Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Liz Hurley? Oh behave, Shane!

I was entertained by what Alex Bowden, aka King Cricket, had to say on Sunday about the rumours surrounding Shane Warne and Liz Hurley. (Hover your mouse over the picture on his post to read a rather dubious caption). It appears the Times then decided that there was sufficient evidence for and interest in the story to jump into the gutter and basically reprint the contents of the original News of the World article. As both of the aforementioned Murdoch publications are tucked away behind paywalls, you have to turn to a third if you want to get at the full story for free online.

As one punter who commented on the Times' article put it:
"No! Please! Don't do this to me! Brain overheating...synapses melting...too...many...jokes..."

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Out of the Ashes: The Rise of the Afghan Cricket Team

This weekend, while Cook, Pietersen and company were piling on the runs in Adelaide... while a depleted Indian ODI side was cruising to an unassailable 3-0 lead against New Zealand... and while torrential rain was frustrating both the West Indian tourists and their Sri Lankan hosts... over in Dubai, Afghanistan's cricketers were collecting yet another piece of silverware. This time it was the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the first-class tournament between the world's leading non-Test nations. The Afghans drew their opening game back in August - their first taste of four-day cricket - before winning six on the trot to finish as unbeaten champions. Given that they also beat Ireland to win the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier earlier this year, are they now at the top of the waiting list for (though admittedly still a long way off) Test status? Certainly they've continued to improve rapidly since narrowly missing out on World Cup qualification in April 2009.

Back in February, I blogged about the fact that I was waiting for the release of "Out of the Ashes," a documentary following the Afghan team's remarkable rise "from refugees to the world stage." Since then, the film has gained Sam Mendes as an Executive Producer, been named "Best of the Fest" at the Edinburgh Film Festival and won an international peace and sport prize. Last month, I finally got to see it, thanks to an eagle-eyed friend who spotted that it was out on (very) limited release in London.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Hussain skewers Gower

While the current England captain and his likely successor were piling on the runs this morning, up in the Sky commentary box, one former England captain was crippling another, while a third chuckled away in amusement.

"Lord Gower hobbles away..."

Monday, 22 November 2010

Graeme Swann and the sprinkler

Yesterday I wrote 100 words on the Times website on why a digital description is worthwhile. Why? Well, partly because I wanted the chance to win a free iPad, but partly because I really think it is. This morning, Uncle Murdoch sent me a karmic reward, in the form of a great column by Athers revealing the answer to my question - England's response to Douggie B's moves? The sprinkler...

Skip back to the start of the video to watch more of Swanny's capers. Team England look pretty relaxed, it has to be said. Fingers crossed they get the chance to crack out their victory dance at the Gabbattoir later this week.

Gladiators versus the Rat Pack

I have to say I've not had much time to keep abreast of all the Ashes hype, so I thought I'd check out YouTube to see whether I could find any ads like the IPL3 ones to get me in the mood. Based on what I found, I'm inclined to believe the series will be a bit of a mis-match.

England, exhorted by Centurion Botham and led by a roaring Wing Commander Strauss, are preparing for gladiatorial combat. Watch the ad closely and you will notice a cameo by Simon Hughes as an ogre who sharpens Strauss' bat.

While England are getting psyched up, the Aussies are making Facebook friends and singing songs for some guy called Damo from Perth.

What is Douggie Bollinger up to? The man is just inspired. How are on earth are England going to deal with moves like that?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A real treat

First the IPL and now a nightly Ashes highlights programme. I'm becoming a fan of ITV4.

The show is going to be fronted by cricket's undisputed Hyperbolizer-in-Chief. I'm willing to lay odds of 1000-1 for anyone who wants to bet that Mark Nicholas won't use the words "tremendous," "fabulous" and "magnificent" during the first show on Thursday. Any takers...?

I thought not. As the H-in-C would I'm sure agree, we're in for a real treat.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Sachin sees no evil, Sri Lankans sense a storm

Speaking to NDTV the other day, Sachin Tendulkar said the following:
"In my 21 years of international cricket, I have never heard of any Indian player being approached by bookies."
Really? I guess Sachin can't have played more than a handful of matches with Ajay Sharma, so perhaps the latter's easy to forget. However, Sachin played 131 international matches with Manoj Prabhakar, 191 with Ajay Jadeja and a whopping 292 with Mohammad Azharuddin. He amassed more caps, runs, centuries, catches and wickets under Azhar than he has under any other captain before or since, and it's not as if Azhar's admission of guilt and subsequent life ban happened behind close doors.

"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," the saying goes. Sachin may do no evil, on account of which he gets plenty of richly deserved praise, but his recent statement does make me wonder about the whole see no monkey, hear no monkey, speak no monkey episode...

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Hang on a minute there, Shane...

Mr I-never-knew-he-was-a-bookmaker-and-my-mum-gave-me-the-drugs somehow had the nerve to say this yesterday:
"They should be thrown out, simple as that. I don't think there is any other way to do it.  If they have been involved in throwing games, they should be banned for life ... anybody who is involved should be thrown out."
Personally, I would have thought that anybody who has accepted money from a bookmaker in exchange for information and only been fined in secret for it (before lying repeatedly on prime-time TV* in claiming that he had stopped speaking to said bookmaker upon becoming aware of his profession)... or who has tested positive for a masking agent for anabolic steroids immediately after making a rapid recovery from a shoulder injury (in time to play in a World Cup which he had announced would be his last ODI tournament) and only been sentenced to half the "mandatory" two-year ban for taking such a diuretic (before being allowed to play charity matches and do television commentary during said ban, much to WADA chief Dick Pound's dismay**)... should not rush to pass judgement.

Monday, 30 August 2010

What now for Mohammad Amir?

Pakistan's Mohammad Amir (R) receives his man of the series award from Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, in the Long Room after the fourth cricket test match at Lord's cricket ground in London August 29, 2010. REUTERS/Philip Brown (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT CRICKET IMAGES OF THE DAY)

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94.

Since the turn of the millenium, no young cricketer has excited me more than Mohammad Amir. As a Sri Lankan supporter, I found Ajantha Mendis' emergence pretty thrilling but there was always the nagging worry that he would not be as effective once the mystery wore off, as has indeed proved to be the case. I've had no such worry about Amir, however, as his success has been due not to mystery but rather a precocious mastery of the fast bowler's art.

His 6-for last Friday made him - at age 18 - the youngest cricketer to earn an entry on the Honours Boards at Lord's. A week earlier at the Oval, he had become the youngest person to take a Test 5-for in England. In fact, he was also the youngest fast bowler to take a Test 5-for anywhere in the world when he ripped through the Aussie middle order last December in Melbourne.

Cricinfo published a blog post of mine about Amir in January. In it I tried to describe how uplifting I'd found it to watch him in action in both that MCG spell and the World T20 Final in 2009. As such, the most heartbreaking aspect of the spot-fixing scandal that has just hit the news is the fact that Amir is implicated in it. Kamran Akmal has already gained a reputation as a bit of an agitator in the Pakistan dressing room and Mr "A Class" Asif has hardly steered clear of controversy. Salman Butt's reputation as a leader has been growing until now but it is Amir who has undoubtedly been the star of what appeared to be a promising young Pakistan team.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Anderson’s ducks and Pakistan’s ProBatter

Jimmy’s acquired a taste for poultry

Jimmy Anderson’s first 54 innings in Test cricket were totally duck-free. The Lancastrian had looked on course to challenge AB de Villiers’ record of 78 Test innings without a duck when Ben Hilfenhaus brought his streak to an end in last summer’s Ashes-decider. However, it appears Anderson has since acquired something of a taste for poultry.

15 innings on, his duck-count has already risen to five. He’s bagged one in each of the first three Tests of England's series against Pakistan.

Incidentally, I wonder whether anyone pointed out to Anderson that coming into the recently concluded Oval Test, Yasir Hameed had managed 45 innings without a duck. Jim fixed that, dismissing Hameed for a first-baller on the last morning.

A better ProBatter

A few weeks ago, Simon Hughes wrote an interesting piece on England’s training methods, entitled "Ten reasons why England will be world No 1." Reason number one was ProBatter, a gizmo which is essentially a combination of a bowling machine and a projector screen. It “looks very futuristic and very funky,” according to Wing Commander Strauss. Apparently it has been used in baseball for over a decade but Andy Flower’s coaching team is the first to use it in cricket.

It’s early days yet, but it must be said that three Tests on, England’s top seven don’t look much better for having used ProBatter.

Pakistan belatedly decided to bring in their own pro batter for the third Test. It looked like this.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Cricketers of the year 2009/2010

The longlists for the annual ICC Awards have just been announced. These are meant to recognise cricketing achievements in the period between 24th August 2009 and 10th August 2010. Some of the relevant stats for that period are here: Test batting, Test bowling, ODI batting, ODI bowling.

The winners won't be announced until October but in the meantime here are my suggestions. I've ignored a couple of categories about which I don't know much (Women's Cricketer of the Year and Umpire of the Year) and also invented a couple of my own (T20I Cricketer of the Year, Test and ODI Performances of the Year).

T20I performance of the year
Mike Hussey 60*(24), World T20 SF v Pak, Gros Islet

ODI performance of the year
Sachin Tendulkar 200*(147), 2nd ODI v SA, Gwalior

Test performance of the year
Dale Steyn 7/51 and 3/57, 1st Test v Ind, Nagpur

Associate player of the year
Mohammad Shahzad (Afghanistan)

Emerging player of the year
Mohammad Amir

T20I player of the year
Kevin Pietersen

ODI player of the year
Shane Watson

Test player of the year
Virender Sehwag

Cricketer of the year
Sachin Tendulkar

REFILE - CORRECTING NATIONALITY OF PLAYER Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar waves as he arrives on Centre Court for the match between Serena Williams of the U.S. and Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia at the 2010 Wimbledon tennis championships in London, June 26, 2010.  REUTERS/Phil Noble (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

Sachin managed 1978 more international runs (and 9 more hundreds) than I did during the qualification period, but I have way better ties.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Final analysis

Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan (C) celebrates taking his 800th wicket during the fifth day of their first test cricket match against India in Galle July 22, 2010. Muralitharan became the first bowler to take 800 test wickets on the fifth day of the first test against India on Thursday. The 38-year-old Muralitharan, the leading wicket-taker in tests and one-day internationals, dismissed India's Pragyan Ojha to reach the milestone in his final test match appearance.  REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds (SRI LANKA - Tags: SPORT CRICKET IMAGES OF THE DAY)

The stands were full and covered with billboards of his face and banners wishing him good luck. A massive electronic counter had been set up to display his wicket tally, just in case anyone was in any doubt. His wife, his son, his mum, his dad, his mother-in-law and his President had turned up to cheer him on. A red carpet was laid out for him when he walked onto the field, and the fireworks were in place around the ground. No pressure, then.

After getting number 799 in no time, he bowled 141 wicketless deliveries, 44 of them while India were 9 wickets down. With his 44039th and very last ball in Test cricket, he took number 800.

Final analysis: 7339.5 Overs, 1794 Maidens, 18180 Runs, 800 Wickets.

Not bad. I will miss him.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Murali's greatest hits on Cricinfo

A little over two weeks from now, Muttiah Muralitharan will take the field in a Test match for the very last time. I must say I'm not surprised by the news that Murali is retiring a little earlier than previously planned, but I'm nonetheless rather saddened by it.

I believe there's a strong case for considering Murali the greatest spinner Test cricket has ever seen, though clearly some may believe there's a strong case for considering me a greatly biased judge. At any rate, Cricinfo have just published a piece of mine - a combination of a pair of blog posts I wrote back in January - which I hope adds something to the debate.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Twenty20 for plenty of pride

A version of this article appeared in The Cambridge Student in April 2010

Cricket - ICC World Twenty20 2009 Preview Press Conference
Will Colly get his hands on the trophy again?

18 months ago, England played a Twenty20 cricket match in the Caribbean for a $20 million jackpot. The members of that team won’t look back very fondly on their encounter with Sir Allen Stanford and embarrassing loss to his “All-Star XI” in the “Twenty20 for 20,” but may draw some consolation from the fact that unlike the aforementioned Texan billionaire, they are not serving time for fraud. This time around, it’ll only be the small matter of national pride at stake when England – volcanic ash permitting – take the field in Guyana on May 3rd to begin their ICC World Twenty20 campaign.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Sky/ECB 0, ITV/Lalit Modi 1

The IPL is back and – for the first time since 2005 – so is live cricket on UK free-to-air TV.

After all the hype about the IPL-YouTube deal, I’ve actually found myself watching ITV4’s live stream more of the time. The one thing I've been struck by so far has been the contrast between the IPL match commentators and the ITV studio pundits. It’s as if the former are on ecstasy – hallucinating “unbelievable” shots, DLF Maximums, Karbon Kamaal Catches and Citi Moments of Success at ten second intervals – while the latter have been sedated: just what do presenters Mandira Bedi and Matt Smith need to do to get Graeme Hick, John Emburey and co. to sound even vaguely enthusiastic about what they're watching?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Cook's amazing buffet

England Nets Session
I do love a good bit of declaration bowling.

It's a scenario that recreational cricketers know all too well: the team batting first in a friendly game has used up half the time available, is short of runs but has plenty of wickets in hand. The fielding skipper does the decent thing - he calls for his grenadiers. Long hops, full tosses and half volleys are lobbed up in the hope that the batsmen charge out their trenches in a shot-making frenzy, thus hastening the inevitable declaration.

By and large, international skippers don't have occasion to employ such tactics, but shortly before lunch yesterday, Alastair Cook did, albeit in a slightly different type of situation. With little chance of a result in England's three-day tour match against Bangladesh A, Cook wanted to ensure his team got a decent number of overs of batting practice in their second innings. The hosts didn't have much of a lead and were creeping along at two-and-a-bit per over, so Cook decided to serve up a bit of a buffet to spice things up.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Royalists, Thomians and Stallions

The 131st Royal-Thomian

When IPL 3 gets underway this weekend, most of the cricket world will be on Youtube, watching the site's live webcasts of the goings on in Mumbai and Mohali. Over in Sri Lanka, however, virtually all cricket lovers will be following the climax of a different match. Saturday is the final day of the Royal-Thomian, the biggest event in Colombo's cricketing calendar. The annual schoolboy contest between Royal College and St Thomas' is older than the Ashes and unlike Eton vs Harrow has never been interrupted by war. This is 131st consecutive year in which the game has been played, with St Thomas' ahead 34-33 in the overall tally. Christopher Martin-Jenkins conveyed a sense of the atmosphere at the event in a Wisden Special Report in 1994, entitled "Sri Lanka's great game:"

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Getting on a (superblog)roll

Give It Some Air has just been listed over on Cricket Superblogroll, the Blogroll for Cricket Blogs. I'm grateful to the folks over there for acknowledging my presence in the blogosphere!

At this point, I ought to add a proper "About Me" page for the benefit of new visitors to these parts. I plan do so shortly but in the meantime here's roughly what it will say...

I’m a Sri Lankan-born Brit who has been a cricket lover ever since – as a three-month-old baby – I met my namesake Imran Khan. My cricketing heroes include Murali and CLR James, while my own heroic cricket often involves my off-breaks landing beyond a boundary. I have room in my heart for both the Ashes and the IPL, but am just as interested in Chris Martin’s batting exploits and Afghan T20 campaigns. My writing has appeared in student newspapers and also on Cricinfo’s Inbox Blog.

When I first came on to bowl for my school's Under-11 cricket team, the master in charge told me I needed to "give it some air." A number of years later, I find I am still reluctant to flight my off-breaks but am keen to air my thoughts on the game.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Two Brett Lee's, two Shahzads and two-hundred not out

Lee handles the white ball far better than the red

Dennis Lillee greeted news of Brett Lee’s retirement from Test cricket with the following statement:
"Brett is going to go down as one of the great all-time express bowlers in the world ... 150-plus kph puts a huge strain on the body and it can only take so much. For him to play 76 Tests and take 300-odd wickets doing what he does is a credit to him."
Perhaps it takes one to know one, because I can’t for the life of me see how Lee can be considered a Test great. Apart from the first year of his career and a brief period in 2007-2008, he has actually been pretty average. He has never come close to hitting the kind of heights Dale Steyn has reached over the last couple of years. Lee has been over-hyped because he is clean living, photogenic and has happened to feature in some memorable Ashes and Border-Gavaskar battles. People’s perceptions of his effectiveness with the red ball are also coloured by his excellence with the white. Lee's ODI record may be pretty special but his Test record is not especially pretty.

At any rate, it’s sad to see him struggling with injury as he gives his all on the pitch and is very exciting to watch. Let’s hope he and his pal Freddie Flintoff both recover in time to play in next year’s World Cup.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

England in Bangladesh: Captain Cook’s voyage of discovery

A version of this article appeared in The Cambridge Student in February 2010

Cricket - England Nets
England need to convince KP that he is still “the nuts.”

The England cricket team’s tour of Bangladesh gets going in earnest this Sunday with a one-day international in Dhaka. England would be disappointed to come away with anything less than a clean sweep of the three ODIs and two Tests they are scheduled to play over the next few weeks, though you won’t hear any of the team management declaring that openly. Their ECB-media-coached utterances will mention a lot of balls in good areas, game plans to be stuck to and tough challenges to be met, though the odd patronising remark about the paucity of golf courses in the neighbourhood is bound to slip through now and then.

Virender Sehwag does things a little differently. On the eve of the first Test of India’s recent tour of Bangladesh, Sehwag was asked by a journalist about the chances of an upset. His response? “Bangladesh are an ordinary side. They can't beat India because they can't take 20 wickets.” When Bangladesh bowled India out for 243 the following day, Sehwag was briefly left looking foolish, but in the end his analysis proved to be accurate. Arrogant, perhaps, but Sehwag’s approach to press conferences is just the natural extension of his refreshingly no-nonsense approach to batting.

So let’s think Sehwagologically about the series ahead. England care so little about this tour that they have decided to rest their captain, Andrew Strauss, their best bowler, Jimmy Anderson, and their best drinks-carrier, Adil Rashid. I’m not sure I agree with these decisions but some good may come of each of them.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Beausejour beckons for Team Afghanistan

They did it.

On Saturday morning, Noor Ali and Raees Ahmadzai ran the most important single in their country's short cricketing history, clinching a 4-wicket victory over the UAE that secured Afghanistan a spot at the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean this spring.

The triumphant Afghans then celebrated by drubbing Ireland in the final of the Qualifying Tournament. When Mohammad Shahzad finished off proceedings by launching a long hop over cover for six, he catapulted Afghanistan into Group C at the main event, where they will play India and South Africa.

Hamid Hassan's blog post on Cricinfo received more than a 100 congratulatory comments in 24 hours. I mentioned on Friday that Hassan had likened his team's story to that of Rocky Balboa. Well, the Italian Stallion may have come from fairly humble beginnings, but he didn't come from a refugee camp. Ahmadzai, wicketkeeper-batsman Karim Sadiq, fast bowler Hasti Gul and former coach Taj Malik all learnt to play cricket in the vast Kacha Garhi Camp near Peshawar and most of their teammates grew up in similar settlements in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

Friday, 12 February 2010

An Afghan T20 offensive

"Major Afghan offensive launched" is the top headline on the BBC News website right now. "Thousands of American and Afghan troops have launched the biggest offensive in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001." You can't help but feel sorry for the civilian population of Afghanistan.

Which is why I'm supporting their cricket team. Afghanistan have been blazing a trail in the Qualifying Tournament for the upcoming ICC World Twenty20. They beat favourites Ireland in their first game and (rather ironically) also knocked out the USA. They suffered their first defeat today, which means their final group game tomorrow is a straight shoot-out with hosts UAE for a spot at the main event in the Caribbean.

One of their star players, Hamid Hassan, has professed his love of the Rocky movies in a blog post on Cricinfo and noted the parallels between his team's story and that of Sly Stallone's legendary boxer. I hope Hassan gets the Hollywood ending he's praying for.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Boom Boom bites balls because he can smell with his teeth

I wrote a few weeks ago that Shahid Afridi was making a big impression Down Under. Now it seems he has made an even bigger impression... on a cricket ball... with his teeth.

People do a lot of different things to cricket balls. Some spank them merrily, others tickle them cheekily. Many rub them vigorously and a few scratch them surreptitiously. People don't generally bite them, however.

Shahid Afridi is clearly no ordinary human being. I've always known there was something special about him, and after he attempted to take a chunk out of the match ball during the recent Perth ODI, the great man revealed to an Australian journalist that he does indeed have magical powers.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Taxes, avatars, Sky cyber-commentary and a girlfriend-based ranking system

I just did a Google News search for the word "cricket" and it yielded 30,652 hits dated January 2010. Unless someone's been doing a lot of chirping about insects of the Gryllidae family, that means roughly a thousand articles about my favourite sport have been posted online each day this month. Between the broadsheets and the BBC, the blogosphere and the behemoth that is Cricinfo, there is an awful lot written about cricket on the web. Much of it is banal, plenty is highly biased, and rather a lot is both.

But some of it is brilliant. Here are four pieces I really enjoyed reading this month. The first two are fairly serious; the next two are more light-hearted but no less insightful.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

An invite to IPL 2010

Six weeks to go until season three gets underway and the Indian Premier League's mighty promotional machine is up and running. Last year, I wrote a piece about the story of IPL, likening it to a biblical epic. Well, that's pretty much how it's presented in the following trailer. Switch to full-screen, turn up your speakers and watch "An invite to IPL 2010."

The big news about IPL 3 is of course that Lalit Modi & co have signed a groundbreaking deal with Google to ensure that every match is streamed live on YouTube, with highlights clips available on demand to users around the globe. The official IPL YouTube Channel already has plenty of videos uploaded to it. Scroll past the news conferences, interviews and memorable moments from IPL 1 and 2 and you find some amusing short adverts currently being aired on Indian TV.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Liberté, égalité and the TV replay

(A version of this article appeared on Cricinfo's "Inbox" blog in February 2010)

Cricket’s moral system is under review

The umpire’s word should be final. Questioning the judgement of game’s arbiters is just “not cricket.” The ICC’s Umpire Decision Review System, which allows batsmen and fielding captains to ask for on-field decisions to be reviewed by a TV official, is detrimental to the Spirit of the Game and hence a recipe for disaster.

Or is it? I must admit that my reaction to the chorus of criticism directed at UDRS during England’s tour of South Africa by a (predominantly but not exclusively English) collection of pundits has been one of mild amusement. When ECB Chairman Giles Clarke fulminated against the “blasted system” because he felt that a “core principle of cricket” was “being destroyed,” I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself and think “here we go again…”

Cricket is a haunted game. It is possessed by a mysterious Victorian Spirit. Many of its aficionados like to think that this Spirit – a moral code – sets it apart from other sports, making it "more than a game ... an institution," as the eponymous hero of Tom Brown’s Schooldays famously remarked. Set at Rugby School in the 1830s, Thomas Hughes’ classic novel vividly illustrated the role played by public school cricket in the breeding of future empire builders. Meanwhile, other parts of 19th century English society also felt the influence of cricket’s Spirit. In his English Social History, G.M. Trevelyan wrote:
“If the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.”
The great Cambridge historian believed cricket helped prevent revolution by civilising England’s lower classes. He was right, in the sense that it encouraged them to peacefully accept an inequitable status quo.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Boom Boom's rockin' the Big Bash

Shahid Afridi is making a big impression Down Under. While Pakistan's Test side have been finding amazing new ways of losing matches, the man they call "Boom Boom" has been rocking the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash, Australia's domestic 20-over competition.

Television viewers in Australia have just voted Afridi the Big Bash's number one overseas import. This year's tournament has drawn record crowds and television ratings over the festive period, despite clashing with the Boxing Day and New Year Tests. With Australia's top international players unavailable due to the latter, it's been left to the state teams' overseas players to bring a touch of star quality to the event. Dwayne Bravo, Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard are among those who have shone but Afridi has thus far eclipsed them all.

The Pakistani allrounder has picked up two man-of-the-match awards in three games and his team - the South Australia Redbacks - are in pole position to qualify for the final. He has only managed one entertaining cameo with the bat but has been consistently effective with the ball, intelligently bowling slower than usual to make use of the extra bounce and grip on offer, and combining leg-breaks to right-handed batsmen with orthodox off-breaks to lefties.

All this is further evidence of the new-found maturity that has already led to the 29-year-old's appointment as Pakistan's Twenty20 Captain. It's tempting to say Twenty20 cricket and Shahid Afridi are tailor-made for each other: a brief period of power-hitting or an economical spell of spin is all that is required to decide the result of a contest, and on any given day, Afridi could provide either or both. Such an assessment would be totally unfair, however, both to Twenty20 and to Afridi. The game is far more than a hit-and-giggle slog-fest, and the thing about Boom Boom these days is that he rarely seems to go bust.

At the first ICC World Twenty20, Afridi was named the Player of the Tournament for his exploits with the ball. At the second, in England last year, he started quietly but then finished with a bang, scoring match-winning fifties in both the semi-final and final. Thereafter, he has celebrated becoming Pakistan Captain by winning another man-of-the-match award in a one-off T20I against Sri Lanka in Colombo and a man-of-the-series award in a two match rubber against New Zealand in Dubai.

Consequently, he is a man much in demand, with South Australia by no means the only domestic side interested in his talents. Hampshire have just secured his services for their Friends Provident T20 campaign this summer and until it became clear that he would be on international duty in February, the Nashua Dolphins looked set to sign him for the upcoming Standard Bank Pro20 in South Africa. It would be a massive surprise if he didn't get snapped up at this year's IPL auction on January 19th, now that Pakistani players have been cleared to participate in the tournament once again.

Cricket pundits have mumbled and grumbled of late about the dangers of the emergence of "freelance cricketers." Since Andrew Flintoff chose to turn down an ECB contract after retiring from Test cricket, there has been speculation that he intends to peddle his wares in Twenty20 competitions around the world. Flintoff's agent, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, appears keen to see his client become cricket's first globe-trotting gun for hire. If you ask me, Afridi could easily beat Flintoff to it.

But I don't think he wants to do that. Afridi's availability for competitions like the Big Bash has been due to the paucity of Pakistan's international commitments and his omission from their Test side. He has made clear that he would prefer to spend more of his time playing for his country. With a bit of luck, he may get his wish. Given Mohammad Yousuf's wretched showing in Australia and the ongoing saga surrounding Younis Khan, it is not inconceivable that Afridi will return to Pakistan's Test side as its captain. His next appearance at Lord's, the scene of his Twenty20 heroics last summer, could come against Australia, in the ground's first neutral Test match for 98 years. Improbable, perhaps, but stranger things have happened in Pakistani cricket.

For the moment, Afridi is busy entertaining the crowds Down Under, both on and off the field. He attempted to launch the very first ball he faced in the Big Bash out of the ground for six, but succeeded only in skying the full toss to long on for a golden duck. After responding with a match-winning spell of 4 for 19, he could afford to joke about his dismissal: "When I saw the ball coming in the air, I thought I'd go for a home run but I didn't get one."

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Murali’s Greatest Hits of the Noughties

(A version of this article appeared on Cricinfo's "Inbox" blog in July 2010)

ICC Cricket World Cup Super Eights - England v Sri Lanka

Two in two in the twilight
10 for 148 v Pakistan, Peshawar, 2000

One over of play left on the fourth day at Peshawar and a low-scoring match was delicately poised. A fiery Shoaib Akhtar had restricted Sri Lanka to 268 in their first innings and Pakistan had then slipped from 137 for 2 to 199 all out, with Murali the wrecker-in-chief. Thanks to Russell Arnold’s battling 99, Sri Lanka had set Pakistan a stiff victory target of 294, but at 220 for 6, the home side were very much in the game. Saeed Anwar was back at the crease after retiring hurt earlier in the innings and alongside him was Yousuf Youhana (now known as Mohammad Yousuf), who had counterattacked brilliantly, smashing three sixes and eight fours on his way to 88.

Enter Murali. Flighting the ball invitingly and generating massive turn off a slowing wicket, he trapped Yousuf leg before, before getting Waqar Younis to prod the very next ball to silly point. It took Sri Lanka just ten balls to finish off proceedings the next morning. Murali missed out on a hat-trick but did pick up the last wicket, sealing the match and the series.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Murali’s Greatest Hits of the Noughties - Preview

(A version of this article appeared on Cricinfo's "Inbox" blog in July 2010)

In a few days’ time, Cricinfo will reveal whom their 60-strong panel of experts has selected as their Cricketer of the 2000s. Taking Test and ODI performances together (as the website appears to be doing), I would whittle the field down to a shortlist of three candidates – Ricky Ponting, Muttiah Muralitharan and Jacques Kallis – whom I personally rate as the decade’s leading batsman, bowler and all-rounder, respectively. Cricinfo outlines the argument for each, and my hunch is that Ponting’s list of accomplishments as leader of the dominant team of the era will earn him top spot. Last week, he notched up a record-breaking 42nd win as a Test captain to go with victories in two World Cups and two Champions Trophies as an ODI skipper.

If separate prizes were awarded for each of game's formats, however, I would give the trophy for champion Test cricketer to Murali. The “Milestone Man” took one and a half times as many wickets as Makhaya Ntini, the next highest wicket-taker in the Noughties, at a McGrath-like average and Waqar-esque strike rate. As Cricinfo points out, he remains top of the pile even if “cheap” wickets taken against Zimbabwe* and Bangladesh are excluded. His astonishing 20 ten-wicket hauls in 84 matches include at least one against every Test-playing nation. He won more Man-of-the-Match and Man-of-the-Series awards than any other player and propelled Sri Lanka from close to the bottom of the Test rankings to within a series win of top spot. What is more, he achieved all this in the “Age of the Bat.” If “55 is the new 50” as far as batting averages are concerned, just how good is a bowling average of 23.48 against the top eight teams? To my mind, Murali was the decade’s greatest match-winner by some distance, as well as its “greatest joy-giver.”

Friday, 1 January 2010

Smells like teen spirit

(A version of this article appeared on Cricinfo's "Inbox" blog in January 2010)

Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir should bring a smile to the faces of cricket fans in the decade ahead

Six months ago, I was watching from the lower tier of the Grandstand at Lord’s as Mohammad Amir ran in to bowl the first ball of the ICC World Twenty20 Final. I nervously reminded my brother, who was sitting next to me, that I had earlier picked out Pakistan as the team most likely to halt Sri Lanka’s march towards victory. I knew that unlike the other semi-finalists (South Africa and West Indies), Pakistan were used to facing Sri Lanka’s unorthodox bowling attack, and although Sri Lanka had come out on top when the two sides met in the group stages, I was wary that Shahid Afridi’s sensational catch against New Zealand had sparked the kind of hot streak that always makes Pakistan a dangerous proposition at the business end of big tournaments.

But if I was nervous, how did Mohammad Amir feel? The left arm quick was just 17 and his international career barely two weeks old. Here he was in a major final at Lord’s. The outfield was a lush, brilliant green, but the stands were even greener, thanks to the masses of flag-waving, klaxon-sounding, Zindabad-shouting, Pakistan fans. Over in Pakistan itself, a nation deprived of international cricket after the Lahore attacks was no doubt in front of its TV sets, while up in the Sky Sports commentary box, Amir’s mentor Wasim Akram was at the microphone. On strike, awaiting Amir’s first ball was the Player of the Tournament, Tillakaratne Dilshan, who up until then had sliced, diced and daringly Dilscooped anything that had been served up to him.

How would the teenager begin?

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