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Ireland's World Cup shocker
Kevin O'Brien's 50-ball century the other night at Bangalore sent not only the England bowlers and fielders, but also critics of minnow teams scurrying for cover. I must confess to being somewhat out of breath too, having argued at some length why the World Cup needs to be smarter and shorter by playing fewer teams.
However, I must emphasise my original position that this does not necessarily eliminate the so-called weak teams. If a two-tier structure is brought in place where the bottom two teams from the main tournament are relegated to the secondary one and vice versa, cricket will become more competitive and engaging. The ICC is moving towards a 10-nation tournament for 2015, but I am not sure what the qualification process will be.
But that's for the future. For the present, one can only marvel at the extraordinary innings from O'Brien which has raised the pitch of this tournament several notches higher. Ireland's victory was not just unexpected but also spectacular and will have sent some tremors in the Indian camp, compelling Dhoni and Co to concentrate on graver threats than the much-maligned UDRS.
Is O'Brien spent after his breathtaking effort or will this knock inspire him to do an encore? That remains to be seen, but his 113 against England will nevertheless rate as amongst the greatest innings in limited-overs cricket. His sheer gall at attempting the target, apart from the stupendous hitting, had everybody in thrall and I reckon will have given cricket in Ireland the big fillip it needs.
Ireland's stunning victory came in the wake of the sensational tie between India and England at the same venue a few days earlier and the suddenly the World Cup had been jolted into life. The fact that both these matches were played at Bangalore would suggest that the venue had a big role to play in these results, but that is only incidental to the more pertinent issue that even seemingly insurmountable scores are being overhauled in this tournament, even by lesser teams.
Indeed, 300-plus scores are becoming par for the course in this tournament which is an indication of how much bat is dominating ball. To a large extent, this is because scores in ODIs have swelled enormously since the early days, thanks to better bats, flat pitches, sometimes to smaller grounds, but mainly because the mindset of batsmen has changed dramatically.
The propensity for risk-taking has become infinitely greater because of rewards and brickbats have grown exponentially for winners and losers. The wholly idealistic Olympic belief that it was more important to participate than win, so much a part of cricket ethos, has been hit for a six. This has made the game more competitive, leading to a frequent raising of the bar.
It is also not entirely true that high scores have been the norm on the benign pitches of the sub-continent. To give an example of how scoring rates and totals have improved, there was just a single 300-plus score in the 1987 World Cup in the sub-continent; in this year's edition, there have been six in the first week itself.
Implicit in this 'progress', as it were, of batsmen is the increased hazard for bowlers. The margin of error, never ever big in this game, has become even thinner over the years. The restriction on bouncers has blunted their arsenal to a great degree, umpires have come stricter with wides.
With so many things loaded against them, they have been shown up to be the villains far more often than they may have deserved;and even more often when the bigger culprit may be something else. For instance, in the India-England tied game and England's shock defeat to Ireland, the bowlers got pilloried but not too much attention was given to the error-prone fielding.
Not only did this make the bowling look poorer than what it was (England dropped four catches against Ireland, India dropped one and conceded at least 20 runs through sluggish work) but also cost the team possible victory.
Neither India nor England, I'm afraid, will make great headway in the tournament if their fielding standards don't improve. In games over the week-end, both teams have the opportunity to show that they have learnt from their sins of the recent past.
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