The do-or-die struggle was taking place on computer screens worldwide, in the ICC Fantasy League.
And, believe me, it is very serious business. In the inter-office league that has become a ritual for every multi-team sporting event in our workplace, the eventual fantasy league winners have to walk barefoot over smouldering charcoal to prove their victory has been fair and square. I kid, of course. We let them wear boots if they really want to.
But serious business it is – and the result of your Fantasy League sometimes supersedes the result of the team playing on the field. Fantasy League cricket remains the primary unifying force in cricket. Franchise cricket worldwide may have melted bonds between players, but it’s only Fantasy Leagues that make hard lines disappear for fans. An England fan may have had enough of watching Mitchell Johnson to last a lifetime, but that same fan will be egging Johnson on to take a fifer if the left-arm quick happens to be the Power Player selected in his fantasy team.
You had to be at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday (February 22) to witness the sheer joy and passion that Indian fans bring to the game, giving a palpable sense of that oft-abused cliché and actually making the atmosphere “electric”. You would get equally crackling electricity from the Indian fan who had Faf du Plessis in his team, and punched the air in joy when one of Faf’s swings caught the top edge and flew over MS Dhoni’s head to the boundary ropes.
Like every Fantasy League, this one has already caused major upheavals within the first week. But here are tips and trivia that may help you navigate Week Two. Or perhaps they won’t. But they’ll help you navigate through this column at least.
- AB de Villiers is part of about 65% of the several hundreds of thousands of teams that have already registered in the league. With new entrants growing by the minute, and nobody keen to leave the most versatile player in the world out, that number could nudge further northwards. More significantly, it renders the first bit of valuable last-minute advice this column wanted to impart to users moot. Namely, “Pick AB de Villiers”. He’s had two middling knocks so far. One shudders to think what is lined up for when ball meets the great expanse of middle that his bat is and he manages to not get caught on the boundary by a leaping fieldsman or run out.
- If you were asked to take blind guesses on who the most popular players in Fantasy League teams from each country were before the World Cup began, you could be in for some surprises. Steve Smith pipped Mitchell Johnson in Australia, Lasith Malinga edged out Kumar Sangakkara in Sri Lanka, Virat Kohli was the man chosen ahead of MS Dhoni in India. These were joined by the men who remain strong favourites in each of their country’s teams, such as Shakib Al Hasan and Chris Gayle. Some of the pre-tournament favourites have repaid their fans’ Fantasy League dollars. Some are yet to do so. Most interesting for the savvy Fantasy League player are the dark horses who have made deep inroads.
- Tim Southee. Tim Southee. Tim Southee. If you didn’t have him when he was ripping through England with 7 for 33, you might have contemplated handing your pail in, cashing in your credit (in terms of self-respect, because Fantasy League won’t actually let you cash in your credits), and calling it a day. Unfortunately for me, I was among those who opted for the combined talents of Trent Boult and Corey Anderson over Southee. No bad thing ordinarily, but terrible on the day. I didn’t have to send in my resignation from Fantasy League letter luckily, because Brendon McCullum threw me a lifeline when I was going over the points’ cliff. I have always admired Baz, but seldom have I been a bigger fan of him than I was that day: 77 (off 25) of the most beautiful runs that kept me in the Fantasy League race.
- Andre Russell. He’s a hero straight out of Gotham. Nobody saw him coming - he didn’t go bang-bang the way Southee and McCullum had at the top, but out of nowhere, he scored a big chunk of Fantasy League points. He came in with 17 balls left, was the first-change bowler after Jerome Taylor and Jason Holder had ripped through the top order, but still scored big in batting and bowling. For those fortunate enough to have made him their Power Player – cough, nudge, wink (yes, I did) – the metaphorical clinking of points was sweeter than the timing Russell achieved on some of his sixes.
- Shikhar Dhawan and Moeen Ali.The tattooed superstar and the man whose strokes flowed as elegantly as his beard. I had neither one in my team. A few unshed tears were wiped away, and the smile Russell had wrought evaporated. In a word – learn from errors. Dhawan had shown good form against Pakistan. Moeen has all-round skills and was always likely to hit it out of the park when confronted with a relatively more benign surface and bowling attack.
- If you are playing catch-up in your inter-office private league after a rocky start, worry not. The Fantasy League is a marathon not a sprint. That is important to bear in mind for those who use up all their substitutions in a tearing hurry. Sure, that will get you to the top – but it won’t keep you there. Your private league standings can start a steady climb if you plan well, aided by breaks such as the ones Southee, McCullum or Russell provide – where you don’t overdo your substitutions and pick players who are likely to do well, you will end up with a few matches of bonanza points. The private and public leagues are popular, and for good reason. It’s a competition within a competition, and it’s made up of friends and acquaintances, which doubles the fun element.
- If you must be spendthrift with your substitutions, go the whole hog in the ICC Fantasy Leagues ‘Match Mode’ – where each day is a fresh start and each competition lasts for that day itself. The ‘Tournament Mode’ requires long-term thinking, but you can go slam-bang in the ‘Match Mode’, packing your team with the stars of the day. It’s like being given the opportunity to earn bonus points via a Super Over even as a Test match is on.
- If you’ve fallen behind in the early Fantasy League running, you may be ruminating on management-speak such as ‘early-mover advantage’. Worry not though, because this particular Fantasy League is unlike any other. The league stage has been split in two and with the first one ending in February, you have a chance to get back in the game after the India v UAE match on February 28. In that short window between the last match of February and the first one of March – England v Sri Lanka – you have infinite substitutions and can reform your team, this time with the added advantage of having watched two weeks of the tournament and a fair idea of who is in form and who isn’t. This is a vital inflexion point in the Fantasy League – miss it and you’ll be wishing you had a time machine.
Team meetings before a big match are generally kept short, because a) players don’t need to expend mental energy more than necessary before the big day and b) a long meeting would mean the coach and captain need to bring in snooze buttons with them.
In the fitness of things then, it’s time to wrap this up and wish every participant a Man of the Match for their Power Player, a strike-rate of 200 for their batsmen, and a couple of five-wicket hauls for their bowlers. It’s mathematically impossible of course to have this come true for every team, which is why it remains a wish. To turn it into your reality, get cracking with your Fantasy teams – and remember: Don’t miss that March beginning deadline.
Saurabh Somani is Assistant Editor at Wisden India. You can follow him on twitter @saurabh_42