>Pakistan one up against India

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Pakistan 302 for 9 (Malik 128, Yousuf 87, Nehra 4-55) vs India 248 (Dravid 76, Gambhir 57, Ajmal 2-31, Afridi 2-39). Pakistan beat India by 54 runs.

Pakistan’s encounter with India at Centurian Park today could be dubbed as the final before the final of the ICC Champions Trophy tournament. Today, 1.2 billion people around the world were glued to their TV screens (and in some cases their Computer Screens) watching and tracking every bowl and every shot as if the world’s survival depended upon it.

There was tremendous pressure on players on both sides to perform beyond their natural capabilities. There was no room for error and every shot had to be perfect and every bowl, a wicket taking delivery. It was as if, cricketers were born and groomed to play today’s encounter.

When Pakistan batted, India’s bowlers went from being ordinary to being really “lifeless”. Even though they had made early inroads into Pakistani lineup by snaring the openers, yet Ishant Sharma, RP Singh or even Harbajan Singh were not really masters of their game. Spraying runs in boundaries and leaking singles regularly, they let the subdued batsmen come out of their shell and break free into a run fest rarely seen. With the result, Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Yusuf milked the Indian bowlers to their advantage. Scoring well over 200 runs in a better than run a ball partnership to lay the foundations for a big score for Pakistan.

While Afridi and Ajmal proved once again why Pakistan considers their spin duo as the most dangerous in the world, Harbajan Singh and Yusuf Pathan struggled to control their line and length. Pakistani spinners not only checked the run flow but took crucial wickets at critical junctures to break India’s back. Where Indian spinners found no spin and help from what seemed like a lifeless track, Afridi and Ajmal were able to outfox Indian batsmen, including Dravid, who is probably one of the best players of spin, into false strokes with regular intervals.

India had their moments though. Gautham Gambhir and Suresh Raina breaking out of their shell to score some quick runs in fours and sixes. Yet there was no method to their madness. It seemed, every bowl was there to be hit and every stroke had to be a six and that it was not a 50 over game but a T20 encounter. Contrast to that, Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Yusuf constructed their innings not on stupendously huge sixes, but on singles and doubles that were readily available through out the game. While Dravid, who played a well crafted 70,  never came out of his shell and nor really threatened to take the game away from Pakistan,  yet Malik, who took over 70 deliveries (Dravid like) to score his first 50, took half of that to score his next. His acceleration was not only Afridi like, but it really took India out of contention of ever getting back into the game.

There were some memorable moments in the game for Pakistan. Mohammad Aamir, Pakistan’s teen sensation was able to snare the wicket of Tendulkar (twice his age) early in his innings. And Shoaib Malik bettered his top score to 128 and probably played an innings of his lifetime. A quiet and subdued player, he has delivered more for Pakistan than he is credited for. It was also great to see Mohammad Yusuf playing one of his iconic knocks and steering Pakistan out of trouble into a comfortable victory seat.

It still needs to be seen if Pakistan can keep this winning streak going any longer. Three more games to win in a row (Australia, Semi Final and Final) before they can safely lift the Champions  trophy. Three more sensational matches to play. And if they played like they did earlier this year to lift the World T20 title, then they are truly the worthy Champions.

ICC can keep tournament out of Pakistan, but can the world keep the trophy away from Pakistan? Three more matches we will all know the truth.

Who will win Cricket Champions Trophy 2009?

ICC Champions Trophy Cricket

ICC Champions Trophy Cricket

Champions Trophy has always produced topsy turvy results. Giants have always crashed out early, while relative minnows seem to get to the top fairly regularly. There was even an instance when Sri Lanka and India shared the title rather than any single team declared victor (2002). And by the way, this is one tournament that South Africa actually has won. Yes, the inaugural tournament held in Dhaka (Bangladesh) in 1998 and a young and upbeat South Africa coached by Bob Woolmer beat out West Indies in the final. And West Indies, who are never ranked among the top 4 in one day cricket won it themselves in 2004.

This year the event is being held in South Africa. Based on the form of the teams and the unpredictable nature of the tournament, it is difficult to predict who will win it. Having said that, I will still predict the semi-finalists for this tournament.  Based on the consistent performance put up by the teams, I believe, the following four teams shall reach the semi-final

Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Pakistan

Sri Lanka is probably the most consistent side of them all. They have the most number of match winners whom one can rely on and therefore, their chances of not only making it to the semi-final but going beyond it are good. Their weakness will be batting on bouncy South African tracks. In the last T20 world cup final, Pakistan exposed this kink in their armor. All great teams get over their weaknesses, and if they did, then Sri Lanka may go on to win it again.

South Africa has begun to shape up like a team possessed for some greatness. They have started to win crucial matches with more consistency and therefore, with current form, it is likely they will reach the semi-final stages of the tournament. Their only weakness will be if their batsmen are able to keep the consistency going throughout the tournament. If not, then early curtains for them.

Australia after a complete drubbing of England (in one day matches) are poised to reach the semi-final. The team is learning fast and new boys are settling in. Most of the players have it in them to make the difference and therefore, it is easy to see them make it to the final four. Their only weakness would be if their batsmen fail to fire at the right times. If that happens, then early curtains for them.

I chose Pakistan as the fourth team over India and New Zealand. India, having just defeated both New Zealand and Sri Lanka in Columbo put up a strong case, but one reason for my dropping them is that they are not consistent enough outside of the subcontinent. Their fielding is weak and at times laughable. And in big tournaments like the Champions Trophy, it counts a lot. Hence, they are not likely to get among the top 4.

New Zealand have an outside chance but nothing more. Their team is suffering from lack of quality cricketers. They lack bowlers who can take wickets at crucial junctures and batsmen who can win them all on their own on a consistent manner. They have sparks of brilliance but nothing to write about.

And now why Pakistan? I must admit they are an outside chance. Only because, they now play the least amount of cricket among all the Test playing nations. Heck, Bangladesh gets away with playing more matches than them in a year. Pakistan’s lack of international cricket is what hides their true strength. They have superb match winning bowlers in Umer Gul and Mohammad Asif. Their batsmen like Yunus Khan and Mohammad Yusuf can win matches all on their own. With able support from Afridi and Ajmal in spin, Pakistan currently has a far balanced squad than either New Zealand or India.

Their lack of Cricket is also one of their strengths. The team is extremely well rested and hungry for victory. So they might seem rusty, but once they get going, boy it will be a treat to watch. T20 World cup a few months back showed their class and their strength. They demolished their opponents so consistently and with such finesse that cricket seemed like a child’s play.

I will not be surprised if Pakistan comes home with the Champions Trophy.