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Fight Or Flight: Three Teams Face Crucial Matches This Weekend

26/02/2015 7:04 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Pakistan's Sohaib Maqsood plays a shot during their Cricket World Cup match against the West Indies in Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Ross Setford)

Sri Lanka's struggling top order rediscovered its mojo at the MCG on Thursday. Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara, both on the wrong side of 30 now, belted the Bangladesh bowlers mercilessly to lay the score for a massive 92 run victory.

Dilshan's form in the first week of the World Cup had been iffy, but he settled any doubts about his place in the playing Xl with a big century. Yet it was Sangakkara who stole the show with his aggression and dazzling stroke play.

Sangakkara now has 22 ODI centuries to go with 38 in Tests. Over the past couple of years, he has been the world's most prolific batsman in the five and one day formats.

"Thursday's story in the World Cup was not so much about Sri Lanka's victory, but of the rousing cliff-hanger in Dunedin which got Afghanistan their first win in the World Cup."

At an age when most players are working out plans to make their 'second innings' meaningful, Sangakkara has talked of prolonging his career - even in ODIs - further. As he well might, for his appetite for runs insatiable. Behind that polished, personable exterior lies a batting ogre.

Yet, Thursday's story in the World Cup was not so much about Dilshan, Sangakkara or Sri Lanka's victory (even though it has more or less assured them of a place in the quarter-final), but of the rousing cliff-hanger in Dunedin which got Afghanistan their first win in the World Cup.

All day long, the game see-sawed between the two sides, what with Scotland recovering from 144-8 to 210, then reducing Afghanistan to 132-8 before losing the match in the final over in a heart-stopping climax.

I have dwelt on Afghanistan's rise as a cricketing nation earlier. From a war-ravaged country with no great cricketing legacy to boast of, qualifying for the biggest tournament in the sport within a quarter century makes for one of the greatest stories in sport.

Call them minnows or what you will, but the zest and bloody-minded ambition of the Afghanistan team - without which Thursday's victory wouldn't have been possible -- has made them the toast of of the World Cup already.

How far they progress from here is unknown, but full of exciting possibilities. This also imposes greater responsibility on the ICC to nurture cricket in Afghanistan (and other associate members) to the extent that their performances in this World Cup does not become a flash in the pan.

This can be achieved through sustained exposure to international matches, which means full members will have to be cajoled into playing the associate members on a more regular basis than has been done in the past. Perhaps India - given the financial heft of the BCCI - can take the lead in this by accommodating matches against Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland, UAE and the like.

Coming back to World Cup 2015, Thursday's matches also conformed to the pattern seen in the first 10 days: the game between better-ranked Lanka and Bangladesh became hopelessly one-sided, while Scotland versus Afghanistan - with neither side likely to feature even in the quarters - producing the best match of the tournament so far.

"Neither Eoin Morgan nor Misbah-ul-Haq will sleep easy over the next couple of days."

The bigger teams are obviously feeling the pressure - but that does not in any way reduce the expectations from them to provide exciting, close contests befitting the World Cup. Matches over the next three days should determine the tempo of the tournament; perhaps also the fate of a few teams.

On Friday, South Africa play West Indies. Some days back, forecasting the result of this match would have been a cinch. After Chris Gayle's blazing double century -- and the fact that the West Indies have scored 300-plus in all their matches yet, will have the South Africans in trepidation. A defeat could bring to the brink of ouster.

Likewise, the two matches on Sunday could bring grief or relief to England (who play Sri Lanka) and Pakistan (pitted against Zimbabwe). England have had a win against Scotland, but have lost two matches and are very poorly placed where the net run rate is concerned.

Pakistan have two defeats too, the lowest net run rate in the tournament and - to make things worse - several controversies swirling around them. Neither Eoin Morgan nor Misbah-ul-Haq will sleep easy over the next couple of days.

New Zealand, Australia and India face no such issues going into the weekend. The Trans-Tasman cousins play each other in Saturday's first game. Both are more or less assured of their quarter-final places, but topping the pool has several advantages which they will want to seize. It promises to be an intense contest.

India play UAE in Saturday's second game. While less fancied teams have been the flavour of the tournament yet, I don't foresee an upset. However, this match could have significance for M S Dhoni beyond just the two points for a win: it affords him the opportunity to experiment with a player or two, which could be useful going ahead.

It's going to be a hectic, action-packed and hopefully fulfilling three days. For the present though, the thing to savour and celebrate is Afghanistan's remarkable win on Thursday. I've settled for Afghani pulao followed by Bimal Roy's classic flick 'Kabuliwallah'.

Howzatt!?

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