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A battle of flare and resilience

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by Aravinthan Arunthavanathan

It was a glorious summer evening down under in 2014 December. The Australians breathed a sigh of relief, while the Indian counterparts were left gasping for breath. The stand in skipper had committed the unthinkable. Pulling a long hop straight into the hands of deep midwicket, in the fourth innings of a high-profile Test. That shot could have cost the leadership and may be even the place of the player concerned in the past, but in this case it did not. In fact, it turned out to be a moment which defined the brand of cricket India pledged to play under the leadership of Virat Kohli.

As Kohli walked off the ground distraught, he had lost the battle, but India under Kohli were preparing to win the war. Under Kohli they would not settle for anything less than a victory. The prince waiting in the wings to take over from M.S. Dhoni had walked the talk that day.

Since the turn of 2015, India became an embodiment of excellence driven by aggression. It is no surprise they topped the tables at the end of the World Test Championship cycle. They are an invincible force in their backyard which alone would have guaranteed this place at the start of the cycle. Having seen the way they came back from behind to win the Test series down under in 2020/21, which in fact was rated by ICC as the best Test series ever to have taken place, no one would doubt whether they deserve to be in the finals.

India’s opponents on the contrary are a personification of calmness and values of highest order. If there was a niceness index for overall demeanor, the scale will fail to measure the true value of the Kiwis. But despite being warm in nature, when considering the desire to win they are second to none. Kane Williamson has taken Brendon McCullum’s philosophy forward in his own way.

This was visible in the first Test against England in the recently concluded series. A proactive declaration on the final day with the aim of forcing a result demonstrated what New Zealand cricket is all about. The path of New Zealand to the summit is not as comprehensive as their counterpart’s journey. The highlight is undoubtedly the 2-0 win over India. The series however was closer than what the results suggest.

Mastery of home conditions leading to comprehensive wins against visitors during this period formed the foundation in Kiwis reaching the summit. Two deserved teams with an insatiable desire to win promises, a tantalizing duel in Southampton starting Friday provided a dreaded bubble breach or the English weather do not make an unwelcome entry.

On paper, India should be the favorites on the back of an impressive season, dominated by a great win down under. However, a little bit of reflection will reveal the intricate complexities that can influence the result of this contest.

Both teams are not short of arsenal at their disposal. They are faced with the problem of plenty, especially in the bowling department. The conditions in Southampton will probably provide a perfect balance between bat and ball. With the track routinely having pace and bounce to begin with followed by some degree of wear and tear towards the end combined with fluctuating overhead conditions Southampton promises to be an ideal setting for a high-profile balanced encounter. The swinging ball together with seam has been India’s nemesis. Despite conquering the pace and bounce, India have been exposed in the past when the ball has swung.

The debacle in New Zealand at the start of 2020 is a prime example. How much they have progressed since then is yet to be seen. However at least for the balance of odds India’s coveted line-up is not as strong in England as it is elsewhere.

The Kiwis led by Trent Boult and Tim Southee are masters of swing and seam. Backed by Kylie Jamison and Colin De Grandhomme the Kiwi line-up is well equipped to exploit this weakness in the Indian line up. This duel will be a significant factor in the outcome of this contest.

The Kiwis will be faced with the tough choice of choosing a spinner over most probably Neil Wagner or playing an all-out seam attack. Given the history of the venue and the magnitude of the game, the Kiwis may opt to leave out Wagner and select Ajaz Patel adding the spinning dimension to the attack.

The Kiwi batting line-up in contrast is not the most attractive or celebrated. But there is no doubt regarding their effectiveness. It is a line-up which thrives on resilience than flare. Tom Latham at the top has been consistent across conditions and has been a standout opener in recent times. Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor have struggled in English conditions. With Taylor having an overt deficiency against the incoming delivery, and Williamson not having a good record in England, the Indian seamers would be fancying their chances against the Kiwi batting unit.

The presence of three left-handers in the top order is sure make Ravi Ashwin a trump card. India will not even consider the option of leaving Ashwin out. An inexplicable practice employed in the past to play an additional seamer.

India would look to play Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma as their lead bowlers. The third seamer’s place will be a toss-up between Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj. While Shami’s experience is invaluable, Siraj has forced into contention with a rapid ascent in stature on the tour down under. Either choice would not have a significant impact as both are extremely efficient.

The threat of Ravindra Jadeja and Ashwin would be a massive threat for the Kiwis. The duo is sure to add value by lengthening the Indian batting line-up too. It is too close to call who has the advantage. The Indian greatness in batting can disintegrate in the face of skillful swing bowling by the Kiwis.

Trent Boult versus Kohli and Rohit Sharma will be riveting duels. Both batsmen would be eager to make amends for their failures in the World Cup semi-final against the same opposition at Old Trafford.

How India’s newest sensations Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant face their baptism of fire beside the rock solid shielding of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, promises enthralling entertainment. The resilient Kiwi batting can find the high-quality Indian attack too difficult to handle. Ross Taylor overcoming his technical glitch and leading the Kiwis to a world title, first in more than two decades would be a fairy tale ending to one of New Zealand’s modern greats.

Kane Williamson would be more than eager to set his record straight in England and there can not be a better platform than a World Test Championship final. It could go either way. There is absolutely nothing to distinctly differentiate both the teams. Only time would reveal who emerges victorious. India since their 2011 triumph, have experienced a trophy drought despite showing remarkable dominance across formats. The desire for an ICC trophy is on the verge turning into despair.

Kiwis deserve to win at least for the criminal injustice they encountered in the 2019 World Cup final. However, the cricketing world would know the impact of an Indian win in a newly introduced tournament. One need not look beyond the 2007 World T20 see the commercial upside, such a prospect holds. Irrespective of who holds the title at the end of the game, the common fan could be assured that it has all the ingredients to be a battle for the ages.

(The writer’s blog can be found at “Cricketing perspectives” on facebook)



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Sri Lanka on the verge of a selection committee shake-up

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A little over four months after winning the Asia Cup, Sri Lanka are on the verge of a selection committee shake-up and its chief Pramodya Wickramasinghe is likely to be among the first names on the chopping block.

Wickramasinghe has headed the selection committee since April 2021, overseeing a youth-driven overhaul of Sri Lanka’s limited overs squads. This has seen seniors such as Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne, cut from the white-ball sides. Under Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka adopted a less reactionary approach to the selection process.

In this time, with Mickey Arthur and now Chris Silverwood as head coach, the national side has seen varying degrees of success, most notably home ODI series wins against South Africa and Australia and an Asia Cup T20 triumph. But despite this, a limp showing in the T20 World Cup followed by chastening white-ball losses away to India at the start of 2023, has brought the role of the selectors under the spotlight.

To fully comprehend the current state of Sri Lankan cricketing affairs, a slightly wider outlook on the landscape is required – starting with the appointment of new sports minister Roshan Ranasinghe in May 2022 who succeeded Namal Rajapaksa, the nephew of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Gotabaya was eventually forced to resign following wide-scale protests in the country amidst a severe economic crisis, which also set in motion Namal’s ouster from the role of sports minister.

Among Ranasinghe’s first acts as sports minister was to appoint former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga to head a 15-member National Sports Council (NSC), tasked with advising the sports minister on sports-related matters in the country.

Ranatunga has long been a vocal critic of Sri Lanka Cricket’s executive committee headed by president Shammi Silva, and following the team’s subpar T20 World Cup performance, he wasted little time in calling for the selectors to be replaced.

Wickramasinghe defended himself in an interview with Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Times earlier this month, asking: “We are number three in the ICC Test Championship points table. Clinched the country’s first major title in eight years, the Asia Cup, and then earned direct qualifications to the T20 World Cup in 2024. In ODIs we won a series against Australia. Aren’t these results of our efforts during the last 18 months?”

It seems that the SLC is inclined to agree with Wickramasinghe, but they aren’t the ones seeking to shift out the selectors. That’s the work of the sports ministry-appointed National Sports Selection Committee (NSSC).

In Sri Lanka, sports law mandates that national team selectors be appointed by the sports minister, so much so that even the squads they pick must first get sports ministry approval prior to being ratified. And in October 2022, the NSSC – a seven-member committee headed by Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff General Shavendra Silva and including former chairman of selectors Sanath Jayasuriya – was appointed with the task of giving final approval to sports selection in the country.

Earlier this month, the SLC sent the NSSC a set of 10 names, including Wickramasinghe’s, from which to pick the new selection committee. However the NSSC, without rejecting them outright, expressed dissatisfaction and requested an updated list be sent. The NSSC are set to meet on Monday (January 30) to make a final decision.

Political influence on cricketing matters is not unusual in Sri Lanka, with its post-1996 World Cup history punctuated by a series of interim committees, upheaval in selectors and selection, and shifts in captaincy. (cricinfo)

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Aryna Sabalenka defeats Elena Rybakina for Aussie Open title

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MELBOURNE, Australia —The serves were big. So big. Other shots too. The points were over quickly. So quickly, including aces on seven of the first 13.And so it was immediately apparent in the Australian Open women’s final between Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina that the player who could manage to keep her serve in line, get a read on returns and remain steady at the tightest moments would emerge victorious.

That turned out to be Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus, who won her first Grand Slam title by coming back to beat Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at Melbourne Park on Saturday night, using 17 aces among her 51 total winners to overcome seven double faults.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the postmatch ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy. She referred to them as “the craziest team on tour, I would say.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final. “We worked so hard, and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Now 11-0 in 2023 with two titles, Sabalenka is a powerful player whose most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Long capable of hammering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including more than 20 apiece in some matches.

After much prodding from her group, she finally agreed to undergo an overhaul of her serving mechanics in August. That, along with a commitment to trying to stay calm in the most high-pressure moments, is paying off now.

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style and, importantly, by breaking Rybakina three times, the last coming for a 4-3 lead in the third set that was never relinquished.

Still, Sabalenka needed to work for the championship while serving in what would be the final game, double-faulting on her initial match point and requiring three more to close things out.When Rybakina sent a forehand long to cap the final after nearly 2½ hours, Sabalenka dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Sabalenka was 0-3 in Grand Slam semifinals until eliminating Magda Linette in Melbourne. Now Sabalenka has done one better and will rise to No. 2 in the rankings.As seagulls were squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded booming serves. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph. They traded zooming groundstrokes from the baseline, often untouchable, resulting in winner after winner.

“Hopefully,” Rybakina said afterward, “we’re going to have many more battles.”

The key statistic, ultimately, was this: Sabalenka accumulated 13 break points, Rybakina seven. Sabalenka’s trio of conversions was enough, and the constant pressure she managed to apply during Rybakina’s service games had to take a toll.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, an average of once per match. It took Rybakina fewer than 10 minutes of action and all of two receiving games to get the measure of things and lead 2-1, helped by getting back one serve that arrived at 117 mph.

A few games later, Sabalenka returned the favor, also putting her racket on one of Rybakina’s offerings at that same speed. Then, when Sabalenka grooved a down-the-line backhand passing winner to grab her first break and pull even at 4-all, she looked at Dubrov and Stacy in the stands, raised a fist and shouted.

In the next game, though, Sabalenka gave that right back, double-faulting twice, including on break point, to give Rybakina a 5-4 edge. This time, Sabalenka again turned toward her entourage, but with a sigh and an eye roll and arms extended, as if to say, “Can you believe it?”

Soon after, Rybakina held at love to own that set.Sabalenka changed the momentum right from the get-go in the second set. Aggressively attacking, she broke to go up 3-1, held for 4-1 and eventually served it out, fittingly, with an ace — on a second serve, no less.

She acknowledged ahead of time that she expected to be nervous. Which makes perfect sense: This was the most important match of her career to date.And if those jitters were evident early — double-faulting on the match’s first point — and appeared to be resurfacing as the end neared, Sabalenka controlled them well enough to finish the job.

(ESPN)

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Novak Djokovic back on top Down Under, win Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic found this trip to Australia far less complicated, and far more successful, than that of a year ago.

Unable to enter his best event in 2022 after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, Djokovic accomplished all he could have wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis.

Only briefly challenged in the final on Sunday night, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) for a record-extending 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title overall. As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“He’s the greatest that has ever held a tennis racket,” Tsitsipas said.

Djokovic stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run at the tournament for a man in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 there to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two at the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man in tennis history.

Margaret Court, with 24, Serena Williams, with 23, and Steffi Graf, with 22, have the most among women.This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, allowing the 35-year-old from Serbia to break a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most. Jimmy Connors holds that mark, at 109.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece’s other one also ended in a loss to Djokovic, at the 2021 French Open.

He was superior throughout against Tsitsipas, but especially so in the two tiebreakers. He took a 4-1 lead in the first and after it was 4-all, pulled off three points in a row. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple then climbed into the stands, pumped his fist and jumped with his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, and other members of the entourage, and collapsed, crying.

Little doubt this is of no solace to Tsitsipas, but there is no shame in failing to defeat Djokovic in Melbourne. Challenging his dominion on those blue hard courts is every bit the monumental task that taking on Nadal on the red clay at Roland Garros is.

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30,

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, he likely regretted the choice, because Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

One of Djokovic’s many other strengths is his return game, and he accumulated three break points within 17 minutes, converting the last for a quick 3-1 lead when Tsitsipas double-faulted.

The trophy for which they were playing was displayed on a pedestal near a corner of the court, and both men would get within reach of it whenever wandering over to towel off between points at that end.So close, yes, but for Tsitsipas, never truly close enough.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was, put simply, too good. Too accurate with his strokes — making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe — and anticipation. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble). Too dangerous with his returns and damaging enough with his serves.

Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one shot, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get.He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after the faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible — and had worried him at the beginning of Week 1, prompting him to turn to what he said was “a lot” of pain-killing pills and other treatments he didn’t detail.

And then there was the more complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal victory. The tournament banned spectators from bringing in flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Both Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding, based on Srdjan thinking he was with a group of Serbian fans.

Because of that episode, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal victory over Tommy Paul on Friday, and was not seen in the Djokovic guest box on Sunday.No matter any of it, Djokovic managed to excel as he so often does, winning 17 sets in a row after ceding one in the second round last week.

(ESPN)

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