Time for the big boys to lock horns

There may not have been a perceptible buzz in the capital about the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 group B game featuring South Africa and the West Indies on Thursday but it is a good wager that if the Caribbean team sticks to its promise of playing passionately like some of its predecessors, the tournament may spring alive.

It is an enormous burden to carry, given that the opening round of games have either featured minnows or turned out to be lacklustre contests, Thursday’s game at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground will be the first to feature big boys on both sides, even if the West Indies’ critics will point out to its dismal record in the recent past when it has won but six of its last 20 games.

South African skipper Graeme Smith indicated on Wednesday that his team needed no reminding that despite such a record, the West Indies has some fine game changers. For a bunch that is quite delighted it does not have to face the pressure that comes with being favourite this time around, they have their task cut out in shedding the ‘choker’ tag.

After being edged out of the race for a berth in the 1999 World Cup final, South African teams have found it hard to justify the favouritsm they enjoyed at home in 2003 and in the West Indies four years later, leading to questions being asked about their ability to do well on the big stage. But make no mistake Smith leads a very competent and dangerous team that is out to enjoy itself.

The team has roped in the services of sports psychologist Henning Gericke. Obviously, he will be key to the team to being relaxed.”He’s added value but we have got to go out and play and enjoy ourselves. We are just excited to get started,” Smith said, pointing out that at the end of the day, the players had to perform consistently.

One of the important decisions that will contribute to this will revolve around the spin component of the South African team. Instead of having a sameness to its bowling attack with its thrust on pace, South Africa is now in a position to add either leg-spinner Imran Tahir or Robin Peterson to Johan Botha’s skills as an off-spinner.

As coincidence would have it, consistency was a buzzword in the West Indies camp as well. Under a fairly new captain – Darren Sammy – the team will face the challenge of bringing West Indies cricket back on track. It sure has a huge legacy to live up to but making it a priority can only be counter-productive to its focus.

On Wednesday, Sammy spoke of how the team needs to play as passionately as the teams that won the first two World Cup tournaments in the 70s and lost the 1983 final to India. As cricket romantics, we are unsure yet if we will see the West Indies play in that cavalier, style we associate its predecessors with but the promise of being passionate sounds exciting in itself.

Curiously, the pitch at the Ferozshah Kotla ground will hold as much interest as the two sides. For it will be the first one-day international at the venue after it face a ban for laying out a dangerous strip when India and Sri Lanka played here on December 27, 2009. There have not been many first class games since and the fact that some Ranji Trophy games this season were moved to the Roshanara Club ground on ICC’s specific instructions only adds to the interest.

For all that, it is important from the tournament’s perspective that South Africa and the West Indies dish out a competitive game so that the interest levels go up significantly well before the quarterfinals are due to start a month later. Viewed from that perspective, the responsibility on the teams led by Smith and Sammy is enormous.

Note: This piece was my first Cricket World Cup report for a newspaper (The Telegraph, Kolkata) in 12 years since the 1999 final at Lord’s.