Two mismatches, two classics. These were the quarter-finals of Cricket World Cup 2011. We are left with three South Asian heavyweights – India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – and an outlier both in location and expectations, New Zealand. Here's the semi-final draw (my predictions in bold):
Sri Lanka v New Zealand (March 29, Colombo)
India v Pakistan (March 30, Mohali)
I picked against NZ last time, so I'm sticking with it. After all, what better time is there to indulge in superstition than during the knockout stages of a World Cup? On March 30, millions of Indian fans will be recreating their actions and movements from the day of their victory over Australia, from simple events like having idli and sambar for breakfast to complex rituals like dressing oneself with specific clothes in a prescribed order – all in the hope that their collective will and connection to their team will somehow influence the result. It'll be the same across Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The butterfly effect, however, had little to do with what transpired in the quarter-final matches. In all four matches, one team emerged victorious by performing substantially better on the night than their opponents. What have we learned from it all, and what should we be thinking about going into the semi-final round? Five things to keep in mind:
1. Different teams respond to pressure in different ways Pressure is a curious thing in team sports. Some players are able to handle it better than others, and all other things being equal, each individual's performance should depend on their own mental capacity to deal with pressure situations. But it just doesn't work that way. South Africa, a team stacked with proven performers at the highest level, fell apart yet again in a Cricket World Cup knockout match. New Zealand, on the other hand, an inexperienced and out-of-form side, elevated all aspects of their game and beat the favourites. Already one of NZ Cricket's finest hours, and one of South Africa's lowest, this match will live long in the memory for New Zealand's outstanding efforts in the field, where they absorbed all of the pressure of the moment and threw it right back at the South Africans.
2. Form is temporary, class is permanent... We probably won't see Ricky Ponting in a World Cup again, but he signed off in fine style: with an uncharacteristically gritty hundred against India. Ponting had been subjected to a lot of criticism in the past year for a string of weak performances, with some calling for his head, but on the day his class shone through. The same goes for Brett Lee, who has been injured so often in his career that it's a wonder he could bowl over 140 kph at the age of 34, charging in and giving it everything like he was still in his 20s. Not surprisingly, these two players were Australia's outstanding fielders in their match, and neither will be back again. Much as we've all loved to hate them over the years, their competitiveness and quality will be missed.
3. … although a player in form can turn any game. Yuvraj Singh has now gone past 50 in five innings out of six at this tournament, with four Man of the Match awards, and he appears to be in the form his life at the best possible time. It was Yuvraj who came in with India beginning to look a little shaky against Australia, got through Gautam Gambhir running himself out and MS Dhoni capitulating again, and steadied their chase to see them through to an awkward target. With the hopes of a billion people and a series of erratic performances contributing to an intense situation every time India walk out to play, what they have needed is someone reliable. Yuvraj has been that guy, and all Indian fans will be hoping he keeps his current state of mind.
4. Do your jobs well, and the results will follow It's a common refrain for captains at press conferences on the eve of a match: “We're just focusing getting our own performance right, regardless of the opposition.” This strategy was clear enough in the New Zealand vs South Africa match, but it was even more evident in the effective walkovers that Pakistan and Sri Lanka were afforded against West Indies and England. Having been set a desperately poor and a poor target respectively, both of the former teams knocked off their chases without even losing a wicket. Part of this was down to the inferiority of their oppositon, but both the Pakistan and the Sri Lanka players – save for a few blips, such as Sri Lanka's spate of bizarre and uncharacteristic dropped catches – did their jobs effectively and well, and as such took the match in their fierce grips right from the outset. It will be interesting to see whether they can retain that consistency and focus on performance in the semi-finals.
5. How much pride do NRIs feel? As an expatriate New Zealander, my heart beat harder with a profound pride when my country's team beat South Africa. I was at work at the time and followed the live commentary from Cricinfo on my mobile phone, annoying my workmates with constant, gleeful updates. I'm curious: do NRIs feel the same way? I already know of one NRI who has become a cricket convert during this World Cup: my colleague Maria Francis in Singapore, stirred by TV images of India triumphing over the world champion Australians. That pride and interest may only be temporary, but whether you're a fair-weather fan or in it for the long haul, do please sound off below.