The minnows are yet to play twenty more of their thirty first round matches, but make no mistake the tournament has finally buzzed up in anticipation and expectation. A couple of years down the line when we all romanticize about this World Cup we ought to remember the week when February-March changed hands this year. For this is where it all changed - the cricket gathered speed and momentum, a couple of big matches didn’t go the anticipated way, there was a tremendous tied game played at Bangalore and the stakes were raised all around.
It began on Thursday last when South Africa took on the West Indies. The first big match they said and it nearly did live up to those expectations, before the Windies collapsed late in their innings. It reflected how prepared the Proteas were for the tournament, starting their bowling with a spinner and seeing all their plans executed to perfection. The word ‘stakes’ takes merit from their performances, for they laid down the gauntlet to the other sides. Watch us play and see how ready we are this year, they implied through their dominant win. Although they haven’t yet promised that they won’t mess up like earlier times but there are still many matches remaining to do so. Right then, it was all about momentum.
And that is precisely what Australia gained in their match against rivals New Zealand. Yet another big game was the hype yes, but when a team is struggling with bad news from back home, there is only so much that you can concentrate on the game at hand. Even so, the intent displayed from the Aussies was for all to see, for the shaken-up Kiwis could have raised their game unexpectedly, and it mattered that they put out a professional display. The Kangaroos needed to build confidence and carry it through the knock-outs because against the bigger teams, they have been pretty short in recent times. If the team gets into the knack of winning, it might help them carry weight forward into the tournament and everyone knows that Ricky Ponting wants to win this one, albeit it may not be as easy as his previous two wins.
Bangladesh too showed much intent in mauling Ireland for victory. They are not a big cricket nation – based solely on their on-field performances and not the number of passionate fans who fill up their stadiums – but they do behave like one.
Against India, although their bowling failed, their batsmen turned up to save face and scored 270 in a non-existent chase. Against the Irish, when they should have ground out their Test status for everyone to see, their batting folded up for 200-odd. But the Tigers do believe themselves to be genuine contenders for atleast the quarterfinals and it was perhaps that particular conviction coming across, that their bowling deflated the Irish run-chase. It made sure that we are still searching for an upset this time around, and maybe Bangladesh themselves will provide that spark against some big team in the coming weeks.
Saturday bode well for sub-continental fans as Sri Lanka took on Pakistan. Now the thing about the Lankans is that they were unbeatable at home in World Cup matches before this, yet had never beaten Pakistan in the tournament’s history.
While they lost the first record, the second one still stands as Shahid Afridi and his boys let those watching know that they aren’t here to just make up the numbers. Their cricketers are much like gladiators from ancient Rome – they might not see eye to eye in the privacy of their confines but in the arena they fight as one. 277 wasn’t a huge score for Lanka not to chase down, yet it proved what many have feared for them in the build-up to this tournament. Get their top four batsmen out and they will struggle. That the final difference between the two sides was a mere eleven runs shows how well the Lankans used their end overs.
Of course not everyone uses their last few overs judiciously and that was the case with both India and England at Bangalore. The Indians could have done without that mini-collapse and perhaps added another ten runs. As it turned out, even the one short run off the last ball was enough to make a difference when the English matched their score of 338. The Men in Blue aren’t a side that fields particularly well, though standards have risen over the last couple of decades. Nor are they the best of bowlers and these two points find reflection in that they are poor in between the wickets as well. Just because they couldn’t defend a high total doesn’t imply that they will not win the World Cup, this debate has been deferred after they fought back to tie the game. Much of that though was down to England taking their batting power-play a couple of overs early. If they had but delayed it until the very last five overs, it is a well believed notion that India would have lost the game instead of sharing the two points.
If the weekend saw a plethora of runs, the past two days have been all about wickets. Kemar Roach and Lasith Malinga wrote their names in the record books with triple strikes against Netherlands and Kenya respectively, helping West Indies register their first win and Sri Lanka to get over the Pakistan debacle as if nothing happened. In that light, every team has pretty much laid down their cards, knowing full well that the World Cup is now in high gear. Of course the big matches are again closely bunched up as the weekends approach – the ICC doesn’t want to lose out on TRPs or in-stadia crowds.
But even in the lowly games during the week, there is a nip in the air that beckons the teams to not let loose their guard for a slip-up will be severly punished in the long run. It only suggests that the 2011 World Cup has finally come alive.
© Cricket World 2011