REVIEW – Listless Bangladesh, ruthless Zimbabwe

  Bangladesh’s nightmarish 335-run defeat to Zimbabwe under four days at Harare might just be their worst ever during their 13-year struggle in Test cricket. I was among the many who expected the Tigers to win the series in Zimbabwe, following recent improved performances. However after just four days, I am forced to eat my words, as lack of preparation, a superior opposition and possibly a hint of overconfidence all combined together to deliver a massive blow to the visitors. All the hard work done in Sri Lanka has come undone because of this extremely inept display.

  It is true that the Galle pitch on which Bangladesh amassed their highest Test score a few weeks ago was akin to a highway, and that very different conditions awaited them when they landed in Zimbabwe. But that does not justify their shambolic performance at Harare, as they were outplayed in all possible departments. Indeed it was that same old feeling for their vast legion of patient fans as they saw Bangladesh collapse meekly not once but twice, having no answer to the home team’s impressive pace trio of Kyle Jarvis, Shingirai Masakadza and Keegan Meth.

  I have always maintained that Bangladesh simply did not deserve Test status back in 2000, as the criteria for their elevation to the top level was supposedly just a solitary ODI victory over Pakistan in an inconsequential World Cup game in 1999. Their next ODI win over a full member was in 2003-04, when they beat Zimbabwe by 8 runs. By contrast, Kenya had already notched up six ODI wins over Test nations by the time the 2003 World Cup ended – the ICC’s failure to further encourage cricket in Kenya is possibly their second biggest mistake after their very premature decision to give Test status to Bangladesh. Even Ireland, which is universally seen as the next Test nation, has already scored ODI wins over four Test teams in a little over six years. Further, proper first class cricket began to be played in Bangladesh only a few months before they were accorded Test status. The truth is bitter, but it remains that the primary motive behind giving Test status to Bangladesh was to strengthen the Asian bloc in the ICC, rather than improve the standard of Test cricket.

3638450395      The Zimbabwean team head back to celebrate after thumping Bangladesh by 335 runs at Harare (source – iol.co.za)

  After the Harare debacle, the voices questioning Bangladesh’s standing as a Test nation have got even louder. Bangladeshi supporters might argue that teams like New Zealand and India took more than 20 years to register their first Test win. But in those days there were very few Test matches played, with the newer teams sometimes going without playing a single Test in some of the years. On the other hand, Bangladesh have been playing regularly against full-strength teams for the last 13 years, and have registered a whopping 67 defeats in 78 Tests, and the fact that their only series wins have come against seriously weakened teams from Zimbabwe and the West Indies. Comparing them with the other two relatively newer Test nations, one finds that Zimbabwe had actually won a Test series in Pakistan within six years of being elevated to full membership, while Sri Lanka notched up Test match wins over full-strength India, Pakistan, England and New Zealand within a period of eleven years.

  For all their competitiveness in the ODI format, as proved by a series win against the West Indies and a draw against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh are yet to prove themselves worthy of full membership. It can be said that a team like Ireland will prove to be much tougher challenge to the top teams in a few years, as shown by their consistent and spirited performances. I just hope that the ICC does not let the Irish go the Kenya way, for if that happens it would be a huge loss to world cricket.

   As for Bangladesh, they refused to play a tour match  before the Harare Test, and their batsmen were found wanting by the slightest movement that the pitch offered. Some of the shots played in their first innings were abysmal, and they lacked the much-needed patience that their opponents  so aptly showed on the first two days. The Bangladesh Premier League may have improved their ODI showing since the 2012 Asia Cup, but T20 will not in any way help their dwindling Test fortunes. It is all the more disappointing to see them falter in such a clueless manner, given that they had given a tough fight both to the West Indies and Sri Lanka in the 2012-13 season, in the process twice breaking the record for their highest Test total. While the batting continues to be a headache even after 13 years, the bowling is as much a problem area. Their spin attack is at the most effective only in home conditions, and save for the highly talented Robiul Islam, the pace attack has done nothing of note in recent times. 

  Having said that, the way Zimbabwe approached this game was highly admirable. Jolted by politics, contract issues and financial crunches, Brendan Taylor’s outfit came out all guns blazing to notch up a win so handsome that even their most optimistic supporters would not have expected. It would not be wrong to say that Taylor himself was the difference between the two teams, as he put back his recent lean patch, producing a stellar performance in scoring twin hundreds on a difficult pitch, further establishing himself as Zimbabwe’s best batsman in the period since the 2004 crisis. Their former bowling coach Heath Streak too needs to be credited for molding the impressive pace trio, with Jarvis specifically looking quite a top-class prospect. More fixtures against higher-ranked teams is the need of the hour for this spirited team. 

  As the second Test beckons in three days, Zimbabwe will be bubbling with confidence, while Bangladesh will need to play out of their skins to avoid yet another tame series defeat.

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IN FOCUS – Bangladesh in Zimbabwe Test series 2013 : Preview

  The 2013 season begins with a short series between the perennial bottom two of Test cricket, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Zimbabwe will be hosting a two-Test series after nearly eight years, and Bangladesh will travel there for the first time since 2003-04.

Zimbabwe-Bangladesh

The Matches

  Both the Tests (17-21 April and 25-29 April) in the series will be played at the Harare Sports Club, a venue where Bangladesh have lost all three Test matches they have played during their three visits to Zimbabwe, the latest being a 130-run defeat in 2011.

Head To Head and Recent Record

  From a total of 9 Tests contested between these two nations, Zimbabwe have triumphed 5 times to Bangladesh’s 1 victory, 3 being draws. Bangladesh’s sole win came in 2004-05 at home, during their first ever Test series win. In Zimbabwe, their record reads 4 losses and a draw. The two teams’ most recent meeting was a one-off Test in Harare in 2011, which the hosts, playing their first Test in nearly six years, won by 130 runs. Prior to that, Bangladesh had won 1-0 at home in 2004-05, which was their maiden series win.

Form Book and Ranking

  Bangladesh are ranked 9th, as always, in the Test Championship table. They gave a tough fight to Sri Lanka in their own backyard recently, impressing in a 0-1 defeat in the two-Test series – they achieved their best Test batting performance as a team in the first Test. A few months back, they had lost 0-2 at home to the West Indies, in spite of a few very good individual feats. They are gradually showing glimpses of strength, but it is high time they start winning Test matches. Zimbabwe are not part of the Test table due to lack of recent appearances. After their positive return to Tests in 2011, when they beat Bangladesh in a one-off Test, they have lost five matches in a row, the most recent being a 0-2 loss in the two-Test series in the West Indies. Politics, contract issues and other off-field controversies are never too far away from Zimbabwean cricket, and this has left their Test showings beleaguered – the in-form Craig Ervine has opted out of this series due to a contract issue and their reliable captain Brendan Taylor’s lack of form will be a worry. 

Players To Watch Out For

jarvisCA    Zimbabwe will hope for a few early strikes from Kyle Jarvis to rattle the visitors (source – cricket.com.au)

  The tall Zimbabwean right-arm fast-medium bowler Kyle Jarvis had a decent outing in the Caribbean, taking 7 wickets in 3 innings, including a five-wicket haul. He had also troubled the Bangladeshis in their one-off 2011 meeting, and can generate speeds above 140 when in form. He is expected to lead an inexperienced home pace attack, and his team will be hoping that he can extract bounce from the dry surfaces. The talented Bangladeshi off-spinner Sohag Gazi has quite impressed in his few Test outings so far, having taken nine wickets on debut against the West Indies. It is rare for Bangladesh to have a quality off-spinner, but Gazi seems to be one in the making and his presence makes a good combination with the traditional left-arm spinners. Zimbabwe recent travails against spin, even of the part-time kind, will ensure that Gazi will be one of the strike bowlers for skipper Mushfiqur Rahim. 

Sohag Gazi     Off-spinner Sohag Gazi will be looking to take advantage of Zimbabwe’s weaknesses against spin bowling (source – bigstory.ap.org)

Prediction

  I do believe Bangladesh, especially with the return of their top gun Shakib al-Hasan, have their noses ahead coming into this series, but at the same time the hosts can be expected to lift their game against their most- favoured opponents in home conditions. I expect a low to moderate-scoring series, and I feel that Bangladesh have a great chance to register their third Test series win, the likely result being a 1-0 victory. 

VIEWPOINT – Versatility, thy name is A.B

  Rewind to five months back, the venue being the Adelaide Oval. Newly crowned Test champions South Africa are in the midst of a much-awaited series in Australia, and a loss there would mean their dream of retaining the mace would be seriously short-lived. The visitors’ much-vaunted bowling attack did not do themselves a favour by hemorrhaging almost 500 runs on the first day itself, and from that point onward, not only were South Africa playing catch-up, but also the prospect of certain defeat was never more than a slight slip-up away.

  What followed was one of the most absorbing contests in recent times, and a memorable fourth innings. Francois ‘Faf’ du Plessis became a sensation on debut, staying at the crease for a little matter of 127 overs, scoring an unbeaten 110 to pull off an unbelievable heist of a draw with two wickets standing. Adelaide was rightfully ‘Faf’s Test’, but the man whom he joined at the crease with the score reading 45/4 (with 29 overs still to go on Day 4 alone) churned out a masterpiece of his own, an innings which was hardly expected from an athlete accustomed to being known as everything from flamboyant to innovative to spectacular. Adjectives you certainly do not want to hear when your team is in the process of attempting an act which could well be the cricketing equivalent of breaking out of Lurigancho.

  But Pretoria-born Abraham de Villiers is no ordinary athlete. Strike rate of 93 in ODI’s? Check. Audacious lap shots? Check. Saving a Test match for your country? Hell yes, check. Even by his own standards of adaptability and flexibility, his knock of 33 at Adelaide was eye-popping. It would not be false to say that even the most ardent of South African fans would have bet on a Day 4 finish, or at the most an early wrap-up on Day 5, when the ‘flamboyant’ de Villiers joined in du Plessis, a debutant hitherto known as a nothing more than a limited-overs specialist.

  De Villiers knew he had to turn to his alter ego to have a semblance of a chance of surviving against a pumped up Peter Siddle and a tricky Nathan Lyon. To make matters worse, there was not the ever-assured presence of Jacques Kallis – who  had been injured – at the other end. De Villiers played the first ball he faced from Lyon calmly in front of short-leg, and had actually got off to a ‘quick’ start, getting his first three runs off as many balls. How long would it last?

Ab+De+Villiers+Australia+v+South+Africa+First+UNKh9FFqdFkl   A.B de Villiers during his uncharacteristic but awe-inspiring vigil at Adelaide in 2012-13 (source – zimbio.com)

  He handled the situation with the classic ‘one ball at a time’ approach. Every ball, and by that I mean each and every ball was meant to be defended. South Africa had certainly no interest in a win, so de Villiers dug in with the increasingly impressive du Plessis at the other end. Deliveries outside off which on any other day would have been slashed ferociously were calmly left alone, again and again. This was attritional A.B instead of attractive A.B. Yet it was actually very pleasing to watch him battle it out against the hardened Aussies, and more so against his own natural flair. He was at last dismissed, 39 overs into the final day (a period where in collected 21 runs), bowled by Siddle when he took a half-stride forward and defended a little outside the line before it went back to rattle his off-stump.

  33 off 220 balls, no fours no sixes (the most balls ever faced in a Test innings without a boundary), staying at the crease for more than four hours and 69 overs. Indeed, ‘Barnacle’ Bailey would have been delighted with that feat. And this, remarkably from a man who is much-feared for his ability to methodically make mincemeat of the best of bowlers in the closing overs of a limited-overs contest. Du Plessis meanwhile remained there till the end, but de Villiers’ contribution could hardly be overlooked.

  If at Adelaide he proved that he is a Test batsman of the highest class, in the next Test at Perth he confirmed that there is possibly no other batsman who could adjust with such effortless ease to the fast-changing circumstances of today’s game, played across various formats, conditions and locations, though his team-mates Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis come close in this regard. Just six days after his amazing vigil, he produced an innings which was a complete antithesis. 33 off 220 to save a Test? Check. 169 off 184 to pulverise the Aussies at the WACA? Check. At times his team’s run-rate in the second innings was more than seven, and it was no surprise that South Africa retained the mace with a 309-run thrashing of a victory against a home side weakened by the loss of their top fast bowlers following the wear-and-tear endured at Adelaide. 

ab-devilliers_2275722b   Always in the thick of things – de Villiers relishes the dual duties of being South Africa’s vital mid-order batsman and wickekeeper (source – telegraph.co.uk)

  Ever since that hard-hearted bail found a way into the great Mark Boucher’s eye in England last summer, South Africa’s wicketkeeping duties have fallen solely on de Villiers. There were lingering doubts as to his ability to handle two key roles – that of the custodian behind the stumps and of a middle-order pivot in front of them. However this extraordinary cricketer has extinguished every single apprehension that ever existed with his continually world-class performances in all formats.

  In the home season against New Zealand and Pakistan, he passed 50 on five out of seven occasions  averaging 78, and also effected 26 dismissals, including 11 (all catches) at Johannesburg against Pakistan, which gave him the joint world-record for the most dismissals in a single Test match. His recent ODI showings have also been remarkable – he has passed 65 five times in his last seven games, averaging close to 90. It seems that the responsibility of handling dual duties – not to mention the ODI captaincy – has even bettered his game, which is not in the least surprising, given his confident, enthusiastic and competitive approach to every match he plays. 

  At the age of 29, de Villiers has already played 85 Tests in an eight-year career – he has not missed a single Test since his debut in 2004-05, this ongoing consecutive run being a South African record – and has also once held the record for the highest score by a South African when he made 278* against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi in 2010-11 before it was eclipsed by Amla’s triple at the Oval last summer. Interestingly  his statistics – averages to be precise – tell a lot of his versatility across formats. He averages 50.5 in Tests, 50.38 in ODI’s, 49.7 in first-class cricket and 49.91 in List A cricket.

  He averages 41 in home Tests, but nearly 56 overseas, which is another indicator of his penchant to score runs just about everywhere, indeed both his double hundreds have come in the sub-continent. As far as calendar year averages go, he has averaged upwards of 47 in Tests every year since 2008, and upwards of 51 in ODI’s every year since 2009. He also holds the Test record for the most innings before a first duck, a run of 78 innings. In 2009 he was nominated as ICC Cricketer of the year and ICC Test Player of the year.

96459EDDF729C6A60D7B95E638AAA   De Villiers launching into the opposition bowlers is a common sight in ODI’s (source – msn.com)

  Be it Tests, ODI’s or T20’s, be it a need to defend or a need to attack, be it a sensational one-handed catch out of nowhere – A.B de Villiers does it all, and does it bloody well. Injury-free Test career? Check. Diving run-out while lying on his stomach? Check. Lightning-quick running between the wickets? Check. Excellent footwork against spin? Check. Slashing cover-drives, unorthodox scoops, classic sweeps, straight hits over long-on.. yes he can do it all.

  This extraordinary cricketer today is certainly the most versatile and consistent in recent times – it is always a delight to watch him in action. And his best years might just be ahead of him. 

VIEWPOINT – A few thoughts on how to protect the game

  A few days back, yet another Test series became a doubtful starter as the West Indian and Pakistani cricket boards failed to reach a decision on the scheduling of Pakistan’s two-Test tour to the Caribbean in July. Lamentably, this will be the second Test series in the Caribbean to be cancelled this year, with Sri Lanka already scrapping their two-Test rubber. Clearly, money talks and it is evident how Test cricket is repeatedly being shabbily treated by those who continue to pay only lip service to the prestigious 136-year old format of the game. Such incidents are a continuing trend ever since the IPL was conceptualised in 2008, with every possible country now coming up with T20 leagues of their own.

  How much ever I dislike the nauseating IPL (due apologies to Ravi Shastri and the rest of his on-BCCI’s-payroll crew), the fact is that it is very popular, at least in India, and it is here to stay at least in the near future. The cricket might be sidelined in this sham of a Twenty20 league, but the fat pay packets to everyone involved – right from players to commentators to columnists – mean that everything else falls second. The truth is that the IPL team owners and ‘scouts’ are least interested in nurturing talent, the only thing they are after are the greenbacks on offer. But with such easy money available for seven weeks, it is little wonder why the players are making a beeline for the tournament, year after year. As a rule, cricketer’s earnings are much lower than other sports-persons, and as long as they are fit to hit around for 20-odd balls or roll their arm over for a couple of overs, the world’s best current and recently-retired stars will continue to get attracted by the league.

  For the public, it is naturally the lure of an entertainment package and the chance to catch up on some action after work that are the factors behind the IPL’s mass appeal. They do not care that much for team loyalties (after all, teams get shuffled after every three years), they forget the scores the morning after, but it is pure enjoyment for them. Thus to be fair, it is filling up the seats in spite of all the flaws attached to it. The key is to shorten this tournament, for the sake of maintaining harmony in the international calendar. The current duration of almost two months is too much for even die-hard IPL supporters.

  A compact, one-month tournament from the middle of April to the middle of May can be a feasible solution. 30 days of this circus will be more than enough, then back to serious cricket please. Ten teams in two groups can play eight games each plus the knockouts, which mean a total of 43 matches over the month’s course – I am sure it will keep everyone happy. Also, English cricketers will be able to play half the games at least and with generally no international cricket played during that period, other nations too can send their players.

C-1  The thrill of Test cricket, as proved by the nerve-wracking draw at Auckland two weeks back, cannot be matched by other formats (source – thenewstribe.com)

  The question then is what about the other T20 leagues, for they too would like to have the best players on board? Such leagues can be incorporated in the international seasons of respective countries. For instance, the first edition of the Caribbean T20 league will be played for almost one month in June-July this year. No harm in that if it will help the low-on-funds West Indian cricket board to strengthen its finances, but the sad part is that Test series are being blatantly called off. Sri Lanka and West Indies have been the biggest culprits in this regard, having called off at least four Test series between them in the past year or so. Also, the Champions League T20 is a flawed and unnecessary tournament which eats into the international calendar like a pest. There is already too much of T20 overkill across the world. 

run-630-140312   There is too much meaningless ODI cricket being played throughout the year, causing unnecessary clutter in the calendar (source – yahoo.com)

  Thus, the need of the hour is to promote and market Test cricket with genuine passion. Session tickets should be uniformly introduced to make the timings more flexible for those who cannot watch an entire day’s play due to time constraints. The young audience should be encouraged to follow Test cricket, because it might be difficult for those hooked on to T20 to enjoy the beauty of Test cricket. Tests should be promoted and marketed well, just like T20 is promoted. 50 overs cricket needs to be phased out gradually, and perhaps the 2019 World Cup should be the last that we see of ODI cricket. Cricket can do better with two formats, Tests for the true connoisseurs and T20’s for those with a short attention span. Further, there is a need for incentives and better contracts to players for playing Tests – the biggest flaw of cricket is that a player earns many times less playing five eight-hour days than he does for throwing his bat around in a three-hour slog-fest. 

      It is true that the cricket boards get a lot of revenue from limited-overs cricket, and as long as Tests and T20’s co-exist peacefully, cricket can only gain. But at the moment, T20 is eating into Test cricket’s territory and the ICC is to be blamed for that, for their FTP is nothing but a joke.

  The soothsayers had said that Test cricket is dying when 50-overs cricket was born. Today they are mulling over the possible death of 50 -overs cricket. Test cricket has survived for 136 long years – if the IPL sustains itself for even 36 years, then that will be an achievement it can be proud of.