Sunday was a weird matchday, one in the long lists of such seen through this tournament. It was supposed to be an exemplary showcase of two rivalries.
One that has woven itself intriguingly well as concerns results in such high-profile clashes, and the other, taking merit from a political-cum-historical debate lending much colour to the field of play. As much as the two games promised a stellar show, they both ended in anti-climatic one-sided affairs.
Rivalries in a sporting arena are like relationships. Built up over time, they bring the best and worst out of people, cricketers herein. You can get up in the morning thinking, 'this is going to be my day.' Form doesn’t matter a lot, for passion running through your veins when the teams line up can make the ball do a bit or the bat do a lot.
Inversely, it can send the best of players into tizzy. You can be the greatest batsman to ever walk the planet, but that bat will weigh heavier when you mark guard against your arch-rivals’ prime fast bowler. In that light, imagine how a tail-ender would feel.
To this uncertainty of rivalry, add the scenarios a world tournament’s second stage weighs in. First match lost, second match is a must-win otherwise you are out of reckoning, more or less. Alternately, having won the first match, teams start thinking about carrying momentum into second and third games, hoping to qualify early for the knock-outs.
Except that mere anticipation is enough to send your nerves jingling and any momentum out the door. On Sunday, afternoon and evening, this is precisely what happened.
Let us talk of South Africa and Pakistan first, in that order. The Proteas needed to win. Not because they choked in the first game, no. That was more a fightback from Umar Gul and Umar Akmal when all was lost than any of South Africa’s past devils coming back to haunt them.
Even so it was a killer blow, having defended a paltry total like only their bowling can. To pick themselves up they needed a mood-swing, perhaps a change in strategy as well. Neither happened against Australia’s rolling juggernaut.
The problem with South African batting has been that they have no one to actually hit out early on, unless AB de Villiers comes to the crease and plays a blinder. Most 10-year-old kids play spin better than Richard Levi and that aspect has been fully exploited. That Faff du Plessis’ form hasn’t inspired confidence enough to include him in the first eleven – even ahead of Levi – is a matter of concern.
Also, both Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla are exceptional players, but their batting mannerism is too identical. And it becomes a problem when the run-rate just isn’t going anywhere in the first six overs. Hence their batting at the top isn’t explosive and didn’t inspire enough despite AB batting a spot higher this time.
If they couldn’t get their tactics right, Pakistan just couldn’t manage their nerves, despite that remarkably fighting last win. It is one thing giving pre-match statements that 'the boys are confident and have an edge over the opposition (read India).' But then Mohammad Hafeez sounds the same every time. You can almost predict what he is going to say.
Like you could almost predict that Pakistan’s batting – lightweight compared to their bowling attack – will be under pressure to fire against their biggest rivals. It was so last year at Mohali too, though Pakistan’s batsmen appeared calmer then.
This is what the shortest format does to you. There is just no time to recover from early losses, sometimes even against a lowly attack such as India's. The need to up the ante, and get one quickly over your opposition, was a firm factor here.
The Pakistan batsmen did not look to settle down and play out a little time, especially since Mahendra Singh Dhoni had again only played four specialist bowlers.
Demoting Nasir Jamshed to four reeked of desperation to make an impact. Almost as if he wasn’t able enough, despite evidence suggesting otherwise. Maybe it is easier for one to criticise with the benefit of hindsight. That defence however is applicable only for a proper batsman’s case, not Shahid Afridi.
Despite their plethora of troubles, a target of 129 was never going to bother India. If Virat Kohli had to bat with Ravichandran Ashwin alone, he could have scored those runs. Okay, maybe that is an exaggeration, but that is how exceptional his form – nay, run of scores – has been.
When Virender Sehwag decided to settle down too and score his runs, to make sure tongues didn’t wag again, you knew Pakistan didn’t have a whiff.
For India, this seven-batsmen-four-bowlers combination makes sense when they are winning, like they did on Sunday. Will it make sense against South Africa on Tuesday too? Your guess is as good as mine.
Probably, given their recent difficulties in countering spin, Dhoni might be tempted to play another spinner in Harbhajan Singh. Or maybe he will again go the whole hog as he did against Australia, this time dropping Gautam Gambhir instead – you know, two-ball-duck, poor form, openers' rotation and all that jazz. What will it take for a Shane-Watsonesque performance from the Proteas though? Can India even risk a near similar incidence?
Ah, Watson. It is elementary for a batsman to face a small dip in form and many expected Australia’s middle order to be tested for South Africa boasted of such a bowling attack. Yes, an Australian batsman lower than number three did take strike for the first time in this tournament – Cameron White did get to bat. But Watson didn’t give him more than 13 balls as he smacked away the law of averages.
His great run of four consecutive man-of-the-match performances has lifted his side from a lowly number nine rank to 2012 ICC World T20 favourites. Now, that is called momentum.
© Cricket World 2012
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