June 25, 2013

India a force in cricket (and facial hair)

An authoritative run-down of the Champions Trophy final

"Deciding a 50-over ODI tournament with a 20-over match is an empty experience. But, as empty experiences go, it was one of the best"
-- Woody Allen, senior cricket correspondent, The New York Un-American Sports Gazette, 24 June 2013

Sunday's Champions Trophy final could have been one of the most anticlimactic anti-climaxes to a sporting competition. For much of the day, it seemed that the title was set to be shared, as the rain dribbled mercilessly on Edgbaston. ICC chief executive Dave Richardson was seen donning his ceremonial karate kit, preparing to chop the precious silver and gold trophy in half with one brutal swipe.

It seemed that the post-non-match analysis would be awash with justified frothing at the myopic lack of a reserve day, whilst official ICC spokesfolk held press conferences in which they claimed that no one could have legislated for such meteorological misfortune. "Our research shows," they would have giggled, "that it has not rained in England at this time of year since 1838, when the new queen, Victoria, banned all airborne liquids in the month of June after being spat at by a rogue escaped horsie with republican sympathies during her coronation procession."

It seemed that England were about to half-break their ODI tournament duck with a tie in the unthrilling new Zero0 format that the weather, the merciless fixturelust of the international schedule, and the short-sighted absence of a retractable roof over Britain had concocted. (They should have built one in the 1980s, when the North Sea oil money was still flowing. Thank you, Thatcher.)

It seemed that a tournament that began with a sequence of gripping matches would, after two undramatically one-sided semi-finals, fizzle out like a poorly timed barbecue on the Titanic.

As it transpired, the rain reluctantly relented, and the ICC, in their generosity, allowed a degree of clock flexibility - not quite as much as Salvador Dali might have granted had he been a cricket administrator instead of a painter, but enough to allow a cricket match to take place.

Fortunately that cricket match proceeded to cram in all the fluctuations, excellence, errors and drama that you could wish for in a major final. Bowlers dominated throughout, although, ironically, the two decisive blows were struck by Ishant, who had conceded a seemingly match-losing 35 in his first 3.2 overs. Fielding bloopers and brilliance had a significant impact on the course and outcome of the match, and ultimately, India's superior play in the final stages of each innings deservedly won them the tournament. From 67 for 5 after 14, they scored 62 for 2 in the final six overs; then, in those tumultuous panic-stricken/ice-cold (delete according to nation) 18th and 19th overs of England's innings, Ishant struck with a well-executed slower ball and a tempting bouncer, before Jadeja all but sealed the game by luring England's undercooked slugger Jos Buttler into swiping at an imaginary ball that was travelling approximately two feet away from the real ball. Buttler had faced 13 balls in the tournament, 13 balls since clouting his 16-ball 47 against New Zealand in England's pre-tournament ODI series. It was unsurprising that the 14th did not go quite where he would have wanted it to go, nor off his preferred piece of wood.

Luck, as always in tight matches, played its part. But it was not decisive. If the spinning pitch favoured India, they were hampered by rain breaks that significantly disrupted the flow of their batting. The third umpire's decision to give Bell out through the now rarely used "possibly stumped" mode of dismissal was curious, but it brought Morgan and Bopara, England's two most experienced T20 players, together with sufficient time to consolidate, then build a match-almost-winning partnership, so it cannot be said to have significantly damaged England's prospects. England paid for their own mistakes, and for the excellence of their opponents at several key moments - Ashwin's superb deception of Trott with a dipping, hard-turning offbreak being one of the clankiest of those keys.

Clearly, a 20-over match was an unsatisfactory way to settle the destiny of what (a) may be or (b) may not be the final Champions Trophy. (I vote for option b). The teams being selected and the toss being tossed several hours before the start, for what was in essence a completely different game, added further to the game's wonkiness. (Should the regulations of limited-overs cricket be tweaked to deal with such situations? It was a little like a caterer preparing some delicious satay beef sandwiches as snacks to serve at a conference, before subsequently being told that the delegates are all members of SWIVPA (the Society of Wheat-Intolerant Vegetarians with Peanut Allergies). (But only a little like it, admittedly.))

The rain reluctantly relented, and the ICC, in their generosity, allowed a degree of clock flexibility - though not quite as much as Salvador Dali might have granted had he been a cricket administrator instead of a painter

Ultimately, however, it was a game that tested the skills and nerve of the teams and the individuals, and, I think, the better ODI side won. This rapidly reinvigorated Indian team looks set to be a major one-day force. And a hugely entertaining one. In terms of cricket and facial hair. England, assuming Pietersen is restored to the side, will be strong, but would probably benefit from embracing greater strategic flexibility.

The other six teams were largely unimpressive, with occasional outbreaks of quality. They all have time to rectify their various problems before the 2015 World Cup, which, like the 2011 version, will essentially boil down to a three-round knockout, probably involving the same eight teams as competed in this tournament. They all have a chance of winning. India have shown how swiftly a team can be transformed. Which should both inspire and concern their opponents.

● Dhoni's captaincy, which was calmly excellent in the knockout stages of the World Cup, was superb again in this tournament, authoritative and intuitive, as you would expect from a man who has now skippered India in 140 ODIs. Pertinently for Sunday's abbreviated match, he has also led India or Chennai Super Kings in a total of 151 T20 matches, including seven finals (the next most T20 games skippered is Adam Gilchrist's 83). There can be few scenarios he has not encountered in a 20-over contest.

Cook, by contrast, has captained a side in just one T20 match - a T20I in Centurion, against South Africa, in November 2009. That match provided little applicable experience for Edgbaston's taut classic, given that 13 overs into his T20 captaincy career, he was looking at a scoreboard that read "South Africa: 170 for 0", on their way to a rather challenging score of 241 for 6, the second-highest score in T20I history.

● Thanks to his own scintillating glovework, and a TV umpire with eyesight that was either quirky or incredible, Dhoni became the first wicketkeeper to make two stumpings in the final of a World Cup, Champions Trophy or World T20.

● A couple of minor statistical quirks… England have managed to lose two Champions Trophy finals at home without any opposition batsmen scoring 50. India have now won two ODI finals in England without any of their own batsmen scoring 50, and the last two major ODI finals without any of their bowlers taking more than two wickets in an innings.

● Some of the Indian players appeared rightly perplexed at the post-match ceremony by the gift of a white jacket, a rather baffling sartorial prize, which resulted in them celebrating their triumph whilst looking as if they would, at any moment, break into an a cappella rendering of a 1950s love song.

Perhaps the victory jacket will become more prevalent in world sport - although the various shirt sponsors cannot have been overly chuffed to have their precious logos hidden by the gleaming garb of glory - but I hope it remains restricted to the Masters golf at Augusta. The presentation of the fabled green jacket to the winner, in a log cabin, hermetically sealed from (a) the rest of the world, and (b) the fans who have cheered on the victor in his moment of golfing apotheosis, is a magnificently awkward ceremony that seems more like the induction of a new recruit into a highly questionable cult than the pinnacle of a sportsman's career. Beware the jacket of triumph, cricket.

● Ravi Jadeja in ten ODIs in 2012: with the bat, 105 runs, at an average of 17, with a strike rate of 72; with the ball, four wickets, at an average of 97, and an economy rate of 5.4. Ravi Jadeja in 12 ODIs in 2013: with the bat, 248 runs, at an average of 62, with a strike rate of 97; with the ball, 25 wickets, at an average of 14, and an economy rate of 3.5.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer