April 20, 2007

Saluting the spirit of the minnows

By H Natarajan

Not many people are aware that in 1969, West Indies were shot out for 25 at Sion Mills. West Indies, who were 12 for nine at one stage, could not find a single batsman who could manage a double digit score! Believe it or not, the Riplesque feat was engineered by Ireland, who went on to win the match by nine wickets. That famous victory should have launched Ireland on the fast track to achieving international status. But that was not to be. Ireland has taken 37 years to achieve that with some stunning displays in the ongoing World Cup.

They gave a prelude of the things to come when they gave South Africa a huge scare in the warm-up game before the World Cup. South Africa were 66 for seven before they recovered. And then, in one the biggest upsets in World Cup history, they beat Pakistan. That defeat caused the swift exit of Pakistan, the 1992 World Cup champions, and arguably led to the untimely death of their coach, Bob Woolmer. While glamour teams like India and Pakistan were facing flak at home after their stunning exits, Ireland went on to earn greater glory with a tied game against Zimbabwe and another shock win– this time against Bangladesh, who had themselves created waves in the championship with upset victories over India and South Africa.

Despite the thrashing they got against Sri Lanka, it’s nevertheless been a truly outstanding effort by Ireland. After all, the team is made up of a pack of amateurs who took time off from their work to pit their skills against seasoned pros of the game.

The likes of Ricky Ponting will always remain carping critics of minnows given a place among the big teams on a big stage like the World Cup, but the fact is that in just about every World Cup the minnows have shown grit and gumption to leave their marks.

In the 1979 World Cup, Sri Lanka – who had not got full international status then - beat India emphatically. Sixteen years later, Sri Lanka beat the might of Australia in the final to emerge World Cup champions.

In 1983, India won the World Cup. But that was possible only because of once-in-a-lifetime superhuman effort of 175 not out (off 138 balls) by Kapil Dev after India were 17 for five and 78 for seven. It was a fantastic World Cup by Zimbabwe who had qualified for the championship through the ICC Trophy route.

Earlier in that World Cup, Zimbabwe stunned the cricketing world with victory over Australia on their One-Day International debut. Zimbabwe scored 239 in 60 overs against an Australian attack powered by Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Rodney Hogg and Jeff Lawson and then restricted their much-fancied rivals – the Aussies line-up included batsmen like Allan Border, Kim Hughes and Kepler Wessels - for 226.

Zimbabwe were at it again when they beat England in the 1992 World Cup. England needed just 135 to win in 50 overs, but a team that had destructive batsmen like Ian Botham, Graham Gooch, Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Graeme Hick could only muster 125. Zimbabwe, who had gone on to beat South Africa in the 1999 World Cup that followed, had unfortunately suffered because of political problems in the country.

In 1997, Kenya playing what was only their fourth One-Day International created a huge flutter when they beat the mighty West Indies in Pune. Kenya did well to score 166 against a West Indies pace attack of Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop and then shot out the men from the Caribbean for 93 in just 35.2 overs – Shivnaraine Chaunderpaul was the top scorer with 19, one of two West Indian batsmen to into double figures.

By this time, match-fixing had reared its ugly head and Kenya’s victory was to be viewed with suspicion, even if there was not a shred of evidence to support the theory.

In 1990, Bangladesh also suffered the same fate after they had beaten Pakistan. The Doubting Thomases wondered: How could a team that had the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar and Saqlain Mushtaq in their attack and had batsmen of the calibre of Saeed Anwar, Inzamam ul-Haq and Saleem Malik in the batting could suffer a crushing 62-run Bangladesh?

But both Kenya and Bangladesh proved emphatically in recent years that it would be imprudent not to acknowledge their cricketing merits. Before the curtain came down on the 2003 World Cup, Kenya ensured that they cannot any longer be taken lightly in world cricket. Coached by India’s Sandeep Patil, Kenya did exceedingly well to reach the semi-finals.

Even as loud noises rent the air about the need to demote Bangladesh, the team showed a sense of purpose in a meritorious turnaround with wins over India, Australia, and Sri Lanka. And if there has been one side apart from Ireland to win copious and rave reviews from all quarters in this World Cup, it has to be Bangladesh. They first engineered the early exit of India and then beat formidable South Africa. While the defeat against Ireland may have taken some gloss off their World Cup campaign, one this is certain: they just cannot be labeled as minnows any more.

And I dare say that there will an escalated interest in India’s forthcoming tour of Bangladesh where they play two Tests and three One-Day Internationals between May 10 and 29. They not only have a very talented and very young bunch but they have quite a few men who have the potential to become champion players.

Wilma Rudolph, the great American athlete, whose incredible achievements against staggering odds and medical opinion, once said: “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” The history of the World Cup has seen teams like Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Bangladesh proving what can be achieved by the power of the dreams when combined with if the fire in the belly to achieve greatness.

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