Pakistan v India: Brave New World Meets End of an Era

What more can you say about a match which will be watched by hundreds of millions of people. A match so big that even the President of the ICC expects it to shatter all records for viewing figures for any cricket match ever. It is the kind of cricket match which would have Don King salivating.

After all this is Pakistan versus India. A match where, in a land renowned for worshiping it’s deities, the cricketing versions are masters of their own universe.

Take the politics out of it, the strong emotional ties, the history and everything which people will attempt to signify with it and it still remains a powerful entity itself because these are two countries where cricket means something entirely different to anywhere else in the world.

But while these two nations have a lot in common, they also are very much apart and in someways the differences could not be more marked. India have the batsmen to win this match and it is Pakistan who have the bowlers bar the honorable exception of the evergreen Zaheer Khan.

It is India who are the more consistent, Pakistan perhaps the more exciting. Even the two best players in the tournament, Shahid Afridi and Yuvraj Singh-both spinning all-rounders of differing varieties-will be up against one another.

While one team considers themselves to be the beating heart of all that drives international cricket, the other is still trying to redeem itself for it’s past transgressions.

For India this match is crucial. They are reaching the end of a cycle which has seen them boast some of the finest players, playing some of the finest cricket that the world has ever seen.

Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan cannot carry on forever and will surely never have a better chance to lift the trophy before finally following the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble into retirement thus bringing to an end a fine company of cricketers who have helped make India what they are today.

While fine players such as Yuvraj, Dhoni and Gambhir will help ease the burden of their eventual passing, it is hard to escape the sense that Indian cricket will take time to rebuild itself after these players, and in particular two of the greatest of all time in Tendulkar and Sehwag, move on.

Meanwhile for Pakistan, the scene is very different. This is a country which has been through more upheaval in the past year than other test nations have in the past two decades.Suspensions, ball tampering, match-fixing, the works. Throw in murder and racketeering and you have a rap sheet you’d expect a Baltimore police officer to be reading straight off The Wire.

Yet remarkably, perhaps even astonishingly, there are green shots emerging from what had seemed only last summer to be a desolate landscape.Granted, the likes of Mohammad Asif and Mohammed Aamir are missed, as is Salman Butt though less so perhaps. But in their place has come experienced heads like Misbah Ul-Haq, Younus Khan, Shoaib Akhtar and Abdul Razzaq to help ease the burden.

Meanwhile the Pakistan production line continues to produce gems not only polished enough to shine at international level but to genuinely sparkle. Few young batsmen catch the eye quite like Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad, or play with the maturity of Asad Shafiq.

Although their impact is not quite Inzamam Ul-Haq circa 1992, the potential long-term effect could still be as important in the years ahead. Add in the developing Wahab Riaz and you have a mixture of old heads and young colts who are gelling in a potent force.

Then to top it off you need leadership. A few months ago few people if any would have pictured Afridi and Umar Gul being the equivalents of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram but now they stand on the brink of emulating the ‘cornered tigers’. It would be a truly remarkable turnaround, and an excellent launchpad to put Pakistan cricket back into a far better place after years of struggle.

But these are just the back stories to what should be a truly major event in cricket’s history. Matches between these two rarely fail to disappoint, and with the calibre of cricketers on show it is certainly going to be anything but entertaining.

Because come tomorrow the eyes of the world will be focussed on a battle between two old rivals, fighting it out for one prize but with two very different outcomes still very much a possibility. Who will win is anyone’s guess, even for an audience of nearly a billion people.

Test cricket: The role of the opener continues to evolve

Chris Gayle smashed 219* on the first day against Sri Lanka

Ask any author about the importance of a good opening and they’ll tell you it is crucial to any written work. It sets the tone, the pace and the spirit of the piece, and getting it right is vital, get it wrong and you’re off on the wrong foot immediately.

The importance of getting the opening right is also a vital part of a cricket innings; it sets the tone, dictates the pace and often determines whether the innings will sink or swim. For some the opening of an innings is an art of survival, a battle of pragmatism and practicality-particularly in England where the ball is liable to swing for longer.

But for others it is a chance to start off with a flyer, to immediately put pressure back on the bowler, the opposition and the captain, seizing the advantage from the off. In the past these examples were used brilliant by the very best in Test cricket, think the Haynes/Greenidge and Langer/Hayden partnerships.

However with the advent of Twenty20, the increasing exposure of Test players to limited overs cricket, the method of the opener has changed as more players are capable of hitting boundaries from the off. Whereas in the past only a few players would play an aggressive opener at the top of their order, now more teams are utilizing such players.

Brendan McCullum shows he can cut it at the top of the order

There were three brilliant examples of this in the past two days with the innings of Virender Sehwag, Brendan McCullum and Chris Gayle. In total the three of them hit 439 runs in 544 balls-a strike rate of 80.69 with 52 fours and 12 sixes-Gayle hitting six of them himself.

Gayle’s innings deserves special acclaim as it came at a time when he was under particular pressure due to losing the captaincy and also his failure to sign a WICB contract, but his was a special innings-the kind we know he is capable of-and he himself has sights on topping his triple century against South Africa next year.

But it was also a big moment for McCullum, who is seeking to prove himself at the top of the New Zealand batting order. Runs would have validated his position, but to do so in the manner which makes him so special is even better news.

Sehwag’s brilliance is simply treated as par for the course, a testament to both his consistency and his prolific appetite for runs. He is a unique and genuinely great player who combines brute strength with fantastic hand-eye co-ordination. What the likes of Gavaskar and Boycott would have made of opening this style is another matter.

The point is not to lavish praise on these talented individuals, all three are ranked among the finest hitters in the world and all had success as openers previously, albeit in McCullum’s case in limited overs form of the game.

But it is rather to mark the evolution of the role of the opening batsmen in Test cricket. Look around the international arena nowadays and almost every team starts with an opener capable of accelerating an innings.

Tamim Iqbal has shown no fear for Bangladesh

Nor is it just the larger teams, more dominant sides, as Bangladesh showed they too boast one in the sparkling talent of Tamim Iqbal who sent England’s attack to all parts both at home and abroad.

Gone are the days when mere survival was enough for an opener, now it is the era of attack as the best form of defence. It’s an evolution brought on by the limited overs game, but also by flat pitches, weaker bowling attacks and better and bigger bats.

All play their part, but ultimately it is also down to the personnel involved. Dashers like McCullum, Gayle and Sehwag have helped move the game on, seizing the advantage and capitalising on any opportunity.

As they’ve shown so brilliant, so hastily and so well, the role of the modern opener is far more than just build a platform for the middle order to thrive; it’s more a crash, bang wallop affair. How times sure have changed.

Two Indians, Two Innings, Two very different centuries….

As the old adage goes, variety is the spice of life. For India, the full variety of their top order’s ability was on display against New Zealand in Ahmadabad, as two of their senior players carved out centuries of contrasting importance, style and effort.

New Zealand will have felt mighty tired after being run ragged for a day in the field, and figures of 329-3 after Day 1 tell their own story.

But this was more than just a hammering, it was at times an onslaught, led particularly by Virender Sehwag, who was at his imperious best.

Sehwag’s ability is well-known, as his capacity to destroy any attack on any given day. Sadly for New Zealand, this was their day.

The full array of his strokes, the placement, the power. One day, a brighter man than I may eventually come up with a word which can describe such a brilliant effort and Sehwag’s ability. In fact someone may just decide to add the word ‘Sehwag’ to the English language, simply as something which is so destructively brilliant, that it cannot be contained.

Here is a man who rips up the rulebook. If there are two types of openers, the rather passive sort and the aggressive sort, then Sehwag possibly signifies what a politician would call “a third way”.

The amazing thing about him is how still he can stay, how calm, yet he wreaks such destruction. Making run-a-ball hundreds appear almost a norm, when for almost 90% of other batsmen it would be an ideal.

Moreover he scores big scores consistently, this was his 22nd Test century, and his 14th score of over 150 in Test matches-all bar one with a strike-rate over 70. These are the statistics of a great, a phenomenon, a sheer cricket freak, or whatever word you choose to use. Though the one I’d probably choose, once they finally invent it, is: of a Sehwag.

But if Sehwag’s innings was the highlight, then Dravid’s was probably the most important.

‘The Wall’ has been decidedly porous in recent times, this was only his second score of over 50 in 10 innings, and there were plenty of contenders in the running for his position-notably Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay who recently starred against Australia.

And for a time his innings betrayed these struggles, scoring only 17 runs off his first 105 balls, and struggling to pierce the field as New Zealand made him struggle for his runs. He then got a slice of luck, after a drop from Gareth Hopkins, and from their he too found runs easy to come.

His next 83 runs came off just 111 balls, bringing up his 29th Test match hundred-taking him past Sir Don Bradman’s record-and relieving plenty of the pressure which had been building on him.

They were two very different innings, but each in their own unique way was special.

Sehwag’s was one of style and power; Dravid’s more about patience and effort. These are contrasting elements, which each bring something different qualities to India’s top order. And when they face tougher challenges than those posed by New Zealand today, they will be equally delighted to have those elements back in form once again.