After thirty days of cricket, the league stage is finally done and dusted. The eight teams that have gone through to the quarter finals are, admittedly, those anyone would have predicted to go through a month ago. But the results have not been all that straightforward especially in Group B where there were at least three quarter-finals spots up for grabs, waiting to be decided till the very end.
This edition of the World Cup, as many have said, has already exceeded expectations and in the light of the charade that was the tournament in 2007 it already appears like the beacon needed to show one-day cricket in bright lights again. Aside from the delays in venues being prepared for games and the confusion over tickets, the cricket on the field has been of fine quality. If anything, the absence of an associate team and co-hosts Bangladesh in the quarter-finals is probably the only disappointment from a neutral fan’s point of view, but then the team that would have had to make way would have been terribly disappointed had one of the associates qualified.
As things stand, the matches have been exciting: the associate teams, barring Kenya, have punched above their weights at least in some stages during the tournament and England has displayed both tremendous grit and tremulous choke which has meant that they have been the team to beat and to have been beaten unexpectedly in the tournament. Throw in a tie and five other close finishes, Strauss’ men have thoroughly entertained spectators – now beat that! Not to forget, the Australians were finally beaten in a World Cup game, albeit one of not great relevance, after a staggering unbeaten streak that lasted close to twelve years, spanned four World Cups across four continents and thirty-five matches.
Sport is cruel and team sport is further subject to the pride, pathos and ficklenesses of the individuals who compose it. That puts the Australian domination of cricket into perspective even more. The Kangaroos need to be saluted and applauded for the standards they set and overhauled during the previous decade with the sort of consistency hitherto unseen in sporting history. Time then to remember messieurs Gilchrist, Hayden, McGrath, Warne and the Waugh twins among others. Time, it is too, for the Indian fans to acknowledge that though the Indian team may be taking on a much weaker Australian team on paper, they need to compete for a better part of 100 overs to beat the boys in yellow. That brings me to the subject of the post.
The Indians have one, possibly two, enthralling contests on the anvil: if the Indian team beats Australia and Pakistan beats West Indies in the first two quarter finals, one can expect all of cricketing India, which is a substantial part of the sub-continent, to be enraptured by the sheer occasion the games warrant. A couple of time zones away, I can already feel the thump and buzz of expectation in my nerves. However, the Indian team as well as the multitudinous fans around the world rooting for them would do well not to get too much ahead of themselves.
Going into the knock-out stages, however, the men in blue seem to have betrayed more chinks than strengths: while amazing Tendulkar, blitzkrieg Sehwag, composed Gambhir, in-form Kohli and a more mature Yuvraj have all worked all right, they are not working well in unison. (No team knows better than India does about how a world of talent on paper may still come to a farthing on the field; the Kiwis on the other hand have hardly ever had world-beaters but have always finished there or thereabouts in the major tournaments. There are lessons to be learned from contrasts about the virtues of working together). The implosion after Tendulkar’s fall in the game against South Africa meant that the Proteas went into the break with the momentum behind them which fuelled their chase of 297. Against the West Indies, Yuvraj’s ton was followed by a similar, even if slightly more subdued, collapse and had it not been for Zaheer’s crucial spell in the middle overs, India might well have finished third, not second, in the group standings.
That brings me to the man I consider to be (and to have been) India’s key performer in the tournament: Zaheer Khan. From the fiasco first over in the 2003 World Cup finals, better known as Ponting's day out against Harbhajan Singh & Co (I am kidding!), Zaheer has come a long way and has led the bowling attack in this World Cup with skill but more importantly meanness and aggression, showing that he can be up there with the best when fully fit. With fifteen wickets in six games, and three on four of those occasions, and a reasonable economy rate in superb batting conditions to boot, Zak has clearly brought his full range and experience in the sub-continent to the fore so far. Sadly, though, his colleagues have been either one-dimensional (read “Harbhajan Singh” who clearly needs to find a way to get wickets) or profligate (read “Ashish Nehra”) if not both (read “Piyush Chawla” or “Sreesanth”). India’s best chances of going to the finals rest behind how well the non-Tendulkars and non-Yuvrajs finish innings the Yuvrajs and Tendulkars set up as well as the kind of wicket-taking and/or containing assistance Khan gets from the other bowlers.
One thing though is certain: the format of the tournament means there will be no comebacks. The team that seizes the day will progress and the other will have to wait for four more years when the tournament returns downunder for the first time in twenty-three years. For now, the next seven games are probably the end of the cricketing world for every cricket fan. I would love to see India and England in the finals. Something tells me, however, that come April 2nd South Africa will be one end of the summit clash at Bombay. Smith’s men deserve to show the world that the five-lettered monosyllabic word has been used against them far too often and a little too unfairly.