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Games On! by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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February 21, 2007

Games On!

Given the size of the nation, its population and its geographical location (eclipsed by a bigger better brother), New Zealand, in an eerie way, has a knack of upsetting World Cup plans and preparations of the so called champions. Now that the whitewash is complete and the Aussies have been handed down their first humiliating drubbing, a complete merciless knockout, in more than a decade, it is interesting to go 4 years back in the past, and see how it meted out a similar treatment to the Indians, who were on a one-day high, boasting about their glorious form (at home, of course), and how if everything went as per the plan, the shining cup would soon become the mantel piece in the BCCI administrative offices in Mumbai. That was until the first ball was bowled in the first one-dayer. The pitch (minefields was a better term) played their part, while the leather put on a ballet show, swinging merrily from one end to another, blithely gliding through the air, and upon gently landing on the ground, charted a course that was as unpredictable as it was unexpected. With less than a month to the grand spectacle, the pitches were roundly criticized for their juiciness, liveliness and cheerfulness. Indians muttered and sputtered, while the hosts barely made past the finishing lines. None of the batsmen was left unscarred, and everyone was found wanting - in hope, in spirit and in game. Why would anybody go with bowler friendly conditions, considering World Cup stages are always batsmen's best buddies, for World Cup preparations, at the cost of batsmen's confidence on both sides of the fence, remain a million dollar question. Indians were shattered in confidence and Kiwis came out no better either. The performances showed during the preliminary stages of the cup, when the Indians received a good whupping at the hands of the Aussies, barely made amends against Namibia, before they completely turned it around. And the less said about Kiwis, the better.

This time, the Kiwis seemed to have learned their lesson. Batsmen's havens, short boundaries, bowling attacks that were only probing at best and never threatening, and teams that wagged a very short tail - the conditions were ideal for records to fall like bowling pins, abuses (physical, verbal and psychological) to be heaped on the bowlers, and fielders to come better prepared with IV glucose drips, lest they collapse playing fetch. If bowling was what that destroyed the Indian team 4 years ago, it is the batting that completely decimated Australian hegemony and domination in the one-day sport. It is not so much as the victories, but the way in which they were secured - first, a chance less 10-wicket victory, and the second and third, fairy tale chases of gargantuan totals. The news while serving as a great morale booster for the New Zealanders just before the Cup, has also thrown the door wide open for anyone, to lay claims on the Holy Grail, as it showed that the demon could indeed be slain, not once, not twice, but many times over. For Aussies, the unwarranted (and unwanted) tour has become an unnecessary distraction. In spite of the rough talk, and the tough walk, the tour has certainly laid the seeds of fear and doubt, among their minds, that their wins do not come as a default option this time around. Already reeling under a spate of injuries (though it remains an interesting question if the presence of Ponting and Gilchrist would have made any difference on the Kiwi blitzkrieg), the Australians confront the question for the first time in a long long time - whether they are the same ruthless juggernaut, 10 one-days ago. If nothing succeeds like success, its converse, nothing flops miserably like a repeated failure, is equally true. Never before was the case of warring neighbors, viewed by the entire world wide-eyed and never before was the repeated failures of consistent success, welcomed with open arms.

The situation, unfortunately, is not so clear, cut and dried, in the subcontinent. After being roundly criticized for abject performances in the one-day arena abroad, in WI and SA, Indians certainly bounced back, paying back the WI in the same coin in one series, and continuing the same big brother bullying of the Lankans in the second half of the double header. The experiments with combinations, batting positions, team compositions, yielded a core of 6-7 performers at any given time, which is more than anything that a team or a captain could ask for. The batting big guns seem to be finally firing full bore, the bowling seems to hit its stride - taking more and yielding less - and the fielding unit seems to pull miracles off the thin air, occasionally. However... (there is always a 'however' with the Indian side) Indians are a different beast at home. Though conditions seems to be pretty much the same at the Carribean - hot, humid, slow and low - winning at home against good sides do not automatically translate to assured performances abroad. The best that could be said under the circumstances is any surgeon's favorite, operative phrase - Let's wait and see.

Pakistan and Sri Lanka would rather trade the current Indian imbroglio to their shambolic situations anyday. Any foreign tour, only a few weeks away from the World Cup, is a precarious situation. The prospect of good batting practice, acclimatization to the foreign conditions, fine tuning the team - all play hostage to the morale that would be mightily dented, should the side end up on the losing side. Not only do they then not have the requisite time to pull themselves back by the bootstraps, but any adjustments, major or minor, at so late a stage would prove detrimental to the ultimate cause. It becomes a Catch-22 situation, where they neither can rest in peace doing nothing, nor can they tinker with it doing something. Given the history, Pakistan always finds a way of springing up surprises and it would no surprise, that come the curtain call, all the key players show up to the game, rested and prepared, and deliver the goods that ultimately matter. And the Lankans can take comfort in the fact that the ultimate scores in the concluding series would not have read so one-sided, had they come into the game with their 2 most experienced bowlers, who know a little something about shredding sides in their allotted quotas. If the Pakis and the Lankans have staked on the rock, the Windies find themselves pitching a tent on the hard place, unable to make anything out of the dress rehearsal in India, a few weeks ago. Windies line up is very much similar to the Indians - moderate bowling lineup, backed up by a packed batting department. If the batting can cover for their inadequacies in their bowling more times than not, and if the bowling can come to the aid once in a while, beating the opposition down with gentle but accurate bowling, backed with some spirited fielding, the Carribeans could see themselves upsetting the applecarts of formidable sides, once too often.

At the end of the day, the only 2 sides that can sit back, relax and wait for the rollcall, are the Proteas and, in an amusing twist of fate, the English. The South Africans, after whipping both the Indians and the Pakis, in back to back series, in both forms of the game, are the current day Australians - who would just show up, do the job, collect the reward and leave, irrespective of the venue and the nature of the pitches. If there is an Achilles Heel that could be looked for (hard), it is the exhaustion factor for the amount of cricket that they played in the last few months. England, enjoying a great late surge, thanks to the grit and determination of a Lone Ranger, hopes to ride the wave that they caught at just the right time. The closest that the doors were open this far and wide for any team to become the titular heads for the next 4 years, was in 1987, when an underdog from nowhere, shot up through the ranks and claimed the ultimate prize. So which team pines to be the underdog this time? Which team hates to start off as the crowd favorite this time? The tag has been so enticing so much so that, even the Australians can come off their high horse and evinced interest to compete in the underdog race on an even keel with the rest of the populace, just to not build up any expectations. The situation is certainly welcome to any average viewer in any part of the cricket viewing world and as any excited announcer would shout out - GAME ON!

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