SHOWDOWN – THE GRAND FINALE – WORLD CUP 2007

History beckons the team from Down Under. In 2003, they were the first team to win three World Cups. Tomorrow, they will have the opportunity to win their third consecutive title, an achievement that will drive home the point even to the greatest of their detractors that this is by-far the best team of all-time.

‘Dad’s Army’ they were called before the tournament began. Maybe the cool and pristine surroundings in the Caribbean rejuvenated the lot. The statistics speak for themselves. Glenn Mcgrath and Matthew Hayden may be 37 and 35 respectively, but they seem to be enjoying the best form of their ODI career, topping the batting and bowling charts with ease.

If Australia achieves the feat, then skipper Ricky Ponting, vice-captain and ‘keeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist and McGrath will the first players to have won the tournament thrice (as players that is). But they face a tough nemesis in Sri Lanka, whose coach Tom Moody will also be looking forward to a third triumph. Moody was part of the Australian sides in 1987 and 1999; in the latter he played alongside Ponting, Gilchrist and McGrath.

Australia would have already accomplished the hat-trick of wins had the Lankans not beaten them in 1996. On the Lankan side, Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas and Marvan Atapattu remain from that victorious squad. The Aussies may not have bitter memories though, since the only players in the team today are Ponting and McGrath – two players who have gone on to achieve many greater glories in international cricket.

Sri Lanka go into the finals with an equal chance of winning, as their bowling attack is on par if not more potent than Australia’s. The way Lasith Malinga bowled on Tuesday was phenomenal, and it remains to be seen how he comes up against a formidable Aussie top-order, if he can repeat the perfromance that is. Muttiah Muralitharan is the key player. Last time when these teams met, Sri Lanka rested Malinga, Murali and Vaas. Sri Lanka failed to defend the score of 226 that they had put up. However, with the trio back, any score near that one would make for a compelling final. But the Lankans could be put on the back foot if Hayden attacks Vaas and Farveez Maharoof, who may get the nod ahead of the struggling Dilhara Fernando.

The Sri Lankan batting has looked shaky, but skipper Mahela Jayawardene will be the man that McGrath and Co. will be gunning for, apart from the dangerous Sanath Jayasuriya. Last time around, the Aussies bowlers had Sri Lanka on the mat at 27-3, but Jayawardene and Chamara Silva led a fightback and the Lankans would have been disappointed not to have scored more than 250.

For the Lankans, middle-order bat Chamara Silva has played in this World Cup at the expense of the experienced Marvan Atapattu. Interestingly, Atapattu was also on the bench during Sri Lanka’s 1996 winning campaign. A lucky charm? But then no other cricket team in the world has debunked charms, horoscopes and other myths as nonchalantly as this Australian side has.

Australia v/s Sri Lanka
Saturday, April 28
AKG: Sri Lanka
MJV: Australia

Match starts at 1900 IST on DD-1, SET MAX (English) and SAB TV (Hindi).

The Mesmerising Messi

A sudden spurt of brilliance and we have a sporting genius. The next Maradona? Need we say more. Just watch and relish.

SHOWDOWN – SEMI-FINALS

Finally, we get to the knockout stage of this World Cup. And a brief one too, with the finals scheduled for the 28th. The permutations and combinations have begun. Australia and Sri Lanka are the hot favourites to reach the finals, but no one can rule out the chances of the Black Caps or the Proteas. Both New Zealand and South Africa have lost by big margins to their semi-final opponents earlier in the tournament. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the past won’t count, as the better team on the day will prevail.

New Zealand and Sri Lanka square it off at Sabina Park on Tuesday. Sri Lanka’s bowling attack has performed well so far in the tournament and it remains to be seen if Lasith Malinga will play the crucial match after missing out in the last few games. Both teams received a drubbing at the hands of the Aussies in the Super Eight, and will be hoping to avenge the same by beating the Australians in the finals.

For New Zealand, Shane Bond will be the key. Bond has looked a bit jaded and missed out on the game against Australia. However, one doesn’t know whether he was unfit or skipper Fleming was pulling a fast one in order to give some rest to his bowler apart from not wanting to play him against Australia. Sri Lanka would know, they too ‘rested’ Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan against the Aussies. Malinga didn’t play that match as well. So, one things for sure, both these teams know who they facing in the finals.

It will be interesting to see how the Sri Lankans play the Kiwi spinners. Fleming must play his best bowlers and Bond, Jacob Oram, Jeetan Patel and Daniel Vettori fit in automatically. Scott Styris and Craig Mcmillan will also bowl, and so the toss-up will be between James Franklin and Mark Gillespie if the Kiwis play one more bowler. Franklin would bring a bit of variety into the attack, if he is consistent with his line that is.

The difference between winning and losing in this match could boil down to how the Kiwis handle Murali. Scott Styris needs to take charge in the middle and keep the Sri Lankan spinners at bay. This will be in all probability the more exciting of the two semi-finals.

Talking about exciting matches, the semi at St Lucia will be if the South Africans are up to the task. The Australian top-order has the likes of Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting, and it will take some effort to dislodge them from the crease. Even if they are, the Aussies have the Michaels – Clarke and Hussey, Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson to rely on.

South Africa will need Pollock to fire early on and perhaps should give Andre Nel the new ball. The South African middle-order will need to support their openers, and Justin Kemp has been a mere observer in the games he has played in. Perhaps the South Africans could ask him to do some pinch-hitting or play Loots Bosman. Maybe they could also bring in Makhaya Ntini which will give Smith an additional bowling option which may be needed if the Aussies get a good start as they have been accustomed to.

Predictions:
New Zealand v/s Sri Lanka
Tuesday, April 24
AKG: Sri Lanka
MJV: New Zealand

Match starts at 2000 IST on DD-1, SET MAX (English) and SAB TV (Hindi).

Australia v/s South Africa
Wednesday, April 25
AKG: South Africa
MJV: Australia

Match starts at 1900 IST on DD-1, SET MAX (English) and SAB TV (Hindi).

SHOWDOWN – SUPER EIGHT – MATCH DAY 24

The last match of the Super Eights will see the hosts playing England. Both teams would be disappointed with the fact that they would not be taking further part int he tournament, especially the Windies. It will a good stage for batsmen like Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Brian Lara, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Strauss to leave a mark on this World Cup. This match will be the last international game for Brian Lara, though a few more may be on their way out.

England v/s West Indies
AKG: England
MJV: West Indies

Match scheduled to start at 1900 IST on SET MAX (English) and SAB TV (Hindi).

SHOWDOWN – SUPER EIGHT – MATCH DAY 23

Since there’s no more competition for semi-final berths apart from the the final standings, we decided to do the showdowns for the rest of the Super Eight matches early (also yours truly needed a break). The Kangaroos take on the Kiwis today, and it is surely going to be a battle. New Zealand would be hoping that they can avoid playing the Sri Lankans in the semis, for which they need to win the match for starters. Australia, on the other hand, would also know that Muttiah Muralitharan can easily wreck their chances of a treble.

However, both teams would need to focus on this match first. Shane Bond has troubled Australia in the past and Kiwi skipper Stephen Fleming will be hoping that the bowler rises to the occassion. Bond though has looked slightly off-pace though his swing and line have generally been on target. Perhaps being pitted against the tearaway bowler Shaun Tait would spur him to bowl that much quicker.

New Zealand have had successes in the recent past against the Aussies but no one has beaten this side in the World Cup for a good 26 matches. This one should be a thriller, especially if the Aussies are given a target to chase. It would be good preparation for them, though handling Daniel Vettori and Jeetan Patel well by no way means that the champions are ready to face Murali.

Australia v/s New Zealand
Our predictions:
AKG: New Zealand
MJV: Australia

Match scheduled to start at 1900 IST on DD-1, SET MAX (English) and SAB TV (Hindi).

SHOWDOWN – SUPER EIGHT – MATCH DAY 22

Ireland played their last match of the Cup yesterday and today’s match will be the last for Bangladesh. They are up against the West Indies, a team that will be looking to salvage some pride after their disastrous run in the Super Eight stage. It will be interesting to see the line-up for the Windies, if skipper Brian Lara will play or not. Wish Lara steps up and lights up this World Cup with his brilliance, even though it will be a little too late.

Our predictions:
Bangladesh v/s West Indies
AKG: West Indies
MJV: Bangladesh. If they bat first, a score of around 200 would be a fighting total to defend once their three left-armers come on to bowl. The shot selection of some of their batsmen, including the classy Mohammed Ashraful, is awful. Aftab Ahmed is a dozen runs and done kind of batsman at the moment.

Match scheduled to start at 1900 IST on SET MAX (English) and SAB TV (Hindi).

Indian Chess: Many success stories, yet no prize nor publicity

Mathew J. Varghese

In a country where cricket has ‘checkmated’ other sports in terms of popularity, it’s heartening to note that India can still boast of world-beaters. Recently, Vishwanathan Anand became the No. 1 ranked player in chess, while our cricket team could not even qualify to be amongst the top eight in the ongoing World Cup. Although Anand is now based in Spain, he is originally from Chennai, where the game is immensely popular.

Popular sport in Tamil Nadu

Many attribute the popularity of the sport in Chennai and across Tamil Nadu to Anand’s success. “He has given a boost to Indian chess,” said K. Venkatesan of the Master Mind Chess Academy in Anna Nagar. “He has been at the top for many years and has won awards such as the ‘Chess Oscar’ and is one of the very few to cross the 2800 ELO rating,” Venkatesan pointed out.

“Chess is a very unique sport where, because of Vishwanathan Anand, the sport has become popular,” said Sports Editor of the Hindu, Nirmal Shekhar. “If not for Anand, chess would have perhaps still been a minority sport in the country,” he added.

However, chess player and trainer Ebenezer Joseph believes that the sport was popular in Chennai even before Anand burst on to the scene. “Yes, he has been a major factor for the game’s present popularity. However, I think the sport had a following way back in the 1970s,” said Joseph.

Joseph – India’s first and only FIDE-rated trainer – felt that the Russian Cultural Centre had a key role to play in the game’s popularity. “We had the Mikhail Tal Chess Club which was started in 1972,” he recollected. “There was a craze for the game. Fischer and Spasky were the champions then,” he added. Having begun chess at just five in 1972, Joseph maintains close ties with the Centre. His Emmanuel Chess Centre is located at the Russian Cultural Centre.

Many reasons can be given for the dedicated following of the game in the state. “Maybe it is popular in Tamil Nadu, as we have a history of good players. India’s first International Master Manuel Aaron is from Chennai,” said Shekhar, who pointed out that currently the sport is most popular in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. Joseph feels that chess has been popular as many associate the game with intelligence. “We like intelligent games. Computing and logical thinking are areas we are generally interested in,” he said. According to Venkatesan, other features that make chess popular are the fact that it is a safe game and can be played indoors. “Also it helps in improving concentration and decision-making skills which encourages parents to send their children for coaching,” he added.

Lack of sponsors

However, sponsors are generally hard to come by for chess, not considered as a ‘spectator sport.’ “Generally, when we go to companies, they say that chess is not an ‘action’ sport. They want action for advertisements,” noted Tamil Nadu Chess Association General Secretary and India’s first International Master Manuel Aaron. But he stressed, “Chess is a participant sport. Hundreds of players participate in our tournaments.” However, he pointed out that Chennai-based companies had been supportive. “Some sponsors such as the ‘Adyar Times’ come to us seeing our work. Others helps us out if we approach them, such as Ramco Systems, Sakthi Sugars and the Velammal Group,” said Aaron.

Unlike cricketers, chess players can hardly afford to rely on advertisers for support. Recently Bank of Baroda switched from Woman Grandmaster Koneru Humpy to Rahul Dravid as their brand ambassador. “Most (chess players) get employed by various companies such as ONGC, Indian Airlines, LIC and banks,” said Aaron. Joseph, a Government Auditor, stated, “Apart from the Government, the Railways and public sector banks have helped players by providing employment. Now, the Petroleum Sports Control Board is doing a good job.” Oil companies such as ONGC and GAIL have sponsored players such as Koneru Humpy and P. Harikrishna. Both Aaron and Joseph indicated that it is usually the Indian government that sponsors trips for tournaments abroad.

Joseph said that the situation for players had improved over the years. Narrating his own experiences, Joseph said, “I got many rejections as companies were scared that I would only play chess. So, I finally decided not to state the fact that I was a chess player and did get a job.” However he did not quit the sport. “For one year, I stayed away from chess. The next year I took leave and played and did so well that I qualified for the Nationals,” Joseph stated.

Even though chess may not be either spectator-friendly or fast-paced, Joseph feels that this should not prevent sponsors from coming in. He agrees that better marketing could help. “Unlike cricket, in chess, there is no defined system. Private companies are not sure on whom, how much and how long to sponsor,” Joseph points out. However, he thinks that instead of supporting players, sponsors could perhaps look at supporting academies to promote the game. “I have trained over around 2000 students, including some very successful juniors. Yet not a single sponsor has backed any of these players,” Joseph noted.

Inadequate media coverage

Joseph also lamented the lack of coverage of chess in the media, especially on television. “Chess will improve a lot if TV channels give it proper coverage, with the help of qualified experts. Sponsors would also be interested then,” he added. “A lot more articles could be devoted to chess. No one even knows the names of the players,” he said. “I think ‘The Hindu’ really made a difference over the years in promoting the game. However, of late, I feel the coverage is getting thinner,” said Joseph. Aaron said, “Chess is a slow game. In other sports, media coverage includes the field of play where there is action. In chess, even after a win, one is dignified. We do not abuse anyone.”

Shekhar agrees that perhaps chess is not given the coverage it deserves in the country. However, he felt that broadsheets generally did a decent job when it came to covering the sport. “On television, chess is nowhere in the race as it is not a ‘spectator’ sport. Thus, it gets step-motherly treatment,” he pointed out. However, he agreed that with the increasing number of youngsters succeeding at the international level, it will be hard for the media to ignore the sport. “It is one of the few sports where we are competitive at the world stage,” he said.

Joseph indicated that the administrators had done a good job in the last ten years or so in marketing the game. “Even a company like Chessmates was instrumental in making Anand what he is,” Joseph said. “Arvind Aaron gave up his playing career to start the company, which used to import materials from abroad that were useful to chess players in the country.”

Tapping young talent

Joseph suggested that every school, especially Corporation schools should include chess. “These kids (pointing to the kids at the Centre) have the means. But what about the untapped potential?” Joseph asked. “A student of mine, R. Sharanya, was the daughter of a bangle-seller. When we sent letters to call her for coaching, it came back as she did not have a permanent residence. Luckily, with the backing of Ramco, she played in the Nationals where she succeeded. Such talents should not go unnoticed,” he emphasised.

The popularity of the game has also resulted in many ‘coaching academies’ being set up. However, Joseph warned against this proliferation. “Not many trainers are successful. They need to be certified,” he said. On the other hand, he pointed out that maybe these academies are the only option for former chess players to make a living. Joseph felt that parents should exercise caution. “I realised when I started the academy that one-on-one training does not work. It has to be in academies. Also, kids must be given freedom as well,” he said. He referred to a situation where his student – a potential great player – wanted to play cricket with his friends and not chess. “In such situations, trainers and parents must understand and respect the child’s needs.”