Champions Trophy 2013: From Watson to Gayle - the men who matter
Even in a team sport, some men are more equal than others, more capable of turning it on, on a more consistent basis, than the rest of their mates. These are proven match-winners, those that could easily be the difference between victory and defeat. Wisden India reflects on the stars to look out for, one from each of the eight teams participating in the Champions Trophy.
SHANE WATSON (AUSTRALIA): It's been a difficult few months in international cricket for Shane Watson, but most of his travails have been in the Test arena. Dropped from a Test match for failing to do his 'homework', having had a poor run of scores in India, being unable to contribute as a bowler and eventually losing the vice-captaincy, things are at a low ebb for Watson, but his value to the Australia set-up, now that he is back to bowling fitness, can never be exaggerated. A powerful, uncomplicated striker of the cricket ball who hits through the line in the 'V' - both aerially and along the carpet - Watson is capable of taking the game away from the opposition in practically no time. His bowling has always been a strong suit, and he should relish using a newish ball in England, where the conditions will assist him. Australia aren't entirely dependent on Watson, but their cricket assumes an entirely new dimension when Watson is in a happy space, contributing with both bat and ball.
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EOIN MORGAN (ENGLAND): In a line-up full of largely conventional batsmen, Eoin Morgan brings that X factor with him through his unorthodox, unpredictable, dangerously unfettered approach to batsmanship. As adept at playing the nip-and-tuck game as he is in unfurling the cheeky reverses and the wonderfully effective paddles, Morgan on song is practically impossible to set a field to. That he is a left-hand batsman in a top order largely made up of right-handers adds to the Morgan package. Morgan is an excellent finisher alright, but he can also control the innings in the event of an early collapse, and has made pacing an innings a fine art. On the field, he is a livewire, hitting the stumps with deadly accuracy and eating up ground at the rate of knots. In a method team, Morgan brings flair and flamboyance, especially with Kevin Pietersen out through injury, and will play an influential role in England's progress.
MARTIN GUPTILL (NEW ZEALAND): Martin Guptill has always had the game, but he has been annoyingly inconsistent, easing his way to a smooth 30 or a fluent 40 and then finding the most outlandish way of getting himself out. In the last week, however, there have been definite signs that Guptill the profligate is gradually making way for Guptill the desperate. Successive hundreds in One-Day Internationals against England, in the space of three days, would suggest Guptill is on a mission to make up for opportunities frittered away. His unbeaten 189 at the Rose Bowl in Southampton on June 2 was the ultimate proof that Guptill has what it takes to be a huge star on the world stage. New Zealand have generally tended to punch above their weight in ICC competitions. For that trend to continue, Guptill must necessarily build on his new-found consistency and guard against lapsing into casual indiscretions.
TILLAKARATNE DILSHAN (SRI LANKA): Sri Lanka have generally tended to find the going difficult in England, not only because their traditional strength with the ball - spin - has been nullified by the conditions but also because their batsmen have found it hard to negotiate the swinging, seaming delivery. This time around, there is no shortage of experience with Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan, all former captains, around to support Angelo Mathews, but the new captain will need runs, as much as tactical inputs, from his predecessors. Dilshan, with his explosive style, is the one who holds the key because when he gets going, he scores so rapidly that the pressure is immediately transferred on to the opposition. In Kusal Perera, Dilshan has an equally attacking opening batsman, so if Perera gets off to a start, Dilshan has the option of batting through the innings. His form in the IPL for Royal Challengers Bangalore wasn't spectacular, but Dilshan is capable of turning things around in a jiffy, which is exactly what his opponents will be wary of.
VIRAT KOHLI (INDIA): Virat Kohli has come to establish himself as quite the master of the big chase. Last year, he played two outstanding innings - in Hobart against Sri Lanka and in Dhaka against Pakistan - to help India rein in massive targets, and warmed up nicely for the Champions Trophy with another big hundred in a huge chase against Sri Lanka the other day in a practice game. Gifted with every stroke in the book, Kohli is not unafraid to use them, though he isn't a uni-dimensional, one-gear batsman. A steady starter in the main, Kohli has shown that he can more than make up for balls consumed while settling in with classical orthodoxy, scoring heavily even during the middle and closing stages of the innings without compromising on the basics. Kohli brings that unique blend of solidity and aggression, and generally gives the innings shape from No. 3, allowing the stroke-makers around him to bat with freedom while himself scoring at an acceptable rate. The most vital cog in a strong, if slightly inexperienced, Indian batting wheel, any which way you look at it.
SAEED AJMAL (PAKISTAN): A spinner as a key force? In the first half of the English summer? In a limited-overs tournament, with two white balls and a maximum of four players allowed outside the 30-yard circle at any stage of the innings? All valid, logical questions, but then again, when the spinner in question happens to be Saeed Ajmal, all these doubts have very little substance. Ajmal isn't the most classical offspinner in world cricket, but for sheer guile, versatility and deception, he is unmatched. A prodigious turner of the offbreak, Ajmal's potency stems from his ability to bowl both the offbreak and the 'doosra' - the ball that breaks away from the right-hand batsman - without any discernible change in action. His unerring accuracy, coupled with his seemingly unfathomable variations, mean most of the time, batsmen are looking to keep him out, let alone trying to score off him. And when batsmen look to give him the charge, Ajmal seems to have the uncanny ability to second-guess them, either eliciting leading-edge skiers or setting up simple stumpings. In a pace-oriented attack, Ajmal provides variety alongside Mohammad Hafeez, and no matter the conditions, remains Pakistan's most feared bowling resource.
DALE STEYN (SOUTH AFRICA): The No. 1 pace bowler in the world is also the key man in the scheme of things as South Africa seek to correct an unenviable record in ICC tournaments. Not since the inaugural ICC KnockOut Trophy - as the Champions Trophy began - in 1998 have South Africa managed to win a major competition. If they are to break that long duck, they will perforce need Steyn to fire on all cylinders, and more so with their batting being deprived of a great deal of class and experience following the unavailability of Graeme Smith (injured) and Jacques Kallis (who ruled himself out of contention). Steyn is the master of conventional swing at great pace with the new ball, but if the mood so seizes him, he can also send down a mean bouncer. He has a wonderful array of slower deliveries and at the death can be lethal with an inswinging yorker that invariably zeroes in on the stumps. The most complete fast bowler going, the Steyn Remover will be a handful and more as South Africa attempt to give Gary Kirsten, their outgoing coach, the perfect going-away gift.
CHRIS GAYLE (WEST INDIES): Is there a more destructive batsman in world cricket today? Until a couple of years back, Gayle knew only one way to bat -Â hit out from ball one. While that made him a dangerous proposition, it also gave the bowlers some heart because a mistake appeared round the corner. Gayle 2.0 is a far more rounded batsman who is as street-smart as he is explosive. He still occasionally tees off from the start, but these days, Gayle has also learnt to play the conditions and the bowling, to bide his time and then cut loose, even in Twenty20 cricket. No one else in the modern game can clear the boundary with as much regularity and ease as the giant Jamaican, and no one instils greater awe and fear than the man with a heart condition but also non-existent nerves - not David Warner, not Tillakaratne Dilshan, not even Kieron Pollard. 20 overs of the Gayle storm, and as a contest, most games are effectively finished. And such is the impact that Gayle has on the psyche of the opposition that oftentimes, other players slip under the radar. For sheer intimidation, Chris Gayle is in a league of his own. No prizes for guessing which wicket will be the most sought after at the Champions Trophy this time around.