The perennial wild card

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SPORT THIS WEEK – The Sydney Test in the Australia-Pakistan series will be a watershed in the undistinguished career of Kamran Akmal. It was not that he dropped four catches when Pakistan were a certainty to win. It was the missed run out that defied belief. With the batsman well out of the crease, Akmal did not even go for the stumps, something every ‘keeper in the world would instinctively do.
That was the confirmatory test as they would say in chemistry lab. Then there were the News of the World revelations which confirmed that the Sydney Test had been fixed. And then, yet again, here we have the grinning visage of Kamran behind the stumps once again. Against New Zealand, he dropped catches that Mr Bean himself would have pocketed without a hitch. Akmal says they were accidental mistakes.
I am sorry, but no one believes him anymore, even if the misses were not deliberate. There is no place for Kamran in the Pakistan team. As Ian Chappel so aptly observed, to make up for the runs he gives away, Akmal would have to be a better batsman than Don Bradman. Now add to all this, the rumour that one of his elders is a bookie and one would not have to be Hercule Poirot to solve this case.
The worst thing about these Akmal fiascos is the demoralizing effect that they have on his team mates. Here we have a team that is front runners for the biggest trophy in the sport riding high on confidence. And in a few horrendous moments, all this comes crashing down. Why is the PCB persisting with a player who is known to be shady and unreliable and that too in the most vital fielding position?
Something is very wrong here. The cricket World Cup sails along through the interminable round robin matches. Eventually, the usual suspects will make their way into the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, by the time this happens, the viewing public will have received such an overdose of the sport that fans will breathe a sigh of relief when it is all over.
One had thought that the lessons of the West Indies monotony would have been learned, but the cricket’s ship of state takes an interminable time to change directions. Would it not be better for cricket to have two divisions and relegation and promotion be done annually? With 10 teams from the premier division participating, the World Cup would be shorter and much sweeter.
The intensely physical style of ODI cricket has meant that the casualty rate is mounting. Already England has lost Kevin Pietersen and Chris Broad, although both have been ably replaced by Eoin Morgan and Chris Tremlett. Mike Hussey’s return to the Aussie fold will certainly boost their prospects. There are rumours that Kamran is due to pick up a niggling injury any time now, at least all of Pakistan hopes so.
At the end of the round robin league matches, barring some upsets, the quarterfinalists look to be Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Pakistan and Australia from Group A and India, West Indies, England and South Africa in Group B. These results could have been foretold at the onset, but perhaps there was a need to carry along some of the weaker teams in the hope that they might one day make it to Test status. Additional revenue, through broadcast rights and advertising would also have been a factor.
The only side that looks close to achieving Test status is Ireland, a team consisting of English county players. The Irish upset the English as did the Bangladeshis who rebounded from a horrendous outing against the West Indies. At the onset, this column had predicted that Sri Lanka would win the World Cup. The Sri Lankans are one of the most complete teams in the tournament.
They bat calmly, with some excellent technically sound batsmen. In Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, they have two of the very best players who can play big innings with a degree of consistency. They are backed by Dilshan, Tharanga and the all-round skills of Angelo Matthews. But their real strength is in their bowling.
Several of their bowlers are unorthodox, and as a result, very difficult to pick. Malinga bowls side arm, releasing the ball almost at the batsman’s head height. Because of this, the batsman picks the line and length a split second late. Then the ball skids on to the bat at high speed. Getting Malinga away for runs is the biggest batting challenge of this World Cup. Not far behind are Murali and Mendis.
The Sri Lankans are athletic, effortless fielders who are better than they let on. Everything they do is calm and understated, ideal mental attitudes for dealing with the pressures at this level. The other team with the fire power looks to be Australia. Should Shaun Tate and Mitchell Johnson stay healthy, they can be a handful for any batting lineup. With the return of Mike Hussey, Ricky Ponting might be a relieved man, considering the brittle nature of his lineup. South Africa look efficient but emotionally brittle.
India lack the bowling firepower with which to defend the totals its batsmen will run up. If Zaheer picks up a niggle, they could be in serious trouble. Pakistan is the perennial wild card. Should they sort out their wicket keeping nightmares and should the team take the lead from Misbah’s indomitable temperament, they are capable of anything. The bowling is excellent, with Afridi, Rehman, Gul and Shoaib, all wicket takers. But they need runs with which to attack.
In ODI cricket, the batsmen build the defence in the shape of a fighting total. It is only then that the bowlers can set challenging fields and attack. But Pakistan could do everything perfectly and it could all go to naught behind the stumps. Something desperately has to give.