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Familiarity breeds comfort

Familiarity breeds comfort
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First Published: Wed, Jan 12 2011. 09 15 PM IST

Power-packed: (from top) Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and T. Dilshan; and India’s Suresh Raina and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Photographs from Hindustan Times
Power-packed: (from top) Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and T. Dilshan; and India’s Suresh Raina and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Photographs from Hindustan Times
Updated: Wed, Jan 12 2011. 09 15 PM IST
Home advantage is expected to favour India and Sri Lanka when the subcontinent plays host to the 10th edition of the ICC (International Cricket Council) Cricket World Cup in February.
Power-packed: (from top) Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and T. Dilshan; and India’s Suresh Raina and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Photographs from Hindustan Times
Familiarity with the conditions will give an edge to the South Asian powerhouses, although frequent tours and global participation in the Indian Premier League (IPL) have helped other teams adapt to the region’s unique conditions.
History and form point to India and Sri Lanka being among the favourites for the third World Cup to be hosted in the region—a 43-day tournament to be played across 13 venues in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh from 19 February. Pakistan will hope to put aside their spot-fixing scandals with an inspired performance on the sport’s grandest stage to turn around their alarming slide.
Former champions India and Sri Lanka will play five of their six group matches at home. Pakistan will play theirs in Sri Lanka after losing hosting rights over security concerns, yet the 1992 winners will fancy their chances with conditions being similar to those at home.
Sri Lanka are pooled with Pakistan, New Zealand, Canada, Kenya, Zimbabwe and top-ranked Australia, who are looking to win their fourth successive World Cup to compensate for a disappointing Ashes defeat.
India, ranked No. 2 in the world, are in the other group, along with South Africa, a resurgent England, West Indies, co-hosts Bangladesh, Ireland and Netherlands.
Bangladesh will host the opening ceremony and eight matches. The top four teams from each group will qualify for the knock-out phase.
India, champions in 1983, were semi-finalists in the previous two World Cups they co-hosted in 1987 and 1996, and finalists in 2003. They go into this tournament on the back of some solid One Day performances, especially at home. Also the top-ranked Test nation, India have not lost a One Day series at home in over 12 months. During this period, they beat Sri Lanka 3-1, South Africa 2-1, Australia 1-0, before routing New Zealand 5-0 to emerge as a potent force with a blend of youth and experience and a lot of competition for spots in the World Cup squad.
“As a team, the current Indian combination has tremendous self-belief and that is making a big difference,” says former Indian paceman Venkatesh Prasad. “The 1996 side that I was part of had talented individuals, but this bunch believes strongly in their ability to succeed and that is translating into success,” adds the former Indian bowling coach.
“We have players with big match temperament,” says former Indian all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar. “There is pressure playing in front of a home crowd but the advantages are several—you know the conditions, the weather, the massive crowd support and you can prepare the wickets to suit your strengths,” adds the former medium pacer, who played in both the previous World Cups held in the subcontinent.
Repeat of 1996?
Sri Lanka, ranked third in the world, broke the jinx of the host/co-host never having won the World Cup when they beat Australia in the final in 1996—the last time the quadrennial event was held in the subcontinent.
The great unifier: People queue up for World Cup tickets, which went on sale on 2 January, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Reuters
Sri Lanka, 2007 finalists, are third in the One Day rankings and displayed rousing One Day International (ODI) form in 2010. Kumar Sangakkara’s team won three triangular series, defeated Australia in Australia for the first time in a One Day series, reached the final of the Asia Cup (losing to India) and the semi-finals in the Twenty20 World Cup (losing to England).
“If the team is selected without political interference and Sangakkara is allowed to lead with the freedom that I had, I’d say Sri Lanka is the firm favourite to win the title,” says Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup-winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga.
“We have a knowledgeable crowd that understands the game and our boys will feel no pressure playing in front of them. But the only drawback is that we play a couple of our home matches at some venues which haven’t been completed as yet (Tallekele and Hambantota), so those will be new to us as well,” says Ranatunga.
Sri Lanka, who have excluded the experienced Chaminda Vaas and Sanath Jayasuriya from the 15, are an exceptionally talented side, especially in the shorter formats of the game, and have a fistful of all-rounders to back up the specialists.
The younger lot, like all-rounder Angelo Mathews, have shown they possess the temperament to perform consistently on the biggest stage. Mathews shared in a record ninth-wicket stand of 132 with bowler Lasith Malinga in the first ODI in Melbourne that helped set up the series victory.
The experienced Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan are in superb form with the bat and Malinga still retains the express pace to surprise batsmen.
There is, then, the Muttiah Muralitharan factor. The wizard off-spinner is preparing for a final tilt at the game’s biggest prize as his swansong. A man for the big occasion, magical Muralitharan, a key member of the 1996 triumph, took eight wickets in his final Test in August, which took him to the milestone of 800 wickets.
Former Sri Lankan opening batsman Romesh Kaluwitharana says the similarity in scenarios between 1996 and 2011 will augur well for his country. “We went on a controversial tour of Australia before the World Cup that made us into a tough unit,” the diminutive former wicketkeeper recollects. “The current team has won a challenging One Day series in Australia that has helped the boys bond together further and share each others’ success and disappointment like we did back then.”
“Knowledge of the conditions will be a big advantage and I strongly feel 2011 will be ours,” adds Kaluwitharana, whose opening partnerships with Sanath Jayasuriya was one of the key factors in Sri Lanka’s 1996 triumph.
Getting past the scandal
Pakistan were semi-finalists in 1987, in the first edition to be held away from England, and lost to India in a pulsating quarter-final in 1996.
Pakistan cricket is currently going through a turbulent phase after the spot-fixing scandal. Test captain Salman Butt and pace bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir have been suspended by the ICC and are under investigation. Former captain Shoaib Malik and wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal are under scrutiny by the Pakistan Cricket Board’s integrity committee, throwing their preparation into disarray and forcing a delay in naming the squad for the forthcoming One Day series in New Zealand and the preliminary squads for the World Cup.
“At the moment Pakistan cricket does not have a strategy in place,” says former Pakistan captain Aamer Sohail. But the 1992 World Cup-winning member is confident that the team will put aside its problems and mount a serious challenge.
“As professional sportsmen, you are expected to do that and I am sure our players will not allow external pressure to affect their focus. A solid performance will help put Pakistan cricket back on track,” says the combative former opening batsman.
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First Published: Wed, Jan 12 2011. 09 15 PM IST