Cricket Corner: A quartet of centurions, the PSL heats up & a new job for captain Cummins


Cricket Corner: A quartet of centurions, the PSL heats up & a new job for captain Cummins

In 99 Tests, Ravichandran Ashwin has 507 wickets at an average of 23.91
In 99 Tests, Ravichandran Ashwin has 507 wickets at an average of 23.91AFP
In this weekly feature, Flashscore's Pat Dempsey brings together some of the leading talking points from the increasingly sprawling universe of the world's second-most watched sport.

In a nod to the longest form of the game - Test cricket - the article is broken into three sections to mirror the main intervals in a day’s play: Lunch - the main course; Tea - something extra; and Stumps (the end of play) - something to ponder over a few drinks at the bar.

Lunch: Four centurions to celebrate

Two major Test matches are starting this week; the fifth and final Test between India and England in the chilly Himalayan town of Dharamsala, and the second (also final) Test between New Zealand and Australia in the quaint parkland surrounds of Christchurch’s Hagley Oval. India have won their series 3-1 going into the final match, rendering it a dead rubber, while New Zealand must win their South Island encounter to save the series. Aside from the above, both Tests will be notable for other reasons as four players look set to mark their 100th Test for their respective nations.

Starting in India, the hosts should be handing a 100th cap to inimitable off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin while England will likely be doing the same to feisty batter (and occasional wicketkeeper) Jonny Bairstow. Ashwin, who during the series also joined the 500-Test-wicket club, has long been considered one of the great spinners of his generation. With the aforementioned milestone and his 100th cap secured, he will surely come to be regarded as one of the great executors of his craft. Bairstow, meanwhile, has struggled for form since returning from a broken leg in late 2022. Despite a paltry return of runs recently, his impact on English cricket is enormous both as one of the most destructive batters of the last decade and as one of the truest apostles of Ben Stokes in the ‘Bazball’ era. It should be noted that Stokes reached his 100th Test in India, too.

Down to the shaky isles where Black Caps skipper Tim Southee and former captain Kane Williamson will both reach the same milestone as Ashwin and Bairstow in the second Test against the Aussies. We’ve spoken about Williamson in recent Cricket Corners but much less about Southee - New Zealand's second-highest wicket-taker behind only Sir Richard Hadlee. Interestingly, both players reached the milestone of 50 Test appearances together in 2016 and it's satisfying that they are set to repeat that synchronicity in Christchurch. Southee, it must be said, is down on pace compared to his younger self but, at 35, you can hardly blame him for that. On the other hand, Williamson (still only 33) - despite few runs and a comical runout in the first Test - couldn't be in better shape, having hit seven 100-plus scores in his seven Tests before Wellington.

Form aside, reaching 100 Tests is a rare feat. In men’s cricket, only 75 players have previously done it. That’s not that many for roughly 150 years of action. In terms of active players, the only centurions around are England’s current crop of Stokes, Joe Root and James Anderson; Australia’s Steve Smith, Nathan Lyon and the recently retired (but not inactive) David Warner; Sri Lanka’s Angelo Mathews; and India’s currently unavailable Virat Kohli and the unselected but active duo of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma.

Ending on a fun fact: England coach Brendon McCullum appeared in 101 Tests for New Zealand in his playing career (2004-16) and holds the incredible record of being the only player to reach 100 matches without missing a single one along the way.

Tea: The PSL heats up

The Indian Premier League (IPL) is fast approaching (beginning late March) and we’ve seen many Twenty20 (T20) franchise leagues come and go since the new year. One of the best around, the Pakistan Super League (PSL), is the last major T20 competition ongoing before all eyes turn to India. Given the incredibly tense diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, neither country's league hosts players from the other (contracted Indian players cannot play in any overseas T20 leagues in fact) but both attract many of the world’s best in the format each year. The PSL is less of a draw than the IPL but regardless, it sits very high among the next-best leagues behind India’s.

The current PSL season is now past its halfway mark in the group phase. There are six franchises, each playing 10 matches in the first stage with the top four progressing to the playoffs. The finals format is similar to other T20 leagues with the top two playing off for an automatic berth in the title decider and the loser then playing the winner of an eliminator match. Currently, the frontrunners are the wonderfully named Multan Sultans who have won six of eight matches. Multan have established themselves as a dynasty team in Pakistan, finishing first or second in the last four seasons' group phases and reaching three of four finals, with one title. Quetta Gladiators, Peshawar Zalmi and Islamabad United look likely to wrap up the playoff berths but there are plenty of matches to go.

At the time of writing, Pakistan’s former captain and talisman Babar Azam of Peshawar (394 runs) is leading the pack with the bat and striking at a good rate (over 150). A couple of South Africans follow him in the charts: Multan’s Reeza Hendricks and Lahore’s Rassie van der Dussen, the latter continuing on from an impressive SA20 campaign. With the ball, locals and particularly spinners, dominate the wicket-taking leaderboard. Wrist-spinners Usama Mir, Abrar Ahmed and Shadab Khan are all having excellent tournaments. The latter has been a mainstay in Pakistan’s T20 side over recent years but the former two will be pushing for World Cup inclusion as will Multan seamer Mohammad Ali, who has been the standout quick so far. 

Keep an eye on the rest of the tournament here - the final takes place on March 18th in Karachi.

Stumps: A specialist captain?

One of the major pieces of news to emerge this week was IPL franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad appointing Australia’s Test and 50-over skipper Pat Cummins as their captain for the approaching season, relieving South Africa’s Aidan Markram of the responsibility.

Cummins grabbed headlines by becoming the IPL’s most-expensive signing in the recent player auction before compatriot Mitchell Starc broke the record just an hour later. On face value, Cummins' latest captaincy appointment looks logical: Why not make your marquee signing your captain, especially after he has excelled in leading his nation to both the World Test Championship and 50-over World Cup titles in 2023? Well, the main argument against him in the role is that his 20-over form is not necessarily deserving of an automatic place in Sunrisers’ XI, let alone Australia’s, where he has already seemingly handed the reigns on to Mitchell Marsh (although this has not been officially announced).

Both Cummins’ and Starc’s big-money sales in the auction smacked of recency bias. They each had brilliant 2023s in Australian colours, especially at the World Cup in India, and IPL franchises were desperate to get in on the hype and, undoubtedly, the significant marketing potential of both. The last point is especially true of Cummins, who is quickly turning into cricket’s most marketable man. But the fact of the matter is that they are far from world-beating bowlers in the format as both lie outside the top 45 according to the ICC’s official player rankings. Moreover, in 2022, Cummins turned out for Starc’s new employers, the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), in five matches and bowled at an economy rate of almost 11. Starc has fared better in the competition in that sense but he last appeared way back in 2015 and briefly lost his place in the Australian T20 team during the last World Cup (2022) due to his erratic output.

Focussing on Cummins, his defining IPL moment to date came with the bat when he equalled the (then) record for the fastest 50 scored in the completion in 2022 with KKR. Perhaps Sunrisers see Cummins as less of a frontline bowler and more of an allrounder - he was auctioned as such and has proven he can add lower-order runs. And perhaps his appointment as captain is as simple as Cummins being more likely than Markram to play every match. It should be noted that Markram led the side to a wooden-spoon finish in 2023 and the franchise have struggled for consistency in recent editions, going through various captains and having little success since their sole title in 2016. In Markram’s favour, though, he has led Sunrisers’ sister franchise to consecutive titles in the SA20 - a feat which led many to expect them to persist with him.

If Hyderabad were unhappy with Markram, it’s not unlikely that they sought Cummins out precisely because of his skills as a leader. It’s also not insignificant that their head coach, Daniel Vettori, works alongside Cummins in the Australian brains trust. Assuming this logic, Cummins could be an example of a new trend emerging: The specialist captain - someone who is selected based on neither batting nor bowling performances specifically but rather their leadership qualities. Given the dynamics of T20 cricket, you can hide a player in an XI if they bat low and/or bowl only sporadically. If you’re going to do that, why not 'hide' a player who possesses other obvious and intangible qualities? It sure helps that Cummins is one of the world’s best players in a multi-format skills sense but will he be a good IPL captain and/or player in the coming season? It’s certainly going to be one of the many fascinating narratives that lie ahead in India.



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