September 21, 2007

The script's changed, the drama hasn't

India's upset win changed the nature of the World Twenty20 semi-finals but it doesn't take away from the competition that will be on offer

'The truth, and it must hurt, is that champion teams win the matches that count' © Getty Images

Perhaps it is foolish to own up when you already have the advantage of hindsight but I will do so anyway. This was my semi-final line-up before the tournament began: Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand/Pakistan. The first three were the natural favourites, New Zealand had athleticism, muscle, and two fine bowlers, and as always Pakistan were capable of anything.

On Thursday morning the situation changed slightly. Either Australia or Sri Lanka had to go, and by evening the tournament's best possible scenario, in terms of draw and drama, was on the cards. South Africa needed to score 142 to create the most high-voltage semi-final lineup: India v Pakistan in Cape Town, South Africa v Australia in Durban. How they managed to ruin it will be dissected for days to come.

A South African friend offered this explanation: they couldn't bear the thought of another humiliation at the hands of Australia. Graeme Smith, poor soul, could offer none, apart from reflecting on the injustice of the format. India, Pakistan and South Africa had all lost one match in the tournament. And Australia and New Zealand had lost two. Yet South Africa were going home. (Actually, they were going nowhere, just staying home). The truth, and it must hurt, is that champion teams win the matches that count.

What of England? Shouldn't they have been among the semi-finalists? After all they came with Twenty20 experience and Twenty20 specialists. And fresh from a one-day series win against India. Ricky Ponting, after Australia's loss to Zimbabwe, talked about his team not having respected the format; in England's case, it's perhaps a case of over-complication. For years they stuck to the bits-and-pieces-players theory in one-day cricket with abysmal results. But they chose to replicate the formula in Twenty20. Perhaps the lesson will be learned now: class makes a difference. Get the best players in.

How did India manage to sneak in? They, too, came without their top players. Not a lot should be read into a couple of wins, but the answer probably is that the players they picked are ones who have a future in all forms of the game. Robin Uthappa and Rohit Sharma are among India's brightest batting talents, and much better fielders than the men they have replaced; Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh are proven performers coming off a rough patch; and Irfan Pathan was winning matches for India with both bat and ball not so long ago.

And, as they showed in London, give the bowlers a pitch with a bit of juice and they are a handful. It's no coincidence that they have won two matches defending low scores. India's fielding has been a revelation.

Pakistan, as they always do, have blown hot and cold. Their opening bowlers have either taken plenty or gone for plenty, but not a lot of batsmen have actually figured out Sohail Tanvir, who came in only because Shoaib Akhtar led the charge against his new-ball partner. Their openers are yet to fire, yet Salman Butt has been used as a dangerous floater, opening in one match, No. 3 the next and then No. 4. It's not an unfamiliar problem, though, and they have won despite that.

Misbah-ul-Haq has surprised everyone. He has shown poise and skill, and audacity when needed; and in the reliable Younis Khan and Shoaib Malik - who is growing as a batsman - they have a middle order that can both consolidate, if ever that was needed in this form, and explode as necessary. And then there's Shahid Afridi.

Pakistan played the perfect match against Australia and their routine bad match against Bangladesh. They will be happy they are playing New Zealand in the semi-final.

New Zealand are a good all-round team, prone to being undone by the brilliance of their opponents, but this is their best chance to get to a big final © Getty Images

Despite their Champions Trophy win in 1999, New Zealand have always seemed a team good enough for a semi-final spot and no more. They are a good all-round team, prone to being undone by the brilliance of their opponents. This, though, is a form that suits them. They have four batsmen who can be match-winners, and Daniel Vettori is the tournament's joint best bowler. Pakistan will be dangerous opponents, just the sort who can derail New Zealand. Still, this is their best chance to get to a big final. It's an afternoon start, so the toss won't matter that much: expect a hard fought match between contrasting teams.

Australia have been doing their best to underplay the tournament and underplay the pressure. They know they can be beaten in this form more easily than in any other. The Zimbabwe match was an aberration but they were well and truly done in by Pakistan.

However, they know just how to raise their game and they haven't lost a semi-final in a World Cup for ages. After going for runs in the earlier matches, Brett Lee hit his straps against Sri Lanka, and three Australians are among the tournament's ten most economical bowlers. Top of that list is Stuart Clark who has, quietly and unobtrusively, slipped into Glenn McGrath's shoes. It will take something special from the Indian batsmen to knock him off his line or length.

Australia will miss Ponting, who never seems to fail in big matches, but Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist have been among the runs, and Andrew Symonds is due a big performance. The contest between him and Harbhajan Singh, who bowled splendidly to Afridi - three dot balls, two singles, two twos and out - is an exciting prospect.

The script may have deviated a bit but there is reason to expect two good semi-finals tomorrow. And no, I am not sticking my neck out.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine