Delhi – India

A year before the retirement of their king, the Black Caps seemed to have conquered insuperable odds and oddities in a fight to the death to go beyond where no Black Cap had ever gone before: to a World Cup final.

Since 1975 they have been battling this curse that had engulfed their land into darkness and the population in to despair. Many a Black Cap supporter had sailed to the ‘Dying Lands’ without ever witnessing this success.

The return of the king, brought forth hope. Hope that one day the curse will be defeated and darkness lifted. After a 40 year struggle where many a leader was felled and some periods of treachery were uncovered they finally had an army strong of character and skill to face this evil.

And faced the evil they did, with great courage, winning every battle and ever so slowly getting closer to the end. On the 24th day of Autumn in the park of Eden the Black Caps felled another general to make their way to a final. Towns and villages were overjoyed, they celebrated to the wee hours of the night. Even though the war had just begun, defeating the curse for even a few days felt like an eternity of suffering had ended. However, little did they know that eternal suffering had it’s own scheme & devious plan. The final War was waged across the seas, in the land of the Cons. Whether it was nerves or whether it was inexperience, whatever it was they were quite beaten. And the marching Cons, with and their green and gold lifted the trophy for the world to behold.

Twelve moons on, almost to the day
When the Black Caps least expected
The curse that they thought they had defeated
Rose again from the ashes, like a Nazgûl, full of darkness
It paralysed their will, defeated their courage
And left them heart broken in the fields of the Shah
Now as they make their way back home
They can keep their heads high
for evil and curses, they may come and go
But the courage of men, keeps living on….

Vikus Vandersmurf is a Connoisseur of Cricket and an occasional dabbler in poetry… 

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England felt resurgent after trumping South Africa in a record run chase, but little did that prepare them to be 56/6 under 9 overs against Afghanistan, the only associate team in the T20 World Cup super 10.

Afghanistan, like most countries got their first taste of cricket from the British. But through a century of invasions, and a regime hell bent on controlling every aspect of their lives, cricket didn’t have the same opportunities to blossom as it did throughout the empire. The first step to make it official  started when the Afghanistan Cricket Board was formed in 1995, they may have played on concrete pitches using kits that were donated, but the cricketing seed had been planted. After finally being approved by the Taliban six years later in 2001 they became an ICC affiliate member. And in the space of ten years they received ICC ODI status. Since then they have been there and thereabouts, in cricketing conversations, especially with the media attention through the US invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrowing of the Taliban, but it wasn’t till they qualified for the 2015 ODI World cup and landed down under did they gain global recognition.

It’s not that England were cocky, after all they aren’t Australia, but they definitely did make the mistake of underestimating their opponents. They also didn’t respect the wicket as much as they should have and within half way of their innings the Afghans had them spun in a perfect web. England were struggling, and the Afghans were displaying what potential can truly become. Mohammed Nabi was everywhere, if it wasn’t instigating run outs, it was bowling his willy off spins and troubling batsman or even better, catching stunners at cover.

Most of the current Afghan squad learned their trade while in Pakistani refugee camps, fled to during the Russian invasion. The universal language of sports helped them overcome the frustrations of an oppressive bygone era. It gave them a uniting bond to connect with others. The beauty of cricket with all its romance and charm seduced them to a lifelong labor of love. Now nearly two decades later, here they were playing, no not just playing,  challenging the oldest cricketing nation. Every time England seemed to catch a break and string a partnership, the Afghans were there to peg them back. Soon they were 85/7 with the risk of being bowled out with over a quarter of their overs left.

The light at the end of the tunnel was bright, the Afghans just needed to hang on for a few more overs. But the foresight of England batting till number ten with the calmness of Moeen Ali and the inexperience of a young team at the brink of creating history devised the kind of drama that you expected in an HBO series. Just as the finish line was in sight, just as they did with South Africa, Afghanistan imploded and the nineteenth over went for twenty five runs. This gave the English total a bit more respect than it deserved.

‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life’ – Oscar Wilde.

In the true form of what life brings forth, the script wasn’t fully written in favour of Afghanistan. While it gave them the a chance of a fairytale ending it still kept them waiting. The well oiled English machine managed to stave off the passionate Afghan onslaught. But while England may have staked a claim in a semi final, Afghanistan awed the world and added more to the legion of fans they are accumulating with every game. They say ‘It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game’. Even with losing their three games the Afghans have epitomized this. They came into the World Cup almost as nobodies, fought for every inch giving their best, thrilling spectators with moments of brilliance and celebrated with genuine ecstasy. They may have had a tough start in the game but through a lot of hard work, a lot of passion and a lot of faith they have not only united their country behind them but also won the hardest of battles, the hearts of cricketing fans.

Vikus Vandersmurf is a Connoisseur of Cricket

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As Sri Lankan cricket struggles with the demands of the international game, a true legend and pioneering innovator said his farewells and hung his Black Cap. His leadership and brand of cricket fascinated and rallied the world behind New Zealand and there’s a lot Sri Lankan cricket can learn from it.

Gimli: Then it has all been in vain. The fellowship has failed.

Aragorn: Not if we hold true to each other.

They say after defeat comes redemption, riches and glory. This has not always been true, the loss of everything doesn’t make the recovery any easier. But sometimes even the gravest of defeats has a way of delivering a savoir, a champion, a king.“Men? Men are weak. The Blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. I was there three thousand years ago. I was there the day the strength of Men failed”

In December 2012 after a short period of utter turmoil a hastily organized press-conference announced Brendon McCullum as the new Black Caps captain. The hard hitting Otagan inherited a legacy of what ifs, a band of misfits showing glimpses of brilliance but falling short nonetheless. Their bullying big brother almost laughed at the selection, where be his tactical acumen to lead? they laughed. There was no strength left in the world of Black Caps. They were scattered, divided and almost leaderless.

The journey was almost impossible. The route to the top was marred by treacherous wickets, general’s marshalling far greater armies full of seasoned warriors, bludgeoning champions and wily magicians. Each path was full of many an obstacles they had to overcome. The funny thing is sometimes it’s not how strong your army is, how skilled your warriors are or how familiar you are with the territory that matters. Sometimes what makes a difference is how much you believe. How much you believe that you are capable of defying feats, that no obstacle is beyond your conquering and if you fight, true to your heart, even the greatest of enemies can be felled. This is what Brendon McCullum has brought to the Black Caps.

Firstly he united a failing group. There is a saying in the Caribbean “10 guys is not a team, it’s a gang’. BMac was the 11th that managed to turn this gang into a cohesive unit. And not only his teammates but also the coaching & support staff bought into his vision with new found enthusiasm. Maybe it was his relaxed yet authoritative nature, maybe it was his tough but understanding features, but there was no doubt everyone wanted to follow him. He challenged the common down under view of, to be aggressive you need to be inhuman. That, only through a mongrel like abusive approach can you unsettle the opponent. The approach that you need to do whatever to get in the opponent’s head. Ian Chappell has often said a well played forward defensive stroke shows great intent to the bowler as much as a caressed drive through the covers. And that is exactly what BMac brought to the Black caps cricket.

Make no mistake, their bowling was aggressive. It was precise and it was fast. Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Mitchell McClenaghan, Matt Henry and Adam Milne all hit the right lengths and made the batsman jump. But with every little bit of chin music, toe crushers or dance move balls they let rip, they bonded with the opposition on a different level. The batsman never really hated them. It was more of a duel of will, a tussle of skill and a dance of expression than a barrage of abuse. They would have staring contests but unlike the Aussie version of ‘F*** you’ yelled by Waugh to Ambrose this was a more “I’ll get you next time ol’ fruity” or “aha well played ol’ chap well played”. After the tragic death of Phil Hughes to a bouncer, the Black Caps under BMac’s guidance as a sign of respect bowled an entire innings at Pakistan without a single bouncer, even if it meant they lost the upper hand. Contrastingly in the first match after the death, Mitchell Johnson bowled one that hit Virat Kohli on the head, Mitch then preceded to have a cry for a bit. Such is the differing nature he brought to the Black caps.

They showed great aggression in the way they fielded. BMac’s mantra of never stop chasing the ball left fans at awe. BMac while being the oldest member of the team led with great example, often sprinting after the ball, diving left right and center and even taking the helmet at short leg a couple of times. The fans loved this and wanted to see more. During their successful but failed world cup campaign they manage to win the hearts of cricketing fans around the world, albeit a few kangaroos from across the Tasman. Bmac single handedly managed to turn the black Caps in to a well oiled professional machine  playing with pride and showing a lot of heart while winning a lot of them around the world.

In his very first test as captain, the Black caps were blown away for 45 by a marching South Africa and in the 2nd they were bowled out for 121. Even with a rear guard action they lost both tests by an innings. But in the ODI series that followed they had the upper hand by 2-1. The next home series against England they fared a bit better as but in the return leg back in England they were once again humbled by an on song Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann. 2 drawn test series against Bangladesh and West Indies and a test series win against India were followed by Bmac being crowned the first Kiwi to hit a test triple hundred. What followed suit was the golden era of Kiwi cricket. They had their best year in test cricket, and in early 2015 they had their best showing in an ICC world cup making the final before going down to their cross Tasman rivals. During this period young Kane Williamson also emerged as a force world in cricket and was dubbed to be the greatest batsman Black caps would ever produce.

All of his efforts in bringing this new brand of cricket culminated into one special moment when he won the ICC’s Spirit of the Cricket for the year 2015. And true BMac style he shared the victory with everyone saying “This award is much the team and staff’s as much as it is mine, for I wouldn’t have won it if they didn’t buy into this new culture”.

It’s no secret that since the retirements of Mahela & Sanga Sri Lankan cricket hasn’t been it’s swashbuckling best. There are a lot of glimpses of genius, rare raw talent but for most part, as a close friend put in, some don’t look like they ever belong there. Nevertheless BMac’s career, drive, leadership and character can teach a lot not just to our emerging talent, but also to the core senior group. At the age of 34 he stepped down and retired from the game at a time when the urge to play one more T20 world cup would have been extremely high. He always led from the front & and by example, he never expected his team mates to do something that he wouldn’t. There were instances in tests where he would take the helmet under short leg, a position normally reserved the team newbie. He was tougher than tough, put his body in line even when a Mitch Johnson thunderbolt nearly burst through his arm. He trained the hardest, set the standard for everyone to follow but never put anyone down for falling. He was always calm, gentle but authoritative and decisive. But above all he was an entertainer for the ages, who risked dying by the sword if it meant his team would come on top

As  international cricket farewells this juggernaut of a batsman and a Leonidas of a leader. Thankfully T20 cricket will let us, fans enjoy his presence for a bit longer.

Vikus Vandersmurf is a Connoisseur of Cricket

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Picking a squad isn’t really an exact science. That is why fans, pundits and eventually the selectors rarely have the same set of players when asked to pick one.

Do you simply pick the best players on current form? Do you give someone another chance? Do you go with the tried and trusted or try to introduce some new blood?

These are questions that every selection panel struggles with and one that the Sri Lankan’s rarely, if ever, get right. Sri Lanka aren’t hip to picking squads or teams that are suited for the three individual formats. It’s just something the selectors have never been good at. Then they make decisions which are quite silly that you start to wonder if it’s some sort of cruel prank they are pulling on you. An example would be that of how Suraj Randiv is now considered a test match specialist. They are equally guilty of sheer bloody mindedness  in picking players who’ve failed over and over again in the hope they do well to prove the doubters of their decision making process wrong. Chamara Kapugedera is one such example.

That Kapugedara is talented is almost universally accepted by the current Captain, coaches, past players. A lot of people still remember him hitting Brett Lee for few sixer’s in Australia. And for a long time he was picked based on that innings and the promise that innings showed.  Of late he’s been picked when someone has been injured with expectations that he has to do well in these drop in innings. Kapugedara’s confidence has been systematically stripped away with almost surgical precision by the media and fans. It’s almost palpable when he bats for Sri Lanka. It’s like he knows he’s going to get out so why bother trying anyway.

Remarkably the selectors have appeared to have shed all these past indiscretions and picked possibly one of the best squads Sri Lanka has ever put out in any form of the game. There is depth and an excellent mix of experience and youth.  And at a time when we ere contemplating on heading to PartyCasino to put some coin on everyone’s favorite MP and dance star  Jayasuriya making the cut.

Kapugedara has been left out for a start. Bowlers like Eranga and SLPL star Dhananjaya have been gambled on. Ajantha Mendis, who in our view still remains a destructive force in this format of the game, is back. Munaweera adds a much needed aggressive streak to the top order.

There are no freeloaders. Everyone has clear and defined roles. But that doesn’t take away from the flexibility of the options available to Jayawardene. 2020 cricket is so fast and furious that it’s a case of adapt or die. Set batting line ups, run accumulators and predictable bowlers are not the order of the day.

Munaweera can open, bat at 3 or in the middle order. The same is true for Jayawardene. Even Thisara Perera could come up the order if needed on his current form.  Jeewan Mendis props up a strong and clever attacking lower middle order. The pace attack is structured well with Malinga offering the X factor, although it’s more like a x factor these days, Kulesekara control and Eranga swing at good pace.

Sri Lanka always likes a bit of mystery with their tweakers and this side has a enough to satisfy J.J Abrams. Excessive variety, which can be detrimental without having a stock ball to fall back on in the longer formats, is an advantage in 2020 cricket. A fact that Jayawardene obviously supports in his championing of Akila Dananjaya for his SLPL side. But with Mendis also in the squad, it remains to be seen if he gets a game. But the fact that he is available for Jayawardene is the whole point of the exercise.

In recent times, Sri Lankan sides have been handicapped by the selections they have made. This time around they have given themselves the best chance by putting together 15 players who are suited to the format and play pivotal roles for the side. They’ve lowered the odds and have for once, stopped us unnecessarily parting with our hard earned small sums of money

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