Lack of competition was glaring

The victorious Pakistan team. — Pic. AFP-

THE organisers managed to find the teams to participate, and even a new sponsor in Cherry Blossom, but the tournament lacked the lustre.

THE organisers managed to find the teams to participate, and even a new sponsor in Cherry Blossom, but the tournament lacked the lustre. Cricket in Sharjah, from the time matchfixing was exposed, has never been the same. There have been countless attempts by the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series to lure the Indians but the Government has not relented. Left to the Board of Control for Cricket in India and its President, Jagmohan Dalmiya, the Indian team would fly out to the desert venue at the first given opportunity but the Government has adopted the right stand. At Sharjah, India has always remained second in the priority list and the CBFS realised its follies late. Now that it wants to mend its ways, there is little chance of an Indian team travelling to Sharjah.

Even this tournament was jinxed. The war in Iraq ensured the South Africans — under a new captain — would not make an appearance. It is to CBFS' credit that it got its act together and came up with a face saving event but the lack of competition was glaring. It was one tournament which did not produce quality cricket at any stage.

Coming as it did at the end of a high-profile World Cup, the Cherry Blossom Cup was never expected to offer any great stuff. The usual flair was missing as one-sided contests gave an indication of things to come and the final just confirmed the poor standard of cricket one got to see at Sharjah.

The tournament involved Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Zimbabwe but it did not attract the attention of the fans for the simple reason that the timing was wrong. Pakistan was still in the process of overcoming the shocks of a disastrous World Cup. The Sri Lankans lacked the motivation even though skipper Sanath Jayasuriya tried his best to inspire the team. Zimbabwe was trying to discover its right combination and Kenya faced the stiffest task — to live up to the high standards that it had set for itself by reaching the semifinals of the World Cup. With the exception of Pakistan, the rest played poor cricket right through and it was hardly surprising when Rashid Latif and his men crowned themselves with glory at their most favourite venue.

The Pakistan team treated the stage to test its potential. The emphasis on youth meant that it was always going to be a daunting task for Latif but his confidence in the ability of the young but ambitious team paved the way for a decent show. It was just the kind of performance that had made Pakistan such a formidable force at Sharjah, which has suffered financial setbacks in the absence of India's participation. The CBFS tried to put up a brave front but the fact remains that without India's presence at Sharjah, the financial returns are not the same.

Pakistan, despite the setbacks, did enough to win the hearts of its supporters. The World Cup had taken its toll with the axing of Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar, Waqar Younis and Inzamam-ul-Haq but as skipper Rashid Latif observed, it was an ideal stage for the youngsters to show their mettle. "Ours is a new-look side but most of the players have played international cricket," he had said before the start of the tournament.

No wonder, Latif was the happiest man in the stadium the night Pakistan won the title in a one-sided finish against Zimbabwe.

Yousuf Youhana and Taufeeq Umar, both rated high by coach Javed Miandad, played key roles in the final which saw Zimbabwe cave in meekly. It was so typical of Youhana, who was in a furious mood, but Pakistan may have gained more from the effort of Umar, a gifted strokeplayer. In the World Cup match against India he had shaped well before he lost his composure but in the final at Sharjah, Umar batted to his potential in Pakistan's easy victory. He also gained from the company of Youhana, who found things comfortable under the guidance of coach and mentor, Miandad.

It was Pakistan's fortune that Miandad, always considered an astute cricketer, took over as coach after the World Cup debacle. In Latif, it had a captain quite capable of leading from the front and in Miandad, who also hails from Karachi, the team had a coach who had the temperament and the patience to build a side. Miandad's influence was clear in the manner in which the team went about its job. There were no frills and each match was won with a clinical performance.

Miandad always played his best cricket when the stage was big. He also ensured that at no stage did he cause alarms because he knew the best way to attain the target was through a steady approach. He could increase the pace at will but then not every batsman had the class of Miandad, who was a master of organising a chase. The bigger the target, the better he planned. So, when he took over as coach, Miandad made it clear to the team that he only appreciated matchwinning performances. No need to indulge in gallery show and the message went deep. The young lot shed the flamboyance and adopted simple but tested measures to dominate the opposition.

Miandad was a brilliant fielder and here he was glad to see the likes of Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik raise the overall standard of the team with some stunning acts on the field. It was the strength on which Pakistan carried itself to such heights. And then the captaincy of Latif ensured that the players gave the best. His faith in the three spinners helped Pakistan maintain an impressive over-rate and it clearly looked a complete team.

Miandad's presence in the Pakistan camp also reflected in the team adopting some brilliant tactics. The fielders supported the bowlers by choking the batsmen for runs and most got out in frustration. It had the trademark Miandad style of putting pressure on the batsmen through tight fielding and giving the bowlers enough freedom to experiment. The team's confidence grew and Latif also made the most by establishing himself as a players' captain in the course of just one tournament.

Naved-ul-Hasan, Shoaib Malik and Hafeez showed enough promise to flower as the all-rounders that Pakistan has been concentrating on. True, Abdur Razzaq, `Man of the Match' twice, justified his selection but then the team needed to create a competition for places among the all-rounders and a tussle seems to have begun now. Pakistan has a busy schedule ahead and it will be an interesting battle if one goes by the success of the young all-rounders at Sharjah.

Pakistan also made great progress in the bowling department where Mohammad Sami and Umar Gul distinguished themselves with a fine display. By clocking 156.4 kmph, Sami became the third fastest bowler in recent times after Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar. In Gul and Sami, Pakistan seems to have found the replacements for Waqar and Wasim, assuming of course the National selectors' faith in youth continues. The veterans may find it difficult to regain their place if Miandad has his way. Danish Kaneria progressed as a leg-spinner of immense potential and one is sure he will have a big role to play for Pakistan in the future, what with off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq past his prime. Pakistan was easily the pick of the teams and the Sharjah tournament seems to have provided it the confidence to overcome the setback of the World Cup.

The case of Kenya was enough to highlight the inconsistency factor. The Kenyans may have been keen to maintain the fine showing of the World Cup but then they ran into reality at Sharjah, losing all their matches.

Zimbabwe was not the same team without Andy Flower even though it did well to reach the final. In the absence of Andy Flower, Henry Olonga and Guy Whittall, all having retired after the World Cup, there was bound to be a struggle for Zimbabwe even though skipper Heath Streak painted a rosy picture. "We do have the youngsters to carry the team forward," Streak had observed before the tournament. To some extent his players did not let him down and a place in the final was quite a creditable achievement for Zimbabwe. It did better than Kenya by all standards and there was no doubt that in the absence of Andy Flower, his brother Grant took over the mantle of providing experience and depth to the batting.

Among the highlights for Zimbabwe was the century by Douglas Marillier against Kenya. It was not an innings of the same value as his knock against India at Faridabad but it helped Zimbabwe in warming up for the match against Sri Lanka, which it won in style.

Sri Lanka was hit hard by loss of form of some players and injuries to some. The absence of Chaminda Vaas, out due to an ankle injury, had its effect on the bowling and Sri Lanka did not look like a team, which would threaten Pakistan in its march. It suffered a heavy loss against Pakistan and it was hardly surprising when it bowed to the determined Zimbabwe. Once Jayasuriya fell to the second ball of the match, Sri Lanka never recovered and `Man of the Match' Grant Flower saw to it that the opportunity was not lost.

The tournament did not live up to the standards one would have expected, what with most of the contests providing mediocre fare. But Pakistan sure had a memorable outing, winning the title at its most favourite venue.

April 10, Final

Zimbabwe 168 in 49.1 overs (Tatenda Taibu 74 not out, S. Ervine 25, Md. Sami three for 44, Shoaib Malik three for 29) lost to Pakistan 172 for two in 35.2 overs (Taufeeq Umar 81 not out, Yousuf Youhana 61 not out).

League matches April 3, 1st match

Pakistan 278 for seven in 50 overs (Younis Khan 67, Rashid Latif 34, Abdul Razzaq 76 not out) beat Zimbabwe 210 in 44.1 overs (D. Marillier 59, D. Ebrahim 31, S. Ervine 30).

April 4, 2nd match

Sri Lanka 223 for six in 50 overs (S. Jayasuriya 27, K. Sangakkara 100 not out) lost to Pakistan 225 for three in 47.2 overs (Md. Hafeez 50, Faisal Iqbal 32, Youhana 64 not out, Younis Khan 57 not out).

April 5, 3rd match

Kenya 225 for six in 50 overs (D. Obuya 57, S. Tikolo 37, T. Odoyo 46, H. Modi 27 not out) lost to Zimbabwe 230 for five in 49 overs (D. Marillier 100, G. Flower 59).

April 6, 4th match

Sri Lanka 256 for five in 50 overs (S. Jayasuriya 36, K. Sangakkara 103 not out, H. Tillekeratne 43) beat Kenya 127 in 37.5 overs (M. Odumbe 42, M. Muralitharan three for 16).

April 7, 5th match

Sri Lanka 193 in 49.1 overs (M. Atapattu 29, K. Sangakkara 25, H. Tillakaratne 31, K. Lokuarachchi 28, Streak three for 36, Blignaut three for 33) lost to Zimbabwe 194 for six in 48.4 overs (D. Marillier 32, G. Rennie 26, G. Flower 61 not out, T. Taibu 31, Lokuarachchi three for 37).

April 8, 6th match

Pakistan 286 for eight in 50 overs (Md. Hafeez 36, Misbah-ul-Haq 42, Shoaib Malik 76, Rashid Latif 38, Tikolo three for 42) beat Kenya 143 in 31.4 overs (M. Odumbe 54, H. Modi 27, Md. Sami four for 25).