Power hitters hold the key

Sparks are set to fly in the ICC World Cup 2011 in the sub-continent. There will be no dearth of sixes and boundaries in what should essentially be batsman-friendly conditions, writes S. Dinakar.

Yusuf Pathan is a force of nature. He destroys attacks to create possibilities from impossible situations. This man is a game changer. He is the sort of cricketer that the opposition dreads. Any batsman who clears the field as effortlessly as Yusuf does needs to be feared. The fielders chase leather and the contest witnesses a massive momentum shift.

Yusuf certainly gave the South African attack nightmares in daylight with an explosive 70-ball 105 in the deciding match of the ODI series at Centurion. This was Power Play.

From a hopeless 119 for eight, India had victory in its sights before Yusuf's incredible blitzkrieg concluded. What an innings!

Earlier, in the third game of the five-match series at Cape Town, Yusuf donned the cloak of a match-winner with a 50-ball 59 in an adverse situation during the pursuit. The ball seamed and bounced but Yusuf, unmindful of the pressures during the chase, cut loose.

In South African conditions, Yusuf displayed another aspect of his batsmanship — CHARACTER. He took painful blows on his shoulder as Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel bounced at him. He did not flinch. Courage is a commodity Yusuf does not lack.

The 28-year-old cricketer from Baroda will be of even greater value in the sub-continent. Visualise a scenario in the World Cup when the opposition works through the first half of the line-up only to see Yusuf walking in at the fall of the fifth wicket. It is not a comforting thought.

Looking at it from an Indian perspective, having Yusuf in the hut is of great psychological value for the team. It provides the side the luxury of building an innings even when in pursuit of a stiff target; Yusuf can boost the run-rate in the final stretch. The Indian side, though, has not always paced its innings in an ideal fashion before the arrival of Yusuf, losing too many wickets too early.

Indeed, India was down for the count in the ODI against New Zealand in Bangalore earlier this season before Yusuf decimated the line-up for a match-winning 123 not out that included seven sixes. During his effort at Centurion, Yusuf blazed eight sixes.

While Yusuf possesses the ability to strike tellingly in the arc between square-leg and mid-wicket — good length deliveries at the stumps are fodder for him — he can also hit straight and long between long-on and long-off.

A heady cocktail of a flourishing back-lift, strong shoulders, bat speed and dextrous wrists enable Yusuf to impart tremendous power to his strokes. These elements in his batsmanship often work in harmony.

Along the way, he has learnt to innovate. The Yusuf of today can employ the reverse sweep, run the ball down fine with soft hands or harness the pace on the ball for the stroke over point. He has also improved his pull shot against the pacemen.

Yusuf has 694 runs in 45 ODIs at 33.04 with two hundreds and an impressive strike rate of 115.09. His numbers are bound to improve as he and his career evolve.

Importantly, Yusuf forces the opposition to change plans. The ODI at Cape Town is a case in point. Yusuf bludgeoned the spinners in the early stages of his innings, forcing the South African captain, Graeme Smith, to bring on his key pacemen earlier than he wanted to. This meant the host ran out of viable pace bowling options at the death. Someone such as Yusuf impacts the management of the overs.

And he provides the Indian team plenty of flexibility vis-à-vis the batting power play. Once the field comes in, Yusuf can strike at will.

This said, Yusuf often takes on the man at the fence and clears him. India is fortunate to have a bunch of power hitters and game changers as it strives to regain the ICC World Cup. Any side that includes Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yusuf has plenty of firepower.

Sehwag, if he regains fitness, can pick the length quickly and pierce the field in the first 10 mandatory power play overs. His bat speed, timing and the ability to find boundaries without a sweat puts the bowlers under considerable stress. The innings picks up speed.

The left-handed Yuvraj, a mighty striker of the ball, can be influential once he finds his rhythm. However, he has a tendency to get bogged down by quality spin. If Yuvraj can find the right balance between rotating the strike and unleashing the big blows, he can fuel-drive the Indian campaign.

Although he disappointed with the bat in South Africa, Dhoni can pull his weight in the World Cup. He is a clever batsman who can work the ball for singles and twos and then launch into the huge hits. Like Yusuf, his bat speed and wrist work are extraordinary.

Kevin Pietersen is certainly out of the ordinary. If England is to make a serious bid for the World Cup, Pietersen has to boom.

He moves with the ease of a ballet dancer but can dump the ball into the stands. Pietersen is light on his feet and heavy with his strokes. He can also dissect the attack with wonderful use of the depth of the crease and soft hands. His range of shots is a complete one.

Pietersen's greatest enemy is over-confidence; he has been impetuous at the crease in the past. If this gifted batsman can settle down, he can clinch matches with his spirit-lifting stroke-play.

Chris Gayle should provide the thrust to the West Indian innings at the top of the order. This tall, languid batsman is among the cleanest strikers of the ball. The side also has a powerhouse in Kieron Pollard lower down the order. Pollard, though, has hardly done justice to his ability in West Indian colours; he has notched up only 538 runs in 30 innings at 19.92.

Pakistan is not short of power-packed batsmen either. The intrepid Shahid Afridi is a dangerous customer, particularly in the sub-continent. There is a possibility that he might open the innings in familiar conditions. Lower down the order, the heavy-hitting Abdul Razzaq can orchestrate astonishing comebacks.

Australia has in-form opener Shane Watson and middle-order batsman Cameron White as big-hitting batsmen who can alter scripts. Watson is a particularly fierce puller of the ball. White has grown in belief and stature.

For Sri Lanka, Tillekaratne Dilshan with his amazing hand-eye coordination can increase the tempo with timing and placement. In the lower middle-order, Angelo Mathews often walks the tightrope by clearing the ball over the ropes.

And skipper Smith holds the key for South Africa. This powerfully built opener can strike the ball as hard as anybody else in the game.

When the World Cup gets underway, sparks could fly. There will be no dearth of sixes and boundaries in what should essentially be batsman-friendly conditions.