowler Mohammad Asif will be cleared by the doping authorities and he will be playing for Pakistan soon.

“Asif will be selected for the Pakistan team as soon as he is available to us. I have gone through the latest emails sent to the PCB by WADA and ICC and personally I feel that he will not be banned for a long time,” Ijaz Butt remarked while chatting with this scribe in Karachi on January 22.

“Other cricketers have been charged and found guilty of similar offence in the past. Even Shane Warne was involved in such a case on the eve of the World Cup in 2003 and if I remember correctly he was banned for a year,” he recalled.

“I don’t think Asif will be penalized with a life ban or anything that harsh. He could be barred for playing for only a while and then he will have the opportunity to resume his career,” the PCB Chairman reckoned.

”It’s all speculation and gossip that he would be banned for life. He seems to have committed an offence but it’s not all that serious and he could get away with token punishment,” Ijaz Butt said.

Asif, hailed as one of the deadliest fast bowlers on the scene, has been in the news mostly for the wrong reasons in the recent past. He has been involved in various controversies having prevented him from playing regularly for the country.

Having made his Test debut in January 2005 during the tour of Australia, he tested positive for a banned steroid in 2006 but the ban was eventually overturned and he returned to spearhead Pakistan’s bowling attack.

He showed improvement in leaps and bounds, becoming a most valuable player for the side in a very short span of time. The recognition of his growing stature came in the shape of his appointment as Pakistan’s vice-captain.

He was laid low by an elbow injury but just when he had regained fitness he was detained at the Dubai airport last June, allegedly for possessing a recreational drug. He was released after 19 days. There was further setback for him when he tested positive for a banned drug during the IPL.

The 26-year old Asif has been able to play only 11 Test matches and 31 One-day Internationals during a career spanning four years now. It’s a pity that a man of his talent has not been able to play more.

He made such a great impact in the limited opportunities having come his way. His nagging line and length reminded many of the great Australian Glenn McGrath. He was often compared to McGrath for his accuracy and consistency.

Pakistan has desperately missed Asif’s services at a time when speedster Shoaib Akhtar has also not been able to play for the country for one reason or the other. Asif can still prove an asset for Pakistan and he has many years of cricket left in him.

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January 22, 2009

Sri Lanka level series despite uncertain batting display


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Sri Lanka have managed to square the series by winning the second One-day International against Pakistan at the National Stadium, Karachi, on January 21. It was a comprehensive win on paper but it still reflected their inability to make use of the flying start.

For a moment it had looked that Sri Lanka would lose their way in exactly the same manner as they had done on the previous afternoon. They fared better than what they had done in the opening but their batting could not take the advantage in the final phase of the innings.

Sri Lanka were expected to post a total well past 300 when they were cruising at 165 for two in the 29th over. Generally the 30-over score is doubled during the last 20 overs in a 50-over game and with so many wickets in hand the visitors were ideally placed to do that in the friendliest of batting conditions.

To have finished at 290 in 50 overs meant their batting was still not firing on all cylinders. The nature of wickets in Bangladesh might have restrained their free-flowing batsmen but there was hardly any excuse for not having pushed for runs on the National Stadium strip full of runs.

The stroke played by Tillakaratne Dilshan in the 29th over didn’t make sense. He threw away his wicket when in complete command of the situation. It was a soft dismissal against the run of play and it cost his team quite a few runs in the end. 

Dilshan, basically a middle-order batsman, probably looked unaware of the fact that the task of an opening batsman is to play to for as long as possible instead of considering his job done after playing out 30 overs.

That Sri Lanka pulled off a comfortable 129-run victory despite having been restricted to 290 was owed much to their opening bowlers, Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara, who broke the back of the hosts top-order batting.

The celebrate spin duo of Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan came into the picture much later. The platform was set for the two spinners to force the issue after the fast bowlers had shaken the top-order.

The match was still wide open when Salman Butt and Shoaib Malik negotiated the deadliest of spin bowlers with the minimum of hassle. The century partnership, in fact, had provided Pakistan an opportunity to seal the series.

The complexion of the game changed when the big stand was broken and it allowed the spinners to get on top and settle the issue. The deficiencies in the Pakistan batting were exposed and the contest became a one-sided affair in the end.

The Sri Lankan certainly comparatively played better cricket but Mahela Jayawardene must be aware of the fact that his guys need to raise the bar and be more consistent in future games. He has such a gifted side at his disposal but somehow they have not been coming as well as they should be. One reason could be playing far too many games but that has very much become a norm in international cricket these days.

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January 21, 2009

Pakistan overcome Sri Lanka’s friendly fire with remarkable ease


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Was there any element of surprise in the proceedings or the result of the first One-day International between Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the National Stadium, Karachi, on January 20? My answer is no.

The unusually casual approach of the Sri Lankan cricketers might have caught some of the spectators or the viewers by surprise but to those having an insight into the game or well versed with the history of the game there was hardly anything unpredictable.

Historically the Sri Lankans have seldom taken the field in an aggressive frame of mind while encountering Pakistan. They have looked tigers and panthers against other opponents but that has hardly been the case when they are up against Pakistan.

Sri Lanka have indeed won matches against Pakistan but their intensity on the field has generally not been the same as the one they have had while combating fancied teams like Australia, South Africa and India.

Their performance or the lack of it in the first ODI also left one wondering if they would be using the ongoing three-match series as practice for the upcoming home series against India in which they would be expected to fire on all cylinders.

Sri Lanka have been taught some lessons in the first ODI. Their famed spin duo of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis had a forgettable day against a not too formidable Pakistan batting line-up.

Muralitharan and Mendis had wreaked havoc among the most celebrated batting line-up of the world but they were treated like novices even by Pakistan’s new opener Khurram Manzoor.

Salman Butt, the more experienced of the home openers, made most of the friendly conditions to complete his unbeaten century that guided Pakistan to the most comfortable of victories. It was a cakewalk win for the hosts. They could not have asked for a better start to the series.

The Sri Lankans were outplayed in every department of the game in the opening one-dayer after a promising start. There was nothing wrong in the pitch and the conditions were ideal for batting. Mahela Jayawardene did his team a big favour by winning the toss.

Sanath Jayasuriya and Tillakaratne Dilshan got the visitors off to a flyer. They punished Pakistan’s new ball operators, Shoaib Akhtar and Sohail Tanvir. But they collapsed when the ball lost its shine and lesser mortals were pressed into service. Umar Gul and Rao Iftikhar Anjum turned the tide decisively and Sri Lanka, for who looked capable of getting well over 300, had to struggle in reaching 200. None of the Sri Lankan middle-order batsmen dared taking the fight to the opposition and even the home spinners were allowed to return decent figures.  

But it was a different ball game for the champion spinners Muralitharan and Mendis, who are otherwise the most lethal weapons in international cricket. With Sri Lanka not possessing threatening fast bowlers it seems unlikely that their slow bowlers are going to create pressures on the Pakistan batsmen.

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January 20, 2009

Sri Lanka payback Pakistan


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

It’s not common to find the head of the national cricket board sparing time to go down to the airport to receive any of the visiting teams. Ijaz Butt, Chairman, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), personally greeted the Sri Lankan cricket squad at Karachi’s Quaid-e-Azam International Airport when the tourists landed on January 18.

It was probably an unprecedented gesture but not entirely unexpected in the given scenario. With the foreign teams expressing their reluctance to play in Pakistan, the PCB has acknowledged the support of their Sri Lankan counterparts who have honoured their commitment of touring Pakistan.

It has been in the practice in the past in Pakistan that the visiting teams were received at the airport only by the officials of the local cricket associations. So it was quite an unfamiliar sight to find the head of the board in the reception party.
The top functionaries of the Karachi City Cricket Association (KCCA) were also present on the occasion to welcome the Sri Lankan cricketers. The KCCA President, Dr Mohammad Ali Shah, who is the also the Sindh Minister of Sports, was very much there with the long-serving Secretary of the Association, Prof Siraj-ul-Islam Bokhari.
This is a special tour not because it has been arranged hastily but primarily because it’s being undertaken by the Sri Lankans at a very critical time. They have proved bad time friends.
The PCB has had special relationship with their Sri Lankan counterparts over the years. They have had a history of helping each others in need.
How can one forget 1996. The Sri Lankans had taken the world by storm with their brilliant performance in the field. Their experiment of going hard at the bowlers from the first ball of the innings had worked wonders and they were being talked of as world-beaters.
At a time when their team had peaked and was being considered as one of the strongest contenders for the trophy for the first time in history there was a shock in store for their cricket board when Australia and the West Indies refused to play their World Cup games in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Board, being co-hosts, had found itself in a very embarrassing situation and it was the Pakistan Board that came to the rescue by agreeing to play a hastily arranged match in Colombo to offset the losses the home board suffered due to the cancellation of matches against Australia and the West Indies.
The then Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga was sporting enough to acknowledge Pakistan’s timely support by playing at Colombo when he held aloft the trophy at the Qaddafi Stadium, Lahore.
The present Sri Lankan skipper Mehela Jayawardene has also referred to the point upon arrival in Karachi that the current visit was a kind of returning friendly favour to Pakistan who had toured the island nation when some teams had refused to travel there for security reasons some years ago.
“It was an obligation for the Sri Lankans to come to Pakistan when invited and even players who discussed the tour were of the opinion that it was time for Sri Lanka to return a gesture that Pakistan had shown almost under similar circumstances,” he said.

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January 19, 2009

Sri Lanka could be jolted in ODI series


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Although the present bunch of talented and experienced Sri Lankan cricketers has the mental toughness to overcome the nightmarish situations it found itself in during the just concluded three-nation tournament in Bangladesh but its recent inconsistency does provide Pakistan a window of opportunity in the three-match ODI series starting at the National Stadium, Karachi, on January 20.

It’s the same venue where the Sri Lankans had annexed the Asia Cup last year with hints of conviction. They had proved too good for all their Asian rivals to become the deserved continental champions.

On paper the Sri Lankans are still the stronger side and they should be the considered the favourites to dominate the series of three ODIs against the home side far too short of international exposure during the recent times.

Pakistan, however, have had the reputation of taking the strongest of opponents to ride on their day. It’s the team that can never be written off even while fielding the most ordinary of outfits.
The Sri Lankan skipper Mahela Jayawardene, upon his arrival in Karachi, has played down the defeat at the hands of Bangladesh in their league meeting and then the great escape in the final against the same opponents by reaffirming that his side knew how to perform in adversity.
Jayawardene, being a shrewd leader besides being an outstanding batsman, must be aware of the fact, however, that it’s not a healthy sign to collapse against the minnows more than once.

Jayawardene would also be mindful of the fact that their magician spin duo of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis may be blunted by the Pakistan batsmen, who play the spinners better than the best.
In the past it have been the genuine fast bowlers who have threatened Pakistan even on the docile wickets rather than any spin great. No matter how skilled and penetrative the Sri Lankan spinners have been elsewhere there’s no guarantee that they would drive home the advantage in Pakistan.
Muralitharan and Mendis have had phenomenal success. The 36-year-old Muralitharan, already the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket with a tally of 769, is on the threshold of achieving the similar record in ODIs. He looks set to go past the great Pakistan all-rounder Wasim Akram who was the first to reach the milestone of 500 wickets in ODIs.
It would be a great honour for Muralitharan to become the highest wicket-taker in both forms of the game. He is nine wickets away from the landmark it seems a matter of time for him to have it in his bag.
Besides the wily off-spinner Muralitharan, the unorthodox spin of Mendis has also taken the world by storm. He may not a big turner of the ball but he has enormous variety to fox the batsmen and the 23-year-old has also already entered record books by claiming 50 wickets in the least number of ODIs.
The Sri Lankans have a powerful batting line-up with the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Sanath Jayasuriya and Tillakaratne Dilshan in their ranks. The youngsters like Upul Tharanga, Chamara Kapugedera and Jehan Mubarak have to rise to the occasion to complement the experienced campaigners. They have a decent pace bowling attack and the presence of utility men like Farveez Maharoof adds balance to their team.

The home team is a blend of youth and experience with Shoaib Malik leading the side for the first time after being granted the extension to his tenure. Misbah-ul-Haq, Salman Butt, and Younis Khan will hold the key in batting while all-rounders Shahid Afridi, Yasir Arafat and Sohail Tanvir are expected to make their presence felt in a big way.
Hopefully the fit-again Shoaib Akhtar will not break down again to spearhead the attack during the entire length of the series with the tried trusted medium-pacers in Umar Gul and Rao Iftikhar in the support cast.

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January 17, 2009

A tale of two thrillers


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

January 16, 2009 turned out to be one of the most exciting days for the cricket enthusiasts all over the world. It was not unusual to have more one contest taking place on the day but there was double treat for the followers of the game as both the matches produced thrilling stuff until the very end.

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were engaged in a low-scoring cliff-hanger in Mirpur while Australia and South Africa thrilled the audience at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) with yet another memorable encounter between two of the strongest sides in the business today.
Sri Lanka were extremely lucky to get away with it against Bangladesh and it were the heroics of Muttiah Muralitharan with the bat that saved the day for the tourists. The Sri Lankans had appeared dead and buried when the top half of their batting was back in the hut with only six runs on the board.
Bangladesh had become the firm favourites to lift the trophy even while defending a modest total of 152 in the final of the three-nation series but their hopes were shattered by the belligerence of Muralitharan who surprised everyone with his match-winning cameo down the order.
Muralitharan is always expected to be a match-winner but that’s because of his outstanding qualities with the ball. His magical off-spin bowling has engineered innumerable conquests for his team in every form of the game but probably it was for the first time in his illustrious career that his batting exploits turned the tide so decisively.
Although the Man of the Match award was clinched by Kumar Sangakkara for his half-century that might not have mattered had Muralitharan not produced that sensational unbeaten knock of 33 from only 16 balls.
Sri Lanka would have fancied their chances of recoding a cakewalk win when they came out to chase a target of 153 in 50 overs. Indeed it should have been a straight forward proposition for their star-studded batting but the target was looking out of reach after the nightmarish start to their innings.

Bangladesh also had made a recovery in their innings after being 54 for 5 in the 19th over. They got themselves into a very good position when they progressed to 149 for 6 at the end of 47 overs. Ajantha Mendis mauled the lower-order as the hosts last their last four wickets for only three runs.
The quality of cricket at the MCG was obviously higher where Australia and South Africa locked horns. After a few twists and turns during the course of the high-scoring fixture South Africa managed to pull of their sixth successive ODI win over the hosts at the historic ground.
Albie Morkel’s blistering unbeaten knock of 40 from 18 balls settled the issue which was still in doubt when 50 runs were still needed from the last six overs. JP Duminy and Neil McKenzie had earlier played their role admirably in reviving the innings that had been off to a shaky start while chasing target of 272 in 50 overs.

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January 16, 2009

Plenty of table tennis events planned in Karachi


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Besides being the financial capital of the country, Karachi is also the hub of sporting activities in Pakistan. Table tennis has been one of the most popular games in the metropolis but its controlling bodies in the past lacked the visionary approach to raise its standard.
The game also suffered enormously due to the politicking in the bodies whose premier objective was to prolong their stay in office by hook or crook. The Pakistan Table Tennis Federation (PTTF), for a number of years, remained chiefly responsible for the decline all over the country and Karachi was no exception.
The game of table tennis, however, has come alive in Karachi for the past couple of years with the induction of a few committed individuals who have been trying desperately to make things happen. It’s a very pleasant change and the results are coming.
The leadership of the Karachi Table Tennis Association (KTTA) is in the capable hands of Dr Farhan Essa and Javed Chhotani, both of whom have already made a difference by putting things in the right direction.
The KTTA held a media briefing at the National Sports Training and Coaching Centre (NSTCC) on January 14 in which they announced their plans to organize Inter-Schools, Inter-Firms and Inter-Towns Championships besides a couple of more events during the first quarter of the year.
Dr Farhan Essa, Chairman KTTA, revealed that a coaching camp for the students will be starting as early as on January 15 in order to let them prepare for the upcoming tournaments.
“The Inter-Schools tournament will be starting on February 1 and it will be followed by the Inter-Towns event due to commence on February 15. The Inter-Firms tournament will be getting underway in the last week of February,” Dr Farhan Essa revealed.
“We have planned to organize the 2nd Dr Essa Mohammad Ranking Tournament and the Inter-District Tournament during the month of March,” he added.
“Moving further we have the Amroha Ranking Championships and the Islamia Open Championships whose dates will be finalized later. We will be holding a few other events too before getting ready to host the National Championship late this year,” Dr Farhan Essa said.

The KTTA Chairman acknowledged the support of the sports departments of the provincial and city governments, hoping to get maximum cooperation from them to accomplish their mission of improving the standard of table tennis in the metropolis.
The President of the Sindh Olympic Association (SOA) and the Sindh Minister for Sports, Dr Mohammad Ali Shah, who was also present on the occasion, lauded the efforts of the KTTA while announcing a grant of Rupees half a million.
“The initiatives of the KTTA are heartening and they deserve the support of the government as well as the private sector. We are confident that our grant will help them in organizing their tournaments. I am particularly looking forward to the Inter-Towns event that is a new concept,” Dr Shah observed.
Dr Shah, one of the leading orthopedic surgeons of the country, noted that table tennis was one sport that was particularly refreshing for the eyes.
The PTTF President S M Sibtain, also commended Dr Farhan Essan and his team at the KTTA for their proactive approach and he hoped that the other associations in the country will derive inspiration from them.

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January 15, 2009

Sri Lanka benefit from cancellation of India’s tour to Pakistan


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Sri Lanka, rather unfortunate not to have dethroned Australia in the last World Cup, have got a lucky break with the cancellation of India’s tour to Pakistan. They are the real beneficiaries.

The cricket authorities in Pakistan as well as in India eyed a series with Sri Lanka to fill the vacuum. They were the only team supposed to have a breather during this period of time but as the luck would have it they have not one but two teams to handle.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) was eager to play host to a longer series against Sri Lanka to offset the losses but their counterparts became double-minded when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) also started pushing for a series around the same time.

Now both the tours have been confirmed. Sri Lanka would indeed be touring Pakistan, albeit in phases and in between they will play a series of One-day Internationals at home against India.

In fact the itinerary of Sri Lanka’s tour has now been revised following the confirmation of their series against India. The Sri Lankans desired curtailing their stay in Pakistan and the PCB hardly had any other choice. They didn’t have the cushion to turn down the request and they have agreed to scrap Multan as one of the venues for the three-match ODI series.

There is not security issue or anything related to it but the PCB was left with no other option than to stage back to back ODIs at the National Stadium, Karachi, and the third and final game to be held at the Qaddafi Stadium, Lahore.

According to the revised schedule, Sri Lanka will now play two ODIs on January 20 and 21 at the National Stadium, Karachi, with the final match of the series at the Qaddafi Stadium, Lahore, on January 24.

Originally the first game of the ODI series was to be played at Karachi on January 21, the second one in Lahore on January 24 and the third and fine one in Multan on January 27.

Sri Lanka's tour of Pakistan will be split into two parts. In the first part they will play the ODI series before returning home for a five-match ODI series against India but they will be back in Pakistan for two Tests.

Meanwhile the Sri Lankan authorities have officially confirmed that they will play host to India for a five-match limited overs series during the month of February. India’s hurriedly arranged tour to Sri Lanka will also include a Twenty20 International.

The dates and venues of the Sri Lanka-India matches are yet to be finalized but it seems a matter of time for the itinerary of the tour to be released.

The BCCI, eager to make up for the recent losses in revenue, has also approached their counterparts in New Zealand to add an extra Test match during India’s upcoming tour and it’s extremely likely that they would be accommodated.

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January 13, 2009

Matthew Hayden’s exit will hurt Australia


By Syed Khalid Mahmood
Matthew Hayden, having scripted many famous wins for his country, has decided to call it a day before he was treated as a liability for his team becoming progressively weaker with the departure of the tried and trusted campaigners.
Australia, in the coming years, could face similar crisis as the West Indies did after having ruled the world for quite sometime in the 1980s. The West Indians have never really recovered after having created a situation where the senior pros were asked to pack up.

Hayden’s absence will be sorely felt at the top of the order. He was the man who provided Australia, more often than not, the cracking start that demoralized the opposing teams. The big left-hander was not afraid to take the aerial route if the ball was pitched in his zone even in the first over of a Test match.

Australia indeed have a system in place that keeps throwing talented youngsters. Their academies groom the gifted teenagers and the standard of their domestic cricket is indeed higher than in any other country. But neither of these factors means that the seasoned guys like Hayden should be pressurized to quit the scene the moment they come up with below par performance.

The Australians have their own lifestyle but they have become little arrogant with the success they have accomplished in the past. But by letting go their stalwarts one by one, when they still had some years of cricket left in them, the concerned authorities are taking too big a risk.

Australia are yet to recover from the shock of losing people like Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist, all of whom were the tend-setters in their respective fields. Hayden was also one of them who symbolized aggressive cricket.
The departure of McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist and Hayden means they have now lost four genuine match-winners. The majority of the Australian triumphs during the era of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting were engineered by this quartet.

Damien Martyn, Justin Langer and Jason Gillespie were also brilliant cricketers but they were more often in the support cast. Their exit also deprived Australia of invaluable experience but their replacements did good enough to keep the momentum going. But it may not be possible to cover the losses of the once in generation kind of cricketers.

How quickly would Australia find a replacement for Hayden remains to be seen. He was a dasher who took the match away with the blink of an eye. His punishing knocks allowed Australia to dominate their rivals from the outset. It’s quite unlikely that any youngster would be able to fill in his shoes right away.

Enormous pressure was building on Hayden in his own country when runs had dried up off his bat this summer and he chose to call it a day gracefully like Gilchrist had done a year before him.

Hayden will be missed in international cricket. His awesome batting display will live in memory of those having watched him. The big man was the destructive opening batsman who had a most memorable World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007. The bowlers, particularly the new ball operators, would be relieved with his exit from the scene.

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January 12, 2009

Kevin Pietersen’s aggression was just a bit too much


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Excess of anything is bad. Kevin Pietersen has been known for his aggression but the recent events have proved that he has been found wanting as the England captain and he has quit the job.

One of his prime responsibilities was proper coordination with coach Peter Moores to achieve their mutual objective of putting England in the top draw. As things have come out in the open now they had difference of opinion on issues leaving little chance of reconciliation.

Both Pietersen and Moores have been displaced now and England look to a new set of leaders to guide them in what promises to be an action-packed year with the showpiece Ashes battle just months away.

Pietersen’s tenure as captain turned out to be a brief one. He proved to be a mixed bad really. He looked positive at home last summer but he failed to impress in the demanding conditions during the winter tour of India.

The recent events could be a blessing in disguise for England because Pietersen was never a long-term prospect as a skipper. He lacked the wisdom and most importantly didn’t have the patience needed in a successful leader. He had an ordinary series in India where he had failed miserably in lifting the morale of the side.

Andrew Strauss may prove a better captain and England might benefit more with him being at the helm of the affairs. He appears to be more suited for the job primarily because of his temperament.
India, undoubtedly, were the better outfit but England should have offered stiffer resistance. Pietersen’s body language didn’t suggest that he was the kind of inspiring captain that was required to handle the situation.
Individual brilliance and leadership are two different things. There is no one who will dispute his abilities as a batsman. He is a wonderfully gifted cricketer who can take the game away on his own. He is innovative as a batsman who can tame the best of bowlers with his positive approach.

But leading the side required a lot of additional skills that he sadly lacked. He had the passion for doing things completely in his own way. That might have been acceptable in some other teams but that was never going to work in the system in operation in England.
It was the prerogative of the Board to appoint the coach. Obviously Pieterson was the not the captain at the time when Moores was selected for the job of coaching the team so he might not have been consulted on this issue.
Pieterson had every right to have a say in the matters relating to the team but he was also required to develop a working relationship with the coach. You can’t have the cake and eat it too as the saying goes. The disagreements and differences were all but natural. But they should not have come out in the open. Both of them needed, being professionals, to handle the situation amicably in order to prevent the embarrassing situation they got it that ultimately cost them their jobs.

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January 11, 2009

Happy Birthday Rahul Dravid


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Rahul Dravid turns 36 today. The batting maestro didn’t have a particularly good time in the middle the whole of last year and he needs to take a fresh guard on January 11, 2009 to be able to weather the storm for quite a few more years.

Dravid, undoubtedly the most accomplished batsman of his generation, has still a role to play in the Indian cricket team that boasts of the most potent batting line-up in the world. His presence at number three provides the balance to an outfit whose intent is to play for win.

India today has many outstanding young batsmen who can take the fight to the opposition with their brilliant stroke-play. But how many of them have the capacity to graft an innings or to occupy the crease for a long time in Test matches. The Indian youngsters are doing well in the limited overs contests but they have to look to the seasoned campaigners in the longer version of the game.

Dravid provides stability to the Indian batting. He has the technique as well as the temperament to grind the bowling, a tendency not common in youngsters anywhere in the world. He adds value to the team with his grit and fighting qualities.

I totally agree with the Indian chief selector Kris Srikkanth who has very clearly stated that Dravid will be one of the key elements of the team during the upcoming tour of New Zealand.

"He's a batsman with over 10,000 runs in Test cricket. He is also among the greatest batsmen the world has produced. If you don't give Dravid the extra leeway, whom are you going to give it to?” he very rightly questioned to the critics having gone an extra mile in lamenting Dravid.

"We have specific plans. During the forthcoming series in New Zealand, a player like Dravid will be very crucial for us. There will be bounce and movement for the pacemen there. If India are to progress to the No. 1 ranking, it has to beat New Zealand in New Zealand. Dravid will be a key member of the line-up at the No. 3 slot," Srikkanth was quoted as saying.

It’s very heartening indeed to find the chief selector backing the player undergoing a lean patch. I think Srikkanth deserves credit here for not having got carried away. Obviously he and his panel of selectors much have been under immense pressure to dump Dravid for the tour of New Zealand.

Indeed Dravid has endured a lean patch in 2008. But why do people so conveniently ignore the fact that he held the Indian batting together from the time he entered the Test arena in 1996 until 2007. An ordinary year after 11 golden years doesn’t necessarily mean that the man is finished.

His greatness has been beyond doubt. He has scored heavily in every continent of the world. He has delivered where the others have found wanting. He has won India more Test matches than anyone else. It’s just a matter of time for him to regain his touch. His bat has the power to silence the guns of his critics.

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January 10, 2009

Victorious skipper Smith out of action for a while


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

The loss of victorious skipper Graeme Smith, due to an elbow injury, will be a big blow to South Africa’s chances of pocketing the upcoming series of One-day Internationals against Australia.
Smith, a picture of courage and fortitude, had played the third and final Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground despite not being fully fit but he suffered another injury during the course of his innings on the second day and it cost his team dearly.

As usual he was dominating the Australian bowlers when he was hit on his gloves by Mitchell Johnson and he was force to retire. The South Africans were jolted by his non-presence in the field.

Having the scores of 48, 108, 62 and 75 in the previous four innings, he was in complete command of the situation when he had to leave the field abruptly. He did make an attempt to stay at the crease but the first-aid at the ground was not enough to treat the serious injury.

The complexion of the Sydney Test changed with the premature exit of Smith. The incoming batsmen tried to make up but none of them could play the kind of attacking knock the skipper was capable of playing. His knocks had been instrumental in guiding his team to victories in both the previous games.

South Africa, who might have entertained hopes of getting a first innings lead even after Michael Clarke and the tail-enders had extended the Australian total to 445, finished far too many in arrears to add to their discomfort.

Smith’s absence was felt in the field too when Australia came out in pursuit of quick runs in their second innings. It became evident soon that the acting skipper Neil McKenzie lacked the skills to handle the bowlers and set proper fields for them.

The best way of restricting the flow of run was by picking up the wickets but McKenzie appeared more interested in saving the boundaries by spreading the field. What he probably overlooked the fact that his fast bowlers were likely to be more effective when supported by attacking fields.

It was a pity to find a bowler of the caliber of Dale Steyn, who was adjudged Man of the Match in only the previous game, was left to operate with a solitary slip. The edges were found and they went into gaps. The South Africans would have been much better off playing normal cricket instead of going on to the defensive.

One is not sure if Ricky Ponting would have declared the innings as early as he did if Smith was fit. The Australian skipper bought more time for his bowlers by setting a challenging target. It could have been a different story to relate had Ponting delayed the declaration by adopting safety first approach.

Smith reappeared on the field only in the final session of the game in pursuit of salvaging a draw. He came out to bat at number eleven with more than half an hour’s play left. The wounded tiger refused to give up and it was only at the fag end when he picked by Johnson. 

Smith’s batting and captaincy will both be missed in the ODI series but he had to take the break in an effort to be fit by the time these two teams resume their Test rivalry as early as next month. 

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January 9, 2009

Dilshan the unlikely hero in record win


By Syed Khalid Mahmood
Tillakaratne Dilshan has been around for quite sometime, having made some useful contributions during his international career. He has played his role in the middle-order and also provided the odd breakthrough whenever the champion bowlers in the Sri Lankan side were at the receiving end for a while.
But Dilshan produced a sensational all-round performance in the second Test against Bangladesh at Chittagong’s Divisional Stadium playing the lead role in Sri Lanka’s record 465-run win.

It was the fifth biggest margin of victory in terms of runs but it was Sri Lanka’s highest ever so far. They rattled Bangladesh for 158 on the penultimate day to complete one of the most crushing victories of Test history.

Dilshan stole the limelight by scoring a century in both innings and if it was not enough he picked up four quick wickets for just 10 runs to the fourth evening to make the game his own. He followed up his brilliant knock of 162 in the first innings with another one of 143 in the second outing. 

Mind you Bangladesh were in high spirits after having gone down fighting in the first Test. They were looking quite ominous on the opening day of the second Test as well and it was Dilshan’s knock that allowed Sri Lanka to snatch the initiative. His 162 helped his team register a first innings score of 384 that represented quite a recovery.

The devastating spin duo of Ajantha Mendis and Mutiah Muralitharan forced the Bangladeshi batsmen to submission but Sri Lanka still faced challenges to set a daunting task for the hosts who had batted so bravely in the first Test while chasing an improbable target of 521.

Sri Lanka needed to put a big total in their second innings to dictate terms and it was Dilshan who came up with the most impressive batting display. He completed his second century of the game in style.

Bangladesh had done so well in the Mirpur Test that the Sri Lankan skipper, Mahela Jayawardene, delayed the declaration until the overall lead was over 600. If the target of 521 in the first Test was improbable the task of getting 624 in the second Test was impossible.

Bangladesh had five sessions to negotiate but they knew the task was an uphill one and they had to play even better than they had done at Mirpur. They were confronting the most lethal spin attack in the world on a wearing pitch. Not many sides would be expected to come to terms with Mendis and Muralitharan in such environment.

There was hardly any surprise in watching the mystery spinner Mendis picking up wickets at regular intervals but there certainly was an element of shock when the Bangladesh lower-order succumbed to the friendly off-spin of Dilshan. 

It was Dilshan whose spell ensured the Sri Lankan victory on the fourth evening and it allowed them the luxury of an additional day for sightseeing in the Bangladesh port city. It was a match Dilshan is going to remember all his life.

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January 7, 2009

Australia’s consolation victory at Sydney


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Ricky Ponting’s sporting declaration on the fourth afternoon had provided South Africa a rare opportunity of inflicting a whitewash over Australia. The kind of performance the visitors had come up with in the earlier two Tests one thought that the Australians had taken a big risk even though Graeme Smith was unlikely to bat.
Ponting’s gamble paid immediate dividends when the makeshift opener, Morne Morkel, was picked up for nothing. But the resolute batting by Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla late on the fourth day kept the game alive and there were possibilities of all three results on the fifth day.
Obviously Australia held the advantage entering the last day but the inexperience of their bowling attack was a factor that prompted even the experts to believe that the South Africans had a realistic chance of knocking off the runs.
An exciting contest was in prospect at the Sydney Cricket Ground where Australia had pulled off a dramatic win over India in the closing stages last year. The inconsistent umpiring of Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson had helped the hosts greatly in taming the Indians but the Australians managed to down the high-flying South Africans without that kind of outside support.
Like the Sydney Test against India last year, the game went into the final session with the visitors fighting hard to save it. The injured Graeme Smith came in to bat at number eleven to bat out the remaining overs but the objective could not be achieved. 

But it was a very courageous act of the South African captain to have walked to the middle despite carrying a serious injury that had forced him to retire in the first innings. Smith had a broken left-hand and his right elbow was equally sore but he occupied the crease for nearly half an hour with Makhaya Ntini. 
Ntini, nor known for his batting skills, surprised many with his rearguard action. He and his new ball partner Dale Steyn, who enhanced his batting credentials with his gritty knock in the previous game, had earlier frustrated the home side for 75 minutes.

Smith and Ntini were in the process of salvaging a draw when left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Johnson went through the gate of the South African skipper with just five minutes remaining to give Australia a consolation victory. A year ago it was the part-time left-arm spin of Michael Clarke that had earned the hosts a win over India. 

Smith’s ambition of saving the Test could not be fulfilled but he would be leaving Australia, prematurely due to injury, as a man highly satisfied and elated. It’s after all for the first time that South Africa have won a Test series in Australia.
Ponting, under fire for not delivering the goods, had a rare moment to celebrate in the recent times. The inexperience bowling attack at his disposal comprising of Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, Doug Bollinger, Nathan Hauritz and Andrew McDonald won the game that allowed Australia to retain the number one world ranking. 

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January 2, 2009

Pakistan snooker calendar for 2009 announced


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

The new leadership of the Pakistan Billiards & Snooker Association (PBSA) has done a fabulous job by releasing the annual calendar of events on the eve of a new year.

An Executive Committee meeting of the PBSA was held at the Conference Room of the Karachi Club on December 31 in which among other things the schedule for the year 2009 was discussed and finalized. Most importantly it was released to the media within an hour.

The PBSA has planned to hold all the four national ranking tournaments in 2009 besides sending the outfits to the Asian Snooker Championship and the World Snooker Championship.

The PBSA office-bearers are confident that they would succeed in implementing their plans despite the crunch situation.

They could not organize the Latif Masters in the fall of 2008 and it was for the first time in 21 years that the annual event could not be held.

Alamgir Anwar Shaikh, President, PBSA, sounded positive and remarked unlike last year, it would be ensured that all the ranking tournaments are held in accordance with the original schedule.

According to the cue sports calendar for 2009, approved by the PBSA Executive Committee, the 34th National Snooker Championship will be held at Karachi in February to be followed by the second ranking event in the very next month at a venue that is yet to be finalized.

The third national ranking tournament is scheduled for the month of June at Islamabad while the Latif Masters, the fourth and final national ranking tournament of the year, will be taking place in Karachi in September.

The first major event of the year, however, will be the second edition of the NJI National Junior (Under-21) Snooker Championship to be held at the Karachi Club later this month. The event was launched with great fanfare early last year.

Besides organising the national events, the PBSA will be facilitating the participation of the cueists in the World Under-21 Snooker Championship, Asian Snooker Championship, 6-Red International Snooker Tournament and the World Snooker Championship to be held in February, April, May and November respectively.

Meanwhile the federal government will provide financial assistance of Rs 2.5 million to the PBSA in their pursuit for further development of cue sports in the country.

Federal Minister of Sports, Pir Aftab Shah Jilani, who met with the office-bearers of the PBSA at the Karachi Club on December 31, made the announcement while talking to the media corps.

“The Federal Sports Ministry would be arranging a grant of Rs 2.5 million for the PBSA to help them meet their estimated expenses of Rs 5 million for the year 2009. The first installment of the grant would be released to them shortly in order to let them prepare for the National Snooker Championship to be held in February,” Pir Aftab Shah said.

“The PBSA officials informed me that their total expenditure for the year 2009 would be Rupees 5 million that would cover the costs of four national ranking tournaments as well as facilitating the participation of Pakistan’s cueists in the Asian Snooker Championship as well as the World Snooker Championship,” he revealed.

“Half of the amount they plan to raise through sponsorship while they have sought financial assistance of the balance amount from the government. Our Ministry has accepted their request of arranging for the funds of Rs 2.5 million,” Pir Aftab Shah, himself a former first-class cricketer, added.

The assurance from the Federal Sports Minister has not only gladdened the hearts of the PBSA but is also great news for the snooker lovers all over the country. The Pakistan cue sports authorities thoroughly deserve the assistance from the government.

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January 1, 2009

South Africa, India most likely to rule cricket world in 2009


New Year Special

By Syed Khalid Mahmood

The curtain has fallen to the year 2008 and a new year, 2009, has dawned. This could be a year where changes in the world cricket rankings at the top look imminent. In other words the world order of cricket is to be revised. This may happen very quickly too.

South Africa, the most consistent of all Test teams in 2008, appear on verge of displacing Australia from the top of the tree. It could happen as early as the first week of the year because on current form South Africa are the favourites to roll over the Aussies in the third and final Test at Sydney.

South Africa, after having triumphed in 11 of the 15 Tests in 2008, certainly deserve to be crowned as the new leaders. They established total supremacy over Australia in the first two Tests and there seems no why they should not be completing a whitewash at Sydney.

A combination of factors has stretched Australia and it seems a matter of time before they surrender the position they have held for so many years. They have lost the cutting edge in the bowling department with the simultaneous exit of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, two of the greatest bowlers of the game. The retirement of Adam Gilchrist, the most destructive wicketkeeper-batsman, destabilized their batting.

Great cricketers like McGrath, Warne and Gilchrist are born after decades if not centuries. Obviously the Australian line-up lacks the power to knockout the opponents in their non-presence.

The departure of Warne in particular has hurt Australia deeply. Hailed as the greatest spin bowler of all time, he had the rare ability of winning matches on his own on any kind of surface. He foxed the batsmen and created the kind of pressure that used to demoralize the best of teams.

While Australia have lost three of its legendary cricketers, a couple of teams have improved in leaps and bounds during the same period. South Africa and India have emerged on the scene as the most powerful outfits. Lately they have proved too good for Australia as well.

Ricky Ponting now finds life difficult because teams like South Africa and India have greater self-belief and resilience as we have witnessed during the past few months. Another team that could also punish Australia is Sri Lanka with two ‘magical’ spinners in their ranks.

Unlike South Africa and India, Sri Lanka don’t possess a particularly potent pace attack an area they need to work on if they have to come good on hard and bouncy pitches.

South Africa hold the advantage in the fast bowling department with their spearhead Dale Steyn, in terrific form, enjoying the support of the likes of Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis. Paul Harris may not be a match-winning spinner yet but he complements the pace battery with his ability to dry up the runs.

India have the most balanced bowling attack in world cricket at the moment and the variety allows skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni to work on different options. With explosive openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir in the middle of a purple match India would be expected to win Test matches more regularly abroad than ever before.

So South Africa and India are the two teams looking ahead to the immediate future with great hopes. Australia may be forced to bring in some more new faces while Sri Lanka would be searching for a couple of quality fast bowlers strong enough to carry the burden at the international level.

England enjoyed slightly better record than Australia in 2008 but they could still face an uphill task as far as recapturing the Ashes is concerned. The traditional rivals had a great series in the summer of 2005 and we can witness some tense battles this summer too.

New Zealand and the West Indies continue to be in the phase of transition and they keep struggling in finding a trustworthy combination. Too much experimentation in both these teams has not helped their cause either.

Pakistan, unfortunately, didn’t get an opportunity to play a Test match in 2008 but hopefully they will not long to make their presence felt once they re-enter the scene in early 2009.

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