March 31, 2011

India, Sri Lanka avert miracles to cruise into final


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Well it’s never easy to predict the outcome of a cricket tournament to last over a month and with all the leading teams of the world participating. I had made an assessment on this blog before the start of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 that India and Sri Lanka are more likely to be the finalists this time. And I have been proved correct.

My assessment was based on the fact that these were the best two teams to have entered the competition being held in the Indo-Pak sub-continent where the pitches were to suit their style of play. Obviously they also had the resources and the firepower to do it. And they have done exactly that, albeit after some tense moments.

Both India and Sri Lanka had to prevent miracles in the quarter-finals as well as semifinals at the hands of their respective opponents to cruise into the final. India obviously faced the tougher task of knocking out the formidable Australia and then their arch-rivals Pakistan while Sri Lanka just had to play their normal game to rout England and New Zealand, both of whom had come that far exceeding all expectations.

So after a long time the top two teams of the tournament will be clashing in the final of the World Cup. India and Sri Lanka would be battling it out at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, for the trophy on April 2.

After having eliminated Australia and Pakistan, hosts India would be in a happier frame of mind in the final but they won’t be taking anything for granted because Sri Lanka have always been their bitter rivals.

Talking about rivalry, there was enormous tension before and during the semifinal tie between neighbours Pakistan and India at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali on March 30.

Pakistan carried with them the confidence of whacking big guns Sri Lanka and Australia in the league matches to finish at the top of the points table in Group A and their morale was boosted further with a cakewalk win over the West Indies in the quarter-finals.

The decision of the team management to persist with left-arm quickie Wahab Riaz instead of risking veteran speedster Shoaib Akhtar paid rich dividends as the youngster responded with a five-wicket haul to limit the Indian total to 260 after a whirlwind start provided by Virender Sehwag.

Off-spinner Saeed Ajmal also bowled exceptionally well to bamboozle the Indian batting stars who were clueless against him. Not surprisingly the catching was terrible to say the least otherwise they could have bowled India out inside 50 overs.

The Indian bowlers, for the second time in as many matches, were right on the money and they were shrewdly handled by Captain Cool, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The late charge from Misbah-ul-Haq couldn’t change the course of the proceedings. Both the losing semifinalists, Pakistan and New Zealand, deserved to be complimented to have progressed that far because neither of them was expected to go beyond the quarter-finals.

Australia and South Africa, who were considered the main challengers for the India and Sri Lanka, crashed in the quarter-finals. While the Australians, the winners of the last three editions of the World, went down fighting against India, the surrender of the South Africans against New Zealand came up as a big shocker.

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March 22, 2011

Nobody is favourite in knockout games this time round


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Look at what has happened in the league matches of the Cricket World Cup 2011 whose knockout phase starts with the quarter-finals on March 23.

In Group B, obviously the tougher of two groups, Ireland shocked England, Bangladesh stunned England, England surprised South Africa and South Africa edged out India. The West Indies prevailed over Ireland, Bangladesh and Netherlands but crashed against South Africa, England and India.

With the sole exception of Netherlands, who remained winless despite the awesome display of their wonder-boy Ryan tan Deschate, all the five teams were in business and stood a chance of making it to the quarter-finals. Finally it was the fancied quartet of South Africa, India, England and the West Indies who sailed through to the last eight, leaving behind Bangladesh and Ireland.

The situation in Group A was different and it remained a four-horse race all along with the quartet of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand, showing no mercy for the minnows. The trio of Zimbabwe, Kenya and Canada simply didn’t possess the firepower to test the experienced sides.

There were surprises galore in Group A, as well with Pakistan prevailing over hosts Sri Lanka and defending champions Australia while getting whacked by New Zealand, hammered by both Sri Lanka as well as Australia.

Unlike many of the last editions of the World Cup, there’s not a single unbeaten outfit in the league matches. Every team having reached the quarter-finals has tasted defeat and it’s very difficult to predict the outcome of the knockout games.

At the start of the tournament, Pakistan would have been expected to crush the West Indies, South Africa would have been tipped to blast New Zealand, Sri Lanka would have been installed as the firm favourites to topple England and India could have entered the game at a slight advantage against Australia.

But things have changed now since the start of the tournament and nobody would be surprised if exactly the opposite happens and the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand and England contest the semifinals at the expense of Pakistan, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

Pakistan have enhanced their reputation by tarnishing Australia’s grand unbeaten run of victories in the World Cup. Will Australia be finally dethroned this time round? The manner in their batting collapsed against Pakistan I don’t think anybody should be taken by surprise if they are whipped again.

What about Pakistan’s own chances of lifting the trophy? Well they are only three matches away but they still have a long way in the tournament of uncertainties. If they can routed by Ross Taylor of New Zealand there’s still plenty of energy left in Chris Gayle to lift his side with another astonishing knock. So Pakistan can’t take the West Indies for granted either although they are the weakest of the four quarter-finalists from the rival group.

I don’t know if anyone would still be backing India to reclaim the title after their dismal batting performance in the final phase of the innings not one time but three times during the course of the competition. It’s truly incredible how they got bowled out inside 50 overs against England, South Africa and the West Indies after being in total control till the 40th over of the innings.

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March 16, 2011

Pakistan safely through, India on tenterhooks


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Pakistan have accomplished their first task of securing a place in the quarter-finals with a resounding victory over Zimbabwe on March 13. The victory allows Pakistan a chance to have a go at the title. In fact they are now only three wins away from the title.

Their last league game against Australia would merely be of academic interest in the context of the tournament because both the teams have already secured their places in the knockout phase of the competition.

It’s Pakistan maiden entry beyond the first round for 12 years. They had powered their way to the final in 1999 but crashed in 2003 as well as in 2007, despite in possession of a formidable outfit on both occasions.

Although there’s no element of surprise in Pakistan’s advancement to the quarter-finals given the scenario in their Group but nothing could have been taken for granted after the debacle in 2007.

The Indians, on the other hand, have done enough to keep their millions of supporters on tenterhooks with their incredibly poor performance so far. They have fared more miserably than any of the minnows.

Even the teams like Canada, Kenya and the Netherlands have shown their greater will and determination to fight. Look at the way how Ireland have gone about their business with the limited resources at their disposal.

I think every team, other than India, has come up with better display than was being anticipated. The Australians have lifted their game during the World Cup. The New Zealanders have surprised their own fans with terrific showing. The West Indies haven’t looked bad either.

England have struggled to an extent but that was not unexpected after their dismal outings in the ODI series against Australia on the eve of the World Cup. They had far too many weaknesses to be considered serious contenders for the trophy.

India, at the moment, are living to the billing of compromising on their own interests. In the past as well they have annoyed many and probably obliged just a few with their below-par performance against the heaviest of odds.

The Indians have now given the much needed confidence to South Africa, who were labeled as chokers after their failures from position of strength. It was a different story altogether at Nagpur where India let them come out of the jail with the kind of self-destruction least expected from any team in a World Cup encounter.

My assessment to that game is simple. It was just not cricket. Because you cannot justify that kind of collapse and let-offs. Batting power play is no excuse. If their batters don’t desire it they should discard it from their plans altogether which should at least ensure that they last full 50 overs.

The manner in which the fancied Indian batting line-up had crashed in the final phase of the innings against England and South Africa, after being in total control, should be of some interest to the heavily paid officers of the Anti-Corruption Unit of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

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March 7, 2011

England’s shocking win over South Africa opens up Cricket World Cup 2011


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

England, who were at the receiving end in what has been the upset of the tournament so far, have opened up the Cricket World Cup 2011 by shocking South Africa, one of the favourites to life the title, in Chennai on March 6.

The unexpected result not only keeps England afloat in the tournament but it also sends some definite signals to other fancied teams. South Africa, by no means, are in danger of not proceeding to the quarter-finals but their defeat from a position of strength will certainly make the other contenders for the title breathe a little more comfortably.

In fact South Africa’s loss at the hands of England would not only mean something to the teams in their own group but it would also have an affect on the outfits in the rival group.

There is a clear message to the teams like Pakistan, Australia and Sri Lanka, who are more likely to share the top three positions in the Group A that a possible clash with South Africa in the knockout stage, would not necessarily mean the end of the road for them as was being anticipated before the start of the tournament.

The South Africans have a very powerful side but their indifferent performance against England should certainly serve as a wake-up call for the think-tank. If their top batsmen can succumb to the pace or swing of James Anderson and Stuart Broad on a turning wicket while chasing the most modest of targets they need to go back to the drawing board to reassess their strengths and weaknesses.

England, quite amazingly, have had close encounters in all their four outings in the competition so far. They had chased down successfully a target close to 300 in their opening game against the Netherlands before overcoming a sensational middle-order collapse to tie the following match against India after being set a mammoth target of 339.

They, however, were found wanting in defending a 300-plus score against minnows Ireland for whom Kevin O’Brien played an innings of lifetime to turn it around in most emphatic of styles.

With Ireland having come into the reckoning with the surprise win, the pressure was on England to deliver while taking on the mighty South Africa. Although the pitch was offering purchase to the spinners from the outset England didn’t seem to be having any chance after being bowled out for a below par score.

Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla kick-started the South African chase and an early finish to the game looked round the corner. But a drama followed and all the big guns of South Africa choked in the same manner as they are notorious for in crunch games. Their premier batsmen like A B de Villers and J P Duminy, who are otherwise exceptionally talented and skilled, need to take crash courses to learn how to cope with the pressure.

It’s quite extraordinary that the South Africans lose the plot so quickly from the driving seat despite being in possession of heavy arsenal. There’s something wrong somewhere which prevents them from coming up with the kind of performance that’s expected of them in global tournaments.

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March 4, 2011

How dare Billy Bowden make such a biased decision?


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Fielding and catching are not the only factors that could prevent Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s Team India from becoming the first hosts to win the Cricket World Cup. They have to overcome the outrage and bias of the umpires as well.

Already an umpiring decision has cost them a point which might become crucial in the later stages. The format of the event has been designed in a manner that doesn’t threaten the fancied teams as far as their qualification in the knockout games is concerned. It will be helpful in keeping the interest alive until the end of the league matches.

But the points will indeed matter in deciding the line-up for the quarter-finals from where the actual battle will commence. The team becoming the group champions will have a relatively soft opponent first-up in the knock-out games as they would be taking on the fourth placed team of the rival group.

The controversial Umpiring Decision Review System (UDRS) is making its debut in the World Cup and not surprisingly it has hurt the Indians, who have been vocal in opposing the system, more than any other team.

The standard of umpiring can never improve if the intent is on favouring a team or victamising the other. With so many television cameras placed at the cricket ground and the action getting broadcast live the umpiring blunders come to the limelight as quickly as they are made.

How can the UDRS work if the umpires are unwilling to do away with the old practices? Remember that in the years gone by the umpiring in some of the countries, particularly Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies, was so horrible that the visiting teams hardly every managed to conquer the hosts.

It went to the credit of the administrators of Pakistan, most notably Air Marshal Nur Khan and Arif Ali Khan Abbasi, who pioneered the idea of neutral umpires to save the future of the game. Cricket has obviously become a better game with the induction of neutral or third country umpires and the home teams are no more invincible.

But there are a few black sheep around who are bent upon bringing the game to disrepute with their wrongdoings. It cannot be mere coincidence that the majority of the most outrageous umpiring decisions have been witnessed against India.

Earlier this season it was Steve Davis, an Australian, who had failed to spot big inside edges off the blades of VVS Laxman and Zaheer Khan on successive deliveries when the Indians were struggling to save the Test match against New Zealand. Both of them were shocking decisions and there was a clear hint of racial bias with Daniel Vettori being the beneficiary.

Now an umpire from New Zealand, Billy Bowden, mustered the courage to save England’s Ian Bell. It was a disgraceful decision to say the least. Bell was hit on his pads in line with the middle stump and the ball was staying low to take the height factor out of the equation. Everyone who saw the replay on the giant screen at the M A Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore was taken by surprise.

It’s quite incredible how Bowden managed to do it in front of the capacity crowd. He ridiculously applied that 2.5-metre rule to ensure that Bell didn’t depart at that stage of the innings with England in the hunt while chasing a huge total. Upon Dhoni’s review the decision was referred to third umpire Rodney Tucker of Australia who endorsed the views of the field umpire which made a further mockery of UDRS.

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