Babar holds key for success as unpredictable Pakistan gear up for World Cup

Babar holds key for success as unpredictable Pakistan gear up for World Cup
Pakistan's Babar Azam is pictured during the practice session at Headingley Cricket Ground in Leeds, Britain on May 21, 2024. (RUETERS)
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Updated 22 May 2024
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Babar holds key for success as unpredictable Pakistan gear up for World Cup

Babar holds key for success as unpredictable Pakistan gear up for World Cup
  • Pakistan has experienced massive changes in its cricket board since T20 World Cup 2022
  • Pakistani batter will be first person to lead a team for first time in three successive World Cups

ISLAMABAD: The return of tried and tested Babar Azam as captain for the Twenty20 World Cup belies the massive changes in Pakistan cricket over the last 18 months.

Since Babar’s team lost the T20 World Cup final to England in November 2022, the Pakistan Cricket Board has had four chairmen, the selection panel has been overhauled, and the experiment with Shaheen Shah Afridi as skipper was quickly aborted.

A new head coach for the limited-overs formats joined the squad in England just weeks ahead of the June 1-29 World Cup in the US and Caribbean.

And to top it off, Pakistan will be the last team to confirm its 15-member World Cup squad as it continues to experiment with various combinations.

Babar is urging supporters to be patient, and there’s a plan in place for success.

Babar stepped down from all-formats captaincy during the tenure of Zaka Ashraf as head of the PCB after Pakistan failed to qualify for the semifinals of the 50-over World Cup in India last year.

But he was reinstated as T20 captain by Mohsin Naqvi — the fourth PCB chairman in less than 14 months — ahead of home series against New Zealand in April after Afridi lost the series in New Zealand 4-1.

Allrounder Imad Wasim and fast bowler Mohammad Amir came out of international retirement in the hope that their experience of playing in the Caribbean Premier League will benefit Pakistan in the West Indies.

South African Gary Kirsten, who was appointed last month as head coach, will gain some first-hand knowledge of the Pakistan squad during a four-match series in England that both teams are using to rehearse for the World Cup.

All these off-the-field happenings have impacted Pakistan’s preparations for the tournament.

It badly lost the away series to New Zealand, scraped to a drawn 2-2 series at home against the Black Caps and lost a T20 series against Afghanistan 2-1. A shock loss to Ireland in Dublin preceded back-to-back wins and 2-1 series result.

And so unpredictable Pakistan enters another world tournament as a team to watch because of its rich history in the T20 World Cup. It has featured in three finals, winning the title in 2009, and also reached the semifinals three other times.

One of Kirsten’s coaching tips has already resonated with the players.

“Gary told us, don’t play for the name on the back of your jersey but for the badge in front of your shirt,” Afridi told a PCB podcast. “And that stayed with me.”

The depth in its pace bowling, with the likes of Afridi, fit-again Haris Rauf, Naseem Shah and Amir, can pose a threat to any team. But Pakistan’s top-order batting was still unsettled going into the series in England. Left-hander Saim Ayub is yet to fire in his role after selectors decided to separate the successful T20 opening pair of Babar and Mohammad Rizwan.

Babar has faced criticism for not pushing the scoring rate in the T20 power play, particularly while batting first. Pakistan has mostly aimed for totals in the 170-180 range while other teams have crossed 200 on regular basis.

Political tensions between Pakistan and India means there hasn’t been a bilateral series for over a decade, but the ICC tournaments always attracts a huge TV audience when the archrivals meet.

Pakistan and India will play a group game on June 9 at a newly built 34,000-capacity Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in New York that will be the center of attention for South Asian communities.

Both teams are expected to advance to the Super 8 stage from a group that also contains tournament co-host US, Canada and Ireland.

Babar has twice gone close to lifting the trophy as captain, losing to eventual champion Australia in the 2021 semifinals and to England in the final in the Melbourne final the following year.

And for that, he’ll get the distinction of becoming the first player to lead a country in three successive T20 World Cups and will be aiming for third time lucky if his Pakistan lineup can reach the June 29 decider in Barbados.


Cricket’s future path is clear after recent forum

Cricket’s future path is clear after recent forum
Updated 50 min 47 sec ago
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Cricket’s future path is clear after recent forum

Cricket’s future path is clear after recent forum
  • World Cricket Connects brought together more than 100 influential voices in the game

A focus of this column over the last three years has been the rapidly changing landscape of professional cricket. Some things which may have seemed like straws in the wind in mid-June 2021 are now in full flow, unlikely to be stopped even by hurricane-strength storms.

Cricket’s governing body is the International Cricket Council, tasked with managing the game. In a previous era, this had been the responsibility of the Marylebone Cricket Club. The latter still has influence in the game. Early this year, its current president, Mark Nicholas, an urbane former professional cricketer, initiated the idea of a forum to discuss cricket’s future. This was held on July 5 at Lord’s prior to England’s Test match against the West Indies.

The gathering was called World Cricket Connects. It brought together more than 100 influential voices in the game, including chairs and CEOs from five ICC full members, plus associate nations, Scotland and Oman. Former and current players, both men and women, were present, along with several executives of T20 franchises.

There was one notable omission. Jay Shah, secretary of the Board for Control of Cricket in India, was not there. He had sent his apologies. The need to be pictured with the T20 World Cup Trophy in India prevailed. Why not, especially after an election victory, since his father is Prime Minister Modi’s interior minister. The BCCI’s priorities are clear. They were clear in September 2021 when it pulled its team from a deciding Test match against England, citing mental health issues, only for the players to return immediately to perform in the Indian Premier League.

Without Shah, described by Nicholas as the most powerful person in cricket, the event was an emperor without clothes. Reports of its content took time to emerge. The ICC chair was reported to have said that the ICC is not fit for purpose and that as a “members’ organization,” it falls short of being a global governing body. Whilst not a revelation to many, the fact that it was said in a semi-public forum is a surprise, perhaps reflecting frustration at India’s power. This is not going to decline.

Ravi Shastri, Inda’s representative and a recent former coach, put forward a view that the 12 teams playing Test cricket should have a promotion and relegation system, with two tiers of six, including promotion and relegation. It may well come to that position, hastened by the costs of hosting Test cricket.

In this context, enter the ICC’s long-term ambition for cricket to become the world’s favorite sport. This translates into leading, growing and promoting cricket. The ICC is not really a governing body. It is an organizer and facilitator of global events, a builder of long-term successful commercial partnerships and a catalyst for growth. Almost as an afterthought, it says that “it will continue to make considerable efforts to protect the integrity of the sport.”

On the latter, there remain doubts, Betting is rife in the game. I have been moved by ICC officials from boundary side positions because I may be passing on information obtained from players to gambling companies. This not something that I would do and I am hardly the problem. It is unlikely that betting’s influence on cricket got a mention at Lord’s, which it should have done.

As we all know, T20 is the growth engine of modern-day cricket, like it or not. This fits the ICC’s vision, it is completely in tune with that of the BCCI and it fits with the growth of cricket in countries where growth would not have been possible otherwise. In this context, I was amazed to be appraised of a tournament hosted by Poland, involving teams from Latvia, Lithuania and Montenegro. My amazement centered on the Montenegro Bokaneers team.

It had three players with the surname of Plastics, its base registered as Brighton (England) and had one player with whom I have shared a pitch on more than one occasion. T20 cricket has democratized the game, but at what cost? At the World Cricket Connects event it was reported that there was much talk of money, about levering the consumer and responding to commercial forces. Apparently, those forces are killing Test cricket for all but the major countries. It costs upward of £1 million ($1.3 million) for Ireland and Scotland, for example, to host a Test match, without commensurate return from gate receipts, broadcasting rights and sponsorship. In Pakistan, costs of providing security for a Test match series are estimated to be up to $5 million.

Meanwhile, viewership levels for One Day International cricket have fallen by a quarter since 2019. In that context, discussions about reducing the number of “meaningless” matches surfaced, whatever that means. Some people may regard the recent England vs. West Indies Test match at Lord’s, completed in just over two days, as meaningless. Those who played a Test at Lord’s for the first time, one of whom took 12 wickets, are likely to disagree. In Scotland, the men’s team is hosting Oman and Namibia as part of the ICC Cricket World Cup League Two, part of the qualifying process for the 2027 ODI World Cup. In general, Scotland is desperate to play more cricket, especially against top-quality opposition, in matches that would have real meaning, as it seeks to improve its position in world cricket. Even Latvia vs. Montenegro Bokaneers has meaning for those who achieved an ambition of playing in an “international” match.

The sad truth is that professional cricket has been captured by commercial forces and, in particular, by those in India. Those forces are advertisers, producers of goods and services, broadcasters, betting companies and sponsors. Their most comfortable outlet is T20 cricket, given its short format and adaptability to broadcasting schedules. The COVID-19 pandemic caused substantial financial losses for cricket worldwide that have accelerated the rush to the T20 format, which looks set to dominate the future in its thrall to money. It now seems clear that both Test and ODI cricket will need to shrink to accommodate this new reality of commercialism and measurement of success by income generation.


Professional Fighters League announces extra bouts for August playoffs

Professional Fighters League announces extra bouts for August playoffs
Updated 18 July 2024
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Professional Fighters League announces extra bouts for August playoffs

Professional Fighters League announces extra bouts for August playoffs
  • 2024 PFL Playoffs will see the return of Biaggio Ali Walsh to the SmartCage

NEW YORK: The Professional Fighters League has announced additional bouts for the 2024 PFL Global Season Playoffs in August.

On Friday, Aug. 2 in Nashville, the heavyweight and women’s flyweight divisions will take center stage.

In a marquee addition to the event, Tyrell Fortune (14-2) will face Sergei Bilostenniy (12-3) in a heavyweight alternate contest. In all, five early bouts have been added to an already stacked night of action.

Two weeks later on Aug.16, the light-heavyweight and lightweight playoffs will take place in Hollywood, Florida.

Biaggio Ali Walsh (1-0) makes his sophomore professional appearance against undefeated Korey Taylor (4-0) during the ESPN main card.

A light-heavyweight alternate bout pitting Antonio Carlos Jr. (16-6) against Karl Albrektsson (14-5) is confirmed, while a lightweight alternate fight between Elvin Espinoza (10-1) and Mads Burnell (19-6) is also official for the early card.

The playoffs will conclude on Aug. 23 in Washington D.C. with the welterweight and featherweight divisions.

A welterweight alternate bout pitting Neiman Gracie (13-5) against Luca Poclit (10-2) is confirmed, while a featherweight alternate fight between Tyler Diamond (14-3) and Enrique Barzola (20-9-2) is also official.

The PFL Regular Season has each winner of the six weight divisions receiving a $1 million purse.


Central Paris locks down for Olympics as athletes arrive

Central Paris locks down for Olympics as athletes arrive
Updated 18 July 2024
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Central Paris locks down for Olympics as athletes arrive

Central Paris locks down for Olympics as athletes arrive
  • The opening parade along six kilometers (four miles) of the river led to the closure of riverside central districts to most vehicles from 5:00 am (0300 GMT) on Thursday
  • Many central Metro stations will also be closed on Thursday until the day after the opening ceremony, which will see 6,000-7,000 athletes sail down the Seine on around a hundred barges and river boats

PARIS: French security forces began locking down large parts of central Paris on Thursday ahead of the hugely complex Olympics opening ceremony next week on the river Seine.

The opening parade along six kilometers (four miles) of the river led to the closure of riverside central districts to most vehicles from 5:00 am (0300 GMT) on Thursday.

Anyone wanting to enter the highest-security “grey zone” along both banks of the Seine, such as residents or tourists with hotel reservations in the area, will need a security pass in the form of a QR code.

The City of Light is transforming ahead of the July 26-Aug. 11 Olympics when around 10 million spectators are expected.

Temporary sports stadiums have sprung up at popular locations such as the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides or the Place de la Concorde, while new Olympic VIP lanes are the latest traffic-snarling addition.

“It’s true that our concept of having a large number of temporary sites in the heart of the city, obviously with that, there are constraints, but I feel like people are seeing what we’re doing,” Paris 2024 director general Etienne Thobois told AFP last month.

Many central Metro stations will also be closed on Thursday until the day after the opening ceremony, which will see 6,000-7,000 athletes sail down the Seine on around a hundred barges and river boats.

It will be the first time a Summer Olympics has opened outside the main athletics stadium, with up to 500,000 people set to watch in person from stands, on the river banks and from the overlooking apartments.

The vast security operation has been giving senior police officers cold sweats ever since it was announced in 2021 because of the difficulty of securing so many spectators in such a large, densely packed urban area.

Around 45,000 officers are set to be on duty for the July 26 parade, assisted by thousands of soldiers and private security agents.

On Wednesday, police in eastern France announced they had arrested a suspected far-right extremist who had made threats against the Games in a group on the Telegram phone application.

The installation of tens of thousands of metal security barriers all along the opening ceremony route in Paris has outraged some residents, who feel closed in.

“It’s a bit like being in Planet of the Apes,” Aissa Yago, who lives on the Ile Saint Louis in central Paris, told AFP this week from behind a barrier. “All they need to do is throw us some peanuts.”

Elsewhere on Thursday, the first athletes are set to arrive to take up residence in the newly built Olympic Village in a northern suburb of the capital.

Comprising around 40 different low-rise housing blocs, the complex has been built as a showcase of innovative construction techniques using low-carbon concrete, water recycling and reclaimed building materials.

It was intended to be free of air-conditioning, although Olympic delegations have ordered around 2,500 portable cooling units for their athletes out of fear of the impact of high temperatures on their performances.

“The major countries are going to arrive on the first day ... so Great Britain, the US, New Zealand, Brazil, Switzerland,” the deputy head of the French delegation, Andre-Pierre Goubert, told AFP.

At full capacity, the village will host 14,500 people including 9,000 athletes.

The Olympics will be followed by the Paralympics from Aug. 28-Sept. 8.


‘Counter-Strike 2’ blasts off week 3 action at Esports World Cup

‘Counter-Strike 2’ blasts off week 3 action at Esports World Cup
Updated 18 July 2024
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‘Counter-Strike 2’ blasts off week 3 action at Esports World Cup

‘Counter-Strike 2’ blasts off week 3 action at Esports World Cup
  • World’s biggest gaming festival runs until Aug. 25 at Boulevard Riyadh City

RIYADH: The Esports World Cup continued its third week of action on Wednesday with several sides starring in the “Counter-Strike 2” tournament at Boulevard Riyadh City.

In the qualification matches MOUZ won 2-1 against Sashi Esports, Team Spirit 1-0 MIBR, Navi 2-0 FURIA Esports, Virtus.pro 1-0 Complexity, Team Vitality 2-0 M80, FaZe Clan 2-0 FlyQuest, and G2 Esports 2-0 The MongolZ.

The winning teams now proceed to the “Counter-Strike 2” playoffs.

The eight-week Esports World Cup features a unique cross-game structure pitting the world’s top clubs and players against each other across 22 global competitions in 21 leading games.

The tournament has a prize pool of $60 million, the largest in the history of esports, and runs until Aug. 25.

More than 1,500 players, representing over 60 nationalities, are battling it out at the Esports World Cup.

Week three also features action from the “Dota2 Riyadh Masters” and “PUBG Mobile.”


LeBron James sees ‘much to improve’ before Olympics despite Serbia win in Abu Dhabi

LeBron James sees ‘much to improve’ before Olympics despite Serbia win in Abu Dhabi
Updated 18 July 2024
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LeBron James sees ‘much to improve’ before Olympics despite Serbia win in Abu Dhabi

LeBron James sees ‘much to improve’ before Olympics despite Serbia win in Abu Dhabi
  • After a narrow win over Australia on Monday, the stars and stripes were in commanding form against a Nikola Jokic-led Serbia
  • Lakers star: ‘We’ve still got so much room to improve but we want to continue to get better and not waste the opportunities’

ABU DHABI: LeBron James was pleased with the progress made by the USA in their 105-79 victory over Serbia in a friendly in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, but insists there is “so much room to improve” in the hunt for Olympic gold.
After a narrow win over Australia on Monday, that saw the United States nearly blow a 20-point lead toward the end of the clash, the stars and stripes were in commanding form against a Nikola Jokic-led Serbia.
Stephen Curry, who scored just three points in the USA’s 98-92 win over the Boomers, caught fire on Wednesday, opening the scoring with a signature three on the very first play and finishing the game with a team-high 24 points, shooting six for nine from beyond the arc.
“We drew it (the opening play) up for that particular reason, to get him going,” said James of Curry.
“He sees one go through the hoop, you see what it opens up for the rest of his game, for the rest of the game for all of us. He set the tone and we just tried to continue to keep finding him.”
Bam Adebayo also had a successful evening, coming off the bench to tally up 17 points, eight rebounds and a pair of assists.
The Miami Heat center combined seamlessly on defense with Anthony Davis, who had six blocks, six rebounds and seven points.
“Bam and AD together are really something,” US head coach Steve Kerr said.
“Just the switching, but they can also protect the rim and be in a drop if we go to that coverage.
“They’ll combine with the ball pressure that Book was putting on their point guard, I thought that really set a tone for us.”
Serbia, who lost to Australia on Tuesday, were once again without Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was on the bench but did not play.
Reigning NBA MVP Jokic had a double-double 16 points and 11 rebounds but it was not enough to halt the formidable Americans, whom they will face again in their Olympics opener in Lille, France on July 28.
“We’ve still got so much room to improve but we want to continue to get better and not waste the opportunities. I felt like tonight we got better,” said James, who is gunning for his third Olympic gold medal this summer.
Kerr made one change to the starting lineup he deployed against Australia two days ago, keeping Jayson Tatum, James, Joel Embiid and Curry on the floor but opting for Jrue Holiday instead of Anthony Edwards.
Curry scored nine points within the first two minutes before Serbia picked up the pace with back-to-back threes from Aleksa Avramovic giving them an early 12-9 lead.
Kerr continued with his hockey subs pattern during these exhibition games, taking off all five starters midway through the quarter to bring in Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Davis, Adebayo, and Devin Booker.
It was Edwards who reclaimed the lead for USA, going four for four from the free throw line with 38 seconds left on the clock. Vanja Marinkovic had other ideas though, his buzzer-beating layup making sure the first quarter ended with both teams on level terms.
Curry, Edwards and Adebayo helped the USA pull ahead, and the Americans were never in trouble again beyond that first quarter.
Kerr is happy with the strategy he’s been applying so far, of subbing all five starters with an entirely new second unit and alternating those two groups every five minutes in the game.
“I think the identity of the team is our depth, the strength of the team is the depth,” said Kerr.
“And so, if we can play in four, five-minute bursts of just playing intense defense, hitting bodies, rebounding, being physical, then it makes sense to play that way.
“We’ll see if we keep doing it but for now, it’s allowed groups to get together, AD and Bam for example, Steph and LeBron, kind of learn how to play together, having a better feel for each other.
“The strength of our team is just the depth and so if we have to play that way, we’ll play that way.”
The USA head to London next, where they have two final exhibition games scheduled, against South Sudan on Saturday and reigning world champions Germany on Monday.