Monday, February 15, 2010

A Tale of Two Teams

Let's face it - India, South Africa, England and the West Indies weren't too worried about who came through the qualifying tournament for the T20 World Cup. For the two teams to succeed however, it was a massively important week.
On the one hand, Ireland - a country which, since its fairytale success in 2007, has asserted itself as the dominant Associate nation, and is looking to push onwards and upwards with an application for Full Member status.
On the other, Afghanistan - last year, a Division 5 team with little or no media coverage. A brave journey in the 2011 World Cup qualifiers was brought to a premature end, but they showed the cricketing world that they're ready to play with the big boys again this week. Having beaten Ireland in the Intercontinental Cup 4-day match last month, Afghanistan went on to defeat William Porterfield's team twice more on the way to T20 success, and indeed were the only team to trouble the Irish. They played with a mixture of skill and sheer nerves in the tournament, and a single defeat to the Netherlands was the one game that got away.

Both teams head to the tournament proper as massive underdogs, but their performances in qualification will give them heart. Ireland never play to lose, but the losing draw hands them matches against England and the West Indies, arguably the easier sides, and they'll fancy a crack at both. West Indies are an up-and-down side, and if Chris Gayle fires we can probably pack the bags, but on their day they're takeable. England still haven't totally figured out the shorter format, and Porterfield's men will fancy their chances against a team including old teammate and newly-instated IPL batsman Eoin Morgan.
Niall O'Brien was fantastic as ever behind the stumps, and his aggressive batting was near its best, making some important scores. Alex Cusack was the real hero of the batsmen this tournament, with a 65 in the semi-final paving the way to victory over Holland. Porterfield himself never got a big score after a few starts, but he's a good enough player to bounce back.
As for the bowlers - Trent Johnston was as crucial as ever, taking wickets and drying up runs, but the find of the tournament was 17-year old George Dockrell. The Gonzaga College and Leinster left-arm spinner has big shoes to fill with Kyle McCallan's retirement and Regan West's injury problems, but he delivered. Having taken wickets throughout the tournament, he bowled quite beautifully against the Netherlands to claim career-best figures of 4-20. Spinhas proved to be a crucial part of the T20 game, and Dockrell will be eyeing some big scalps in May.

Afghanistan have more than pure guts - they've some very talented players. Noor Ali, Mohammad Shahzad and Mohammad Nabi all showed batting prowess, while bowlers Hamid Hassan and Nabi again had fantastic figures: 12 at 11.41 and 13 at 10.53 respectively.
The jury is still out on whether Afghanistan can keep up this form into the future - they don't have the facilities they would like at home, nor is it the least turbulent country at the moment. We've seen Ireland's difficulties to break into the game - it won't be any easier for the Afghanis. In saying that, they've gained ODI status for the time being, and there's nothing to stop this particular team of players capitalising on their success. When they go to the Caribbean, they'll enjoy themselves. They'll get to bowl at Sehwag, de Villiers, Dhoni, and Smith, while trying to fend off the wily Harbhajan Singh and the terrifying Dale Steyn. Whether the win or lose, i's a massive learning experience to play the best in the world - we saw that with Ireland in 2007 - and who knows? It's T20, and upsets happen. Just remember Netherlands & England last year.

In a week where Sachin Tendulkar notched up his 47th Test century and Dale Steyn his 4th 10-wicket-haul, it is a tribute to cricket that we can look at the minnows of the game with such excitement. They'll be on our screens in just a couple of months time, and I, for one, cannot wait.

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