Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peek Into The Future

Almost a month has passed by in this World Cup and it is a good time to take stock of the situation. So to the one question that everyone has on their lips; not the one SRK teases viewers with in his Airtel commercial. But the real deal - Who will win the 2011 World Cup?

A million people will have a million views on the subject and a million other arguments supporting their claims. Here’s mine. Disagree with me by all means but no name-calling please.

First, the criteria on which my prediction is based. I was thinking on the subject while travelling in my cab from office to home – and that is a considerable time in major Indian cities. There can be 100 different criteria to base it on; and each criterion might throw up a different team as favourites.

If you’re looking for current form and team balance, South Africa’s your team. If you’re looking for the strongest batting among all teams in the competition, you’ve got to give it to India. If you’re looking for a varied and balanced bowling attack, hand over the World Cup to Sri Lanka right away. If you’re looking for pedigree and track record, look no further than Australia who have won 4 of the 9 World Cups overall and the last 3 in succession.

My prediction, however, is based on something more quirky and irrational. To my mind, that is what makes it more fun. If you take a look at all World Cups played to date, only the first 2 and the last 2 have been won by overwhelming favourites – going into the tournament as well as through the course of the tournament. In 1975 & 1979, West Indies were the odds on favourite to lift the Cup; and in 2003 & 2007, that team was Australia. Both teams, needless to say, duly went on to complete the formalities.

It is in the 5 Cups in between though, on which my prediction is based. They have all been won by teams that were either written off at some stage of the tournament, if not the entire duration, or were facing the very real threat of elimination in the group stages.

In 1983, the odds on India winning the World Cup were 500-1. In fact, the Wisden Editor, David Frith, said he’ll eat his words if India went on to win the World Cup. We all know how hopelessly wrong he was in his judgement. To be fair to him, he did go on to literally eat his words.

Australia were at rock bottom going into the 1987 World Cup after the retirements of a slew of greats in Lillee, Marsh & Chappell; and having just conceded the Ashes, no less, to England. But they surprised everyone, including possibly themselves, to go on and lift the Cup.

In 1992, Pakistan were staring elimination in the eye after having already lost 2 games and getting bowled out for 74 against England in the league phase. They were hoping for a miracle to get out of the mess, and a miracle it was. The match was rained off which saved Pakistan from imminent defeat and therefore elimination; they went on to play like Cornered Tigers, which Imran Khan famously anointed his team as; and the rest as they say is history.

Flash forward to 1996. Sri Lanka had not even come close to getting into the knockouts of any of the 5 previous World Cups, let alone winning it. Even their form going into the World Cup, didn’t give any one enough hint of the surprise in store, finishing as they did 3rd out of 3 teams in a tri-series in Australia just prior to the World Cup. But a brilliant strategy masterminded by that old warhorse, Arjuna Ranatunga, of going hell for leather in the first 15 overs,  as opposed to just the last 10 (which was the practice then in ODIs), paid rich dividends and Sri Lanka ran out comfortable victors.

Last, but not the least, 1999. The rather surprising almost-vanquished team this time was Australia. After losing to New Zealand and then Pakistan, they contrived to put themselves in a position where they had to win all 7 of their remaining matches to lift the Cup. If any side had the resilience to do it, it was Australia, which they did. Ok, they had 1 tie along the way in that famous Edgbaston semi-final against South Africa, but the rules prevailing then allowed them entry into the finals where they emerged victorious in a hopelessly one-sided final.

So to 2011 then. Apologies for the long-winded way of getting here, but the context had to be set. The only fancied team facing elimination this time is, ahem - drum roll please! - England. There you have it finally. They are my pick to be lifting the 2011 World Cup. Not that they have a bad team to do it with either, so it’s not just based on quirkiness.

I could be proved wrong as early as tomorrow if England lose to the West Indies. If that’s the case, just remember this post as a history lesson in World Cup, and forget that I even predicted a winner! :D If England go on to win the Cup though, don’t forget to pat my back and say well done! (That would be scant consolation for Indian not winning though)

I was the one who stuck my neck out after all and went for the unfancied team :P

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chokers In The Pack

After narrowly missing out on almost snatching defeat against England, India managed it successfully this time against South Africa. So well did they manage to avoid victory that a couple more such displays and they could well go on to usurp South Africa’s unwanted tag of Big Match Chokers. There really is no other way to describe it, as well as South Africa might have played.

Sehwag started in his now customary manner with a four first ball – for the fifth consecutive match this World Cup (surely, some sort of a record?). And The Master strutted his stuff in a way only can – cold, calculated and elegant. In fact so well did they – and Gambhir, after them – bat that the mid-innings talking point was not whether India will get 350 or not, but how much beyond will they go and put the issue beyond doubt.

Steyn and South Africa had other ideas though. They first bowled India out for 296 inside 50 overs - unthinkable until even the 45th over – and then chased down the total in a professional manner, though not without a few speed bumps along the way.

Not all was lost for India either. The top three looked in good nick, the fielding for a change had some energy to it, and most importantly, Harbhajan looked to be getting some of his old nip back. This Indian team looks much more formidable with an in-form Harbhajan in it and that can only augur well for the future.

In a convoluted kind of way, this is also as good a time as any to get a loss out of the way than for it to come in the more important knockout stages of the competition. With India virtually assured of a place in the quarters, the loss wouldn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things, but a win would have done invaluable good to the morale, something alluded to in the earlier post as well.

As an aside, teams looking to get Sehwag out early have a tiny window of opportunity – the first ball. Surely, Sehwag has this at the back of his mind and if nothing else, he’ll go for broke in the first ball of the remaining matches. Not that he won’t at other balls, but one can’t be sure which ones those will be. One can be absolutely cock-sure about that first ball though. It’s a great time to be a punter! Watch out Roach, Sehwag might go for something predetermined, so a great opportunity to get him early.

Lastly and unrelatedly, let’s spare a thought for the Japanese tsunami victims. Every time you think it has bottomed out and can’t get any worse, that is exactly what happens. It’s Murphy’s law at its inverted best – or worst. They could do with all the positive vibes and energy we can pass. Spread it if you can. It doesn’t cost you much but is invaluable to our brothers and sisters in desperate need of help.