Cricket the great balancing act

Whichever way you choose to look at it, cricket, like life, though unfair in itself, levels the playing field.

Think of cricket as you would Lady Justice: a blindfolded woman with a sword at her side, scales in hand, and an almost insatiable thirst for being the moral and material leveller of man.

Think of cricket as that nagging marriage: survival is based on partners seeking and successfully servicing the whims and petty needs of each other to maintain the grand mirage of compromise, partnership and long-term planning. 

Think of cricket as a return to simplicity where fancy footwork up and down tall orders takes you nowhere without a still head.

It’s little wonder then, that people stumble on cricket on television and wonder not only what the hell is going on, but what commentators might mean by ‘stance’, ‘timing’ or ‘fine leg’.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, cricket, like life, though unfair in itself, levels the playing field.  

In one form or another, fate, destiny, karma or sutra, short falls and quick fixes eventually catch up with even the most agile, a type of good riddance. Instead, it will always be discipline, technique and a balanced team that separates the sustainable winners from the one-hit wonders.

This is the game of cricket after all, and not a waffle express from your local Carrefour.

And now that we have reached the World Cup semi-finals, it is plain to see.

Cricketing algorithm 

Barring the impressive but freakish performance of New Zealand, the presence of the three subcontinental powerhouses in the final four proves the cricketing algorithm the most adaptable teams always advance through to the knockout phases of the competition. 

Sure, South Africa would be aggrieved, having danced all the right moves in the first round only to lose a knock-out game once again .And while the “chokers” seems once more a very good fit, closer inspection reveals this might not be so.

South Africa tossed aside the minnows like Goliaths would of any unassuming Davids without biblical prowess, but they stumbled against a schizophrenic yet determined English outfit. The Proteas then chased India’s imposing total like fearless soldiers riding on pristine white appaloosas (affirmative action notwithstanding) but people forget that this was against a deflated bowling attack and a physically challenged fielding performance.

The Indians might be imposing favourites but no matter how many runs they score, they are an unimposing bowling and fielding outfit. The battlefield might as well have been Kruger National Park and the enemy, hapless, starving Zimbabweans. All in all, during the round-robin phase, the South Africans were tested twice they squandered their chance on one occasion and on the other, they managed to just squeeze through.

It makes sense then for a knock out clash to have truly tested them. And they lost. Simple. Khalaas.

In fact, inspite of all the positive steps taken by the South African team at this tournament, including the liberal use of spin, this was a team uncharacterisically lacking genuine all-rounders down the order raising the question of team selection.

With Johan Botha coming in at number 7, pressure on the top five to make the runs every time was always asking for too much. Factor in as well, the case of a temperamental JP Duminy batting at the crucial number 5 position, a spot occupied by Misbah ul-Haq, Michael Hussey, Eoin Morgan and Yuvraj Singh in the other big teams, and the Proteas never did get their team balance right.

Duminy is good, but is he in the league of the finishers aforementioned and can he be relied upon if Hashim Amla or AB de Villiers failed? Or is he, as his critics point out,  only good at brutalising the minnows?

With Smith battling for form, and Fafs du Plessis still a minnow in the international game, the Proteas effectively played with four batsman. You cannot win a world Cup, no matter how effective Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn might be with the ball and now matter how many blonde highlights Imran Tahir might sport, with an undernourished batting line-up.

The same could also be said about the West Indies who pummelled the smaller teams to a pulp creating an illusion of discipline and performance. All it required for their end to be spelled near was a meeting with a quality side, which ultimately came in the form of an inspired Pakistan. The West Indies were also led by an itsy-bitsy captain, whose role seemed unclear and this indecision would eventually cos them, when, well, real, knock-out decisions had to be made.

In contrast, despite their intial well oiled performances, Australia’s quiet exit signed off a forgettable tournament for the reigning champions and despite Ricky Ponting’s last minute heroics, the Aussies were always going to battle against India’s batting. The usually ruthless selection panel should have recognized that Ponting’s time as captain was up, and that the team needed new direction. But considering that there is no obvious successor to Ponting, the Aussies obviously saw Ponting’s leadership as crucial to the team’s fortunes.

It is a pity then that Ponting had to endure the disappointment of a lacklustre campaign after winning the World Cup consecutively for Australia and only to find himself stepping down sheepishly as if the failure was all his fault.

Sure, Ponting rode the wave of an era built by Steve Waugh on the backs of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden. And yes, it is the time for strong leadership, and for a new legacy. But selectors ought to have recognised that before they sent him for the slaughter.

Euphoric zombies 

Meanwhile, England, on the back of a long winter in Australia, injuries and mental illness, played like veterans of a cricketing cuckoo’s nest. Losing to Bangladesh and Ireland hardly seemed to faze the team as they went on to tie with India and beat South Africa. The team appeared so exhausted, they had all the looks of operating on a collective euphoric zombie mode. They really did make a compelling case for mass-euthanasia of all cricketers in England. Hopefully their overwrought demeanours caught the ECB’s attention. Sri Lanka, one feels, did them justice by shoving them out of their drunken stupor and spanking them back home.

This then leaves us with the final four. 

New Zealand, the nagging, dry, grey, work horses might be considered lucky to have bagged a semi-final berth, but one gets the feeling they aren’t surprised.  The perennial semi-finalists, outdone perennially by bigger, sexier teams know this is probably their best chance yet. Sri Lanka might be overwhelming favourites, but like South Africa, their tail runs deep into the lower middle order and getting rid of the openers early would expose a vulnerable middle order that has done precious little in the tournament. It is hard to see New Zealand surviving the trio of Malinga, Muralitharan and Mendis, but disciplined bowling from New Zealand could prove the undoing of the Sri Lankans.

And in what is being touted the quasi-final of the tournament, India vs Pakistan should see Kalashnikovs put down on both sides of the border as sport’s biggest derby supersedes all other South Asian passions for just a day.  It is difficult to quantify the effect India-Pakistan encounters have on heart rates, but suffice to say, the dramatic political backdrop in which this game falls under ought to produce enough chemistry to ignite your television screen into a frenzy of high drama.

India’s all round performance against Australia, exemplified by a more organised bowling performance and a superb chase, turns them into the most feared of the final four. Tendulkar and Yuvraj continue to perform, and Sehwag is due to deliver. Pakistan’s batting is still brittle and Pakistani fans are all too aware of their team’s penchant to capitulate at one good spell of bowling or of course, a bookie’s request, or cheque. At the same time, their bowling, led by the unlikely Afridi, is energetic and Pakistan is one team capable of creating some magic.

If Lady Justice had a say, she’d point out the deserved winner.

She’d separate the try-hards from the believers and the workmen from the deceivers.

In reality though, sport has no real moral basis of balance. The scales aren’t built to level the playing fields and filter pretence. Sport is built by talent and advanced by the surge of adrenalin, aspiration and well, some temptation.

Despite its billing, a knock out game in cricket like other professional sport is still just a game played by humans governed by team selections. Poorly conceived batting orders and naïve field placements quite aside, these games might just be decided on who wakes up on the right side of the bed.

Lady Justice is, after all, blind.