Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Minnows Strike Back

Mathew J. Varghese

I think we have all lost count of the number of detractors who would have shot down the so-called ‘minnows’ over the last one month. I hope all those who made that statement have learnt a lesson for good after watching yesterday’s matches.

Every Indian supporter will crib over the team’s bad performance; Sehwag should be sent back home blah blah…. But anyone who watched the game without the ‘patriotic’ fervour would have easily seen the difference between the two teams. Bangladesh played like a professional side all through out. Their attitude was positive to say the least, best exemplified by Mashrafe Mortaza’s opening spell, Tamim Iqbal’s aggressive and attractive strokeplay and above all, the team’s daunting presence while on the field. Skipper Habibul Bashar’s prophetic words on the eve of the match was no empty-handed threat. Bangladesh are pretty similar to what Sri Lanka were in the 1996 World Cup, and under the guidance of the same coach. Though I would still not predict anything drastic, as this time’s World Cup is hardly similar to the one in 1996, as far as the schedules go.

Talking about schedules, many blamed the long duration of this World Cup on the fact that the ICC had to accomodate minnows. The 2006 Football World Cup with 32 teams has double the number of teams than what its far-less popular equivalent in cricket has and yet finishes within a month’s time. The group stages in both tournaments see the teams divided in groups of 4 each, with the top two making it through to the next round. However, while the Football World Cup enters a frantic knockout mode after the opening group phase, the ICC since the 1999 World Cup has had a lousy round-robin league for the second phase as well, with the top four making it to the semi-finals.

This is reflected in the schedules as well. While the first stage of this World Cup is from March 13- March 25, the ‘Super Eight’ stage (which was the Super Six in 2003 and 1999) is from March 27 to April 21, after which follows the semis and the finals. When the 'Super Six' was introduced in 1999, many felt it was a backdoor attempt to ensure the sub-continental teams India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were involved for most of the tournament, as that’s where the event will be most followed. Well, has it worked? Pakistan has crashed out in the first stages of this World Cup as well, to add to their ignominious exit in 2003. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could also put an end to the sport’s biggest revenue-spinner - India.

The minnows have already proved their might at this World Cup. Bangladesh and Ireland have perhaps already accounted for the quota of probable upsets that were bound to occur. One needs to wait and watch if they can make it through to the next round, and if other teams such as Kenya and Zimbabwe can be in the reckoning. As far as Bangladesh pulling off an upset like Sri Lanka did in 1996, I would again say the scheduling perhaps will deny them the chance. Sri Lanka went easily through the group phases thanks to the forfeits by Australia and West Indies then and had three knockout matches that they won to clinch it. However, Bangladesh faces a far sterner test as they need to go through the Super Eight as well. Though one must note that Sri Lanka were unbeaten in that tournament, defeating India twice and Australia in the finals. This Bangladesh side has to now prove the recents wins are no one-off affairs like the one against Australia in 2005, and that they can display the ability shown yesterday with a fair amount of consistency.

The Indian team will be worried for sure, but I am waiting to see how many of the ‘big teams’ may have to pack their bags early thanks to the ‘might of the minnows.’

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