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Since I don’t subscribe to any of the cricket TV channels, I rely on ESPN Cricinfo for my cricket news. Recently, however, I was visiting in L.A and got to see the India- England test match on TV. What a surprise to see almost all the Indian players with beards! Even some of the formerly clean shaven lads were sporting some serious facial shrubbery. Not like Moeen Ali  or Hashim Amla whose beards come down to the middle of their chests but nevertheless pretty thick.

Now, anyone has a right to grow a beard but these were scruffy and, in my eyes, unattractive. I have a beard myself, but it is short and I try to keep it well trimmed. I am at a loss to understand why the Indian team has gone in for these abominations.

I know that Muslims do favor beards but, other than Mohammed Shami, I don’t think there are any Muslims on the current team. (Even the Pakistani team, which is predominantly Muslim has only three or four bearded players). So if that is not the reason, what is?

One theory that I have heard, a ridiculous one, is that these players grow long beards to make themselves unattractive to the opposite sex . This , supposedly, is to enable them to concentrate wholly on their cricket. Poppycock! Other  than Virat Kohli, I don’t think anyone could be so dedicated to the game. And Kohli has a film star girlfriend. Other theories are 1) that it is a fashion statement  and 2) that it is Kohli’s diktat, meant to ensure solidarity, an us-against-the world attitude. None of these theories hold any water.

Myself, I think it is a good luck charm. Recently, the Indian team has been on a roll, thanks to some impressive all-round performances and some spin-friendly pitches. Having won the series against New Zealand they are now up 3-0 on England though the 5th Test is presently interestingly poised. It could be that they don’t want to jinx themselves by shaving. It has happened in other sports, whether ice-hockey or tennis or football.

If that is indeed the reason, I am in the horns of a dilemma. One the one hand, I can’t bring myself to root against India but, on the other hand, I don’t want to see the  Indian team  take the field looking like eleven Hashim Amlas.

 

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With one match left, the current Ashes Test series has already been decided as England has thrashed Australia 3-1. All four matches played so far have been blowouts and yet the series continues to hold interest for many cricket fans, including me. Even now, I exchange daily e-mails with four other fans: two in Pune, one in California and one in New Jersey. Previously, we used to make our predictions about the upcoming test and who should have been selected/ dropped. Now, our e-mails are more about what went wrong with Australia and what the future holds for the Baggy Green.

Why such interest in a Test series where none of us has any rooting interest,  between two sides whom we do not particularly like ?  It is a question I’ve been thinking about recently. While I cannot speak for my e-mail buddies, I think I know the reasons in my case.

The main reason is that Ashes tests usually end in a result. There are comparatively few draws because the pitches and, in England, the weather conditions make for a more even contest between ball and bat. In England, the vagaries of wind and rain combine for a damp atmosphere that favors swing bowlers; in Australia, the super fast pitches are a fast bowlers dream. The team that masters these conditions can pile up big totals but they have to be earned. Even when there are draws, they often occur with one team hanging on for dear life. Compared to other series, you have few matches in which mammoth totals are rung up and it is obvious halfway through the match that it is going to end in a draw.

What I also like about the Ashes is that they usually feature top class fast bowling with both sides often having packs of genuine quicks, not just one. It is thrilling to watch a fast bowler thundering in and hurling 90+ mph ( 145+ kph) thunderbolts at a batsman while seven or eight close in fielders wait to pounce on any chance of a catch. There are moments of rare beauty when a slip fielder launches himself sideways and grabs the ball as it streaks by him. These caught behind dismissals usually occur off fast bowlers and are  treasured by cricket fans. Who can forget Ben Stokes marvelous catch to dismiss Adam Voges in the fourth Test? Or Stephen Smith’s blinder that sent Moen Ali back to the pavilion? The aesthetics, as well as the intimidation factor and hostility in pace bowling, the clatter of the wickets when a paceman breaks through a batsman’s defenses are a treat to watch. No less enthralling are those occasions when a batsman stands tall and survives the early overs before launching his own assault and driving the ball to all corners of the ground. 

There is not nearly the same charm in watching spinners in action, skilled though they may be. I suppose , in all of us, there is an innate attraction to raw power no matter what the sport. That is why I prefer the serve and volley tennis matches at Wimbledon to the interminable rallies on the clay courts of Roland Garros. That is why, in baseball, home run hitters make more money than high percentage contact hitters.  That is why boxing fans are so fixated on heavyweights even though the best boxers, in terms of skill , are in the lower weight divisions. Power and strength above all.

Definitely, the newspaper coverage of the Ashes adds to their appeal for me. British sportswriters are among the best and the cricket coverage in the Manchester Guardian is outstanding. Such a pleasure to read: in-depth, thoughtful , well-informed with touches of playful humor. The  Aussie papers are pretty good too. In other countries, the coverage may be competent and informative but it is not as much fun to read. I find it too dry and humorless, too fixated on results and on the nitty gritty of the action.

My final reason is that Ashes cricket is, or at least it gives the impression that it is, a sport, not a business. As much as the matches are hard-fought. as much as the teams may dislike each other I get the feeling that , at the end of the day, they will meet at the pub to quaff a couple of beers together.  Well. maybe not after this series. And definitely, Joe Root and David Warner together is not a good idea! It is very different in other series, particularly those played on the subcontinent, where one is all too conscious of the money aspect of the game and the attendant sleaze.

I need not mention the history and tradition attached to Ashes cricket. As cricket fans, we are all well aware of the stories and the personalities that are part of this close fought rivalry. It is also amazing that even with one or the other side having been dominant for periods, the series overall is dead even at 32-32, with 5 series drawn. Test cricket elsewhere may be in the doldrums but the Ashes continue to delight. May it continue to be so.

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The ESPN Cricinfo headline read” Majestic Australia lift 5th World Cup” and, indeed, Australia were majestic as they trounced plucky New Zealand before the packed stands at the MCG. In an awesome display of hostile fast bowling, acrobatic fielding and assured batsmanship, Australia showed why they had been the pre-tournament favorites.

For New Zealand to have a chance, they needed a good start and a big innings from their captain, Brendon McCullum. When he was clean bowled by Mitchell Starc off the third ball he faced, New Zealand’s chances took a nosedive. Taylor and Elliot battled back to take the score to 150 for 3 and , as long as they were at the crease, there was some hope that NZ would be able to mount a respectable total. Then Taylor and Anderson fell and the rest of the team capitulated; the last seven wickets only added 33 runs.
A total of 183 was never going to be enough. Boult struck early to remove Finch for a duck but Warner and Smith weathered the early storm and Clarke took them home( almost) with a masterly 74. It was a fitting end to his ODI career and it was a pity that he didn’t get to make the winning hit.

New Zealand are a game team and should be proud that they made it to the final. Cricket fans everywhere are grateful to them ( and to South Africa) for having given us an unforgettable semi-final match, one that was exciting to the end and was played in the true spirit of sportsmanship. More than any other team, NZ showed us how the game was meant to be played. Well done, Kiwis.

The 2015 World Cup served notice to the rest of the world that we are in for a prolonged spell of Aussie dominance. Their superiority is based on their fearsome pace attack as they seem to have developed a regular assembly line for pacemen. If one goes down, there are three or four waiting to take his place. In the 2013-14 Ashes, it was Mitchell Johnson who wreaked havoc, ably aided by Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Shane Watson. Since then Ryan Harris has been sidelined by injuries and Peter Siddle has dropped off the radar but others have stepped up. In the World Cup, Johnson was as good as ever but it was Mitchell Starc who was the Man of the Series, with James Faulkner and Josh Hazlewood providing good support. Waiting in the wings are James Pattinson, Pat Cummins , Nathan Coulter-Nile and God knows how many others. The batting is just as solid with Stephen Smith showing us that he is in the mold of Michael Clarke, and Ricky Ponting before him. Haddin, Clarke and Watson may be nearing the end of their careers but still look like they have some cricket left in them. The rest are young, talented and still on the upswing. And to think that the number one sport Down Under is Australian Rules football and not cricket ! If not for that, even more athletes would be taking up cricket and making Australia even more invincible.

Looking down the road, it is difficult to see who can challenge the Aussies in the forseeable future. The teams from the Indian subcontinent are physically no match for the Aussies and do not have a quality pace attack. Nor do they have comparable depth. They may occasionally produce a Sachin Tendulkar or a Kumar Sangakarra but not a complete team. England are in the doldrums and likely to get worse before they get better. The West Indies are riven by inter-island rivalry and squabbles between the cricket board and the players. New Zealand performed admirably in the World Cup but this may be their high water mark. They are too small a country to churn out world-class players the way their trans- Tasman neighbors do. That leaves South Africa who have some of the best players in the world ( de Villiers, Steyn, Amla) already on their team and a sizable population to draw from. I hope they can build on their base and challenge the men from Oz soon. The Baggy Green are a great, great team but I wish they were not so hard to like.

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And so, after almost two months of cricket, Australia and New Zealand will battle it out for the World Cup this weekend. New Zealand won a nail-biter over South Africa in one semi-final while Australia won comfortably over India in the other.
While I was rooting for New Zealand from the beginning of the tournament, I had some doubts over who would provide a sterner test for the Aussies: the Kiwis or the Proteas. South Africa, I felt, had the more powerful, better balanced side. New Zealand, I thought were too dependent on Brendon McCullum. Well, they certainly proved me wrong. First, Martin Guptill smashed an unbeaten 237 against the West Indies in the quarterfinal and then Grant Elliot kept his cool to steer New Zealand to victory in the semifinal with an electrifying 84. What impressed me no end was that he crashed a Dale Steyn delivery for six off the penultimate ball rather than going for a safe four that would have given them a tie and still left him the last ball to get the winning runs. I have no more doubts about them now: they can beat anyone in the world.
Enough has been written about the NZ-SA semifinal that I don’t want to add to it. Glad as I am that New Zealand won, spare a thought for gallant South Africa. They gave it their all and came so close to winning. I really feel for them. After the match, De Villiers said rather plaintively that he hoped that the country was proud of them and their performance. He need not wonder about it. South Africa gave it everything they had and, together with NZ, played a match that will long be remembered not just for the quality of the cricket and the nerve wracking finish but for the sportsmanship with which the game was played.

In the other semi-final, Australia were too powerful for India. I had wondered at some of the pre-match predictions that said India should be considered a favorite for the match. India did extremely well to win decisively over South Africa and Pakistan in the group stage matches and to make it the semi-finals. Their only chance to beat the Aussies was to play a perfect game and get a couple of breaks. It didn’t happen as the batsmen let India down once again even as the bowlers bowled their hearts out. Still, India have nothing to be ashamed off and can hold their heads high. Farewell to M.S. Dhoni, who has been India’s best captain ever. He has already retired from Test cricket and will probably announce his retirement from the other two formats soon. Whoever follows him will find it difficult to match his achievements.

Why do Australian cricketers sledge ? They have had unparalleled success for a long time now and they are very, very good. Why can’t they just stick to playing the game. For Faulkner to say that sledging is part of the game is rubbish. Yesterday, when Oz was well on the road to victory, Mitchell Starc felt it necessary to spew venom at Suresh Raina and was duly reprimanded by the umpire. Such behavior is why the rest of the world will be solidly behind New Zealand in the final. Rarely has there been a confrontation in which the good guys and the bad guys were so clearly distinguishable. Go New Zealand.

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Unlike the first two quarterfinals, the Australia-Pakistan match proved very competitive. if it had not been for a dropped catch, Australia might have been in deep trouble even though I have no doubt they would have pulled it out. What sets Australia apart from the other teams ( in addition to the quality of their pace attack) is their batting which goes all the way to number 9; even numbers 10 and 11 can put some runs on the board. Still, Pakistan must rue Rahat Ali’s costly drop of Shane Watson when the batsman was just in to bat. All credit to Watson for weathering a torrid spell from Wahab Riaz and playing a mature innings to guide Australia home. It was scary watching the replays of him swaying and ducking Riaz’s barrage of bouncers.
Earlier, Australia backed up their bowlers with some excellent catching to dismiss Pakistan for a modest total of 213. After Pakistan’s openers were dismissed cheaply, it was slow going, All the Pakistani batsmen, except the tail enders, got into double figures but were unable to convert their starts. Shahid Afridi smashed 23 of 21 in a typical cameo but the others were unable to force the pace and 213 was never going to be enough.
As for the sanctions against Watson and Wahab Riaz: Not knowing what exactly was said by the players, one has to go along with the fines. Riaz’s actions were very visible but the instigation by Watson and other Aussie fielders was more subtle. The amount of the fines seems about right. Good to read that after the match the two main protagonists shook hands and made up.
This of course was the end of Misbah-ul-Huq and Shahid Afridi’s careers. Misbah has been a great captain for Pakistan, calm and collected in moments of stress, and did not often get the support he deserved from his players. He will be very difficult to replace. Shahid Afridi , however, was long past his sell-by date and should have been dropped at least a couple of years earlier. He long ago stopped being ” Boom Boom Afridi” and his bowling too had deteriorated markedly. He was a colorful character but also a handful to manage.

The other quarterfinal between New Zealand and West Indies was never in doubt after Martin Guptill’s violent double century. Poor West Indies. They must have felt great at getting Brendon McCullum out cheaply and then dismissing Kane Williamson with the score still below 100. What a downer to have Guptill take their bowling apart. They don’t have to look far for reasons for their defeat. Dropped catches, slipshod fielding, wayward bowling and some poor tactical decisions by the inexperienced Jason Holder are some of them. They were never going to win this match but at least they could have made it more of a contest. Unfortunately, things aren’t going to get better soon. Chris Gayle’s departure is not exactly a loss. He had some explosive moments as a batsman but was a liability in the field. And some of the others did not play hard. Still, where are their replacements? Jason Holder has a tough time ahead of him.
My favorite moment of this match was Daniel Vettori leaping high in the air to grab an amazing one-handed catch and still keeping inside the boundary line. It was a catch that a much younger man would be proud of; for him to pull it down was phenomenal. It was heartwarming to watch the rest of the Kiwi fielders rush to the outfield to hug him and to see the joy of the New Zealand crowd and the pride they have in their team. Bravo!!

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While South Africa’s victory over Sri Lanka was not unexpected, no one could have foreseen the manner in which it was achieved. South Africa utterly demolished Sri Lanka and the outcome was never in doubt. From the moment Abbott and Steyn removed the openers, Sri Lanka was on the back foot. Try as Sangakarra did, he was unable to break the shackles as wickets fell at regular intervals. Much has been made of the fact that the spinners, Imran Tahir and J.P. Duminy took seven wickets between them but, as they themselves will probably acknowledge, their job was made easier by tight spells bowled by the pacemen and the smothering fielding of the Proteas. Together, those two factors caused the pressure to mount and the Sri Lankan batsmen fell trying to force the pace and put up a total their bowlers could defend. Props to Duminy, but he is the last person I’d have expected to take a hat trick.
That South Africa would knock off the required runs was a certainty, a mere formality. The South African innings was important however because it enabled opener Quinton de Kock to regain his form. His unbeaten 78, following some dazzling glove work behind the stumps should cement his place in the side and play the way he is capable of, and as he showed in his hard-hitting innings.
Most importantly, this decisive win has enabled the Saffers to get the monkey of their back. No more can they be taunted as chokers, a tag which was most unfair and which I’m very happy they will not have to hear any more. This is a powerful side, excellent in all departments and, in my opinion, the only one that can trouble the Australians. The only thing holding them back was the memory of previous losses to less accomplished sides that they were expected to beat comfortably. I hope that is now consigned to the rubbish heap and that they play to their abilities.
As for Sri Lanka, they did well to get as far as they did and all credit to them. They were missing their frontline spinner and their spearhead Lasith Malinga was not fully recovered from his injuries. Also, I think it was unnecessary to tinker with the side as they did. Dropping Lahiru Thirimanne down the order after he had had so much success as an opener was inexplicable. Still, I don’t think that would have made any difference to the outcome. South Africa had just too much firepower. Sorry to see the last of Kumar Sangakarra and DPMD Jayawardene who have had such long and illustrious careers. They will both be missed , especially Sanga who was such a good spokesman for cricket.
The other QF between India and Bangladesh was not as one-sided as the score seems to indicate. Bangladesh bowled and fielded accurately for the most of the Indian innings and had India in some trouble. Rohit Sharma, given a reprieve when he was 90, finally showed what he was capable of ( Hope he doesn’t now go back into his shell for the rest of the World Cup). Largely due to his late innings aggression, India were able to put 302 on the board, a score which would have been unassailable for most teams on this ground. Once Mahmudallah was removed thanks to a fantastic juggling catch by Shikhar Dhawan at the boundary line, the chances of a Bangladesh victory went from slim to none. BTW, I know that every situation that can possibly occur is discussed among the players before hand but still I have to admire Dhawan’s presence of mind. Realizing that he was close to the boundary line and not in full control of the ball, he threw the ball forward and upwards, stepped over the line then back again to effect a marvelous catch.
Bangladesh fans are understandably furious about the umpiring decision that gave Rohit Sharma a second chance. As an Indian fan, I would have been similarly upset if such a decision had gone against India. However, let’s look at the facts. At the time, Rohit Sharma was batting on 90 and there were 10 overs left. He went on to add 47 more runs. If you were to delete those 47 runs, India would still have had a total in the neighborhood of 255, even assuming that the remaining Indian batsmen did not pick up the slack. Yes, this total would have meant Bangladesh had some chance but a Bangladeshi victory was still iffy. It is not as if the umpiring decision robbed Bangladesh of a certain victory. I understand that a protest has been lodged with the ICC by the Bangladesh Cricket Board, as is their right, even though it is largely academic; the match result is final and cannot be reversed. What I find reprehensible is Mustafa Kamal, the current ICC President hinting that the umpiring error was deliberate, and then saying that he was speaking as a fan and not as the ICC president. That suggestion has no merit and is a disservice to all and an insult to the umpires. All his posturing will do is inflame Bangladeshi fans and sour cricketing relations between the two countries. I have no love for the BCCI and it is true that they throw their weight around but sometimes they are blamed unfairly. Just like the CIA is blamed for everything that goes wrong anywhere in the Mideast or the developing countries. How much more dignified the behavior of the Bangladeshi fans at the game and the Bangladeshi players who regretted the decision but took their loss sportingly. Bangladesh did well to get to the quarterfinal stage and to put up such a good fight against India. They can certainly hold their heads high.

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What an uneventful week of cricket this was! None of the matches held much interest except for the supporters of the teams involved. Seven of the teams for the quarterfinals had been set before the start of week 4 and the only question was whether Ireland would be able to pull off a monumental upset against either India or Pakistan and get the last spot ahead of the West Indies. I think most followers of cricket were rooting for the Irish to make it through because of the spirited devil-may-care brand of cricket they play but it was not to be. We had to wait until the very last match to find out and the Irish went down with guns blazing. All credit to them for a terrific performance; they will be missed.
With the quarterfinal line-up now set, thoughts now turn to which four teams will make it to the next round. The match-ups are NZ vs. West Indies, Australia vs. Pakistan, India vs. Bangladesh and South Africa vs. Sri Lanka. Easily the most intriguing of the contests is the SA- Sri Lanka clash and the result hinges entirely on which team takes the field for the Proteas. If it is the one that lost to Pakistan ( and to India before that), they lose; if it is the one that demolished the other teams in their other matches, they win. Sri Lanka’s bowling attack is not top drawer except for Lasith Malinga but their batsmen, led by Sangakarra, have been awesome in chasing down 300+ totals. But then again, they will have to contend with a potent SA attack with Steyn, Morkel, Imran Tahir and co. The south Africans seem to have regained their self-belief and their team looks better with the additions of Rossouw and Behardien. I think they will take this one.

On paper, Pakistan would seem to have no chance against the powerful Aussies but they too have re-made themselves. Their battery of pace bowlers is formidable, even in the absence of the 7′-2″ Mohammed Irfan. Bringing in Sarfraz Ahmed to replacing Umar Akmal behind the wickets seems to have solidified the fielding and the batting is no longer a one-man show starring Misbah-ul-Huq. If they can effect a couple of early breakthroughs when the Aussies bat, they could still make a game of it.

As for the other two matches, India and New Zealand should have an easy time of it. However, India’s performance against Zimbabwe was anything but impressive. One hopes that it was because they had already qualified for the QF’s and did not play with the sense of urgency that they had earlier. Well, they are now in the knock-out stage and they had better not pull their punches. The Bangladeshis are a spirited team and. on their day, are capable of troubling more talented teams. I hope also that Ravindra Jadeja begins to pull his weight. So far, he has been a disappointment with both bat and ball.

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