IN FOCUS – Three cheers for Team Zimbabwe

  Zimbabwe’s historic 24 run win in the second Test over Pakistan at Harare was not only a great day for Zimbabwean cricket, but also for Test cricket. Besides underlining Zimbabwe’s steady improvement at the top level, the match also provided a gripping duel between bat and ball that only Test cricket is able to offer.

  The fact that the Test was played at the same ground which hosted the first Test just three days earlier, and on a pitch that has seen considerable wear and tear throughout the season, made it all more the commendable and credit goes to the Harare Sports Club ground-staff to prepare a wicket which had something for everyone in spite of the short notice.

  The very possibility of this two-Test series to start as per schedule was in doubt after wage issues dogged its build-up yet again. Even before the one-day series, the Zimbabwean players had gone on strike and it seemed as if cricket in the African nation was on the verge of yet another crisis. But in the very first ODI, Zimbabwe put all that behind them to score a rare win, although they lost the series.

  However, the improvement was there for all to see, and it was a sign that better things were to follow. And as it turned out, amid off-field woes and struggles, Zimbabwe gave a wonderful example of true team spirit to come from behind and square the Test series. Even in the first Test, Zimbabwe were early favorites, but Pakistan’s under-rated veteran Younis Khan denied them a chance, and a familiar second-innings collapse meant that the hosts went down by 221 runs despite controlling most of the sessions.

  In the current scenario of unpaid wages, financial crises and lack of general support, a lesser team would have buckled and surrendered after such a frustrating loss. But this Zimbabwean team genuinely believed that they could be a force to reckon with, and more importantly, playing for the nation came above everything else for them. Captain Brendan Taylor had said that he had turned down county offers and refused to join the walk-out of 2004, just because he wanted to play for Zimbabwe. His inspiring captaincy has been one of the key factors in building this talented team.

timthumb   Zimbabwe celebrate their memorable and well-deserved Test win by 24 runs against Pakistan at Harare, which helped them to draw the series (source – alrasub.com)

  It was sad to learn that Zimbabwe were blanked 5-0 by India early in the season, despite training like never before for that series. However, that loss was not because of a dearth of skills and ability, but because of a mental block which may have stemmed from a general lack of confidence due to the morale-dampening situation surrounding them. Following that series, Zimbabwe’s key fast bowler Kyle Jarvis announced his retirement and shifted base to the more secure confines of the county circuit, thus weakening the team further.

  In the meantime, it was announced that Sri Lanka’s visit to Zimbabwe, scheduled for October, was cancelled due to financial constraints. This meant that the series against Pakistan was Zimbabwe’s final chance of the season to justify the amount of hard work they had put in over the last few months. And right from the limited-overs series, their determination was on display. The same batsmen who were clueless against Amit Mishra were now appearing confident while facing the guile of Saeed Ajmal, regarded by many as the best spinner in business today.

  In the second Test, the senior duo of Taylor and Hamilton Masakadza (who had admirably captained the side in the first Test in Taylor’s absence) came good in the first innings and this rubbed on to their team-mates. But the batsmen still have to become more consistent – it is not often that collapses of 6/76 and 9/82 win you Test matches. Having said that, Tino Mawoyo, Sikandar Raza and Malcolm Waller did churn out valuable knocks at various stages. The biggest positive from this series has been Zimbabwe’s pace bowling department. They showed that Jarvis would not be missed at all, repeatedly rattling Pakistan’s top-order and lower-order with the new ball.

1091916-17352429-640-360  Young paceman Tendai Chatara celebrates a wicket with Richmond Mutumbami. With 5/61, he was Zimbabwe’s hero in the second innings (source – yahoo.com)

  Save for the old warhorses Younis and captain MIsbah ul-Haq, and to an extent, Khurram Manzoor, none of the Pakistani batsmen were able to cope with the accuracy and swing of Tinashe Panyangara, Tendai Chatara, Shingi Masakadza and Brian Vitori. They bowled outstandingly as a unit, ably supported by the spin of Prosper Utseya, even in not-so-helpful conditions and ultimately reaped the benefits of pure hard work and dedication. Panyangara has had a promising comeback, while Vitori and Chatara were rewarded with five-wicket hauls in the historic win. While Vitori – playing his first Test in 18 months – mopped off the visitors’ middle and lower order in the first innings, Chatara – playing only his fourth Test – ultimately bowled Zimbabwe to victory on the final day. 

  As for Pakistan, they do have their batting problems for quite some time now. With the retirements of Younis and Misbah in the near future, they might have a lot to worry about. However, it was more a case of Zimbabwe’s efficiency than Pakistan’s weaknesses that the hosts managed to win the second Test and square the series. All teams go through transition phases, and if given the long rope, the likes of Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Manzoor might well be the future mainstays of the Pakistani top-order. Ajmal was expectedly their best bowler, and his rich haul of 11/118 in the first Test went a long way in subduing the hosts.

  For the record, this was Zimbabwe’s eleventh Test win, and only the fifth over a team except Bangladesh. Also, the 24 run margin was Zimbabwe’s narrowest Test win, and at the same time, Pakistan’s narrowest Test defeat. The last time Zimbabwe beat a top team was in 2001, when they defeated India by 4 wickets, also at Harare. Indeed, the Harare Sports Club has been Zimbabwe’s favourite venue – eight of their eleven Test wins have come here. 

  So what next for Zimbabwe? With the series with Sri Lanka scrapped, their next Test assignment will be at home against South Africa in July 2014. Before that, they possibly only have the ICC World Twenty20 as far as international cricket is concerned. This underlines the continued lack of opportunities for teams such as Zimbabwe and Ireland, while the big boys play among themselves. Will the ICC ever realise the true meaning of ‘spreading the game’ and ‘primacy to Test cricket’? 

  Watching the Zimbabwean team celebrate like they did after the victory was what fans all over the world wanted to see for a long time. Zimbabwe’s earlier Test wins (over Pakistan and India) may have come against stronger teams, but according to me, the win on Saturday might just be the sweetest so far, because the situation today is a lot more different than it was in the late nineties and early noughties – the days when Zimbabwe were at their best. 

  Well done, Team Zimbabwe. Here’s hoping for brighter things to come. 

IN FOCUS – Ireland vanquished by one of their own

  Ireland’s six-wicket defeat to England in the one-off RSA Challenge one-day international at Malahide yesterday was a crystal-clear case of the negative effect that England’s ‘poaching’ is having on world cricket’s leading Associate nation.

  It must undoubtedly have been utterly frustrating for most of the 10000 Irish fans who had gathered at international cricket’s newest ground to watch two of their very own players – England captain Eoin Morgan (a Malahide product himself) and Boyd Rankin – playing significant roles in ensuring a defeat for Ireland. After almost securing a series win over Pakistan in May, Ireland had a golden opportunity to beat England, who were fielding an experienced side. And indeed, they had the visitors on the brink at one stage, having reduced them to 48/4 while defending a healthy 269/7.

571DB6982499502FDEA1CC7E5AEE2  Expectedly greeted by boos when he came to bat, Eoin Morgan was in no mood to offer even an inch to his erstwhile team-mates as he led England to victory (source – msn.com)

  However, Morgan ended up smashing a game-changing hundred, and put on a match-winning 226 runs for the unbeaten 5th wicket along with Ravi Bopara, who added a century of his own. As if playing and captaining against his native country was not enough, he went on to deny Ireland a historic victory and Irish fans a day to remember forever. His 124* was a fine ODI innings no doubt, but the circumstances under which he achieved the feat seemed so very wrong.

  It is high time the ICC takes note of the absurd rule that continues to widen the gap between full members and Associates. After all, this is international cricket, not some random franchise-based league where players can hop across from one team to another based on their whims and fancies. In recent years, besides the Irish players, we have had quite a few cases of players playing for two nations like Dirk Nannes (who played for the Netherlands and Australia), Gavin Hamilton (Scotland and England) and Luke Ronchi (New Zealand and Australia). With the leading Dutch star Ryan ten Doeschate having South African roots, I would not be surprised if he turns out for the Proteas in a few years, given that he last played for the Netherlands back in March 2011. 

  Coming back to yesterday’s match, it was indeed a glorious occasion for Irish cricket. Bright sunshine greeted the enthusiastic Irish fans who cheered every single run scored by their beloved national team. Captain William Porterfield rose to the occasion, with perhaps his best one-day innings. His 112 was the cornerstone of Ireland’s total, which was also helped by some shoddy fieldwork from the Englishmen, debutant Michael Carberry in particular. Irishman Rankin, on his England debut, took 4/46. Then Tim Murtagh (to be fair, this time an English-born playing for Ireland) rattled the English top order to give Ireland a real chance of adding Malahide 2013 to Bangalore 2011. However, thanks to the brilliance of Morgan and Bopara, England maintained their unbeaten ODI record in Ireland.

sports-cricket-IrelandvsEngland_9-3-2013_116587_l         Captain William Porterfield scored a solid century to give Ireland hopes of their second victory over England; alas, it went in vain (source – geo.tv)

  Thus, we had the near-bizarre cases of Ireland losing despite two Irishmen scoring hundreds and an Irishman recording the best bowling figures of the day playing for England. Further, an Englishman returned the best bowling figures for Ireland! The flaws of international cricket can be best proved by the fact that Boyd Rankin took the wicket of Irish No.3 Ed Joyce for the second time in ODI cricket yesterday, and the first time was in 2007 – when Joyce was playing England and Rankin for Ireland.  I doubt whether sports such as football and hockey entertain such incidents of making a mockery of national pride and loyalty. 

    Ireland are as it is playing precious few internationals over full members, and when they do, either their inexperience (against Pakistan) or the unfair eligibility rules of the game (yesterday) goes against them. The solution is simple – Ireland must play a significant number of ODI’s over top teams, both home and away, to ensure that they gain the required expertise for Test status. Hopefully the ICC still remembers the unfortunate case of Kenya, who were the Ireland of international ten years back. We just cannot afford to lose another emerging cricketing nation, especially in today’s scenario where the control of a few financially-strong nations is leading to the game’s detriment. 

    Though the loss was a bitter pill to swallow, Irish cricket can only go up from here. All they need is more and more international games against the top teams and more encouragement from the ICC. Ireland’s growing strength was sufficiently proved yesterday, and to the optimist, even Morgan’s ‘betrayal’ must have been a sign of Irish dominance. 

IN FOCUS – Pakistan in Zimbabwe Test series 2013 : Preview

  This will only be the fourth Test series of the 2013 season, and the second involving Zimbabwe. As expected, it is a two-match series, but thankfully at least it is going ahead after serious doubts of it being cancelled due to the ongoing Zimbabwean players salary issue.

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The Matches

  The short series will consist of two back-to-back Tests – the first at the Harare Sports Club from September 3-7 and the second at the Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo from September 10-14. Pakistan have played four times and won thrice at each of the two venues. Their only loss came at Harare in 1994-95, their very first Test in Zimbabwe.

Head To Head and Recent Record

  Pakistan and Zimbabwe have played 15 Tests against each other since 1993-94, with Pakistan winning 9, Zimbabwe 2 and four games being drawn. In Zimbabwe, Pakistan have won 6 and lost only once in 8 Tests since 1994-95. Pakistan have won their last three Tests against Zimbabwe – the two-Test series of 2002-03 in Zimbabwe by a margin of 2-0 and the one-off Test at Bulawayo in 2011. Zimbabwe’s most recent – and only second – win over Pakistan came at Peshawar in 1998-99, a win which resulted in their first overseas series victory.  

Form Book and Ranking

  Zimbabwe have been understandably below-par since their return to Test cricket in 2011. At the end of the last season, they surrendered meekly to the West Indies away, losing the two-Test series 2-0. At the start of the current season, they crushed Bangladesh in the first Test of a home series, only to lose the the second and manage a drawn 1-1 result. A small positive for the hosts is that irrespective of their performance in the series against Pakistan, they will re-enter the ICC Test rankings table at the 9th rank, one spot above bottom-placed Bangladesh. In spite of having a talented bunch, off-field issues and politics continue to dog them, thus affecting the mental aspect of their game. Their last series win (excluding one-off matches) came back in 2003-04 against Bangladesh.

  Pakistan too have played a disappointingly low number of Test matches of late. In the previous season, they played only two series, and lost both – 0-1 in a three-Test series in Sri Lanka followed by a 0-3 whitewash in South Africa. Their last Test win came back in February 2012, when they memorably blanked England 3-0 in the UAE. Their last Test match and Test series wins overseas came in Bangladesh in 2011-12. Their last away Test match win over a ‘Top-8’ side came against the West Indies at Basseterre in 2011. At the moment though, they are ranked a respectable 4th in the Test table, one point ahead of 5th-placed Australia.

Players To Watch Out For

  The last time Zimbabwe played Pakistan in a Test, in 2011, they had run the visitors quite close in the first innings before a second-innings collapse derailed hopes of an upset. That they could manage to stretch Pakistan was primarily due to opener Tino Mawoyo, who carried his bat for 163* in only his second Test and is a refreshing change from most of Zimbabwe’s batsmen, in the sense he tends to play for long hours with lots of application. He is back from an injury and Zimbabwe will really need his presence at the top to negate the threat of the Pakistani bowling attack. The fact that captain Brendan Taylor may miss the first Test (paternity leave)  makes Mawoyo’s role all the more important.

Tino          The return of opener Tino Mawoyo will lend some much-needed stability to the Zimbabwean top-order (source – deccanchronicle.com)

  Asad Shafiq is turning out to be a dependable No.6 in the Pakistani line-up, and he will be looking to impress further in this series. He had scored a century at Cape Town during Pakistan’s forgettable tour of South Africa in February, and his solid technique lends effective support to the seasoned hands such as captain Misbah ul-Haq and Younis Khan, two batsmen from whom he will most probably take over the mantle of Pakistan’s middle-order lynch-pin once they retire. 

Prediction

  Zimbabwe’s recent improvement in the ODI series notwithstanding, Pakistan are clear favourites to win the series due to their all-round strength. My gut feeling says that Pakistan will take the series 1-0, with Zimbabwe snatching a draw in one of the two Tests. 

IN FOCUS – All set for the biggest game on Irish soil

  Less than 24 hours remain for the start of the biennial one-off one day international between Ireland – my favorite cricket team – and England. England have played in Ireland thrice before, but this time the excitement has been unprecedented.

  The difference between this time and England’s three prior visits to their neighbouring country is that the fixture will be contested at the new stadium in Malahide, also known as ‘The Village’. A sell-out crowd of close to 11,000 is expected for the game, by far the largest ever attendance at a cricket match in Ireland. Ireland’s earlier home fixtures were held at either Clontarf or Stormont, but tomorrow will see a permanent new home of Irish cricket being unveiled, and who better than arch-rivals England to play the inaugural international there.

  Ireland will no doubt be raring to go at the English, who have rankled many an Irish supporter by picking a squad devoid of most big names. However, I believe not much should be read into it, as England’s ODI outfit is quite different from their Test team, and a similar squad will also take on Australia in the forthcoming one-day series. In fact, a full-strength Ireland side have a great chance of beating an under-strength England side, backed by their passionate supporters who will no doubt immerse the ground in a delightful sea of green.

1002529_726261237390552_658059662_n    The picturesque Malahide cricket ground, which will play host to the much-awaited ODI between Ireland and England tomorrow (source – cricketireland.ie)

  What indeed will be most frustrating for Irish fans is the fact that erstwhile Irishman Eoin Morgan will captain the English eleven, which will probably also include the tall fast bowler Boyd Rankin, another Irishman who has embarked upon the dream to play Test cricket for England. It would be really interesting how Ireland’s public at the ground respond to Morgan captaining the old enemy in an international match played at the very place where he learnt his game – the Malahide Cricket Club.

  England have an undefeated record in ODI’s in Ireland, winning all three games in 2006, 2009 and 2011 respectively. Yet, the William Porterfield-led home team know that expectations this time are higher than they were at any other time in the past. In spite of the disappointingly low number of games against top opposition, Ireland have been, by far, the leading Associate nation for the past few years. Coached by Phil Simmons and guided by the dynamic Warren Deutrom of Cricket Ireland, the national team has gone from strength to strength in the limited opportunities they get.

  The past few months have been particularly significant for the growth of Irish cricket. The inaugural inter-provincial championships – played in the three-day format as well as the one-day and T20 formats – have been a success, with many promising youngsters being identified. Finally, Irish cricket have a system by which home-bred players can be supplied to the national team – which is of immense importance, because in all probability, barely a few, if any, from the current squad will be fortunate enough to play Test cricket for Ireland. Over the next few years, the aim should be to develop a top-notch first-class cricket system in the country, which is a prerequisite for Test match status.

  Moreover, Ireland came agonisingly close towards achieving a maiden series win over a full member during their two-match home ODI series against Pakistan in May, which they lost 1-0, securing a tie in the first game, and losing the second – a game in which they allowed Pakistan to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It was only lack of experience that made them falter at the end. Last month, Ireland, not surprisingly, became the first Associate team to qualify for the 2015 World Cup.

huddle-390x285  The spirited Irish team have a great opportunity to beat England in front of a sell-out home ground when the two teams lock horns in the one-off ODI (source – thescore.ie)

  Thus, a new-look England outfit know that they will certainly not have it easy. One only has to go back to Bangalore 2011 – when Ireland stunned a full-strength England side – to know that the hosts have it in them to score yet another victory over major opposition. Paul Stirling has grown to become Ireland’s best limited-overs batsman, and along with skipper Porterfield, Gary Wilson, the seasoned Ed Joyce and the O’Brien brothers, forms a solid batting line-up well-versed with home conditions. On the bowling front, Tim Murtagh and Trent Johnston – who is going to retire in three months and will be looking for a memorable day – form a potent new-ball pair, with support from the wily George Dockrell and John Mooney. It is also possible that all-rounder Eddie Ricahrdson might make his debut, as Alex Cusack is out injured.

  At the same time, England have got a few one-day experts who can be real threats to the Irishmen, most notably Morgan himself, who can be quite destructive with the bat in the death overs. Michael Carberry and Jos Buttler can be equally effective, while in the bowling department, there is the pace of Steven Finn and the spin of James Tredwell. It must be remembered that the last time England played in Ireland in 2011, they won despite fielding a not-so-strong team.

  A victory tomorrow will indeed be a massive boost to Irish cricket, just as the Bangalore victory was two years ago. A new home ground, full house, arch-rivals, a sunny forecast.. there cannot be a better platform for Ireland to defeat the English once again. Actually, it could have been better had Morgan and Rankin played for their home side (imagine their strength in that case), but unfortunately, that is the way world cricket works. 

  Nearly eleven thousand at the ground plus many more throughout the world – Ireland does have a lot of support from the neutrals – will be hoping for another heady Irish win tomorrow. And as an Irish fan since 2007, I too will be praying for the same.