Through The Slips & Gully

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[Agnel Pereira is an active cricketer and a cricket enthusiast, among a few of his other interests and professional life as a chartered accountant. He currently plays in the Bahrain Cricket League in the 20 over a side games on weekends. In this column, already published in two parts, now into the third, he analyses the moments in which the game of cricket has ended up with, right in the middle of a very important world cup.]


"Whats in store for 2007 world cup?"


That’s what I wrote as the end line of my first part of the world cup coverage titled "Reverse Swing ? Square Drive"! And the ‘world cup store’ appears to have been filled up, with the loads of all the cricketing and non-cricketing happenings!


When I last signed off just before the first leg of the world cup began, as a cricket lover, I could only think of this game, the cricketers and their chances. I did not even give some chance for external factors, say, a rain interruption which hasn’t affected the games so far, the dope testing and the betting and match fixing scandals. While most of my cricketing notes in my second part have proved to be prophetic, little would I or anyone, even if he were a hard-shell astrologer, have predicted all the mess embroiling the game of cricket at this very instance.


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If you are grossly disappointed at India’s exit from the world cup (though mathematically they are not yet Out!), don’t let that disappointment come in the way of reading my article. I have squeezed in a lot of time from my tight schedule this weekend to write about what I like most: cricket. Don’t be also cynical that I dare to write about cricket despite India’s unceremonious exit, but let me remind you, I love cricket and everything good about this game and even my hard core patriotism wont stop me from writing about cricket.


First things first.


Disappointed. Dejected. Demoralised. Disinterested. Devastated. Despondent. Desperate. Disaster-struck. Dead.


If the passage of this world cup so far (in the first round) has to be summed up, all of the above words put together wont be sufficient. Among little positives, this world cup so far has been known for all the ‘D’ factors ? even to the extent of disinterest among fans which was indicative of the empty stands.


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As if all of that was not sufficient, this had to happen! All the mystery surrounding the murder of Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, in the aftermath of that famous loss of Pakistan to Ireland is now threatening to pack the game of cricket and lock it inside the crime diaries. As if the previous match fixing, doping, ball tampering, political turmoils, multi million marketing and telecast deals and betting scandals were not sufficient, a murder mystery has been added to the cricketing folklore! Cricket deserved to live alone, without all these ‘companions’ but man’s desires to commercialise this game would not perhaps let Cricket be, what Cricket should have been!


Despite an average cricket fan’s overwhelming desires, a cricket expert’s fervent prayers, and cricketers’ professional endeavours, this game for gentlemen appears to have been auctioned in the ‘gulleys’. A game that was always admired all over the commonwealth nations, introduced by parents to kids with plastic bats and balls on their kids’ first birthdays, and picked up by kids even before they reached school is now in a deep quagmire with the kind of events that are taking place in the 9th world cup in the Caribbean islands. What was considered to be a fresh world cup going to a group of countries collectively called the West Indies, a team that had won the first two world cups and a country filled with a lot of fun, frolic and life, is now threatened for a possible doom with the murder of one of the most active thinking brains in the world of cricket, Robert Andrew Woolmer.


Sport hasn’t been aloof to tragic events. The external political pressures have always played a spoilsport in sport, and if we go back in history ? the shootings in 1972 Munich Olympics, the alienating of South Africa for its Apartheid policies, the Packer series that broke the cricket world, the rebel series with South Africa that took place soon thereafter, the betting scandal that rocked the cricket world, including the mysterious death of Hansie Cronje in a plane crash – are just a few hints of misadventures in sports that are intended to be pursued for the relaxation of mind and activation of the body, but are currently treated literally as wars between nations and combats between players. While all this is going on, the game of cricket has tried to rebuild its composure as the gentleman’s game, but due to the enormous commercial stakes involved, has been shattered more often than not.


Let me continue on the same subject for just two more paragraphs and dwell something on Bob Woolmer that readers may not normally read. His career as an international cricket player has been noteworthy less for the runs he scored or the wickets he took, but is well remembered for the laptop he brought to the dressing room and packed the entire cricket field of 150 yards (approximately) diameter into his thinking box. His deep rooted analysis of the game spelt doom for some cricketers’ careers, but rebuilt some others’. His ability to think about the game strategically perhaps made a mockery of the so called cricket experts who dwelt on making post mortem reports on teams and cricketers, but hardly found any solutions to the problems they had identified. Many of the changes brought in by the ICC could have been easily attributed to Woolmer’s prowess in this game. Yet, he is remembered also for his rebel tours ? one to be part of the Packer series and the next to play against a banned South African team.


Born in Kanpur India in 1948, Woolmer played only 19 test matches and scored just over a thousand runs and took 4 wickets, including an innings of close to 500 minutes he played against Australia (with Lillee and Thomson as its bowling spearheads) to save a match for England are remembered to date. He had played only 6 ODIs, but his first class career spanned 350 matches (15,772 runs) and 290 List A (limited overs, non-international) matches with 4,078 runs. He is remembered for his 4 year stint as the coach of South Africa team in the 1990s and then another 4 years with the Pakistan team from 2003 till his sad death this week. When the full report on his murder comes out and arrests are made, perhaps the game of cricket could go much deeper into a turmoil. If after the betting and match fixing scandals the game went into disrepute and fans started being suspicious, now they may shut their doors on cricket, forever. Yet, commercial interests would not let this game die, as it’s a big industry right now and the effects of closure are too hard to digest.


Will this World Cup be for Cricket after all?


After seeing all that has happened bringing the game into disrepute, let us see if there is some Cricket left in this world cup.


Didn’t I say so? Its in black & white!


I wish to take the readers a little while back – to my earlier article in which I had classified the teams into 4 unique groups ? the minnows (Scotland, Netherlands, Bermuda and Canada), the occasional shockers (Ireland, Kenya, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe), and then the top 8 (all the test playing teams). Why I say this classification was unique because this was not attempted by anyone else anywhere else in this world but looks almost perfect! I had also cautioned the readers about the ability of the second group to cause surprises and, surprises they caused!!


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Just as stated in my pre-world cup review, two of them, Ireland and Bangladesh have already dealt killer blows to Pakistan and India respectively (and have qualified to Super 8’s) and Kenya could well be the 3rd team to join them at the expense of England. In my report, I had given Kenya a 51:49 edge, but now I feel, based on current form of Kenya, I make it on par, 50:50.


If I say India was struck by disaster, it would be an overstatement. Despite predicting tough times at the hands of Bangladesh, I perhaps overrated India’s chances and expected it to reach semifinals and here I admit I failed to read through the lines. Indian team strength, or the lack of it, was such it didn’t need a disaster to drop out of the world cup. Its own complacency was sufficient. I had said that the best chance India had was in 2003 world cup when the top 3 players were at prime form. But India’s 2003 cricket coach John Wright had felt that his team was less prepared than the current one, which prompted me to make corrections to my own assessment.


One of the biggest reasons for India’s struggle was its complacency and over reliance on reputations than abilities. We have players who have not delivered repeatedly when it mattered most. The captain was also a big let down and the grumpy faces of the captain and the coach perhaps expedited India’s relegation. I had high hopes on Rahul Dravid, not because he lives within 2km distance from my home in Bangalore, nor because he plays for Karnataka, but time & again he had shown the maturity to bail out Indian team from extremely hopeless situations, a feat that cannot be boasted by the record holder Mr Sachin Tendulkar. However, Mr Dravid has proved me and all Indian cricket lovers very wrong by a sloppy leadership, inept decision making and poor form (despite his 60 yesterday).


He first underestimated Bangladesh, a game more important than the one against Sri Lanka (I had cautioned that India should be on guard against our lesser rated neighbours), by choosing to bat first on helpful bowling conditions and they never recovered from that. The 3 matches also made a mockery of India’s strong batting line up that boasted 3 players with more than 1,000 ODIs and 35,000 ODI runs between them. Collectively, they contributed only 67 runs yesterday against Srilanka (not many more against Bangladesh either) ? less than 25% of the total runs India needed. While in both matches they failed to cross 200, they thrashed the minnows Bermuda for a World Cup record! Do we need any other definition of Indian cricket? Arent we superstars against the minnows?


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There is a silver lining in every disaster I feel. The only silver lining I can hope for is a mass cleanup of this team, which needs young blood desperately. Havent we seen enough of the superstars? Havent we invested enough in them? I am looking forward to at least 6 heads to roll, but I wont be surprised if that does not happen, that’s Indian cricket for you. All that we need is one of these 3 hitting a big century against an ordinary team.


The second level of our trusted batting lineup also did not come to the rescue, though Sehwag redeemed himself with a small knock, but that was not good enough to take India through. Yuvraj’s complete misjudgement of a run and Dhoni’s ‘walking’ on a LBW call just added salt to India’s complacency wounds. India’s approach got a little complicated when a back in form Ganguly struggled in the beginning, only to hole out to mid off in desperation. Will he come back as the captain despite his poor shot selection in the most crucial match? That is very much possible in Indian cricket!


Don’t think that my soft corner for Robin Uthappa makes me feel that he was unlucky to be dismissed through that brilliant catch by Vaas just at a time when he was starting to flourish. The best chance for India was when Uthappa would have sizzled, but that lasted only a few minutes like that tasty (onion) uthappa in a Kamath Restaurant! Sehwag and Dravid got respective let offs, but could not utilize it for staying a little longer together. And just as Ganguly could be reinstated as captain, don’t be surprised if a young Uthappa is made the scapegoat than the Tendulkars, Dhonis and the Yuvrajs. That’s also Indian cricket for you.


There was nothing called a team effort in India’s approach, a complete difference with the 1983 world cup winning Indian team. This was evident even in the helpful conditions in the morning when the bowlers were shone with individual brilliances, yet they allowed Sri Lanka to cruise past 250 with 50+ knocks from two rookie batsmen. Yet, 250 was an attainable score on this pitch, where stroke making was easy, barring the giant shadow of the tiny magician, Muralitharan. In any case, the way India was playing, they did not deserve to be in the Super 8’s. Without Pakistan there, they would have anyway felt ‘bored’ because strangely, people in India and Pakistan give so much importance to their own match, even a finals played between two different teams does not get much mileage. This world cup will appear to be in the shadows of 1987 world cup where both teams had bowed out of the semis.


The following teams are (almost) in the Super 8s:


From Group A: Australia and South Africa
From Group B: Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (does anyone believe in that insignificant probability of India still sneaking through? Well I don’t, and if that happens, that will be the greatest escape ever in any tournament of this sort)
From Group C: New Zealand and England
From Group D: West Indies and Ireland


What are the chances then for each team? Is the equation going to be much altered? Will rain play spoilsport in any crucial game? (the way South Africa was deprived, and Pakistan was helped, in two separate rain interruptions in 1992 world cup). These are tough questions for sure.


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But going by the form displayed by the teams in the first round, I feel Australia, South Africa, West Indies and Sri Lanka will make the semi finals. England/Kenya, Bangladesh and Ireland’s chances are very slim, whereas New Zealand will remain to be the dark horses as ever and can upstage one of the 4 top rated teams to reach semis. That may also depend on another upset victory that Ireland or Bangladesh can achieve over one of the fancied sides, or any rain interruption. Remember, Ireland and Bangladesh belong to my "Occasional Shockers" group, which will not help them reach semi finals (despite whatever Dave What more says about his team and despite his previous effort to win the world cup for Sri Lanka in 1996), but can come in the way of some inconsistent team on some unhelpful playing conditions.


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A point about the minnows who showed some metal in their performance. I felt the performance of Canada surprised me the most ? in the matches it played against England and New Zealand, Canada fought very hard. In fact its margin against England was only 51 runs and against New Zealand, though Canada’s bowling was not very effective, allowing the Kiwis to score 360, Canada scored a satisfactory 250 against them. However, Kenya defeated Canada more easily than the England team did ? winning by 7 wickets where Canada scored only 199 runs. Overall, it was the best among the minnows.


Scotland and Netherlands were almost equal at the bottom, though Netherlands defeated Scotland quite easily, by 8 wickets. However, Scotland managed to play for all 50 overs against South Africa and 40 overs against Australia, Netherlands found it hard against the two strong teams in the Group to do even that much. The last team Bermuda helped India to achieve a world cup record, and imagine this beauty, the world cup record holder is not even in the second round! That perhaps shows about the abilities of our over-rated over-worshipped cricketers who are good to perform against minnows. Does anyone remember how whole of India had raised a toast to Mr Sachin Tendulkar when he scored a century against Kenya in the 1999 world cup after returning from his father’s funeral?


The Super 8s will move to Providence Stadium in Georgetown Guyana, Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in St Johns Antigua, Queen’s Park in Grenada and Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados. The semi finals will return to Jamaica and St Lucia and the final on April 27 will be played in Barbados. Till then, there is a full one month of cricket action that is expected and I cant imagine whatever else that can happen in this one month. One thing that makes me a little cautious is the rain interruptions and Guyana and Antigua are quite infamous for causing agony to cricketers through weather uncertainty.


So, now the battle lines have been drawn up and barring one or two key matches in the first round, this is the real beginning of the World Cup. Only a thrilling Super 8s could pacify the shocked world and heal the wounds of many a cricket hearts. Don’t be worried over the absence of India or Pakistan ? I am sure this world cup, if allowed to be played on the turf, than the crime files and courts, will provide the much needed sparkle in the remaining one month of the competition.


At the end of the day, Cricket needs a big victory to survive the biggest turmoil ever to haunt its checkered progress so far. One is surely forced to say at this juncture, May Cricket win!!


My concluding part of the World Cup report will be made towards the end of the Super 8 phase, or just before the Semifinals. Till then enjoy some Calypso music with some Irish Mist.


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Author: Agnel Pereira- Bahrain


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