An unfair but exciting challenge

As challenges come, this was patently unfair but one that I was lured to attempt. Outlook Lounge asked me to write brief notes on one cricket from each of the 14 teams taking in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, beginning on February 19. Now, cricket is a team sport and it is not right to pick one player ahead of all else in each team but this is the mad season and I plunged headlong into the task, identifying the 14 players who I believe will make the biggest difference to his side’s campaign

Here is my pick of the 14 players.

Australia’s Shane Watson has it in him to lift the sagging morale of his team as he recently showed with a sparkling century against England in Melbourne. The 29-year-old, soon to be anointed by Cricket Australia as its most valued player, will return to the land that revived his fortunes as an international cricketer – his success in the Indian Premier League’s debut season pitch-forked him back to the national team. He has shown that he is a player with a heart when he said his heart and mind were with those hit by the Brisbane floods. But it is skills with both the willow and the cricket ball that will be in focus when Australia attempts to win its fourth straight ICC Cricket World Cup crown. He can provide the powerful thrust at the start of the innings and gives his captain the option of using him as a new ball bowler or in the middle overs to stifle the opposition.

The 23-year-old Shakib Al Hasan will not only lead Bangladesh’s campaign in the World Cup but also be its spearhead. The incisive left-arm spinner and dashing middle-order batsman has come to be respected as one of the world’s leading all-rounders, having already played more than a hundred one-day internationals. The left-hander has often bailed his team out of trouble with a sensible approach at the crease and become its most trusted bowler as well. He has also come across a fine leader of men during the team’s 4-0 sweep of the one-dayers against New Zealand at home. And to think that Shakib is still maturing and that his best cricketing years are yet to come can be an inspiring thought for his team-mates and fans of Bangladesh cricket. Of course, Indians are unlikely to have forgotten the hurt caused by his half-century in Port of Spain that was instrumental in denying India victory in the 2007 World Cup.

In a squad that will bank on two teenage opening batsmen Nitish Kumar and Hiral Patel, the 40-year-old John Davison will remain the cynosure of Canada’s squad at the World Cup. His 111 off 76 balls against the West Indies in the 2003 edition in South Africa was the fastest century in all World Cup history until Australia’s Matthew Hayden claimed that record. Nearly eight years on, the Australia based batsman is expected to be a batting mainstay for Canada, which is itself seeking to improve on its record of one win and 11 losses in the Cricket World Cup. That the national selectors picked him despite his not having turned up for some pre-World Cup events is a telling commentary of his value to the Canadian squad.

There can be no question that England has marked itself up as one of the leading contenders of the 2011 World Cup, raising that image around a number of determined cricketers. Yet, it is 30-year-old Kevin Pietersen’s whose scalp will be the most sought after every time England bats in the World Cup. His explosive approach makes him one of the most feared contemporary batsmen. The fact that the switch-hit expert is on a comeback trail after being dropped from the home series against Pakistan last year will make him determined to show to his team and its opposition how valuable he can be to England’s cause in the World Cup. His brand of off-spin may also make him an integral part of the skipper Andrew Strauss’ plans for his side in the sub-continent.

It is a huge risk picking one name from an Indian squad that boasts of vastly seasoned players like Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, young aces like Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina, an explosive batsman like Yusuf Pathan but it is time for Yuvraj Singhto emerge as the stand out performer. And there is no reason why he will not do just that. He has spent some time outside the Indian dressing room and that has allowed him to introspect and return as a wiser person. The left-handed batsman is capable of holding the middle-order together or providing the thrust at the finish. He may have slowed down a bit on the field after he suffered a knee injury some years ago but he can still deliver 10 economical overs of his own, thus giving his skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni the luxury of going into a game with just four specialist bowlers.

Ireland’s captain William Pottersfield may not be a household name in these parts but anyone who has tracked the team’s progress in world cricket will tell you that he was one of the biggest reasons why his side won the World Cup qualifying tournament in 2009 ahead of others like Kenya, Canada and the Netherlands. The 26-yearold comes across as a reliable batsman, having scored hundreds against Scotland and Canada in the qualifiers and following these up with another against Bangaldesh in Dublin last year. Even the squad’s leading bowling hope Trent Johnson will not grudge Pottersfield’s choice as the hub around with Ireland’s hopes will revolve.

It will be a surprise if the South Africa born all-rounder Ryan ten Doeschate does not become the Netherlands’ player to watch. With the experience of playing domestic cricket in England, Australia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the big-hitting batsman can be expected to draw a significant fan following of his own. His signing with the Kolkata Knight Riders in the fourth edition of IPL for Rs 69 lakh may also be a reason for the increased interest in him but his exciting cricket skills will find the perfect platform for him to showcase. Besides being an attacking batsman, with superb temperament, ten Doeschate is a capable fast-medium bowler.

The brute power that Brendon McCullum exudes when at the batting crease makes him New Zealand’s most valuable played, even if there are other stellar performers like Daniel Vettori, Jesse Ryder, Scott Styris and Jacob Oram in its ranks. Like a Gayle for the West Indies and a Sehwag for India and a Watson for Australia and a Dilshan for Sri Lanka, McCullum’s initial thrust can set the stadium alight, making the bowlers scratch their heads in consternation and captains wonder how to set a field for New Zealand’s most destructive batsman. Even if he has preferred to bat lower down the order in the recent series against Pakistan, it is a good bet that he will walk out to open the innings for the Black Caps in the World Cup. With more than 175 one-day caps, McCullum will be eager to help New Zealand shed the tag of being a dangerous floater this time.

Many will remember that he was one of the stars of Kenya’s remarkable upset victory over the West Indies in Pune in the 1996 edition of the World Cup.  Indeed, Steve Tikolo is a veteran of four World Cup tournaments and, at 41 years of age, still performing close to his best. In a squad that has as many as nine players who will be making their World Cup debut, his experience will serve the side in great stead. His leadership skills came to the fore when he led the team to the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. Just to show that his batsmanship hasn’t lost its edge, Tikolo proved that he could stroke the cricket ball with impeccable timing and elegance as he always did when he played some cameos in the practice games in Gujarat in January,.

It would take a brave man to look beyond the flamboyant Shahid Afridi as Pakistan’s biggest weapon, not so much because he can be devastating with the bat in the death overs but because he could end up being its most successful bowler. Most teams will find that his pacy leg-spin and googly bowling can ask tough questions, more so if the pace bowlers have claimed few early wickets. The 30-year-old would be disappointed that Pakistan did not name him captain of the World Cup team when the selectors released the squad but he has seen a few disappointments in his career and will be able to  lift himself up to deliver some stunning performances with bat and the cricket ball.

The ICC rankings may say something else but cricketers around the world recognise South Africa’s Jacques Kallis as the best all-rounder in the game today. With enormous experience under his belt, he has taken over the role of the Proteas’ pivot after the retirement of Shaun Pollock. He may be coming into the World Cup after recovering from an injury – and having skipper the recent one-day series against India – but the man who has more than 11,000 runs and 250 wickets in the limited-over format will be eager to help his side shake the monkey off the back and win the World Cup. Indeed, for South Africa to realise this dream, Kallis will have click at his best.

It is a good bet that in games featuring Sri Lanka, its opponents celebrate the most at the fall of Tillakeratne Dilshan’s wicket. To be sure, he is accepted as one the most attacking top order batsmen around the world. Of course, in a side that boasts of vastly experienced batsmen like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawadene and bowling aces like Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga, Dilshan has it in him to be the biggest impact player for the Sri Lankans. He will be expected to play the aggressor’s role at the top of the order, keep wickets or bowl his brand of off-spin. The man who is credited with the lap shot that is now called the ‘Dilscoop’ will be critical to Sri Lanka’s intent of pushing its rival bowlers on the backfoot. And there is no reason to believe that he will not leave his stamp on the team’s campaign this time.

The West Indies will be hoping that with the mantle of captaincy off, Chris Gayle will free himself to bat more often like … well, Chris Gayle. The strapping left-hander from Jamaica may have had his share of runs-in with authority but it is the opposition bowlers who feel the fury when he is on song, belting the ball to all parts of the ground. His attacking methods have fetched him close to 8,000 runs in more than 215 one-day games. His critics expect him to have a better average than 40 runs an innings that he has managed so far but he has been a remarkable entertainer. There is no doubt that Gayle’s aggression will give direction to the West Indies cause in the World Cup

The return of the prodigal son, Sean Ervine, to the Zimbabwe side after nearly seven years makes him the interesting player in the squad. Zimbabwe has recalled the all-rounder – or should we say, he made himself available to be picked by the national side – after he ended his self-imposed exile by playing for Midlands in the nation’s first class set up. Of course, the strapping 28-year-old has not been away from the game, playing first class cricket for Hampshire and Western Australia. He will remember bowling Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar in the matter of a few months in 2003-04 but will have to step up the plate if Zimbabwe is to make an impact at the World Cup. Indeed, an inspired performance by Sean Ervine can help Zimbabwe become one of the quarterfinalists from Group A ahead of the more fancied sides – Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.