Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A tale of two captains

Shoaib Malik caught a lot of flak after putting India in to bat first in the third ODI at Kanpur. The last time these two teams played there, India chose to bat first and got bowled out cheaply. Teams batting first have averaged only 225 on the Green Park strip because of the overnight moisture. Dire warnings about how the pitch crumbles in the afternoon prompts teams to bat first, but these have always proven unfounded. It gets dustier and slower, but paradoxically easier. In fact the spinners too are usually more effective in the first innings when the pitch has more bite. Pakistan lost despite putting India in to bat, and not because of it, in my view.
There were other reasons for the loss. Ganguly being dropped off the first ball was vital, because that could have opened the floodgates on a track helping the pacers in the morning. Although both Ganguly and Tendulkar perished after getting set, they gave India a rollicking start and also saw off the main dangermen - Umar Gul and Shoaib Akhtar.
The second factor was the way Yuvraj and Dhoni went after the spinners around the 34th over. This was awesome batting, but then Pakistan played only one fulltime spinner unlike India's strategy of using two experienced ones even at the cost of playing one batsman less. Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi are part-timers and their limitations got exposed. Even then, I thought Malik did well to bring back the pacers as soon as the onslaught began. He gambled on getting rid of Yuvraj and Dhoni before being forced to complete the spinners' quota. Shoaib did get Dhoni, but not before he sent a few more to the fence. Yuvraj however stayed almost till the end and made the big difference. Malik can't be faulted entirely for using the left-arm spinner Rahman at the end, because he did beat Yuvraj in flight to get him caught at square leg. But his last two overs went for 30 runs and I wonder if Afridi, being more street-smart, might have handled the pressure of bowling to Pathan and Uthappa better.
Malik also failed to utilise Afridi's batting, by sending him out to open. Afridi is even more erratic in his batting these days, and to expect him to suddenly do his stuff against the new ball was asking for too much. Any deviation catches him out, as Pathan reconfirmed. Afridi can thump the old ball, off both spinners and medium-pacers. Besides, his presence low down in the order is a constant menace to the opposition who know they can never assume the game is in control. These are the same reasons why I think India should employ Sehwag down the order instead of opening.
Now, turning to the other captain, Dhoni, I think he's lucky to be 2-1 up in the series and also lucky to have caught more bouquets than brickbats. In Kanpur, India's shortage of batsmen might have shown if the Dhoni-Yuvraj partnership had been broken earlier. These two have combined in two outstanding partnerships to give India both its victories in the three matches so far. To expect them to do that again would bne stretching the law of averages. I think Dhoni got the combination right in Mohali where we did get 321 even though we lost the game. Sehwag should again play in place of one of the bowlers in the next two ODIs. Gwalior is usually a spinners' track, and so one of the left-arm pacers should sit out there. In Jaipur, I would bench Murali Kartik.
Of course, having won the last ODI, Dhoni is likely to stick to the five-bowler format. If he manages to win the series in spite of that, it would validate Wasim Akram's pre-series analysis, pointing out weaknesses in Pakistan's bowling, with Shoaib Akhtar not fully fit, and no wicket-taking spinner like Danesh Kaneria in their ranks.
Dhoni I thought escaped brickbats for losing the game in Mohali, which all analysts predictably blamed on the bowlers. I think India lost by choosing to bat first. We have seen before that heavy dew in winter day-nighters in the north makes any total impossible to defend. India came close to winning only because of Pakistan's ineptitude, first in Rao Ifthikar dishing out half-volleys for Harbhajan to smash 38, and then a couple of set batsmen, including centurion Younis Khan, getting out to wild shots in the end although the asking rate never went out of hand.
Not so long ago, Ganguly was not only criticised for losing, but also suffered a ban due to an excruciatingly slow over-rate after he chose to bat first in a day-nighter at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata against Pakistan to mark the BCCI centenary. So it's quite a contrast that Dhoni got away scot-free after winning the toss and making India lose by bowling and fielding in the heavy Mohali dew.
The thing with heavy dew is that once the ball and pitch get wet, there's no movement at all both for medium-pacers and spinners. So the batsmen can simply play through the line of the ball. And since the ball zips on to the bat after pitching, it flies to the fence faster too. This is going to be a major factor in the next two ODIs which are day-nighters. I don't know much about how heavy the dew gets in Gwalior, which has traditionally favoured spinners, but certainly in Jaipur it will be a big advantage to bat second. In fact, day-nighters in such conditions, which favour one side to such an extent, become meaningless.
Going by India's record in such matches, fans will be praying India loses the toss and Pakistan chooses to bat first, having lost while chasing at Kanpur. Somebody should analyse the number of games India has lost in the last two years after winning the toss. I suspect it would be around two-thirds of the time, which would be ironical because it's supposed to be an advantage to win the toss.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Did anybody miss Dravid?

So that wasn't so difficult, was it? No Dravid, Tendulkar gone early, and India win easily. Okay, I'm not saying one necessarily followed the other, but those who keep chanting that without the trio to hold things together we can only win Twenty20 cricket are refusing to look at cold facts. And the facts are these: Mohammed Yousuf, the erstwhile Yohana, headed Pakistan's batting averages in the last series, which Pakistan lost. One of the primary reasons for that was that Yousuf had the lowest strike rate among Pakistan's batsmen. Yousuf was again the highest scorer in the first ODI of this series with India, and Pakistan lost. He did end up with a good strike rate at the end, but he and Younis played too cautiously in the middle overs and were primarily responsible for losing the game. Pakistan and India face similar problems: their senior players don't want to take sufficient risks. I've worked out the averages and strike rates of the Indian players starting from the England series, and it's no surprise to me that Sachin Tendulkar tops the batting average, but languishes at the bottom along with Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid when it comes to strike rates. So was India's win in Guwahati against Pakistan in the first ODI facilitated by the absence of Dravid and early dismissal of Tendulkar? It seems an unkind thing to say, but let's see how the rest of the series goes, let's see how many Indian wins can be attributed to the seniors. My viewpoint on this has been steady for a long time now: the importance of sheet anchors in one-day cricket is exaggerated, especially with wickets becoming flatter and average team scores becoming higher; anybody can go along at 4 runs an over on such wickets, but that's not going to win many one-day matches; in fact, successful teams like Australia are also upping the ante in Test matches.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Facts about the trio

Rahul Dravid has had a batting average of 24.9 with a strike rate of 62.2 in the last two series against England and Australia - and that's in 13 matches. So all those who are glibly saying that he has been dropped after just one poor series are ducking the truth. Sourav Ganguly has a strike rate of 56.1 in the two series against Australia and England - even lower than that of Dravid - although his average is decent at 34.1. Sachin Tendulkar tops the averages with 46.5 but his strike rate of 68.9 is also just over 4 runs an over. These strike rates are not good enough to win one-day matches these days, especially for openers who get to play the 20 powerplay overs with fielding restrictions.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Don't cry for Dravid

This blog has been remarkably prescient, as it turns out, on Rahul Dravid's fortunes. Chuck de Dravid, I urged after the England series, and was pleasantly surprised to see him handing over the reins a couple of weeks later. Drop the trio, I urged after another series loss, this time at home against an Aussie side not playing at its best. And another pleasant surprise followed - no Dravid in the ODI team to take on the visiting Pakistanis.
Since then, however, I've been watching with bemusement the outpouring of sympathy for Dravid, mostly from former players who dominate the media scene. I don't understand this - here's a guy who hasn't been performing for a couple of years now, both as captain and player, and yet the sports pages and TV channels are going after the selectors who for once did the right thing.
Out of curiosity I went back and checked what Dravid had been doing as a batsman and sure enough the slump extends way back to the tournament in Kuala Lumpur at the start of last year. India made an early exit in that tournament, made an early exit in the Champions Trophy at home, got thrashed 5-0 by the South Africans in the ODI series there, got knocked out in the first round of the World Cup with the added ignominy of a loss to Bangladesh, lost the series in England to a side playing with a half-fit Flintoff, and lost a home series to the Aussies. In between all that carnage, India managed to win preparatory series at home before the World Cup against the Windies and Lankans who rested most of their top players. India also beat the South Africans 2-1 in Ireland, but again they were without their main players. And yes, India also beat Bangladesh.
Obviously, there's no point continuing with the same old players if this is what the team is producing, and of the senior players Dravid has contributed the least during this time. In fact, he has had only three knocks of over 50 in a match-winning cause in 40 matches in nearly two years - the 92 not out in the England series, a 66 against the Lankans before the World Cup, and a 54 against the Windies again in that preparatory series before the World Cup where nobody was stretching too hard. I did not have the patience to work out his strike rate in this period, but I'm sure it's worse than his none too impressive career strike rate of 71. That would be less than four runs an over, and everyone knows that with one-day scores tending toward 300 these days, a strike rate of four will ensure a defeat.
Instead of shedding tears for Dravid, we should shed a few for all the one-day matches that India has been losing in the last couple of years by refusing to drop the plodding Dravid, while players like Gambhir, Uthappa, Rohit, Badrinath, and Tewary have been waiting in the wings. Yes, I admire Dravid for his exploits in Test cricket, and the two or three years when his one-day batting sparkled with a high strike rate. But I have no sympathy for a guy who is losing matches for India, and keeping out talented youngsters who deserve opportunities to grow in international cricket just like Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar did in their time.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Odious ODIs v Terrific T20s

The ICC has stolen a march over the BCCI. How quick it was to see the popularity of Twenty20 cricket and conjure up a World Cup out of thin air. How slow the BCCI has been in comparison! India had played only one Twenty20 international before the World Cup, clearly showing how little importance the Indian board gave this format, which makes it amusing to see board officials now basking in the glory of India's T20 triumphs. And now, I think a more proactive board might have capitalised on the T20 fervour by altering some of the schedules against the Aussies and now the Pakistanis by reducing the number of ODIs and including T20 matches instead. But the BCCI slumbers while the world of cricket goes gaga over its new avatar. There are critics of the format too, but most of their criticism centres on a T20 versus Test debate which is pointless. The comparison should really be between ODIs and T20s, which I attempted in an article in DNA Sunday on September 23, that is a day before the inaugural T20 World Cup final. Here I've reproduced that article...

Fifty50 is dead. Long live Twenty20.

T20 takes the boring middle overs out of limited overs cricket, and that's good riddance, says Sumit Chakraberty

Fifty50 has a fatal flaw: the middle overs. Those come after the powerplay overs, when the field spreads out to block boundaries even if that means conceding easy singles. The problem is the batting side too is content at that stage to pick up the singles on offer, minimising risk to keep wickets in hand for the slog at the end. So there you have a situation where both teams are in defensive mode: a perfect recipe to put you to sleep.
The ICC recognises this and has tried to jog the one-day game out of its soporific middle overs by introducing floating powerplay overs, but almost invariably captains choose to finish those off at a stretch in the beginning. So nothing has changed: we have a beginning and end where the batsmen take risks, and a boring middle where nobody is in attack mode, neither batsmen nor bowlers.

Twenty20 is lean and trim, with no bulging middle, just a beginning and end. Is that any less of a game than a Fifty50 match where nothing happens in the middle overs except boring singles? Critics of T20 usually compare it unfavourably with Test cricket, but all those arguments would apply almost equally to Fifty50: that it is batsman-oriented, designed to produce fours and sixes, bowlers are reduced to a defensive role, there's no fair contest between bat and ball…
Twenty20 is a lottery, they said before the World Cup. And yet, it turns out that the batsmen who have done well are the usual suspects who have also dominated one-day cricket. Two of the semi-finalists were the same as those in the last Fifty50 World Cup. The other two were India and Pakistan, who brought young, talented teams and deserved their success. In fact, the T20 World Cup has had fewer major upsets than the F50 where two minnows, Bangladesh and Ireland, got into the Super 8.

It's probably true there's less time to turn a match around after one team gets off to a flyer, as India did against England, or takes a bunch of early wickets, as Zimbabwe did against Australia. But the better teams will still dominate the game, as this T20 World Cup has shown. It only means the result is a little less predictable than in Fifty50, and what's wrong with that? After all, to use an old cliche, "the glorious uncertainty of cricket" is one of its enduring charms.
One of my real concerns was whether the importance of taking wickets would be devalued with ten wickets in hand for just 20 overs of batting. But the World Cup has shown how rapidly wickets can fall when you have to score at 9 or 10 an over, or even 7 or 8 on a sticky wicket. In fact, the regular clatter of wickets falling has made the game more exciting than to watch a pair of batsmen keeping their wickets intact as they push the score along in singles and twos in the middle overs of a one-day match.

The demise of spinners in the T20 format has been highly exaggerated too, as Daniel Vettori, Harbhajan Singh and Shahid Afridi have shown. In fact, it has been easier to use the pace of a bowler to clear the fence, as Yuvraj did six times in a row to Stuart Broad, than to put away a wily slow bowler who makes the batsman generate all the power for a shot.
It does get a little numbing to see batsmen trying to thump ball after ball. But that's also what keeps a spectator riveted because every ball is a contest, with bowlers trying to outsmart batsmen and vice versa. You could as well call it 120-120, because each one of the 120 balls in an innings is filled with drama. Add to that the cheerleaders, and an easily digestible three-hour duration, the same as a movie, and you have compelling entertainment. Who needs the ho-hum middle overs of a Fifty50?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Drop the trio

How refreshing it was to see the young Indian team play fearless cricket after a month of one-day matches dominated by the self-preserving instincts of the senior pros Sachin, Sourav and Dravid who never scored at above a run a ball. I suspect Dhoni would not be sorry to see the back of the trio either, going by the number of references he makes to the fearless and risk-taking nature of his young batsmen. But the best quote of all came from Aussie captain Ricky Ponting after losing the Twenty20 match in Mumbai: "We would like to play more matches against the new generation Indian players."
Forget the fab four I wrote in this blog before the start of the Twenty20 World Cup, and forget the trio I say before the ODI series against the Pakistanis. I would much rather watch the younger batsmen, win or lose. The problem with the senior batsmen is that they don't just flop, it's worse when they hang around and lose matches by scoring at a below par run rate. As far as the bowlers go, Harbhajan Singh and Irfan Pathan have surprised me with their performances because I preferred Ramesh Powar and Zaheer Khan before the T20 World Cup. Now I don't know, but more options the better for Dhoni.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Too many sheet anchors

Throughout this series, the Australians have consistently scored at around six runs an over, which on Indian pitches is only par for the course. We've had matches in the past, such as the last series against Pakistan, where scores tended to be higher. India's openers Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, however, have been content in this series to score at four runs an over - 257 in 366 balls by Tendulkar, and 127 in 174 balls by Ganguly. What is worse is that the duo have also consumed most of the powerplay overs, with field restrictions, where the Aussies have scored at around 6.5 runs an over on average. It is this, more than any other reason, that has been responsible for India's drubbing in the series.
The effects of this were most apparent in the last game, where India had plenty of wickets in hand but didn't even come close. That's because it's almost impossible for a new batsman to cope with an asking rate of 7.5. If he takes a couple of overs to settle in, the asking rate at that late stage zooms very quickly to double figures. On the other hand, if he has a go immediately, he's likely to get out. The exception was in Chandigarh, where Dhoni and Uthappa, both new at the crease, managed to score an amazing 12 runs an over at the end to take India to a fighting total, which their bowlers managed to defend. Ganguly and Tendulkar were hailed for laying the platform for that victory, but I think India won in spite of them, not because of them.
Consider this - Australia has been losing early wickets in every game in the series, except the one-sided affair in Vadodara, and yet that has never deterred them from what has become the tried-and-tested approach to the one-day game: take advantage of the powerplay overs, play for singles and twos in the middle overs, and time the charge at the end according to the number of wickets in hand. A team would change that gameplan only if it is confronted with a very difficult wicket against the new ball, which is apparently not the case because India have won the toss and opted to bat first in all the matches except the first one. So this conservatism at the top can have no justification.
There are of course other reasons for India's abject state, like playing five specialist bowlers when the Australians use only four. This is another example of giving up a time-tested formula with no evidence to show that the new system is better. The simple thing for the Indians to do would be take their cues from the world champs in this form of the game, who always try to go at over a run a ball in the powerplay overs. And why not leave the sheet anchor's role to a junior for a change? Let them also get a chance to make it into the top ten of the ICC's stupid rankings, which give too little weightage to the scoring rate and impact on the game.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hello Aussies

History of cricket,Cricket with balls,Stump cam - Those are the latest additions to my blogroll. Good reads, even if they're Aussie. Just joking. Worth checking out.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Five bowler format sucks

So that's why most teams play only four specialist bowlers, and get a couple of batsmen who can turn their arms over to complete the fifth bowler's quota. Australia managed to recover in the first two ODIs in spite of losing four wickets early on both occasions because they had more depth in batting. Once India lose a few early wickets, that's game, set and match. India switched back to a four-bowler format in England after going 3-1 down in the series, levelled the series, and eventually lost 4-3. They might do the switcheroo again, but it shows confusion in their approach. Tell me, why would Australia with such a formidable batting line-up, where the wicket-keeper Gilchrist gives them such depth by also being one of the world's most dangerous batsmen, choose to let Hopes and Symonds be the fifth bowler, when they have bowlers like Stuart Clarke and Shaun Tait cooling their heels? Because they've worked out one-day cricket and know it's better to have a long batting line-up than a long tail, even if that means a weaker bowling attack. How much of a difference would it make for India to leave out Zaheer Khan, who's been going at more than seven an over without many wickets to show for it? On the other hand, it might make some difference to include the stylish new batsman Rohit Sharma in his place. Of course, the rout in Vadodara was so complete that nothing might have mattered there - but at least we might have got a contest. What was also interesting to me was how everyone could've misread the pitch so much. The curator's pre-match interview, the commentators' expectations of 300-plus scores and Dhoni's broad smile on winning the toss were all belied by the swing and seam movement in the morning, coupled with the bounce Johnson could extract by digging the ball in short of a length. It wasn't extravagant batting that did India in, because all the batsmen fell to defensive shots, and I don't think India's batting is so bad, or Australia's bowling so good, that India should get bowled out for 148 on an easy track. The fact is the Vadodara pitch has always assisted pace bowlers in the morning, and that's one reason why Vadodara can boast of producing three of India's premier pace bowlers in the current circuit - Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel - even if a couple of them no longer play for Vadodara. So how come India seemed to have no clue about how the pitch would behave in Irfan Pathan's hometown?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Captain courageous

So, suddenly Australia don't look all that unbeatable, do they? In fact, if India had done the obvious thing in Kochi, which was to bat first after winning the toss, they would've been 2-1 up in the series now. This Aussie team, without McGrath and Warne, and with Ponting and Gilchrist past their best, is not as strong as it used to be.
The pitch helped too. The usual, flat tracks India rolls out for one-day matches suit the Aussies more, because they have taller and stronger bowlers. When there's a little bit in it for the bowlers, as the ones in South Africa had during the T20 World Cup, and this one in Chandigarh had for pace bowlers in the morning and spinners later, India's bowlers get into the game.
Dhoni is coming along nicely as a captain, even if he did make the wrong choice after winning the toss in Kochi, and I'm still not convinced about playing five specialist bowlers instead of using Yuvraj, Sachin and Sourav to chip in with 10 overs between them, enabling Rohit Sharma to come in for a bowler. In today's game, India lost only two wickets in 40 overs, and it still required a fantastic partnership of 47 runs in 4 overs between Dhoni and Uthappa at the end to push India to a competitive score. One more wicket would've exposed India's weakness. Only one Indian batsman, Dravid, failed in this game and that's rare in limited overs cricket. Let's see what happens in the next three games. Dhoni obviously feels using Yuvraj and Sachin lets the pressure off in the middle overs, so he wants two specialist spinners. At the same time, he wants three pace bowlers to handle most of the powerplay and slog overs. For that, he's willing to sacrifice a specialist batsman.
It's a tough call, and like I said my view is that by the law of averages you will lose more games than you win with this strategy. But I like Dhoni's guts, anyway. He switched back to the five-bowler format because he did not like his lack of options on the field in the previous game in Hyderabad. He decided he needed an experienced spinner who would take the ball away from the Aussie right-handers, and pulled Murali Karthick out of the commentary box for the job. As it turned out though, Karthick got the left-hander Hayden out - but that with an economy rate of 4.8 was a match-winning effort.
As for Sachin Tendulkar's run rate, let's leave that for the end of the series.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Vengsarkar's doublespeak

I wish somebody would track the statements of our chairman of selectors. Anyway, let me paraphrase a few which come readily to mind...
Soon after our World Cup debacle he said the country has no talent and so what choice did the selectors have except to choose the same bunch that had been losing most of their one-day games against the major teams for two years. Of course, he's been singing a different tune ever since the T20 triumph, and now after the drubbing by the Aussies, says the seniors cannot take their places for granted because there are many youngsters knocking on the door. This isn't his first caution to the seniors since becoming chairman, but the youngsters are still knocking and knocking and knocking...
He says Ramesh Powar had only himself to blame for being left out of the team. He should slim down and improve his fielding. So, was Powar slim and agile when he was picked for the teams for the England series and now the first part of the Aussie series? He's been dropped after one bad performance in the first game in Bangalore which was washed out anyway. In the second game, he got only five overs which went at the same run rate as the ten Bhajji bowled, and a lower rate than the ones Yuvi and Sachin bowled from Powar's quota. In the last two years, he has consistently done better than Bhajji who has come back stronger but still fails to provide the much-needed breakthroughs in the middle overs, and that's where India has lost to the Aussies...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A sledge is a sledge is a sledge

We have a bowling coach and a fielding coach. What we really need is a sledging coach, preferably an Aussie.

Look at the irony: the Aussies are the acknowledged masters of sledging and it is Sreesanth who has to rein himself in. Dhoni said before this series that the Indians would more than match the Aussies in “chit-chat”, which according to him does not even require much talent. But his team has already come out a poor second not just in the game but gamesmanship too.

Sreesanth is accused of taking things too far. But if you look at how it affected the Kochi game, his taunt, however crude, came after Symonds' dismissal. Compare that with Mathew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist initiating a verbal exchange with Harbhajan Singh, who jumped out and got himself stumped off the very next ball. A wicket, no penalties, and Gilchrist's post-match homilies on behaviour to Sreesanth on top of everything. So who's winning this contest?

The issue is why the ICC lets a fielding side disturb the concentration of a batsman, through abuse, provocation or even banter. It should not be a matter of degree – all forms of it should be labelled for what it really is: cheating. And the umpires are aware of all that is said or done on the field, not just the instances picked up on camera or mike.

Can you imagine in a game of golf whispering obscenities into an opponent’s ear when it’s his turn to tee off? Or take tennis, where the calculated tantrums of McEnroe and Nastase have become history because of zero tolerance.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

To eat or not to eat crow

After having a go at Dhoni's captaincy in Dhoni
steals the whimper
, I should now eat crow. Or should I?
My initial reaction to Dhoni as captain, based on our first two matches at the T20 World Cup against Pakistan and New Zealand, a tie and a loss, pointed out we were light in specialist batting. Dhoni like Dravid had left out the promising young Rohit Sharma, who had warmed the bench for the entire England one-day series despite our poor show there. Dhoni unlike Dravid, however, rectified this in the following matches and was rewarded as Rohit won us the game against South Africa and was our second-highest scorer in the final against Pakistan.
I pointed out how Dravid-like Dhoni was to give Yuvraj the 18th over in the game against the Kiwis and that was the last over Yuvraj bowled in the competition.
I felt Dhoni was wrong to promote himself in the batting order ahead of the in-form Yuvraj, and wow, from the very next match Dhoni never went at number four, not even when Yuvraj missed the match against South Africa.
I slammed Dhoni for continuing with the expensive Agarkar and well, we never saw him again, did we? Joginder was equally expensive, but at least you could play to a plan, knowing what he would dish out. My own preference would've been Sehwag's offspin, which did go for 20 runs in the only over he bowled, but he was hobbling on a bad leg by then.
I criticised Dhoni for including Karthick in the first two games, despite his poor run in the one-dayers in England, and I was happy to see Dhoni not only left out Karthick, but was not even tempted to bring him back in place of the injured Sehwag in the final, preferring to go with the untried Yusuf Pathan, who might have scored only 15 but got the innings off to a flyer, and the one over he bowled for just 5 runs was impressive, especially the last ball which he held back when the batsman made a charge. I was disappointed Yusuf did not get one or two more overs, which might've made the tension of using Joginder for the last over unnecessary.
Another point I made in that critique was that it was an unnecessary risk to finish off Irfan Pathan in the middle and keep Harbhajan for the end because he was likely to go for a flurry of sixes. That finally did happen when Misbah-ul_Haq lifted Bhajji for three sixes in the 17th over. Luckily, Misbah-ul-Haq more than compensated for that in the last over by going for an unnecessary scoop to fine leg, when he could've easily got the six runs needed off four balls with straight hits to the slow medium pace of the predictable Joginder Sharma.
Dhoni did prove my gut feel about his captaincy wrong, nevertheless, because if he's going to be so quick to learn from mistakes, and so fearless in acting upon them, then he's going to be a much better captain than Dravid or Tendulkar, and perhaps even Ganguly. To let Yusuf Pathan make his international debut in the cup final, that too as an opener, was fearless, and the decision to keep the pressure going with the main bowlers in both the semi and final even if it meant using Joginder in the last over showed his cricket acumen.
I don't know if Yuvraj would've made an equally good or even a better captain. Now it does not matter. I'm looking forward to seeing Indian cricket develop and flourish under Dhoni and Yuvraj working together, after two years of uninspiring leadership from Dravid and Chappell, and one year of nonsense between Ganguly and Chappell before that.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Kangaroo by the tail

The guts to take the expensive Joginder and then Sehwag off the attack, keep the pressure on at the end by giving Bhajji the 18th over (3 runs, 1 wicket), RP Singh the 19th (5 runs) and going back to the medium pace of Joginder for the last over (6 runs, 2 wickets). The calming smile even in the face of the fearsome onslaught by old foes Hayden and Symonds. Not being tempted to put the Aussies in, as Ganguly did in the 2003 World Cup final, although the two games the Aussies had lost to Zimbabawe and Paksitan were while batting first. Sticking to India's strength which has been to bat first and win in this tournament, only losing in the chase against the Kiwis. Dhoni got the kangaroo by the tail and never let go. Has India found its captain, then? Sorry, Yuvraj, I think captain cool is here to stay. Now for the administrators and selectors to support and empower him. Give him the Test captaincy too. Let him have a say in picking his team. How refreshing this youthful, young side looks. It's time for the fab four to take the back seat, and let the Dhoni-Yuvraj combo lead the way.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dhoni scores many points

Nothing succeeds like success and after the last two thoroughly enjoyable Indian wins, I'm in a revisionist mode on Dhoni as captain. I liked his relaxed demeanour in spite of losing the services of his six-shooter Yuvraj, whom he also praised to the skies to deflect the insinuations of the commentary trio of Shastri, Gavaskar and Bhogle. Then he was quick to hand the gloves to Karthick when he felt a twinge in his back, and he went back down the order to let batsmen like Rohit Sharma come ahead of him. He chose to bat first, which I felt was dicey seeing the amount of dew in the England match, but you can't argue against three wins in these conditions. He did well to keep RP Singh and Sreesanth on for three overs each, although that was the obvious thing to do with wickets falling, and his arm around Sreesanth when he was spraying a few wides was a calming gesture.
I thought Dhoni erred in using up Irfan Pathan in the middle and holding Harbhajan for the end. So when Harbhajan's first over went for 15, I thought here goes again. But Bhajji held his nerve, mixed things up and did the South Africans in with his doosras. The safer option, I still think, is to keep a couple of Pathan's overs for the end, rather than Harbhajan, who will not be unfamiliar to the Aussies. I also cannot fathom why Sehwag hasn't got an over yet, especially when Joginder looks so vulnerable. Maybe he's saving him for the Aussies, just like we saved up the obviously talented Rohit Sharma for two-and-a-half series before unleashing him on the South Africans! The main thing against the Aussies tomorrow will be to keep things simple. Half the time, teams psyche themselves out against the world champs by going for too much, as we did in the 2003 final. But whatever happens, this young team under its smiling, young leader has already won our hearts.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why isn't he the captain?

That bout of hitting outdid anything that such iconic strikers as Adam Gilchrist, Sanath Jayasuriya, Sachin Tendulkar and Shahid Afridi have produced over the years. It was the fastest fifty in the history of international cricket. And nobody's surprised because that's the sort of world beating talent that is Yuvraj Singh. And yet, he does not become a regular in our Test team, he is overtaken by MS Dhoni for T20 and ODI captaincy, and his position in the batting order is taken over by the wicketkeeper. What gives?
You may argue he has weaknesses, mainly a tendency to poke at balls leaving him outside offstump, and a lack of ease against good spinners. But who doesn't have weaknesses? The fact is he has produced more match-winning knocks in limited overs cricket than anyone else in the past few years, and is easily the best finisher we have.
Take the one we've just witnessed. He got a boundary off the second ball he faced, overtook his partner Dhoni in four balls, and went on to hit three fours and seven sixes. Dhoni who came in to bat ahead of him at number four did not get a single boundary till the end, leave alone the sixes. What gall to promote himself in the batting order ahead of a talent like Yuvraj Singh.
I don't know why Yuvraj has been treated in this manner. Is it because the selectors can't see the talent, attitude, street-smartness and temperament in him? Or is he paying the price for once speaking out in support of Sourav Ganguly?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

After Agarkar

After conceding 76 runs in two games, the most by an Indian bowler at the T20 World Cup so far, it seems inevitable that Agarkar will finally be replaced, especially now that the green signal has come from Mumbai in the form of his sacking from the ODI team. He's been an enigma with his ability to produce wicket-taking deliveries undone by his inability to maintain control in his quest for pace and variety. In the end, he was the principal contributor in too many Indian losses, and did not play enough match-winning roles to compensate for that, although his six-fer in Adelaide will always be cherished. Now let's look at the possible replacements. My choice would be Rohit Sharma. I have no idea if this youngster can bat anywhere near what has been written about him, but to be picked in the team as a limited overs bat right from the Ireland series and not to get a game yet despite India's poor run since then is ridiculous. It's even more ridiculous that he now finds himself out of the ODI team! This now raises questions whether he was picked on merit or as a passenger to make a little pocket money. I hope he at least gets a chance to show it's the former in the next two games. Picking Piyush Chawla for Agarkar will be a temptation that I hope the team resists, because the first two games have shown we are light in batting resources. So Chawla should get in only if Bhajji fails. Another replacement that is again overdue (on the pattern of the series in England) is that of Dinesh Karthick. He gave that ball from Vettori an almighty heave and still failed to clear the square leg boundary. Maybe he needs to go to the gym and bulk up for the hitting required in limited overs cricket. Until then, let's save him for the Tests where he has done well to come good as an opener and put Dhoni's position under a scanner. (If Dhoni's poor form with the bat continues, he can be replaced in Tests by the many middle order batsmen knocking on the door.) Karthick's position should go to Yusuf Pathan, another player I have not seen in action. He's reputed to be a hard-hitter and can scarcely do worse than Karthick. Besides, he can chip in with his off-spin for the fifth bowler's quota or that of one of the main bowlers who starts going for too many. As for Joginder Sharma, I wasn't impressed with this bits-and-pieces player when I saw him last and his selection wasted an opportunity to identify a new bowler or batsman. Perhaps he's a passenger too. Devious are the ways of our board.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Dhoni steals the whimper

One tie and one loss. Maybe it's too early to give the thumbs down to Dhoni, but what I've seen so far has done little to dispel the gut feeling I had about his potential as captain. But first the positives. He looked calm and determined, batted well under pressure against Pakistan and gave India a chance to win. He chose to field after winning the toss, which gave India an advantage against the Kiwis although it was frittered away. That brings us to the negatives. Dhoni said in an interview in England after his appointment as India's T20 captain that he had been paying attention to the captain's moves as Dravid's deputy and therefore felt prepared. Perhaps if he had paid more attention to the results of those moves, he might have avoided repeating them. India is again playing with five fulltime bowlers, two wicketkeepers, and four batsmen, just like at the start of the England series. Dravid was forced to abandon this composition midway through that series, and I hope Dhoni follows suit soon in South Africa. India just doesn't seem to get it. In general, the standard lineup of six batsmen, a wicketkeeper, and four fulltime bowlers, with two part-time bowlers from among the batsmen completing the fifth bowler's quota, works best whether it is Test cricket, or 50-50, or T20. There may be a case for flexibility in this but that would be rare. One of the reasons the Australians have been the most successful team for so long is that they keep things simple. India underutilised its bowling resources, by not giving Sehwag a single over so far, and ran out of batting resources in both the games. Surely Sehwag is as accomplished a bowler as a Jayasuriya or a Symonds. It seems tempting to play five fulltime bowlers because you feel four or five batsmen should be enough to see through just 20 overs. That's not how it works, because the need to get going from the word go and take more risks means wickets will fall more rapidly than in 50-50. The point is to maximise one's batting and bowling resources, and the 6-1-4 format works best for that, which is why you'll hardly ever see an Aussie team deviating from that tried and tested formula. This means the best batsman on the bench, presumably Rohit Sharma, should replace the worst of the fulltime bowlers, predictably Ajit Agarkar. How could Dhoni have entrusted in him the penultimate over against Pakistan after seeing his performance in England? He gave away 17 runs in that over and almost gave away that match. When Dhoni repeated that mistake in the next match, where Agarkar gave 21 runs in the penultimate over to the Kiwis, I could only surmise that here was somebody who was just going through the motions as captain, looking calm and confident, but basically doing everything that his predecessor had done, including handing the ball to Yuvraj in the death overs. Yuvraj we have seen simply does not have an escape route when a batsman throws caution to the winds and goes after him. In fact he just makes it worse by bowling faster and faster, instead of perhaps slowing it down, aiming for the blockhold or an armer. But then he's a part-timer who should only be bowling in the middle overs, not the 50th over in one-day cricket or the 18th over of a T20. Those are captaincy blunders, and I haven't even come to Dhoni's biggest blunder, which was also strangely enough one of Dravid's old failings in limited overs cricket. I think what really lost the game against the Kiwis was Dhoni's 24 runs in 20 balls. That was 7 runs an over, when the asking rate was 9.5 an over, and it came after India had already got off to a fantastic start, had lost only two wickets and was well on track. In fact, under his influence Gambhir too started playing for singles and lost his momentum. It also made little sense to me to disturb the in-form Yuvraj's batting position. On the evidence so far, I have even more doubts now whether Dhoni will make even a half-decent captain. Would Yuvraj have been better? Who knows? It's not as if we need a brilliant tactician as captain, we just need somebody who will get the simple things right, such as the decision to bat or bowl after winning the toss, the team composition, the batting order and the rotation of bowlers. If we have no such person in India, then we should at least hurry up and find an astute coach with a good track record. India has the richest cricket board and yet is the only country to field a team in the competition without a coach. Even the Zimbabwe and Bangladesh players are better served in this respect than ours.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A conspiracy theory

Here's a wild thought - given the political antipathy that England and Australia both have for Zimbabwe, is it possible that England was not trying hard enough in its T20 match with Australia? Obviously, an easy win for Australia takes both England and Australia into the next round, and knocks out Zimbabwe. What else can one make of Collingwood's decision to bat first, given his general preference for chasing, the accepted wisdom of chasing in T20 cricket, and the likelihood of Aussie tentativeness if they had batted first after their collapse agaisnt Zim?

Let's hope it's for real

Don't know if Rahul Dravid's resignation is for real - remember he also offered to quit after the World Cup flop? Anyway, I appreciate his tacit admission of his failings as a captain. The trouble is that the replacement may be worse, because the board has shown poor judgement so far in selection of coaches and captains. MS Dhoni I can't really comment about, because I have yet to see his captaincy, but my gut feeling is that he won't make a good captain. I would be only too happy to be proved wrong, because I really like him as a player. Yuvraj does not seem to have the board's backing, although in attitude and street-smartness I feel he's the best of the young brigade. Tendulkar will be a disaster. Ganguly has shown tremendous application and determination to make a comeback, and he did have success as a captain until his own game fell apart, but to go back to him would perhaps be too controversial and therefore divisive. Zaheer, don't know, but his tantrums are a little childish. My own preference would be for young blood, and that means Yuvraj if Dhoni seems unable to cope during the T20. It seems beyond doubt that India will advance to the next round, so that should give us enough opportunity to see Dhoni's captaincy. I kind of like the idea of an Indian cricket team led by either Dhoni or Yuvraj. They have an in-your-face attitude which I liked about Ganguly, and which is totally lacking in Dravid.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Forget the fab four

It's not the fab four - Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman - that I miss as India start their T20 campaign. It's the bowlers Zaheer and Powar. I think Agarkar is cannon fodder, and I can only fathom that a Maharashtra clique of Pawar and Vengsarkar, Gavaskar and Tendulkar, facilitate his many inexplicable comebacks into the Indian team in spite of driving captains to distraction with his profligate bowling. Dravid caught the flak for giving that last over to Yuvraj in England which went for five sixes. But it was Agarkar's earlier spell of three overs for around 40 runs that prompted him to do so. I don't know how Harbhajan can be picked ahead of Powar, who has consistently bowled far more economically and taken more wickets over the last two years. It was Powar who won us the one-day series against England at home, and his reward for that was to be left out of the one-day World Cup. Now he's the guy who kept us competitive in the Natwest series by being the most economical bowler, and his reward is to sit out the T20 World Cup and watch Harbhajan get tonked. I don't know what Irfan Pathan has done to get back into the team, but the last I saw him he had lost his pace and movement and just couldn't bowl with any confidence. We should've rested Zaheer in a few one-day games in England and brought him to South Africa. Piyush Chawla is coming along very nicely as a bowler but he was not as economical as Powar in the Natwest series. In this form of the game, on these South African pitches, his loopy leg spin is liable to go for too many sixes. RP Singh is the best of the lot, but unfortunately Dravid did not give him sufficient exposure to international limited overs cricket in England, and he is still too inexperienced. He needs time to master the yorker and develop a slower ball. So it's the bowling that seems really too weak in this side that is supposed to represent India. In the batting, I'm not missing the fab four much because we have good hitters, especially on tracks with little sideways movement. Yuvraj is in good form, and Dhoni might rediscover on South African pitches the touch that he lost in England. Uthappa, you beauty! And Gambhir, whatever his other shortcomings, is no plodder. Rohit Sharma holds the record for the fastest century in domestic T20, and I'm looking forward to seeing him finally (and figure out why Dravid did not give him a single game in a seven-match series that we lost!) Irfan Pathan can certainly wield the willow even if his bowling has become club standard, and his brother is reputed to be a hard-hitting bat too. The only worry is whether they can handle the short stuff, because from the few matches we've seen it's clear a good pull shot is important, and only Yuvraj plays that with any authority in our team. But there's hope in the batting. The trouble is what happens to these blokes if they do well. Will they retain their places in the Indian team, or will they have to make way when the fab four (or terrific trio) choose to return in the one-days to come?

I spoke too soon!

So the Aussies are human: they lost a few early wickets and panicked. Then they came out and bowled fast and furious in the early overs, rather than intelligently. They set that right quickly though, shortening their length and immediately putting the Zims in trouble. Ponting also played without a third slip when the best way to win was to take wickets. I also wonder, with hindsight I admit, if he got it wrong after the break. Should he have risked using a slow bowler like Hodge or let Symonds bowl his full quota? Should he have continued the short-of-length barrage at least from one end to try and pick up one or two more wickets before the batsmen could get back into their groove? It underlines the role of the captain, which seems even more vital in this form of cricket, because one wrong move can make the difference with so little time to recover. Anyway, Zimbabwe pulled off a fantastic victory over the world champs, although they almost messed it up at the end. I thought the Zimbabwe coach, who told his batsmen that all they should aim for is one boundary per over and four or five singles, was a little too cool. Taylor followed that advice to the T, but with Lee and Bracken bowling a few too many dot ball yorkers, it meant an asking rate of 12 in the last over. That was uncalled for because with five wickets in hand, they could have improvised and taken more risks in the earlier three overs which yielded just 5, 6 and 6. Luckily, Ponting made a final error - he pushed fine leg back, but placed him too square to cut off the four leg-byes off the penultimate ball. Good stuff. Am I glad I disregarded my own advice (in the previous post) to not bother watching one-sided encounters involving the minnows because I thought they would have even less of a chance in T20s than in one-day cricket! But I get the reason now why T20s can cause more upsets. There's just too little scope to recover if a bunch of wickets fall, and it's very difficult to bowl even a relatively weak side out in 20 overs. This however bolsters my other argument, also made in a previous post, that T20 might be better to watch than 50-50. I mean it was getting boring to see the Aussies winning everything. T20 brings a little more uncertainty into the result, and that is one of cricket's enduring charms. So, while Test cricket will remain the only true form of the game for me, because there's a fair contest between bat and ball and more parameters at play, I think T20 is just as good as one-day cricket. Both are oriented towards attacking batsmen and defensive bowling, but T20 does away with the boring middle overs and has the potential to spring more surprises. Having said that, I still feel having so many minnows in the fray spoil the World Cup. The Kenya match was drab, and Scotland allowed Pakistan to get away with an easy victory in spite of making early inroads into the Pak batting. If the likes of Zimbabwe knock out a couple of the top teams, the next stage of the championship will be diminished by one-sided matches, just like in the one-day World Cup. The trouble is a team like Zimbabwe can cause the odd upset but cannot sustain that performance in the next round of matches. Or have I spoken too soon again?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Look who's come to the T20 party

Gayle and Gibbs were the stars of the first T20 World Cup match. Why am I not surprised? I felt all along that the best performers will not be young dashers but the usual suspects. That makes the Aussies the firm favourites again, and underlines India's folly at going into the tournament without a single experienced campaigner. I'm also sceptical of the argument that there will be more upsets in this form of the game. There aren't that many guys around who can maintain the kind of sustained hitting that Gayle and Gibbs exhibited. So I feel the weaker teams have less of a chance than in 50-over cricket where they can become competitive if they manage to bowl the opposition out for a modest score on a helpful pitch. That's why I'm disappointed that the minnows will again deflate the excitement over the inaugural World Cup after its grand opening match. Without some sort of contest, any form of cricket becomes boring, and I'm switching off from today's matches featuring Kenya, Zimbabwe and Scotland.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

T20 is not just for 20-somethings

It's a measure of the BCCI's ineptitude that India is the only country to send a second-string side to a showcase event like the inaugural T20 World Cup. It's a fallacy to think of this as a slam-bam form of cricket only appropriate for youngsters. In an ODI, you have 20 powerplay overs plus about 10 slog overs at the end plus the overs in between. That would take more of a toll on the body of both a batsman and fielder than a 20-over innings. In fact the likes of Tendulkar and Ganguly may find it less physically taxing to play T20. If Tendulkar has indeed opted out, he's making the same mistake that Gavaskar made at the inaugural one-day World Cup in 1975 when he cussedly played out 60 overs against England and remained not out at 36. He thought then that limited overs cricket was a passing fad and how wrong he was. T20 similarly is here to stay because it's going to be great for spectators. What people will enjoy is the improvisation that will come into both the batting and bowling. And that brings us to the second fallacy - that T20 is a crude slam-bang affair. One of the best number seven batsmen in one-day cricket was Michael Bevan, and that's because of his clever chips which gave him two runs when other batsmen would get singles. He relied more on improvisation and placement than on sheer power. That's where the experience of Tendulkar, who can move across the stumps and put the ball anywhere between long on and fine leg, would have come into play, especially when there's a licence to take risks. Ganguly too would have excelled at charging the fast bowlers for his slashes over the covers. We needed them at the inaugural World Cup. If they needed rest, we should have let them sit out in the one-day series against England, which was surely less important than a World Cup. And that would also have opened up opportunities for a few new faces who could then have come into the reckoning for inclusion in the T20 squad. The same applies to our most successful bowlers, Zaheer Khan and Ramesh Powar, who have been left out after being made to play a long series against England. If roly poly Powar is good enough for one-day cricket, he should not be left out of T20 either. In fact I think his bowling would've been just as effective as it was in the ODIs. We left him out of the one-day World Cup, paid the price for it, and have not learnt from it. Instead we have gone back to has-beens like Harbhajan who have done nothing in the interim to make a comeback into the Indian team. BCCI sucks. The selectors suck. They have let India down again. Look at Australia, who have approached this World Cup just as seriously as the other one, with their best players in the fray. Ricky Ponting's wife is ill, but even that could not keep him away. It just shows the difference in attitude and management of Aussie and Indian cricket.

Chuck de Dravid

On hindsight, India could have won the Natwest series 7-0, but should have lost it 7-0. Let's take them one by one.
1. At the Rose Bowl, teams batting first in day-night matches have usually won, because the pitch freshens up at night and makes the ball zip. Dravid chose to field first, probably going by his experiences in India where the dew gets so heavy in winter day-nighters that the ball gets wet and loses all movement. This decision cost India the match.
2. At the next day-nighter in Bristol, Dravid chose to bat first, thus acknowledging his regret at choosing to field first in similar circumstances in the previous match. India was lucky none of the batsmen failed, except Karthick, because it went in with a batsman short as Dravid wanted to play two spinners and also retain all his three seamers. The fifth bowler made little difference as England came within nine runs of India's mammoth 330.
3. At Edgbaston, Dravid went back to fielding first because it was a day game, and he remembered the early help his bowlers got in the matches against South Africa in Ireland before the Test series. But he failed to take into account the record at Edgbaston where teams batting second have lost because the pitch slows down, making shot-making difficult. To compound matters, India was still one batsman short, which meant Yuvraj ran out of partners even though the asking rate was well within grasp.
4. In Manchester, Dravid switched back to batting first, but this time encountered typical English conditions and got bowled out for 212, the batting lineup paying a heavy price for carrying five specialist bowlers. England got into trouble too, losing seven wickets for 114, but India could not finish the job, underlining the futility of playing the fifth specialist bowler.
5. At Headingley, Collingwood chose to bowl first, going by Headingley's record of favouring bowlers early on. It was a sunny day, however, and India piled up 324 in balmy batting conditions, with Dravid having finally switched back to playing six batsmen plus keeper. It started drizzling when England batted, and when Duckworth-Lewis entered the equation it put the final nail in England's coffin.
6. At the Oval, Collingwood switched back to batting first, and piled up 316 thanks to Dravid's largesse of handing Yuvraj the ball for the last over in spite of his most economic bowler Ramesh Powar not having completed his quota. Finally, the sixth batsman Robin Uthappa's heroics in the last two overs saved Dravid the blushes.
7. At Lord's in the World Cup final of 1999 Wasim Akram discovered why you should field first when in doubt. Dravid probably stung by all the flak he caught for choosing to field first at Edgbaston, went against his inclination and chose to bat first. The pace, bounce and movement sorted out the Indian batsmen who were all at sea. The margin of loss was so huge that I don't think Aleem Dar's error in giving Tendulkar out was the decisive factor, even though that's what Dravid was happy to draw attemtion to after losing a series with bad captaincy.
In sum, Dravid lost the first and last ODIs after taking wrong decisions after winning the toss, and lost the third and fourth ODIs by playing five specialist bowlers. For India's sake, he should chuck the captaincy. We can no longer keep finding excuses for India's flop show in one-day cricket before, during and after the World Cup. We need an astute captain and coach, better selection and competent administration.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Uthappa for breakfast, anyone?

Let's leave the rants aside for now, and just savour the moment. That was one of the best finishes by India in a one-day game. It reminded me of a match in Bangladesh where India chased 316 against Pakistan, with Hrishikesh Kanitkar hitting a winning boundary off the penultimate ball. Kanitkar never replicated that kind of achievement, however, and faded away quietly. Let's hope Uthappa is made of more durable stuff. There's reason for optimism because he's been around for a while and has been maintaining a high scoring rate. His show at the Oval was even more impressive than that of Kanitkar. Almost single-handed he managed the 23 runs India needed from the last two overs. Refusing that second run for which Agarkar bolted at the end of the 49th over was vital. Uthappa was confident that by retaining strike he could get the 10 runs required in the last over. I remember the single that Ravi Shastri took to level the scores in the last over of the tied Test in Chennai against the Aussies. It exposed Maninder Singh to Steve Waugh who trapped him LBW. Shastri I believe should have backed himself instead to hit a brace in the remaining three balls, the way in which Uthappa took it upon himself to get all the remaining runs instead of leaving it to the lower order batsmen who were new to the crease and liable to miss a couple of balls or even get out. Zaheer Khan should also be complimented for taking the initiative to come back to the non-striker's end for a second run off the first ball of the last over to allow the strike to remain with Uthappa. I think Collingwood was the first to blink. He brought in long off and pushed fine leg back to the fence after Uthappa scooped a yorker over his head to the legside boundary. But bringing long-off to mid-off just made the task easier for Uthappa - he again took the intended yorker on the full, but this time hit it straight past mid-off for four. Instead Collingwood should have forced Uthappa to try and repeat the scoop over fine-leg which is a far more iffy shot. So it's not only Dravid goofing off out there.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Twice bitten, once shy

So that wasn't so difficult, was it? For the first time in the series, India got more than four runs an over in the first ten overs, as a full batting lineup allowed the batsmen to play without fetters, and a pleasure it was to see the old Sachin-Sourav jugalbandi - getting their eye in, and then turning the match on a dime in that over where Sachin got to Lewis with his on-the-up drives. India reverting to the traditional one-day team composition of six batsmen, keeper and four bowlers is an admission of the faulty thinking in the previous matches, where the losses were attributed by the captain to bad batting or fielding and good opposition. But the question remains why it took Dravid two losses to realise that the five bowler format sucks. And this isn't the first time, either. Earlier, he and Chappell tried using five fulltime bowlers in a Test match and flopped badly. The beneficiary then too was England who levelled a series in India that they should have lost. Here too, India should have dominated the one-day series, with Flintoff still not in peak fitness or form, and Hoggard and Sidebottom missing too. Dravid's wrong choices after winning the toss, five-bowler format, and faulty batting line-up are mainly responsible for India being 3-2 down. Now the question is whether, with the main problem fixed, India will tighten up a few other loose ends to come back from behind and win the series by beating England at both the Oval and Lord's. I believe India can, given the batting-friendly pitches and England's continuing difficulties against the spinners, especially Powar.
The joker in the pack is Dravid. Will another of his blunders cost India the series? And what could that blunder be? India has done well to play both spinners, and that's not going to change, barring injury. India has finally dropped the fifth specialist bowler, and we can safely assume that's the composition they will go with in the remaining matches. This allowed Ganguly to get a bowl eventually, and how well he did. He has always thrived in these conditions and not using him in previous matches was stupid. Anyway, one can expect more from Ganguly. The batting lineup too looked much better with the full complement of batsmen, and Karthick pushed down to number seven which is where he belongs, although his attempts at improvisation by moving towards the offstump were premeditated and thoughtless because the bowlers were aiming at full-length outside offstump. Maybe he should consult Zaheer Khan, who figured it out eventually, waited for that last ball from Chris Broad, took it on the full and put it past point for four. Coming back to the batting lineup, I would have preferred Dravid at three, as I've said earlier, given his adaptability and the rich vein of one-day form he seems to have struck, and either Rohit Sharma or Robin Uthappa at five. But given the flatness of the tracks, and his aggressive style of batting, it may not be all that bad sticking with Gambhir at three either.
It's in the handling of the bowling and field placements that Dravid's poor captaincy was on display again, and it is this factor that can cost India the series now. Agarkar went for 40 runs in three overs and Dravid should have brought in Ganguly in his place earlier. Our main strike bowler Zaheer Khan should always be supported with two slips when he is bowling with the new ball, and too many opportunities were allowed to slip through vacant positions. You can't control dropped catches, but field positions are simply a matter of good planning. The other chink was Sachin Tendulkar's bowling. He always makes me wince when he chooses to bowl inane off-spin or slow medium pace when the bulk of his wickets in both ODIs and Tests have come from legspin. I remember that fabulous googly with which he bamboozled Moin Khan for a vital breakthrough in a Test match in Pakistan. Maybe Sachin is influenced by the awe with which commentators keep reminding us how he's such a genius because he can do everything. More than Sachin's choice of bowling, however, I was disappointed with Dravid keeping him on even after Collingwood had clearly got on top of him, and Sachin continuing with the same kind of bowling and continuing to get hammered, when there were so many better options. It did not matter in Headingley where Duckworth-Lewis on top of our strong batting put the match beyond England. But this is the sort of thing that could lose the series at the Oval or Lord's.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Sack Dravid, anoint Yuvraj

Australia plays ODIs with only four fulltime bowlers in spite of having a wicketkeeper like Adam Gilchrist who is a full-fledged batsman. Every team in the world would love to use five specialist bowlers but they don't, simply because experience has shown that it's a strategy that loses more matches than it wins. India has lost two out of the last three matches with the five-bowler format, and if Dravid remains adamant we will lose at least two out of the remaining three. That would mean a 5-2 series win for England when most people had predicted India would win the series by that margin, going by the relative strengths of the two sides. Dravid alternately blames the batting and fielding for India's losses, but it's the thinking that is wrong. What great advantage did India derive out of playing five bowlers? Only the new ball bowlers Zaheer and Agarkar made inroads into the batting. By the time RP Singh got the ball there was little he could do with it. Would it have made a huge difference if Yuvraj and Sachin had got more overs instead? Or if Sourav had got a chance too? In fact, that might have worked to India's advantage, seeing the way Yuvraj spun the ball and troubled Bopara. In fact, having so many bowling options appeared to confuse Dravid who made too many bowling changes after having England on the ropes at 114 for 7. RP Singh was beating Chris Broad time and again outside offstump when he was taken off the attack, for instance. But more important was the absence of a sixth specialist batsman. India felt it was all over with three early wickets down and no other specialist batsman to come, which is possibly the reason why we went at less than three runs an over in the powerplay overs. That's a poor scoring rate even in Test matches. The thing about a long batting lineup is that it works to the team's advantage even if the sixth or seventh batsman contributes little, and that's because the top order is not so conservative, knowing there's more to come, and does not shut shop so early. That's what worked for us in the 2003 World Cup when Ganguly forced Dravid to keep wickets. It allowed the top order to bat without fetters. Dravid has gone in the opposite direction and India is paying for it. To my mind, Dravid has been a failure as a one-day captain and a more aggressive character like Yuvraj Singh would be a better choice. He has really matured as a one-day player, building an innings when there's an early collapse, as in Manchester, or hitting the deck running as he did in Bristol. The two matches in which he took India home to victory against the South Africans earlier in Ireland are among a number of such occasions where he has shown a great ability to handle the pressure of a chase. And being our best fielder, he could rejuvenate that aspect of our game, leading by example. But then, our cricket board in its infinite wisdom has gone for MS Dhoni as ODI vice-captain and 2020 captain. Best of luck to Dhoni, whose attitude I like, but Yuvraj was certainly the more experienced and more deserving candidate, because of the number of match-winning performances he has turned in.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

When will Dravid learn?

So Dravid's sticking to the five-bowler gamble. A gamble it is because it can only come off if no more than one batsman fails (or somebody gets a big century). By my reckoning, the odds favour another Indian loss. Agarkar for Munaf is hardly a strengthening of the side, going by recent performances - but Dravid obviously feels the need for three pacers to handle the 20 powerplay overs, so let's not belabour the point. On the positive side, I'm glad he's retained the two spinners, which was an obvious thing to do, but you never know with the Indian think tank. Also, Dravid is probably carrying that coin with two heads from Sholay - how else can he win seven tosses in a row?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Are we missing a coach?

It's clear, or should be clear, that India has to go back to the tried and tested combination of six batsmen, keeper and four bowlers for the remaining matches to give itself an even chance of winning the series. With the English weakness against spin exposed, it's clear, or should be obvious, that Munaf's the guy to axe. In his place either Rohit Sharma or Robin Uthappa or both should come in. I wish they would pick Rohit Sharma, whose batting I haven't seen. What's the point of taking a promising youngster on a tour and refusing to pick him even when the team is losing anyway? Whoever is picked, Rohit or Robin, I would like to see him at number four. It would be unrealistic to expect a newcomer to capitalise on the powerplay overs. That's why I think the big three should bat one, two, three. Karthick, if he is retained, should come in after Dhoni because he has shown he can improvise, which is what is required at that stage. Dhoni likes to build his innings before going for the big shots, which means at least one batsman should come after him. Dhoni at three has been suggested, but I think he will do well up the order only on flat sub-continental tracks. I suppose Dravid will again resort to batting first if he wins the toss, after the loss at Edgbaston. A better reason for batting first is the experience of the first day-nighter in Scotland where the ball zipped and darted about at night, contributing to our 180 all out. It was certainly much easier to bat first which is why Collingwood was bemused when Dravid opted to field. Dravid of course was going by his sub-continental experience where the dew gets heavy in the winter and certainly favours the side batting second. He should have checked with the locals how it is in the English summer before making his decision. At Edgbaston too, I think Dravid went by his Irish experience where he put the Proteas in to bat and beat them in two one-dayers with the early morning conditions helping the seamers. Edgbaston was different because the pitch tends to slow down there, which is the reason why big scores have hardly ever been chased down. Again Dravid failed to tap local knowledge. Are we missing a coach, folks?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Can't have your cake and eat it too

Every time Dravid loses a match, he blames it on the batting or bowling or fielding - never the leadership. So it was on Tuesday when he said the big difference between the sides was the fielding. Now, that's not going to change overnight. So are we to take it that India is conceding the rest of the matches? Yes, the fielding was one aspect of the loss in the third ODI at Edgbaston, but that's a given with this Indian one-day side. The point is to look at things that were more in our control, such as the decision to play five bowlers. It clicked in the second ODI at Bristol because all the batsmen thrived and with reason: we were batting first, without much pressure, in the sunny afternoon of a day-nighter on a belter of an outfield with short boundaries - it doesn't get much easier than that. More often than not, however, a couple of the batsmen will flop, as on Tuesday, and that's why the composition of an ODI team has evolved over 30 years into a standard one that most teams follow: six batsmen, a keeper and four bowlers, getting 10 overs out of a couple of batsmen who can turn their arm over, as Collingwood did for England. If there's a great all-rounder in the side, like a Flintoff or a Kapil Dev, that's a bonus. But you can't go into a match with five full-time bowlers, lamenting the lack of an all-rounder. And we do have batsmen in the team who can match Collingwood's bowling - Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar were not used at all. We were on course to chase down England's 281 until Yuvraj ran out of batting partners and had to play with the likes of Powar and Chawla who could not even rotate the strike, and finally Zaheer Khan who did him in by not running. Dravid's dilemma is that he wants to play two spinners but doesn't want to leave out a seamer. It is this lack of decisiveness that cost us the Edgbaston match more than anything else. It would've been a bold decision to go in with two spinners if it had been accompanied by a decision to leave out one of the three seamers. To leave out a batsman is a stupid move that will lose us two matches out of three on average, and win us the odd match like Bristol where the absence of a batsman is not felt. As it turned out, Munaf Patel bowled only five overs at Edgbaston, and Yuvraj bowled seven. So if we have correctly identified the English weakness against spin, we should've played another batsman, giving somebody like young Rohit Sharma a chance in Munaf's place. The trade-off for playing the extra spinner is the problem of managing the power play overs - but surely Ganguly can be trusted to chip in with five overs on an English pitch. In fact, he might have given away fewer than the seven runs an over that Munaf conceded. We might still have lost the match but at least Dravid would've given the team every chance of winning instead of hobbling it from the outset. Will Dravid please put up his hand and own up that it was his decision that cost India the Edgbaston match, more than the fielding?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

How to turn an Oval into an egg

How quickly Indian cricket goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Not since the Pakistan series, when we won the Tests 2-1 and one-days 3-2, have Indian cricket fans had an opportunity to appreciate our team's performance for as long a period as this - the fightback at Lord's, the turn-around at Trent Bridge, and the total dominance for the first three days of the Oval Test. Then a spineless declaration, and some specious arguments in its support, that it was better to play it safe with the series being in the bag even with a draw, that there was no need to expose the team to the risk of a collapse on a fifth day wicket. What was the risk? That in the 170 overs left in the game, England would score at an unlikely four an over for 120 overs, and then dismiss India for 150 in the remaining 50 overs? This was at the Oval where the chances of the pitch becoming unplayable on the fifth day were infinitesimal. In fact, the risk of getting bowled out for 150 was greater in the overcast conditions on the fourth day when India decided to bat instead of enforcing the follow-on, collapsed to 11 for 3, and then trudged through 60 overs with Dravid maintaining a scoring rate of one run per over. That England barely managed to hang on for a draw with Prior and Sidebottom at the crease after losing the six main batsmen on the last day was proof that India would have easily won the Test if it had made England follow on. In fact, we might have got more wickets if Dravid had employed more attacking fields. Kumble bowled without a second slip or short gully and the pacers did not have a third slip most of the time in spite of the unassailable 500-run lead, which allowed catches to slip through unmanned positions. But why go for a 2-0 when 1-0 suffices to win the series? Many good reasons. Indian cricket would have ended the series on a high, instead of coming across as a self-doubting team that considers itself lucky to have squeaked through to a series win thanks to the rain at Lord's. India would have been joint second on the ICC Test rankings, instead of at third position behind England. It negated all the good work of the team over the first three days - the determination of Tendulkar and Lakshman who battled through on the first day after Ganguly and Karthick fell to umpiring blunders, the exploits of Kumble with bat and ball, the smashing 92 by Dhoni, and another sterling show by Zaheer Khan should have been rewarded with a victory instead of having to settle for a draw because of one cowardly decision. What makes it harder to swallow is that the same bunch of senior players let Australia off the hook by not enforcing the follow-on on the fourth day of the Sydney Test, and lost the opportunity to post a historic first-ever Indian series win in Australia. I would have thought the pain of that would have been so deep that such a mistake would never be repeated. In fact, at the end of the third day, I was joking with a colleague that Ganguly's blunder in Sydney would now save the otherwise over-cautious Dravid from committing the mistake. But I underestimated Rahul, the wall, Dravid.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Round one to India

Sunny day, even bounce, batting first... and India off to a bright start of 117 for 1 in 28 overs. Dinesh Karthick is the find of the tour as an opener. He was confident to begin with, and has been growing into the job rapidly. He began cautiously and is now taking the attack to the bowlers. Let's hope he has it in him to get to three figures this time.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

How bouncy is the Oval?

I think Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthick are both more suspect against bounce than most openers. And we know the middle order, despite its experience, has looked vulnerable whenever we haven't got a decent start. So the key question for me before the Oval test is how bouncy will be the track?

How cool are the Indians?

I think the Oval test can be lost in the mind before a ball is bowled if the prospect of a series victory gets the Indians keyed up and striving for too much. It's not only the batting and bowling that can suffer from tension, the thinking can get clouded too. The first indicator of that would be if Sree Santh is dropped. Even if he has performed below par so far, and behaved erratically, he got important wickets at crucial times: those of Collingwood and Pietersen come to mind. I also think, going by reports that the Oval track will be drier and bouncier than the others, he might become more effective too. Don't tinker with a winning combo, if it ain't broke - don't fix it, these adages were never more applicable than on the eve of the third test.

Welcome back, Pietersen

Whew! Good to hear Pietersen is back in training after spending a few days nursing a flu. Otherwise with their best batsman missing too, along with the Ashes winning trio of Flintoff, Harmison and Hoggard, a series win against England would hardly be meaningful.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Wink, wink, SLAM, BANG

A beamer is the worst form of offence, because it's dangerous and you can never prove it's deliberate. So it would seem Mike Atherton is justified in calling for a one-match suspension of Sree Santh for bowling one at Kevin Pieterson in the second test at Trent Bridge. What's wrong with the remedy, however, is its ad-hocism. What is the punishment that the English players should get for leaving jelly beans on the pitch, or ostensibly using them to tamper with the ball? How do you deal with Matt Prior's 'deliberate' distraction of Indian batsmen? You can't wink at 'cheating' of that sort, and then cry hoarse over a beamer. What's missing is a clear ICC code that lists all the familiar offences: sledging and abuse, blocking the path of a batsman, picking up a ball on the follow-through and hurling it back towards the batsman when there's no chance of a runout, jostling a batsman while changing ends or shuffling the field, chucking or bowling a beamer, running on the pitch, tampering with the ball in any way... As soon as an offence like this is recorded on camera or caught on microphone or seen by an umpire, it should automatically draw a warning, suspension or ban. If they can do it in football, which is more fast-paced and physical, why not cricket? And if they won't have a strict code, then let there be a free-for-all. Why crib?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Let's not get psyched out

Everyone seems to be expecting the English bowlers to come hard at us at the Oval. That means bouncers. Tremlett and Anderson unleashed a barrage of those on the final day at Trent Bridge, perhaps at the behest of their South African bowling coach Alan Donald, who often used the tactic against the Indians to soften them up. It also paid dividends. Sachin Tendulkar, after getting grilled in the first innings, turned one dug into his ribs into the hands of short leg with only a few runs left to get for victory. Dinesh Karthick pushed at a rising ball to be caught behind, and Wasim Jaffer has been dismissed more than once to the short stuff already in the series. Sourav Ganguly's discomfort against it is well known, even if he is more determined after his comeback to get out of the way or even take a blow but not hole out or fend it off. So, perhaps it's understandable that Sachin and Sourav are spending hours at a bowling machine practising to deal with short pitch bowling. But chief selector Dilip Vengsarkar's comment that the Indians know what to expect seems an over-reaction. Anderson and Tremlett should hardly be the sort to get an experienced batting line-up such as ours into such a tizzy over bouncers. Besides, the bouncer barrage on the final day may have been designed by Donald precisely to throw the Indians off-track. My own feeling is that it is good old English seam and swing bowling that will again do the trick for both teams in the third test, and we should really be practising for that instead of getting all psyched out.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The secret man of the match

The fact that India got to 481 for a match-winning 283-run lead in the first innings of the Trent Bridge Test without a single century shows the application of all the batsmen. Only Dravid failed to get to a 50. The way the batsmen put their heads down to ensure that India derived maximum advantage from dismissing England for 198 after winning the toss on a sticky wicket is to be appreciated without qualification. But now, after savouring the victory, it's worth considering how much the presence of Yuvraj Singh in the balcony concentrated the minds of the Indian batsmen out in the middle. He's a strapping young fellow, in the prime of his batting form, fresh from two match-winning one-day knocks, and an inspiring fielder and close-in catcher to boot. To have such a presence on the bench is surely a great motivator for each of the batsmen whose contributions have come under close scrutiny because of the poor performance of the team over the past three years. So, after 'Zak and the bean struck' (Hindustan Times headline), I think Yuvraj Singh was the man of the match.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Seniors vs juniors? Not really

It's interesting that the seniors have come under so much scrutiny after the near defeat in the Lord's Test. Kapil Dev has pointed out again that Sachin Tendulkar has rarely delivered under pressure. The Times of India compiled a list of his second innings knocks in an 18 year span, with the startling revelation that not once in this long career has the 'world's greatest batsman' ever scored even a fifty in the second innings of any Test India has won. The closest he ever came to taking India home to victory was in Chennai against Pakistan, but after a magnificent 136, with just 15 more runs for India to clinch what would have been one of its greatest victories, he tried to thump Saqlain Mushtaq over his head for a six, fell for the doosra, and holed out with a leading edge to Wasim Akram at mid-off. Why didn't he just collect the remaining runs in singles, instead of playing to the gallery? Captain Azharuddin was asked the question in a post-match conference, and his diplomatic reply was that one couldn't really have asked more of Sachin. Well, more and more people are asking now if we have got too little from the 'Little Master 2.0'. The original Little Master Sunil Gavaskar, we know, scored a century in that great run chase of over 400 to give India a famous win at Port of Spain against Clive Lloyd's team. Of course, an innings like that comes once in a lifetime, and perhaps it is churlish of us to ask why Tendulkar has never had one. But more than how many he got Lord's, what disappointed was the manner of his dismissals. In the first innings he fell to his now familiar bogey of playing across the line to a straightforward inswinger from Anderson. I suspect he keeps getting bowled or LBW these days because he has become a collector of runs on the onside, working the ball with his right arm, because driving would put too much strain on his dodgy left elbow. In the second innings, he again fell LBW, this time to a straightforward armer from Monty Panesar. He was tentative, and didn't stick his bat-pad far enough forward outside off-stump. But the most interesting aspect of this recent criticism of 'seniors' is that it clubs all the four - Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman - together. Now the clamour is that Yuvraj Singh should be in the team, and by inference that means he should take the place of one of the seniors. It can't be Dravid, the captain, who will make way for him in spite of failing to get to double figures in either innings. Surely dropping superhero Sachin is out of the question although he got only 53 in all. So the axe has to fall on either Laxman or Ganguly by default. That I find unpalatable. Laxman has just got back in after a layoff, he did get one run more than Tendulkar, and the ball from Temlett that got him in the second innings did keep low. As for Ganguly, who has become the favourite whipping boy, he got 74 - that's more than any other player in the team except Dhoni who got 76. Karthick and Jaffer did get half centuries, but in the two innings put together they scored 65 and 66 respectively. So really Ganguly should not be the one to sit out if we go by performance. Those who are saying that Yuvi should get in, should therefore spell it out - should Dravid or Tendulkar make way for him, or do they want Laxman and Ganguly's heads as usual? As you can see, it's really a question of seniors versus seniors.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Butterflies bothering batsmen too?

England has a coach, while India has to make do with a septuagenarian manager who makes excuses for the team: the bowlers flopped on the first day because they had butterflies in the stomach. Whatever the reason, the fact is India find themselves staring at defeat against an England side forced to go into the match with a second string bowling attack with Harmison, Hoggard and Flintoff all laid low. That should be shameful for a side that boasts a batting line-up with such legends as Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman. Or should we call them has-beens? Look at the Australians: none of their "seniors" have either opted out or been dropped from the 20-20 World Cup. If you think you are too old for 20-20 cricket, I think you are too old for any form of the game. Gone are the days of lazy Test cricket. Now you need peak fitness to match up at the international level. So I'm bemused that Gavaskar thinks Tendulkar should keep going for another four years so that when the final of the next World Cup is played in Mumbai, he will get a fitting see-off. Another four years of seeing Tendulkar playing across the line and getting bowled or LBW will erase any positive memories I have left of his batting.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The real positives on the Irish tour

While Sachin Tendulkar has drawn all the attention as usual, the other positives for the Indian team on the Irish tour have been glossed over. Dravid's captaincy for one. He not only made the right calls at the toss but also picked the right option after that, something he failed to do against Bangladesh in the World Cup. His handling of the bowling too seemed to be more dynamic than usual, but I may be reading too much into what may simply be a case of 'nothing succeeds like success'. Piyush Chawla also seems to be coming on nicely, although the South Africans, except Kallis, are poor readers of leg spin. And if two match-winning knocks signal a return to form of Yuvraj, that may be the best news of all. He and Dhoni are the only batsmen we have now who can match the Aussies in power.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Give the bowlers their due

It's the bowlers who won the series against South Africa by restricting them to 227 in 50 overs and 148 in 31 overs. Dravid helped their cause by winning the toss and putting the opposition in both times. It was harder to bat first up in these conditions. When it came to the chase, the main thing was not to lose too many wickets to the new ball. Sachin's 93 in the second ODI was therefore important, and it's after a long time that he has contributed significantly to a team victory. That he also crossed the 15,000 run mark during that innings meant all the media attention focussed on him. I suppose it is natural to celebrate an idol's milestones but I think longevity-based records are less important than current achievements. The bowlers, for instance, hardly got any credit for delivering the goods despite their inexperience. That India won the 2nd ODI with six wickets to spare suggests to me Tendulkar's knock was not the decisive factor. The man-of-the-match award should have instead gone to Yuvraj Singh who picked up three wickets as a part-time bowler and then calmly steered India home with 49 not out. He bettered that with a 61 not out in the next ODI which India won easily, despite the early dismissals of Dravid and Tendulkar.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It's a team game, Sachin

For the record, that's one more of Tendulkar's big ODI knocks in vain. How many of those have there been in recent times? One too many, I guess. Okay, the team lost a couple of early wickets - although 36 for 2 in an ODI is not really a crisis - but to go on till the 46th over at a strike rate of 69.23 will lose the game for the team most times. Such a 99 is pointless, from the team's point of view. It's possible the team could have got bowled out cheaply if Tendulkar had fallen earlier in trying to accelerate. But it would have given the team a better chance of victory if he had set his sights higher. After all, the point is to win the game, not reduce the margin of victory. Even the 'Wall' Dravid went at 79.56 and Kallis got his 91 not out at 78.44, and he saw the team home - something Tendulkar does rarely. It was strange to hear the cricket pundits in evening TV shows lamenting our lack of bowling resources, and the fact that Tendulkar did not bowl! In fact, the bowlers did remarkably well to take the match into the last over despite having only 242 to defend. And it was an extra bonus to have the spinners doing well in conditions more suited to seam bowling. The Piyush Chawla googly that did Gibbs in was very nice. No, it wasn't Tendulkar's bowling that was missed as much as his normal attacking self, which he seems to have abandoned in favour of hanging on at the crease these days.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Beg, borrow, steal

Mickey Arthur, the South African coach, has made a few interesting observations about the Indian pace attack of Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and Agarkar. He feels they all have the skills to pick up early wickets, in the kind of helpful conditions they will find in Ireland and England, but they are inadequate when the ball gets older and in the 'death' overs. He doesn't explain why, but it's probably got to do with their lack of height and inability to get the ball up sharply into the batsman's chest for variety. Anyway, Mickey's asking his top three batsmen to be more circumspect than usual, and have more of a go later in the innings. I think that's a good strategy in general on Irish and English pitches, and since India does not have a coach, Rahul Dravid would do well to pay heed to the South African!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mutual back-scratching club

I picked up Mukul Kesavan's Men In White, after reading the glowing tribute to it in Outlook by Ramachandra Guha. Then in the book I found Kesavan's glowing references to Ramachandra Guha's book! Anyway, I still read Men In White, and here's my review (which also appears in DNA Sunday)...
Reading Enid Blyton, waking up at 5 a.m. to catch cricket commentary on Radio Australia, and cutting & pasting pictures from Sport & Pastime: Mukul Kesavan's Men In White takes the 40-plus reader on a nostalgic trip to a time when cricket formed a part of growing up in a way that is different from now. Kesavan tends to romanticise this, although the main difference was that there was no TV, which meant the poor fan had to rely on the often biased and ill-informed radio commentators.
The nostalgia is sweet, nevertheless, and older readers will be drawn to it like moths to a flame, at the outset. A chapter or two later, unfortunately, the confession on the book's jacket, that it's an armchair piece by somebody whose topscore was 14 in neighbourhood cricket, turns out to be more than a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating throwaway line. Not that you have to be a Gary Sobers to write about cricket – or a Greg Chappell to coach India, for that matter – but perhaps more of a first-hand feel for cricket, or some other ball game, might have given the writer better insight into the game than is apparent in the book.
Of course, going by his many glowing references to Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner Of A Foreign Field, Kesavan obviously intended his book to be as much social commentary as about cricket. Another reason for this is his vocation, because when he isn’t writing about cricket, Kesavan teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Whatever the genesis, the book seems to fall between two stools, neither providing much in the way of fresh insight or interesting anecdotes about Test cricket as a game, nor going deep enough into its sociology or history to use cricket as a backdrop against which to view society.
His fan’s point of view is also ambivalent. The book’s jacket proclaims that “his self-professed credentials for writing about the game are founded on the spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective”. And yet, in the book, he writes witheringly of the modern Indian spectator: “Not having played in years (or ever) he has no understanding of the contingencies that can turn a match, no first-hand experience of defeat… Seduced by the tidy perfection of televised cricket, failure, in his book, is inexcusable.” Instead of blaming the fan for not being more tolerant of failure, it would have been more worthwhile to look at the mismanagement of India’s most popular sport, which has now reduced us to such a sorry state that nobody wants to coach our team – John Buchanan, Tom Moody, Graham Ford, and even John Emburey having said ‘no, thanks’. Only the highly successful Dav Whatmore said ‘yes’, and our board showed him the middle finger!
Coming back to Kesavan’s Men In White, it covers the whole gamut of topics that come up on the sports pages – the effect of the camera on umpires, Gilchrist going against the Aussie grain by ‘walking’, how skewed the one-day game is in favour of batsmen – with his own takeaways such as this one about how to improve one-day cricket: “Just as there are no artificial restrictions on the number of balls a batsman can face, there should be none on how many a bowler can bowl.” He misses the difference that the batsman ceases to bat if he gets out, whereas the bowler can complete his quota of overs even if he gets smacked for a six.
Some of Kesavan’s asides are more interesting, such as pointing out the hypocrisy that’s become a matter of course in cricket. A batsman is not viewed as a cheat if he stands his ground after getting a nick, but a fielder who claims a catch off a grounded ball is considered plain dishonest, for instance. He also challenges the “Anglo-Australian definition of a ‘sporting’ wicket”, which is often taken for granted. “Why a pitch that turns from the first day is bad is not clear. Why this is worse or more unfair than a pitch where the ball bounces throat high or swings like a banana from start of play is even more obscure,” Kesavan writes. But, like a lot else in the book, the observation is on the dot, without moving the issue forward by really looking into the whys and wherefores.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Non-stop merry-go-round

I'm looking forward to seeing the newcomers in action in England. Not much to look forward to, though, because the only new faces are Rohit Sharma in the ODIs and Ishant Sharma and Ranadeb Bose in the Tests. Rohit, being a middle order bat, is unlikely to get a game unless somebody gets injured. So that's that. Ishant and Ranadeb have more of an opportunity and they might grab it too in the favourable English conditions for swing bowlers. Maybe that's why the selectors thought it would be pointless blooding a young batsman like Rohit Sharma in Test cricket. But then it was at Lord's that Sourav Ganguly established his place in the Indian team with a century, and Rahul Dravid almost got one on debut in the same match. Of course, thay had had a few years of success in domestic cricket before that. Pity we have no new batsman to project on the England tour this time, and this is symptomatic of the mismanagement and decline of Indian cricket. We keep going round and round and the same players keep getting dropped and coming back: Gautam Gambhir, Wasim Jaffer, Ajit Agarkar, VVS Laxman...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What next, Mr Gavaskar?

I sort of anticipated Sunil Gavaskar would trip up Whatmore (What more do we want?), given his antipathy towards Australians ever since his playing days, when Lillee's abuse got under his skin and almost made him abandon a match. But what happens now? Do Gavaskar and Shastri take the responsibility for the fiasco that the coach selection has turned into? No, and that's the problem in our system. There are any number of people influencing decisions, but when it comes to fixing accountability, there's just no clarity. And perhaps that's the way the board likes it.
Look at the coach selection committee. If Chappell turned out to be such a disaster, how come the same experts - Gavaskar, Shastri and Venkataraghavan - are called to select the next coach? What do Gavaskar, Shastri or Venkat have to lose if the wrong choice is made? The board needs full-time, paid counsellors and selectors, not part-timers who have other pre-occupations.
On top of that, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid want to have a say in the appointment. I can understand Dravid being given a hearing because as captain he takes the rap for the team's performance as much as the coach. But Tendulkar is an interested party, because one of the difficult tasks for a new coach will be to watch the performance and fitness of Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman and Kumble, and decide if they're contributing enough to winning and team-building.
With so many fading stars, anybody willing to take hard decisions will not be welcome, and yet that's just the sort of coach and selectors that India needs.