IN FOCUS – Ranji Trophy 2013-14 Preview

  The 80th edition of India’s premier domestic tournament commences today with the first round being played at various venues across the country. There will be quite a few prospects for the selectors to watch out for as India are slated to play six Tests in the coming months, four of them overseas.

News and Transfers

  As far as big names are concerned, India’s most famous cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar of Mumbai will play his last Ranji game in the first round, defending winning captain Ajit Agarkar has announced his retirement, former batsman Ajay Jadeja is set to make a shock comeback for Haryana aged 42 and Saurashtra veteran Sitanshu Kotak will also call it a day after playing his side’s opening game. Key transfers include Ramesh Powar (from Mumbai to Rajasthan) and Bipul Sharma (from Punjab to Himachal Pradesh).

85462    The trophy for which 27 teams will vie for from October 27 to February 2 to be crowned as India’s 2013-14 domestic cricket champion (source – espncricinfo.com)

The Groups and the Teams

Group A – Mumbai, Punjab, Gujarat, Delhi, Karnataka, Orissa, Haryana, Vidharbha, Jharkhand.

  This group seems to be the toughest to qualify from this season. Besides defending champions Mumbai, who will be chasing their 41st title, Group A consists of traditionally strong outfits such as Punjab, Delhi and Karnataka. Punjab were one of the semifinalists last year, while Karnataka had reached till the quarterfinals. Delhi’s campaign will generate extra interest because of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag’s presence – the forgotten duo who were India’s first-choice openers less than a year back. Jharkhand won promotion last season, and it will be interesting to see how they hold their own in this challenging pool.

Group B – Saurashtra, Services, Uttar Pradesh, Railways, Baroda, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan.

  Saurashtra and Uttar Pradesh are the teams to watch out for in Group B, the former having reached the final last year while the latter were the best team in the league stage last season before faltering in the quarterfinals. Having said that, Saurashtra’s performance will largely depend on how often Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja, their two most vital players, turn out for them. Baroda, Bengal and Tamil Nadu are the other contenders from this group, but according to me, the presence of Services will be of the greatest interest. The unheralded team not only won promotion, but also reached the semifinals last season before losing to Mumbai.  Rajasthan, champions in 2010-11 and 2011-12, just missed relegation by a whisker last time, and will be aiming to set things right.

Group C – Hyderabad, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Kerala, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Tripura.

  Hyderabad and Maharashtra were the two teams relegated last time, both having failed to win even a single game outright. With two quarterfinal berths up for grabs from this group, these teams have a great opportunity to attain glory, just like Rajasthan did three years back. One of Assam, Kerala or Andhra Pradesh might just achieve what Services did last season, and the selectors would do well not to ignore this low-key group, especially given the consistent performances of the likes of Parvez Rassol (Jammu and Kashmir) and Sanju Samson (Kerala).

Players To Watch Out For

1) Chidhambaram Gautam (Karnataka)

  27 year-old Gautam has been a Ranji regular for almost five years now, and he has more often than not delivered the goods. Besides being the side’s wicketkeeper, Gautam mostly bats at No.4, a position at which he was outstanding last season, when he tallied 943 runs ( three centuries) at a mind-boggling 117.87 to finish as the second-highest run-getter. Though it seems unlikely that he will be considered for a national spot, he did represent India ‘A’ against New Zealand ‘A’ a couple of months back.  His unbeaten 264 in a must-win clash against Maharashtra last season underlined his ability to soak in the pressure.

Chidambaram-Muralidharen-Ga    Chidhambaram Gautam, the gritty Karnataka wicketkeeper-batsman, will be one to watch out for in the Ranji Trophy this season (source – newindianexpress.com)

2) Shahbaz Nadeem (Jharkhand)

  This 24 year-old slow left-armer from Bihar was only 15 when he played his first class game, and nearly a decade later, he has grown to be one of the leading domestic players from the Eastern part of India. Besides being Jharkhand’s premier spin bowler, he is also the captain of the side. Recently he also captained the East Zone in the Duleep Trophy. His 42 wickets last season helped Jharkhand win promotion, and things will only get more challenging this time around for Nadeem, whose team is pitted against many top teams in Group A. He is being keenly watched by the selectors thanks to his ever-improving performances – he recently played for India ‘A’ at home against West Indies ‘A’ and away against South Africa ‘A’,

3) Mohammed Shami (Bengal)

  In the few ODI opportunities he has got, 23 year-old right-arm medium-fast bowler Shami has been quite impressive with his tendency to bowl accurate lenghts, while at the same time generating speeds in the vicinity of 140 kmph, which is very good for an Indian pace bowler. If he stays fit and continues his recent good form, there could be no reason why he will not be considered for a Test spot in the near future. India’s pace bowling stocks have been ordinary of late (with the exception of Bhvaneshwar Kumar), and giving Shami an opportunity will certainly be a good idea. In tandem with Ashok Dinda, Shami forms a potent pair for Bengal. 

M_Id_411925_Mohammed_Shami     Having already played 12 ODI’s, promising Bengal medium-fast bowler Mohammed Shami will be looking to push for a place in the Test team (source – indianexpress.com)

4) Rajat Paliwal (Services)

  This might seem a surprise pick in this list, but if one looks at the last season, Services had a lot to thank 22 year-old Haryana-born Rajat Paliwal for helping them earn promotion and a dream semi-final spot. His 784 runs at 78.4 (four hundreds) last season earned him a place in the India ‘A’ side for the recent unofficial ‘Tests’ against West Indies ‘A’ and also in the North Zone team for the just-concluded Duleep Trophy, where he scored an unbeaten 106 in the semi-final. With Services among the stronger teams this time around, Paliwal will be expected to shoulder the batting responsibilities once again.

Likely Quarter-finalists

Although it is very early to say, here is my prediction for who could make the quarterfinals this season:

Group A – any three of Mumbai, Karnataka, Delhi and Punjab, Group B – any three of Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Saurashtra and Services (my personal favourites), Group C – Maharashtra, Kerala. 

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IN FOCUS – Pakistan v South Africa (in UAE) Test series 2013-14 : Preview

  South Africa are set to face their first trial by spin since becoming world champions last season when they take on Pakistan in the latter’s ‘home’ territory. Lamentably, this will be yet another series of only two Tests between two top teams. There is no reason why South Africa cannot play three Tests against Pakistan, given that they are the best team in the world for quite some time now.

images (24)

The Matches

  Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium will host the first Test from October 14-18, while the second Test will be played at the Dubai International Stadium in Dubai from October 18-22. The two teams have played each other once each at both the venues, in the 2010-11 two-Test series which was drawn 0-0. Pakistan have never lost at either of the venues – their record is 1 win and 2 draws at Abu Dhabi and 3 wins and 1 draw at Dubai.

Head To Head and Recent Record

  Pakistan and South Africa have played 21 Tests till date, the Proteas winning 11 matches as against Pakistan’s 3, with draws accounting for 7 games. In the UAE, the teams have met twice (2010-11) and both the matches resulted in draws. The combined head-to-head record in Pakistan and UAE is 2 wins for South Africa, one for Pakistan and 6 draws in 9 Tests. Their most recent series was in February this year in South Africa, where the hosts won the three-Test series 3-0. The last time they played in the UAE was in 2010-11, when the two-Test series was drawn 0-0. The only time Pakistan have won a series against South Africa was at home in 2003-04, when they won 1-0 in a two-Test series.

Form Book and Ranking

  Pakistan tumbled from 4th to 6th in the Test Championship table following a 24-run defeat to Zimbabwe away in a series which ended in a 1-1 scoreline. Prior to that, the 2012-13 season saw Misbah ul-Haq’s side lose to Sri Lanka 0-1 in a three-Test series and then get whitewashed by South Africa 3-0, both away. Their last series success came in 2011-12, when they blanked England 3-0 in the UAE.

  On the other hand, Greame Smith’s South Africans, ranked the top team,have gone from strength to strength with the last season bringing 2-0 and 1-0 successes in three-Test series in England and Australia respectively, followed by a clean sweep at home – 2-0 against New Zealand and 3-0 against Pakistan. The Proteas have not lost a series since 2008-09 when they lost 1-2 at home to Australia, and remarkably, they have not lost an away series since 2006, when they lost 0-2 in Sri Lanka.

Players To Watch Out For

Englanmd-will-need-to-dea-007  South Africa will have to overcome the hurdle of Saeed Ajmal’s tricky off-spin on slow tracks if they are to maintain their unbeaten overseas run (source – theguardian.com)

  South Africa have not lost an away series since 2006, but they have yet to prove themselves in the subcontinent. One man who is capable of ending their unbeaten streak is the wily off-spinner Saeed Ajmal. With the pitches expected to turn, Ajmal will be the biggest threat to the world champions. At Cape Town in February this year, Ajmal benefitted from a lesser amount of turn than what is expected in the UAE, and ended up with a match-haul of 10/147 in a losing cause. Thus, this tour will prove how solid South Africa’s star-studded batting line-up is against high-class spin bowling in testing conditions. The last time he played in the UAE, he took 24 wickets in three matches to destroy England. Indeed, his battles with the likes of Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and A.B de Villiers would make for great viewing. 

Jacques-Kallis  The great Jacques Kallis will look to further better his splendid record against Pakistan and his role with both bat and ball will be crucial as always (source – theroar.com.au)

  Jacques Kallis has firmly established himself in the pantheon of cricketing legends, but he would certainly relish yet another go at his favourite opponents. Kallis is by far the leading run-getter in Pakistan-South Africa contests, with 1552 in 17 Tests at 59.69 with 6 hundreds and 8 fifties. The star all-rounder averaged 107.66 in the 2010-11 series in the UAE, and one can expect him to be successful again. Even in the twilight of his glittering career, Kallis remains one of South Africa’s most important performer, both with the bat and ball. The duel between him and Ajmal will be one of the key sub-plots of the series. 

Prediction

  The pitches are expected to be slow and low, yet South Africa’s outstanding pace trio of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel will mostly prove to be a handful for Pakistan’s inconsistent top-order. Taking into consideration South Africa’s superior batting and pace bowling and the nature of the wickets, I predict a 1-0 result in South Africa’s favour. 

Specials – Sri Lanka’s finest Test wins

  Sri Lanka have gone on to become one of the top Test teams since their debut more than three decades back in 1981-82. They almost immediately made an impression, proving that they belonged to the top tier of international cricket.

  Though they have been generally ordinary overseas, playing them in their own backyard is one of the biggest challenges for a Test team. In this post, we look at the Lions’ five most memorable Test match victories, in chronological order:-

1) Beat India by 149 runs, Second Test, Colombo (PSS), 1985

  This was India’s first tour to Sri Lanka. The two teams had earlier played a one-off Test in India in 1982-83, which was drawn. In the first Test of the 1985 series, Sri Lanka came very close to a maiden Test win – they were 61/4 in pursuit of 123 when the match was drawn.

  However, the hosts reserved their best for the second Test at the P Sara Oval, recording a historic first ever Test win (in their 14th match), which also ultimately gave them their first ever series victory as the final Test was drawn.

  Captained by Duleep Mendis, Sri Lanka started off solidly after winning the toss. Their first five partnerships read 74, 95, 60, 99 and 40 as the Indians failed to breach the top-order.

  Wicketkeeper-opener Amal Silva scored 111 while Roy Dias contributed 95, aided by useful knocks from Ranjan Maugalle (54) and Mendis (51). The Indian bowlers fought back through Chetan Sharma (5/118) as the last 6 wickets fell for only 17, leaving Sri Lanka with a total of 385.

  The pace trio of Asantha de Mel, Rumesh Ratnayake (4/76) and Saliya Ahangama (3/59) then rocked the Indian batting, leaving them reeling at 3/3. Kris Srikkanth (64), Sunil Gavaskar (52) and Mohinder Amarnath (60) repaired the damage, but India could only muster 244.

sports-22 pic-2   Rumesh Ratnayake took 9/125 against India at Colombo in 1985, inspiring Sri Lanka to their first ever Test victory (source – thesundayleader.lk)

  With a substantial lead and time running out, Sri Lanka went at nearly four an over on the fourth day before declaring at 206/3. Young Aravinda de Silva made a responsible 75 while Dias chipped in again with 60*, the two putting on 132 for the fourth wicket.

  Set a target of 348, India started the final day on 16/0. On Day 5, the top-order came a cropper again as the home pacemen reduced India from 39/0 to 41/3. They further crashed to 98/7 before captain Kapil Dev salvaged some pride with an innings of 78.

  Kapil was last out at 198, caught and bowled off Ratnayake to spark off jubilation among the Sri Lankans. Ratnayake took 5/49 to finish with match-figures of 9/125. The Lankans then sealed the series with a draw at Kandy a week later.

2) Beat New Zealand by 241 runs, First Test, Napier, 1994-95

  This was Sri Lanka’s first Test win overseas, which culminated in a first overseas series victory after the second match in the two-Test rubber was drawn. Until this series, all of Sri Lanka’s four Test match wins had come at home, and their overseas record read 17 defeats and no wins in 30 Tests.

  After being put in, captain Arjuna Ranatunga (55) rescued his side from 64/5 to a total of 183. Danny Morrison and debutant Kerry Walmsley took three wickets each for the hosts.

  Chaminda Vaas and Pramodya Wickremasinghe then ripped through the New Zealand top-order, reducing them to 6/3.  Only Stephen Fleming and captain Ken Rutherford managed double fugures as New Zealand folded for 109 on the second day, Wickremasinghe taking 5/47.

  Sri Lanka themselves crashed to 22/3 in the second innings, but a strong performance by the middle-order kept them well in control. The reliable Aravinda de Silva scored 62 while Hashan Tillekaratne made 74. The top-score however came from wicketkeeper Chamara Dunusinghe, who struck a patient 91 from number seven to shut out New Zealand.

  Sri Lanka scored 352, setting the hosts a steep 427. The chase began soundly, with number three Mark Greatbatch (46) looking in fine fettle. However, from a safe 108/1, the innings fell apart and New Zealand were dismissed for 185 early on the final day, with the pace-spin duo of man-of-the-match Vaas (5/43) and Muttiah Muralitharan (5/64) ensuring the historic win.

3) Beat England by 10 wickets, Only Test, The Oval, 1998

111857.2     Sanath Jayasuriya’s belligerent 213 set up Sri Lanka for a famous victory at the Oval in 1998 (source – getty images and espncricinfo.com)

  This is probably Sri Lanka’s most memorable overseas win, for they not just beat England away for the first time, but demolished them and convinced them to have more than just a solitary Test in future series with their increasingly improving side.

  Arjuna Ranatunga surprisingly put England in, and Greame Hick (107) and John Crawley (156*) cashed in with centuries to rescue the hosts from 81/3 and lead them to a healthy 445.

  Hick put on 128 for the fourth wicket with Mark Ramprakash (53) while the last-wicket pair of Crawley and Angus Fraser frustrated Sri Lanka by adding 89. Muttiah Muralitharan bowled wholeheartedly to claim 7/155.

  On the third day, opener Sanath Jayasuriya played one of the great innings seen in England, smashing 213 off just 278 balls with 33 fours and a six to demoralise the English bowlers.

  He added 243 for the third wicket with Aravinda de Silva, who himself went on to make 152. De Silva added a further 112 with Ranatunga (51) for the fourth wicket. Helped by a last-wicket stand of 59 between debutant Suresh Perera and Muralitharan, Sri Lanka went on to 591 – a lead of 146.

  England were 54/2 at the start of the final day, but Muralitharan was in his element. The great off-spinner cut through the English batting as he spun a web to record stunning figures of 54.2-27-65-9 (the other wicket being a run-out). 

  England were bowled out for 181, with their best efforts to stick around for a draw going in vain. Set a modest 36 to win, Sri Lanka galloped to 37/0 in five overs to record the victory. Muralitharan’s match return of 16/220 are the fifth-best ever in Test history. 

_48443291_murali2_getty766  Muttiah Muralitharan is cheered on by his team-mates after he returned match-winning figures of 16/220 in the 1998 Oval Test (source – getty images and bbc.co.uk)

4) Beat Australia by 6 wickets, First Test, Kandy, 1999

  This is one of the two home wins in this list, and it came against the world’s best team. Sanath Jayasuriya was the home captain. After electing to bat, Steve Waugh’s Australians crashed to a woeful 60/7, with pace bowlers Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Zoysa (three wickets each) doing the damage.

  Ricky Ponting’s 96 and his 107-run stand with Jason Gillespie (41) for the eighth wicket revived the innings, which eventually ended at 188 with Muttiah Muralitharan picking 4/63.

  In reply, Sri Lanka rode on Aravinda de Silva’s 78 and his 107-run fourth-wicket alliance with Mahela Jayawardene (46) to post 234. Spinners Shane Warne and Colin Miller took 5/52 and 4/62 respectively.

  In a freak incident, when Sri Lanka were 139/3, Steve Waugh and Gillespie collided with each other so badly while trying to catch Jayawardene out, that it broke their nose and leg respectively.

  With the two injured men absent, Australia caved in meekly in the second dig, getting bundled out for 140. Vaas and Muralitharan took three wickets each, while again only Ponting (51) offered resistance.

  Despite a few hiccups thanks to Miller’s three scalps, Sri Lanka easily coasted to victory within three days, reaching 95/4 with the senior duo of de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga remaining unbeaten. Sri Lanka won the three-Test series 1-0, and this remains Sri Lanka’s only Test win over Australia in 26 matches till date.

5) Beat South Africa by 208 runs, Second Test, Durban, 2011-12

  This win – Sri Lanka’s first in South Africa – was quite an astonishing achievement, given that Sri Lanka had failed to register a win in their previous 15 Tests, and had come back from an innings-and-81-runs drubbing in the first Test of this series.

  After skipper Tillekaratne Dilshan called correctly, Sri Lanka’s first innings reached 338 after being 162/5 thanks to a 111-run stand for the sixth wicket between Thilan Samaraweera, who made a gritty 102, and debutant Dinesh Chandimal (58). Another debutant, South Africa’s fast bowler Marchant de Lange, took 7/87.

  Left-arm fast bowler Chanaka Welegedara then enjoyed his best moment till date, taking 5/52, and aided by the left-arm spin of Rangana Herath (4/49), helped bowl out the hosts for 168. Hashim Amla top-scored with 54.

  Sri Lanka were right on top now and built on their position through Kumar Sangakkara (108) and Chandimal (54), the two adding 104 for the sixth wicket. Despite Dale Steyn’s 5/73, Sri Lanka made 279 and set South Africa 450 to win.

  It was never going to be the Proteas’ game though, as they slipped to 133/6. The best efforts of Amla (51) and A.B de Villiers (69) were not enough, as South Africa were bowled out for 241. Herath took 5/79, giving him 9/128 in a memorable performance. South Africa took the series with a ten-wicket win in the third Test.

IN FOCUS – New Zealand in Bangladesh Test series 2013-14 : Preview

  The Test season in the sub-continent is set to begin with the New Zealanders’ tour of Bangladesh, consisting of two Tests. Both these teams, placed in the bottom three of the world rankings, will be looking to prove a point – the Black Caps are seeking a long overdue series win while the Tigers embark on yet another attempt to improve their dismal Test record.

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The Matches

  The series starts with the first Test from October 9-13 at the Zarur Ahmed Choudhary Stadium in Chittagong, followed by the second Test from October 21-25 at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur, Dhaka. New Zealand have played once each at these venues – both during their 2008-09 tour, winning at Chittagong and drawing at Dhaka. During their 2004-05 visit, they did play in these cities, albeit at the Chittagong Stadium and the Bangabandhu National Stadium respectively.

Head To Head and Recent Record

  Bangladesh and New Zealand have played each other in 9 Tests since 2001-02, with the latter winning 8 (5 of them by an innings) and the remaining game being a draw. In Bangladesh, the record reads three New Zealand wins and a draw from four Tests. The most recent encounter between the two sides was a one-off Test at Hamilton in 2009-10, which New Zealand won by 121 runs. The last Test series played in Bangladesh was in 2008-09, when New Zealand took the two-Test series 1-0, winning a close first Test by 3 wickets. New Zealand’s 2010-11 tour consisted only of five one-day matches, which they lost 4-0.

Form Book and Ranking

  As mentioned earlier, both the teams are currently placed in the bottom three of the ten-team Test Championship rankings. Brendon McCullum-led New Zealand are 8th with 79 rating points while Bangladesh, under Mushfiqur Rahim, are 10th with just 10 rating points. New Zealand showed a lot of promise by holding England to a 0-0 draw in the three-Test home series late last season, but this performance was sandwiched between two overseas failures – identical 2-0 sweep defeats in South Africa and in England this summer, though their bowlers impressed in the Lord’s Test. Their last sub-continental sojourn came last season, when they commendably drew the two-Test series in Sri Lanka 1-1. Incidentally, the Black Caps’ last victory in a series of at least two Tests was the 2008-09 success in Bangladesh. 

  Bangladesh’s recent Test form has been mixed – the Tigers amassed their highest Test total in the drawn Galle Test during their 0-1 defeat in the two-Test series in Sri Lanka late last season. However, they were found wanting in seam-friendly conditions at Harare in April, as Zimbabwe condemned them to a massive 335-run defeat. To their credit, they came back to win the second and final Test at the same venue by 143 runs to square the series, achieving only their 4th Test win in as many as 79 Tests. The last time they played at home was against the West Indies last season, with the visitors recording a 2-0 sweep. The fact that their only home Test win came back in 2004-05 against Zimbabwe does not speak well of a team that considers itself competitive in home conditions. 

Mushfiqur-Rahim-Bangladesh-2013_2913072   Bangladesh wicketkeeper-captain Mushfiqur Rahim’s leadership and batting will be crucial if the hosts are to upset the Black Caps apple-cart (source – skysports.com)

Players To Watch Out For

  The diminutive Bangladesh captain and wicketkeeper Mushfiqur Rahim has developed into a mature middle-order batsman of late, providing much-needed support to Tamim Iqbal and Shakib al-Hasan, upon whom the burden of run-making usually lies. Rahim became the first Bangladeshi to score a double-hundred when he made 200 out of his team’s record total of 638 at Galle last season, averaging 82.33 in the series. In the series-levelling win in Zimbabwe, he scored 60 and 93. He will have a huge role to play – as captain, behind the wicket and in front of the wicket – if Bangladesh hope to score a maiden Test win over the Black Caps. 

kane-williamson_2866720   Kane Williamson will have an important role to play in Bangladesh with his batting in the middle-order as well as with his part-time off-spin (source – sportinglife.com)

  23 year-old Kane Williamson has been a key part of New Zealand’s batting line-up since he made a hundred on debut against India in 2010-11, and has shown the required  temperament to bat at the highest level. He likes to play in Asia, as he proved with a vital 135 in New Zealand’s rare win at Colombo last season. He is better than his average of 31.47 suggests, and the tour of Bangladesh will provide him an ideal opportunity to underline his worth to the Test side. His canny off-breaks will also be a factor in the likely spin-friendly conditions and he can be expected to bowl regularly, since Daniel Vettori is absent and first-choice spinner Bruce Martin is not too experienced at Test level.  

Prediction

  Can the Tigers win a first-ever Test against the Black Caps? It can be said that though it is not impossible, the difference between the pace bowling stocks of the two teams tilts the balance towards New Zealand. At the most, the hosts can snatch a draw, as rain is quite likely to come in the picture. In the final analysis, in spite of their ODI reversal three years back and their only warm-up being washed out, a 1-0 victory for New Zealand. 

IN FOCUS – The Afghan fairy-tale continues

  In what has to be the most sensational rise by a cricket team, Afghanistan’s national side has managed to qualify for the 2015 World Cup just fourteen years after becoming an ICC member and seven years after starting in the World Cricket League Division Five.

  Remarkably, most of these cricketers learnt the game in refugee camps in Pakistan after having escaped from the endless war and turmoil that has continually dogged their nation. They do have to thank Pakistan as well for their initial foray into cricket, as it was them who first invited the Afghans to play in the second tier of its domestic cricket in 2001. Even as the country was on tenterhooks with an inevitable US-led invasion looming, the game of cricket was quietly making its presence felt.

56044     The Afghans are cock-a-hoop after defeating Kenya in the final round of the WCL Division 1 in to secure qualification for the 2015 World Cup (source – icc-cricket.com)

  The hard-working and highly talented Afghans took to the game and mastered it quickly, winning their first game in Pakistan in 2003 and later scoring six victories over various county second elevens on a visit to England in 2006. Their first tournament success soon followed, when they shared the 2007 ACC Twenty20 Cup with Oman. A year later, they embarked upon the highly challenging task of entering into the 2011 World Cup qualifiers, a tough ask indeed given that they started off in the WCL Division 5.

  But armed with amazing confidence and determination symbolic with people from mountainous terrains, the Afghans marched on as the world began to take notice. Needing to win the various divisional tournaments that came their way, they did just that. Division 5 was won in Jersey in 2008, followed by the Division 4 title in Tanzania later the same year. In early 2009, their goal of making it to the qualifiers in South Africa was achieved after winning the division 3 title in Argentina. This was a phenomenal achievement in itself, given that there were hardly any proper pitches to play on, let alone grounds, back in the war-torn country.

  In the 2009 qualifiers, Afghanistan defied the odds by almost qualifying for the 2011 event. However they secured ODI status for the first time, and beat Scotland by 89 runs in their first ever international. A team which was playing Bahrain and Singapore just a couple of years ago was now easily defeating established Associate teams. But their biggest success still lay ahead – in late 2010, they defeated Scotland by 7 wickets in the final of the 2009-10 Intercontinental Cup in their first appearance in the first-class tournament. Given that they were the only Affiliate team in the fray, it was scarcely believable. But it had happened, and it seemed as if nothing could stop the progress of this spirited bunch. In May 2010, the Afghans also played their first ICC international tournament – the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean.

8997697     Afghan fans celebrate their country’s World Cup qualification, having watched the game on a screen at the cricket stadium in Kabul (source – calgaryherald.com)

  The cricket world could not ignore the Afghans any longer, and it was not far-fetched to suggest that they had become the 12th-best team in the world, with only Ireland bettering them among non full-members. And mind you, Afghanistan were not even an Associate team, but an Affiliate. This aberration was thankfully corrected in June 2013. Followers from across the globe now were expecting Afghanistan to regularly beat fellow Associates, and they yet again proved their mettle in the period between 2011 and 2013, first qualifying for the 2011-13 Intercontinental final (as defending champions, they will take on Ireland in the summit clash in December) and then realising their cherished dream of securing a World Cup berth for the first time. 

  For the 2015 event, Afghanistan will be placed in Group A alongside co-hosts Australia and New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and another qualifier. With only the top two from the eight teams in the 2011-13 World Cricket League getting automatic qualification, Afghanistan had their task cut out, now that there were realistic expectations from them. After a stuttering start – they won three of their first eight games – they won their next six on the trot, edging out the Netherlands and the UAE after thrashing Kenya twice last week in Sharjah to seal the second automatic spot, the first expectedly going to tournament winners Ireland. From the makeshift wickets of refugee camps to the big stage of a World Cup Down Under. Indeed, a most delightful journey by a team of brave-hearts.

  Their star all-rounder captain Mohammed Nabi, gritty former captain Nowroz Mangal, spunky wicketkeeper Mohammed Shehzad, high-class fast-bowlers Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran, among others, have become the heroes for a nation desperately needing someone to look up to. With their football team also doing well of late, it seems sport is the way forward for a brighter future in Afghanistan.

  It is upto the ICC now to show some rare foresight and allocate more fixtures to Afghanistan – getting them to play the Asia Cup next year would be wonderful idea. As of today, politics, corruption and ego issues on the part of the world’s most powerful cricket board have severely dented the game of cricket. Thus, in such worrying times, the story of Afghan cricket is one that harbours hope.

IN FOCUS – Durham’s third title in six years

  The youngest county in the County Championship added a third title to their cabinet this season, sealing the issue last month with a round still remaining. Durham, who were awarded the status of a first-class county only in 1992 (seven decades since the previous newest team) now boast of a rare three Championship victories in the past six seasons – 2008, 2009 and 2013.

  Durham’s moment of glory came on 19th September in the penultimate round of matches, when they posted a comfortable eight-wicket victory over Nottinghamshire at their home ground of Riverside at Chester-le-Street. Nottinghamshire were blown away for only 78 in their first innings, and despite making a much better 246 in the second dig, they were never going to pose problems to Durham (256 and 69/2) . The champions lost their final round match to Sussex, but that mattered little.

category_image_update_ffac8982584bf551_1379600973_9j-4aaqsk    Durham celebrate after clinching their third Championship title, all of them coming within a span of six years (source – itv.com)

Durham won more games than any other team in either division – 10 as against 4 defeats and 2 losses. Their final points tally came up to 245.5, while Yorkshire, who were looking to many as title favourites throughout the summer, finished second with 221 points. The start for Durham, however, was anything but smooth sailing, as they lost two of their first three matches. But the Paul Collingwood-led outfit overcame the hurdles, not to mention the club’s financial problems and the heart attack suffered by head coach Geoff Cook in July, from which he thankfully recovered soon and went on to oversee a much-deserved win for his side.

  According to Collingwood, the turning point was Durham’s seven-wicket victory over Yorkshire at Scarborough in the last week of August. Beating the table-toppers on their own turf surely was a boost for the team, and they never looked back from then onward. What is pleasing from Durham’s point of view is that the core of the team has always been formed by locally-bred players. An average county might have considered an inability to afford an overseas player as a blow to its chances, but Durham instead relied on its home-grown talent to deliver when it mattered the most.

  Collingwood took charge of the team from Phil Mustard only last season, and he has proved be an inspirational leader. In 2012, his first ten games as captain resulted in seven victories, which ensured that Durham, who were staring at relegation, finished 6th in Division One. ‘Colly’, who with his obdurate batting developed the habit of bailing out England from dire situations in Test matches, will no doubt consider this as one of the major highs of his cricketing career.

Graham Onions in action for Durham   Graham Onions spearheaded Durham’s bowling attack and finished as the highest wicket-taker in the Championship (source – theguardian.com)

  The star performers for Durham were number three Scott Borthwick, opener Mark Stoneman and fast bowlers Graham Onions and Chris Rushworth. Borthwick and Stoneman logged 1022 (at 39.3) and 1011 (at 34.86) runs respectively, making three centuries each. Onions was the best bowler in the championship, claiming the most wickets (70) at the best average (18.45). His strike rate too was outstanding, at 35.9. Rushworth supported him well, taking 54 wickets at 22.5. Another fast bowler, all-rounder Ben Stokes was impressive too, picking up 42 wickets and earning himself a place in the Ashes squad which will tour Australia.

  As for other teams in Division 1, second-placed Yorkshire were also impressive throughout, riding on the form of batsmen Gary Ballance (leading run-scorer with 1251) and Joe Root. Derbyshire (3 wins) and Surrey (1 win) were relegated, finishing 8th and 9th respectively. The two teams which will replace them next season are Lancashire and Northamptonshire, who won promotion from Division 2. Leicestershire were quite woeful, finishing bottom of Division 2 with just 79 points, 70 less than the 8th placed team. They were the only side not to win a single game in the season. 

  Durham’s triumph has signalled that one does not need big overseas names or healthy finances to win the Championship – a committed unit and an experienced captain can be enough. For the record, Durham’s three titles are second only to Warwickshire’s four, in the period since 1992 (when Durham debuted) till date.