Oh Captain, my Captain

People don’t realise it, but cricket captains are modern knights leading their merry men dressed in colourful pyjamas to war wielding heavy bats like sharp swords.

 Walking through the corridors of Al Jazeera, I bump into our sports editor who immediately lowers his gaze and begins drumming his fingers on an imaginary key board only to peer up and give me the look: “Where is your new cricket blog mate?”

I defensively interject the silent Beethoven with “Dude, have you been watching the cricket … I’ve been busy, you know with revolutions happening all around, people begging, dying for freedom, and well, the cricket has just been so dull,” I try to argue, sheepishly.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about mate,” he replies with a wry smile. “I was just practising my piano keys,” and he continues playing his air-keyboard.

“Well – did you hear what happened today,” he stops-states-questions. “Taylor made a 100 of 29 balls – is that even possible?”

“Twenty-nine balls? Are you serious?” I quiz back nonsensically.

“Well, this what I heard, and it was against Pakistan … seems far-fetched to me, but again, is that even possible?”

“What! You’re being serious? I thought you were exaggerating …” I trail off.

I don’t know why I was surprised. These days, in cricket as in life or in Hollywood, anything is possible where Pakistan is involved.

Yes, a low blow, but my Pakistani friends will agree that though Ross Taylor did not make 100 off 29 balls as my editor had thrilled me into believing for a while, Pakistan’s miserable loss to New Zealand could never pass without a few jibes.

However, on a more positive note, the loss might just resurrect the team, perhaps even mark the turning point in the team’s success at the tournament.

“They are now forced into a corner,” my Pakistani mate tells me with some conviction.

South Asians love their metaphors and allegories, so I am guessing he means that a vulnerable Pakistani team usually turn themselves into quite a lethal prospect in the remaining fixtures and I cannot agree more.

Likewise, England’s remarkable defeat to the charged up tigers of Bengal aka Bangladesh yesterday, might just prove to be the turning point in the tournament as teams enter the business end, desperately hoping to make the final eight.

‘An impasse’

We are now at a juncture, which war journalists, story tellers and other tobacco chewers would describe as ‘an impasse’.

As England’s performances thus far: a tie with India, a loss to Ireland, a win against South Africa and now a loss to Bangladesh, suggest, there is very little to separate teams at the tournament.

Team victories and losses have so far seem to have been whimsically aligned to mood swings as much as they might have been influenced by playing conditions or poor crowd turnouts, turning the tournament into a collection of lacklustre encounters that would not even make the stuff of idle talk at the most boring of dinner parties.

And having ascertained that this is the most open of World Cups, with any one of the big Test playing nations holding an equal shot of winning the tournament or conversely plummeting to suicidal lows by losing to an Ireland or Canada along the way – winning this tournament will ultimately be decided the old fashioned way: good old captaincy.

Yes, captaincy.

People don’t realise it, but cricket captains are modern knights leading their merry men dressed in colourful pyjamas to war wielding heavy bats like sharpened swords.

As the thinking man’s (or woman’s) game, it has always been as much about strategy as it might be about brute force, clean hitting and quirky sledges. With 10 players to lead, boasting such distinctly different roles in a game that requires continuous deliberation, varying field positions and slow-burning-patience, captaining a cricket side takes more balls than it does to don the armband in the most iconic of footballing derbies.

When a cricket captain leads you out onto the oval, it is a call to arms. Albeit folded arms sometimes, as you mutate into feed for skin cancer under the blazing sun waiting for something to happen.

But this is a war God damn-it!

And if you think I am joking, consider the previous teams who walked away with the trophy.

While Viv Richards in ’79, Inzamam Ul-Haq in ’92, Sanath Jayasuriya in ’96, Shane Warne in ’99  and Glenn Mcgrath in ‘07 are all celebrated for their individual, even iconic performances that helped their teams win the World Cup,  it is usually the likes of Clive Lloyd,  Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga and Steve Waugh as captains who made it happen that form the nucleus of the real story.

The aforementioned captains played instrumental roles in their World Cup triumphs it is as if the tournament’s history could never be imagined any other way (though South African fans will forever claim it was Hansie Cronje’s World Cup in ’99 and not Steve Waugh’s)

Oh Captain, my Captain?

Australia’s demise has been noted, documented, even pummeled to the death already, and though Ricky Ponting barely looks himself and seems even more benign as a leader these days, the Australian unit is still so strong, even Mickey Mouse could run it.

If the Aussies win it, it would be a gift from the lads to Ponting, not the other way round.

Likewise, South Africa’s Graeme Smith, despite his impressive innovative approach on team selection and his healthy use of his beefy spinner contingent, he still needs to find good personal form to perform his best as a skipper. His scratching around at the top of the order is unhealthy for the team, but one good performance against a team like India today, could change all that.

In saying that, Smith is not the type of captain I would jump off a bridge for, but South African fans are wary of charismatic captains lest they release Hansie Cronje type revelations, for whom, incidentally, I would have thrown any amount of games for.

If South Africa do win the World Cup, their new found innovative approach would be the story, and not necessarily Smith, their captain.

Meanwhile, Daniel Vettori, as distinguished as he might look, still seems to search for Stephen Fleming every now and then on the field, and, on a separate note, could do with some new frames. Frankly, it is rather hard to imagine New Zealand winning the World Cup, and even harder imagining Vettori on an ESPN documentary about the great captains who inspired their teams’ triumph. The Kiwis just do not look the part.

Though England’s Andrew Strauss is already so close to knighthood for bringing home the Ashes, inspiring an England ODI revolution after looking so lackluster and rudderless would be to ask too much. It might even damage the game. The Pommies should go home and get some rest.

The fancied

This brings us to India’s MS Dhoni and Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakarra: the type of captains players would sacrifice their IPL contracts for.

Not only do Dhoni and Sangakkara play with 100 per cent commitment, guts and boyish fervour, there is also a wily genius about them that keeps their cricketing intellect under the radar as they go about out-witting opposition.

Dhoni has pulled rabbits out of helmets since he took over the captaincy, while Sangakkara has lent a touch of sophistication to the team’s demeanour.

Both are match winners, both would lift the trophy and become part of cricketing folklore for the gritty, but incessant out-of-the-box charm over their soldiers.

Their victory would be the bread and butter story of the World Cup of clever captains and stable middle orders.

Somehow a World Cup triumph, though perhaps deserved for either captain would seem ultimately too banal.

This is why I am putting my money on Shahid Afridi to wake this tournament out of its drunken stupor.

Have you seen him marshal his team with his deadly stares and enthusiastic banter? Do you notice how his performance rubs on a team, a country desperately searching for esteem, even vindication?

Like Dhoni and Sangakarra, Afridi is involved in every facet of the game an all rounder, an instrumental anarchist who leads the one team in this tournament with so little to lose.

There is an honesty in Afridi’s unrelenting commitment to the game that is endearing, even if his fortunes mirror the ambivalence of the Pakistani game itself.

Either way, Afridi would have made an impressive general in the third Pathan regiment of the Pakistani army.

The Pakistan captain’s appointment is so out of the box, so outrageous, his locks and slippery leg spinners so exceedingly vivacious, a Pakistan triumph might just make the greatest World Cup story yet.

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