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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Journey a triumph of human spirit

Sunday June 21, Start time 1500 local (1400 GMT)


 

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On the morning of March 3 in Lahore, the world of cricket was shaken to the core. The horrific attack on the Sri Lankan team bus, as it pulled into the Gadaffi Stadium ahead of the third day of the second Test against Pakistan, was the moment a thousand preconceptions were destroyed. Cricket's presumptions to diplomatic immunity had been mocked by the forces of evil, and as Pakistan spiralled into sporting exile and Sri Lanka's traumatised players rushed home to the bosom of their families, the obvious reaction was to wonder "what now?" for the great game.

Three and a half months later, and sport's great gift for reinvention has delivered a contest that flicks two fingers at the perpetrators of the Lahore atrocity, and proves that - without wishing to overload the sentiment - the human spirit cannot be crushed by cold calculation. Pakistan and Sri Lanka will take center stage at Lord's on Sunday for the final of the most joyful international tournament the game has arranged in years. Twenty20 may be cricket for hedonists, but after everything these two teams and their respective nations have been through of late, the need to lay on a party suddenly feels like the only serious obligation.

"It is a fitting reward for the courage of the team in the way they have played the tournament," said Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lanka's statesmanlike captain. "All the players have got through Lahore, but what it brought home to us is that we are just the same as everyone else. Sometimes it is nice to be reminded of your mortality, especially when the press and everyone else blows you up to be more than that in this sporting culture. But we've shown no fear and we've gone to play cricket, and it's a fitting reward for that attitude."

If Sri Lanka enter the final as favourites, it is only by dint of their exceptional consistency throughout the tournament. Unlike South Africa, the one-dimensional steamrollers who were spectacularly upstaged by the mercurial Pakistanis at Trent Bridge, Sri Lanka's unbeaten run owes itself, if you like, to a Barcelona-style carousel system, in which the identity of the day's gamebreaker is impossible to call until the damage has already been done. One day, Ajantha Mendis will sweep through the midfield, the next it's Lasith Malinga, while Muttiah Muralitharan's enduring class allows no liberties to be taken against his four overs. And then, every once in a while, up will pop a totally random destroyer, such as Angelo Mathews, the three-wicket wrecking ball against West Indies on Friday.

And yet, Pakistan have developed some serious momentum in the latter stages of the tournament. Their captain, Younis Khan, laughed in the face of their group-stage trouncing against England, dismissing Twenty20 cricket as "fun", and later likened it to WWF wrestling as well. His comments caused consternation at the time, particularly for the thousands of passionate Pakistan fans whose presence and exuberance at all matches have been among the highlights of the competition. But internally, his words had a soothing effect on a side that had lacked meaningful match practice since a low-key one-day series in UAE. As soon as they hit their stride with a walloping of New Zealand at Lord's, Younis' impassioned defence of his star bowler, Umar Gul, in the face of ball-tampering insinuations, left no-one in any doubt as to the galvanised nature of their campaign.

Gul's peerless death bowling remains one reason why Pakistan have the potential to go one step better than in 2007, when Misbah-ul-Haq's traumatic aberration delivered India a five-run victory and instigated a Twenty20 revolution. Shahid Afridi's big-game mentality and bamboozling legspin is another. Set against their wiles is the sensational form and innovative eye of Tillakaratne Dilshan, who produced his most orthodox innings of the tournament on Friday and still came within ten yards of posting the second century in Twenty20 international history.

But whatever happens, it's all about to come down to 40 overs of fiesta cricket in front of a packed house at Lord's, and on this occasion, the old adage "to the victors, the spoils" somehow doesn't seem fitting. Sunday's final is not merely a celebration of cricket, it is a celebration of life. And that's a very serious reason to abandon any lingering hang-ups about the place of 20-over cricket in the grander scheme of the game, and simply get on with the important business of letting the hair down. Joie de vivre has carried these two teams into the final, and it will sustain them in victory or defeat.

The Preview by Andrew Miller

June 20, 2009

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