Saturday, July 12, 2008

Panesar spins South Africa to follow-on

Neil McKenzie is bowled round his legs by Monty Panesar as England continue to control the Test.

An outstanding collective effort from England's attack dismantled South Africa for 247 on the third day and left them following on at Lord's. Monty Panesar took the bowling honours with four wickets during a spell which highlighted his importance to the team in this series, after the groundwork was laid by the trio of quicks who took out the top order. Only Ashwell Prince, with a fine century, provided substantial resistance and South Africa headed in again 346 behind.

Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie, back out where they started the day, survived four overs against Panesar and Kevin Pietersen. There was some great by-play from Pietersen, who was still riding on the high of a rare Test wicket after he removed Dale Steyn to end the first innings in fading light. Pietersen ended with a huge shout against Smith and there were smiles allround, but Smith's grins came through gritted teeth after another sobering day.

Pace has been the buzzword leading into this series, of both South Africa's abundance and England's perceived lack of a cutting edge. However, England have been able to sit back quite contently in the knowledge that they hold the ace in the pack when it comes to spin and Panesar showed why. He teased out wickets with flight and spin, ripping one round McKenzie's pads and another through the defences of Morne Morkel.

Yet England's quick bowlers laid down a few markers of their own. They have never pretended to possess the 90mph qualities of Steyn and co., but that is more than compensated for by home knowledge and guile. Whereas South Africa were short of variation, England's trio each brought something different. James Anderson mixed swingers with cutters, Stuart Broad caused problems with his splice-jarring length and Ryan Sidebottom used his angle to remove the key obstacle of Jacques Kallis.

Prince raised his game like few of his team-mates have been able to do over the last three days. He was the one member of the top-order with questions begin asked about his place after a highest score of 38 in eight innings. Here he showed all the fighting qualities that have become his trademark, but also expressed himself with some handsome boundaries. The hundred arrived off 173 deliveries and was greeted with a leap from Prince as he savoured the moment. However, the personal satisfaction of the achievement will be clouded the team's predicament.

England were on top of their game from the very start as they reduced South Africa to 47 for 3. Facing a total of almost 600 can make even the flattest pitches appear trickier and England's attack immediately found more assistance from the surface. It was extra lift from a good length that did for Smith as a ball from Anderson climbed and took the shoulder of the bat. Smith's expressions have grown less cheery from the moment he stuck England in, and he walked off with 251 fewer to his name than the last time he batted at Lord's.

England's attack had strong game plans for the top order. For Hashim Amla there was a clear policy of testing him against the short ball and he was forced onto the back foot Broad then exploited his tentativeness with a full delivery outside off. Sidebottom, after bringing a couple of deliveries back into Kallis, he pushed one wider and Kallis chased it. The edge flew low to the right of Andrew Strauss at first slip, who managed to get his fingers under the ball to ignite huge celebrations from England.

McKenzie fought through the early setbacks, but fell in the second over after lunch when he failed to cover the line with his pad. The amount of turn from outside leg even caught Panesar by surprise. Even when the innings went quiet, with Prince and AB de Villiers adding the one substantial partnership of 70, Michael Vaughan kept control by blocking off the runs. Once the early hardness disappeared the quicks had to switch to different skills, and began searching for reverse swing, while Vaughan rotated his options. Anderson produced a tight spell as 16 runs came in a 12-over spell leading up to tea.

England's catching was in full working order, too, and Anderson pulled off a blinder at mid-on, diving full-length to his left, to remove de Villiers. Broad struck with the first ball of a comeback burst, then Panesar returned to the fore as he ripped one through Morkel following a teasing over. South Africa have a genuine tail and Paul Harris' hack to mid-on - where Anderson pulled off his second fine catch - didn't do Prince any favours.

Prince at last found someone to stay with him as Steyn showed reliance against a predictable short-pitched barrage. Their 14-over partnership forced Vaughan to take the second new ball and, shortly after Prince reached three figures, Sidebottom found the outside edge. If South Africa are going to escape they need to learn Prince's effort for the two days ahead.

Hauritz has no qualms playing in Pakistan

Nathan Hauritz, named in 30 probables for the Champions Trophy, last played for Australia in 2004.

Nathan Hauritz, the Australian offspinner, has echoed Shane Watson's feelings on the Champions Trophy in Pakistan, saying he didn't care where he played as long he got to represent his country.

Watson had said he'd play anywhere but some Australian players, including Andrew Symonds, expressed their reservations on touring Pakistan, which had two bomb attacks on its cities in the past two weeks.

However Hauritz, who was named in Australia's 30 probables for the Champions Trophy, said getting the chance to play for the national team didn't happen all the time. "You can go to a number of places in this world that are dangerous," Hauritz, who last played for Australia in 2004, told the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph. "But at the end of the day it's not my call and it's up to Cricket Australia. I'm sure they will do everything they can to make sure it's safe.''

Peter Young, the Cricket Australia spokesman, made it clear the board wouldn't send players to a place that was dangerous. "We understand the players' concerns," Young said. "It is a concern of ours. International cricket is important to billions of fans around the world but, like Andrew [Symonds] said, 'It's only a game', and the issue is if we can justify sending our players anywhere where it might be dangerous.''

Australia are expected to take a decision on whether or not to tour Pakistan in three weeks. While the board, along with New Zealand Cricket and the England board, had hired Reg Dickson, an independent security expert, to visit Karachi and submit a report on the security measures for the Asia Cup, Cricket Australia's own operations chief, Michael Brown, is not expected back from his annual leave till next week, Young said.

Kumble cautioned for remarks to newspaper

Kumble cautioned for remarks to newspaper.

Anil Kumble, India's Test captain, has been cautioned by the BCCI for divulging details of the Sri Lanka tour selection meeting to a newspaper.

Kumble told Mumbai Mirror that he had asked the selectors to pick two specialist wicketkeepers for the three-Test series. "As captain I am aware that there could be problems if the specialist were to pull a muscle or have a runny stomach on the morning of a Test," Kumble said. "There was a suggestion that Rahul [Dravid] be the second wicketkeeper, but I persuaded the [selection] committee to view things from Indian cricket's point of view and advantage."

Niranjan Shah, the BCCI secretary, censured Kumble for his remarks. "I have been informed by the chairman [Dilip Vengsarkar] that Mumbai Mirror, a newspaper in Mumbai, has published some story about the selection meeting which is attributed to you.

"You are aware that proceedings of the selection committee are not supposed to be divulged and are certainly not meant for public discussion. As a senior player, you should have restrained from such interviews."

India had included wicketkeepers Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel in the Test squad for Sri Lanka after Mahendra Singh Dhoni opted out of the series.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bell's 199 leads dominant England

Ian Bell sprints through to complete his eighth Test century and he came within one of a maiden double.

Ian Bell became the seventh batsman, and first Englishman, to fall for 199 in Tests, but had long since proved his point as England enjoyed a second day of dominance at Lord's as they piled up 593 for 8. Bell and Kevin Pietersen, who turned his emotional hundred from yesterday into 152, carried their fourth-wicket stand to a record-breaking 286. He then joined forces with the ever-improving Stuart Broad to add 152 for the eighth wicket as Broad oozed class in his career-best 76.

Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie played out 20 balls before another heavy shower forced the players off for a final time, but after two days of leather chasing South Africa now have the challenge of saving the game. They are facing England's highest total since their 604 against South Africa, at The Oval in 2003, and the demand in recent times has been for England's batsmen to score big hundreds. Although Bell fell agonisingly short of the precious double, when he clubbed a straight drive back to Paul Harris, it meant an England innings included two 150-plus scores for the first time since Adelaide in 2006.

Bell's performance on the first day secured his long-term position, but it was important that he converted into three figures and beyond. He hadn't done it in the first innings of a Test since West Indies at Lord's last year, and even then England were in a commanding position before he came in. Here it was different and he came through under pressure. The stroke play was silky and confident as he reached his century off 189 balls.

If anything, Bell's shots became even purer during the afternoon as the played with the freedom of someone who'd proved a point. He danced down the pitch to Harris and drove the quicks with nonchalant ease through the covers, cruising past 150. Bell's previous career-best of 162 came way back in his third Test, against Bangladesh, and he finally managed to set a new mark against a far more testing opponent. In the latter stages of his innings he was strutting around the crease, bringing out reverse sweeps, in the most commanding innings of his career. He won't be making way for Andrew Flintoff.

England scored at a rollicking rate throughout the day, adding 113 runs in each of the first two sessions as the much-vaunted South African attack was made to look ordinary. The only exception was Morne Morkel, surprisingly overlooked for the first hour, who removed Pietersen and Tim Ambrose either side of lunch, but others lacked direction and control. Smith struggled to stem the flow of boundaries until he opted for all-out defence and got Harris to bowl over the wicket outside leg stump.

The moment for South Africa to haul themselves back into contention passed during the first hour. With the second new ball only nine overs old there was the opportunity first thing to make life tough for England. Instead Steyn offered Bell a second-ball leg-stump half volley and it set the tone for the session. Some deliveries were sprayed so wide that they eluded the diving Boucher.

Pietersen was in commanding form and he left Smith chasing the game. He toyed with Smith's field settings, taking balls from outside off stump through the leg side as he passed 150, for the fifth time in Tests, off 176 balls. He offered one tough chance, a firmly-driven return catch on 133 which Jacques Kallis couldn't gather in his follow through.

Eventually Morkel got a bouncer on target to break a stand of 286, the highest fourth-wicket partnership against South Africa in Tests. It brought in Collingwood, under strain for many reasons - most immediately his recent Test form - but he was given out caught at short leg against Harris. It was a rough decision, the ball coming straight off the pad to Hashim Amla, and Collingwood's expression as he walked off was of a man who feels the world is against him.

South Africa struck again straight after lunch when Ambrose came half forward and edged Morkel low to Smith at first slip. Morkel again showed the way in the length to bowl, but his colleagues couldn't back him up. Broad's batting has been one of the most significant developments of this England side and he comfortably dealt with the South African attack. The leg side was a profitable area as he showed elegant timing against pace and spin. He reached his second consecutive Test fifty with a back-foot drive off Ntini that would have done a No. 4 proud.

Thoughts were turning towards the possibility of a century, yet to his credit Broad never stopped playing positively for the team cause. That brought his down fall when he missed a drive against Harris, but his 76 was the highest score by an England No. 8 since Craig White made 85 at the MCG in 2002-03. Now he needs to play his part with the ball as England try to make their imposing total count. The first two days of this series couldn't have gone much better for them.

Pakistan cricket Akram criticises Malik's captaincy

Wasim Akram is not impressed with the captaincy of Shoaib Malik.

Wasim Akram, the former Pakistan captain, has criticised Shoaib Malik for his captaincy and for not bowling his offspin regularly, and called for the inclusion of Mohammad Aamer, the 16-year-old left-arm seamer, into the national team.

"In the beginning I thought he [Malik] had the skills; now I have my doubts," Akram told Cricinfo in a wide-ranging interview. "Against Zimbabwe he bowled ten overs in almost every match, against Bangladesh he bowled a little less. But in big matches he is not bowling. Do you think nobody notices? People do.

"Most of all, players notice how the leader is doing. Shoaib Malik has to learn that," he said. "[Abdur] Rauf gets three wickets in one match, but doesn't get to play in the next. This is the captain's fault, not the selectors."

He also picked out the issues related to the selection of the XI. "Now he says the XI is given by selectors, but I know that in Pakistan if you are a strong captain there is no way the selectors can do that to you," Akram said. "We have all been through this: me, Inzamam, Imran [Khan], [Javed] Miandad, we all did that but we always had our XIs. Maybe in the 14-15 you can have a compromise."

Akram picked out Aamer, the promising Pakistan Under-19 and Rawalpindi bowler, for special mention - "he is quite talented" - and said that he would have drafted him into the national set-up right away. He had earmarked Aamer as a future talent during a fast bowlers' camp in May 2007.

While changing focus to the fast bowling scene in world cricket, Akram rated Brett Lee as the best and had some words of advice for Ishant Sharma. "He [Ishant] has to learn quickly. He has been very average in the Asia Cup," he said. "His length has to change in one-day cricket. He is a wicket-taking bowler, and he has to get the new ball. You can't have your third seamer bowling with the new ball."

IPL situation has to be managed - Lorgat

Haroon Lorgat: "The root of this issue is the sums of money involved - it is far more attractive financially to play in the IPL".

Haroon Lorgat, the new ICC chief executive, has raised concerns over the future of international cricket given the growing financial attraction of the Indian Premier League and hinted at the need for a window for the league in the international calendar. His comments were made during a media interaction at Lord's on Thursday, the day Sri Lanka Cricket said it allowed its players to participate in the Indian Premier League next year though it coincided with a tour of England.

SLC had agreed to the series earlier this week as a replacement for Zimbabwe but gave in after their players lobbied hard - involving the country's president - for the right to play in the IPL. "If we don't manage this situation we could be threatening the lifeblood of all member countries," Lorgat said. "International cricket generates revenue that is essential to our survival.

"My folks always told me to be careful because money is the root of all evil. The root of this issue is the sums of money involved - it is far more attractive financially to play in the IPL."

With the status of the Sri Lanka tour still unclear, he added: "It is up to Sri Lanka to sort out the situation. To satisfy players financially by relying on their payments from IPL is not sustainable. Players have short careers and they want immediate rewards but we have to educate them about the development of the game. All of us, players included, must be responsible during this time of enormous opportunity.

"There is no doubt that there are inherent conflicts in the situation. Each country would rather look after its own interests and then you also have to get together to look after the global interests. I would hope that the ICC has people with the integrity to look after the game globally."

He also said that one of the solutions to the problem could be the creation of an IPL window. "I suspect that the prospect of a window for IPL is a subject that will not disappear from the radar."

Proposal for English IPL-style event

The BBC have reported that plans have been drawn up for a £50million tournament to rival the IPL. It would include nine franchise-based sides linked to the grounds that already stage international matches, although the ECB have played down the suggestion.

MCC, Lancashire, Hampshire and Surrey have reportedly backed the 57-match event earmarked for June and July 2010, although MCC declined to comment.

It is said that the proposals are due to be discussed by the ECB later this month but a spokesman said nothing was on the agenda, while chairman Giles Clarke added: "I am firmly told that this document is not endorsed by the MCC."

Hampshire, one the counties backing the plans, said: "The intelligent and well-considered proposal for such a new Twenty20 competition has been prepared in response to ECB's recent invitation for submissions. The proposal demonstrates significant benefits for all stakeholders in English cricket, with minimal disruption to the traditional domestic structure. Hampshire fully supports the proposal.

"Hampshire understands that the proposal has been correctly submitted to the ECB board by two directors of that board, and cannot perceive of any reason why this should not be seriously considered along with any other validated submissions."

This is just the latest speculation surrounding how English cricket is going to respond to the IPL. There is talk of a 10-day window for international players next April to allow contracted England stars to take part, but the ECB have tried to ward of the threat of lucrative contracts by signing their five-year deal with Allen Stanford.

It is widely accepted that there will be an English version of the IPL in the near future, probably as soon as the new-round of television contracts come into effect from 2010. Further details about this most recent proposal suggest it will include an IPL-style bidding process, a salary cap and a ruling on the number of English youngsters who have to play.

However, the most notable feature if the idea was to get off the ground would be the city-based franchises, a departure from the current county set-up. The likes of Manchester would take on Birmingham instead of Lancashire playing Warwickshire.

Government must take initiative - Sohail

Aamer Sohail: "It is the president's duty to speak to individual countries and convince them to come over and play in Pakistan".

As concerns grow over whether or not the Champions Trophy will be held in Pakistan, there is a feeling Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf should convince nations such as Australia and England not to give the event a miss if it is staged here.

Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi are scheduled to host the tournament in September but growing fears over the turbulence have led to some players expressing unease about playing here. The boards of Australia, England and New Zealand are awaiting the assessment of a team of security experts that was in Pakistan during the just-concluded Asia Cup before they make a final decision. Sri Lanka is the official alternative venue should the tournament be moved away.

Aamer Sohail, former Test opener and captain, believes Musharraf, who is also patron of the PCB, should be more proactive. "It is the president's duty to speak to individual countries and convince them to come over and play in Pakistan," Sohail told Cricinfo.

"What is happening in the country is basically the result of Pakistan leading this war against terror," Sohail said. "We are paying for fighting it. Countries such as Australia and England are our allies in this war on terror, yet they are not supporting us here. Are we real allies or are we just being used?"

Earlier in the year, Australia pulled out of a full tour to the country due to security fears but the successful, untroubled hosting of the Asia Cup in Lahore and Karachi was supposed to have eased the way for the Champions Trophy. A spate of bombings since, however, have once again cast doubt over the tournament, the ICC saying that they too were awaiting a report from their security consultants before taking a final decision on the venue. A bomb in Islamabad on the night of the final - in Karachi - killed ten people, while Karachi experienced seven low-intensity blasts the very next day.

"If the tournament isn't held here because of these reasons," Sohail said, "it will be a really sad day for Pakistan cricket. It is an unfair price for us to pay. This tournament is a real test of our role in this war: after eight years in the front-line, is this our reward - that we miss out on hosting this tournament? The onus is on the president to convince countries that it is safe to play in Pakistan and that sport has never been targeted here. The ICC and PCB are going the whole hog in ensuring it happens here but the president can really help with his involvement."

A board official also backed the idea, further arguing that the country's foreign office should play a role. "The ICC and PCB will try their level best to make sure it happens in Pakistan, but it is upto individual governments to ensure their teams come. And the president's input here can really help."

Musharraf attended the Asia Cup final between India and Sri Lanka, where he spoke at the post-match ceremony about the need for cricket to go on despite the bombings. "But the fight against terrorism must go on and life must continue. We have to fight terrorism together," he said. "Such healthy competitions are important and necessary for Pakistan and in this region. I congratulate the Pakistan board and the Asian Cricket Council for organising this event successfully."

Symonds unsure over safety in Pakistan

Andrew Symonds is not ready to go to Pakistan yet.

Andrew Symonds, the Australian allrounder, is not yet convinced about players' safety in Pakistan, the venue of the Champions Trophy in September. Symonds had expressed reservations ahead of Australia's scheduled tour to Pakistan earlier this year, which was postponed.

Although Pakistan recently hosted the Asia Cup concerns have grown following attacks in Islamabad, the capital, and in the port city of Karachi the last week.

"My feelings haven't changed a great deal," Symonds said on his arrival from the West Indies. "I don't mind the odd game of cricket for Australia, but it is only a game at the end of the day, and putting yourself in a position where you're not safe, to me is ridiculous."

Symonds' opinion, though, was in complete contrast to fellow Queensland allrounder Shane Watson. "Personally, I'd go anywhere, I'll play anywhere, I just want to play for my country," Watson said. The ODI series in the West Indies marked Watson's comeback to the team after more than a year, and he's ready to play for Australia anywhere.

"That's what I've worked so hard for, the injuries I've had, pretty up and down times over the last year, so I'd do anything to play for my country so wherever we have to go, I'll go."

Michael Clarke, who captained Australia in Ricky Ponting's absence for the final two ODIs, declined to comment, leaving the issue to the game's administrators. Clarke said he would wait to hear what Cricket Australia, the Australian Cricketers' Association and the International Cricket Council decided on the issue.

Ponting had indicated last month players were still uneasy over touring Pakistan last month. Cricket Australia is expected to take a decision within two weeks, while the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) chief executive Paul Marsh said decision will not be made before it get reports from its security experts and the Federation of International Cricket Associations. The ICC is yet to make its final decision on Pakistan conducting the tournament. Sri Lanka is the alternate host for the Champions Trophy, but South Africa have also been tipped as a replacement.

Australia are drawn in a pool comprising India, Pakistan and the West Indies, and are scheduled to play their first match against India in Lahore on September 13. Symonds, Clarke and Watson have been named in Australia's their preliminary 30-man squad for the tournament.

ICC forms committee on 'unauthorised cricket'

The Indian Cricket League might get the ICC's authorisation to conduct exhibition games.

The ICC has taken the first significant step towards resolving the contentious issue of unauthorised cricket - including the status of the Indian Cricket League (ICL) - by setting up a high-powered committee to study its legal aspects. It has also discussed the issue of global agreements to prevent cricketers from appearing in such games, Cricinfo has learnt.

The committee, which was formalised during the ICC's annual meeting in Dubai last week, includes Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, Norman Arendse, the Cricket South Africa president, Shashank Manohar, the BCCI's president-elect, Lalit Modi, a vice-president of the BCCI [and the IPL's chairman and commissioner] and David Becker, the ICC's senior counsel - business and commercial.

The committee was set up after officials were made aware the ICL may explore the possibility of coming under the governing body's umbrella as "a kind of authorised unofficial cricket" under a specific rule that deals with exhibition matches and other games of a similar nature. It is understood that preliminary discussions took place in Bangalore during a meeting of key ICC board members on April 18, before the inaugural IPL game.

When asked about the committee and its objectives, an ICC spokesperson said, "The purpose of the group is to ensure that whatever conclusion is reached is in the best interests of the game."

The issue of the ICL and its status came into focus on the sidelines of the ICC annual meeting last week when officials from India, England, Australia and South Africa met for a discussion on the proposed Twenty20 Champions League.

While India, Australia and South Africa are clear that players associated with the ICL cannot take part in the league, England will have to take a tough call on the issue as around 25 ICL players are currently playing for 15 English counties. Officially, the ECB does not support any involvement with unofficial cricket but, in this situation, has to operate within the stringent trade laws in England.

The ICC, meanwhile, has also sent a letter to the ICL seeking details of its correspondence with the BCCI on the issue of their status in the game. An ICL official told Cricinfo the letter was received last week and added the league is yet to send its response. Himanshu Mody, the ICL's business head, confirmed the development to Cricinfo but declined to comment on it. When asked about the letter, the ICC spokesperson said, "Dialogue and correspondence on the subject is ongoing."

According to ICL officials, they had first written to the BCCI in April 2007 informing them about their plans to hold a city-based Twenty20 league. "But they reacted harshly to the issue," an official said.

The BCCI is very clear it would not budge on the ICL. "We had received two or three letters from the ICL, but we made our position very clear early that they cannot be recognised," a BCCI official said. The BCCI has barred all official contact with players associated with ICL and expects all other members of the ICC to align with them on the issue.

The ICL has already organised three Twenty20 tournaments and a 50-over competition but its status was placed on the international cricket stage this April by Malcolm Speed, the former ICC CEO, who said the governing body had received a letter from the league seeking clarity on their existence. Speed, who was since told to go on "paid leave" by the ICC before his successor Haroon Lorgat took charge last week, had also said that the issue was being handled by the ICC's lawyers.

Later, Dave Richardson, who took over from Speed on an interim basis, said the ICC would go by the BCCI's policy towards ICL. "The ICL is a domestic event that takes place in India so our rules prescribe that any decision as to whether an event be regarded as official or not must be made by the country that event is played in," Richardson had said.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rohit and Ojha included for Sri Lanka Tests

Pragyan Ojha and Rohit Sharma are the new faces in the Indian Test squad.

India have included uncapped players Rohit Sharma and Pragyan Ojha in the 16-member squad for the three-Test series in Sri Lanka. Yuvraj Singh has been left out, while Gautam Gambhir wins the opener's slot ahead of Wasim Jaffer. Zaheer Khan also returns to the team after injury niggles ruled him out of international action so far this year. With Mahendra Singh Dhoni opting out, the selectors have named two wicketkeepers in Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel. The selection committee also announced the 30 probables for the Champions Trophy in September.

A source in the BCCI said the selectors decided to give Yuvraj"a break" with an eye on the amount of cricket coming up and considering the slim chances of him getting a slot in the final XI for the three Tests in Sri Lanka. "The selectors decided to give him a break, considering the amount of cricket he has played recently and the cricket that is coming up in which he will play a crucial role," the source told Cricinfo. "Also, they felt it would have been difficult to accommodate him in the final XI for the Tests in a line-up that already has Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly. These were the two main factors that were considered in Yuvraj's case." Unlike Dhoni, Yuvraj did not ask for a break, but it was felt that he needed one, the source said.

Yuvraj marked his comeback to the Test team with a 169 against Pakistan in Bangalore last year, but was dropped from the XI after scoring 19 runs in four innings during the Test series in Australia. Yuvraj is also susceptible against spin, another factor that could have gone against him, given the conditions in Sri Lanka.

Irfan Pathan, Piyush Chawla, Mohammad Kaif and Ramesh Powar are the other omissions from the Test squad that featured in the home series against South Africa. Harbhajan Singh returns to international cricket after completing his five-match ODI ban for slapping Sreesanth, who wasn't in the reckoning as he's still recovering from a side strain. The squad consists of seven batsmen, two wicketkeepers, four fast bowlers and three spinners.

Top Curve
Test squad for Sri Lanka

  • Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, Rohit Sharma, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Anil Kumble (capt), Harbhajan Singh, Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan, RP Singh, Munaf Patel, Pragyan Ojha.
Bottom Curve

Part of the winning ICC World Twenty20 side in South Africa, Rohit impressed in the CB Series in Australia earlier this year and continued his form for the Deccan Chargers in the IPL. Ojha, the Hyderabad left-arm spinner, recently earned a call-up to the ODI side. "It's a dream come true. Any cricketer would want and expect to play for the country," Ojha told Cricinfo.

"I didn't particularly think about the Sri Lanka series but I knew if I keep bowling well I would get a chance. No wild celebrations now as I want to perform on the field. I will be concentrating on my flight and changes in pace and will generally try to bowl like I do in the Ranji Trophy."

Gambhir forces his way back into the Test team on the string of impressive performances in limited-overs cricket and domestic tournaments. He replaces Jaffer, who's had a poor run in Tests since the Eden Gardens Test against Pakistan last year, in which he scored a double-century.

Parthiv last played for India in October 2004; since then Karthik and Dhoni have won favour for a spot in the Indian team. Karthik last played the Bangalore Test against Pakistan, which Dhoni had to skip due to an ankle injury. Karthik had played as a specialist opener in Test series in Bangladesh and England last year, and in the home Tests against Pakistan.

Karthik was surprised with his selection. "I didn't know if Dhoni was playing the series or not. It feels great that they have given me a chance." he told Cricinfo. "I don't see this a stop-gap arrangement for Dhoni but will look at this as a great opportunity to perform and prove my credentials.

Top Curve
Champions Trophy probables

  • Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Sachin Tendulkar, Robin Uthappa, Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan, Praveen Kumar, Rohit Sharma, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Manpreet Gony, S Badrinath, Mohammad Kaif, Harbhajan Singh, Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan, RP Singh, Sreesanth, Pragyan Ojha, Piyush Chawla, Manoj Tiwary, Abhishek Nayar, Pankaj Singh, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravindra Jadeja, Yusuf Pathan, Murali Kartik.
Bottom Curve

"Ajantha Mendis will be a tough bowler to pick but it's really exciting challenge to play someone like him. I am confident that if I get a chance I will do my best to perform both in batting and wicketkeeping."

Parthiv was due to lead India A in the Emerging Players Tournament in Australia. Suresh Raina replaces him, while S Badrinath will captain the team. Parthiv had an impressive 2006-07 first-class season, scoring 1103 runs in 13 games at 58.05 as he captained Gujarat to victory in the Ranji Trophy Plate League.

"It's a great opportunity," Parthiv told Cricinfo. "I've been performing really well in the last three domestic seasons. At the back of my mind, there was the possibility of me being picked. I know what it takes to be a Test player."

Arthur excited by pace battery

Morne Morkel, one of South Africa's up-and-comers.

South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur, believes his side holds the edge going into Thursday's keenly anticipated first Test at Lord's, both in terms of the battery of quick bowlers at their disposal, and the solidity that comes from their recent run of six series wins out of seven. England may be on the verge of naming the same side for a record sixth match in a row, but in Arthur's opinion, without Andrew Flintoff in their ranks, they are some way short of a full-strength line-up.

"England are probably where we were a year ago," said Arthur. "They aren't quite as settled as we are at the moment, but they are a very good team, and incredibly hard to beat at home. Against New Zealand, they were very good and very steady, and did a good job as a unit, but what they did lack was the genuine pace of a Flintoff, Steve Harmison, or even a Simon Jones."

If Arthur sounded as though he was damning England with faint praise, then it was entirely intentional. With a pace-dominated line-up, spearheaded by Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and the indefatigable Makhaya Ntini, South Africa know they have the weapons to inflict some serious dents on England's reputation. And there's no better place to start the barrage than at Lord's - a venue where England have been routed in all three contests since South Africa's readmission.

On the field, South Africa have promised to take a buttoned-lip approach to the contest, especially where Graeme Smith's lingering feud with Kevin Pietersen is concerned, but from the sidelines, Arthur wasn't afraid to take a few well-aimed pot-shots. He fully expects Flintoff to return to the side for the second Test at Headingley on July 18, which means that England's internal battle for selection could bubble to the surface during the Lord's Test.

In particular, Arthur singled out Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood - who managed a grand total of 77 runs in eight innings against New Zealand - as two batsmen scrapping for a solitary place. "The 'Freddie' Flintoff factor lingers over England, because he's too good a player not to be picked," said Arthur. "If you've got a class performer, a fantastic cricketer like him available to you, I think you'd be silly not to select him.

"He's got to come back, and he's got to come back for somebody unlucky. Within the whole pressure cooker of Test cricket, there might be one or two little personal contests going on in the England side. If we can get into 5 and 6 when the ball is pretty new, that'll be good, and there's also going to be one bowler with a cloud over him, knowing that Flintoff will be back for the second Test match."

That bowler, regardless of the superb impression he has made since coming into the team at Wellington in March, could well be Stuart Broad, who batted with incredible poise in the home series against New Zealand to average 39.66 from No. 8, but managed only seven wickets in six innings, less than half the tally of either James Anderson (19) or Ryan Sidebottom (17). But if Broad was anxious about his role in the side he certainly didn't show it, as he backed England's bowlers to play to their strengths in the coming weeks, and avoid getting drawn into a speed-gun war.

South Africa are confident that England will pick a fit-again Andrew Flintoff for the second Test at Headingley, which could force out Stuart Broad.

"I don't think we need to meet their pace and bounce at all," said Broad. "We need to stick to what we've done well in the past four or five Tests. We have two world-class swing bowlers up front, and we bowled New Zealand out four times in five Tests, so we don't need to chase to be someone we're not. All of us are above 85mph which is useful, but we look to do things with the ball. We're not going to charge in and try bowl 90mph, because that would send our techniques and radar awry."

That's not an issue that concerns South Africa's quick bowlers, however. Morkel, with his 6'6" frame, bowls with a splice-rattling pace reminiscent of Steve Harmison in his pomp, and at Uxbridge against Middlesex over the weekend, he put the finishing touches to his preparation for Lord's. "When everything is feeling 100% and my rhythm is nice, I'll definitely be trying to crank it up," he said. "The ball is coming out quite nicely and it's nice to see the batsmen jumping around a bit. Come Thursday, it will be the England batsmen who are in my sights. I can't wait."

The rich promise of both Morkel and Steyn fills Arthur with optimism for the future of South African cricket. With a combined age of 46, he fully expects them to be ranked as Nos. 1 and 2 in the world within two years, and in fact, Steyn, with 78 Test wickets in the last calendar year, is already regarded as the best fast bowler in the world. However, it is the overall shape of South Africa's attack that has earned them the favourite's tag for this summer.

"We've worked quite hard as a set-up to get to where we are now," said Arthur, whose squad is arguably as united as at any time in their post-Apartheid history, with every member of the starting 11, irrespective of creed, earning their place in the side on merit. "We are a goal-orientated side. It's taken us two years to get this team, and a series win in England is high up on our priorities.

"We set about getting an attack with three strikers," said Arthur, who once again underlined the importance of a world-class allrounder. "We're very lucky to have Jacques Kallis, he's like a 12th player for us, because he bats in the top four, and he bowls in the top four, if you like. He gives us unbelievable balance, because he can play any role we want.

"But we wanted three strikers bowling over 140kph," said Arthur. "One who can swing it in, as Steyn does, Makhaya who angles across the left-handers especially, and Morne Morkel who gets unbelievable bounce. These guys are hugely exciting and it's going to be a treat to watch them this summer."

England v South Africa, 1st Test, Lord's

Conquering England high on Kallis' ambitions

Jacques Kallis: "There are three things I really want to achieve: One is beating England in England, a second is beating Australia - and the third is winning the World Cup".

Despite spirited performances in their three previous tours, South Africa have yet to win a Test series in England since their readmission to the international sporting arena in the early 1990s. Jacques Kallis was part of the team that lost 2-1 in 1998 and drew 2-2 in 2003, and he's very keen to redress that this time around.

"There are three things I really want to achieve: One is beating England in England, a second is beating Australia - and the third is winning the World Cup," Kallis told "We've come close in the past and made some silly mistakes at times when we shouldn't have." South Africa held a 2-1 lead in 2003 going into the final Test at The Oval, where despite making 484 in the first innings, the visitors lost after Marcus Trescothick scored a double-century.

"This time we hope we can learn from those mistakes and get the foot all the way in through the door, not just halfway - and make sure we play those big moments better than England," he said. "We're probably just favourites - although England being at home maybe makes it pretty much even.

"We've worked hard on our game. Everything we've done in the last year has been towards this series and the Australian one still to come," Kallis said. Kallis has also been assisting younger players such as AB de Villers and JP Duminy with their batting. "I started doing it during the past year or so," he said. "It's always nice when someone is successful after you have been helping him. By putting yourself in a team-mate's boots and pointing out to him what he may be doing wrong you think about your own game and what you have to do."

Kallis also indicated his team will have to dismiss the South African-born Kevin Pietersen early. "He is obviously a key batsman, who has done well in these conditions. The wickets are quite slow here, and that does suit the way he bats," he said. "He's a world-class player who's proven it over the last few years, so we'll have to be on top of our game against him. It will be important that we try and attack him early and get him out early."

Disenchanted with the quota system in South Africa, Pietersen opted to play for England; his eligibility coming courtesy of an English mother. Pietersen's tiff with Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, is well known, but both Kallis and Mark Boucher said their team respected the England batsman.

"I respect Kevin as a person and what he's been through," Boucher said. "I take my hat off to him, and he's a great player.We see him as England's best batsman. But come game time, it's about South Africa v England, and we've got to try and get him out.

"Just because it's Kevin, it doesn't make any difference to us. We just want to get an English batsman out."

ECB name Sri Lanka as Zimbabwe replacement

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Sri Lanka in England 2009

  • April 21-23: Leicestershire (Leicester)
  • April 25-27: Essex (Chelmsford)
  • April 29-May 3: England Lions (Derby)
  • May 7-11: 1st Test (Lord's)
  • May 15-19: 2nd Test (Chester-le-Street)
  • May 21: Somerset (Taunton)
  • May 24: 1st ODI (Bristol)
  • May 27: 2nd ODI (Edgbaston)
  • May 30: 3rd ODI (Headingley)
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England will host Sri Lanka for two Tests and three ODIs in April and May next year. Sri Lanka's tour slots in the fixture gap caused by England's decision to suspend bilateral ties with Zimbabwe and the cancellation of their 2009 visit.

David Collier, the ECB chief executive, was pleased with Sri Lankan's willingness to step in and ensure England will have a competitive series ahead of the Ashes later in the summer.

"The strong and close relationship which we built up during our recent winter tours to Sri Lanka allowed the ECB, at short notice, to be able to approach Sri Lanka and confirm their availability for the international matches in the early part of next summer," he said.

The ECB cancelled Zimbabwe's tour last month, minutes after Gordon Brown, the prime minister, told the House of Commons that he wanted the tour scrapped. The ban on a team from Zimbabwe entering the country also put in doubt England's hosting of next year's World Twenty20 next year, but as of now the issue has been resolved with Zimbabwe pulling out of the event.

Sri Lanka play three three-day games ahead of the Tests series, followed by a warm-up one-dayer before the ODI series.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Dhoni pulls out of Sri Lanka Tests

A battle-weary Mahendra Singh Dhoni had opted out of the Sri Lanka Tests.

The speculation about Mahendra Singh Dhoni's availability for the Test series in Sri Lanka has been laid to rest with the BCCI making it official that he has requested for a break. Ratnakar Shetty, BCCI's chief administrative officer said Dhoni, India's limited-overs' captain, had personally conveyed the message. "Yes, he (Dhoni) has told the board that he would like to rest for the Test series against Sri Lanka", Shetty said.

Till late on Monday night there was a question mark over Dhoni's participation in the tour after his own public statements did not clear the air. Mid-way through the recent Asia Cup in Pakistan recently, Dhoni spoke about fatigue as a result of back-to-back-matches. On Monday, he welcomed the BCCI's policy for allowing players the choice to sit out if they wanted some rest. "The board has done a good thing by saying that if someone needs rest, he can opt out", Dhoni said.

India's coach Gary Kirsten has also expressed concern about packed schedules and how important it was for key players like Dhoni to take a break. Since 2007, Dhoni has played 14 Tests, 56 ODIs and eight Twenty20 internationals - 134 days of international cricket in a span of less than 20 months. He also captained Chennai Super Kings to the final of the Indian Premier League, and featured in all their 16 matches.

Dhoni, in private, had complained about exhaustion after India's triumph in the CB Series in Australia earlier this year. Despite recovering from a finger injury, he kept the suspense hanging over his availability before the Tests against South Africa, before going on to play the entire series. Since the rigorous IPL campaign with the Chennai Super Kings, Dhoni has played non-stop, leading the side during the Kitply Cup as well as the Asia Cup.

In Dhoni's absence, Dinesh Karthik is likely to take over wicketkeeping duties ahead of Parthiv Patel. Karthik last played in the Bangalore Test against Pakistan last December, which Dhoni had to skip due to an ankle injury. Karthik had played as a specialist opener in Test series in Bangladesh and England last year, and in the home Tests against Pakistan. He was picked in the squad for the Australia tour, but didn't play any of the Tests.

India in Sri Lanka 2008

Ponting concerned over Test cricket's future

Ricky Ponting: 'I think it's up to all of us to make sure that we're putting on a good enough spectacle to bring crowds back to the game'.

Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, believes that Test cricket isn't in a healthy state and that international players have a duty to provide entertaining matches to ensure its future in the wake of Twenty20's popularity.

Speaking to Cricinfo SportsCenter after returning home from Australia's undefeated tour of the West Indies, Ponting added that he'd be open to the proposed tournament-style Test world championship, but would reserve judgment until he'd seen its format.

"A few 50-over games will make way for 20-over cricket but I'd hate to see it touch Test cricket," he said. "Right at the moment, (Test cricket) is probably not in its healthiest state. I think it's up to all of us to make sure that we're putting on a good enough spectacle to bring crowds back to the game."

Ponting said finding the right formula for a Test tournament would be the biggest challenge. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it, but I think the logistics of it is going to be the difficult thing," he said. "What it does do, I guess, is make sure that every Test you play has a lot riding on it as far as points go. But I've always said that every Test match Australia plays always means a lot to us anyway."

Ponting is resting after undergoing minor surgery in Melbourne for a tendon injury in his right wrist that forced him out of Australia's final two one-day internationals in the Caribbean. His fitness will be assessed for Australia's home series against Bangladesh starting next month and September's Champions Trophy in Pakistan.

Ponting suffered the injury during Australia's third one-day international in Grenada on June 29.

"I did it about 20 runs into my innings and sort of battled through that with a few painkillers and taped it up," he said. "I tried to get up for the fourth game but basically couldn't lift my bat in the nets."

Ponting, however, is confident that the emerging members of the squad will continue to pick up the slack in what he describes as a transitional period for his side.

"We haven't got the old, wise heads to call on all the time but the blokes we're bringing in are certainly getting the job done for us. Whenever you have a big changeover of players as we've had in the last 18 months, it's very satisfying to continue to win games and win series."

Ponting identified the performances of the allrounder Shane Watson, substitute wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi and bastman David Hussey as the most pleasing from the one-day sweep of the West Indies.

"All the guys who came in were some our better players through the tournament," he said. "With our set up here in Australia, the gap between first-class and international cricket isn't as steep as it is some other places. I expect players to come in and have an impact straight away."

Question mark over Dhoni's availability

Will he or won't he?: Mahendra Singh Dhoni may opt of the Sri Lanka series for the sake of rest.

A day before the national selectors meet to pick India's Test squad for the tour of Sri Lanka, much of the speculation surrounds the participation of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Unconfirmed reports suggest Dhoni may skip the series and, while his own public statements have not cleared the air either way, the Indian board says it is unaware of any such decision.

"He [Dhoni] hasn't informed us about sitting out of the Test series. If he wants to sit out, he is free to do so," Niranjan Shah, the BCCI secretary, said.

Midway through the recent Asia Cup in Pakistan recently, Dhoni spoke about fatigue as a result of back-to-back-matches. On Monday, he welcomed Shah's statement: "The board has done a good thing by saying that if someone needs rest, he can opt out."

This is not the first time Dhoni has considered opting out of a tour. In private, he had complained about exhaustion after India's triumph in the CB Series in Australia earlier this year. Despite recovering from a finger injury, he kept the suspense hanging over his availability before the Tests against South Africa, before going on to play the entire series. Since the rigorous IPL campaign with the Chennai Super Kings, Dhoni has played non-stop, leading the side during the Kitply Cup as well as the Asia Cup.

India's coach Gary Kirsten, writing on his website, expressed concern about packed schedules and how important it was for key players like Dhoni to take a break. If Dhoni does request a break, Dinesh Karthik, who was last part of the Indian squad for the Australian tour, is strongly favoured to be the replacement ahead of Parthiv Patel.

The BCCI is yet to decide on the actual strength of the squad due to fitness concerns from the fast bowlers. "We will only decide tomorrow," Shah said when asked if it will be a 15- or a 16-member squad.

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Five questions before the selectors

  • Gautam Gambhir is India's best one-day batsman in the current year. Has he done enough to oust Wasim Jaffer from the Test opener's slot?
  • Does Suresh Raina, on current ODI form, deserve a place in the Test line-up?
  • How many pace bowlers to pick? Two spinners are likely in the playing XI on the slow pitches in Sri Lanka, but considering the injury problems, should they have a fifth seamer in the squad as insurance?
  • Is Irfan Pathan a risk considering that he failed to report his side strain to the selectors ahead of the Asia Cup, missed the initial games, and has been in poor form since?
  • Will Pragyan Ojha be called into the squad as a back-up spinner ahead of Piyush Chawla?
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What is certain, though, is the return of experience to the squad in the form of Anil Kumble, Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan. Kumble had to sit out of the last Test India played, against South Africa in Kanpur, while Tendulkar, who had opted out mid-way through the same series due to a groin injury, will submit a fitness certificate tomorrow. Zaheer has not played since his heel injury resurfaced after the first Test against Australia last year.

A big loss is the unavailability of Sreesanth, who has been advised a few more weeks' rest. That, and the below-par performances of RP Singh and Irfan Pathan, is the chief reason behind the selectors being hard-pressed to include Zaheer. Pathan is likely to get the axe due to his fitness. He failed to report his side strain to the selectors ahead of the Asia Cup, and missed the initial games and his bowling form since his return has been ordinary.

Among the slow bowlers, Harbhajan Singh is expected to return to the squad as the second spinner, having served the five-match ban imposed on him for slapping Sreesanth during an IPL game. If the selectors opt for a third spinner, the left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, who made his ODI debut in the Asia Cup, is the frontrunner. "He qualified for the national team based on the long spells he's bowled on the domestic circuit and he brings variety," a national selector said about Ojha.

At the top of the order, Gautam Gambhir's solid performances in the one-dayers and the IPL might force the selectors to consider him ahead of Wasim Jaffer, who has looked scratchy in the last couple of series (in Australia, he made 49 runs in three Tests, while he only managed 126 runs in as many matches against South Africa).

In addition to the squad for the Sri Lanka Tests, the selectors will also pick a pool of 30 probables for the Champions Trophy in September in Pakistan.

Anderson relishes competition

James Anderson: 'We know he's there [Flintoff] but he's a completely different bowler to me so I'm just going to have to continue what I'm doing and if they pick him ahead of me then that's out of my hands'.

Andrew Flintoff might be the one name English cricket most wants to return to the top, but his looming presence isn't wavering James Anderson's focus ahead of the first Test against South Africa.

Flintoff hasn't played for England since the Sydney Test in 2007, but has bowled himself into terrific form for Lancashire this summer after overcoming ankle surgery in the winter. He was not picked for the first Test at Lord's, though few doubt the selectors will resist the urge to call him up at some point this summer. For Anderson, however, Flintoff's return is regarded "as an extra incentive".

"There's not just Fred [Flintoff] knocking on the door but there's also Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones now back bowling well and players like Sajid (Mahmood) and Liam Plunkett desperate to get back into the side," he said.

"You've got all these guys taking wickets regularly so you know you've got to keep doing the same if you're going to keep your place. It's not just Fred we're looking over our shoulders at, although he's obviously the biggest of the lot trying to get back. We know he's there but he's a completely different bowler to me so I'm just going to have to continue what I'm doing and if they pick him ahead of me then that's out of my hands."

Though the return of Flintoff is hotly anticipated, sneaking up on the inside is Jones. After moving from Glamorgan to Worcestershire in the winter, he has taken 26 wickets in five Championship games, nudging 90mph. He hasn't played since his key role in the 2005 Ashes and Anderson admitted that he and his colleagues have been keeping a keen eye on the performances of former England bowlers.

"When we're in the dressing room we all look at each other's counties to see how they're getting on so we all know who's doing well and what other people are doing," he said. "I've been in the same situation as them when I've gone back to Lancashire and I had to bowl well and take wickets consistently for my county to try and get myself back in the team. I've been in their position and I know how they're feeling and how frustrating it is when you can't get back into the team, but all of them who are trying to get back into the team are my mates, I've been on tours and played with them so I hope they do well - I just hope I do better than them to keep my place!"

He added: "We were talking the other day about how the four pace bowlers from the 2005 Ashes are now all back bowling again, fit and taking wickets.

"From mine, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom's points of view we're hoping they don't get the chance to bowl again together for England - if we do keep them out of the team that obviously means we're doing well which has to be a good thing."

We never had a reply for Mendis - Dhoni

Yuvraj Singh was bowled off the second ball he faced from Ajantha Mendis.

A tournament deserves the final it gets, it is said sometimes. On the surface, the Asia Cup, with its long-drawn format featuring as many minnows as regular teams, got the final it deserved: another one-sided contest. But scratch the surface and you find a match that ebbed and flowed, one with three individual performances of sheer genius which the tournament badly needed.

"After the game it looked one-sided," Mahela Jayawardene said. "Going into the game it wasn't one-sided at all."

India appeared to have run away with both bat and ball at the start but Sri Lanka fought back. Ishant Sharma took quick wickets to reduce Sri Lanka to 67 for 4 and Virender Sehwag's opening salvo tore their new-ball attack apart. However, while India's bowlers recovered from Sanath Jayasuriya's onslaught to restrict Sri Lanka to 273 their batsmen were unable to decode Ajantha Mendis and the run-chase never recovered from his mesmerising opening spell.

"Sanath took his chances even when they were four down," Mahendra Singh Dhoni said. "They took chances because they had in their minds that we were capable of chasing 300. It was a brilliant innings." Jayawardene said that although Mendis deservedly stole the glory, it was Jayasuriya's knock that kept them in the final.

Virender Sehwag's innings, a 36-ball 60 that would in most circumstances be enough to chase of 274, threatened to eclipse Jayasuriya before it was cut short. He flicked, glanced, pulled, drove straight and through covers, late-cut, and kept everyone rapt.

"I had no option at that time [but to introduce Mendis in the ninth over]," said Jayawardene. "Virender was batting very well, and we needed to take a wicket. I knew the ball would be too new for Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan]. We just took a gamble."

The contest had a tantalizing build-up. Sri Lanka had rested Mendis in their Super Four match against India, which, if they had won, would have virtually knocked India out of the competition. Instead they chose to rest Mendis, perhaps in order to spring a surprise in the final. It was only his eighth ODI and the challenge facing Mendis was formidable: he had to try and end Sehwag's aggression during the first Powerplay in a tournament final.

Perhaps out of over-confidence or merely because he treats spin with disdain, Sehwag tried to step out to Mendis' first ball but had to defend. He tried to do it again the very next delivery but this time Mendis beat him in flight and cut the leg break past the bat, leaving Kumar Sangakkara with an easy stumping.

In the overs to come, as if every wicket that fell to Mendis' guile enhanced his mystery in the Indian dressing-room, the batsmen played a succession of injudicious shots. Mendis' simplicity prevailed over all of them. He stuck to an immaculate in-between length, which made the batsman uncomfortable playing on either on the front or back foot. His stock delivery remained the straighter one, and the Indian batsmen reacted like rats to the Pied Piper.

Dhoni, whose innings stood out for its sensible approach, was mesmerised even at the press-conference. For every question demanding explanations for the defeat, he the same answer: Mendis.

"Most of our batsmen couldn't pick him," Dhoni said. "We had never played him before. We had only seen videos and you can visualise and all, but he was difficult to pick out there in the middle. We never had any real reply against him."

Why did they make the defensive move of playing an extra batsman? "The main reason to add one batsman was Mendis," Dhoni said. "Our bowlers did well to restrict them to 273, and Mendis bowled well and that was the reason we lost.

"It was like you were playing something else, and the ball was something else. I won't really blame the batsman, we couldn't pick the deliveries. If you see our bowling, it was the best bowling line-up we could offer when we wanted one more extra batsman in the side. They tried their best and we could have got 274 but for the Mendis factor."

Mendis' challenge begins now

Video machines and laptops will start whirring, chewing up Ajantha Mendis' every step, his every variation, his every grip.

Lord knows how they classify Ajantha Mendis in other areas of the world but round these parts, people of a certain vintage will most likely refer to him as a finger bowler.

These were types found mostly in Karachi in the 1970s, tennis ball in hand and an unresponsive tarmac road or cement pitch to bowl on, odds stacked against them. The ball was squeezed in the kind of grip Jack Iverson had, or for locals, similar to how you would strike the striker on a carrom board.

On pitching and regaining its original shape again the ball would shoot through, with sharp spin either way, predictably leaving batsmen none the wiser. Nadeem Moosa was a modest first-class left-arm spinner with the cricket ball in hand but a lethal finger champion with the tennis ball. His success on the local circuit, goes the urban legend, hastened the prevalence of the taped tennis ball: the logic being it was harder to squeeze and thus spin.

But if Mendis keeps bowling as he has done through the Asia Cup, through his brief career so far, eventually people will not much care how to typecast him. Mendis is what he is, for now at least.

His approach to the crease is less run-up and more the hurried walk-through of a harried financial executive. The grips are of the kind super slo-mo was really created for. The absence of a stock ball is the only other tangible conclusion from eight quality overs tonight and many more through the last two weeks. Some he turns one way, some the other, though the most profitable delivery here was the one that threatened much yet did nothing but fizz on straight. In this there were shades of early 1990s Anil Kumble, just wackier and less earnest.

And like Kumble, for tonight at least, he located not just the arrow-straight line but the length: too far forward, you look a fool, stay back and risk being trapped. Admittedly, some of his victims gave themselves up, though it can be argued that in playing for something that never came, the victory is also the bowler's. The legbreak to remove RP Singh should've been reserved for a more capable opponent. Even a hat-trick could've been his, but you suspect more opportunities might come his way against clueless tailenders.

The mystery is now out in the open and every batsman is out to solve it. The real challenge for Mendis, of uncertain categorisation, to maintain that secrecy, begins now

His most remarkable achievement of the night, however, was that facing the great Muttiah Muralitharan appeared a doddle by comparison. Mahendra Singh Dhoni said later that he just couldn't be read at all. His men weren't alone; Mahela Jayawardene admitted he'd been bowled a couple of times facing Mendis and that Kumar Sangakkarra spent an hour a day in the nets before the tournament keeping to Mendis, trying to pick up his variations. It's one thing, Jayawardene said, to read him from the hand, another altogether to then play him off the pitch.

Jayawardene's ploy not to play him in the group game against India was less to rest him than to keep him cloaked in secrecy, though he coyly suggested otherwise later. There has been a growing curiosity around Mendis over the last few months, but this performance will propel him on to the big stage, right in to the glare. The secret is now out. Video machines and laptops will start whirring, chewing up his every step, his every variation, his every grip.

A mystery spinner he has been thus far. The mystery is now out in the open and every batsman is out to solve it. The real challenge for Mendis, of uncertain categorisation, to maintain that secrecy, begins now.

Blighted by bad timing, dead pitches

The sight of Ajantha Mendis bamboozling the batsmen was the rare spectacle in the Asia Cup.

For two weeks almost everyone in Karachi - the department store owner, the chemist, the hotel security guard, the hotel manager, the taxi driver - talked cricket. They discussed Pakistan cricket and the lack of stars and, once Pakistan were out of the tournament, they discussed the strengths of the Indian and Sri Lankan teams. But it's probable that none of them, store owner to taxi driver, bothered to actually turn up at the National Stadium. Even an India-Pakistan match could not fill the stands.

It seems, though, the administrators can't see the problem - or, if they can, don't appear too concerned. Nasim Ashraf, the PCB chairman, called a press-conference in the middle of the Pakistan-Bangladesh game, one of the many one-sided games, and suggested the crowds didn't know what they were missing.

The likely truth is, the crowds knew what they were missing. Because these matches were played in the heat of June and July, and with a fair sprinkling of mismatches - five out of six in the first round - there was hardly anything drawing the paying public to the grounds. One of the reasons why Ashraf thought this Asia Cup was the greatest thing since sliced bread was because more than 600 were being scored in every match. It is time administrators stopped disrespecting the audience's intelligence: a flat wicket, predictably yielding 600 runs, with batsmen getting out due more to fatigue than the skills of their opponents, and bowlers present to make up the numbers, is not cricket, even for fans in the subcontinent. The new rule that has the ball changed after 34 overs hasn't helped matters either; reverse-swing, the only potent weapon left with the bowlers, was conspicuously absent.

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Hits and misses

  • Best bowling attack: Sri Lanka. Chaminda Vaas can take wickets first up and choke runs later, Muttiah Muralitharan is impossible to score off quickly, and then there was Ajantha Mendis.
  • Best innings in a losing cause: Alok Kapali's 115 against India. Directionless talent was finding its way back, the stroke-making was genuine, and the bowlers helpless.
  • Best bowling in a losing cause: Ishant Sharma suddenly found some life in the pitch in the final. The bounce was achieved from a length, the ball held its line sometimes, and he did enough to take 3 for 52 .
  • Costly drops: Among the many spills in the tournament, the reprieves given to Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina by Bangladesh must have hurt the most, given their desperate search for a win against tough opposition.
  • Best entertainers: Shoaib Malik and Geoff Lawson, in their press conferences. It was not ideal, but you will take anything if you are deprived of on-field action.
Bottom Curve

Two of the matches - when pakistan played india to stay alive in the tournament, and the final - did portray what the 50-over game still has going for it. Pakistan fought back having been taken for 88 runs in the first ten overs, India rebuilt after losing four quick wickets, but Pakistan again bowled smartly in the death overs to provide another twist in the game. The final oscillated even more; Ishant Sharma wrecked the Sri Lanka top order, Jayasuriya returned the favour with a blinding counterattack, Virender Sehwag threatened to run away with the match, but Ajantha Mendis came up with one of the sensational spells of our times.

These two matches were good because there was time: for teams to come back, for teams to sustain the lead if they have managed to take it, for the batsmen to pace and build an innings, and for the bowlers to set batsmen up. But to have only two such matches out of 13 is not ideal.

Pakistan, the hosts, fielded one of their most unexciting teams since the 1970s; the flair in their bowling was missed the most. Their leadership lacked direction, their captain and coach fought embarrassingly with the media, and they were one of the reasons the Asia Cup take didn't take off at all. They confounded when they beat India, in true Pakistani fashion, but in a measure too little and at a time too late.

As it turned out the Asia Cup didn't do much, with Twenty20 gradually forcing 50-over cricket into existential crisis, to give the fillip this form of the game needed. The only bright spots of the tournament were the revealing of Ajantha Mendis, the return of Sanath Jayasuriya, 16 years his senior, and Bangladesh's first innings against India in which Alok Kapali scored a stroke-filled century. And all along a creepy feeling accompanied the mind: would not the stands be filled had this been a Twenty20 over Asia Cup?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Australia cruise to 5-0 series win

David Hussey pounded the second-fastest half-century by an Australian in a one-day international.

In a series that has been as one-sided as a Möbius strip, it was somehow appropriate that Australia saved their biggest victory for the final match. They completed a rare ODI cleansweep in the Caribbean with a 169-run thrashing of West Indies and in the process highlighted their enviable depth as Luke Ronchi and David Hussey made two of the fastest half-centuries in one-day international history.

Both men were batting for only the second time in ODIs and their destructive striking suggested that they will become valuable members of the evolving limited-overs side. Ronchi stunned the Warner Park crowd with a 22-ball fifty that was briefly the second-fastest by an Australian in an ODI, but he was quickly bumped down the list when Hussey completed his in only 19 deliveries.

The two men were major contributors to Australia's monster score of 341 for 8, which was their highest ever against West Indies, and the home team never looked like making a successful chase. Mitchell Johnson ended what had been a disheartening tour for him personally on a high with 5 for 29 as Australia became only the third team to wrap up an ODI whitewash against West Indies in the Caribbean.

Johnson was handed the new ball instead of Nathan Bracken and made the most of the opportunity, drawing an edge behind from Chris Gayle and deceiving Ramnaresh Sarwan with a slower ball that had West Indies in trouble at 21 for 2. From there it was a steady decline and the only real bright spot for West Indies was the innings of Shawn Findlay, who in his second match showed some much-needed resolve to finish unbeaten on 59. Johnson returned to grab the final three wickets and earned his second ODI five-wicket haul.

West Indies fizzled out for 172 and it was a limp end from a team whose only strong effort in the series came at the same venue on Friday when they lost by one run. On that occasion they were chasing 283; this time the task was way too tall. Australia's 341 was the sort of score they posted in St Kitts three times in last year's World Cup. For a team used to playing on huge expanses like the MCG, the dimensions of the tiny Warner Park were unlikely to contain their powerful strikers.

Most pleasing for a team being led by an inexperienced captain was that the brightest stars were fringe players. Ronchi, the owner of the fastest domestic one-day century in Australia, brought his skills to the international stage with a 28-ball 64 that justified the captain Michael Clarke's decision to promote him to No. 3. No bowler was safe as Ronchi clubbed six sixes in an innings that will keep the incumbent wicketkeeper Brad Haddin on his toes. He gorged on Gayle's offspin, slamming three drives over the long-off boundary in one over, and he muscled Fidel Edwards over long-on and midwicket for another pair of sixes.

Ronchi also proved himself capable of more conventional shots. He square-drove when given width and brought up his half-century with a powerful drive wide of mid off against Edwards. The St Kitts crowd has witnessed some amazing strokeplay over the past couple of years - it's the venue where Herschelle Gibbs struck six sixes in an over and Matthew Hayden made the quickest World Cup hundred - and after Ronchi's fireworks they were treated to more of the same from Hussey.

His half-century was one ball short of the Australian ODI record, set by Simon O'Donnell against Sri Lanka in Sharjah in 1989-90. It also consigned Ronchi's effort to equal third, alongside Damien Martyn's mauling of Bangladesh in Cairns in 2002. Hussey was aided by some questionable captaincy from Gayle, who asked Sarwan to bowl the 50th over. Hussey brutally dispatched two of Sarwan's legspinners over midwicket and long on - one of the strikes left the stadium - and against the frontline bowlers he swung wildly and accurately. His urgent approach was only possible because of the earlier hard work of his brother Michael and Andrew Symonds.

The pair calmly built a 113-run partnership that ended when Symonds, on 66, edged behind off Edwards. That brought the Hussey brothers together at the crease for the first time in Australian colours. The pair played much backyard cricket in their Perth home as children and there was a flashback to the days of metal stumps for David when his under-edge to Edwards crashed into the stumps at pace, yet failed to dislodge the bail. It capped off a horror day for Edwards, who finished with 3 for 86 from nine overs.

The only bowler to escape with his reputation intact was Nikita Miller, whose 1 for 38 from ten overs suggested West Indies should persist with him for longer than they often do with slow men. In a series where almost nothing has gone right for West Indies, there were at least positive signs from Miller and Findlay.

For Australia, the tour has allowed a series of fringe players to shine. Shaun Marsh played well for his 49 to add to his 81 on debut a fortnight ago, Ronchi has been brilliant behind the stumps and with the bat, David Hussey has two half-centuries from his only two ODI innings and the reinstated opener Shane Watson was the side's leading run scorer in the five games. To cap it all off, Clarke's first two one-day internationals in charge brought victories. The Champions Trophy in September will be a different challenge but for Australia the future looks bright.

Holding quits ICC cricket committee

Michael Holding: "A lot of things are happening today that I don't want to be involved with, so I've moved on".

Michael Holding, the former West Indian fast bowler, has resigned from the ICC cricket committee because he is unhappy with the ICC's decision to change the result of the 2006 Oval Test between England and Pakistan from a forfeited win for England to a draw.

Holding felt that Pakistan's refusal to play should not go unpunished even though they were not guilty of ball-tampering.

"I have just written my letter of resignation to the ICC cricket committee because I cannot agree with what they've done," Holding said while commentating for Sky Sports during a domestic match in England. "That game should never, ever be a draw. When you take certain actions, you must be quite happy to suffer the consequences.

"A lot of things are happening today that I don't want to be involved with, so I've moved on."

The Oval Test was originally awarded to England by umpire Darrell Hair after Pakistan did not come out to field after tea on the fourth day, following accusations of ball-tampering.

Pakistan had, at the time, been in a strong position in the match, having secured a first-innings lead of 331 and removed four England batsmen in their second innings. There was nothing at stake in the series, with England already leading 2-0 after wins at Headingley and Old Trafford, but the eventual forfeiture was the first in the history of Test cricket. The removal of England's win could affect their standing in the ICC Test Championship - they are currently third on 110 points, one ahead of their next opponents, South Africa, on 109.

The result had huge off-field ramifications as well. Hair went on to be suspended from the ICC elite panel, and though that decision was overturned last year when he took his employers to the High Court in London, the initial decision formed the basis of Pakistan's appeal for a rethink of the result.

Mendis spins Sri Lanka to title triumph

Yuvraj Singh was one of Ajantha Mendis' six victims.

Eight years ago, , Sanath Jayasuriya scored a magnificent 189 before Sri Lanka's bowlers sent India tumbling to 54 all out, and a humiliating 245-run defeat. At Karachi's National Stadium, Jayasuriya, now 39, smashed another superb century before Ajantha Mendis, the mystery spinner still classed as a slow-medium bowler, bamboozled a highly rated batting line-up to finish with astonishing figures of 6 for 13.

Virender Sehwag's blistering early onslaught was rendered irrelevant as Sri Lanka stormed to a 100-run victory, retaining the Asia Cup and extending India's miserable record in tournament finals.

With Sehwag hammering an exhilarating 60 from just 35 balls, India had romped to 76 from just nine overs. Muttiah Muralitharan prefers not to bowl during the Powerplays, and it was to Mendis, who the Indians had never faced before, that Mahela Jayawardene turned as he sought to staunch the flow of runs.

Even he couldn't have predicted the impact that Mendis would have. Like a combine harvester scything through a field of corn, Mendis sliced through a line-up that has quite a reputation when it comes to playing spin. Sehwag charged his second delivery and watched helplessly as it drifted away from him. Kumar Sangakkara did the rest. Two balls later, Yuvraj Singh was utterly befuddled by one that skidded on. Suddenly, 274 appeared a long way away.

That Sri Lanka got anywhere near that was down to a man who refuses to bow to Father Time. India picked up four wickets in the first 12 overs, with Ishant claiming three of them, but Jayasuriya's 114-ball 125, and a 131-run partnership with Tillakaratne Dilshan utterly changed the complexion of the game.

It's perhaps no coincidence that India haven't won the Asia Cup since Jayasuriya became a regular at the top of the Sri Lankan order, and his mastery over the opposition was best revealed in the 16th over, bowled by RP Singh. RP had managed to escape relatively unscathed in his opening spell, conceding 24 from five overs, but when he returned, Jayasuriya took to him like a bull that had been riled by the matador's cape.

Sixes on either side of the sightscreen were followed by two wallops over cover, and after a one-ball lull, he pulled one over midwicket for six more. With Dilshan then taking three successive fours off Irfan Pathan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni had no option but to turn to spin, with Pragyan Ojha and Virender Sehwag managing to have something of a fire-extinguishing effect.

India had started poorly, with RP conceding two boundaries to fine leg in the opening over, but a mix-up between two experienced hands gave them the opening they so desperately needed. Jayasuriya tapped one to short mid-off, and Sangakkara had already hared halfway down the pitch before he realised the striker had no interest in a single. Suresh Raina's underarm flick was the ultimate punishment.

Ajantha Mendis got a career-best 6 for 13.

But with two maiden overs bowled in the first five, India wrested back a measure of control, despite Jayasuriya's sporadic bursts of aggression. With the pressure building, it was Ishant who struck, as Jayawardene slapped one straight to Rohit at point. No bother for Jayasuriya though. A swivel pull sent an Ishant delivery for six, and Pathan's introduction was greeted with three fours in the over.

The problem was at the other end, where Ishant was wreaking havoc with the extra bounce he extracted from a comatose pitch. Bounce and a hint of lateral movement had Chamara Kapugedera playing one off the leading edge to point, and two balls later, the other Chamara - Silva - inside-edged one back on to the stumps.

Jayasuriya's version of consolidation involved a pull for six off Ishant and a slice of luck as a as a miscue off Pathan evaded RP, who ran around in circles and failed to get his hands to the ball. Dilshan contributed only four to the first 50 the pair added, from 30 balls, but he did his part, turning the strike over to allow Jayasuriya to inflict maximum damage.

With Sehwag and Ojha - Rohit contributed three tidy overs too - taking the pace off the ball, it was a different story. With the field spread, the boundaries dried up and the runs came mainly in singles. India missed a couple of run-out opportunities and Dhoni put down a sharp chance offered by Dilshan when he was on 37, but the helter-skelter pace of the Powerplay overs soon gave way to relative calm.

Eventually, the lack of action got to Jayasuriya and a flat slog-sweep off Sehwag only found Ishant at deep midwicket. After that, Sri Lanka lost their way. Dilshan eased to 50 from 68 balls, but when Pathan returned to bowl round the wicket, he popped a catch to Dhoni. Vaas, back in the fray after missing the last game, square-drove Ishant for the first four in more than 20 overs, but was castled by RP soon after.

Nuwan Kulasekara flailed the bat to finish with an unbeaten 29, but a target of 274 was expected to be well within reach for an Indian side that had included seven specialist batsmen. But after his extraordinary first over, Mendis soon set about making a mockery of the predictions.

Raina had been fortunate to survive a vociferous leg-before shout before he decided to play the worst shot of the evening, an ugly pull to a delivery that pitched on middle stump. Rohit soon followed, struck on the back pad by one that deviated away a touch, and by the time Jayawardene decided to take him out of the attack, Mendis had stunning figures of 4 for 8.

No one including the umpires knew quite what to expect, and the batsmen appeared unsure whether to play him as a slow bowler or a medium-pace one. That indecision was to prove fatal, especially against the carrom ball that was being propelled by a flick of the middle finger. As eye-catching was his accuracy. There was no width for the batsmen to work with, and hardly a loose delivery. Only Dhoni, who played the ball as late as he possibly could, showed any signs of coming to grips with him.

Sanath Jayasuriya is unstoppable even at 39.

With Mendis casting such a spell, Murali's introduction went almost unnoticed, but with him in parsimonious mood, the tourniquet was tightening around India. Robin Uthappa and Dhoni added 38 in attritional fashion before Murali struck from round the wicket. Uthappa missed a flick, and the appeal from the bowler was just a formality.

Jayawardene waited a while longer and then brought back Mendis for the 30th over. India somehow survived that, but the game was up in his next. Pathan's attempt to flick through the leg side ended up at slip, and RP walked off bemused after one deviated away to take off stump. He should have had the hat-trick too, only Simon Taufel was as perplexed by a ball that pitched in line as Pragyan Ojha was.

Dhoni had watched it all from the other end, defending stoutly and striking the odd four when he could. But once he inside-edged Chaminda Vaas to the keeper, the Sri Lankan dressing room readied for the celebrations. When Kulasekara cleaned up Ishant with 63 balls still to be bowled, they could begin in earnest. The combination of the six-hitting veteran and the six-wicket carrom-ball spinner had been far too much for India to handle.