Viewpoint – Sri Lanka’s journey an inspiration for Ireland

  As the two-match ODI series between Ireland and Sri Lanka gets underway today, it would be interesting to note the similarities between the cricketing stories of the two nations. Both the Emerald Isles took off rapidly after modest beginnings on the cricket scene.

  Sri Lanka’s ascent to the top tier of international cricket is the perfect motivation for Ireland to break the glass ceiling that pervades the game. Sri Lanka announced themselves in their second World Cup in 1979, when they upset India by 47 runs in their last group match. Test status was duly achieved in 1981-82.

  Soon after, India were at the receiving end of Sri Lanka’s first Test victory as well. Test cricket’s newest entrant claimed the 1985-86 series against India with a 149-run win in the second Test at Colombo. In spite of inconsistency in the ensuing years, Sri Lanka had shown enough prowess to justify their elevation to the longer format.

  In the build-up to the 1996 World Cup, the Sri Lankans had developed into one of the most feared ODI outfits. So much so that they were one of the contenders to lift the trophy. They did not disappoint, as they went unbeaten throughout the tournament, eventually dispatching Australia in the final.

  Led by the astute Arjuna Ranatunga, the island nation enjoyed the finest moment of its cricket history. Sri Lanka were World Cup champions within 15 years of becoming a Test nation. Their quick rise has arguably been international cricket’s biggest success story in the past three decades.

  A combination of sheer talent and passion for the game has translated into a strong cricket culture in Sri Lanka which brings its own flavour to the international game. There is no reason why Ireland cannot grow to a similar level in a short period of time. After all, it was only in 1993 that they were admitted as an Associate member of the ICC.

Sri Lanka's Dinesh Chandimal (L) bats during a One Day International cricket match between Ireland and Sri Lanka at Clontarf Cricket Club in Dublin, Ireland, on May 6, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ARTUR WIDAK

   Sri Lanka’s rapid rise from an Associate nation to World Cup champions can serve as an inspiration for Ireland to reach similar heights (source – AFP/srilankacricket.lk) 

  Over the next decade and a half, they leapfrogged numerous other teams and made serious strides towards cricket’s elite bastion. Their spirited campaign in the 2007 World Cup won them a legion of admirers worldwide. Characterised by their tenacity, Ireland have gone on to beat as many as five full member teams and today stand at the threshold of the holy grail of Test match cricket.

  Ireland have the capability of not just emulating, but even bettering Sri Lanka’s achievements. The spirit of the players is being backed by an extremely efficient administrative body – something which Sri Lanka have lacked for quite some time now – and an increasing commitment to make cricket a mainstream sport in the public consciousness.

  Awarding Test status to Sri Lanka paid rich dividends both for the national team as well as for international cricket as a whole. With South Africa in isolation, the entry of a new team brought a breath of fresh air to the Test circuit which could have become monotonous with just the six teams playing amongst each other.

  The privilege of full membership provided Sri Lanka with the security of being a part of the international calendar. Much of Sri Lanka’s success from the mid-nineties could be attributed to the constant experience they derived by playing the stronger teams after attaining Test status. By contrast, Ireland’s elevation to the highest level has been long delayed.

  In spite of performing beyond expectations in limited chances, the Irishmen have been treated as outliers. There has hardly been any scope for them to hone their skills by playing tougher opposition outside of ICC events. Although things are looking brighter on this front recently, Ireland need much more encouragement from the cricketing fraternity.

  Sri Lanka’s foray into international cricket brought a whole new fanbase to the game and introduced a number of fresh talents who went on to delight cricket lovers across the globe. From the pluck of Ranatunga to the belligerence of Sanath Jayasuriya, from the wizardry of Muttiah Muralitharan to the finesse of Kumar Sangakkara – the variety they brought greatly enriched the game.

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    Ireland have exceeded expectations thus far, defying the parochial attitude of the ICC and also the threat from major sports in the country (source – espncricinfo.com/gettyimages)

 Ireland have the potential to bestow upon Test cricket their own vibrant brand. The fact that the Irish players have come thus far by defying the parochial attitude of the ICC as well as competition from the major sports in the country speaks volumes of their determination.

  They could well become the next Sri Lanka in terms of talent or the next New Zealand in terms of optimum utilisation of limited resources. A two-division Test structure is being mulled by the ICC and it remains to be seen how beneficial it will be for the Associate nations.

  Ireland are head and shoulders above the rest in the ongoing Intercontinental Cup, with a full 60 points from three matches. Test cricket is in dire need of novelty and a team like Ireland ticks all the boxes. However, they may have to wait for at least two more years.

  With most of Ireland’s golden generation in the last lap of their careers, the next few years will be crucial for the development of the national team. The Inter-Provincial Championships have been a boon for nurturing the next batch of Irish hopefuls. The likes of Andrew Balbirnie, Stuart Poynter, Craig Young and Barry McCarthy are set to take the Irish challenge into the next decade.

  The curtailment of the number of teams for the 2019 World Cup means that Ireland have to be at their best if they are to qualify for the tournament. Zimbabwe may be regressing of late, but Afghanistan have grown to become a potent limited-overs force. With the competition at the foot of the table intense, Ireland need to be at the top of their game.

  It would not be far-fetched to say that as long as Ireland keep on punching above their weight, they stand a realistic chance of winning a World Cup in the next ten to twelve years. They need to look no further than Sri Lanka’s successful cricketing journey for inspiration.

Viewpoint – Cricket would do well to take a few lessons from rugby

  The eighth edition of the Rugby World Cup is underway, having kicked off at the iconic Twickenham stadium on 18th September. The tournament will go on for six weeks and will feature 48 matches to be played in England and Wales.

  As has been the case since 2003, 20 nations divided into four groups of five each are taking part in the quadrennial event. The defending champions are the New Zealand All Blacks, who won their second title on home soil by defeating France in a gripping final in 2011.

  I admit that I am far from fully understanding even the simpler rules of rugby, but as a cricket fan, it is interesting to draw comparisons between the two games. Both cricket and rugby can be said to be played by a similar number of top tier nations and the reach of the game in both cases is very much alike.

  Rugby’s traditional top eight consisting of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France can be equated with cricket’s very own top eight. Argentina in rugby can be considered at a similar level to Bangladesh in cricket – both evidently on the rise.

  Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Japan may correspond with Zimbabwe, Ireland, Afghanistan and Netherlands. Yet in spite of the analogies, the existing situation regarding the game’s growth could not have been more different in the two cases.

  While rugby is looking to spread its wings beyond the traditional strongholds, cricket on the contrary is leaving no stone unturned in maintaining its closed-shop status quo. 

  One of the reasons I will be closely following the Rugby World Cup is that it will be a true spectacle of how a purported global sport ought to showcase itself on the world stage.

  Of the 20 participating teams, no more than six can be considered as true title contenders. But that has not stopped World Rugby from striving for fair inclusion of the lower-rung nations, unlike the hollow, hypocritical ICC.

  Especially in the past few years, the International Cricket Council has time and again disgusted cricket lovers with their short-sighted and greed-driven decision-making. The absolute control of the board is now in the hands of the so-called ‘big three’ of India, England and Australia.

  Commercialism and broadcasting interests have taken complete precedence over the game’s larger benefit. Power-crazy politicians at the BCCI have managed to reign supreme over the cricketing world.

  With the other two bigwigs, namely England and Australia, now firmly part of their cartel, almost every decision at the ICC is taken keeping in mind India’s vested interests.

  At the other end of the spectrum, the non-Test nations continue to get a raw deal and their existence is almost immaterial to the men who unfortunately run the game we love.

  Just a couple of months ago, the ICC confirmed that the 2019 World Cup will consist of just ten teams. Seldom has such an atrocious decision been taken in international sport.

  Shockingly, on the other hand, we are reminded about how the ICC is committed towards the development of the game and how ‘meritocracy’ is the central theme of everything it does.

  It is almost as if they are deriving sadistic pleasure in making a complete mockery of the millions of cricket lovers who want their game to spread to far-flung corners. Truth be told, being a cricket fan has never been more embarrassing.

zzzwekos       Lots to learn : English cricketers Chris Woakes and Tim Bresnan play a game of rugby during practice in Australia in early 2015 (source – gettyimages)

  With the Rugby World Cup beckoning, one cannot help but feel envious of how World Rugby is managing its sport. If cricket is to become a global game in the true sense, rugby can well serve as an inspiration on many counts.

  In my opinion, the following five facets aptly underline the stark difference between the attitude of cricket administrators and their rugby counterparts. These are the areas where cricket is severely letting itself down, and I have attempted to describe how the ICC should take a leaf out of rugby’s book in order to win back the faith of many of the game’s genuine followers.

1) World Cup qualification and hosting

  In every Rugby World Cup tournament, the top twelve teams, i.e the top three teams in each group, get direct qualification into the next World Cup. In the four-year period in between, every other member nation gets an opportunity to take one of the remaining eight spots available through a structured qualification process.

  There are 102 member nations under World Rugby at present and each of them have a fair chance of moving up the rankings and strengthening their case for World Cup qualification. The ICC has an almost similar number of members – 105 to be precise – but there is no fixed criteria of gaining qualification. 

  While World Rugby at least merits teams that finish in the top twelve in every tournament, the ICC ensures that the ten full-member nations get automatic qualification irrespective of their preceding form or position at the previous World Cup.

  To take but one example, Ireland finished higher than England at the 2015 World Cup, but that will count for absolutely nothing as far as the farcical 2019 edition is concerned.

  Furthermore, the majority of the 105 ICC members have no scope whatsoever to qualify for the World Cup. The World Cricket League is limited to a maximum of 40 nations, leaving the remaining members in the lurch.

  The need of the hour is to develop a region-based, divisional World Cup qualification system in every four-year cycle which would include each and every ICC member team except the hosts – whether full member or not – and would provide a fair chance to all teams irespective of their ranking and ‘status’.

  As it stands, the top eight ranked teams on the cut-off date of 30th September, 2017 will gain automatic qualification for 2019, leaving the have-nots to grapple with the ninth and tenth-ranked teams to decide the remaining two spots.

  To top it, there is a serious dearth of fixtures for the non-Test nations, meaning that they are not even getting a reasonable chance to prove their worth on a consistent basis.

  In line with promoting the growth of the game, emerging nation Japan has been given the privilege of hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup. As I was writing this, Japan scored one of the greatest upsets by defeating two-time winners South Africa in their opening match, and they might well be a frontrunner when the Cup comes to home soil.

  On the other hand, India will be hosting the 2023 ICC World Cup all by itself, with not even a single match allotted to the likes of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Similarly, Ireland and Scotland were ignored while giving England the rights for 2019.

  Giving World Cup matches to Ireland and Scotland could have provided a big boost to the growing cricket scene in the two countries – but the ECB of course would have none of it.

2) Number of teams in the World Cup

  As mentioned above, the ICC has callously finalised that there will be no more than ten teams at the 2019 World Cup in England. This is a drastic reduction from the 14 teams included in the 2011 and 2015 editions, which in turn was reduction from 2007, when it had a record 16 teams.

  But since bullyboys India were knocked out in the group stage of the 2007 World Cup, the BCCI whinged, flexed their muscles and managed to influence the changing of the format in 2011.

  The initial plan was to have a ten-team Cup in 2015 itself, but the ICC had to backtrack after protests stemming from Ireland’s historic win over England in 2011. However this time around, the cronies and their stooges at the ICC have had their way – ostensibly at the behest of the ECB.

  Without the slightest of concern for thousands of budding youngsters aspiring to play for their nation at the highest level, they have literally shut the door for the Associate and Affiliate members. And this in spite of a highly creditable collective performance from the four Associates in the 2015 World Cup.

  The general justification for reducing the number of teams is that the World Cup should only have the best teams and that the level of competition should not be compromised. Whatever happened to the romance of an upset? Or to the oft-repeated claims of ‘meritocracy’?

zzzjap      Japan created a major upset by stunning South Africa in the ongoing Rugby World Cup. World Rugby has given the emerging nation hosting rights for the 2019 edition (source – deadspin.com)

  The argument falls flat on its face when one considers the fact that had it not been for a few thrillers involving Associate teams, the 2015 World Cup would have been pretty much a drab affair. This goes to show that the real reason behind the actions of the ICC is nothing but the avarice and insecurity of the ‘elite’.

  Thus there is a very strong possibilty that there will not be a single Associate team in the 2019 World Cup. The two-fold motive of the ten-team round-robin ‘World Cup’ is to pander to the broadcasters and to ensure that India gets a minimum of nine matches.

  In the same year that rugby will proudly showcase its inclusiveness, cricket will serve as a pathetic endorsement of how the lure of the greenback has no limits whatsoever and how the fans – the biggest stakeholders of the game – can be repeatedly taken for a ride.

  The contrast between the two will grow even further come 2023, if a proposal to increase the number of teams in the Rugby World Cup to 24 is finalised. If not that many, a proper World Cup in a sport such as cricket needs to have a bare minimum of 14 teams and preferably 15 to 16 teams. Anything less than that is akin to a travesty.

3) World Cup format

  The 2019 ICC World Cup will feature the ten teams playing each other once in a long-drawn league phase. While the number of teams have been reduced, the number of days will actually be three more than were in the 2015 edition – yet another fact that exposes the sheer hypocrisy of the ICC.

  In my opinion, a rugby-style format featuring 15 teams will best suit a true cricket World Cup. In the format that I am suggesting, there shall be three groups of five teams each, which means each team shall play four group matches and a total of 30 group matches to be played.

  A hypothetical example would read as follows: Group A – Australia, Pakistan, West Indies, Afghanistan, Scotland; Group B – India, South Africa, England, Zimbabwe, UAE; Group C – New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ireland, Papua New Guinea.

  The top two teams from each group and the two best third-place finishers shall contest the quarterfinals, which shall be followed by the semifinals, a third-place playoff and the final.

  A total of 38 matches with a maximum of seven for one team – the same as in rugby and football World Cups. On paper, what is not to like? It will be a crisp, compact and competitive tournament which will hold the attention of followers till the very end.

4) Abolishment of ‘status’

  Between November 2008 and November 2014, the Cyprus rugby team quietly notched a new world record by winning 24 consecutive Test matches. Interestingly, Cyprus is not even a member of World Rugby and hence neither do they feature in the rankings nor are they eligible for World Cup qualification.

  Yet, in spite of this apparent unfairness, every match that Cyprus plays against another nation is a full-fledged international Test match. There is no bias depending upon the ranking or infrastructure of any particular nation. Every match played with the prescribed rules between two nations is a Test, as it ought to be.

  Again, cricket fails miserably in his regard. A vast majority of matches involving two nations are not even classified as ‘first-class’ or ‘List A’ (official domestic matches), let alone as official internationals.

  It is ludicrous that Test match cricket remains the privilege of less than ten percent of the total ICC membership. The imperialistic status-based bifurcation is a gross injustice to the countless number of players who do not enter the international record books despite playing for their country.

  The scenario with ODI cricket is hardly any better, with only 16 teams eligible to play this format at any point of time. Cricket is the only sport where most matches involving two nations are not counted as official international matches, which is an absurd logic to say the least.

   To take the example of Cyprus in rugby – of course they achieved their record streak while playing against teams of a similar level. But every match was played in accordance with the international rules and hence were rightly considered for the record books.

zzzzirish     Ireland have been treated highly unfairly by the ICC – be it through restricted chances of World Cup qualification or denial of Test cricket (source – sportinglife.com)

  Likewise, every cricketing nation should be eligible to play an official international match in any format against any other nation. I cannot see the problem here – for instance, no one is compelling Australia to play Vanuatu or India to play Malaysia.

  However, why should there be a restriction on the officiality when say, Vanuatu play against Malaysia? At the end of the day, a country v country fixture in any format should be nothing less than an official international, as long as the standard international regulations are followed.

  Thus in an ideal world, the tags of ‘full-member’, ‘Associate’ and ‘Affiliate’ ought to be done away with. There is no question of ‘diluting the record books’ as any two countries ought to be given the right to arrange a match between themselves and call it an ‘international’, just as in rugby.

5) Regional rivalries

  The premier rugby nations indulge in highly-anticipated regional battles every year. While the European sextet of England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and Italy contest the Six Nations, the Southern hemisphere quartet of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina challenge each other in the Rugby Championship.

  These tournaments have gone on to create a healthy regional rivalry among the nations and thus there is a huge amount of relevance attached to these fixtures. Unfortunately the regional rivalry aspect has rarely been taken seriously as far as cricket is concerned.

  In limited-overs cricket, the Asia Cup is perhaps the only exception. In Test cricket, Australia and New Zealand face each other far less than they ought to. Due to political reasons, India and Pakistan have not played against each other for quite some time.

  In the absence of regional contests, Test cricket is slowly becoming one-dimensional. England v Ireland in Test cricket is an exciting prospect, but Ireland are being made to go through hurdle after hurdle to attain their much-deserved chance to play at the highest level.

  While a regional tournament is not feasible for Test cricket, it can certainly suit the ODI format. Annual continental tournaments would go a long way in creating much-needed relevance to limited-overs cricket.

  An Asian Championship involving India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and a qualifier; an Austral-Afro Championship involving Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and a qualifier and an Euro-Rica Cup involving England, West Indies, Ireland, Scotland and a qualifier would be a welcome development.

  Keeping in mind the existing state of affairs, all of the above points obviously seem way too far-fetched. However, small steps can be surely be taken, if – and it is a very big if – the ICC do plan to actually care for the game’s development in the near future.

  For starters, how about continuing with the current World Cup format? Or awarding Test status to Ireland as early as possible? If the ICC indeed wish for cricket to be a global sport, they must stop their nauseating hypocrisy and get their act together.

  As the above comparison suggests, rugby’s model of success can serve as an ideal template in more ways than one.

VIEWPOINT – Time to get our World Cup back

  With the utterly callous decision of reducing the number of teams to just ten in the 2019 World Cup finalised, it is now or never for the Associate nations to show what they are capable of. It is time for them to give a performance so strong that it mortifies the ICC and sparks a public backlash against this appalling injustice.

  Never has the bias between full members and Associates been so blatant, as evidenced by ICC CEO David Richardson’s admission that ODI fixtures cannot be guaranteed to Ireland and Afghanistan to enable them to qualify for 2019. The cosy coterie of the ICC has repeatedly proved over the last year or so that they are the most extreme breed of hypocrites, and that there is no end to their rapacity once their selfish interests begin to develop.

  The myriad statements from Richardson, promising ‘development’ and ‘meritocracy’, makes one wonder whether this man – a former South African cricketer himself – is for real. It is quite clear that he is merely a stooge employed by the power brokers who keep finding new means to stifle and stagnate the growth of the game. The perplexing ways of those who purport to be custodians of the game are abhorrent and laughable at the same time.

  It is amid these uncertain times that four Associate nations will begin their 2015 World Cup campaign. Ireland, Afghanistan, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates come into the tournament with their very future on the line for no fault of theirs. It is this quartet of teams that will carry the hopes and expectations of cricket lovers and players across the non-Test world.

  The sanguine Nepali kid who is looking forward to watch Sompal Kami blast batsmen out in a World Cup someday. The gritty Irish youngster who dreams of playing a Test match at Lord’s. The promising Nigerian amateur who strives to push his team higher up the ladder. The average cricket lover, who wants to see his favourite sport spread to every corner of the world. All of them will be fervently hoping for an unprecedented collective success of the Associate teams in the Antipodes.

zfgh   A young boy plays cricket in war-torn Afghanistan. Despite their remarkable rise, the Afghan team continues to get a raw deal from the ICC (source – afghan cricket board/twitter)

  For the next one month, the likes of Kevin O’Brien, Mohammed Nabi, Josh Davey and Khurram Khan will be their beacons of hope. Our beacons of hope. Any genuine well-wisher of the game anywhere in the world would have considered the acts of the ICC as deplorable.

  When you realise that the governing body of the sport you love is actually trying to prevent it from growing, you feel cheated and helpless. You want to put your point across but there is no one to listen. Because they only listen and gravitate to money and power.

  Had it possibly not been for Ireland’s historic win over England in the 2011 World Cup, the 2015 World Cup itself would have been shorn of Associate nations. This time around, there will be a similar motivation for all the four teams to give their best and serve a reminder to those who are destroying the soul of the game. The warm-up matches gave an indication that they are not here just to make up the numbers.

  While not much should be read into the warm-up results, Scotland and Ireland showed gumption in their performances. Scotland thumped the Irishmen easily, who in turn bounced back and saw off Bangladesh. Scotland also nearly chased down 313 against the West Indies, falling just three runs short. Afghanistan’s batsmen set out to bat 50 overs against India and achieved that goal. UAE themselves fell only 14 runs short against Afghanistan.

  It can be said with reasonable conviction that Ireland, Scotland and Afghanistan all stand a decent chance of entering the quarterfinals. The latter two are placed in Group A, where they can take advantage of an inconsistent Bangladesh, an off-colour Sri Lanka, and an unfancied England. 

  Ireland, who are in Group B, will consider each of the West Indies, India and Pakistan – three teams not going through the best of patches at the moment – as potential targets, besides Zimbabwe, who will be looking to cause a few upsets of their own. 

  Who does not like to watch the Associates in action? Asif Karim’s mesmerising spell against Australia in 2003, John Davison’s barnstorming hundred against the West Indies the same year, Dwayne Leverock’s mind-boggling catch against India in 2007, a pink-haired Kevin O’Brien’s celebratory roar against England in 2011… these are memories which warm our hearts and make our bond with the game deeper.

  Unfortunately, the powers-that-be are hell bent on depriving us of such moments in the future. Moreover, at a time when the Associates need an outpouring of support from established names in the game, we are greeted with pathetic statements from the likes of Ian Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar and VVS Laxman.

  These three former cricketers, who are greats in their own right, are so far away from reality despite having played the game at the highest level that they publicly criticised the very presence of the Associates in the World Cup recently. Just like Richardson, they have proven to be apologists. Gentlemen, you have let us down.

zzaw     Action from an ODI match between Ireland and Scotland in Dublin last year. Both teams can be expected to make an impact in the 2015 World Cup (source – cricketireland.ie)

  First, they are deprived of opportunities. Then they are treated shabbily and are told they are no good. They are ridiculed as ‘minnows’. And now they are being effectively told to keep themselves out from the only meaningful large-scale tournament they get to play in. Yes, this is how cricket treats its emerging nations.

  All of this reeks of insecurity on the part of most of the full members. Besides the obvious commercial factor, there is also the element of fear. England are scared of Ireland’s progress. India are scared of the competition from newer markets, so that their iron grip is not loosened. Bangladesh are scared of yet another defeat to a team ranked lower than them.

  The Associate action in the World Cup begins on February 16th when Ireland take on the West Indies in Nelson. This match could very well set the tone – it is Ireland’s best chance to beat a ‘top-eight’ nation, and a positive result here will not only strengthen their chances of proceeding to the knockouts, but also galvanise their fellow Associates to dream big and bring down reputations.

  It is time for cricket lovers the world over to get behind the Associates. We as fans are the biggest stakeholders of the game and we must let it be known that the World Cup is our tournament.

  And we would like to have a World Cup in its truest sense, not the travesty which has been so shamelessly approved by a few nincompoops hungry for short-term gains. We must realise that a whole new generation of cricketers from the world over will be lost to the game if this comes to pass.

  It is heartening to know that quite a few of the World Cup matches involving Associates have been sell-outs or near sell-outs. Let us come out in numbers, be it to root for the underdog in the stadium or voicing our opinions on various platforms. Let us do the best we can to create awareness among the larger cricket fraternity.

  Let us send a message to the pig-headed N. Srinivasan and his cronies that our voice and our words are more powerful than their bank balances. That our love for the game is worth many times more than their greed for the greenback. Let us all get behind the Associates this time, it doesn’t matter from where we belong. 

  Let us not be taken for a ride.

  Let us get our World Cup back.

VIEWPOINT – Wellington victory exhibits Black Caps’ new-found resolve

  For the second time in less than a year, the Basin Reserve was witness to an astounding fightback by a tenacious New Zealand side. Finding themselves in another backs-to-the-wall situation, the Black Caps produced one of the best performances in their history to win the series against Sri Lanka.

  Last February, captain Brendon McCullum and wicketkeeper Bradley-John Watling had combined to add a record 352 runs for the sixth wicket to guide New Zealand – who were staring at certain defeat – to a scarcely believable draw against India, a result which sealed the series in their favour.

  In honour of this feat, a plaque was laid at the Basin Reserve on 2nd January this year. Little did they know that the record would be bettered just four days later at the same venue.

  Against Sri Lanka, New Zealand were in a very similar situation to the one they faced against India. Just like last year, they were inserted on a green-top. After getting dismissed for a below-par 221, their fast bowlers had Sri Lanka on the mat at 78/5.

  Kumar Sangakkara then produced a glorious innings of 203 which gave his team a real chance to square the series. Trailing by 135 on the first innings, New Zealand slipped to 159/5 in the second session of the third day. Effectively they were five down for 24, with more than seven sessions still remaining.

  At this juncture, Watling – who is arguably the pluckiest Test cricketer in the world at the moment – joined Kane Williamson in the middle. Ever since he scored a hundred on Test debut four years ago, Williamson has been touted to be a future New Zealand legend. Just 24 years of age, he can possibly go on to become the country’s greatest ever batsman. This was a ripe scenario for him to live up to that billing. And he could not have asked for a better partner than Watling.

New Zealand v Sri Lanka - 2nd Test: Day 4    Another one for the record books – Kane Williamson (left) and B.J Watling both made career-best scores as they stitched a record partnership (source – pakistantoday.com.pk)

  Over the course of the next 111.3 overs, Williamson (242*) and Watling (142*) went on to instill a feeling of deja vu in the Wellington crowd. Not only did they break the record by churning out an unbeaten 365 for the sixth wicket, but they also scored the runs at a pace good enough for McCullum to declare late on the fourth day.

  On the final day, the stunning turnaround was complete as the bowlers, led by the ever-improving off-spinner Mark Craig, secured a 193-run victory which will undoubtedly one of the sweetest experienced by New Zealand. It has been a rare dream run for New Zealand since the last one and a half years, a period during which they have won four and drawn two of the six series played.

  This team has the capability to better the feats of the class of the 1980s, when the side boasted of the likes of Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, John Wright and Ewen Chatfield. In 1985-86, New Zealand attained the peak of their cricketing prowess when they won back-to-back three-match series against Australia – a 2-1 victory away and a 1-0 success at home.

  New Zealand are scheduled to play home and away series against Australia in the 2015-16 season as well. On current form, it will be no surprise if they manage to emulate the feat of their countrymen achieved thirty years ago. Under McCullum, the team has discovered a zeal for the longest format seldom seen in recent times. Be it the memorable series win against India, the thumping series-levelling win against Pakistan in the UAE or the whitewash of Sri Lanka, the Black Caps have shown great resilience in bouncing back from sticky situations.

  Never before had New Zealand recorded five Test match wins in a calendar year before they did it in 2014. In that year alone, they bettered the national record for the highest team total twice, first scoring 680/8 against India at Wellington and then surpassing it with 690 against Pakistan at Sharjah later in the year.

  Players like Craig, Tom Latham and James Neesham have eased into Test cricket with weighty performances. The batting is no longer dependent on Ross Taylor – the brilliance of McCullum and the consistency of Williamson has made the middle-order stronger than ever before.

  In January 2013, discord in the team coupled with poor displays on the field had left New Zealand reeling at the eighth position in the Test rankings. The lowest point came against South Africa at Cape Town where they were shot for 45 in the first innings.

zcalp       The Black Caps celebrate after beating Sri Lanka in the second Test at Wellington to win the series 2-0 (source – radionz.co.nz)

  The first signs of renaissance came when they held England to a 0-0 draw at home a couple of months later. The win against India last year confirmed that they were indeed becoming a force to reckon with, and today, the massive improvement is testified by the jump to the fifth spot in the rankings. Only five points now separate the Black Caps and third-placed England.

  Besides the initiative shown by the batsmen, another chief factor in New Zealand’s recent surge has been the presence of a world-class pace battery. Tim Southee and Trent Boult are arguably New Zealand’s most formidable pair of fast bowlers ever, and their propensity to generate appreciable swing makes them dangerous both at home and overseas.

  Neil Wagner and Doug Bracewell – star of the famous Hobart win in 2011-12 – add great variety to the attack. And we have not even mentioned the exciting trio of limited-overs pacemen, namely Mitchell McClenaghan, Matt Henry and Adam Milne.

  It is heartening to see the current state of New Zealand’s Test team and also the way they go about their business in an unassuming manner. In ODI cricket too, they have put together an efficient side which, as co-hosts, has a wonderful chance to create history by winning the World Cup for the first time this year. The public has begun to warm up to the Black Caps due to their Test performances, but a World Cup win can take the interest in the game to another level altogether.

  For a sport which has always been overshadowed by the mass appeal of rugby union, cricket in New Zealand has historically had to be content with a limited player pool. Hence, the relative riches at present are a strong indication that things can only get better from here on.

  Credit needs to be given to head coach Mike Hesson and bowling coach Shane Bond for transforming the side into a resourceful unit. The gumption New Zealand have shown of late and the meaningful contributions by all the team members at various times is evidence of the cohesiveness and camaraderie in the Black Caps camp.

For the benefit of international cricket, it would be great if New Zealand go further up the ladder and become a world-beating force in the next few years.

  And if the Wellington victory is anything to go by, the best days in New Zealand’s cricket history may just be around the corner.

VIEWPOINT – Ireland can pack a serious punch Down Under

  Ireland have named their 15-man squad for the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand next month. The squad will be the same as the one which is currently in the United Arab Emirates for a triangular series with Afghanistan and Scotland.

  A look at the squad suggests that coach Phil Simmons has gone for a nice blend of proven experience and promising talent. Five players from the squad – including captain William Porterfield – will be playing their third World Cup whereas six players will be making their maiden appearance in the tournament. Having missed out on a quarterfinal berth in 2011, Ireland will be desperately looking to make the knockouts this time around.

  On paper, the Irishmen look capable enough to produce the best performance in their World Cup history. Most of the members in the squad have sharpened their skills on the English county circuit, and others have benefitted from the increasingly professional domestic system back home. Ireland are clubbed in Group B with defending champions India, two-time winners West Indies, 1992 champions Pakistan, South Africa, Zimbabwe and UAE. In order to make the quarterfinals, they will need at least three wins from six matches.

  On the batting front, Ireland possess a strong line-up which can flay the best of bowling attacks on any given day. Paul Stirling has established himself as one of the most dangerous openers in limited-overs cricket, and has already scored five hundreds in his 47-match career, besides having maintained an excellent strike rate of 94.05. Two of his hundreds have come against a full strength Pakistan side. If Ireland are to aim for big totals on the board, Stirling’s performance will be of great importance.

ziret      If Ireland are to put up big totals in the World cup, a lot will depend upon Paul Stirling (left) and Ed Joyce (source – cricketgames.blogspot.com)

  Skipper Porterfield himself is a solid and dependable opener, and has previously churned out gritty knocks in World Cup matches, such as the match-winning 85 against Bangladesh in 2007 and the purposeful 75 against India in 2011. He reserved his best ODI display for the historic Malahide ODI against England in 2013, where he scored 112. ‘Purdy’ has proved to be an exemplary leader of the Irish team, and this will be the second time he will lead the country in a World Cup.

  Besides Stirling and Porterfield, the talented Andrew Balbirnie is another opening option. He earned his call-up following a barnstorming 129 off just 96 balls against an international-strength New Zealand A outfit at Dubai in November, and is one of the up-and-coming Irish batsmen earmarked for the future.

  The fulcrum of the Irish line-up will be Ed Joyce, who enjoyed a magnificent county season for Sussex in 2014. The vastly experienced southpaw already has an ODI hundred in Australia – he made 107 while playing for England at Sydney in 2006-07. He had an ordinary 2011 World Cup, where he scored 176 runs at an average of under 30. This time, he will be looking to make amends and he can be expected to be a consistent performer for the Irishmen.

  The O’Brien brothers have been an indispensable part of the Irish cricket side for the last decade, and it will not be any different this time. Both of them have played priceless roles in two of Ireland’s most famous World Cup victories – Niall scored 72 against Pakistan at Kingston in 2007, while Kevin – who is the team’s vice-captain –  scored a record-shattering 113 from 63 balls against England at Bangalore in 2011, an innings that stunned and delighted the cricketing world in equal measure.

  Niall of course is a wicket-keeping option too while Kevin can be a tricky bowler to deal with. It is quite likely that the first-choice wicketkeeper will be Gary Wilson, another spunky cricketer who has honed himself on the county circuit. Wilson almost guided Ireland to victory over the West Indies in the 2011 World Cup, scoring a rapid 61 before his dismissal – given out incorrectly – sparked a collapse. It will be interesting to see who between Wilson and O’Brien will get the gloves when Ireland walk out to play the West Indies in their opening game.

  The squad possesses enough all-round depth to pose a dilemma to the selectors. In this department, Kevin O’Brien will have support from the seasoned Alex Cusack, the promising Stuart Thompson and the ever-reliable John Mooney. Cusack’s role with the bat in that famous Bangalore match almost went unnoticed, and his medium-pace can be a handy partnership-breaker. Thompson is another future hope who impressed on the Caribbean tour last year.

zyoungh      Craig Young, who was one of the few positives for Ireland on the acclimatisation tour to Australia and New Zealand, will be the player to watch out for (source – cricketireland.ie)

  Mooney has made an applaudable comeback after pulling out of the game temporarily due to personal issues – he smashed 96 against Scotland on his return last September. His ten-wicket haul in the Intercontinental Cup final in 2013 showed that he can be a powerful all-rounder when on song. He will be part of a pace attack which may be looking a bit thin following the retirement of Trent Johnston and the defection of Boyd Rankin to England.

  Apart from the above-mentioned all-rounders, the pacemen in the squad are Tim Murtagh, Craig Young and Peter Chase. Murtagh collected 58 wickets for Middlesex in the county championship last season, but he will have to bring his ‘A’ game on bouncier tracks in his maiden World Cup appearance. Young is the most promising fast bowler in Ireland at the moment. He took a five-wicket haul on ODI debut against Scotland, and can be the surprise element against Ireland’s more established opponents.

  Chase is another exciting prospect who made his first-class debut for Durham in 2014. He is yet to make his international debut, and it remains to be seen whether he will shine on the big stage. Rounding off the squad are the spinners George Dockrell and Andy McBrine. Left-armer Dockrell was only 18 when he played the 2011 World Cup, but did well to take seven wickets. He is a lot more mature now and provides Ireland with a highly effective weapon in the middle overs. Young off-spinner McBrine has made an encouraging start to his career, having made his debut in the 2014 World Twenty20.

  It can be said that pace bowler Max Sorensen and batsman Andrew Poynter are a bit unlucky to miss out, but this underlines the rising amount of talent knocking at the door. There is healthy competition for places in the playing eleven, which bodes well for Ireland’s cricketing future. Sorensen, along with fellow pacemen Greame McCarter, Barry McCarthy, Tyrone Kane and Eddie Richardson will also tour with the squad to bowl in the nets and act as cover for any possible injury.

  Ireland’s acclimatisation tour to Australia and New Zealand in September was quite forgettable. Of the seven matches, the boys in green managed only two victories. Admittedly, the squad was not at full strength for these matches, but the margins of defeat, even against second-string state sides, were heavy enough to feel worried.

  The few silver linings were the two victories – by 124 runs and by one wicket while chasing 305 – against Australian Capital Territory, Young’s eleven wickets at 21.63 including a five-wicket haul against Queensland and the relatively consistent batting of Balbirnie and Niall O’Brien.

zsdrt     Smells like team spirit – The 2015 World Cup provides Ireland with a chance to provide yet another spirited performance

  However, Ireland have always tended to raise their game in international events. In the 2011 World Cup, their performance was much better than the two victories in six games suggested. Both these victories – against England and Netherlands – were achieved by chasing 300-plus scores. India, West Indies and South Africa were all given a scare at some point in their matches. It was the opening game against Bangladesh that must have hurt the most – Ireland failed to chase down 205 and lost by 27 runs, a defeat which probably cost them a quarterfinal spot.

  Gary Wilson had recently said that reaching the World Cup semi-finals will take Ireland to the next level and make the cricketing world notice. It is great to see the change in attitudes and in the levels of professionalism since Ireland first played a World Cup match – a thrilling tie against Zimbabwe in 2007 which set the ball rolling for their continuous rise. This World Cup is of immense importance not just for Ireland, but for all the participating Associate nations.

  Late last year, the ICC took the pathetic decision of reducing the number of teams in the World Cup to just ten, starting from the 2019 edition. Also, instead of providing a realistic pathway to Test cricket, all that the ICC came up with was a feeble attempt to appease the Associates through a Test Challenge. Add to that the unfairly low number of international fixtures played by the Associates, and one cannot help but feel that the ICC is trying its best to stifle the development of the game in non-Test nations.

  Thus, this is Ireland’s big opportunity to serve yet another reminder to the hypocrites who claim to be ‘custodians’ of the game. The opening game against the West Indies at Nelson on 16th February is arguably the most crucial fixture for Ireland – a win there will seriously brighten their chances of entering the quarterfinals. Victories over UAE and Zimbabwe are expected, though none of them can be underestimated. India’s ordinary bowling and Pakistan’s unpredictable batting can be taken advantage of. A win over either of them can prove to be another booster for Irish cricket.

  Debates surrounding the playing eleven have already began, and here is the line-up I would go with for the opening match against the West Indies – William Porterfield, Paul Stirling, Ed Joyce, Niall O’Brien, Gary Wilson, Kevin O’Brien, Alex Cusack, John Mooney, George Dockrell, Craig Young, Tim Murtagh.

   If Ireland’s batsmen play to their capabilities and the bowlers give their best, the 2015 World Cup could be the beginning of another glorious chapter in Irish cricket history. Backed by their passionate supporters and armed with their famed spirit, there is no reason why they cannot become the fairytale story of the tournament again.

VIEWPOINT – Is there a bigger dampener than a two-Test series?

  “As the ICC has increased the number of T20 Internationals that countries can play against each other, the number of two-Test series are becoming more common, which I would rather not happen at all because they are a nothingness of a nothing”.

  This is what the great former Indian batsman Rahul Dravid said during his enlightening speech at the  ESPN-Cricinfo For Cricket Summit in London in August 2013. However, most of the cricket boards are increasingly moving in the opposite direction, much to the chagrin of Test match lovers around the world. The fact that Dravid’s sentiment has fallen on deaf ears is proved by the number of two-Test series in the last cricket season.

  The 2013-14 season (April 2013 to March 2014) saw fourteen Test series played, of which two were Ashes. Of the remaining twelve, as many as nine series consisted of just two Tests. One will never come to know how the series between Zimbabwe and Pakistan or the one between Pakistan and South Africa in the UAE – both of which ended in a 1-1 stalemate – might have ended, because there was no third Test to look forward to. Would Zimbabwe have upset Pakistan to claim a rare series victory? Would Pakistan have toppled South Africa in what would have been an exciting decider? The abrupt ends to these series left many a cricket follower frustrated.

  Thankfully, one of the three series in 2013-14 which consisted of three Tests was the Australian tour of South Africa. The Baggy Greens triumphed on a classic last day of the third Test in Cape Town to inflict a first series defeat on South Africa in five years, and also keep their undefeated record (since South Africa’s re-admission) in the Rainbow Nation intact.

zamlas     The 2011-12 Australian tour of South Africa consisted of only two Test matches, depriving cricket followers of a potential exciting decider (source – abc.net.au)

  Imagine for a moment if this series, like the one in 2011-12, had consisted of just two Test matches. Mitchell Johnson’s fiery spells at Centurion and Dale Steyn’s magic at Port Elizabeth would have amounted to little. The third Test added context and relevance to the series, and the result was there for all to see. Another case in point was the recently-concluded series between the West Indies and New Zealand in the Caribbean. Had this series also been a two-Test affair – like the one in 2012 – it would have resulted in yet another annoying 1-1 scoreline.

  Regarding the 2011-12 series between South Africa and Australia, Steyn had then remarked, “I go on holiday for longer than that series is going to last.” The champion fast bowler hit the nail on the head. After South Africa romped to victory in the bizarre ’47 all out’ match in Cape Town, Australia drew level with a thrilling chase in Johannesburg. Perfect setting for a mouth-watering decider. Unfortunately, the third Test existed only in the realm of fantasy for cricket connoisseurs and players alike. Watching the two captains hold a shared trophy after a two-Test series is pretty depressing. The two teams trade a punch each, then what?

  Also during 2011-12, we saw how New Zealand edged out Australia in Hobart after going down tamely in Brisbane. This left the enthralled fans asking for more but instead what they got was an empty feeling of discontent. Australia and Pakistan last played a Test against each other back in 2010, yet the forthcoming series in the UAE in October will have only two Tests.

  Two-Test series can never provide the necessary build-up to a Test series. The series is over even before the teams are getting into the groove. If a team wins the first Test, the other team has already missed the opportunity of winning the series. On many occasions, a team losing the first Test has come back to win the series – in recent memory, India v Australia in 2000-01 and South Africa v India in 2006-07 come to mind. Two-Test series rob the game of this charm of watching a team fight back after being one down.

zumartgul      Pakistani players after drawing the two-Test series with Australia in England in 2010. The next series between the two sides in October 2014 also has only two Tests (source – wn.com)

  Players like Dravid and Steyn are class acts and over their careers, have yearned to win Test matches for their countries with their performances. But a two-Test series often breeds a defensive mindset – for instance, when South Africa shut shop during what would have been a world record chase against India in Johannesburg last December. I believe they would have at least made a bold effort to go for glory had it been a three-Test series.

  No one likes a two-Test series, except for the unsatiated administrators who care two hoots for anything but quick cash. It is akin to a farce and demeans the tradition of Test match cricket. Scrapping a third Test to accommodate a meaningless limited-overs series has become quite a norm today. Nowadays we see two back-to-back Tests scheduled as if a favour is being done on us Test cricket lovers. Earlier, all cricket tours used to be centered around the Test series. Today, the token two-Test series is a damning indictment which clearly shows where the priorities of the administrators lie.

  Over the last few years, we have seen a two-Test Wisden Trophy (in 2009) and a two-Test Border-Gavaskar Trophy (in 2010-11) for the first time. As of now, the only head-to-head fixture that has never had a series of less than three Tests is Australia v West Indies. But even that is likely to change, as Australia are scheduled to pay a two-Test visit to the Caribbean next year. With this, the Frank Worrell Trophy nearly loses its meaning and it is an insult to the great man himself, who had undoubtedly envisaged a rich Test match future between the two sides after the historic 1960-61 series.

  It is a fact that Test cricket is a very expensive sport to sustain. But that is no excuse for not having that much-needed extra Test in a series. Ticket sales are dropping, the public is moving towards T20. Rather than sit and do something about this worrying trend, cricket boards show ignorance and instead callously cancel previously-scheduled Tests, and at times, entire series. And then in a most hypocritical manner, they talk about the ‘primacy’ of Test cricket.

  A minimum of three Tests is absolutely essential, no matter which teams are playing. Anything less than that is sacrilegious.

VIEWPOINT – Time to revive the trans-Tasman rivalry

  It is quite a shame that Australia and New Zealand have played each other in only 52 Test matches since the inaugural one-off Test at Wellington in 1945-46. Despite their healthy rivalry, Test match fixtures between the two nations have been disappointingly infrequent.

  That Test in 1945-46 played a part in Australia refusing to play their less-fancied neighbours from across the Tasman Sea. The game got over within two days, with New Zealand being shot out twice (for 42 and 54) on the second day. It took 28 years for the Australians to change their mind, and back-to-back series were contested in 1973-74. New Zealand managed to draw the home leg, courtesy a maiden five-wicket win at Christchurch.

  The rivalry was at its fiercest in the eighties. The start of that decade saw the infamous underarm controversy – in a World Series 50-overs final – which snowballed to such an extent that it threatened diplomatic relations between Australia and New Zealand. It would not be wrong to say that this incident galvanised New Zealand into a combative unit whenever they faced the Aussies.

  Since then until the end of that decade, New Zealand won five and lost three of the 14 Tests they played against Australia. It was a glorious period for the Kiwis, with the 1985-86 series win in Australia being their sweetest and probably, most vindictive success. Spearheaded by the legendary Richard Hadlee, New Zealand transformed into a top side and fittingly reserved their best for Australia.

  Even during Australia’s dominant Steve Waugh era, New Zealand were one of the few sides who stood up to them on their own turf. A 0-0 scoreline in 2001-02 – the same season when South Africa were crushed in Australia – reflects their spirited performance. While New Zealand have never returned to their eighties heydays, they managed to level the most recent series between the two teams in 2011-12 with a thrilling win at Hobart.

  That series in 2011-12 consisted of just two Test matches, depriving Test cricket lovers of a mouth-watering decider. The last time the two teams played each other in a three-Test series was in 2004-05. Their last three-Test series in New Zealand was back in 1985-86. In the last fifteen years, Australia have played New Zealand just 17 times. The corresponding figure for Australia’s Tests against England and India are 40 and 32 respectively. Since the last Trans-Tasman series and until the next, Australia will have played England 15 times and India 12 times.

Australia v New Zealand - Second Test: Day 2   Action from Day 2 of the second Test between Australia and New Zealand at Hobart in 2011-12 – the last time the two nations faced each other in a Test (source – supersport.com)

  Why this apathy towards Trans-Tasman Test matches? Cricket is missing out on a potentially great rivalry because of the commercial interests of forever-unsatisfied administrators and broadcasters. Australia have become so obsessed with playing England and India that they have failed to realise that the Black Caps provide for great opponents and some fantastic cricket. In 2011-12, it was New Zealand who drew in Australia despite getting just two Tests. In the same season, an over-rated India were thrashed 4-0. They say Trans-Tasman Tests do not bring in much revenue. I fail to understand why – the simple answer is effective marketing of the games. Building up the hype as in the Ashes will go a long way in attracting spectators.

  Regional sporting rivalries tend to churn out some of the most memorable moments. At the moment, Australia and New Zealand have a great opportunity to lend much-needed flavour to Test cricket. Australia are, at least according to the ICC, the best team in the world. New Zealand are a team on the upswing with three successive series wins under their belt. Now is the time to decide on a proper Trans-Transman Trophy. Just like the Ashes, one home and one away series in every four-year cycle is a must, with at least three Tests played in each series. Two-Test series are akin to sacrilege, and should be done away with.

  As of today, Australia and New Zealand both possess attacking captains, excellent pace bowling resources and a steady line of impressive batting talents. Michael Clarke being pitted against Brendon McCullum. Mitchell Johnson testing Kane Williamson. David Warner being challenged by Tim Southee and Trent Boult. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? That is what Test cricket needs – novelty. While bringing in new nations is asking for too much, efforts should at least be made to revive existing rivalries. And Australia v New Zealand is too precious a fixture to be lost.

  I, for one, am a big fan of Trans-Tasman Tests; it always makes for great viewing. And I am certain that most fans from both Australia and New Zealand share the same sentiment. Thankfully, in 2015-16, the two teams are scheduled – at least for now – to meet each other in back-to-back series at home and away. There is also the prospect of Test cricket under lights during New Zealand’s tour of Australia. In all probability, both teams will carry on with their current form over the next year or so, and thus these series will be much-awaited by the players and viewers alike.

  History may suggest that the Trans-Tasman rivalry has been fairly one-sided over the years. But not everything should be judged by numbers of the past. Introducing a structured Trans-Transman Trophy would be of great benefit to Test cricket as a whole, and this is no exaggeration.

  The ball is Cricket Australia’s court.