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Saeed Ajmal: Pakistan’s Star Man

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

By Faisal Hanif

With the fourth edition of the ICC World Twenty20 imminent, one player on most people’s list to star at the tournament in Sri Lanka is Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal.

In the post Warne/Murali era the man from Faisalabad has established himself as the premier spin bowler in world cricket. Given his performances over the last year some would even argue that he is the number one bowler outright.

Ajmal, who began his international career at the relatively late age of 30, has made up for lost time. In helping demolish England earlier in the year he became the fastest off spinner in history to 100 test wickets (19 matches). Recently he has also overhauled compatriot Shahid Afridi to become the highest wicket taker in international Twenty20 cricket. In all three formats of the game Ajmal is ranked in the top three in the ICC’s official rankings, coming in at number one in ODIs.

Saeed Ajmal in action

His consistency over the last twelve months has been so spectacular that his omission from the shortlist for the ICC’s prestigious test player of the year award has caused a national and international outcry.

But stats and awards or the lack of them in this case paint a partial picture of Ajmal’s influence on the world game and that of Pakistan cricket as a whole. In the aftermath of the spot fixing scandal that has deprived Pakistan, and world cricket, of two potentially great bowlers in Mohammed Aamer and Mohammed Asif, Ajmal has stepped in to fill the void. He has more than any other bowler, or player for that matter, assured Pakistan’s continued competitiveness on the world stage.

For a country famous for its production line of bowling greats he maintains the tradition, sharing a common ability to deceive batsmen with both subtle and exaggerated variations.

His doosra has proved virtually unplayable at times and he has bamboozled even the historic masters of spin bowling like Sachin Tendulkar, as well as dismantling the top order of the then ‘number one test team’ three test matches in succession. A breakdown of Ajmal’s figures show that over 60% of his wickets have involved batsmen from position 1-7 in the batting line up.

Whilst in technical ability Ajmal is most often compared with Muttiah Muralitharan (given the shared occupation as offspiners) he has exhibited characteristics more commonly associated with the other great spin maestro, Shane Warne.

Throughout his career Warne was not only hailed as a great technician but also a master of the mental aspect of the game. As part of the great Aussie generation that revolutionised methods in the mental degradation of opponents, Warne was more often than not the chief culprit.

Ajmal took this one step further as Pakistan prepared to battle the all conquering England team in a three test series in January-February 2012. With his reputation growing in the build up to the series, coupled with the English batting’s well known susceptibility to spin bowling, Ajmal issued a warning of having invented a new delivery. The English batsmen, already in dread of having to face the now infamous doosra, where now in a sweat over the mysterious teesra that threatened to compound their problems.

Pundits and fans alike were equally enthralled as to what this new delivery would do. Perhaps as its name suggested it would spin in three different ways? As the series progressed and Ajmal took an impressive 24 wickets at an average of 14.70 it became clear that there was no teesra. The mind games had the desired affect and the doosra and other little variations had been enough to whitewash the competitors and claim a historic victory.

The fact that Ajmal’s threats had been taken so seriously shows how much his opponents have come to rate his abilities. As a late developer Ajmal continues to work at his art all the time with each game providing a new subtle variation that doesn’t allow a batsman to ever truly settle. It may not be long before an actual teesra is unveiled to the world.

With or without such a delivery he is sure to relish the slow spinning wickets of Sri Lanka and will be Pakistan’s trump card in securing a second Twenty20 world title. Despite the twenty over format being a batsman’s game he is a good bet to be the star performer and perhaps man of the tournament. Shane Warne certainly thinks so.

Categories: Cricket, Guest Blogs

Virat Kohli: The hope of a generation

May 19, 2012 Leave a comment

In recent years, Indian cricket has been characterised by excellent batting. The irrepressible Sachin Tendulkar, the textbook blueprint VVS Laxman and ‘The Wall’ Rahul Dravid have punished bowling attacks for the best part of two decades, ably supported by swashbuckling run scorers like Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly, MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh. Age is, however, something that catches up with even the greatest sportsmen. Tendulkar is now 39, Laxman 37 and Dravid announced his retirement in March this year. Sehwag is now 33, Dhoni turns 31 this year, Yuvraj Singh is recovering from cancer and Ganguly is long gone.

India fans are understandably asking where the new blood is because sooner or later, even world-class operators like Tendulkar and Laxman have to call it a day. The Indian Premier League (IPL) has given many young Indian players great exposure and a fair few have been given the chance to represent the world champions, particularly in the shorter formats. However, only one has so far come to the fore: Virat Kohli.

The 23 year old from Delhi has already represented his country eight times in tests and 85 times in ODIs. In eight tests, he has registered one century and three 50s on his way to an average of 32.73. If this form is good, his performances in ODIs have been nothing short of spectacular. He averages over 50 (50.56) and has scored 11 centuries, including three already in 2012. His 183 match winning knock (off just 148 balls) against Pakistan in this year’s Asian Cup was particularly impressive. He hit 22 boundaries and one 6 as he took top-class bowlers like Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal to the cleaners in what was ultimately a match-winning innings.

Kohli walks off the field after making 183 against Pakistan in Mirpur (This image is the property of Reuters)

 

At the age of 23, Kohli has become an integral part of India’s limited overs set-up and can already boast a World Cup winner’s medal. He is, however, yet to firmly cement his place in the test team. India are approaching their first Dravid-less summer, and in Kohli, they may just have the perfect replacement.

The youngster is a more aggressive batsman than Dravid and if anything, is most similar to Tendulkar. When the situation calls for it, he is capable of shifting through the guys and blasting the ball to all parts ala Sehwag, but he is naturally a fluent right handed batsman who will score heavily by playing what Geoffrey Boycott would call ‘proper cricket shots,’ particularly the cover drive. This should make him well-suited to five day cricket and if the selectors give him the chance to play at that level regularly, he will not disappoint. If there is a question mark over Kohli’s ability, it is the same one that hangs over all young Indian cricketers: can he do it on pitches that are not typical sub-continent flat tracks? Of his 11 ODI centuries, nine have come in either India or Bangladesh. Time will tell if he is able to consistently score big runs in conditions that offer the bowler assistance, but his style leaves little reason for doubt.

Kohli represents a new breed of cricketer, the playboy millionaire. As India’s economy has boomed, so too has the amount of money in cricket in the country. The IPL brings together top players from across the world and pays them handsomely, with the star players earning more on a pro-rata basis than most footballers. Kohli most definitely falls into this bracket, raking in a huge $1.8 million for just seven weeks work in Bangalore. The razzmatazz of the IPL has brought more attention to cricket and in India, a country well-known for worshipping stars, the likes of Kohli are scrutinised in ways unimaginable to most sportsmen. He has been linked with actress and former Miss India Sarah Jane Dias, as well as Bangalore-born actress Sanjana. Whilst these may be unfounded rumours, it illustrates the intrusion and interest in to Kohli’s private life and he will have to ensure that he can take fame and fortune in his stride and focus on his cricket. If he requires guidance in doing so, he need look no further than teammate Sachin Tendulkar, who is seemingly only one rung below Lord Ganesha on the ladder of worship for many Indians.

Kohli may in fact become the new Tendulkar in so far as he could very well be the man a nation of one billion looks to to lead them to glory. With no other youngsters making a significant impact, Virat Kohli looks set to represent the hopes of a generation. Time will tell if he can deliver but if the early signs are anything to go by, India’s future is in good hands.

Categories: Cricket

Tendulkar’s achievement is Bradmanesque

March 18, 2012 1 comment

By Faisal Hanif

Like most sports the game of cricket has its internal debates concerning those it sees as the standard bearers of excellence throughout its long history. Unlike many, cricket has at least managed to single out one individual above all others; Don Bradman. Bradman is widely regarded as the undisputed greatest player of all time.

Bradman’s claim to this title comes as a result of extraordinary statistics. The Don finished a 52 test match career in 1948 with a batting average of 99.94 and in a sport seemingly obsessed with statistics this is beyond compare.

Of course statistics like most things are relative but Bradman’s numbers are lauded for this very reason. His average dwarfs that of any of his rivals who have played over 20 test matches. His three closest competitors are Graeme Pollock, George Headley and Herbert Sutcliffe, who all achieved averages of just over 60, with the former two having played less than half the number of tests.

The Don’s numbers are so prolific that on a statistical basis alone he has claim to not only be hailed as the cricketer supreme, but also the greatest sportsman of all time.

However, if Bradman’s achievements are held in such high esteem, then Sachin Tendulkar’s achievement of scoring one hundred international centuries must be placed on a similar pedestal. Tendulkar may not be near the Don when it comes to career average, but similarly nobody comes close to India’s Little Master where international centuries are concerned.

Tendulkar celebrates one of his 100 centuries

Like Bradman, Tendulkar is way ahead of his compatriots with Ricky Ponting heading up the chasing pack on 71 international hundreds. With the Australian having had his limited overs international career brought to an end in recent weeks and seemingly being one bad run of form away from demotion from test cricket, he has little hope of catching Tendulkar. South Africa’s Jacques Kallis comes next on 59 centuries but at 36 years of age will likewise fall someway short of Tendulkar’s feat.

Ponting and Kallis like Lara, Gavaskar, Richards and Sobers before them, will be considered amongst the giants of cricketing history. Yet when Bradman’s name crops up only Tendulkar is mentioned alongside the Aussie maestro. Even Don Bradman himself mentioned that amongst modern players, Tendulkar resembles him most in terms of technique; a technique which comprises picture perfect balance and is exemplified by a beautiful range of stroke play that has put the best bowling attacks to the sword. Even when age has curtailed some of the flamboyance Tendulkar’s brilliance has shone through, as seen in his epic battle with Dale Steyn to reach his 51st and most recent test century in 2011.

This ability to face any challenge that has come his way has put Tendulkar ahead of his contemporaries and made certain that he outlasted them all. Many point to the idiosyncrasies of the different eras that Bradman and Tendulkar inhabit to decide on who is the superior batsman. The nature of the pitches, the quality of opposition and the different types of game with the advent of limited overs cricket all major points of contention. Even if such factors could be analysed to give a definitive answer the sentiments of one billion plus Indians and millions of Australians would be little affected. Such an argument can be left for another time, perhaps when Tendulkar finally hangs up his gloves will the ultimate comparison be fully discussed and settled.

What has sustained Don Bradman’s legacy however is the acceptance from many within the cricketing fraternity that Bradman’s average is unattainable and no one will ever come close to it. Likewise Tendulkar’s feat is also being hailed in similar terms as a record unlikely to ever be broken. At present it seems as if Sachin’s desire for the game is the only thing that can prevent him from adding to his tally of international hundreds and such an occurrence would solidify such a viewpoint.

Whatever becomes of Tendulkar’s records his achievement must be seen for what it is. To score one hundred international centuries is an astonishing feat. It’s a testament to the longevity and adaptability of the Little Master that he has carved it out over 22 years at the top. Wherever he takes his place in the pantheon of cricketing legends it is safe to assume that no player has possessed Tendulkar’s ability to seamlessly transform his game according to the demands of the time and situation.

The argument has always held sway that statistics show that that no one comes close to the Don. If that has been fact for over half a century then on one level we may now pose a challenge. To adopt poker parlance, we will see Bradman’s average and raise you Tendulkar’s hundreds.

Categories: Cricket, Guest Blogs

ICC World Cup 2011 Team of the Tournament

April 3, 2011 6 comments

It seems like an eternity since cricket’s showpiece event started back on February 19th, but yesterday Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s six brought down the curtain on the tournament and sparked scenes of wild celebration in Mumbai as India became the first team to win the World Cup on home soil. The six week long competition had some spectacular highs: Kevin O’Brien’s sensational century against England, Ross Taylor’s heroics in the last five overs against Pakistan, Kemar Roach’s hat-trick and Sachin Tendulkar’s 99th international 100 to name but a few. It also had its fair share of lows with Canada and Kenya looking completely out of their depth, angry Bangladeshi fans attacking (mistakenly) the West Indies’ team bus and a controversial coin toss in the final, but one thing that is not in question is the quality of the cricket we have been treated to in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Sport Report has picked its team of the tournament. Do you agree with our selection?

Opening Batsman: Tillakaratne Dilshan (Sri Lanka)

Dilshan cemented his reputation as one of the leading batsmen in limited overs cricket. He finished as the World Cup’s leading run scorer with 500 runs, including two centuries. He hit the competition’s third highest individual score when he amassed 144 against Zimbabwe and his unbeaten century against England in the quarter-final oozed class. Dilshan also contributed with the ball taking eight wickets at a very economical 4.06 runs per over (RPO), including a superb caught and bowled in the final to dismiss Virat Kohli. He added six catches for good measure as he showed he is a supreme all-round cricketer.

Opening Batsmen: Sachin Tendulkar (India)

The Little Master now has the medal he has been waiting nearly 20 years for, owing in no small part to his own efforts with the bat. He did not manage the fairytale ending of his 100th 100 in his hometown of Mumbai in the final, but he did finish as the tournament’s second highest run scorer with 482 at an average of 53.55. Furthermore he scored them quickly as his strike rate of 90.2 testifies. May have failed with the bat in the final (although his straight drive for four was the shot of the match), but he delivered in other pressure situations. He hit an imperious century against England in Bangalore and hit a lucky but very important 85 in the semi-final against Pakistan. Fully deserves his winner’s medal.

Number Three Batsman: Jonathan Trott (England)

England were a model of inconsistency in this World Cup, losing to the likes of Ireland and Bangladesh, but defeating South Africa and drawing with India. Trott went against the grain and was consistently solid with the bat as he scored five half centuries in seven innings.  He is not the most dynamic batsman in world cricket but his strike rate of 80.84 is perfectly acceptable, especially given he was often asked to come in, steady the ship and look to bat through. He failed to score a century but only three players exceeded Trott’s World Cup total of 422 runs.

Number Four Batsman and Wicket Keeper: Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka)

Simply put, Sangakkara is currently one of the sport’s elite performers. He scores runs, captains the side brilliantly and somehow manages to keep wicket at the same time. He did all of these things during the tournament as he picked up a runner’s up medal for the second World Cup in a row. He will be disappointed he did not score more in the final as he edged a delivery he would despatch for a boundary 99 times out of 100, giving Mahendra Singh Dhoni an easy catch. However, he finished the World Cup behind only Dilshan and Tendulkar with 465 runs and with the tournament’s best average (93.3). He captained his side with great imagination, particularly with regards to bowling changes and his work behind the stumps was also top drawer as he took ten catches and made four stumpings.

Number Five Batsman: AB de Villiers (South Africa)

South Africa once again underachieved in a major ICC tournament thanks to an astonishing collapse in the quarter-final against New Zealand, but the same cannot be said of AB de Villiers. The 27 year-old is quite possibly the best cricketer in the world at the moment and he lived up to this billing despite carrying injuries which meant he did not keep wicket as planned. AB hit two centuries and one 50 as he racked up 353 runs in five innings at a fantastic average of 88.25. He also scored them in double quick time with a phenomenal strike rate of 108.28. de Villiers showed why he is regarded by many as the best fielder in the world but was unfortunately not able to help South Africa shake the tag of chokers.

All-Rounder: Yuvraj Singh (India)

Many questioned Yuvraj’s inclusion in the squad before the tournament due to his recent struggle for form and fitness. A little over six weeks later, the man from Chandigarh is the toast of India. Yuvraj was named as the official Player of the Tournament and few can argue with the decision. Yuvi scored 362 runs in eight innings at an average of 90.5 and saw India home along with Mahendra Singh Dhoni in yesterday’s final. As if this were not enough, he also finished as the tournament’s fifth highest wicket taker with 15 wickets, including the crucial scalp of Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara in the final. He received four Man of the Match awards during the World Cup and is an automatic choice in this team.

All-Rounder: Shahid Afridi (Pakistan)

‘Boom Boom’ did not deliver with the bat but was exceptional with the ball as he finished with 21 wickets to put him joint top of the wicket takers list, including a best of 5/16. Not only was he a threat in terms of taking wickets, but he also put the brakes on opposition attacks with a miserly economy rate of 3.62. Afridi was excellent in the field with five catches and one run out and proved he is a shrewd choice as Pakistan captain as he has united a side notorious for infighting and off-field drama.

Bowler: Umar Gul (Pakistan)

In the absence of the suspended Mohammed Aamer and Mohammed Asif, the job of Pakistan’s premier seam bowler has fallen on the broad shoulders of Umar Gul and he has not disappointed. He had a nightmare semi-final as Virender Sehwag smashed him to all parts of the Punjab but that should not overshadow an otherwise successful World Cup in which Gul took 14 wickets at an economy rate of 4.49 to provide Shahid Afridi with excellent support.

Bowler: Zaheer Khan (India)

Zaheer was a major factor in India’s World Cup victory as he took 21 wickets to tie Shahid Afridi for the tournament’s leading wicket taker. Zaheer performed well throughout the competition and was economical at 4.83 an over. He bowled three consecutive maiden overs in the final which helped him dismiss Upul Tharanga for just two. Bowling is not India’s strong suit but in Zaheer they undoubtedly have one of the world’s elite seam bowlers.

Bowler: Tim Southee (New Zealand)

New Zealand were the surprise package of this World Cup, reaching the semi-final where they were finally seen off by Dilshan, Sangakkara and co. Southee was one of the Kiwis’ leading lights and took 3/57 in the semi-final as New Zealand tried to defend a low total of 217. He finished the tournament with a highly impressive 18 wickets (3rd highest) at a solid economy rate of 4.31. Southee is only 22 years old and so it seems New Zealand have a star of the future in their ranks.

Bowler: Lasith Malinga (Sri Lanka)

Malinga’s ability to rip through attacks in limited overs cricket has been well-documented for a long time and he did not disappoint as he reached a second final in succession. He missed the first two games and carried injuries throughout the tournament, but that did not stop Sri Lanka’s strike bowler having a World Cup to remember. Malinga bowled his trademark yorkers and took 13 wickets, including those of key Indian batsmen Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar in the final. Will be 31 by the time the next World Cup comes around and has already stated that he will not play. Let’s hope he changes his mind.

Categories: Cricket

ICC World Cup Semi-Finals Preview

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The semi-finalists for the ICC World Cup have now been decided and, as many predicted before the tournament kicked off way back on February 19th, there are three sides from the sub-continent still in with a chance of being crowned world champions. More of a surprise is the presence of New Zealand in the semi-finals following an inexplicable collapse by South Africa. Tomorrow (29th March) sees Sri Lanka take on the Kiwis in Colombo, before Wednesday (30th March) gives us cricket’s greatest rivalry, India vs. Pakistan, in Mohali. Prior to the big games, Sport Report takes a look at the four teams aiming to become world champions.

New Zealand

The Blackcaps came through Group A unconvincingly with four wins and two losses from their six matches. It is perhaps telling that the defeats came against top test-playing sides (Australia and Sri Lanka) and were, quite frankly drubbings. One should not forget however that they did defeat a very talented Pakistan side thanks to Ross Taylor’s fireworks in the last five overs in Pallekele, thus proving that on their day, they can be a match for anyone. The question is whether that was a one-off.

In tomorrow’s semi-final at the R Premadasa Stadium, Daniel Vettori’s men will need a much better performance against Sri Lanka than they did in the group stage if they are to progress. In that game, Sri Lanka hammered the Kiwis by 112 runs and everything points to them winning comfortably again in Colombo, but then again, everything suggested a South African victory in the quarter-finals. New Zealand do not possess the star names that India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka do, but they are a solid team unit. In Ross Taylor, Jesse Ryder and Brendon McCullum they do have batsmen capable of scoring big runs quickly and their fielding is as good as anything in cricket. Perhaps the most surprising element of their play during this World Cup has been their ability to take wickets as they have bowled out the opposition in four of their seven matches so far and taken nine wickets in two of the remaining three games. If they can be this dangerous with the ball in Colombo, they will give themselves a chance.

Key Players

Brendon McCullum: Wicket Keeper and opening batsman who is capable of fireworks as we have seen in the past. As an opener, he will look to exploit the fielding restrictions early on and get the Blackcaps off to a good start. He is however, prone to giving away his wicket and will need to avoid this against the pace of Lasith Malinga in the first few overs.

Daniel Vettori: New Zealand’s ever-reliable captain who is capable with both bat and ball. Vettori has been far from a prolific wicket taker in this World Cup, but is very capable of stifling attacks and creating scoreboard pressure which other bowlers can then exploit. He has underperformed with the bat in this tournament but is always capable of a vital lower-order knock.

Tim Southee: Southee has been something of a surprise package with the new ball taking 15 wickets (joint 3rd highest) at an economy rate of 4.94. Sri Lanka’s openers are arguably the best on show and so Southee’s spell will be key to the outcome of the game.

Sri Lanka

The joint hosts were one of the favourites going in to the tournament and have lived up to the billing. They finished second in Group A behind Pakistan with a record of four wins, one loss and one no result. Sri Lanka have a very balanced team and one which is capable with both the bat and the ball. They possess a blend of young talented cricketers such as Ajantha Mendis and Angelo Mathews and reliable, seasoned campaigners like Muttiah Muralidaran, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. They opted for three spinners against England on Saturday and may well do so again on a spin-friendly pitch. The Sri Lankans will benefit from fervent home support in Colombo and hold a convincing group stage win over New Zealand. Their resounding 10 wicket victory over England was highly impressive and they are favourites for this game.

Key Players

Tillakaratne Dilshan: Dilshan is a devastating batsman who forms a brilliant opening partnership with Upul Tharanga. The two did the job alone against England with Dilshan unbeaten on 108 off 115 balls. He has also proved more than useful with the ball as his miserly six overs and wicket against Andrew Strauss’s men showed. On a spin-friendly track in Colombo he may once again be given the new ball.

Kumar Sangakkara: Sangakkara is undoubtedly the best wicket keeper/batsman in the game and is also a first-rate captain. His bowling changes against England were imaginative and his field settings were very effective. He is the fourth highest run scorer in this World Cup with 363 and has been pretty much flawless behind the stumps.

Muttiah Muralidaran: What can one say about a man who has taken 1319 wickets in international cricket? The fact that Murali still gets as excited as a child in a sweet shop when he takes a wicket shows what kind of competitor he is. He is capable of ripping through batting orders with a mindboggling array of deliveries and of restricting batsmen to few runs off his bowling. He is still very much a key player at the age of 38 and Sri Lanka will be hoping the hamstring injury which has caused him problems in the last two games does not keep him out of this game.

Sport Report Prediction: Sri Lanka to win

India

India were the pre-tournament favourites thanks to home support and a formidable batting line-up that includes Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh. The question marks related to their ability to handle the pressure of one billion expectant Indians and their slightly weak bowling attack. In truth, this World Cup has been something of a mixed bag for India as they lost to South Africa, drew a game they should have won against England, but impressively knocked out defending champions Australia in the quarter-finals. They have had issues with certain batsmen not performing as well as they should have and one such culprit, Yusuf Pathan, was dropped for the Australia match in favour of Suresh Raina who came in and steered India to victory with 34 off just 28 balls. The Indians have failed to bat out 50 overs too often in this tournament and cannot afford to do so again if they are to beat arch rivals Pakistan.

Key Players

Sachin Tendulkar: The Little Master scored his 18,000th ODI run in the quarter-final victory over Australia and is the third highest run scorer in the tournament with 379 runs, which have been scored at an average of 54.14. Tendulkar is very much in form at the moment and is searching for century 100, no doubt a milestone he would love to achieve against Pakistan on a batter’s track in Mohali. Tendulkar will open the batting with the explosive Virender Sehwag and will look to take it to Pakistan’s opening bowlers.

Yuvraj Singh: Yuvi has turned out to be India’s star performer in this competition. He showed his worth in the quarter-final with a match winning 57 not out and two wickets. That performance bagged Yuvraj the Man of the Match award for the fourth time in seven games. Many questioned his inclusion in the squad before the tournament, but he is a key player with bat and ball and has performed when others have failed. He will no doubt be a big factor in the outcome of the game against Pakistan.

Zaheer Khan: India’s bowling attack has, at times, looked slightly impotent with Munaf Patel offering very little and Harbhajan Singh struggling for wickets. Zaheer however, never lets India down, swinging the ball this way and then that. He will be key in the semi-final as Pakistan’s biggest weakness lies in its unconvincing opening pair. If Zaheer can account for one or both of them quickly, Pakistan’s underperforming middle-order will be exposed earlier than they would like.

Pakistan

Aside from five mad overs against New Zealand and a lacklustre but winning performance against Canada, Pakistan have probably been the most impressive team on show in a tournament they were originally supposed to host. They surprisingly topped Group A ahead of Sri Lanka and Australia which set up their rout of West Indies in the quarter-finals. Captain Shahid Afridi has been on fire with the ball and is the leading wicket taker with 21. Asad Shafiq has come in to the team at the expense of Ahmed Shahzad and has put in some excellent, mature performances which belie his inexperience at this level. Umar Gul looks to have found his accuracy with the ball and Pakistan’s varied bowling attack will provide India’s much-vaunted batting lineup with a stern test. They will, however, need improved batting performances from the likes of Afridi and Abdur Razzaq, as well as an error-free day behind the stumps from Kamran Akmal if they are to make an appearance in the final for the first time in 12 years.

Key Players

Shahid Afridi: Pakistan’s talismanic captain inspires those around even if he is not tactically the best. He has been the tournament’s stand-out bowler restricting opposition batsmen to very few runs and taking more wickets than any other bowler. Afridi has undoubtedly underperformed with the bat and played some frankly stupid shots. He will look to put that right against India and if he does, he could take the game away from India in the blink of an eye.

Umar Gul: Gul has really found his form in the last two games, although he was not exactly struggling prior to that. Pakistan’s premier quick bowler can swing the ball both ways and bowls a mean Yorker. He will be crucial early on in India’s innings as Sehwag and Tendulkar look to take advantage of the fielding restrictions. If he can induce an edge early on, Pakistan will be well set.

Kamran Akmal: The elder of the two Akmals is a key player as much for his ability to make massive errors as he is for his ability. He is a highly erratic performer behind the stumps and with the bat, capable of brilliance and ineptitude with equal measure. If he has a good day on Wednesday, he can keep as well as anybody and put runs on the board quickly. The problem from Pakistan’s point of view is that this is a big if.

Sport Report Prediction: India to win (just!)

Categories: Cricket

Is the ICC right to exclude Associate teams from the next World Cup?

March 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Since the ICC Cricket World Cup began on the 19th February, nine matches have taken place in which a test playing nation has faced a so-called Associate team. For the most part, the matches have resulted in one-sided drubbings: Sri Lanka defeated Canada by 210 wins, New Zealand bowled Kenya all out for just 69 en route to a ten wicket victory, England defeated the Netherlands by six wickets with eight balls to spare, Pakistan hammered Kenya by 205 runs, the West Indies crushed the Netherlands by 215 runs, Zimbabwe put Canada to the sword in a 175 run victory and Sri Lanka beat Kenya by nine wickets.

Looking at these results, it easy to jump to the conclusion that the likes of Canada, Kenya and the Netherlands, are simply not fit to share the same field as the Tendulkars, Sangakkaras and Afridis of the world, and that they should be left to their own devices away from cricket’s biggest spectacle. In the abovementioned games, it was apparent that most of the batsmen were simply not good enough to deal with the devilish yorkers of Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga, or the searing pace of West Indian Kemar Roach and their bowlers were taken to the proverbial cleaners, most noticeably by West Indies man mountain Kieron Pollard.

Prior to the World Cup, there was much talk (and it is very much ongoing) as to whether the Associates should be allowed to play in the World Cup, or whether they should at least have their number reduced to two, as this would avoid such uncompetitive thrashings. The ICC has taken the decision to reduce the number of participating teams to ten for the 2015 edition of the tournament, effectively ruling out the Associates. It is unclear why this decision has been taken, although many have complained about the duration of the tournament (6 weeks), most noticeably England captain Andrew Strauss. Reducing the number of teams would allow for a shorter format. Another possibility is a pure business decision following the commercial disaster that was the elimination of both Pakistan and India in the group stage four years ago, the sport’s two largest TV markets.

Whilst it is true that the Associates’ record against test playing nations is, well, poor, it is not as straight forward as their detractors would have us believe. At the last tournament in 2007, Pakistan lost to Ireland in a remarkable upset and just last week, the Netherlands made England look very poor as they pushed Andrew Strauss’s men close. Then today, Ireland shocked the world for the second World Cup in a row as they chased down a World Cup record total of 328 to defeat the model of inconsistency that is England. Furthermore, Ireland’s incredible chase provided us with one of the all-time great one day innings as all-rounder Kevin O’Brien smashed 113 from just 63 balls, setting a World Cup record for the fastest century in the process (50 balls). There have been other moments too, who can forget Dwayne Leverock’s athletic diving catch to dismiss India’s Robin Uthappa in 2007? Who did not enjoy seeing Kenya reach the semi-finals in 2003? If the ICC’s main aim in holding a World Cup is to entertain, then what is more entertaining than a good old-fashioned cupset?

How can the Associate teams be expected to improve if they are not given the opportunity to test themselves against the best? Sri Lanka is a case in point. The Sri Lankan team was not granted test status until 1982, just 14 years later, they were world champions and they are now frequently amongst the favourites for all major tournaments. Moreover, if the likes of Kenya and Ireland are to progress, there surely needs to be a revision of the rules that allow players who have played for an associate side to switch to a test side if the test side comes knocking. This is particularly pertinent in the case of Ireland who have lost several players to England in the recent past, most noticeably star man Eoin Morgan.

However, the real issue was addressed by Pakistani bowling legend Wasim Akram as he spoke of the need for a quality first-class cricket structure in these countries, starting with getting the game in to schools. Akram has pressed this issue in his native Pakistan and is spot on in his observations regarding the Associates. This may not be possible however in countries in which cricket is a minor sport so the key is to get Associate players playing in English county cricket, Sheffield Shield matches in Australia and first class games in South Africa. This will allow associate players to test their mettle against genuine world class operators in a highly competitive environment.

The ICC has long stated that its mission is to make cricket a worldwide game and to involve more than just the traditional test nations. To Haroon Lorgat I ask: ‘how does excluding the Associates achieve this goal?’

Categories: Cricket

Who will win the ICC Cricket World Cup?

February 15, 2011 1 comment

This coming Saturday (19th February) India face Bangladesh in the opening match of the 2011 ICC World Cup. The competition is being held in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and is seen as one of the most open World Cups in recent years. Who do you think will win?

Categories: Cricket

Far from paradise at Eden Gardens

January 30, 2011 1 comment

It was announced this Thursday (27th January) that Kolkata’s Eden Gardens stadium will not be ready for the World Cup match between India and England on 27th February. Consequently a new venue is being sought and will be announced by the International Cricket Council (ICC) tomorrow (31st January). It remains to be seen whether the ICC will make a show of India and give the match to Sri Lanka or Bangladesh.

Eden Gardens has been undergoing major renovation in preparation for the World Cup and there has been much speculation as to whether the stadium will be ready for some time. Photographs published earlier this month showed a structure covered in scaffolding and which, quite frankly, looked far from ready to host a match between two of cricket’s major forces. India is co-hosting the tournament (along with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) and has known this since April 2006. This gives rise to the question of why, nearly five years on, one of the world’s most iconic sporting venues is still not ready.

Work at Kolkata's Eden Gardens stadium continues in an attempt to get it ready for the ICC World Cup. (This image is the property of Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images)

Thursday’s announcement is a major embarrassment for all concerned, but particularly the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) and, to a lesser extent, the ICC.

The ICC was criticised for its decision to award the tournament to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka with many arguing that Australia and New Zealand should have been given the opportunity to host a major cricket tournament for the first time since 1992. With India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka having hosted the tournament in 1996, many felt that Australia and New Zealand had been unfairly overlooked in favour of the greater profits promised by the BCCI. This criticism intensified further when, in 2009, the ICC had to take the step of removing hosting rights from Pakistan after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Thursday’s admission only adds fuel to the critics’ fire.

ICC Chief Executive Haroon Lorgat admitted: “All venues had ample time in which to prepare for World Cup matches. Regrettably, Eden Gardens has not made sufficient progress to justify the level of confidence required to confirm that the venue would be ready in time.”

The CAB pleaded with the ICC to grant a ten day extension to allow them to complete the necessary work. The request was seconded by BCCI president Shashank Manohar, but rebuffed by the ICC, with Lorgat telling ESPNcricinfo: “The ICC could not accommodate the request.” Not only have the CAB and BCCI lost credibility here, they have also lost a marquee match and no doubt plenty of Rupees. The other group games, involving South Africa, Ireland, the Netherlands, Kenya and Zimbabwe, should still go ahead as planned, but none of the matches is afforded the same prestige as India versus England. One must also spare a thought for fans who planned to watch the match at what is arguably the best place in the world to watch a cricket match and who must now make alternative arrangements or, more probably, miss out.

The fear is that the problems experienced in Kolkata are indicative of a more widespread issue. Five of the thirteen venues across the three countries still face final inspections by World Cup Tournament Director Professor Ratnakar Shetty and his team. The ICC announced on the 15th January that five venues were “slightly behind schedule” with particular concern being expressed over Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium; the venue for the final.

Why have such problems not been addressed before now? It is unclear why, but whilst it is unacceptable that the India-England match needs to be moved, things should be put in to perspective.

India is still very much a developing country with very little experience at hosting such events. Those who argue that this is a reason not to award it major tournaments fail to recognise that with experience comes proficiency. Some of what has been written is unacceptable and unfounded. There have been mutterings on several message boards of an inherent laziness and inefficiency on the subcontinent, whilst others have cited a reputed track record of disorganisation. The main weapon in the arsenal of these vehement critics? Last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

It is impossible to deny that there were issues in the build up to the event, particularly with the athletes’ accommodation, but what the critics fail to point out is that the games eventually went off problem-free. India proved its ability to host a successful and entertaining sporting event and could very well do so again

Those here in England may want to hold off on criticising host nations. The bid to host the football World Cup was an unmitigated disaster which saw the Prime Minister grovelling to a smug old man from Switzerland and the current furore surrounding the post-games future of London’s Olympic Stadium hardly paints a picture of a competent and well-organised host nation.

It may well transpire that the World Cup is a disaster, but let us wait and see. More likely we will be speaking in April of a great tournament put on by three fantastic, cricket obsessed countries.

Categories: Cricket

Some things just get better with age

October 26, 2010 6 comments

There is no general consensus in the cricketing world with regards to who is the best batsman in the history of the sport. However, there is a core group of names that are continually mentioned: Brian Lara, Viv Richards, Don Bradman, Sunil Gavaskar and, of course, Sachin Tendulkar.

In a career spanning 21 years, the man known as the Little Master has rewritten the record books. He has scored a record 14,240 runs in test cricket at a very impressive average of 56.96 and has amassed more test centuries than any other batsman in cricket history with 49 (and counting).  Tendulkar is not, however, just a test specialist. He also holds the record for the most runs scored in One Day Internationals (ODI) having accumulated a huge 17,694 at an average of 45.12, including 46 centuries and 93 half-centuries. As if this were not enough proof of his effectiveness in the one-day game, he was also voted player of the tournament in the 2003 World Cup as India finished runners-up.

Whilst such statistics reinforce the view that the Indian is one of the greatest batsmen of all-time, they do not sufficiently illustrate just how good he is and how good he has been for such a long time. Perhaps the greatest bowler in the sport’s history, Shane Warne, described Tendulkar in a recent tweet as “the best batsman or cricketer I played against in 20 years.” He went on to answer the question of whether Lara or Tendulkar is the better batsman by stating: “Sachin wins in my opinion day in day out against pace or spin, awesome against both. He conducts himself on and off field class.” Warne’s former Australian teammate Matthew Hayden went so far as to claim: I have seen God. He bats at no. 4 in India in Tests.” Such glowing praise from his contemporaries is deserved and reveal how revered he is in the cricket world.

Sachin Tendulkar: The best batsman ever? (This image is the property of Cricinfo.com)

One criticism levelled at the likes of Muttiah Muralidaran is their poor (relatively) record against the big sides and the fact that their statistics are padded by performances against the likes of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.  This does not apply to Tendulkar. Sure, he does average 136.66 against Bangladesh, but he also averages 60.59 against Australia, a team against which he has scored 11 centuries and which has dominated cricket for much of Tendulkar’s career. Moreover he has scored runs all over the world and to prove he is more than a subcontinent flat-track bully, he has scored more centuries away from India (27) than he has at home (22).

“I have seen God. He bats at no. 4 in India in Tests.” 

Matthew Hayden on Sachin Tendulkar.

What really sets Tendulkar apart from the likes of Lara and Richards is his longevity. He made his test debut in Karachi against Pakistan aged just 16 back in 1989. He was bowled in his first innings for just 15 by one of the greatest fast bowlers and exponents of swing in cricket history, Waqar Younis, but was praised for the way he dealt with a series of body blows. The following year, in his second tour, he scored his maiden test century, making 119 not out at Old Trafford. Wisden described the innings as: “a disciplined display of immense maturity.” Since then Tendulkar has not looked back and was named one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the year in 1997. He is deified in India to the extent that he is unable to live a ‘normal’ life, yet he remains humble and affable. Every cricket fan will have seen him drive the ball through the covers in textbook fashion more times than they care to remember and play picture sweeps for four, but in 2005/2006, there was a theory that the Little Master’s best days were behind him. Having struggled with a longstanding elbow problem and having failed to make a century in 2006, Tendulkar did seem to be in decline. His career hit an all-time low in 2006 as he averaged a poor 24.27 and made a solitary half-century in eight tests. The Indian team management however recognised that class is permanent and stuck with their talisman. It was a decision that paid great dividends.

His form gradually improved before 2010 became what has arguably been the best year of the great man’s career. In short Sachin Tendulkar is maturing like a fine wine. He recently beat off stiff competition from Virender Sehwag, Graeme Swann and Hashim Amla to be named ICC Cricketer of the Year and also won the inaugural People’s Choice award at the same ceremony. During the voting period, he played in 10 Test matches, hitting 1064 runs, including six centuries, at an average of 81.84. He also played 17 ODIs, scoring 914 runs at an average 65.28 including his record-breaking double-century against South Africa in Gwalior. Not bad for a 37 year old.

The one question mark next to Tendulkar’s name has been whether he is effective in 20-20 cricket. This was a reasonable doubt, until this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL), in which he broke Shaun Marsh’s single season record for runs scored by putting up 618 runs in 14 innings, thus proving his ability in all forms of the game.

The question now is not one of whether Tendulkar is on the slide, but rather when he will start to slide. At the moment there is absolutely no sign of it happening anytime soon and if his last test match performance is anything to go by, a double century against Australia in Bangalore, we may get to see the Little Master pile on plenty more runs yet.

Categories: Cricket

Collective punishment for individual indiscretions?

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Since The News of the World (NOTW) broke the story last Sunday (29th August), ‘deliberately’ bowled no-balls have dominated the back pages. For those who are not aware (there cannot be many of you) the NOTW filmed a meeting between one of its undercover reporters and a man they claimed is a ‘fixer’, Mazhar Majeed. During the meeting, the so-called ‘fixer’ gave the reporter details of exactly when in the match no-balls would be bowled. According to the story, these details matched up exactly with three no-balls bowled by Mohammed Aamer and Mohammed Asif in the Lords test versus England. The tabloid claimed to have paid Majeed £150,000 for the information.

Just to clarify, it has not yet been proven that those implicated in the scandal (Majeed, Pakistan captain Salman Butt, Mohammed Aamer and Mohammed Asif) have in any way acted illegally. The allegations remain just that; allegations. Butt, Aamer and Asif all had their mobile phones seized by police last weekend whilst they investigated claims of conspiracy to defraud bookmakers.

It should also be made clear at this juncture that what has supposedly happened here is very different to match-fixing. Both are wrong, but there is one key difference. Match-fixing affects the overall outcome of a match whereas spot-fixing relates to specific incidents within a match. Both can be used to make a lot of money.

The story has rocked the sport to its core with everybody having their say. Nasser Hussein said he was devastated that Aamer was involved as it could spell the end of an extremely promising career before it has even really started. One legend of the sport, Kapil Dev, has claimed that another, Imran Khan, should step in and take charge of the Pakistani set-up. The unanimous verdict however, is that anybody found guilty of such a disgraceful action should be dealt with in a very uncompromising manner.

Mohammed Aamer (left), Salman Butt (centre) and Mohammed Asif (right) have all been implicated in the scandal. (This image is the property of BBC Sport)

Before any potential punishment can be handed out, several issues need to be fully explored. Firstly, it must be established why this may have happened. Is this just an example of pure greed where people have thought about nothing more than lining their pockets? Secondly, have the families of those reputedly involved been threatened with violence in the case of non-compliance? Thirdly, and most importantly, is anybody actually involved in any wrongdoing?

Butt, Aamer and Asif all protest their innocence and have voluntarily pulled out of the rest of the tour of England whilst the whole issue is investigated and today (2nd September) Pakistan’s High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan has claimed that the players may have been set up by a tape filmed after the balls were bowled. Whatever the case, it will ‘all come out in the wash’ as they say. If anyone is found to have knowingly engaged in spot-fixing they need to be punished.

Life bans have been discussed as one potential punishment. This will be a huge loss in the case of 18 year old Aamer. He has just become the quickest bowler to reach 50 test wickets and looks like Wasim Akram mark 2. Such a loss would only impoverish cricket.

There is a precedent for a life ban. In 2000, South Africa’s Hansie Cronje was banned for life after being found guilty of match-fixing (not spot-fixing).

However, there currently seems to be huge outcry for a ban on Pakistan as a team. Why? Sure, the individuals that have been implicated in the scandal play for Pakistan, but why should the whole team be punished if they are found guilty? It just does not make sense. Did people clamour so vehemently for a ban on South Africa when Cronje, Gibbs and co. were found guilty ten years ago? No. Pakistan is already a sad story as far as cricket is concerned, banning them would only serve to make it more so and deprive the sport of a country steeped in cricketing history.

Forced to operate as a team of exiles due to security issues in their homeland, Pakistan tours the world and has, in the process, become what The Guardian’s Stephen Moss refers to as “cricket’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.’ The players therefore have to spend much time away from close friends and family and must surely miss playing in front of a fervent home crowd in Karachi or Multan. Stopping them from playing the sport they love because of what may turn out to be the selfish actions of a select few would only make their situation worse. Ban anybody found guilty of engaging in any form of fixing by all means, but please do not ban the team as a whole.

Categories: Cricket