Saturday, February 7, 2015

Two ODIs at the Cake Tin

New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 29 January 2015

The Sri Lanka game was the seventh (seventh!) of a series already won by New Zealand. Everything now is part of the World Cup phoney war.

The World Cup will define how we remember this season, but for me “the summer of Sangakkara” would be fine. After the test match double hundred at the Basin, the great man treated us to a sumptuous century here, a Shakespearian vocabulary of shots making his bat loquacious. Only after he passed three figures did he depart from the orthodox, and it was somehow unfitting, like discovering Darcey Bussell line dancing.

Sangakkara put on 104 for the second wicket with Tillakaratne Dilshan, at which stage Sri Lanka looked set for a total well on the sunny side of 300, but they lost their puff during the powerplay and mustered only 99 runs from the last 15 overs.

As it turned out, that was plenty.

The Guptill question currently troubles New Zealand as the Schleswig-Holstein question perplexed the diplomats of mid-nineteenth century Europe. The question is “Is he any good?”. I think that he is, but continues to be unfortunate in that the only place for him is as opener. A run in the middle order or as a finisher at some point and he would be established. Here, he was out first ball.

That the World Cup squads had to be announced six weeks or more before the first ball is bowled is obviously ludicrous, redolent of an age when the teams would travel by steam packet, but it works in Guptill’s favour. It removes the question of whether he should be in the squad; he has tenure so will be given every opportunity to get into form. Even so, if I were Guptill I’d make sure that I didn’t have a selector behind me when I walked downstairs for the next couple of weeks or so.

Wickets fell regularly until, at 141 for six, the deal appeared done. But Ronchi and Vettori put on 74, including 52 in the powerplay, to bring New Zealand back into the game. However, Kulasekere yorked Ronchi off the last ball of the powerplay and that was that.

It was good to see Vettori back at his crease-wandering, angle-inventing best, but he went for six-and-a-half an over. I hope that the nagging feeling that it is a tournament too far for him proves off beam.

Forty-eight hours later we were back, Sri Lanka’s pleasant blue kit replaced by Pakistan’s luminescent Close Encounters of the Third Kind green for the first of two match series (though series isn’t quite the word for two matches).

While the other cricketing countries have been playing each other in a bewildering number of ODIs, Pakistan have remained in their tent. It showed.

Having been put in (McCullum’s probability-challenging sequence of toss losses has finally abated), only a thoroughbred half-century from Misbah-ul-Haq was other than negligible from the top order, and the final total of 210 was a hundred short.

Yet the Pakistan innings brought us the most memorable cricket of the two matches. Shahid Afridi scored 67 of the 76 runs added while he was in, and took only 29 balls about it. Of course, he’s been peppering the stands for the best part of twenty years, but I had not seen him do so in the flesh before, so had never appreciated the high degree of intelligence and science that he brings to the task. It’s great that there are still some things that you have to be there to appreciate.

This was as far from slogging as Gershwin is from the Eurovision Song Contest. He was not as premeditated as many less successful practitioners of the crash-bang arts. Most shots were a response to the ball as bowled. Setting a field to Afridi when he is firing as well as this is chasing shadows, he finds the empty spaces round the boundary so well.

Mohammad Irfan is Pakistan’s seven foot one left-arm opening bowler. He caused a few problems with height of release and the angle of delivery, and could be lethal on grounds where they have been economical with the height of the sightscreens. But he is 32 and has played only 40 ODIs and four tests, so as a secret weapon is hardly Area 51 material. As a batsman, any aspiration he has to be promoted to No 10 appears about as unrealistic as one to be an astronaut, and he is a liability in the field.

Not that he is alone in that. There was a difference of 30 to 40 runs in the fielding of the two teams. Shahid Afridi’s fury when a boundary fielder declined the opportunity to dive to save a four was as forceful as his hitting had been.

McCullum was McCullum and had a strike rate of 141 when he got one wrong and was out for 17. Another nagging feeling says that McCullum’s golden run is near its end, but we New Zealand supporters are known for our persistence in seeking black edges to silver clouds.

An unbroken stand of 112 for the fourth wicket between Ross Taylor and Grant Elliott settled the matter with more than ten overs to spare. Taylor is making runs again without looking at the top of his form, which only a very good player can do.

Three weeks ago, Elliott’s selection for the World Cup was greeted with disbelief; now, a century, a world-record partnership and a string of good performances with bat and ball (he took three wickets here) and he is the nation’s favourite.

Where does this leave us? People will try to build up a sense of excitement about the group stages, but few would put any money on any other than the top eight teams comprising the quarter finalists. Do away with the quarters and it would be a much more interesting competition.

Sri Lanka, despite the series loss, could well chalk up the three wins in a row needed to take the trophy home. Pakistan look much less likely to do so, but they have the group stages to raise their game. No Waqar or Wasim though.

New Zealand is relishing the World Cup. We do this sort of thing very well and enjoy the attention we get. We also think that we stand a chance. There is more quality in the team than we have had since Hadlee and Crowe, and there is a balance about it too. The selectors can afford to leave out decent players who would have walked into previous World Cup squads, such as Matt Henry, Doug Bracewell and BJ Watling.

I will blog and tweet from two group games and the Wellington quarter-final.

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