Tuesday, March 24, 2015

South Africa - Chokers no more

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This was a curious South African team. Confidence misplaced, more words than deeds. Taking themselves too seriously. For a casual observer they gave a sense of someone running in the same place and feeling mighty pleased with themselves.

As a player, AB DeVillers is all action. His performances speak for himself. As a captain he led a South African team who were seduced by themselves. Previous South African teams seduced us, this one was self seduced and we watched in amusement their skipper speak tall, bold words even as they lost almost all their matches to decent teams.

Except Sri Lanka, South Africa failed to beat any serious team.

And yet, they believed they could win the cup. This is quite different from traditional South African teams who others believed in, spoke less, did more but ultimately did not have the self belief.

Before their game with India, in the group stages, South Africa were the favorites. They lost. Before their game with Pakistan, in the group stages, South Africa were the favorites. They lost. Before their semi final game with New Zealand, South Africa were the favorites. They lost.

It took sustained ineptitude to finally get rid of the chokers tag. Nobody can say South Africa choked. This time they were simply not good enough.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why do we let South Africa seduce us?

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I remember the days when South Africa were banned from international cricket. There was a lot of intrigue around them. I had read about people like Clive Rice, about Graham Pollock; that he had a batting average of almost 61... I had read about the exploits of Barry Richards, Mike Procter who bowled off the wrong foot; if I remember my reading correctly... knew a bit about Eddie Barlow, Ali Bacher....

I knew that without South Africa international cricket was missing a formidable team.

I watched with keen interest when India welcomed South Africa back to the international fold and I remember watching on TV Alan Donald charging in and bowling fast in India in a one day game. He was bowling faster than Malcom Marashall I had thought. Later when India became the first team to tour South Africa for a full Test series, I remember Pravin Amre scoring a dour century on debut.

Then came the 1992 world cup. Within a year of South Africa returning back to the international game, they were getting a chance to play the World Cup. Every one was curious as to how would they compare and compete with other international team. Having followed India's games with them, they clearly seemed a stronger side to me.

A lot of buzz around the 1992 world cup was due to South Africa's presence. It seemed like they had the sympathy vote. For what .... I don't know but it seemed to me that people wanted them to do well.

And then Johnty Rhodes flew out Inzamam Ul-Haq....

And the world was seduced.

South Africa brought in a very different brand of cricket to the World Cup. They fielded like no other team had fielded before, they seemed better coached and their cricket seemed rational and unemotional. They didn't smile like the West Indians did, they didn't have nearly as much the passion like the Pakistanis did, they seemed a bit like the Australians, scowling all the time and taking themselves too seriously but more mechanical. They didn't seem to have India's flair or guile. They were as good as any other team and different too.

But ever since that 1992 World Cup they have seduced cricket fans like no other team has.

Since their re-entry they have started every world cup being considered as legitimate favorites. And yet after 26 years of World Cup history behind them, they have yet to win a knockout game in the World Cup. Their exits are a combination of bad luck, foolishness, panic, screwed up rain rules, math errors, tactical blunders and stage fright.

In 1992 silly rain rule left them needing to get 22 runs off one ball, when before the rain they had 18 balls to get them.

In 1996 they came up with a brain dead idea of dropping Alan Donald for the quarter finals and Brian Lara made them pay.

In 1999 they picked Alan Donald for their semifinal against Australia but he had a brain freeze of his own which resulted in his getting run out, the game ending as a tie and Australia progressing on the basis of a previous Super Six match win.

In 2003 they forgot that D/L targets list scores needed to equal and that teams have to score one more than the D/L score listed to win a game. As the rain came down Boucher meekly tapped the last ball before the rain meekly to mid wicket which tied the game when they needed to win it.

In 2007, they were too jittery in the semi finals and the match was effectively over in 10 overs with South Africa 27-5

In 2011 they collapsed chasing a smallish target against another fellow chokers, New Zealand who before that game hadn't won any knock-out game themselves.

This is their 7th attempt. But isn't 6 flops good enough to ask the question why do we let South Africa seduce us every 4 years?

Why for instance before their game against Pakistan, were South Africa considered favorites and no one was giving Pakistan any chance. What is it about South Africa's weakness we are willing to ignore and what is it about Pakistan's strengths which they have demonstrated in almost every world cup barring 2007; that we are unwilling to acknowledge.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Beating Pakistan just isn't the same any more

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For those of us who watched "that shot" Javed Miandad deposited into the crowd off a Chetan Sharma full-toss; these 6 wins in the World Cup, starting in Sydney 1992 against Pakistan are sweet revenge.

You know...I want to feel that way but I don't.

Perhaps that sixer has already been avenged or it may never be. Try as I may, I do not believe India has won a one-day game; a final at that; in quite the fashion Javed Miandad did that day in 1986. May be Sachin's attack on Shoaib Akhtar at Centurion in the 2003 World Cup game comes a little close. Both were true assaults on the psyche of respective fans. But I'd have to get into the mind of a Pakistani cricket fan for a little while to know if those knocks are comparable.

But...I don't think "that shot" needs to be avenged any more....

Recent Indian teams, it seems, have the same attitude and skill that we envied about Pakistani teams of the 80s and 90s. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli are as Pakistani in the way they clinically chase targets or set them up that they could very well be the Javed Miandad, Ijaz Ahmen, Saleem Malik and Aamir Sohail from a generation ago.

But we don't have a Wasim Akram or a Waqar Younis or even an Aqib Javed....so any comparison to those Pakistani teams that traumatized us can only be a superficial search for a non existent symmetry,

Over the years Pakistan cricket has suffered. They no longer field teams like they used to in the 80s and 90s...even early 2000s. For that 2003 Centurion game, Pakistan had fielded a strong team. It meant something when India chased down that formidable total.

Compared to that game, the 2011 and 2015 wins seem facile.

Before the Adelaide game during the current World Cup it seemed this was Pakistan's best chance to finally win one against India. India had not won anything on the long tour and there were some doubts creeping in my mind if the reason for that was a weakness in the team exploited by Australian conditions.

The manner in which the game unfolded however and the meekness of Pakistan's fight makes that initial gut assessment look foolish.

While there is relief that India has won another game and the streak is still in tact, one cannot ignore the feeling of the win being facile. Moreover, recent trend holds no promises of enthralling contests like the ones in Sharjah 1986 and Centurion 2003.

There is no joy in beating Pakistan anymore because it seems to be happening so often these days and its hard to ignore that recent Pakistan teams are like poorly made Bollywood sequels of relatively decent-er originals.

Having witnessed West Indies's demise in its entirety, I fear that Pakistan cricket is headed the same way. The frequency of a new "fast bowling find" has drastically reduced and there is no batsman that has emerged in the last few years that can come even remotely close to the likes of Virat Kohli or Shikhar Dhawan. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The World Cup

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The last people to let go of their old gods are the loyal priests. And Srinivasan is the latest example where the cabal most benefiting from his occupation of BCCI and ICC's chair is the one that's most quiet and protective of him. There is no doubt that its self-preservation at work because without these old gods, the priest would have to re-think their lives.

As painful as the saga of Srinivasan has been, it's been more painful to hear the deafening silence of the cricketing gods. India has perhaps survived for many centuries of conquests due to its ability to "shake it off" and continue as if nothing happened. And so we continue to indulge in navel gazing and waiting for the next puppet to emerge from the shadows. The heroes for many of these loyal priests seem to be the Putin-Medvedev combine and not the high standards set by Mandela or Washington. But it's dumb to even think that a man more or less accused of re-writing the constitution to suit his personal agenda would display any different behavior nor that his cabal would condemn it.

Its painful to hear Shastri, Gavaskar, Dhoni and others talk about BCCI and Srinivasan as being the same and pointing to high player salaries and perks as the justification for their enduring admiration. Is this what sport is all about now? Are our sporting gods all about this now? Do they believe that getting a fair deal is a blessing and that it's due to one individual? And that if Srinivasan were to be criticized or held accountable for over-reach, they would lose their pay? And so it's ok to cower in blackmail? What about the cricket? Is cricket in India beholden to one or two persons' largesse? Really?

And the Indian team is a clear reflection of what can be despite our administrators' best efforts to hog the limelight. I think Dhoni is a super player and a great captain. And I think Kohli is playing the brand of cricket that I hoped Tendulkar would always play. Kohli doesn't have Tendulkar's aura yet and he will likely never have that mystique due to the privacy that was dear to Tendulkar. However, Kohli with his public engagement and willingness to live life on his terms without any apologies is refreshing. I sincerely hope that people who don't like his brashness and are worshipers of humility don't trash him the moment he starts failing. He deserves as long a rope if not longer than what Tendulkar was given when his form slumped.

India has no bowling worth the name and it's batting is struggling to come to grips with Australia. While Rohit Sharma's form is a welcome sign, Dhawan hasn't produced a single meaningful innings in all his time in Australia. And without both openers being in form, India have no chance. Turning to Kohli or Dhoni or magic in every game isn't a formula for success. Rahane and Raina can add bulk but cannot turn games on their head. At best they are valuable supporting cast. The players that can take the game away from the opposition are Rohit, Kohli and Dhoni. These are the men that no one has answers for.

Pakistan is inspired and yet I don't see how they can topple this Indian team. But if Pakistan has had a better chance I don't know of one. India usually don't start well in such tournaments but this would be a home world cup for India given the amount of time they've spent in Australia.

This Pakistan team under Misbah is a team that I can like. Misbah, Afridi and Younis represent the three types of Pakistan teams that we've all come to see. Misbah is about the steel and pride that Zaheer Abbas and Asif Iqbal reflected, Afridi is the mercurial ability Inzy, Akram and Waqar played with and Younis is about the passion that we saw from Imran, Sarfraz, Miandad and Saeed Anwar. There is a certain beauty to Pakistan cricket that few teams can match.

I put India a nose ahead in this game simply because Indians have played a lot of cricket and don't usually need miracles to win games. They are experienced and know when to turn it on.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

World Cups in Australia

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Mahendra Singh Dhoni has had to resort to - "This is more or less the same team than won the Champions Trophy" and "These guys know how to deliver in ICC tournaments"... He is essentially pleading to keep the faith in his team. You surely can't expect him to say what he really thinks, which could be "How on God's green earth am I going to win anything worthwhile with this team"

A World Cup in Australia always seems enticing for an Indian fan. Memories of getting up early to watch Roger Binny take out David Boon, Azharuddin fielding like an international cricketer pulling off a catch at point and India winning the World Championship of cricket are still fresh. The few times India have done well in Australia somehow mask the routine mauling and disappointments India has been subjected to in Australia.

The last time too, in 1992, India had embarked on what Sanjay Manjrekar called "an endless summer". That world cup had ended in disappointment. Shrikanth holing out to Deepak Patel to that one fielder on long-on to start a must win game against New Zealand, Venkatapathi Raju celebrating too early and getting run-out going for a run that could have tied the game against Australia, rain ruining the game against Sri Lanka and Ian Botham taking out Sachin Tendulkar when he seemed set to take control of the chase...

The lasting images of that World Cup did not include many Indian moments. Inzamam's mauling of New Zealand, Johnty - the airplane, a Wasim Akram special in the final, New Zealand's innovations at the beginning of each innings; batting and bowling... 

That World Cup was also where 2 themes took birth. South Africa's emergence as a side that could find impossible reasons to lose a match they have all but won (The crooked rain rule cost India and South Africa games they should have won) and India never having lost a game to Pakistan at a World Cup.

Given how this Indian team has done so far on the tour, there shouldn't be much optimism to even match the performance from 1992. It seems that the fight India showed in the Test series was false advertisement for the World Cup.