Archive for July, 2010

With the World Cup 2011 within touching distance, co-host India’s candidacy for the top ODI honours is sending distress signals from the Sri Lankan soil in the ongoing Test series. The contingency plans – specifically related to injuries – have been laid bare, thanks to the reserve stock, or the lack of it, of India’s pace battery in particular.

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Pakistan ended its 15-year victory drought against Australia in Tests at Headingley today in a nervy climax to square the series. Though Pakistan lost just three wickets in knocking off 140 of the 180 runs needed to win, Australia refused to do down without sending a chill down Pakistan’s spine.

The leading characters of Pakistan’s victorious script were the cherry-bearers who went cock-a-hoop on day one, dismissing the Aussies for a measly 88. After conceding a lead of 170 runs, The Australian phoenix looked like rising from the ashes on day three when Steven Smith’s 77 surprised Salman Butt’s team. Pakistan was asked to chase an unanticipated target of 180, which gave Australia some gunpowder to load in its barrels.

Nobody would have expected Pakistan to slip after ending the third day at 140/3 but Ponting led his team out with a heart. The bowlers, particularly Bollinger and Hilfenhaus, bowled with purpose and reduced Pakistan from 137/3 to 161/6. Still 19 runs away, Kamran Akmal made perhaps the most important 13 runs of his career before he fell, with the scores tied. Gul got the chance to hit the winning runs and a visibly elated Pakistan team hopped onto the playing area.

Salman Butt could not have asked for a better beginning as Pakistan skipper. Though just one Test old, he has registered this historic win just when Pakistan cricket needed it the most. The kind of talent Pakistan has in its ranks, especially in bowling, it’s impossible to keep them from winning for long. And that’s exactly what world cricket needs as well! A raring Pakistan is a treat to watch and Australia was on the receiving end of that at Headingley.

After being taken to task by the Sri Lankan tail on day 3 and losing 12 wickets – including five after following on – on day 4, only rain stood between Sri Lanka and a win. In fact, there were only two interests left in the game: a win for Sri Lanka and two wickets for Murali to reach 800 in his farewell Test. For India, the only achievement – if any – could be sidestepping an inning defeat and restoring some pride in a lost battle.

Murali mania reigned supreme on the final day, as the stadium gates were thrown open to public for free. The 800-counter soon moved to 799 when Murali’s LBW appeal against Harbhajan was upheld. Before that, Malinga had already uprooted Dhoni’s stumps, inviting tail-enders to support Laxman.

Mithun’s promotion in the batting order, ahead of Ishant and Ojha, seemingly worked in India’s favor. It’s not a secret that tail-enders are very touchy about their batting positions and Mithun’s promotion not only egged him on but also shook up Ishant. Both played out of their skins, contributing partnerships of 49 and 68 respectively. It took India past Sri Lanka’s total of 520, as well as provided a slender lead to India.

Laxman’s dogmatic resistance and a workman-like approach by the tail deferred any party plans in the island nation. Mithun (25) played with the correctness of a technician and at moments exhibited flair with calculated risks that fetched him five boundaries. It can be termed as Laxman’s mistake to let Mithun face Malinga that led to his dismissal. The slinger was delivering yorkers at will and it was only time before Mithun missed one that found him plumb in front.

India were eight down now, with Murali still needing one more to reach 800. Sangkkara kept the great offie on from one end nearly the whole day but Ishant surprisingly read everything Murali bowled, with a veteran’s ease. Laxman remained unfazed by the bowling changes, as his confidence in the tail grew, and kept sharing the strike while registering his fifty.

By lunch, India was sitting at an unexpected lead of 48 and dare say, looking good to extend it. A run-out seemed the only way to dislodge Laxman (69) and that’s actually how his knock ended. He responded to Ishant’s call for a cheeky single and couldn’t stretch enough to defeat a direct hit by Mathews. The end was coming anytime now but something had pinched Ojha who buckled down for 50 balls against a prowling Murali.

The wide-eyed Sri Lankan legend’s moment of glory finally arrived when he foxed Ojha to nick one to Mahela at slip. Summit 800 was conquered! The team carried the legend off the field on its shoulders, giving him the respect he deserved. For the record, India was all out as well for 338, which meant a lead of 94 runs. A valiant Ishant Sharma remained not out at 31 but more importantly supported Laxman and killed time in facing 106 balls.

A target of 95 was not much; however, it certainly gave India a chance to go down fighting in absence of any help from the skies. But what must have hurt the Indian players and fans is the way Dilshan decimated the bowling and overhauled the target. The scooper’s slaughter included 68 runs in 47 balls en route to a 10-wicket annihilation of India. He finished the match in style as well, depositing Harbhajan into the stands and stamping Sri Lanka’s domination in the historic Galle Test that had one whole day washed out.

India now has problems aplenty on its hands. Before this Test, depleted bowling resources looked the only concern but the way arguably world’s best batting lineup went on its knees, Dhoni and Kirsten have to get back to the drawing board.

India no doubt has some of the best batsmen ever to step onto the cricket field but the other bonafide truth is that it is also the most ageing lineup in the world. It’s time to blood youngsters like Suresh Raina not only in the shorter version but also put them through the real test in Tests.

Rain on the second day in Galle brought with it unidentical twins of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet at the porch of Indian dressing room. Images of Harbhajan Singh and Suresh Raina masquerading as Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt of Titanic stole the show on a washed-out day two.

Indians seemed in no mood to reflect on what went wrong on day one or how to remedify it on day three. Dhoni brigade appeared to have resigned to the fact that the Test was drifting towards a draw. But what’s more important is that Sri Lanka could still defy odds and win, whereas India needed something close to a miracle to harbor similar hopes.

Overnight rain and slight morning drizzle prevented covers from coming off, delaying the start of play. But once it began, there were some unlikely heroes from both sides that played leading roles in the day-three script. While the Indian pacers seemed to be back in the pink, Sri Lankan tail wagged like never before to regain control of the driving wheel. Later,  it was only the swashbuckling bat of Virender Sehwag who calmed a nervous Indian batting card at the close of play.

One wondered if this was the same Ishant Sharma darting in towards the batsmen in the morning. The gangly pacer ran in with purpose and spit venom that brought back memories from the series Down Under. Paranavitana could add just one to his overnight score of 110 before he nicked Ishant’s outswinger, which was pouched by a diving Dhoni. Samaraweera was never allowed to settle by Ishant and Mithun who was also bowling in the right areas. He couldn’t recover mentally after being hit on the helmet and was chickened out by Mithun after being dropped at slip by Dravid.

Circumstances alter cases and if Sri Lanka thought of pressing on, it certainly went on the backfoot with two quick wickets. Jayawardene and Mathews gave the Indian pacers the respect they demanded. A 62-run partnership ensued but Ishant – getting his second bite of the cherry – sent back the stylish Jayawardene (48) leg before wicket. Mathews (41) was Ishant’s third victim of the morning, making life merrier for the Delhi boy.

Things had changed dramatically with four wickets for 88 runs on the third morning, which became five in the fifth over after lunch with the wicket of Prasanna Jayawardene. At 393/7, it was time to sink or swim for the Sri Lankan bowlers Herath and Malinga. However, neither Dhoni nor Sangakkara would have had a clue of what was coming up.

Herath, in particular, came out to whoop it up. Though Malinga took his time to get into the groove, Herath had the bat tied to his tail that wagged and hit the ball all over. Malinga then joined the party and soon Dhoni was clutching his straws and swapping his bowlers around. The scratchy partnership developed into a smooth one, boundaries started flowing, the scoreboard swelled and both the tailenders registered their maiden half centuries.

It was just a question of one wicket and the debutant – Mithun – got that for his skipper, with Harbhajan lapping up a skier from Malinga (64) to end a highly improbable 115-run stand for the eighth wicket. With 520 runs registered and time at a premium, the Lankan skipper didn’t wait for Herath’s (80 not out) century and called his comrades back.

It wasn’t rocket science to decipher that a good opening could allay Indian fear of following on. But coming on the back of a career-best batting performance, Malinga had his tail up and did what he does best, i.e., taking wickets. He took care of Gambhir on just the second ball of the inning and sent tremors in the Indian ranks.

Sehwag, though, was his usual enterprising-self but more importantly, stayed for the length of the day, which took care of the run rate. Just when Dravid and Sehwag looked safe as a castle, an idiotic run caught Dravid (18) off guard and he fumed his way back to the pavillion. Sachin started like a bastion to Sehwag but perhaps that led to his downfall, giving Murali his wicket number 793.

It looked precarious at 101/3 but a watchful Laxman and an unfazed Sehwag (85 not out) succeeded in coming out undefeated on day 3, breathing a little bit easier at 140/3. Looking at the match as it stands, if the rain keeps away, India will have more than a handful to do against Murali & Co, who would certainly be smelling blood by now.

The opening day of the India-Sri Lanka Test series in Galle was punctuated with a late start and early end but the events enclosed within endorsed an open Indian secret exploited by opportunistic Sri Lanka. Opting to bat first despite an overcast sky, opener Tharanga Paranavitana and skipper Kumara Sangakkara punished an inept Indian seam attack led by a second-rate Ishant Sharma. It was a wicket against the run of play and bad light that brought the much-needed respite for 11 weary Indians walking past a dominant Lankan scorecard.

At first, it seemed Ishant was unlucky when Paranavitana edged a couple to the boundary in his opening over but he soon meandered into familiar territory. The long-limbed pacer delivered some hopeless stuff, portraying him as a practice-net bowler. In contrast, Mithun began his Test career on a nagging line and length. It eventually led the rookie to his prize first Test scalp when a bouncer nicked Dilshan’s glove to deposit into Dhoni’s.

Following this lucky break, Indian effort looked like a lethargic labor rigging for imperceptible oil. Harbhajan – coming out of a viral infection – was barely a silhouette of himself, both with the ball and in the field. A pulled hamstring seemed to have aggravated his less-than-100% state, requiring him to leave the field on and off. Meanwhile, Dhoni kept chopping and changing his combinations, without a resultant breakthrough.

India’s second spin option, Ojha, looked a threat every time he landed the ball just outside off but the moment he pitched short, the southpaws pounced on him. That, in fact, was the case with every bowler except Ishant who was treated like a run-machine churning out boundaries whenever Lankans were in search of one.

There were two occasions when India got close to dismantling the second-wicket partnership: first when Sangakkara’s cut shot fell just short of a diving Yuvraj at point and second when Dravid grassed a slightly difficult one at slip. Other than those, there were hardly any confidence-building actions in the day’s play for India.

Riding on their staunch resistance and India’s inability to ask enough questions, Sangakkara and Paranavitana registered their hundreds pre and post tea, respectively. While this was one of the least laborious tons for the skipper, Paranavitana earned it by the sweat of his brow. The opener celebrated his maiden hundred almost in a trance, bursting and leaping in joy and reaching almost to the boundary in his transport of delight.

By now, India’s most potent part-timer Sehwag was pressed into service by his skipper. Surprisingly, he looked the most threatening and got enough purchase from the wicket. Murali’s eyes must have twinkled watching that and why not! This is his swan song and the smiling assassin is just eight wickets away from an astonishing 800-wicket mark.

Albeit late in the day, joy finally arrived in the Indian camp but from a delivery that was least expected to bring any. Sangakkara’s (103) attempt to dispatch a Sehwag long-hop to the boundary could reach only as far as Sachin’s bottom-cupped hands at mid-wicket. Indians must have heaved a sigh of relief breaking the 181-run stand that has put Sri Lanka on course for a mammoth total. It didn’t take long for bad light to arrive after that and stop play at 256/2.

Other than anything dramatic happening in the first two sessions tomorrow, India looks like getting pushed in a situation where they can only save the match. But it would be like jumping the gun when the match is just 68 overs old. Though Sri Lanka looks set for a 500-plus total, a fully-fit Harbhajan and a disciplined Ishant can still turn it into an interesting tussle. No doubt Murali is going to come out with enough gunpowder in his barrel but India – having played him more than any other team – has the wherewithal to ward off the threat he intends to pose in his farewell game.

He didn’t get an opportunity to bat on his international debut, but when he got his turn, he announced his arrival like nobody ever has until now. In the ODI series in Kenya in 1996, Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi massacred a seasoned Sri Lankan attack to rewrite history books. His 37-ball hundred still stands tall among the ruins Pakistan cricket now finds itself in.

Incidentally, the player at the heart of a wobbly Pakistani citadel is again Shahid Afridi – the tribal Pathan from Khyber Agency. His third return to Test cricket is set to enter the graveyard and in all probability have a permanent tombstone this time. The man shockingly announced his retirement from Tests after the current series, following a 150-run humiliation by Australia in his maiden Test as captain. The chagrin extended Pakistan’s losing streak against Australia to 13 consecutive Tests.

Pakistan cricket has always suggested there’s more to it than meets the eye. Controversy has an interminable relation with Pakistan cricket, cricketers and administration and Afridi has had no different career. He has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, starting from his age to ball tampering to altercations on and off the field, with friends and foes alike. Most prominent of those remain the footage of Afridi biting the ball and having an eyeball to eyeball with Indian opener Gautam Gambhir.

Fans have been scratching their heads that why he accepted Test captaincy if he had to give it away after leading the country just once. To this, the Pathan replied, “I wasn’t interested in playing Test cricket but the board asked me to go and take a look as they didn’t have a choice. So I took up the responsibility. They asked me to take a chance and maybe I would enjoy it. But I wasn’t really enjoying Test cricket but I tried. I wasn’t good enough. A captain should lead by example, which I did not. And if I played the way I played in this match it is better to leave…With my temperament, I can’t play Test cricket.”

There are some interesting observations that emanate out of this statement. First, he showed the PCB in bad light saying “they didn’t have a choice (of captain).” In hindsight, he also questioned his teammates’ leadership qualities. Secondly, if he thinks his “temperament” is not made for Tests, then why didn’t he veto PCB’s offer or for that matter, even thought of making a return.

Test cricket can never be “tried”. A Test-cricketer’s tag is a proud that comes after years of grilling in the domestic circuit and consistency in ODIs. Indeed, Afridi has proved his boom-boom to be an effective weapon in the shorter versions but Test cricket is as much a mind game as the skills associated with it. He failed to shepherd some gifted skills and turned out nothing but a shooting Test star that always took a descending course.

Afridi is sane to conclude that he doesn’t have the “temperament” but he is absolutely insane to know that and still commit the mistake thrice and bring disrepute to not only himself but his entire nation.

So the team that completes the sub-continent’s cricket quad, Bangladesh, has created another upset by beating England in an ODI. Last night, the boys in green took the three-match ODI series to a decider with a 5-run victory at Bristol.

While their dressing room erupted with the dismissal of Jonathan Trott, a question that comes up with every ‘rare’ Bangladesh victory surfaced once again. Do these players – who were jumping up and down – really know the art of introspection? Are they even slightly aware that victories spaced out across years are going to take them nowhere?

Having celebrated the 10th anniversary of its full-ICC-member status on June 26, Bangladesh cricket is still craving for results to back the decision ICC took in 2000. There is no doubt in the abilities of the Ashrafuls, Tamims, Shakibs and Mortazas but the team has to put in a collective effort – like they did yesterday against England – on a more consistent basis. Individual brilliances won’t help them get rid of their ‘party-pooper’ status.

Bangladesh also has to watch out for Zimbabwe who is close to regaining its Test status. The Asian minnow must recognize that the African minnow’s competitive level is much higher than theirs. Once Zimbabwe is back in its whites, strong comparisons will be drawn between the two teams, probably because of their consistent bottom-ranked status in the ICC cricket rankings.

An interesting observation would be the timing of these sporadic Bangladeshi victories. Every time knives have been out to do a postmortem of Bangladesh cricket, they manage to beat one of the top ICC teams. That’s what this win against Bangladesh is going to do. It surely would silence their critics but the question remains for how long. Unless they move up the ICC rankings with a string of consistent performances, an official retrospection of their ICC-member status is not far.