Sunday, August 17, 2008

Summer or Revival, Resurgence, Revenge!!!

This past summer, a lot of sporting action rocked the earth... The actions were larger than life, the players were supernaatural and all-in-all, the summer became even hotter.

Revenge took place, first in Los Angeles, and that episode rightly ended in Boston, when the NBA "Invincibles" of the season defeted the LA Lakers in a manner which is undescriptive. Seeing is believing. Knocking out Lakers at the Staples Centre, coming back from a 23 point deficit can only be dreamt of... What Boston Celtics did was an exhibition of class, authority, experience, unity and style and won back, rather, snatched back the NBA title from their biggest rival after a gap of almost 2 decades.

Tennis... Talk about comebacks... Dinara Safina played like a never-say-quit war-horse in the French Open and defeated big names and compatriots en-route to the finals. Though she lost in the finals, she will be remembered for her games she won prior to it. Having come back from being a set down twice in the tournament to win the matches in comprehensive style, she gave the Russians another reason to cheer about. And she eventually turned out to be the factor who could cheer up her brother Marat Safin. And, he showed up with some tricks up his sleeve in the prestigeous Wimbledon. He defeated three seeded players on the trot to book a match with defending champion, Federer, to whom he lost. But, the way Safin was playing, he sent shivers down the spine of many prominent players, especially after defeating the Australian Open champion, Novac Djokovic. He added some Safinism to these plays too. It was interesting to watch him go for a challenge when the ball was "obviously" inside the court. But, the biggest one was yet to come in the tournament. It was Rafa who finally achieved what has been eluding him for atleast three years. He defeated Federer in an epic final, probably the best one in the Open era. He is now all set to take over the No. 1 spot from Federer, being the first one to do so in more than 4 years. his next target - clinching gold at his maiden Olympics in Beijing, this August.

Talking about Soccer, the Euro was provided the summer bonanza. Spain finally got their crown after a long last wait and many choking experiences. The best elements of the tournament were Turkey and Russia. While Russia, under the guidance of "magician" Guus Hiddink, kept a good pace in the tournament and made sure they made a good mark in the tournament by beating even sides of the calibre of Nederlands, Turkey made sure that the spectators stayed in their seats till the very end of the game. The Turks....aaaahhhh... You'll never know when they are gonna make their come back. You take at the 120th minute, Turks will equalise the next minute. Ast a Croatian how it feels to have experienced that. The Turks bounced back in 3 games after trailing for most of the duration in two of those, and conceded a late, errr, very late goal in the third. All in all, they were very impressive and created a great impression. Now, every club will be vying fro Russians and Turks.

Now, coming to cricket. The long summer in England saw the Kiwis first lose the test series to a tough and building English side. the kiwi test side had been shaky ever since the English tour of the Kiwis. But, then, the Kiwis gave a great reply in the ODI series. Having lost the first one in a very pathetic manner, they came back well to emerge winner in all the other games (one was rain-affected, though that match all seemed to be heading NZ's way). Then came the South Africans and had a tough first test, where they had to stay put at the wicket day and night to save the test after they were made to follow on. The English test team lost all the form it had over the past 5 or 6 test and lost 2 test in a row to the resurgent Proteas before pulling one back for pide. SA hence came back well into the Basil D'Oliviera trophy after the horrible first 3 days of 1st test to clinch the title, winning the series 2-1.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Proteas ruin the English summer party!

The English summer was topped by the tour of South Africa after the summer solstice in a 4 match test series to be followed by the one-dayers. The English side were on the brink of creating history of fielding the same side for 6 consecutive times. Michael Vaughan's place in the side was in jeopardy due to his downslide in batting form, though he has been captaining the side well for the past few months. Andrew Flintoff was ready to catch an opportunity with both hands if there was to be even a key-hole of a space to get in, he was looking in the best health off late.

So, the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy kicked off in stlye, at the Lords'. England batted first on a good batting wicket. The openers started slowly but, didn't lose any wicket in the morning session. The openers put on a brilliant 100+ stand for the first wicket. Then, the tall seamer, Morne Morkel got rid of the openers while Steyn's "Ripper" will be another episode of Vaughan's nightmares. Then on, KP and Bell played on and on and on. After KP's brilliant knock, Broad showed some class to give Bell some company. Vaughan was waiting for Bell to reach his double centure to call back his team, but, Bell, who wanted to get things done fast, got out due to a possible lapse in his concentration when he was out caught and bowled to Harris on 199. Oh boy! What a score to be frozen at! Anyway, the knock will remain very important in the context of the game. The Proteas stepped in...and stepped out pretty sooner than expected. Had it not been for Prince's calm and superb century, South Africa might've been in a very bad situation. Nevertheless they were forced to follow on. Now, the flavour of ecstacy. This is what I called saving a match. The top 3 South Africans each scored hefty centuries to deny England what looked like possible victory one and a half days ago. Smith was aggressive, while Amla and McKenzie were stuck to defensive basics of best order. The SA batsmen were just a shadow of what they were in the first innings.

So, the second test match ended the 6 match streak of England playing the same 11. Now, Freddie Flintoff made an entry back into the side in place of Collingwood and the comlpetely unknown medium pacer Darren Pattinson came in for the rested/injured Sidebottom. Steyn and Morkel ripped apart the English order and the South Africans, after initial hiccups, piled on excess of 500 with contributions coming in from the blade of Prince and AB de Villiears. With a near-similar performance by the South African seamers yet again, England avoided innings defeat! They took a lead of paltry 8 runs which Smith and McKenzie swept away in the blink of an over. South Africa thus took the all important 1-0 lead, at Leeds!

Vaughan was losing more ideas than hair... He knew Pattinson didn't work out the way anyone would've expected. It took some time for Lloyd to find out that he was a roof-tiler and Harmy realised that he ws dozing while Pattinson bowled in the match played between them. Nevertheless, Broad and Pattinson were replaced by Collingwood and Sidebottom, who still wasn't 100% fit. Nel replaced injured Steyn, a big blow to SA.

The Edgebaston match started off not-so-well for England, as only half centuries from Cook and Bell took England to a meagre 231. Nel and Kallis contributed well with 3 wickets. The see-saw battle continued as Fred announced his return in style and picked up 4 crucial wickets, his ball swinging and dipping in more than what the batsmen anticipated. Ryan toiled hard for 3 wickets. Collingwood and KP then lead the english fightback and gave england a reason to fight for when they took the field for the 2nd time. Needing 281 for victory in both the match and the series, the SA openers started steadily. But, then, with a combined effort from Jimmy, Flintoff and Panesay, SA were reduced to 93-4 with Smith still at one end but losing partners very quickly. But, in the presence of de Villiers and Boucher, Smith raced to a big century and won the match for South Africa. This was a big moment, as both Vaughan's batting form and captaincy were in very poor form, though he maintains a very good overall track record in both aspects.

This was followed by Vaughan stepping down from captaincy and Collingwood denying the post. Vaughan stayed away from the 4th match. KP was named the captain and Steve Harmison made a comeback too.

The English seamers wated no time in getting rid of the whole SA batting order in no time and SA ended up with just 194 on board without even a single half-century. KP then stamped authority with a brilliant century before Harmison showed his skills with the bat. A sad period of play was when Harmison was on the non-striker end on 49 when Anderson padded up to a Harris arm ball and was out lbw. A few hundred seconds later, Harmison set off for a quick single but, Monty was a tad late to respond and was run out to leave Harmy stranded on a very important knock of 49! South Africa made a decent 2nd inning score, thanks to de Villiers and Amla. Broad chipped in with 3 wickets. England top order had things going easy and without much effort, they won the unconsequential match in style...when Flintoff hits a six to win the match with a six, its gotta be in style!

So, SA will take home the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy which was dramatic in many ways. I can't forget the moments when Morkel was out but walked off to some random place on the boundary, quite far from the dressing room, had to go past the advertisement boards and then a ground staff security personnel had to escort him to the dressing room past the spectators. Darren Pattinson was the surprise elemwnt, a surprise that awaited both the sides! A new English captain emerged, emerged victorious the first time he led his side. Old war horses Flintoff and Harmison cane back into the sides. McKenzie and Amla were at their best. Prince and de Villiers and Captain Smith were in good touch too. Steyn was at his aggressive best and Ntini proved the world that age doesn't bother him!!!

So, now, its time for the ODI series. Let the best side victor. Only time'll tell!!!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lankan Lions Roared Louder

A lot of things had happened in the 3-test series between hosts Sri Lanka and the off-shore neighbours India. Interestingly, all these tests ended on the third day of play itself. This was one amongst the the many interesting points to be seen from the tour. A good series from cricketing point of view and the Sri lankans won the series, hands down, I should say. I mean, the Sri Lankan team was perfect in all their departments.

The Indians came to the Island with a lot of things on their mind, what with mendis already visiting their dreams(nightmares!) after that superb Asia Cup finale. And, then, Dhoni seemed to have found the "right" time to take rest during the all-important test series, thus handing over the job of the 'keeper to two who had butterfingers throught the series. The practice match was "OK" for the Indians as one would put it, nothing too alarming, nothing too soothing. The sides met at the more famous of the two stadia of the Capital city- the Sinhalese Sports Club, known to assist spinners sooner than later during the course of the match. Both teams had quality spinners. The Indians banking on the experience of Harbhajan and Jumbo, Srilanka confident of giving the "New-Big-Name" of cricket, Mendis, his debut, along with ace magician, Murali.

After a few spells of typical Lankan rain, the match heated up with the Sri Lankan batsmen showing no mercy while scoring runs. As many as four centurions were seen on the score card! Having scored 600, it could've only been Sri Lanka's game to lose! When India came on to bat, on what seemed to have been a flat batting track mid-way through the test, many would've thought the test was heading to another draw. Not so long ago was it, when South Africa fought back in their match against England to "win" a draw. Back in Colombo, things were looking bright and fast as Indian openers gallopped on the shoulders of the Delhi duo. But, Sehwag was to depart early, cutting short his blitzkrieg innings. Then on, apart from the steady show of Gambhir and Laxman at the wickets, the spin combo did what they were expected to, if not, more than what they were expected to. The Indian tail which famously wags for a long time, couldn't do any better than the top order. Soon, India were following on, trailing, still, by another 373, I suppose. The script for second innings was even more dramatic. It took just 31 overs of spin to demolish the most talked about batting order in the world. It took just 8 hours to dismiss the line up twice, so, thats just about 4 sessions! Thats called winning in style! The magician finished woth 11 scalps and the debutant had 8. What a start for him! The best since Stuart Clark started featuring ono the international scenario...

Shove that test now... Now, the team travels to Galle, the city that carries a lot of sorry tales from the tsunami episode that devastated the island. But, now, a new pitch was laid, the stadium rebuilt and two sides having a point or two to prove. Well, this time, India batted first and Sehwag made yet another HUGE century, errrr...a double century. He tore apart the Lankan bowling, who were at one stage more keen in displacing his partner at regular interval than try to dislodge his, as that proved to be a difficult task. Ultimately, surprisingly, amazingly, Sehwag became the second Indian to carry his bat and India put up a decent 329, 296 of which came from 3 willows and 12 more came in a extras. Imagine what happened to the rest of the batting line up. i do not want to describe the card, looks not-so-good. Sri Lankans did actually start off well, apart from that early wicket. Wanrapura, Mahela and Kumar made decent scores, but, after them, no one gave support and Bajji ripped apart more than half the order. Leading by a meagre 37 runs, India came in to bat for the second time and made a decent 269 to put the target just beyond 300. With around 5 sessions to go, Sri lanka came in to bat, hopeful of easing through to the total. But, Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan were at their merciless best, getting 3 quick wickets and Bajji chipping in with a wicket in his first over to make Sri Lankans sweat when they looked up at the score-board. But then, Dilshan and Samaraweera steadied the ship and pulled things back a bit. Just when one was thinking that the game was going into the 5th day, Dilshan was done in by an absolute beauty by Ishant, having just pitched one short and punished the previous ball. Then on, the Lankans played the worst shots in the book and ended up losing by a big margin. Samaraweera was stranded on the other end for a well compiled half century that may not get much attention as India's victory on that day. So, was the brilliant 10 wicket haul by Mendis in just his 2nd test. He was just about unplayable. Only Sehwag and Gambhir could manage his spells.

With the series one game a piece, every other player was rubbing his palms, fire in his eye, hunger to win the match. Jumbo won the toss and elected to bat, like who won't on the good looking batting track. Another debutant, Dammika Prasad, who had earlier dug a thorn in the minds of Indians in the practice game, impressed all as he took three wickets in the first session. He hails from the same place as Dilhara Fernando and has the eyes and aggression of Murali. Oh boy! Wasn't he excited on getting the prized wicket of Sachin, who seems to be the one to fall to debutants on many occasions off late! A topsy turvy Indian innings which would seem to be cruising along at one stage and by the time you move to the refridgerator to fill your tummy, it would be 9 down for less than 200. It needed steady innings from Zaheer and Ishant to remind the players that it was still a batsman's pitch. The Lankans approved the notion. India had one wicket late in day one to find Vaas take up the crease as night wtchman, who stayed on for longer than expected next morning, giving support to the centurion, Sangakkara, who, later went on to be the Man-of-the-Match. With Vaas already having played decently up the order, the Lankan line up looked deeper than normal and made almost 400. Eventhough India managed to compile a decent 268 second time around, with an injured batting line up, it was never going to be enough. With ishant injured, Jumbo had to toss the ball to Bajji to bowl the second over. Interesting? Yup! But, Bajji just accepted the ball and returned the favour with a wicket. Zaheer soon got the second one and Srilanka were now 24/2 chasing 122 for victory. But, captain Mahela lead by example and in prime company of the upand rising opener, Warnapura, the Lankans were victorious. This match also saw Mendis break the record for most test victims in the debut series. Thus, fittingly, the Man-of -the-series.

Jayawardene captained the side well nd introduced the spinners at good times(the duo ruled the roost!). The Lankan batsmen had a good series all through. Theri fielding was superb and lived upto the name of the best fielding side, no matter how many debutants they play. The Lankans, deservingly, won the Series. After all the "precautionary" measures against Mendis, Laxman and Dracid fell to him 5 and 4 times respectively. Laxman did perform decent enough though. Both Sachin and Ganguly missed out on opportunities. Sachin couldn't become the highest run getter yet, still needing just around 80 runs more. The 'keepers were below par on both sides of the crease. Jumbo didn't seem very threatening. Injury crept into the side at just the wrong moment. Only a few good things happened for India. The openers were in excepetional form, Harbhajan and also Ishant(on a flat spinner friendly wicket, Ishant was not ready to give away any run!) bowled well.

Now, the procession moves into the lighter format. It is to be seen if the inclusion of young blood into the side makes any difference to the side. Many of them are practicing to face spinners!!! Thats not a big news, given that Mendis looks more threatening in the SriLankan colours than in his military outfit. So, only time'll tell if the Indians have a reply for the Asia cup finals. The Srilankans would like to hold fort yet again. Its going to be a bloo-sweat-&-tears ODI series up next. Watch out for it!