Foreigners pack a wallop

Rajasthan Royals’ Graeme Smith has donned the role of a marauder at the top of the order.-V. GANESAN

With expectations riding high on them, the overseas players have responded very well, lighting up the Indian Premier League. By S. Dinakar.

Gradually, the questions are being answered. The overseas cricketers have largely justified their billing. Shane Warne & Co. have lifted the level of competition in the Indian Premier League.

Whether it is Warne marshalling his men and bowling with great craft, Shane Watson parading his all-round ability, Glenn McGrath or Shaun Pollock operating with exemplary precision, Sanath Jayasuriya dismissing attacks ruthlessly, Graeme Smith donning the role of a marauder at the top of the order, Shaun Marsh providing a dash of youthful energy and flair opening the innings, Sohail Tanvir swinging ’em and striking with his quick arm action and fullish length, or Albie Morkel going about his cricket with heart and power, the foreign hand has been strong and visible in the IPL.

While it is debatable whether early initiation into the hectic Twenty20 cricket will help a budding player, Warne, on his part, has striven to infuse in the young cricketers of Rajasthan Royals a wealth of knowledge and self-belief as they rubbed shoulders with formidable names on a big stage.

He has led with great tactical and communication skills, his mind always alert to a possibility. The legendary Australian, both skipper and coach of the side, has created chances with pro-active captaincy.

In a largely defensive format for a fielding side, he has been attacking. He has shuffled slots for the cricketers, but the role definition has been clear. Warne’s field placements, instinctive or planned, have dripped with cricketing acumen.

Warne has built depth in the ranks, identified local talent, and blended it winningly with international stars.

The champion leg-spinner’s presence has surely played a pivotal role in Shane Watson’s laudable displays with the bat and the ball. Watson, whose career has been rocked by injuries, has batted with dash and responsibility and bowled with pace and aggression.

Watson (352 runs and 12 wickets in IPL at the time of writing) is a clean striker of the ball and can hustle a batsman with bounce and movement from an off-stump line. He is relishing the load and responsibility.

The Aussie influence would have been greater had some of the key men like Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey, Brett Lee and Andrew Symonds not been drafted in for the tour of the West Indies.

The performance of a Warne, McGrath, Pollock or a Jayasuriya has also shattered the myth about age and the shorter varieties of the game. While youth and exuberance matter, experience and strong fundamentals will score in any format.

Of course, the young Marsh struck a huge blow for the younger bunch with his confidence that stems from rare ability. Former Aussie opener Geoff Marsh’s son bats with a lot more freedom than his father did. And he is left-handed.

It’s hard to be consistent in Twenty20 but Marsh has strung together a tremendous run of scores. Kings XI Punjab could not have been smarter with a buy.

At the time of writing, Marsh had 478 runs in nine matches at 68.28 (strike rate 134.64). More than the runs, his approach to batting has caught the eye. The left-hander picks the length early, has sparkling footwork, and is decisive in his stroke-play on both sides of the wicket.

He can find the gaps, strike over the infield and clear the ground. In a compressed format, he is expansive with his strokes without appearing to take risks.

Marsh is a natural riding on his skill. Greater deeds beckon.

Jayasuriya is a lot older than Marsh, but continues to sizzle on the big stage. The wristy blows, the flick-drives, the ease with which he creates width with short-arm jabs, and the extraordinary combination of hand, eye and reflexes at 38, inspired Mumbai Indians’ revival in the competition.

Pollock has moved the ball both ways from a straight-line just outside the off-stump. The batsman, unsure about the direction of the deviation, is often opened up.

Smith, an effortless striker of the ball, has provided roaring starts. The tall and strong left-hander’s pairing with the little Swapnil Asnodkar, forced the bowlers to make adjustments in both length and direction.

Adam Gilchrist (431 runs at a strike-rate of 139.03) would have been of a far greater value to a winning side. His Australian mate McGrath, typically, has bowled with precision and commitment, getting the yorkers in at will. His pace partner Mohammad Asif, however, has been dogged by fitness concerns.

Sri Lankan Farveez Maharoof, who relishes sending the ball into the stands and is a paceman who varies his speed and length, has been value for money.

Kings XI owner Preity Zinta hugs Man of the Match Shaun Marsh following the victory over Mumbai Indians.-PTI

Indeed, all-rounders have proven valuable. Dwayne Bravo bowled and batted with zest while James Hopes, whenever given an opportunity, has contributed. Morkel, among the biggest hitters of the cricket ball, has mixed his length and pace with the ball.

Muttiah Muralitharan, his focus on containment, has been efficient. Makhaya Ntini, apart from a creditable hat-trick against Kolkata Knight Riders, has lacked consistency.

Not surprisingly, the smooth-stroking Mahela Jayawardene and the clinical and technically pleasing Kumar Sangakkara have pulled their weight for Kings XI Punjab. And David Hussey has produced crucial batting efforts at the crunch for Knight Riders.

Not many will forget Brendon McCullum’s jaw-dropping hundred in the tournament opener in Bangalore.

There have been disappointments. Explosive batsmen Herschelle Gibbs and Shahid Afridi largely failed to boom. Chaminda Vaas had a forgettable tournament. Misbah-ul-Haq and Shoaib Malik, the big hitters, returned smaller contributions.

Shoaib Akhtar made a dramatic entry with a red-hot spell against Delhi Daredevils at the Eden Gardens before being sidelined by yet another injury. Umar Gul, who, arguably, has the most potent yorker at the death, demanded attention.

As the competition evolves, the $5million cap on buying players is likely to go. The maximum of four foreign players in a playing XI, however, is expected to stay.

The teams will, in the seasons ahead, seek players without international commitments during the IPL. The emphasis will be on smart buys and not big names alone. Shane Watson and Shaun Marsh are cases in point.