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Monday, July 30, 2007

'This could be the start of a new Harbhajan Singh'

Adversity often brings the best out of a sportsman.
For Harbhajan Singh it could not be a worse time. Already reeling from the Indian team's dismal display in the 2007 World Cup, his misery was compounded when he was axed from the side after the tournament.

But he did not complain. Instead, when the chance came, he joined the English county, Surrey, to stay in touch with the game and get back to his wicket-taking ways.

At Surrey, he has done well in every match he has played.

"Playing county cricket is better than sitting at home and doing nothing. At least, I am playing competitive cricket, which will keep me fit and in contention. I will also learn a lot of things playing county cricket since you get to play in different conditions on different types of wickets. The experience that you gain from playing county cricket can only help you become better," the off-spinner told Cricket Correspondent Harish Kotian.

Harbhajan began with a match-winning three-wicket haul against Durham in his first match for Surrey; he then took nine wickets against Worcestershire.

"I came here to enjoy my cricket. Whether I am in the Indian team or not is something that is not in my hands. I can't do anything about it. I can always do things which are in my control -- keep myself fit and make every performance count by looking to take wickets every time I bowl."

He makes it clear he is ready to take over the main spinner's mantle from Anil Kumble when the great man ends his distinguished career.

  • Check Harbhajan's figures at Surrey

    "Watching Kumble doing so well for so many years now has been a learning experience for me. I am looking forward to matching his efforts and do what he has done in his successful career so far. I know it is difficult, but I will look to fulfill his place whenever he goes."

    "I think I am ready to take Kumble's place whenever he decides to quit. I have been playing international cricket for nine years now. I am ready to step into his shoes. It is a tough ask to replace him, but I will try my best and look to match his performances. It has been a great learning experience playing with him over the years."

    The 27-year-old Jalandhar native is India's most successful off-spinner, having taken 238 wickets in 57 Tests and 174 wickets in 151 one-day games.

    He has been criticised that he bowls defensively these days to stop runs and is not looking to take wickets. Harbhajan counters this, saying whenever he has bowled for India, he has always looked to take wickets.

    Anil Kumble and Harbhajan"I always bowl to take wickets. I am just looking to bowl well, trying to hit the right length. I look to bowl in good areas, bowl a lot of dot balls and look to take wickets all the time," he says.

    The offie says he follows the basic mantra of line and length and that has helped him achieve success so far for Surrey.

    "It is a little bit tough for spinners to take wickets in these conditions, which basically favour seam bowlers. But I always give it my best shot, irrespective of the conditions and wickets," he says.

    The Punjab bowler believes he will make a comeback soon.

    "I know I have plenty of years in me to serve Indian cricket, so the experience that I gain here, the things that I learn here will help me a lot in the future. This stint with Surrey will make me a better cricketer."

    "I basically came here to be fit, get more experience and be in touch with the game, which was not possible sitting back in India since there is no cricket happening," he says.

    Harbhajan is backing the Indian team to win its first Test series in England [ Images] since 1986.

    "The team is doing really well. I am very happy with their performance and I hope they continue performing at the same level. After a difficult time at Lord's they have done quite well at Trent Bridge. Now we have a very good opportunity to win the Test and also win a series in England after a long time. I wish them good luck and hope to see them win this series."

    He believes the absence of England's key bowlers gave India a huge edge over the hosts, something he is sure the Indians will capitalise on.

    "England are missing Andrew Flintoff [ Images], Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard [Images ] so I think they will really struggle to get our batsmen out. We have such a great batting line-up. All our batsmen -- Sachin Tendulkar [ Images], Sourav Ganguly [Images ], V V S Laxman [ Images] and Rahul Dravid [ Images] -- are world class batsmen. England will find it really tough to get them out," he feels.

    "It is good to see Zaheer Khan [ Images] bowling so well. He has done an exceptional job in the last few months since he has come back into the team. Anil Kumble, as always, is a champion performer. S Sreesanth [ Images] and R P Singh have chipped in with important wickets, so our bowlers have done a good job," he says.

    He misses wearing the India shirt. "I wish I was with the team, but I can't sit thinking about it all the time. I know my time will come soon. Hopefully, I will also be there taking wickets and winning matches."

    Harbhajan says he is fully fit and looks forward to being picked for the one-day internationals against England, which begin next month.

    "I am looking forward to being back in the Indian team for the one-day series. I am just raring to go for my country. I am looking forward to serving my country for many more years to come. I have a lot of cricket left in me and my time will come soon."

    Harbhajan, the first Indian bowler to take a hat-trick in Test cricket, feels, "It is tough when you are out of the team but you got to believe in yourself. You must tell yourself that this is not the end of the road and keep motivating yourself to do well."

    "I constantly tell myself this could be the start of a new Harbhajan Singh. I have set a goal for myself and try to achieve it. I don't worry about things that are not in my control. All I can do is to bowl and bat well when I get the opportunity."

    "I am just 27 now and what I know is that spinners mature after 25 or 26. So I still have many years at the top left in me. I will get a lot of opportunities to prove myself in the future. I am not worried that I am out of the team now because I have the confidence in myself."

    Harbhajan says he is clueless why he was dropped from the team.

    "I was not told when I was dropped from the team. I was not told what my mistakes were. This thing doesn't happen in India. I don't worry about it and I am just working on becoming a better player. I have always performed under difficult situations and this is the same. One thing you need to know is that if you want to perform for your country, you just need to work hard."

    He showered rich praise on Tendulkar, saying "Sachin is a great player. He is an unbelievable batsman. I think God just made him to bat and score runs. That is what he has been doing all his life. Even now, when I see him on television, I can see that he is as hungry as he was 17 years back when he started international cricket and that is just amazing."

    "He has been a great role model for all of us," Harbhajan says of his old team-mate, "and hats off to him (on getting 11,000 Tests runs). I wish he can get 50 hundreds in both forms of the game before he retires."

    "The best part about him is that even when he is not batting well he is tough to get out. Even on a bad day, he will end up scoring a hundred. He can hit boundaries off good balls and he is so difficult to bowl at."

  • Check Harbhajan's figures at Surrey

    "My target in England is to play good cricket and look to help Surrey reach the next level. They didn't do well at the start of the season, but now they are looking to get back to the top. Hopefully, I can help them achieve their goals and improve their performance. As a professional cricketer, a lot of responsibility rests on me and I know I need to do well. I am looking to do well by looking to take wickets, scoring runs every time I take the field and that is not only good for Surrey but also good for me."

    There are few better sights in cricket than watching Harbhajan on song bowling his huge off-spinners interspersed with the odd 'doosra'.

    Try as much as you can, but you can never get me down is Harbhajan's mantra. As witnessed in the history of sport, the greatest performers have been the ones who have come back after an odd failure or two.

    Photographs: AFP/Getty Images


  • Saturday, March 24, 2007

    It's only a game

    Woolmer's death, whatever the cause, tells us that cricket needs a reality check

    It's only a game

    Sambit Bal

    March 22, 2007

    This piece was written before it was established that Bob Woolmer was murdered. We don't yet know for sure why or how Bob Woolmer died. We shouldn't rush to judgment; it is still possible that it was an accident. It is equally possible he was murdered. And, while conspiracy theorists are working overtime on the motives, it is also quite possible that we will never know the full truth.

    And in the event of this not being an accident, it is quite likely that Woolmer was a victim of cricket's seamier side. Either it was the stress, induced by the most obscene and blind expectations of cricket fans who brook no failure, or he was killed by people who felt let down or had something to fear.

    Either way, it should serve as a wake-up call to those who run cricket, and those who profess passion for it. If a game starts taking lives, there is something sickeningly wrong with it. But this is not really about Woolmer. We didn't need someone to die to awaken us to a problem. The signs have always been there, it's just that most of us have found it expedient to ignore them. Commodification has been chipping away at the soul of cricket for years, and now the game is the danger of losing its head.

    Take the current predicament of this World Cup as an example. The major stake-holders in the tournament - the television channels and major sponsors - risk losing millions, either in cash or kind, if India go out in the first round. They are not the number one team in the world by a mile. Not even number two. They are ranked sixth in the ICC team ratings and, while that might not always be the best indicator of a team's worth, they have not won a competition of note outside the subcontinent since 1985. Yet the fate of the World Cup rides on them. It's a disaster waiting to happen.

    Cricket has acquired a dangerous obsession with money, to the extent where it is not a question of a game needing the money to survive or grow but making as much as possible at any cost.

    The reason for this is not hard to comprehend. Cricket has acquired a dangerous obsession with money, to the extent where it is not a question of a game needing the money to survive or grow but making as much as possible at any cost. Players have been ground to dust and cricket, the one-day variety in particular, has been divested of any meaning and consequence. It would seem that the administrators have learnt very little from the match-fixing scandal, which was as much a result of greed as of a surfeit of matches that meant little to the players.

    Meanwhile, the Indian administrators have managed to market a massive captive television audience to acquire financial muscle that relies little on the capabilities of the national team. As a result the cricket economy has gone ahead of the game, which is struggling to catch up.

    It's an economy that relies more on projection and hype than reality. SetMax, the entertainment channel owned by Sony, paid nearly 40 % of the total cost of the ICC rights in the hope of recouping it from advertisers. Luckily for them, India made it to the final of the last World Cup and one Champions Trophy. But that was clearly not enough and Sony didn't even bother to bid for the next set of rights, which have been won by ESPN-Star for US $1.1 billion.

    ESPN-Star is a joint venture between Disney and NewsCorp, but there is little doubt which television audience they are banking on. It is an unhealthy dependence. So much should never depend on the performance of one team. Apart from putting unfair pressure on the players -- it must take a lot for the Indian players to play normally in such an abnormal situation -- it leaves the cricket economy dangerously imbalanced and prone to huge risks.

    The passion of the fans is the biggest strength of cricket in the sub-continent - but it is also its weakness, particularly in case of India and Pakistan. Sri Lankan fans are far more stoic about their team's fortunes and far more accepting of failure, whereas in Bangladesh they are grateful for every little or big victory, be that of the team or individual. But in India and Pakistan, the passion borders on frenzy.

    As an Indian, I would like India to win the World Cup. But it might not be such a bad thing for cricket if they were to be knocked out in the first round

    In India it is brazenly and cynically fueled by an increasingly sensationalist and populist mass media, which treats cricket as one of the biggest baits to attract advertisers. Instead of providing perspective and being the voice of reason, the media feeds the frenzy and cashes in on it. Stars are built up and decimated. Exaggerated glorification is matched by proportionate vilification. So cricketers are either to be worshipped or denigrated. There isn't a middle ground, a measure of reality, or a sense of proportion.

    The reality is that India reaching the World Cup final would be an overachievement. Australia and South Africa possess superior teams, New Zealand have more balance and depth and Sri Lanka are the most improved team in world cricket. India have proven, but ageing, batsmen, a bowling attack that's susceptible to pressure and poor fielders. To be a fan is to dream. But to many Indian fans the dream is the reality.

    Nationalism is the bedrock of cricket. But you can't call yourself a true fan if the sight of 18-year old Tamim Iqbal charging down pitch to belt Indian quick bowlers brought you no thrill. Yes, India played below themselves, but every cricket match has a winner. To be unable to comprehend, and appreciate, this runs against the spirit of the game.

    Yes, India not making past the first round would be a huge setback. But it would be accorded the status of a national calamity. It will be discussed in Parliament. Television channels will conduct inquests. Effigies will be burnt, cricketers' homes will be attacked, and these will be gleefully publicised. A couple of months ago, Greg Chappell was slapped on the back by a man in Bhubaneswar seeking his fifteen seconds of fame. He was obliged. It could get worse. Someone could get killed. Perhaps someone has already been killed.

    As an Indian, I would like India to win the World Cup. But it might not be such a bad thing for cricket if they were to be knocked out in the first round. Cricket needs a reality check. It has an unhealthy, and unsustainable, business model that relies primarily on an increasingly delusional and one-dimensional fan-base. The bubble has to burst for a semblance of sanity to be restored. We must learn to once again enjoy cricket as a game.

    Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine


    Wednesday, March 21, 2007

    Police say Woolmer death was 'suspicious'

    Police say Woolmer death was 'suspicious'
    KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) - A police investigation into the death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer continued Wednesday while the team was playing its last World Cup match.

    Jamaica's deputy police commissioner Mark Shields said the death was being treated as suspicious.

    At least 10 forensics experts on Wednesday were examining the hotel room where Woolmer was found unconscious Sunday.

    A Pakistan team official said there were signs of blood and vomit in the room and Woolmer was found by hotel staff on the floor with his mouth wide open.

    Woolmer was pronounced dead later Sunday after being transferred to hospital, a day after Pakistan had slumped out of contention at the World Cup on an upset loss to Ireland.

    At a late-night news conference Tuesday at the team's hotel in Kingston, Jamaica, Shield said reports from a pathologist and other medical experts gave police "sufficient information to continue a full investigation into the death of Mr. Woolmer, which we are now treating as suspicious."

    "We have already informed the Woolmer family of this development and we are also in close contact with the Pakistan team management, Cricket World Cup and ICC to ensure all parties are kept informed of the ongoing investigation."

    Shields had earlier announced that the findings of a post mortem had been inconclusive.

    Asked directly if Jamaica police were pursuing a murder investigation, Shield said: "No, we are not saying that."

    The news conference in Jamaica was called after reports emerged in Pakistan's print and electronic media of a murder plot.

    The death and investigation has shocked the Pakistan team, which was playing Zimbabwe on Wednesday.

    Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq admitted it was difficult for his side to focus.

    "This is a tough time for us because the coach is not here," Inzamam said. "The incident has disturbed the whole team also but we'll play our level best - we'll try to win this game on Bob Woolmer's account."

    After two losses, Pakistan has no chance of reaching the second round.

    Pakistan's cricket program has been reeling since Saturday's loss.

    Pakistan Cricket Board head Naseem Ashraf and the organization's three-member selection committee have submitted their resignations to the country's president, General Pervez Musharraf - the patron of the Pakistan board.

    Inzamam said the team wanted to go out on a win to honor Woolmer's memory.

    "We'll do our best for Bob, but whatever we do, it won't be enough," Inzamam said. "He was a good man. Whenever any of the boys had a problem, he'd sit with them, and we were very attached to him.

    "He was a very good coach and human being. Because of this, he had a lot of respect from the team. He was brave and knew how to handle the situation when everybody was feeling down. He will be well remembered."

    Tuesday, March 20, 2007

    Top Pakistan cricket officials quit after team's defeat in World Cup

    Top Pakistan cricket officials quit after team's defeat in World Cup

     The chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Naseem Ashraf, and the country's three-member selection committee resigned Tuesday following their team's shock early exit from the World Cup.

    "I have talked to Ashraf on the telephone and he has confirmed that he has sent his resignation to the patron of the PCB," said Ahsan Malik, communications director of the cricket board.

    The patron of the board is President Pervez Musharraf.

    "Ashraf faxed his resignation last night and it's now up to the patron whether he accepts it or not," Malik said.

    Pakistan's cricket program has been in crisis for three days since Ireland handed it a stunning three-wicket defeat in a World Cup Group D match on Saturday.

    The former test left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim and medium fast bowler Ehteshamuddin were the other members of the committee.

    "We had decided soon after the debacle against Ireland that we are going to resign," Bari said. "After talking with Ashraf last night, we had submitted our resignations to the PCB."

    The selection committee faced heavy criticism from other former Pakistan test players, especially for not choosing the opening batsman Salman Butt and the middle-order batsman Yasir Hameed.

    "If we can't do well with experienced players like Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and Shoaib Malik, then I don't know who else could have done wonders for us," Bari said.

    West Indies, the host, beat Pakistan in the World Cup's opening game. With two successive defeats, Pakistan was ousted from the Super Eight stage of the tournament.

    Coach Bob Woolmer died in the team's Jamaican hotel less than 24 hours after the loss to Ireland and Captain Inzamam-ul-Haq announced his retirement from limited-overs games.

    "Coach Bob Woolmer paid a heavy price for a failed campaign," said Qasim, another selector. "This is what we should have done earlier."

    Woolmer, 58, was a diabetic, but no cause of death has been released. One of his sons said stress was a factor.

    "We've been speaking to the doctors and they think it is either stress or a heart attack," Russell Woolmer said on a radio program in Cape Town, South Africa. "There was a lot of stress in his job and it may have been stress that caused it. We're all very shocked and we don't know what to do."

    India rebounds with record

    Brian Lara ensured that the West Indies will feature in the second round, and India rebounded from an upset loss with a record-setting victory over Bermuda, The Associated Press reported from Bridgetown, Barbados.

    India amassed 413 for five to raise the World Cup mark for highest total, then bowled Bermuda out for 156 to win by 257 runs Monday and secure — by one run — the record for winning margin in a limited-overs international.

    Until then, no team had surpassed 400 in a World Cup. Sri Lanka's 398-5 against Kenya in 1996 was the highest total.

    But a victory over Sri Lanka is what India now needs to reach the next round. A shock five-wicket loss to Bangladesh put Rahul Dravid's side into the position of having to win by big margins.

    Virender Sehwag pounded 114 from 87 balls, including 17 boundaries and three sixes for his first ODI hundred in two years and shared a 202-run second- wicket stand with Sourav Ganguly, who was out 11 runs shy of his fifth World Cup hundred.

    In Kingston, Jamaica, Lara finished 44 not out, guiding West Indies to a six- wicket victory over Zimbabwe with 13 balls to spare and into the second round of a World Cup for the first time since 1996.

    West Indies, with four points, will advance regardless of what happens in its last Group D match against Ireland.

    New Zealand was aiming to clinch a Super 8 berth with a victory over Kenya, the surprise semifinalist in 2003, on Tuesday, when South Africa takes on Scotland in another chance to fine-tune for its Group A grudge match against Australia on Saturday.

    Saturday, March 17, 2007

    Ireland beat Pakistan at WC

    Ireland beat Pakistan at WC

    Ireland beat Pakistan at WC
    Ireland have produced one of the major upsets at the Cricket World Cup so far with a three-wicket win over Pakistan on St. Patrick's Day.

    The team ranked fourth in the world are out of the competition after being beaten by three wickets by their Irish opponents.

    Ireland bowled first, and limited their illustrious rivals to just 132 runs all out, and, led by batsman Niall O'Brien, they reached their rain-adjusted target of 128 with darkness falling.

    Some excellent fielding set the Irish on their way with captain Trent Johnston in impressive form in particular.

    Early wickets for Dave Langford-Smith and Boyd Rankin had Pakistan reeling on 15-2, and when Johnston and Andre Botha were introduced in their place the partnership of Imran Nazir (24) and Mohammad Yousuf (15) was ended.

    Spinner Kyle McCallan took the last two wickets as wild hits were held in the deep; the final one coming in the 46th over.

    Best of the Irish with the bat was Niall O'Brien, who hit 72 runs, but he was stumped when he went for six with 21 runs needed and six wickets still in hand.

    Andrew White was then caught at short leg and Kyle McCallan followed shortly afterwards when he edged to slip in the next over.

    However, Kevin O'Brien - brother of Niall - and skipper Johnston steadied the ship and collected the final runs to ensure victory.

    Ireland now face the West Indies and could still qualify for the Super Eight stage even if they do not get any points from the match.


    Cricket-Bangladesh stun India in World Cup

    Cricket-Bangladesh stun India in World Cup

    PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, March 17 (Reuters) - Bangladesh produced one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history with a five-wicket victory over India in a Group B game on Saturday.

    The unfancied team bowled out India's formidable line-up for 191 on a good batting pitch -- their lowest one-day total against Bangladesh -- before romping to victory.

    Left-handed opener Tamim Iqbal smashed 51 for his maiden half-century in only his fifth one-dayer before Bangladesh reached the target in 48.3 overs.

    Fellow left-hander Saqibul Hasan (53) put on 84 runs for the fourth wicket with Mushfiqur Rahim, who was 56 not out, helping Bangladesh achieve only their second win over India in 15 meetings.

    Bangladesh emulated their famous victory over Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup, underlining their progress after failing to win a single game in South Africa four years ago where India were finalists.

    It was their third victory in World Cups having also beaten Scotland in 1999.

    The defeat plunged Indian hopes into disarray from the toughest group which 1996 champions Sri Lanka are favoured to top after crushing debutants Bermuda in their first game.

    Bangladesh paceman Mashrafe Mortaza struck two early blows to claim four for 38 before left-arm spinners Mohammad Rafique and Abdur Razzak left Indian batsmen parched for runs to take three wickets apiece in their superb team effort