Thursday, January 19, 2012

WILL PAKISTAN MAKE MOCKERY OF TEST RANKINGS?

India’s much awaited Bollywood movie release, next week, is “Agneepath” (means path of fire) – a remake of the 1990 classic featuring Bollywood’s legendary actor, Amitabh Bachchan. The original was in itself largely inspired by “Scarface” – a 1983 classic featuring Hollywood’s legendary actor, Al Pacino.

The producers of the movie chose the Australia vs India series to market their movie. By the time the latest version hits the theatres, India would have further slipped down in esteem, pride and ICC test rankings. It’s a pity that a billion Indian supporters have to go through this “Agony-path”, when more riveting cricketing contests are played just a continent away – in UAE, to be precise.

On paper, England vs Pakistan should be a no-contest for following reasons:

1. England are the number one test team. Period. Pakistan are number five - in a format where barely eight countries are playing the game with the requisite level of seriousness.

2. In the ICC Top 10 rankings of test batsmen, bowlers and all-rounders, eight Englishmen feature (two of them twice) – the most by any nation. No Pakistani cricketer features in those lists – the least by any nation!

3. England’s last three series were convincing wins over Australia, Sri Lanka and India. Pakistan, on the other hand, has a 6-1 win-loss test record in 2011. The fine print however reads that barring Sri Lanka, all of their other opponents belonged to the lower half of the ICC rankings ladder.

Could it have been more lopsided!

England are also the contenders to win the US $175K jackpot – given to the numero uno test team as on April 1st, every year, for topping the Reliance ICC Test Championship table. Unless England lose this series 2-0 or worse, that jackpot seems safe.

The general opinion is that England are the best team only on pitches with bounce and swing. However the team needs to win one series versus a subcontinent team on a slow dry turner to convince their doubters. And who best to play, other than Pakistan - a team which has nothing going for them!

Thanks to a few unfortunate incidents, Pakistan cricket and their cricketers find limited room in the heavily active ICC future tours programme or in the cash rich T20 events. They are at mercy of certain nations and neutral venues to get a game of cricket. For an average 20 year old, coming from challenging backgrounds, with limited education and knowing only one art to survive, it isn't the best of times.

Add to that, raging controversies, players jailed for match fixing, players retiring at drop of a hat, whimsical selection policies, frequent captaincy changes and frequent management changes. Finally, when they get a chance to perform, it’s not in front of their home crowd.

So Dubai it is - staging a David vs Goliath show – with one difference!

David has this ONE chance to show, what the world is missing. If Pakistan beat the number one team, they will regain much deserved pride of place into the cricketing world. Covered by a strong English media, they will find themselves all over the pages, for the right reasons. Their relatively unknown performers will zoom up the brand ladder.

David also has all to gain in a land which will give them opportunity. Dubai does offer dry spinning pitches. Everyone saw how the number one test team got walloped in the one day format to India, looking clueless against the spin of Ashwin and Jadeja. Saeed Ajmal exposed that belief with a 55/7 on the inaugural day of the series!

England, on other hand, will have much to lose. A series loss will question their credibility at the top. Australia (on back of heavy win over India) and indeed the world will make fresh claims that England are not number one, and that there is no number one.

Goliath is expected to win, or at least draw. Lose this series, to an undercooked Pakistan side and questions will be asked. Lose this and the tough upcoming tour to India will become a must-win series for them, where the home team will likely start as favourites. Lose this and the pressure will get relentless; Lose this and they could be dubbed as “bouncy track bullies”. England just cannot lose this one!

As if Pakistan didn’t have motivation enough, the history behind England-Pakistan clashes are fierier, contentious and more controversial than Ind-Aus or Eng-Aus or SL-Aus encounters! Starting with the Mike Gatting - Shakoor Rana incident in 1987, to the ball tampering charges in 1992 leveled on W&W - probably the best pair of bowlers the world ever saw, to Afridi’s pitch damaging incident in 2005, to the Oval test fiasco in 2006, to the 2010 spot fixing incident.

If that was not enough, few hours after Saeed Ajmal’s day one heroics, Bob Willis, unnecessarily, made comments about the off-spinner’s bowling action – clearly suggesting chucking! England (their media, ex-cricketers) will do this. The moment they feel they are losing grip over the numero uno position, the ugly side will show up.

Pakistan have to overcome this; stay dour, determined and gritty. They have everything to gain in this series. As I write, the first test is tilting towards Pakistan with a stern batting effort. When five of your batsmen have stood firm on a low scoring track versus the best bowling attack, for a combined 105 overs, you know better days are ahead.

India's billion plus cricket fans better change channels and back their neighbours! England losing this series will give their hearts much needed warmth. For sake of world cricket – we need Pakistan back at the top! And it won’t come easy versus the number one team, who just need to draw!

The real “Agneepath” is ongoing at Dubai.

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