Saturday, May 3, 2008

Bangalore fight back to clinch thriller

Rohit Sharma: another superb innings in vain...

They may have been scraping the bottom of the points table, but the Bangalore Royal Challengers and Deccan Chargers dished out one of the best games of the IPL. In a relatively low-scoring match in which the bowlers from both teams had plenty of say, Bangalore squeezed out a dramatic three-run win - the second of the tournament and their first at home - to move to sixth in the points table.

The match ebbed and flowed throughout, both teams had opportunities to take control, and both frittered it away. Deccan, requiring 157 for victory, had the run-chase well in control when the classy Rohit Sharma and VVS Laxman were involved in a 96-run stand. With 20 deliveries to go, Deccan needed 30 to win with two well-set batsmen at the crease, and seven others to follow. From there, it all went pear-shaped for them.

Rohit had played another sublime innings, showcasing his outstanding talent in bringing up his third half-century of the IPL, but when Jacques Kallis pitched one up, Rohit - who had carved a four and a six earlier in the over - could only loft it to long-on. Shahid Afridi's entry should have been good news for Deccan; instead, he made just 1 before Dale Seyn pulled off a superb diving catch at long-on.

Then came two lbw decisions which further queered the pitch: Laxman, who had motored to a 44-ball 52, was given out to a Praveen Kumar delivery which pitched outside leg, and when Scott Styris was given out in similar fashion to Zaheer Khan in the next over, it seemed Bangalore had sealed the win.

Going into the final over, Deccan needed 20 with Anil Kumble to bowl - it seemed a lost cause, till Sanjay Bangar struck two magnificent sixes off the third and fourth deliveries, reducing the equation to a nail-biting six off two. Kumble, though, held firm, conceding two singles off the last two balls, and a tense Dravid finally allowed his emotions to show through, high-fiving his team-mates. As he said later: "We got out of jail today."

When Rohit and Laxman were at the crease, though, it seemed Bangalore were doomed to another home defeat. After being pegged back by superb opening spells from Steyn, Zaheer and Praveen, during the course of which Adam Gilchrist and Herschelle Gibbs - their two biggest batting stars - succumbed, Rohit and Laxman got the run-chase back on track. Rohit's innings was another masterclass, as he showed the composure and shot-selection of a veteran. He started off with a glorious six over wide long-on off Kumble, and then exhibited power and touch in equal measure, bludgeoning straight hits and also moving away and caressing Kallis just wide off the wicketkeeper.

Laxman showed just how much he has developed as a Twenty20 batsman, adding the leg-side hoick to more conventional strokes. The 12th over saw Laxman at his sublime best, as he drove Kumble past extra-cover, used his feet and lofted on the off side, and flicked past midwicket for three fours.

Bangalore's total ultimately turned out to be just enough, but at the halfway stage it seemed they had frittered away another game, as their attempt to solve the riddle of Twenty20 batting came unstuck again. They seemed on course for much more after ten over, when they were cruising at 80 for 1, but then fell away quite predictably in the second half as the Deccan bowlers struck back with regular wickets, in the process exposing - yet again - Bangalore's lack of firepower.

Till the halfway stage, the picture was an encouraging one as Jaffer and Kohli laid a perfect platform. The launching pad was ready, but the take-off went completely awry. After racing to 44, Jaffer top-edged a slog-sweep off the impressive Pragyan Ojha, who foxed Kallis in his next over. Kohli perished soon after, and when Misbah was at the receiving end of a poor lbw decision - the ball from Afridi was drifting down leg - Bangalore had lost three for nine and had wasted all the good work done earlier. Dravid's two sixes in the last over from the No. 6 position helped lift the total beyond 150, and in the end, those hits proved decisive.

Through the early part, though, the home team prospered. As usual they lost their first wicket early, as Bharat Chipli inside-edged onto his stumps to ensure that six opening stands have fetched them a grand total of 74 runs. Then came the best passage of batting for Bangalore, as Kohli, promoted to No. 3, justified that move, adding 72 for the second wicket with Jaffer in nine overs.

On an abrasive pitch where the ball tended to stop, neither batsman completely dominated the bowling, but yet they got their runs at a fair clip. In between a few mistimed shots, Jaffer executed some crisp drives, and was prepared to innovate as well, moving across his stumps to Sanjay Bangar and Afridi to clip them to the fine-leg boundary. Kohli was more forceful in his shot-making, getting two sixes, carving Bangar over midwicket and then striking Ojha cleanly over his head.

Those moments had the crowd on their feet, but in between the Deccan bowlers bowled enough dots to ensure that Bangalore never ran away with the momentum. Laxman shuffled his bowlers around, and the slower ones were the most difficult to get away. The final total looked eminently gettable on paper, but in the end it produced a cracker of a game.

Shoaib pushes for suspension of ban

Shoaib Akhtar still hasn't given up hopes of taking part in the IPL...

Shoaib Akhtar's lawyers have asked for a suspension of his five-year ban in a bid to allow him to play in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and are set once again to approach the Appellate Tribunal looking into his appeal.

The tribunal reached a decision of sorts this week, allowing Shoaib to play in competitions outside Pakistan, but upholding his five-year ban for playing in or for Pakistan at least until June when they will revisit his appeal.

It was thought that this verdict would free up Shoaib to play in the IPL and Nasim Ashraf, the PCB chairman, even spoke personally to Lalit Modi, the IPL commissioner, to allow him to do so. But the IPL refused, arguing that a player banned from playing for his country would not be eligible to play in the league.

It is believed that Shoaib's legal team had asked for the ban to be suspended at the last hearing so that he could play in the IPL. But the tribunal, by specifically granting him permission to play outside Pakistan, thought there was no need to suspend the ban.

"The order was taken to the IPL because we all thought there was no need to lift the ban for Shoaib to play there," a source close to the player told Cricinfo.

"But the IPL then said that until he remains banned from Pakistan duty, he cannot play in the IPL, so an application will now be filed with the tribunal to suspend the ban until such time as the appeal is resolved."

Shoaib was banned for five years in April by the PCB after he criticised the board and its policies at the turn of the year, thus breaching the players' code of conduct.

The punishment, harsh on the surface, took into account past indiscretions and in particular the fact that he had been put on a two-year probation period after his last disciplinary scuffle - his tiff with Mohammad Asif before last year's Twenty20 World Cup.

After the ban, Shoaib accused the the chairman of the PCB publicly on several local TV channels of financial misbehaviour, which led to the Ashraf slapping a defamation lawsuit on the player. Shoaib has now also been asked to appear before a Lahore civil court on May 16th.

Sehwag puts Delhi on top

Virender Sehwag's 41-ball 71 was a boundary-studded knock...

A clinical Delhi Daredevils recorded an eight-wicket win to bump their opponents, Chennai Super Kings, off the No. 1 spot and end Mahendra Singh Dhoni's 100% record at the IPL. The match was effectively decided by a century stand inside 12 overs between Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir after Chennai's innings floundered in the absence of their Australian batting stars.

Unlike Chennai's top order, which relied on wild and often mistimed shots to get boundaries, Gambhir and Sehwag scored in masterful fashion. In their partnerships, even in Tests, the two sometimes look like they have a private bet running on who can score faster. Today Sehwag won it hands down as he raced to his fifty off 24 balls.

With net run-rate deciding league positions, Sehwag wasted no time in teeing off the chase at the venue of his recent triple-century. He slashed Makhaya Ntini for a six off the fourth ball of the innings and followed it up the next over with two more off Manpreet Gony. Joginder Sharma was taken for 19 runs in his first over as Sehwag hit a six and two fours. He fell, when 55 were needed off 52 balls, trying to replicate his first six.

Gambhir may have looked subdued in comparison to Sehwag but he was in a mood to attack as well. He drove and pulled with the confidence that Chennai's batsmen lacked. The two openers offered few chances and never seemed to be in doubt of how to pierce the field.

Chennai clearly missed the power and experience of Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey, who'd scored nearly a third of the team's runs in the tournament before this game. Barring S Vidyut's half-century, no other innings was memorable. In fact Vidyut's innings was full of unintentional shots - one, in the 10th over, was a pull edged off Asif that sailed over the keeper for four - and it was largely memorable because it was his debut.

Credit must go to Delhi's bowlers, though, who bounced back impressively after the initial assault and prevented Chennai from posting a more challenging total. If not for Albie Morkel's late charge, Chennai would have struggled to get a par score.

Between overs 12 and 16, Delhi conceded only 31 runs as Mohammad Asif, Glenn McGrath and Vijaykumar Yo Mahesh bowled fuller and cut out Dhoni's attempts to step out of the crease and attack. Yo Mahesh, who had conceded two free-hits before bowling Stephen Fleming in his first over, conceded only one run in his final over. Virender Sehwag shuffled his bowlers about - giving Asif only one over in his opening spell - and with all his fast bowlers having finished their quotas, he tossed the ball to Rajat Bhatia for the final over. Bhatia, who hadn't bowled in the innings so far, impressed as he conceded only 11.

Delhi have not been greatly affected by the exodus of international players - they have lost only Daniel Vettori - and, with a third of the league done, they will fancy their chances of staying at the top of the points table.

Chennai Super Kings v Delhi Daredevils, IPL, Chennai

Flintoff in line for Test place - Vaughan

Andrew Flintoff bends his back for Lancashire against Somerset, a match in which he impressed Justin Langer with his pace and hostility...

Andrew Flintoff could make his Test comeback as part of a four-man attack against New Zealand at Lord's on May 15, after England's captain, Michael Vaughan, told The Times that he was in favour of throwing his allrounder back into international cricket as a No. 7 batsman and out-and-out strike bowler.

Vaughan's preference is a significant change of tack from the last time the two played a Test together, back in 2005. That year, Flintoff was trusted as a top-six batsman and formed part of a five-man attack that proved instrumental in winning back the Ashes. In his absence, however, England have discovered through the efforts of Ryan Sidebottom and Monty Panesar in particular, that there is scope for winning Test matches with only four bowlers.

"For a long time I was a fan of five bowlers, but since we've had to do without Fred, I've realised that whilst five might be ideal, it is certainly possible to do with four in Test cricket," Vaughan told The Times. "That's the way I'm looking right now. Most other Test teams have a No. 6 who averages 45 in Test cricket, so I'm looking at Flintoff at seven and four bowlers."

There are fears that Flintoff, who has already undergone four bouts of surgery on his troublesome left ankle, might struggle to maintain his fitness if required to shoulder a full quota of overs in a Test match. But he has wasted no time in re-establishing his bowling credentials, and against Somerset at Old Trafford last week, he put the wind up his old Ashes foe, Justin Langer, to such an extent that Langer hailed him as "the best fast bowler in the world" in his BBC column.

"If I was the sole selector of the England Test team, Andrew Flintoff could bat at No. 11 if it meant playing him," Langer wrote. "There have been whispers that he needs to score runs to scrape into the England line-up. But I have never known Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh or Glenn McGrath having to score runs to be selected."

A similar thought process seems to have taken hold in the England set-up. "He hasn't played [at No. 6] for a long time, and for Fred, his bowling rhythm comes much more naturally than his batting," said Vaughan, who remains convinced that the runs will start to flow once again. "The only problem with four bowlers is that it asks a lot of his fitness, which we'll find out about over the next few months, and it asks more of Monty Panesar, who might have to bowl, say, 25 overs on a first-day pitch, but I've got no worries about him."

Part of Vaughan's urgency stems from his desire to equip his team with a genuine fast bowler ahead of what promises to be a high-octane clash with South Africa later in the summer. In Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, the South Africans have two of the fastest and most exciting bowlers in the game today, and for all the strides made by Sidebottom and Stuart Broad in New Zealand, England currently lack a cutting edge to match.

That is especially true given the enduring shortcomings of Steve Harmison, and Vaughan didn't give the impression that a comeback would be on the cards in the near future. "It's unbelievably frustrating from a captain's point of view," he said. "I've had him when he's been the best bowler in the world, and I've had him when he's been ... [not the best]. I just don't want to see that talent go to waste."

One man who wouldn't relish an early recall for Flintoff would be New Zealand's captain, Daniel Vettori, who mulled over the prospect after arriving in England from the IPL on Thursday. "He's one of the better players in the world, so if he's not playing it makes it a little bit easier for us," said Vettori. "But it may be hard for him to find a place in the team at the moment because the top-six batsmen have done a pretty good job.

"I'm sure they'll take the cautious approach, slowly build him into their team and maybe look at the South Africa series," he added. "We understand how good a player he is and what balance he offers because we have the same luxury with Jacob Oram and any time he's out of our team it's a real struggle for us."

New Zealand in England 2008