Numero Uno


Pakistan travel to Bangladesh knowing that a triumph in the Asia Cup could reinstate the confidence that we had lost in the ODIs against England, as the team looks to make a surge towards the top of the pile in Asia. Meanwhile, we have a new world number one in golf, while La Liga has confirmed its status as the best league in the world.
Thick-headedness with all things related to Pakistan has ensured that captain Misbah-ul-Haq is under immense pressure to deliver in the shorter format of the game, as Asian giants – and Bangladesh – lock horns in the Asia Cup starting from today. After the anticlimactic showing in the ODIs against England, Pakistan have the ideal opportunity to make emends in Bangladesh. The home side have nothing really in their favour, barring home advantage – and too is questionable. India are arguably worse off than Pakistan, as far as morale and confidence are concerned after their blunder Down Under, and Dhoni, like Misbah is under the scrutiny gun. Sri Lanka are undoubtedly the favourites heading into the tournament, as they give the Oz a veritable scare in the CB series and nearly clinched it as well.
The induction of Nasir Jamshed is a promising prospect for Pakistan, since sub-continental pitches are batting paradises, in every sense of the cliché and therefore, Pakistan would need someone to have the ability to score briskly up top to have the potential of posting totals in excess of 300. Nasir Jamshed can do that, without compromising steadiness, and if Mohammed Hafeez is able to recall the fact that he has a batting responsibility to perform as well – arguably one of the most significant ones – in crunch matches, then we might have a stable pair up top who have the ability to push the accelerator as well.
Misbah and Umar Akmal would be pivotal in the middle order, the former could do himself a world of good by putting up robust batting show, while the latter is possibly the most pivotal cog in our batting machine – albeit a cog that has looked rusty and out of sorts for a while. With sub-continent sides being dexterous against spin, Umar Gul’s importance hikes up a couple of notches, and maybe we need to give Wahab Riaz a good run in the side – he has showed enough to deserve that. Although we have the best spinning repertoire in the game, we can’t just look to out-spin our opponents in Bangladesh. We have most bases covered in the bowling department, but it’s the batting that needs to step up to the plate this time round. Failure to make the final, or being outdone by India – both facets are intertwined – could result in a serious backlash that might result in a complete overhaul of the batting line-up, and perhaps the captaincy, for the limited-over sides.
This month’s Honda Classic might just be recalled as one of those symbolic sporting moments, in the times to come, that divulge a lot more than what’s on the final scorecard. The tournament began, much like the one before it, with the gauntlet being thrown to Rory McIlroy to usurp the number one ranking by winning the tournament – something he had partially bottled the previous weekend. With hefty expectations resting on the young Northern Irish shoulders, and so much scrutiny being bombarded on every half a manoeuvre of his, the accusations of bottling in le clutch have surfaced in the past – most notably in the Masters last year, when they weren’t mere indictments. Now, golf statisticians tell us that the probability of one succumbing to big-time pressure escalates at full tilt if one Tiger Woods is amongst the chasing pack. And oh sweet lord there he was! Shooting a 62 on Sunday – his best ever closing round – with the phrase ‘bolt from the blue’ bulging out from every iota of the American’s exploits.
Ever since Woods bartered sporting excellence with off-field turbulence, the golfing throne has been up for grabs. And despite Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald filling in the cavity temporarily, the golf aficionados have been awaiting the next superstar – the next Tiger Woods. McIlroy has long been the one touted to fill those particular boots; and when the US Open Champion approached the final holes at the Honda Classic to consolidate his lead, the ‘Tiger roars’ from the crowds ahead of him and the scoreboard showcased Woods upping the ante on the golfing prodigy’s quest to claim top spot. Exhilarating stroke-play gives you stardom, but the ability to scramble through in the final holes – if need be – on Sunday, is the litmus test of a champion. Knowing too well that capitulation would resoundingly throw the cat among the pigeons, Rory pulled off golfing repertoire too mature for his 22-years but befitting the world’s top player to reach Promised Land.
That moment had its fair share of symbolism. It was the first time that Woods and McIlroy faced off in genuine clutch-time, with Tiger finishing T2 and Rory winning the tournament. And it might just be a glimpse of the things to come in the near future, as the golfing world has long been craving for a dose of McIroy-Woods with both being on their A game – there or thereabouts. It would be hard to deny that sporting romanticism has been whetted by the fact that Tiger retraced something bordering on his halcyon days the day McIlroy finally achieved what he was long prophesised to do.
Not since Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were taking each other on in the late 70s and early 80s has golf really had a veritable ‘clash of the titans’. And even though there is a considerable age disparity between the two, the fact that Tiger seems to be on his way back to his best and has a good many years of peak form ahead of him to hunt down Nicklaus’ tally of 18 majors – this could finally give us that golfing showdown that the world has long pined for. Also, with Phil Mickelson striking the ball as well recently, as he has since the 2010 Masters, we might just be entering into the next golden era of golf – one akin to the days of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Watson or the Jones-Hagen-Sarazen era or indeed the Snead-Hogan-Nelson era – and this is one scrumptious prospect!
Meanwhile, there’s hardly any doubt as to who’d be the vanguards of this potential epoch. Tiger has made a career out of rewriting golf history books, and he has a long way to go before that particular ink dries. Au contraire, if anyone from the current generation can pull off a Tiger-esque career it’s Rory McIlroy, who’d find out, in the coming days, how it feels to be battling it out for supremacy against someone, whose first major triumph’s scorecard found a place on your wall when you were seven.
Manchester United’s loss against Athletic Bilbao on Thursday in the Europa League has confirmed what has been mulled over for a couple of years – the status of La Liga as the best league in the world. Ever since Liverpool’s Champions League triumph in 2005, which was followed by a lucrative era for United between 2007 and 2011 – with three finals in four years including a title – it was asserted that the English Premier League is the best league in the world. This fact was also confirmed by Chelsea and Arsenal being present at the business end on a regular basis. Now, ever since Barcelona outdid United in the 2009 final, there has never been a question over who’s the best team in Europe, and few would argue about Real Madrid being there as well; but the sheer disparity between the top two and the rest in Spain connoted that La Liga as a competitive spectacle failed to live up to the hype. There were also question marks over the quality of the sides below the top two and hence apprehensions over labelling La Liga as the best league in the world – all that has changed now.
Bilbao, currently lying fifth on the La Liga table, are no way near being a Spanish powerhouse. The fact that they completely outplayed a team that currently finds itself two points of the top in EPL and has won four of the last five league titles confirms the supremacy of Spanish football over their English counterparts. United fielded a strong side at Old Trafford, and even though they still have a chance of going through to the next round after the return leg, the showing at home has confirmed the prodigious gap between La Liga and EPL.