Young Brigade Raises Expectations Cricket Back On Centre Stage
After a brief lull, cricket is back at the centre stage both on and off-the-field. With World Cup to be held in the subcontinent, for the third time, from February next year and Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men will be under tremendous pressure from the home crowd to regain the title, which the country won way back in 1983 under the captainship of Kapil Dev.
As number of countries playing this game is limited, because of its financial clout the India has emerged as a cricketing hub and the BCCI as an undisputed superpower. Though all the countries which will be taking part in the World Cup are preparing for this mega event, the off-the-field activities related to the game are making more news than on-the-field performance by the players.
Match/spot-fixing by the Pakistanis and IPL controversies have dominated the sports pages and television channel discussions besides Tendulkar’s amazing heroics and team India’s impressive recent showing.
However it will be a wrong, if the focus continues on the off-the-field happenings because then it will deprive the main actors—the players—their due share of limelight. It will be worthwhile to first focus on the teams and players because it is the players and their performance, which will be counted in the final analysis.
One hopes that Indians will live up to the expectations, which they have raised after their super showing against the Australians in the just concluded home series. India has not done well in the T20 World Cup, but the 50-over format is different-ball game and in this country has done very well.
Dhoni-led side is number one in test ranking with 130 points and the team is likely to occupy this slot for at least one-more year given the form the players are in. South Africa is second with 119 followed by England (115), Sri Lanka (112), Australia (110) and Pakistan (83). Couple of years ago, it was just unimaginable to think that mighty Australia will ever languish at fifth place in the test ranking, which they are occupying now.
In the ODI ranking, which is more important in view of the coming World Cup, India is placed second with 117 points, Australia is leading the table with 130 points. South Africa is third (116); other teams in the lower ranking are Sri Lanka (115), England (112), Pakistan (99), New Zealand (96) and West Indies (67). West Indies, winner of first two editions of the World Cup and runners-up to India in the third, are pale shadow of their glorious past.
Once an all conquering side, the Caribbean’s are battling for survival. They have slipped to ninth slot in the ranking and are perhaps most vulnerable side after Zimbabwe. The former world champion are now finding it hard to beat even Bangladesh and if they are still considered to be a contender, it is because of their past reputation. India had not done well in the previous two editions of the World Cup held in the sub continent in 1987 and 1996, but the situation has changed now and the fans are more demanding now. If one goes strictly by form and averages, India on paper start look very formidable.
Sachin Tendulkar will be playing his last World Cup before the home crowd and the maestro has a dream to fulfil, to win the World Cup for the country. Tendulkar is the only Indian, who has earned the distinction of being included in the all-time world XI. Four Australians, three West Indians, two Englishmen and one Pakistani form the rest of the squad picked by eminent cricketers. Legendary Sir Don Bradman, who once said Tendulkar reminded ‘him of himself’. Given the form Tendulkar is in, the rivals teams especially the bowlers must be having nightmares.
With him leading the Indian campaign will be Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, skipper Mahender Singh Dhoni, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh. The other slots are likely to be filled by youngsters like Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Munaf Patel/Pragyan Ojha, Saurabh Tiwary. Also in the reckoning are Murli Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ravinder Jadeja, Parveen Kumar, Vinay Kumar, Ashish Nehra and R Ashwin. One can say it is abundance of talent, which may put selectors in a quandary.
The three-match ODI series against Australia was reduced to a one-match contest because rains played havoc in Kochi and Goa leading to the abandonment of two contests there but the win at Visakhapatnam was very significant. India were without six of their regular players, including Tendulkar, Sehwag, Gambhir, but still they chased a mammoth target of 290 and won the match easily. The focused and determined batting by young Virat Kohli, who scored a ton along with Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh gave not only India a handsome morale boosting win but also reassured the fans that the team has a formidable bench strength.
The Australians though-beaten hallow can not be underestimated. Previous records show that India has always performed well before the World Cup, while the Aussies who have won that coveted title for four times, mostly peaked during the event. So question arises, does Indian players peak before the mega event. This is the problem, if it is one; team management has to sort it out. Given the record of Indians against the Australians since 2007 World Cup it look that 1983 champions have become Aussies’s nemesis. But the hosts will do well to remember what M Clarke, who led the World Champions in place of Ricky Ponting in the ODI that World Cup is totally different than the bilateral series. Across the border, another host of the World Cup, Bangladesh stunned the cricket world as they whitewashed New Zealand, while Pakistan playing in “home away from home” series against England brought more infamy to game because of their off-the-field activities.
South Africa another perennial contender thrashed Zimbabwe and Sri Lankans are waiting to take on Australia three-match one-day series. Ricky Ponting, Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson are back in the side. The trio had opted out of ODI series against India. Despite their bravado, the defending World Champions were rattled by the defeat they suffered in India and are no mood to experiment any more. They have however included Xavier Doherty, the left-arm spinner from Tasmania, in the side. He has 103 lists wickets in 85 matches at an average of 28.91. Why Doherthy was included in the team was explained by the chairman of selectors, Andrew Hilditch: “A left-arm finger spinner could be important during the World Cup campaign and we are confident Xavier will perform very well, if the opportunity presents itself.”
Meanwhile, Virat Kohli along with South Africa opener Hashim Alma achieved career-best rankings in the ICC Player Rankings for ODI batsmen. Kohli, who scored a match-winning 118 against Australia in the second ODI has climbed 11 places into 13th position, which makes him the fourth highest-ranked India batsman after Dhoni (4th) Sehwag (7th) and Tendulkar (8th). Amla, who scored 110, 110 and 24 in the three-match ODI series against Zimbabwe, has climbed two places to share second position with Australia batsman Mike Hussey, who himself has moved up one position after scoring 69 against India.
Pakistan which were to host some matches of the World Cup find themselves in a quandary. The former world champion have now become “international refugees” with no team willing to play them at their home because of the security scenario and rampant match-fixing allegation.
Early this season English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) offered to help Pakistan Cricket by hosting them in England. But the series turned out to be nightmarish for the ECB because of the match/spot-fixing allegations. Despite vehemently denying the undeniable, Pakistan Cricket Board was cornered by the ICC, who slapped suspension on three players—skipper Salman Butt, pacers Mohd Arif and Mohd Aamir.
It is doubtful that ECB will ever like to host Pakistan in near future because instead of being grateful the PCB Chief Ejaz Butt even alleged that England players were also involved in spot-fixing. He failed to prove his allegation and later retracted his statement but by that time damage was done. To add salt to the wounds of PCB, its former president Lt Gen (retd) Tauqir Zia told Australian investigative journalism TV program “Four Corners”, that board was warned before the tour of England that some of its players had links to illegal bookmakers.
By Harpal Singh Bedi