A continent of discontent
What ails Asian cricket? That seems a funny question to ask when two of the sides, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, are through to the World Twenty20 semi-finals, with a decent chance of reprising last June's final. Few expected Afghanistan and Bangladesh to progress beyond the first round from two of the toughest groups, while India's lackadaisical display was in keeping with the malaise that has afflicted them at global cricket tournaments ever since the 50-over World Cup in 2003.
The T20 triumph of 2007, unexpected as it was with a team that lacked legendary names, is increasingly beginning to resemble the lone swallow of a very brief summer. Consider this though. Of the 19 matches that Asian teams have played up to the semi-final, they have won just seven. Several of the losses were abject humiliations. Australia beat both Pakistan and India with ruthlessly efficient performances, and also cast aspersions on Sri Lanka's title credentials with as one-sided a victory as you could hope to see in the game's abbreviated format.
Both previous World T20 finals were all-Asian affairs, with Pakistan the common factor. Since last June though, Australia have cottoned on to what makes a T20 side tick, while England have also been strengthened by the emergence of a couple of impact players who have transformed a middle-of-the-road outfit into one with a genuine chance of ending their title drought in the international arena. It is not hard to identify where the Asians have stumbled. Sri Lanka have been decent in the field, but both India and Pakistan were woeful.
Ravindra Jadeja, of India, and Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal took turns to show off their butter-fingered prowess, while the ground-fielding was a mish-mash of awkward dives, poor stops and weak throws back to the wicketkeeper. When India won the title in 2007, they fielded with a vigour and commitment usually associated with Australia or South Africa. Rohit Sharma's direct hit in the winner-take-all game against Graeme Smith's side exemplified what was then seen as the new India.
Even having Jonty Rhodes and Ricky Ponting prowling the offside would not have helped this Indian team though, such was the lack of cutting edge on the bowling side. Ashish Nehra had a fine tournament until the shoulders drooped against Sri Lanka, but his 10 wickets apart, the bowling unit was among the weakest on view. Afghanistan's Hamid Hassan or Bangladesh's Shakib al Hasan would have fancied their chances of infiltrating a line-up in which the wicketless-but-economical Harbhajan Singh was the second-best bowler.
As Steven Smith brought back memories of another chubby Australian leg-spinner with attacking wrist spin in back-to-back matches, India fans could only think ruefully of Amit Mishra, whose consistency in the Test side and the Indian Premier League (IPL) was overlooked in favour of the more callow Piyush Chawla. But even that was not as shocking a selection as the inclusion of Yusuf Pathan, his weakness against the short ball glaringly exposed during the IPL, and Jadeja, fresh off misconduct charges that had seen him miss the entire season.
Virat Kohli, whose youthful swagger and energy were sorely missed, was not even part of the squad, and neither was Murali Kartik, a T20 veteran with a calm temperament to match his skill. Like India, Pakistan also paid for playing faux all-rounders and has-beens. Mohammad Hafeez continues to be viewed as some sort of lucky charm in the dressing room, while Misbah-ul-Haq is a shadow of the man who got within a six of glory in 2007.
There is nothing to Hafeez's batting or bowling that inspires such faith and the decision to play him ahead of the exciting Hammad Azam - star of the recent Under 19 World Cup - looks more foolish by the day. Sri Lanka's problems have to do with one sunset too many - Sanath Jayasuriya should walk before he is pushed - and Tillakaratne Dilshan's perplexing lack of form. But even with Muttiah Muralitharan ruled out, they look best placed to extend Asia's stranglehold on the cup.
Mahela Jayawardene, all silken elegance in a world of cross-bat swipes, leads the way and Angelo Mathews gives an all-round option that they have seldom had as the class of 2010 look to emulate the heroes of '96. England and Australia are formidable obstacles, but having navigated tricky terrain to get this far, the Sri Lankans will be quietly confident of laying the ghosts of the Kensington Oval  and Lord's  to rest. @Email:email@example.com
Published: May 13, 2010 04:00 AM