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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)



Sports

Uncle Percy is 85 today

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by Rex Clementine  

Cheerleader Percy Abeysekara turns 85 today. In his own words, ‘two years younger than Sir Garry Sobers and fitter than Sobers.’  

 Percy has been around cricket grounds cheering his beloved Sri Lanka and his favourite players for over 50 years now. Percy has many high profile friends in the sport.  

 Former India captain Ravi Shastri once wrote, ‘Percy, don’t lose your voice. Sri Lanka needs it more than you.’  

 Former New Zealand captain late Martin Crowe once gave away his Man of the Match award to Percy.  

 Once Percy was arrested in Australia; for entering the field of play. Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist protested. ‘Don’t make this an international crisis,’ they warned. Percy has friends even in the Aussie dressing room.  

 Cops in Australia are hard-nosed. They apparently give too hoots about what their Prime Minister thinks when it comes to implementing the law. But the few hours that Percy spent with them made them realize that this was not an overenthusiastic cricket fan. This is someone who had seen Don Bradman, Keith Miller, Neil Harvey et al.  

 Percy then asked the cops whether they knew the best advice Vic Richardson, Australia’s former captain gave his grandson Ian Chappell. They said no. ‘If you ever get a chance to captain Australia, don’t do it like a Victorian.’   

Now the arrest happened in the tiny city of Hobart in the small state of Tasmania. The cops actually were having a laugh that an outsider was taking a dig at a larger state. Percy knew the Aussie mentality.  

 He didn’t stop there. He quoted Shakespeare and Donne and the cops were overwhelmed. Not only was he let off without being charged, the cops were also seen taking pictures with Percy, an international icon.  

 Percy’s wit is his best friend.  

 Once a fan shouted. ‘Percy go home.’  

 Percy asked, Your home’  

 Once late Gamini Dissanayake asked, ‘Percy, why don’t you join the Cricket Board.’  

 Percy said, ‘Sir, there are three palanas I don’t like.  

One is Cricket palana.  

The second is deshapalana.  

The third is upath palana.’   

JR Jayewardene, another President of the board had also asked the same question a few years back. Percy replied him poetically. ‘Sir, I would rather be on the footboard than the Cricket Board.’  

 Here’s a man who has brought smiles to many cricket fans and players. We wish Uncle Percy well.

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Yupun, Nimali expected to provide solace

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by Reemus Fernando

When the men’s 10,000 metres was held at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Sri Lanka’s Ranatunga Karunananda was the last to finish but he won the admiration of the hosts. His courageous run to complete the race after the winners had been decided, epitomize the Olympic creed- the most important thing is not to win but to take part. Like Karunananda, Yupun Abeykoon and Nimali Liyanarachchi are not among the top athletes in their disciplines but could take inspiration from the late athlete’s 1964 story when they compete against odds in their respective disciplines.

After witnessing the country’s wildcard entrants being eliminated from the first round in other sports during the last few days, sprinter Yupun Abeykoon and middle distance runner Nimali Liyanarachchi are expected to provide some solace when track and field sports of the Tokyo Olympics starts today.

Nimali Liyanarachchi has a huge burden on her shoulder to change things around when she competes in the women’s 800 metres today.

“Her preparations were hampered due to Covid 19 restrictions. I am banking on her fighting qualities to try and achieve her best performance here,” Nimali’s coach Sujith Abeysekara said in a telephone interview with The Island from Tokyo yesterday.

Nimali will compete in heat four where World Championship silver medallist Raevyn Rogers is the favourite. The US runner has run most of her races under two minutes. Nimali’s seasonal best of 2:03.15 seconds is at odds with her true potentials. But looking back at the hurdles she overcame to earn a wildcard for Olympics, the mere presence of the Sooriyawewa damsel in Tokyo itself is a victory and an encouragement for numerous underprivileged girls from outstations.

She was bedridden after meeting with an accident on the eve of Sri Lanka team’s departure to the South Asian Games in 2019. She spent a better part of the 2020 season on her recovery and when she was just getting ready to compete there were no competitions. On this backdrop even a seasonal best performance at today’s event will be a victory.

Five of her rivals in heat four have run the discipline under two minutes recently and it will be a tough ask for her to advance from the heat. Hence a seasonal best performance would be a realistic target.

Meanwhile, when the world search for a new Olympic champion in the men’s 100 metres after one and half decades, Sri Lanka’s track and field fans will want South Asian 100 metres record holder Yupun to advance from the heats.

Yupun in a social media post said that his goal was to be pressure free and try to advance to the next round. Abeykoon established a new Sri Lanka and South Asian record when he clocked 10.15 seconds in May and produced an outstanding fourth place finish at the Rome Diamond League in June to book a top rank in the world. In his post Yupun also reminded his fans of his Diamond League feat. “I hope everyone remembers the Diamond League I last participated. A lot of things can change in a race that ends between nine to ten seconds. I believe in my abilities and training. I will compete to get a good result.”

Abeykoon will compete in the men’s 100 metres heats on Saturday.

Track and field, the premier Olympic sport will feature many first round events today. However today’s only medal event (final) is the men’s 10,000 metres where Uganda’s world record-holder Joshua Cheptegei and world-leader Jacob Kiplimo are the men to beat.

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Sri Lanka eye series win after restricting India to 81

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By Rex Clementine

Birthday boy Wanindu Hasaranga is emerging to be a top class match winner as he claimed career best figures of four for nine on his 24th birthday to help Sri Lanka reduce India to 81 for eight in the third and final T-20 International at RPS yesterday.

It was India’s lowest total against Sri Lanka and their third lowest total in T-20 cricket. 

It was a day where Sri Lanka did not do much wrong with fielders backing up the bowlers with some outstanding catching.  

India needed captain Shikhar Dhawan to score big with half their regulars, close contacts of Krunal Pandya who tested for COVID, in isolation. However, Dhawan departed in the first over and India never recovered from thereon.

Dushmantha Chameera was on the money from the start drawing the Indian captain for a drive and Dhananjaya de Silva at wide slip completed  the catch.

Skipper Dasun Shanaka raised his game remarkably. Terribly out of form with the bat, Shanaka did the job with the ball having brought himself on midway through India’s innings. He took a spectacular left-handed diving catch to dismiss Nitish Rana.

The rest of the bowling was impeccable too keeping up the pressure making run scoring difficult and it looked India were content to bat out the 20 overs to try and see what total they can get at.

Kuldeep Yadav at number seven top scored with an unbeaten 23 that came off 28 balls while Bhuvneshwar Kumar made 16. Opener Ruturaj Gaikwad was the only other to get into double figures as India lacked momentum throughout their innings.

The early damage was done by Hasaranga as India batsmen struggled to pick his straight delivery and were adjudged leg before wicket.

Sri Lanka are set for an easy win and this will be their first ever series victory over India in the shortest format of the game in eight attempts.

Caption: Wanindu Hasaranga claimed career  best figures of four for nine as India were restricted for 81 for eight in the  third T-20 International at RPS yesterday.

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