Cricket: let heads roll by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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13 Februray 2015

Carpets are rolled, trumpets are blared, bugles are sounded. The carnival is in the town. And everyone is just where they want to be. Aussies are comfortably sitting atop the throne with the Kiwis and Proteans very much in the contention for the crown. The rest, happy to start off with the tag of "also ran"s hoping for some last minute miracle allowing them to sneak into proprietary club of Champions. This is a strange edition of World Cup where one bad day at office, post the inconsequential first round, would knock even the mighty off their perch and a good streak for a team is having 3 better days in a trot to claim the Cup. Obviously business reasons helped shape the format of the competition, ensuring that viewership powerhouses stay in the game for as long as their team's fortunes boil over. Though the curtain raiser is on Feb. 14th, it isn't until a total one month after when the real knockout fun starts, and as said, 3 good days is the road to victory.

Strangely, the defending champions look in no position to defend the title. And all the talk about "Won't give it back" can come true only if the team sneaks away from the continent in the middle of the night with the cup without informing its hosts. All other options do not appear promising. Whatever BCCI has planned getting the team ready for the tournament by planning a long tour to down under, so that the team has a good couple of months getting acclimatized to the conditions, seem to be in vain. Even after the long tour, playing in a variety of conditions, Indians do not look a settled bunch. They look tired, jaded and uninspired. The so called 140kmph hurlers who were supposed to terrorize opposition into abject submission appeared as little more than cannon fodder on fast and bouncy pitches, dispatched behind the boundary rope faster than their run-ups. Which goes on to prove that there is lot more to bowling than mere spraying. None of the bowlers created any impact in the Test or ODI series (and some of them were played on juicy pitches), with the batsman shouldering majority of the burden of seeing the team off to safety on a majority of occasions. Interestingly, none of the lead-up series to the prior world cups saw the Indians emerge as a confident bunch willing to take any opposition head on. But then, in 4 of those earlier editions, 2 resulted in appearances in the final and a couple, in forgettable outings. It cannot get more theoretical probability than that. Toss a coin 4 times, and count the chances - 2 heads and 2 tails. If this is indeed a conscious game plan of the Indians to not raise expectations of its fans and keep the opposition under a false sense of comfort before they unleash their latent potential when and where it actually mattered, then, Bravo!, they have everyone fooled, they are right where they want to be - written off and not be counted at all!

The larger of the two hosts are on a high, their gameplans are working out, all the cylinders seem to firing at just the right time, the couple of months of practice time testing out various options and combinations all pointing to culminating into a stability that all teams hope to achieve before the beginning of such high profile tournament. The Aussies are spoiled for choice right now. If the only reason there are trying to rush in their reasonably fit captain into the side is loyalty, that talks about the starter & bench strengths of the team capable and confident of carrying an injured member in a world cup without a second thought. The only thing that can go against the Aussies has nothing to do with their performances, it could be the pressure of living up to the high expectations in front of their home crowds. Bowling, batting and fielding, they got it all, now only if they can hold their nerve and not get too excited by looking too far into the tournament, the cup is theirs to claim and carry. The only other team that can possibly stop the victory march of the Aussies is their little brother, the Kiwis, who are on a dream run of their own, peaking at just the right time. Time immemorial, New Zealand has been the slaughterhouse of visiting teams, with barely a team or two in top form able to break the stranglehold of the Kiwis in their own back yard. Statistically, home ground advantage has always rested with the Kiwis, and now with all their departments well oiled and positioned to knock out anyone - the mighty and the minnows - it wouldn't be a surprise to find the neighbors battling it out for the top prize in the finals, and the better man (on the day) lift the cup. It is that close a call between the Aussies and the Kiwis and the only thing that can tip it in the Kiwis' favor is the home crowd pressure in the finals to be played in Australia. Other than that, deciding the eventual winner in the Super Over might be the just thing that can happen on the Finals day.

Talking about poetic justice, South Africans once again start the tournament as the team with the best chance but with the worst luck. Time after time, they find a reason to let others walk away with the glory, while they retire into the sunset unable to figure out how a team that has it all always ends up with a nought. Proteans problem is more in between the ears, than it is with the pitch or the performances. They seem to want more, they seem to try more, and at the final hurdle, they stumble because of that same desperation. Save for the time when weather robbed them of their rightful chance in 1992 and that other time in 1999 when Allan Donald ran like a duck to pave the way for a decade worth of Aussie domination, South Africans chose sympathy every time over victory with their inexplicable batting collapses in key contests, earning a well deserved "awwww...." from all. The current team doesn't appear as strong and as formidable as the previous ones, with the batting looking a little wobbly. But then again, that is the vulnerability that helps teams win world cups. Impregnability and formidability might be good going in, but when the chips are all down, and the gameplan is shot beyond recognition, it is that unpredictability/vulnerability that usually comes to the rescue. And hopefully that chink in their current armor might turn out to be their trump card, after all!

As the quote in Gita 'Where ever there is Krishna, and where ever there is Arjuna, there is victory", where ever there is unpredictability, vulnerability, volatility, instability, there is Pakistan waiting in the wings, raring to prove everyone wrong. What can one say about Pakistan that can be counted for something? They can plunge to unseen depths in the shallowest of contests, yet they can rise beyond everyone's expectations in undeclared moments. They have the talent, yet they lack the discipline, they have the power, yet they are wayward on control, they have the potential, yet a bit short on temperament, they can soar to the skies, and they can bite the dust with the same ease. With Pakistan, it is never about the potential, it is all about the possibilities. In victory and defeat, they never cease to amaze.

England and Srilanka are the only teams without an X-factor, they come as advertised. Their batsmen all have the skills and their bowlers, the necessary firepower. But the only thing that pulls them down on foreign soils is their predictability. They aren't ruthless like the Aussies, nor commanding, like the South Africans, nor maverick like Pakistan, nor imposing like the Kiwis (in their own back yard). Aussies, Kiwis and Proteas are a shoo-in for the 3 semifinal spots, with the lone spot up for grabs among the subcontinental teams and the English. Sure, the West Indians would like to have a say in the shape of the final 4. Even for a one day, they need to have a lot of good 'one days' to be able to decide that, and with their present form, making it past the last 8 would be a long shot's best case.

If there could be a theme for the 2015 edition, then it would be a battle between the predictable and the volatile. If ODI prides itself more on upsets and uprisings than ruthlessness and hegemony, the battle lines are drawn up clearly between the warring sides. It is just a matter of holding the breath and hoping for a surprise.

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Other cricket related articles by Srinivasa Kanchibhotla
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Means and extremes
Fair Play
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The shining silver lining
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Battle of the Bamboozler
Less is more
Hit and run
Tales from down under
The three sides of a coin
Blast from the past
The other side of a win
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Lord of the ring: Return of the King
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