May 12, 2010

Willow patterns

The World Twenty20 has had high scores, good bowling, close finishes and impressive individual performances

Whew. The World Twenty20 takes a day off today, and boy, do we need to draw breath.

True, close finishes, the lifeblood of the 45rpm form, have been about as frequent as grins at 10 Downing Street in recent days. Few matches have even proffered suspense - of the first 21 completed contests, only three came down to the final over with the result in any serious doubt, while just five were won by the side batting second (compared with 11 out of 27 in 2009 and 13 out 25 in 2007). Appearances, though, can be deceptive: we have also witnessed the competition's two closest winning margins in terms of wickets (New Zealand's two-wicket squeeze against Sri Lanka and England's three-wicket job against the Black Caps) in addition to seven of the 15 narrowest in terms of runs. Not that that's saying terribly much.

The show, though, has been anything but dull, much less predictable. How many tipped Australia and England to be the most impressive sides to this point? How many forecast that West Indies, in a throwback to the 1980s, would bully India into submission? How many predicted Pakistan would shed their torpor and torpedo South Africa? Who on earth would have backed the Irish to fetter England's rampant batsmen more effectively than did Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis and Morne Morkel? Who'd have thought, for a nanosecond, that Ryan Sidebottom was capable of the salmonesque leap-and-catch that gobsmacked Herschelle Gibbs?

The magnitude and quality of the individual contributions, furthermore, together with the ebullience of the Caribbean crowds - such a refreshingly far cry from the grossly overpriced, sparsely attended and unmusical 2007 World Cup - have made this a tournament to treasure, even for those among us whose appetites had been sapped by the interminable biff-and-bang of IPL 3 and the fallout from Modigate.

Up to the start of Tuesday's final Super Eights fixtures, despite the sluggishness of the pitches outside Barbados, three of the 11 highest totals in the World Twenty20's brief history had been amassed. More significantly, we had also seen four of the five highest innings and twice as many centuries as were registered in the first two tournaments, not to mention fresh record partnerships for the second, sixth, seventh, eight and ninth wickets. Expertise is expanding. Call it the IPL factor.

Nevertheless, the balance between bat and ball appears to have been finer than hitherto. A little under half of all economy rates under 3.66 in a World Twenty20 innings have been achieved; Dirk Nannes and Shaun Tait are both on pace to surpass Umar Gul's record of 13 wickets in the two previous tourneys. Of the first 15 completed first innings in matches between the eight senior nations, nine tallied 160-plus, the benchmark for a winning score, yet many lesser hauls have been eminently sufficient. Afghanistan (against South Africa), Bangladesh (against Australia) and Ireland (against England and West Indies), moreover, all managed to keep their purported superiors from exceeding 7.05 runs per over. We can thank the surfaces in good part for that, but credit where credit's due.

Who on earth would have backed the Irish to fetter England's rampant batsmen more effectively than did Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis and Morne Morkel? Who'd have thought, for a nanosecond, that Ryan Sidebottom was capable of the salmonesque leap-and-catch that gobsmacked Herschelle Gibbs?

New starlets have shone, and occasionally dazzled, most notably Steven Smith, Suresh Raina and Suraj Randiv, among whom the most striking impression was made by Sri Lanka's rangy offbreaker, whose performance against Australia's voracious top order on Sunday almost made one forget that Muttiah Muralitharan was absent. Almost.

For all that, the most heartening trend, for the purist, has been the way orthodoxy - notwithstanding Eoin Morgan's Popeye-armed pyrotechnics - has prospered: the artfully flighted fingerspin of Randiv, Johan Botha and Graeme Swann; the searing pace of Nannes and Tait; the die-straight hitting of Chris Gayle, Albe Morkel and Cameron White - and, above all, the sublime strokeplay of the tournament's standout act, Mahela Jayawardene.

Until he arrived in the Caribbean, Jayawardene's highest score in 18 Twenty20 knocks against the leading eight nations had been 41, a peak he all but doubled when promoted to open against New Zealand in Providence, whereupon he added a century and an unbeaten 98. As he himself has reasoned, having more overs to play with has suited him, yet despite adding 11 sixes in his first four innings to his collection of nine from 24 previous internationals, never once did he give the impression of a man in a hurry. He has been the personification of composure and elegance, a Zen master of his immaculate, cultured art.

THE MOST REVEALING STATISTIC, though, emerged from England's comprehensive defeat of South Africa in Bridgetown. Of their last 17 completed matches in all formats, the Poms have now won 11 to the Proteas' four, including seven out of eight ODIs - the one format where the latter, until the start of this sequence, had consistently had England's measure.

The trend doesn't stop there. Over the past six years, only Australia (21 wins to 17 in all encounters) can trumpet a better overall record against Graeme Smith's men than England (14 wins to 13). England aside, nobody else in that span has won more limited-overs games against South Africa than they have lost. In two Test series this century, in 2003 and 2009-10, England have achieved draws that should - by form, talent and rights - have been beyond them. Australia apart, England are the only tourists to win a rubber in South Africa (in 2004-05) since the Republic's readmission. But for Daryl Harper's inability to hear Smith's snick, they might have repeated the feat in January. Yet not even the most blindly patriotic Mancunian or Brummie would claim that their national team have been inferior only to the baggy green-cappers during that span.

Man for man, few would dispute that South Africa, for most of this period, have boasted the stronger sides. An eclectic Test selection culled from current players would probably include a maximum of four Englishmen - Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Swann and, at a pinch, James Anderson. The key, one can only surmise, has been mind over matter. Or should that be mastodons?

On rugby and cricket fields in the post-apartheid era, South Africa have always been likened, stereotypically and ad nauseam, to the playground bully: dominant when things are going their way and the underdogs cowering, susceptible in the face of canny resistance - as when Stephen Fleming resolved to wind up Smith at every possible opportunity - or when opponents come out swinging, as Pietersen and Craig Kieswetter did in Bridgetown, unnerving some of the planet's best bowlers and fielders to the point where lengths and lines were missed and simple chances squandered.

Yes, England do seem to step up their game when they play them, sensing, perhaps, that ingenuity, pluck and stiff upper lips can reverse the tide against teams for whom there is seldom a Plan B. That the two countries now compete for the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy, named in honour of a Cape Coloured who found refuge and fame in England while highlighting the abhorrent iniquities of his homeland, may or may not be coincidental.

A fuller explanation, however, requires less reliance on history and cliché. The common thread of the past half-decade has, of course, been the increasing presence of South African-born players in the England XI. Wherein, perhaps, lies the rub. Could it be that Smith and his compadres relinquish their focus when confronted by those they regard as their own? Are they so determined to prove a point to the individuals concerned that concentration on the bigger picture flags? Do anger and resentment usurp discipline and self-control? Without wishing to denigrate England's achievements against them, it is difficult to conclude otherwise.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton