Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Down to Business

A month on, and the World Cup is getting tense. No team has come through unscathed, but whatever happened before no longer matters. One team is three wins away from glory. Let's have a look at what they all face now.

The first quarter-final sees the two teams who do unpredictable best. We’ve seen Pakistan struggle to make it through the group stages in T20 World Cups, and then blaze through to the final and victory. West Indies can slump against any team in the world, or Chris Gayle can knock Brett Lee into next week. Their roads to the quarter-finals have been different – West Indies have failed to convince so far, managing to despatch the lesser teams of Group A, and failing to capitalize on a winning position against England, while Pakistan have played some excellent cricket, only coming unstuck against a ferocious Ross Taylor, and recording wins over Australia and Sri Lanka.

I didn’t think the Windies would make it this far, and now that they’re here, I’m going to send them out again. Yes, they can be inspired – a good start from Gayle can floor any opposition, and Kieron Pollard is as brutal as any with 5 overs to go. But if these men misfire – Gayle does frequently, and Pollard almost always – there’s not a lot to rely upon. Chanderpaul and Sarwan are looking tired and out of ideas, and young Darren Bravo, however much he might remind one of Brian Lara, hasn’t performed consistently after a solid opening knock.

Their bowlers are the real problem. Yes, Kemar Roach has had a great tournament, including a hat-trick, and Ravi Rampaul did well to take 5-for against India, but they look short of variety. Sulieman Benn has been found out by several teams, and if the pacemen get off to a poor start it’s a severe knock to the confidence. Darren Sammy has played a good captain’s role, taking wickets at crucial times, but he will need all his bowlers firing, even against the wobbly batting of Pakistan.

What of Pakistan? Once again, they’ve showed that they can pull out big performances when it matters. Victories over Australia and Sri Lanka, the finalists of 2007, in the group stage proved this once again. Although their batting has been questionable, with their top 3 failing, someone has always been ready to take up the mantle and play a guiding innings. Asad Shafiq, Misbah ul-Haq and, perhaps most crucially, talented young Umar Akmal have all provided important innings where required.

Pakistan’s bowling attack has of course been stripped of a couple of major players, for reasons known to the world and its mother, but they have continued to light up the limited overs game with their displays so far. Umar Gul and Shahid Afridi, heroes of ODI and T20 cricket for Pakistan, have continued their dominance, taking 30 wickets between them so far, and drying up the runs at the same time. It appears that Shoaib Akhtar might not play again, but despite some erratic bowling, he remains a trump card that can carve through a top order at any moment. Wahab Riaz was unimpressive against India, but he and Abdul Razzaq provide a solid back-up to Gul in the pace attack. Afridi has been the spinning star so far, but Abdur Rehman and Mohammed Hafeez have played important supporting roles, with Saeed Ajmal a very dangerous man waiting in the wings.

So what’s the verdict? As I said at the beginning, predicting a match between these two is nigh on impossible. Having said that, however, I’m going to stick with my pre-tournament prediction of Pakistan to make the semis. While both teams can implode, the West Indies are more reliant on certain players – if Gayle and Bravo don’t fire, I’m not convinced that the middle order can rebuild the innings, leaving Pollard most likely to last only a couple of massive swings before giving his wicket away. Pakistan, on the other hand, seem to be taking 15-2 as the natural starting point for an innings, and so the innings that Mohammed Hafeez will produce at some point will merely be a pleasant surprise.

The Pakistani bowlers have the ability to defend almost anything, while the Windies…don’t. I’d take Razzaq as a finisher in ODIs ahead of Pollard too.

If India knock out Australia in their semi-final, the winner of this will find it very difficult to progress to the final. India’s recent batting collapses notwithstanding, Pakistan might come up against a team their bowlers can’t scythe through. Bear in mind that those collapses left them with 265 and 296 – not tiny totals. Australia are certainly there for the taking, but I’d expect India to oblige before anyone else gets the chance. More on that tomorrow.

We’ve seen Pakistan do the unthinkable in the T20 World Cups – they’re a team for the big occasions. They have a least one more win in them this time round, and I think they’ll see off Darren Sammy’s men. Whatever the result though, the first quarter-final promises to be full of interest – I won’t promise any big runs or classy innings, but it won’t lack passion.

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