Saturday, February 19, 2011

My World Cup memories down the years... Part 1

With just a few hours left for the first ball to be bowled in the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup, thought it was time for me to jog my memory and rewind to the World Cups that I remember over the past couple of decades....

The first World Cup that I distinctly remember was the 1992 World Cup down under. I would have been in the eight grade then. My only (very faint) memory of the 1987 edition was India beating Australia at Delhi on a festive day (Dasara or Diwali). But coming to the 1992 edition, it was a completely new viewing experience. Held in sunny Australia and New Zealand, broadcast by Channel Nine, first Cup to have coloured clothing and day-night games, the 1992 World Cup had all that a viewer could want (Not to mention, the best format till date !!. Very few boring games). I watched most of the matches at home. And though I was not allowed to bunk school for the sake of cricket, the day-night games meant that I could watch the last couple of hours after coming back from school. And so I watched India beat Pakistan at Sydney (complete with the More-Miandad show of love) in company of relatives at home and then subside meekly in the remaining matches. The classic India-Australia game was on a Sunday, hence could watch the entire match, though it ended in heartbreak with India losing by a run in most of the lethargic running one could ever see. When the final came, I could at last sneak in a half day from school and thus was able to watch the second innings, which of course, included Mushtaq Ahmed having the English batsman in a spin and Wasim Akram nailing the issue with successive jaffas to get Lamb and Lewis. I must confess that I am waiting for four years hence, when the Cup will go back to Australia and (if the ICC has its way) only 10 teams. It should be a fantastic experience, and I am already planning to use that as an excuse for visiting one of my favourite destinations.

By contrast the 1996 edition came at difficult times. After all, I was in the midst of my Standard XII board exams !!! Which meant of course, studying became difficult, not to mention the interruptions due to the screaming from the neighbours place. But even in the midst of all this, I still remember a few matches. The India-Australia game in Mumbai (the first game under lights at the Wankhede) was one I saw mostly fully (we were in the pre-exam study leave days), although the result was not a pleasing one. Then, of course, came the India-Pakistan quarter-final. It was a Saturday and we had finished our Physics paper and rushed home, just in time for the start. The holiday next day meant that one could afford to watch most of the game, which I dutifully did. And when India won the match, the whole building erupted in celebrations, which lasted way into the night. I managed to do well on Monday in the exams and felt that the team just needed to show up in two games to win the World Cup... which then brings me to my most vivid WC memory. The semi-final against Sri Lanka. I finished my Chemistry II paper and went to my friends place, determined to put all thoughts of cricket aside and concentrate on the next exam (Botany). As the first two Lankan wickets fell in the opening exchanges, the Botany text book was put aside and we were hooked to the TV sets. But as Aravinda and the rest prospered. we thankfully managed to get a couple of hours of study. But even then, I felt 251 was not enough and I rushed home during the break all set to see Sachin and the rest overhaul the challenge (book in hand, of course :)). What happened, of course, needs no recollection. Suffices to say that not only was the evening spoiled, my chances of cracking the Botany paper were ruined. After the game, I stayed up till 3 am, though the time was spent in brooding over the result and then being taken over by chilling fear as to the consequences on my educational career. I turned up at the Botany paper almost like a zombie (with only a couple of hours of sleep) and duly messed it up (and with it, probably the faint hopes I nursed of becoming a doctor !!). It was by far the World Cup match I remember most. Thereafter, of course, there was no joy in the 1996 World Cup, though I was watched Sri Lanka's day of glory the following Sunday over vada-paos.

Tune in for part 2 and the subsequent memories...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The contenders: England

England arrive for the 2011 edition of the World Cup on the back of one of their best years recently. It started with them finally winning a world title when they bagged the T20 trophy in the West Indies. That was followed by a typically successful home season, with Bangladesh and Pakistan beaten with ease in the test matches and 3-2 scorelines over Pakistan and Australia in the Natwest series. Then came the biggest moment of all: drubbing Australia in the Ashes in their own den. So it ought to be a very confident English team that turns up for the World Cup. But stacked against them are the odds. The tag of perennial underachievers at the World Cup (unlike the South Africans, they haven't got to a stage where they can throw it away !!) is likely to weigh on them. The recent 1-6 hammering at the hand of the Aussies reinforces the fact that England are yet to be a very good one-day team, even after four decades. And finally, they come to the sub-continent, which has often been a harsh place for them. The last ODI series against India in 2008 saw them on the wrong end of a 0-5 scoreline (before an early trip home after the Mumbai attacks). Also working against them would be the IPL factor. Hardly any of their side have played in the IPL and hence would have little recent knowledge, forget form, on Indian conditions. So we have a determined and much improved English side against the demons of history. Will they rise above all of that and add a second world title in under a year ?

World Cup Record: Mixed.. Played 59, Won 36. But in the last three editions, their record is nothing to shout home about.

Starting XI: Strauss, Prior, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Collingwood,  Bopara/Yardy, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Bresnan/Shahzad

The calming influence of Strauss is vital for England's chances of putting up, or chasing, huge scores. A vastly improved ODI player (average 34, SR 80), he would be the anchor at one end around which the likes of Trott, Pietersen and Bell flourish. An in-form Collingwood is also neccessary for English hopes. They also bat deep with Broad and Swann coming in at No.8 and 9. In the bowling, Swann would hold the key while Anderson would be hoping for some reverse swing of the flat tracks. But overall, the English bowling attack will not have anyone quaking in their boots. Having said all this, the man who would probably have the biggest influence on their fortunes would be their 12th man: Andy Flower !! Over the past couple of years, he has gained the respect of players and formed a great partnership with Strauss. Given his awesome record in India, it would be interesting to see how he guides his largely inexperienced team on the biggest stage of em all.

Key Games:  Their match against the hosts (now at Bangalore) would be crucial in determining their early form and attitude. The positive for England is that both their crunch games (against West Indies and South Africa) are at Chennai, that pitch, if it plays to form, might interest Messrs Anderson, Bresnan and Broad. They can start having the idli-sambars right from now. Possible quarter final opponents would be the mercurial Pakistan or the formidable Sri Lanka, where they would need to play out of their skins. 

Final Word: England arrive as outside of the favourites, which is probably how Flower and Strauss would want to have it. Important for them would be to master the conditions (indeed, 'embrace' the conditions as Harsha Bhogle put it). The title is not hopelessly beyond the English, but a semi-final spot would be a fair outcome. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The contenders: Bangladesh

Of course, the first thought that would come to your mind is: Why is the writer counting Bangladesh amongst the contenders ??. While no one, least of all the Bangladeshi fan, imagines Shakib Al Hasan lifting the trophy on the 2nd of April, I have this suspicion that Bangladesh might actually go quite far in this tournament. Since their entry into the event in 1999, the Bangladeshis had been merely making up the numbers. An odd victory apart (Pakistan in 1999 and India in 2007), they have not really gone as far as they would have liked to. In 2007, it was only because of the weird format (4 teams of 4 groups), that they got into the Super Eights. But this time, things might be different. Firstly, they are playing all their games at home. On the slow n low pitches, and in front of their boisterous home crowd, they can be quite a handful even for the top sides. And remember, in this World Cup, fringe teams like Bangladesh only need to upset the applecart once (assuming they win against the non-test playing nations) to gain entry into the quarter finals. And from then, of course, it is anyone's game. In addition, they are a vastly improved side since four years back. Under Shakib Al Hasan, the side has shown an ability to constantly hold the top teams in check. Has Bangladesh's time finally come ?

World Cup Record: Not very inspiring. Played 20, Won 5. But they will not get a better opportunity than this to improve that.

Likely XI: Tamim Iqbal, Imrul Kayes, Shahriar Nafees, Junaid Siddique, Md Ashraful, Shakib Al Hasan, Mushfiqur Raheem, Naeem Islam, Abdur Razzaq, Shaiful Islam, Rubel Hossain

The key players to watch would be Tamim Iqbal and the captain. Tamim has established himself as a dasher at the top and his audacious, and generally very good, shots up front have often given Bangladesh the early impetus. And in Shakib Al Hasan, they have an inspirational leader. One who contributes with both bat and ball (2834 runs at average of 35, 129 wickets at economy of only 4.25), he would hold the key to their fortunes. Not to mention the way he marshalls his troops and helps them absorb the pressure that can so easily turn your foe.

Key Games: The tournament opener against India promises to be a block-buster, not least because of what happened in the Carribbean in 2007. Indians would be thirsty for revenge, and the Bangladeshis would be just as pumped up to repeat the dose in front of a packed and partisan crowd. If Bangladesh can repeat the feat, it will set the tournament alight, not to mention a couple of riots in India !!. But even if they go down to India, what is heartening for Bangladesh is that the other two sub-continental sides are in the other group. That leaves England, South Africa and West Indies, none of whom are at home on the turning pitches in Bangladesh. I expect Al-Hasan and his men to win one (if not two) of these three matches. If Ireland and Netherlands can be negotiated comfortably, Bangladesh would find themselves in the quarters. There, of course, they would probably run into Australia. And in knock-out matches, of course, who knows what can happen on that day ?

Final Word: I would be watching their progress with keen interest. It may be that this World Cup might be Bangladesh team's coming-of-age tournament. I expect them in the quarters and they will give their opponent there a run for their money.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

The contenders: Australia

We begin the assessment of the main contenders in alphabetical order, which means that the first squad is of the three-time defending champs. The Aussies are also, probably, the team that has been most under the hammer in recent times, much to the delight of cricket-lovers around the world. Their recent slump, atleast in the test arena, has been well-documented, but when you look at a 11-0 record in each of the last two WC's, you simply cannot argue with the pedigree of a champion side. They might have lost two Ashes series (not to mention four of their all-time greats) since the last WC, but they would simply have to be pencilled in as one of the three most likely to feature at the Wankhede in early April. And, worringly for the opposition teams, they seem to have put the Ashes defeat behind them, if their 6-1 hammering of England is any indication.

World Cup Record: Simply stunning. Played 69, Won 51 !!. And as mentioned before, the last match they lost was in the 1999 edition.

Likely XI: Watson, Haddin, Ponting, Clarke, M Hussey, D Hussey, White, M Johnson, Lee, Hauritz, Tait

Their biggest power-players are at the top of the order, and on Shane Watson rests a lot of their hopes in the knock-out games. One of the preimer all-rounders in the limited overs game, Watson has run into great form against England, and the Aussies would be hoping he carries it to the WC. Add to that his experience of playing in the IPL , which means that Watson should have no problems adjusting his game to the sub-continental conditions. But under the scanner would be their returning captain. After a lengthy rest, he might just have refreshed himself mentally and would be raring to go. And with his splendid record at the World Cup (1537 runs at average of 48), Ricky Ponting would be the player to watch. In the bowling department, probably seen as the weaker link of the unit (isnt it the case with most teams ?) the successful return of Brett Lee would have considerably boosted Aussie hopes. If he can maintain his current form and be injury-free, and if Tait and Johnson can maintain their control, the Aussies have probably one of the best bowling units of the tournament. With Johnson batting at No. 8 and Clarke, David Hussey and White contributing 12-15 overs every game, they have extremely good balance. Finally, there is the IPL factor. Most of their side has played, and excelled in, the IPL and hence would be able to master the conditions better than most (remember that the last IPL was held around the same time in India last year).

Key Games: Being in the relatively easier of the two groups means that the Aussies really need not worry too much about the group games. Their game against Sri Lanka (March 5th at the Premadasa) should decide the group topper. If the Aussies do top, they can expect probably the West Indies or Bangladesh at Mirpur on March 23, which again should be an easy game.

Final words: They might not be intimidating as at the previous two editions, but you underestimate a champion side at your own peril. If the baggy green is missing in the semi-finals, I would consider it a big upset.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

CWC 2011 is here...

So we are just over two weeks from the start of the quadrennial show piece event in cricket and no better excuse to (once again) revitalize this blog !!!. When something happens once every four years, there is always a sense of anticipation and excitement preceding it, so what if the event is likely to consist of about a month of mostly mundane matches (I am not sure how many Delhiites would fill up the Kotla on the 7th of March to see Canada and Kenya battle it out). So if we, as spectators, are feeling even more than an iota of excitement, one can imagine what the players must be going through as they prepare to fly into the subcontinent. Indeed, for a Sachin or a Kallis, both giants across generations, it will be their final chance to feel a WC trophy in their hands. It is nothing short of a tragedy that one of them has to resign himself to a CV without a World Cup win on it.

So as we countdown to the Cup, this arm-chair expert will bring to you his analysis of the top eight contenders. However, to make predictions based on any kind of analysis is hazardous, since the format of the Cup has ensured that most, if not all, of these eight would have fairly smooth sailing till the quarters. And then, of course, all it takes are few bad overs, one bad shot or a costly fielding lapse (hopefully not an umpiring error) to end the World Cup dream !!. This is my biggest grouse against the World Cup. In that respect, the 1992 World Cup was the best format. Nine teams played each other with the semi-finals to follow. Even if you needed to have 14 teams, a better way would have been to straightaway have the semi-finals. With only two slots out of seven, it would have ensured that the two best teams over a period of a month, deservedly, got into the semis. This time, one can almost visualize Australia battling Bangladesh/West Indies (the only debatable QF slot), Sri Lanka taking on England, Pakistan v South Africa and India meeting New Zealand. And then, its all equal. Especially since there are no clear and overwhelming favourites. Hopefully, there will be that one team that will dominate the league stages and then, turn on the heat at the correct moments in the knock-out, leading all the way to the trophy at the Wankhede on the 2nd of April.

Be that as it may be, in subsequent posts, we take a look at the teams.