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India’s obstacle: Picking the winning XI

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Rohit

Every good international sports team learns from its defeats. The difference between the good and the great teams is that great teams learn from their victories as well. The Indian cricket team historically has not displayed evidence that they learn anything from victories. And at this crucial juncture they must look at the seven victories and the one defeat to field the best XI for bringing the World Cup home.

On paper and on overall performance the World Cup is India’s to lose. They lost just one match in a long tournament of 9 matches per team and the heavens were not in favour of either India or New Zealand as that key encounter was washed out. So I repeat: 7 wins, 1 loss, 1 no result and a place at the top of the table. Now if we focus too much on just the one defeat it would be akin to looking at 12.5 per cent of the evidence and ignoring the 87.5 per cent.

A better way to get the team right would be to see what has not worked in the matches that India has won and to fix those problems. This is usually not done in Indian cricket and so on many many occasions players who have been performing poorly have got an extended run in ODIs and Test matches because the team has been winning or consistently doing well. Sooner or later this seemingly innocuous oversight has come to bite us like a Cobra and the cost has been a big series loss or an important final. If we had got our combination right we had a great chance to win a Test series in South Africa and England to go with the one that we managed to win against Australia. That’s history now so let’s come back to the World Cup.

Two selections are very easy to make and it’s strange that what looked obvious to just a follower of the game was not at all evident to the team management that picks the playing XI. Every time Vijay Shankar has come out to bat he’s displayed unmistakable signs that he doesn’t think that he belongs or is ready for this level. What is his role? Is he a top-order batsman who can build a big partnership if two early wickets have fallen or is he a dangerous lower middle order player who can clear the ropes and also give you three or four decent overs as an all-rounder who is also dynamic and lively while fielding? He had a chance to prove both these options and I am not blaming a one off day that any player can have but the fact that he looked like a fish out of water. Also in the mere nine 50-over games that he had played before the World Cup he did not give a single account of his potential and what could be possible if he clicked unless they like a bunch of idiots went by his 46 in 41 balls at home and a 45 in Wellington.

Next up is Jadhav who played one good hand against Afghanistan where his 52 in 68 balls was very precious to get us to 224 that we managed to defend. He played a terrible one too but that was in defeat and we’ll come to that later. Which brings me to his role? He is a decent touch player and can rotate the strike and put the bad balls away. Unlike Shankar he has experience and has played a few stellar knocks in home conditions. Jadhav is also a confident player but he is not a ferocious hitter and to keep him for the flourish at the end is setting him and the team up for failure. He’s also not been used as a bowler so if the team was serious about how to best use his game and boost his confidence he should have been given a longer run as the number four. Now India can’t risk it.

I am pretty sure both of them are not going to feature in the next two games and that is bad news because precious time and confidence-building innings have been denied to whoever is going to fill their boots.

All of this came to bite India in the game against England. Bumrah bowled superbly in his first spell but England had the rub of the green and inside edges went for boundaries and India failed to review a caught behind that would have sent the dangerous Jason Roy back. With Roy playing brilliantly, Bairstow too found his rhythm and for the first time India’s potent spinners were taken to the cleaners. We did manage to restrict them to 337.

The chase began in a very timid fashion as Woakes bowled three maidens in a row and also got KL Rahul for a 9-ball duck. Rohit Sharma was not at his fluent best initially but with Kohli looking good the partnership bloomed and so did Rohit and just as it was becoming threatening with India on 146 for one Kohli had a soft dismissal. In came the replacement Rishabh Pant and here too I am unsure of what exactly is his role. While it’s nice of Harsha Bhogle to say on TV that Pant always plays with a smile on his face, the way he began was not funny. The first few overs were sheer madness, he would run halfway down the pitch, then realize there is no run and run back. He did that twice. Then he gloved a ball that thankfully landed safely. Even the bat flew out of his hands and landed way back near England’s wicketkeeper. And all through he kept smiling at his stupidity. Does he realize that he is playing at number four for India in a World Cup? He can wear a smile as long as there is some intensity in his presence on the field otherwise he’s making a mockery of a serious campaign. And smiles at misfields and at what Pant was doing is like a contagion that spreads to the entire team just like a great effort in the field lifts the whole team. Don’t underestimate the intensity of India’s fielding under Dhoni when we won in 2011. And Pant is not a teenager; the profile tells me that he’s 21. He did make 32 off 29 balls but those first few minutes it looked liked he had no match or situational awareness. Not something that you would want in a top order player. Maybe that led to the settled Rohit Sharma going for something extra and losing his wicket.

Pandya tried his best and India still had a chance when he was in with Dhoni but he went for too much too soon and should have realized that all is not on his shoulder with the experience and calmness of Dhoni at the other end. Then came the phase that nobody could comprehend in the commentary box or outside. In India’s next match Bangladesh tried to get across the line even when the tailenders were batting. While India just gave up after Pandya even though we had two proper batsmen inside: 7 dots, 20 singles, 3 fours and 1 six in 31 balls of the Dhoni-Jadhav partnership when 71 were needed to win. We lost by 31 runs and primarily because we lost the first 10 over battle badly and the last 5 over battle. Jadhav brutally exposed again. And the most-settled unit in the World Cup suddenly unsettled in the bowling as well as the batting department. All this because we did not learn anything from our victories and so the burden of looking at vulnerable areas unfortunately fell on the lone defeat.

Which brings us to the big debate about Dhoni. I think Dhoni has been criticized unfairly as it’s unreasonable to expect him to bat the way he used to five years back. Even in the England match Pandya scored his 45 with a strike rate of 136.36 with four boundaries and Dhoni got his 42 at a strike rate of 135.48 with four boundaries and a six. He’s going to turn 37 soon and he’s is still perhaps the best wicketkeeper in the world. He reads the game better than most players in the circuit and he’s had a pretty good World Cup. A calm 34 (strike rate: 73.91) against South Africa; came in at 139 for 3 with Dhawan, Kohli and Rahul back in the hut and had a 74-run partnership with Rohit Sharma. We needed just 15 runs in 23 balls when Dhoni departed and Hardik came and blasted three fours. Dhoni then cracked 27 off 14 balls against Australia at 192.85 while hitting out in the death overs. He failed against Pakistan and made a sedate 28 in a low-scoring game against Afghanistan. Played superbly against West Indies and remained not out on 56 with three fours and two sixes at 91.80. We could have been in trouble but Dhoni at number six and Pandya at seven ensured we got to 268. Then came the England 42 and after that an important 35 off 33 balls against Bangladesh. He was dismissed in the last over and the match could have gone the other way without his contribution. The most important thing that Dhoni brings to the middle is his uncluttered mind and the role of a behind the scenes captain that the loud and exuberant on-field Captain Kohli can turn to when the heat is on.

The two big casualties of experimenting with Shankar and Jadhav have been Dinesh Karthik and Mayank Agarwal. Karthik has been in sublime form as a finisher for India prior to the tournament and he is vastly more experienced and scores at a better clip than both Shankar and Jadhav. His last clinical finish was a run a ball 38 not out with five fours and a six against New Zealand in New Zealand chasing 243. He’s short of match practice and at the last moment has got just one chance to bat. Mayank Agarwal showed that he is completely at ease at the top level in his three outings as a Test opener in Australia. A superb 76 on debut in Melbourne when the series was alive and a second innings 42, which was the highest score in the rubble as India’s top order collapsed to a burst by Cummins in which he took Vihari for 13, Pujara and Kohli for 0 in the same over and then Rahane for 1. Twenty-eight for no loss was 28 for 3 and then 32 for 4. Agarwal hit eight fours and one six in the first innings and four boundaries and two sixes in the second. The third outing in Sydney was also brilliant, 77 runs with seven fours and two sixes at a healthy strike rate of 68.75 when the Australian attack was fresh. He shouldn’t have been a replacement guy but a first choice. I am also not too convinced by KL Rahul although he’s had a great World Cup against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The piece now is way too long to elaborate on his performances.

Some certainty and some calculated risk is what I would prefer in the playing XI. Here’s my line-up batting order wise though the middle order can be tinkered according to the situation and anything is fine with the last four : Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, MS Dhoni, Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep Yadav, Chahal, BUMRAH (In Reckoning: Dinesh Karthik for Pant and Jadeja Bhuvi depending on what kind of attack would be best for the surface).

There is a role for everyone here. Rohit plays freely and Mayank has given all the evidence that he can put the bad balls for boundaries and sixes and keep the good ones out and has the maturity to keep the scoreboard ticking. Virat is Virat. Rahul doesn’t have to come with the weight of the world on his shoulders and can ease into the innings or accelerate. If the start is very good Pandya can be promoted and if it’s very bad then Dhoni can be promoted to calibrate the target or take control of the chase and help Pandya and Pant understand that runs cannot be scored in the dressing room. Risk does not mean checking the depth of the water with both feet or crossing the street blindfolded. A few dot balls or even a couple of low-scoring overs don’t matter if you keep in touching distance. The bowlers feel the pressure if wickets are in hand and two good overs can compensate for five sedate ones. Even 60 or 70 in the last five overs should not cause panic as two big overs can turn the tide. This maturity is missing in Pant and someone needs to help him sharpen his cricketing brain else it’s better to go with Karthik. For inspiration Pant can look at how Alex Carey has batted in the tournament.

For the bowlers I have gone with the 87.5 per cent evidence and not the 12.5 per cent of the defeat. So I would first tick the ones who have been part of the success and the odd failure. Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav, Chahal and Shami. This is a tough call as there’s no sixth option in it in case a bowler has an off-day. Bumrah and Hardik already have their name on the playing XI and India has indicated that they would stick to the five bowler plan to give depth to the batting. The tinkering after the defeat has thrown up many combinations. Bhuvneshwar played the first two games against South Africa and Australia and had figures of 44 for 2 and 50 for 3 in 10 overs. Nothing in the opening spell in either game. Tailenders against South Africa but a settled Smith against Australia and the removal of Stoinis cheaply and Zampa to finish things. Injury brought Shami against Afghanistan and he provided the first breakthrough and then closed their innings with a hat-trick in which the first wicket of Nabi who could have taken the game away was crucial. Phenomenal against West Indies and conceding 16 runs in 6.2 overs and grabbing four wickets including Gayle as his first and then two more in the top six and finishing the innings by picking the last wicket. Went for 69 in the high-scoring game against England but picked 5 wickets: Root, Morgan, Bairstow, Butler and Woakes. He was also very unlucky as most of the initial runs off his bowling were inside edges and shaky attempts. Shami’s performance in that game should be looked from a different prism; he did concede runs but more importantly he helped drag England back from a score of 370 plus to 337 by picking five big wickets.

Against Bangladesh Shami was the most-expensive bowler and got just one wicket. The important first breakthrough. Bhuvi was economical and also got one wicket. Shami was not picked for the last game against Sri Lanka and here Bhuvi was almost as expensive as Shami in the previous game and just got one lower order wicket. Jadeja got a game and bowled 10 overs for just 40 runs and picked a wicket. Jadeja could also be in reckoning as he is a superb fielder, has the knack of picking wickets or at least keeping the batsmen quiet and his capability with the bat gives India much more depth. He also brings freshness to the attack. The best thing about him is that he’s got the heart and the stomach for a fight. And right now we need a tight XI that can bounce back from any tough situation. My XI could be wrong, I just hope that the one that is picked by the team management is right.

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The Nagpur Nightmare Can Haunt India

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In the build-up to India’s most-crucial Group stage clash, captain MS Dhoni in his pre-match talk a day before stressed on the importance of a start from the trio at the top that could then allow the explosive middle-order to play its A-game. “If we have slightly longer partnerships at the top, the explosive power of our middle and lower-middle order can be used more in the positive way,” he said.

Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, and Virat Kohli form the technically-accomplished core of India’s top order and Sehwag as a devastating plunderer completes the picture. On Saturday, when India came out to bat in front of a full house the tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Sehwag hit a boundary off the first ball and was then beaten a couple of times in the opening over by Steyn. Morkel came from the other end as Tendulkar took guard to face his first ball of the match. Unlike Sehwag, the Master betrayed no nerves and played his first ball on the up, right under his eyes, with his front foot movement so precise that it looked calibrated to the last millimetre. He opened his account with a single of that first ball and Sehwag was back on strike. The third ball took the edge and went slightly to the right of van Wyk, who couldn’t move a muscle as the ball raced to the fence and Sehwag got a reprieve.

Morkel was bowling with good speed and extracting disconcerting bounce making it difficult for Sehwag but Steyn leaked runs from the other end. Lance Klusener had said the previous day that playing at home India would feel the heat but it was the South Africans who looked dazed at the start. A regulation catch was dropped in the second over and the third over went for 14 with an overthrow that cost five and a huge wide by Steyn another five. Morkel overstepped in his second over and was lucky India couldn’t cash in on the free hit. It was a frenetic start despite Morkel keeping things tight by giving just 9 of his first two overs.

The momentum shifted decisively in Morkel’s third and the innings’ sixth over when the floodgates opened with three hits to the fence. At the end of 5 overs India had 33 on the board and they leaped to 70 in just three more overs with the help of eight boundaries; Morkel conceding six of them in his two overs. At the end of 15 overs the scoreboard read 128 for no loss; Sehwag was 62 in 54 balls and Tendulkar was 57 in just 37 balls.

On the big stage of a pressure game Tendulkar was at his absolute best and it is difficult to describe how beautifully and brilliantly he batted from that first ball onwards. It was a knock that had the stamp of inevitability. He knew he was going to get the runs and if getting them had meant dodging bullets he would have done that and yet stood his ground. Even by the lofty standards of the Master this was a special knock in a crunch game where the nerves could have been frayed at the start. A commentator reflected on the first 25 overs or so saying that amidst all the commotion at the centre—where catches slipped, the South Africans conceded extra runs on more than one occasion due to overthrows, the world’s premier fast bowler lost it in the third over of the innings and conceded 14 runs, and Graeme Smith didn’t know where to hide—one man was calmness personified.

There has been a lot of useless talk before the World Cup about doing it for Tendulkar; useless because the World Cup is not about individuals. But if one were to just consider it for argument’s sake then here was a perfect stage set by the genius and it only needed some backing up. India’s veteran cricket writer R. Mohan in his beautiful piece said, “It takes far more than the world’s greatest batsman to swing an ODI even if he is Superman who once scored a double century to seal a game.” In the 90s Tendulkar did it alone on many occasions as he knew that his wicket meant the game was done for India. This is a different team though and he may well have been under added pressure to play the big shots in the powerplay with the knowledge that traditional accumulation would deny his team extra runs as the power-hitters were in the dressing room. He now knows better.

Dale Steyn, the man of the match in Nagpur, picked up 5 wickets but for his first seven overs he toiled hard and went for 46 runs without a wicket to show. His partner Morkel bowled six overs for 50 runs with the wickets column being empty. The threat was not just taken care of but had been dismissed out of sight.

What then happened to India? How come the explosive batting line-up Dhoni was referring to went off like a cheap cracker? It wasn’t a choke as umpteen newspapers proclaimed in bold and big headlines on the front as well as the sports pages. A choke happens in a situation where a team has victory in sight but to get there it has to absorb some pressure (little or big) and not let the situation, the opposition, or its own hesitancy/lack of belief get to it—when it gets to the team you can say they choked. At 267 for 1 in 39.3 overs with Steyn having just three overs left and India having nine wickets in hand even the remote possibility of pressure had been taken out of the equation. What unfolded was far worse than a choke as India imploded without any pressure at all. And unlike a choke, where a team loses wickets by being tentative, India blazed its way to hell. They fuelled and lit their own pyre.

The first problem was the batting order and it started with number three. Gambhir is a really good player and if an early wicket had fallen he was an ideal choice but he has not been in the best of form and a crunch game was not the time where he should have been sent up to find his feet, especially after a blazing start. Virat Kohli has been in terrific touch for more than a year now and he also did exceptionally-well in South Africa earlier this year and India needed a player high on confidence and scoring freely without risk to allow Tendulkar to breathe easy for a while. Kohli at number seven is a complete waste as he is not someone who bludgeons the ball but plays conventional and smart cricket.

The combined average for Kohli at number 3 and 4 is 52.90 while at number 6 and 7 it drops to 12.66. Dhoni picked on the top order needlessly as they have done reasonably-well in the tournament and his emphasis on the explosive game of the middle-order belies its fragility and builds a case for wanton hitting.

South Africa was under the pump at 144 for 1 after 18 overs and Smith would have given his life for a sedate partnership compared to the carnage that had taken place. The next 18 overs yielded just 93 runs and South Africa clawed their way back into the contest. Even Tendulkar lost the pace of his innings with Gambhir finding it difficult to break free.

The bigger mistake was to send Yusuf Pathan up the order and I am not saying this out of retrospective intelligence. The move was disastrous for two reasons and the first is that the team management should have considered how Pathan has done in different situations. In 9 innings before Nagpur where he has batted up the order (batting positions number 3, 4, and 5) Pathan averages 14.11 with three ducks and two single-digit scores and not a single half-century—that average has now fallen to 12.70. In 26 innings at number 6 and 7 Pathan has an average of 42 with two hundreds and three fifties.

It is no secret that Pathan struggles against fast bowling and since India had already taken a powerplay, South Africa was always going to use their strength and would not have foolishly obliged the Indians by bringing on a spinner against Pathan. The other reason why his promotion was a mistake has to do with the message that it sends to the dressing room. It means that we are going hell for leather even at the cost of digging our own grave. Was the middle-order under undue pressure to cash in big time after a great start to demonstrate that the captain’s belief in their explosive abilities was not unfounded?

This game has made it clear that the explosive middle-order can implode any moment and they should be chastised for their approach rather than given encouragement for their suicidal ways. India’s middle-order showed a complete lack of understanding of the game’s situation. Dhoni himself could do nothing to take charge of the situation and shepherd India at the finishing line. It wasn’t an epic fightback that brought South Africa back into the game and Steyn didn’t bowl a hostile and unplayable spell. It was a complete abrogation of responsibility by everyone bar the trio at the top that let South Africa in.

Tinkering with the batting order was not a good example of out of the box thinking. A good one would have been to take the batting powerplay right after 15 overs with the instruction of playing normal cricket to Sehwag and Tendulkar. That would have caught the South Africans by surprise and it would have forced Smith’s hand to either bring back his strike bowlers, who had gone for plenty, or operate with lesser bowlers to two set players in a powerplay. Either way India would have benefited and could have been above 170/180 in 20 overs without breaking a sweat. And South Africa would have been gutted with the game killed for them.

Instead this game has thrown India’s campaign in disarray and though this team has shown character and bounced back on several occasions the biggest disadvantage here is the lift that the South African team would have got from it. They were dead and buried after the England game and were down and out against India after just 25 overs before India handed over the impetus to them. Graeme Smith saying that it is a massive win for us is actually an understatement.

There are matches that have little bearing on a team’s campaign bar their result and there are those that have psychological implications that go well beyond the immediate and sow seeds of self-doubt in the camp. This match potentially has the power of going beyond the Saturday and India would do well to remember the lessons and forget the game. How they bounce back from here would be the thing to watch out for and it would be very interesting to see their approach if they meet South Africa again in the tournament.

Brilliant Li Na Ends Up Second-Best

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It wasn’t a masked ball at the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday yet the final moments led to some spontaneous unmasking. Kim Clijsters of Belgium told the fans in the stadium that they could finally call her Aussie Kim while Li Na was very cross with her own supporters claiming they were trying to coach her in Chinese what to do mid-point.

Li Na has been the story of the tournament and to her credit she has put a face to China and broadly some would say even to Asia. Her on court interviews have delighted people across the world and her tennis has won her many admirers. It was the first Grand Slam final for Li and also a first for the large continent and she rose to the occasion and came out firing in the first set. The experienced Clijsters was pushed back and she had no answers to the power and accuracy of the Chinese star.

It was something that even Clijsters acknowledged later. “She did everything better than me in that first set,” said Clijsters. “Her ground strokes were heavier, deeper, she served better and she returned better. She was playing really well, probably the best she has ever played against me.”

Clijsters was also playing well but Li was playing brilliantly and she took nine out of the first 14 games. However, that was where things started slipping away from her. Once her clear-sightedness was clouded by impatience, Li got flustered and struggled to get her composure back. She won just three out of the last 13 games as Clijsters tightened her game and saw her opponent make a host of unforced errors.

Earlier Clijsters needed some help from Li to get back into the contest and it was her experience and the relative inexperience of her opponent that turned the tide. “I tried to do things differently to break her rhythm a little bit and make her think a little bit more,” Clijsters said. “I mixed it up a little bit, put some slices in, also hit a few higher shots and it made her make some unforced errors. And then she got a little bit aggravated and I just tried to hang in there.”

This was backed up by Li’s claim: “If you haven’t got that experience, if you come across some problems, you can’t get out of them that easily. It’s not that there’s no way out, it’s because you don’t know how to find a way out.”

Afterwards, Li said: “I don’t know why after I got to the final I had so many Chinese coaches on the court. Of course they want me to win the match but they were trying to coach me how to play tennis.” Can the crowd be blamed for Li Na’s downfall? That can only be considered if the crowd can be credited with her winning the previous rounds and reaching the final. “Be a master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big, worthwhile things. It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” The quote by poet Robert Service could well be said for Li Na.

The witty and graceful Chinese needed to keep her tunnel vision going and there was no reason for her to be paying more attention to the crowd than to her game. Clijsters had changed her approach mid-way in the second set when she started defending from the baseline and scooping some high balls for Li to hit from the back of the court. Li needed to be aware of what her opponent was trying to do and also aware of the fact that she was still in the ascendancy.

Sadly the couple of errors Clijsters drew upset Li’s rhythm and that is when she started getting bothered by the crowd. Clijsters used the occasion to get her rhythm going and squeezed out the second set. From there on it was Clijsters all the way. The final score read 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in Clijsters favour.

Nevertheless, the experience would do a world of good for Li Na and if she finds herself in the same situation next time she may well be prepared to listen only to the rustling of the tennis ball. It would be wonderful if she treats everything else as just noise.

Written by Deepan Joshi

January 30, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Acid Test For Indian Cricket

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The first real trial after India became the number one Test team in the world begins on Thursday at the SuperSport Park, Centurion. India has a poor record playing in South Africa with a solitary Test win in Johannesburg that came in their last tour as the only success in 12 Test matches.

After that win in Johannesburg came the debacle in Durban where bad light and intermittent rain combined to eat up about a day’s play and at best India had to survive about 60-odd overs to save the game and head to Cape Town maintaining their lead. Instead India’s top order crumbled and the team was sent packing in just 55.1 overs. The tail fought hard and showed that a mere 10 minutes or a dozen deliveries more by every top order batsman could have easily saved the game.

There are also many reasons that India should move towards embracing the UDRS as apart from the scars of that one series in Sri Lanka there is ample evidence that technology is good for the game. For example in the Durban clash and in the acrimonious Sydney Test the UDRS could have saved the wicket of Rahul Dravid, India’s best man when it comes to batting time, in the second innings.

The third Test in Cape Town sealed the series 2-1 in South Africa’s favour. India began that Test with a brilliant first wicket partnership of 153 runs as they demoted the out-of-form Sehwag and Karthik opened with Wasim Jaffer. At one stage India was looking good for a score close to 500 but Sourav Ganguly was left stranded after Sehwag departed for a well-made 40 at number 7. The last four wickets added just 19 runs and India was all out for 414.

SA replied with a gritty 373. India then did not stick with the opening plan that had worked in the first innings and brought Sehwag back to his slot and the second innings start was a disaster with both openers back in the hut with just six runs on the board. Another woeful batting performance ended at 169 runs and South Africa was back in the driving seat. Despite some magical bowling by Zaheer Khan who took four of the five wickets to fall, South Africa successfully chased the runs with five wickets still in hand. Prince and Kallis watchfully managed to negotiate a Zaheer on fire and between them played 193 balls for 70 runs.

The contest this time around promises to be edge-of-the-seat as India would mentally be better positioned having played some good cricket in the past three seasons. And the presence of Gary Kirsten as the coach with his vast experience of South African conditions would double the benefit for India. If India is in a position where they can play their first choice seamers then they have some advantage and can surprise the South Africans. Having bowled well is testing subcontinent conditions tirelessly for a while now the fast bowlers would surely love some assistance from the conditions.

In the batting line-up I would love to see Cheteshwar Pujara in the starting XI in place of Suresh Raina. Raina had a great start to his Test career but is having a prolonged hiccup right now and he’s still considered suspect against the short ball. Pujara has the added quality of a tighter technique and I believe he has a better chance of succeeding against the moving or the rising ball.

Finally it will all boil down to the engine room of this Indian team, its brilliant middle order. With a settled opening pair at the top it would be upon the veteran trio of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman to build the advantage for India.

This is the acid test for India and it will reveal the true merit of their ranking as on current form Australia is a relatively-easier challenge than the number two ranked Proteas. This is a tough tour but India come to it with perhaps its best team that is also high on confidence and the next few weeks would reveal if they can break the South African jinx.

The Boy From Bandra

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Sachin Tendulkar is on a different planet. Like Usain Bolt he’s left the competition to settle matters between themselves as he blazes ahead. Can we please have a bold 80-point newspaper headline saying ‘He Bats On’? Three lengthy breaks from cricket and two career-threatening injuries that needed surgeries are now years behind him and bowlers around the world are paying for the period where he was vulnerable, scratchy and out of sorts.

Tendulkar has been single-minded in his pursuit of excellence and in the past few seasons he’s looked like getting a big score almost every innings. From January 2008 there has been just one series in Sri Lanka—and a solitary Test against South Africa before that—where he hasn’t got to a three figure score and he’s scored one or more hundreds in all the other nine Test series’ that India has played since then.

Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo, wrote a piece on Tendulkar and the art of stealing a single and concluded it saying: “Fifty Test hundreds are but a formality. A hundred international hundreds are there for the taking. Tendulkar, though, endures not in the pursuit of milestones, but because he can’t fall out of love with cricket. And above anything else that’s the reason why he remains the most-loved cricketer.”

Tendulkar has always been reluctant to take a runner as the single is a vital part of his batting and he has said it more than once that only he knows the speed with which he has played the ball and also whether he’s played it to the right or the left of the fielder. He judges a single to perfection. Opposition captains have said that on some days they know they are up against it when Tendulkar is scampering for quick singles and is alive to any possibility of an extra run.

During India’s 2007-08 tour of Australia Peter Roebuck in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald also wrote about Tendulkar’s mastery of pinching a run and it came pretty-close to defining how Tendulkar approaches a Test innings in his new enlightened avatar.

“Among modern batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar is the master of the single. In some respects, it is not much of a claim. It’s a bit like saying Roger Federer has the best ball toss around. Tendulkar has many other more colourful qualities: a blistering straight drive, a cart that is liable to land in the fifth row, a square cut that singes the turf, a fine sweep and a defensive stroke played with a sculptured left elbow.

Comparatively speaking, the single tucked to mid-wicket seems innocuous. But the true masters do not disregard the little things. Moreover, four singles amount to a boundary, and can be more safely collected. Also, a single taken from a precisely-pitched delivery is profoundly discouraging.”

A mere 2.8 per cent of Tendulkar’s Test dismissals have been a result of a run out—out of the 250 times he’s been dismissed in 280 innings just 7 have been run outs. And if one is feeling fair then half of them can be said to be his mistakes and the other half that of the partner and we can give an odd one to an exceptional bit of work in the field; which leaves you with three badly-judged runs in a Test career spanning 21 years.


The single also has other fascinating aspects to it. What it does to discourage the bowler is another story and a different side of the coin is what it does for Tendulkar in the middle. A four from the first ball can be the result of having been offered a gift first-up or a brilliant ball that goes for a streaky boundary. Neither of it does anything remarkable for Tendulkar’s confidence. On the contrary, a well-played-and-placed single reveals to Tendulkar the speed at which the ball is coming off the deck—unless it is a full toss—the bounce in the wicket and his own timing.

A couple of singles and watching a few balls from the other end are enough for the Master to assess the conditions and he is up and running. In this watchful initial period he makes the adjustments and decides the strokes for the day and also those to be kept in his back pocket for some other day. The day he got his and the 50-over format’s first double hundred (unbeaten) against South Africa he got the strike on the third ball of the first over by Dale Steyn. Sehwag had just got a reprieve as Steyn failed to latch on to a tough chance and a single followed. The next four balls of Steyn were all on a good length and he was getting the ball to shape away from the right hander. All four balls found the middle of Tendulkar’s bat, who played them off the front foot in the region between cover and the bowler for no runs. Playing four balls and watching four from the other end and he was set. He fetched 15 runs from the next six balls that he faced and the rollicking show started.

This is from an earlier piece of mine on how he started his innings at the Eden Gardens against South Africa when he got back-to-back Test hundreds: Tendulkar joined Sehwag and tapped the first ball he played, a 147 kph full delivery outside off from Morkel, to point for a single. That was the beginning of an assured partnership in which Tendulkar gave another display of his class and his mastery. He played the ball with that natural and intriguing intimacy that he has displayed in the last few seasons. He was solid in defence and gave no bowler even a hint of a chance. It was just beautiful batting.

I am leaving the single for now to look at the stratosphere that Tendulkar has made his home in the last three seasons or so. Just in order to have a frame of reference and make a comparison we can look at the other modern batting giant Ricky Ponting.

On December 26, 2007 India squared up against Australia in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne and began their long tour of four Test matches to be followed by the last edition of the traditional tri-nation ODI series—the Commonwealth Bank Series.

Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar came to this series having had very contrasting two years prior to this much-awaited Test rivalry. Ponting was peeling centuries from 2005 to 2007 and perhaps had the greatest run by a batsman in the modern era. Three times in this period Ponting made a hundred in each innings of a Test and overall in 28 Test matches he made 13 hundreds and 12 fifties at a phenomenal average of 74.68.

Sachin Tendulkar had a miserable period in which he had two surgeries, made comebacks to the playing XI after lengthy breaks, and was even booed by his home crowd at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai against England, when he got out, ironically in the context of this piece, having scored just a single off 21 balls. In 22 Test matches in this period he made three hundreds and nine fifties at a modest average of 42.72. Two of his hundreds came against Test minnows Bangladesh and one against Sri Lanka in New Delhi.


On that day in Melbourne the bowlers did well but in the course of the Test match the batting let the team down and India lost the match by a massive 337 runs. Tendulkar made an attacking 62 in the first innings of that Boxing Day Test and Brett Lee got him on 15 in the second. Ricky Ponting failed in both innings making 4 and 3 runs.

At the end of the Test match Ponting had 9515 runs at an average of 58.73 with 33 hundreds and 38 fifties in 113 Tests. Tendulkar after that Test had 11366 runs at an average of 54.90 with 37 hundreds and 48 fifties in 143 Tests. Ponting’s exceptional period of the past few years and Tendulkar’s miserable run during the same time had narrowed what seemed like an unbridgeable gap till the end of 2002.

In November 2002, Tendulkar was 19 hundreds clear of Ponting and in the period that followed and established Ponting as a modern great he made 21 hundreds as opposed to Tendulkar’s four and the gap narrowed down to just two after Ponting scored successive centuries at Brisbane and Adelaide in the 2006 Ashes in Australia.

That was the closest that Ponting came as Tendulkar was about to embark on another streak of brilliance. A brilliance as captivating as his majestic and dominating batting in the 1990s—for some, and I am one of them, this period has been even more satisfying than his demolition of bowlers in his heydays. This is Tendulkar the batting Buddha; a Tendulkar as close to perfection as an ascetic blessed with benediction after decades of rigorous and loving pursuit of the Lord.

From December 26, 2007 Ponting has played 36 Test matches (65 innings) and made 2742 runs at an average of 42.84 with six hundreds and 17 fifties. And from the same starting point Tendulkar has played 29 Test matches (51 innings) for 2951 runs at an average of 65.57 with 12 hundreds and 11 fifties. The overall batting record for Ponting now stands at 12250 runs in 148 Test matches at 54.68 with 39 hundreds and 55 fifties. For Tendulkar it is 14240 runs in 171 matches at 56.96 with 49 hundreds and 58 fifties. So despite playing seven Tests (14 innings) less than Ponting the Master has still surgically opened up the gap.

In the ODIs there is no comparison as Tendulkar has been phenomenal and has played some career-defining innings. The first-and-only double hundred in a limited over game, a brilliant match-winning hundred while chasing in a final in Sydney and a 138 to win a tournament final in Sri Lanka. The magnificent 175 in a losing cause against Australia and a 160 plus in New Zealand are some of the highlights of his performance.

Overall Tendulkar in 442 ODI matches has made 17598 runs at 45.12 with 46 hundreds and 93 fifties. Ponting in 351 matches has 13072 runs at 42.85 with 29 hundreds and 79 fifties.

Tendulkar is busy ensuring that only the name of Sir Donald Bradman be taken in the same breath as his. And even there more and more former cricket greats are now handing over the title of the greatest batsman of all times to Tendulkar; as apart from the Don’s staggering Test average Tendulkar is head-and-shoulders above the legendary Australian in many other significant ways. The Boy from Bandra is more than a match for the Boy from Bowral.

Give Mohammad Amir Another Chance

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A billion dollars can’t buy you an ounce of the talent that oozes out of Pakistan’s young left-arm fast bowler Mohammad Amir. Is there anything that an aspiring fast bowler would not trade to-have-even-half of what this 18-year-old boy has in abundance? And is it, therefore, a rational question to ask that why would the proud possessor of such rare gifts betray his calling? And what is it in the cricketing world that is even remotely as valuable as what Amir already has?

Money, and more money. The answer, if proved, is not surprising but shameful as it says less about Amir and more about the world of grown-ups in which he is no more than just a cog. Amir has made the cricket this summer worth watching: That eagerness to grab the ball, the jouissance in his delivery stride that is akin to the flight of an eagle, and the bite that is as venomous as the sting of a viper. He’s engineered batting collapses, made the ball talk with late movement and perfect length, and on certain days he’s looked like taking a wicket almost every ball.

What has the ICC or the various cricket boards done this summer apart from making big bucks by striking lucrative deals? What portion of the money that cricket generates trickles down to the players who shed their blood and sweat on the field and what portion goes to bloating-and-gloating cricket administrators? I don’t know the answer, I’m just curious.

I find it difficult to blame young Amir and exonerate the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the International Cricket Council (ICC), and the seniors of the Pakistani cricket team. A boy of 18 would not have even dreamt of doing this had it not been for the corroding influence of his team’s seniors.

The best of mankind’s youth start out in life with a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one’s life is important and that great achievements are within one’s capacity. The great Wasim Akram had 45 scalps after 14 Tests and Amir at the same juncture has 51. It could be a stellar career. Now the administrators would hang this young boy knowing fully-well that what he has done comes nowhere close to what they do all of their lives.

Would the entire Commonwealth Games scandal come out in the open and the guilty punished? Will we get to know who made what-should-not-have-been-made in the IPL scam? I am doubtful. Although I am pretty certain something would be handed over as punishment if the spots stick to the three accused in the Lord’s Test. Columnist Pradeep Magazine said that the system that pollutes the mind of someone so young should take the blame—the PCB, the ICC, and the team seniors was what he said categorically.

In her introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Fountainhead author Ayn Rand wrote: “It is not in the nature of man—nor of any living entity—to start out by giving up, by spitting in one’s own face and damning existence; that requires a process of corruption whose rapidity differs from man to man.” The youth getting corrupted says a lot about those that are past their prime and are running the affairs of the world.

Now there is a lot of talk about how the involved players should be punished severely and that an example should be made of them so that it serves as a deterrent for the future. Should we turn a blind eye towards the bigger problems that the sport faces and hang those few found guilty of spot-fixing?

Suddenly you have players from most countries talking about how they were approached by bookies and how they did or did not report the incidents. Why is all this talk coming out now? Mohammad Amir is an insanely-talented cricketer and that is to his credit but he is also a product of a corrupt environment. That corrupt environment will now punish him and would then claim to have cleaned itself. That, alas, is called justice.

If cricket is to be salvaged as a sport then the cleaning up must begin at the right place, at the source of corruption. The rotten cricket administration that makes the big bucks on the backs of talented players needs to be made accountable and the brouhaha that is being made about the tip of the iceberg has to stop. Australian writer Gideon Haigh wrote after the Lord’s Test: “Corruption has become cricket’s gravest challenge, and it neither begins nor ends with the Pakistan cricket team.”

Shane Watson rightly questioned whether the ICC really wants to eradicate match-fixing and spot-fixing from cricket due to fears the problem might run too deep.

Watson said the fact a newspaper was responsible for highlighting the irregularities involving Pakistan’s recent performances showed the ICC’s system was unsuccessful. “The ICC anti-corruption unit is not really working,” he said during a sponsor’s function in Sydney. “That’s totally to do with the ICC, so they really need to step in and really get to the bottom of it. Maybe they don’t want to get to the bottom of it because it might run too deep.”

Mass murderers get away in this stinking dunghill of a world. Criminals sit in public offices and racists set agendas for nations. Amir deserves more than a second chance given the kind of people we put up with every day of our life. Don’t forget, he’s just 18.

VVS Laxman: A Bad Wicket Genius

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The older lot in the Indian dressing room knows it all too well and now the younger generation got to witness it at the P Sara Oval in Colombo: Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman is a bad wicket genius. Laxman’s flawless hundred had Murali Vijay giving him a bow when he was returning to the dressing room while Dravid and Tendulkar could just not stop smiling.

Captain MS Dhoni was effusive with praise when talking about Laxman’s innings. “He (Laxman) proved today why he is called very, very special,” Dhoni said. “He always comes up with innings that have a huge bearing on the game. It was very important for him to score runs as the team needed it most to level the series. I think it is a very special innings. Hopefully, he plays plenty more innings like this for us.”

The wicket didn’t seem like a fifth day surface because Laxman was in his groove. On this very wicket the home team had lost the cream of its batting for a handful of runs the previous morning and it was the same wicket where India lost three frontline batsmen in quick time on the fourth day’s evening.

Laxman came to the crease early on the fifth morning, India tottering at 62 for four, to join Tendulkar who was on 15. Twenty four balls and five runs later a ball by Randiv took the inside edge of Tendulkar’s bat and flew from the pad to the right of short-leg where Dilshan failed to grab it. Tendulkar murdered the very next delivery to the mid-off fence and the game-plan changed to going for runs. The 24 balls after the dropped catch went for 17 runs; the bat-pad becoming the turning point from where Laxman and Tendulkar took the attack to the Lankans.

Laxman was also troubled by back spasms during his knock but he continued without a runner for as long as he could and then finally asked for one. His batting, though, was unaffected and resplendent. He drove, pulled, flicked, dabbed, and worked the ball with ease and got his runs at a strike rate of almost 70 with 12 hits to the boundary.

‘Oh ho, ho, ho, ho’. That is how Sunil Gavaskar described some of Laxman’s strokes during India’s 2003-04 tour of Australia. Gavaskar recited it during the Sydney Test where Laxman scored a sublime 178 that was studded with 30 fours. Gavaskar also explained on TV that in Mumbai when someone plays shots like the ones Laxman was pulling off then all you say is ‘Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho’. Laxman scored two big hundreds in that tour (in Adelaide and Sydney) and a 75 in Brisbane that he rated as his best.

The Australians won the return series in India by taking the first Test in Bangalore, drawing the second, and mauling India on a green top in Nagpur in the third before a rank turner awaited the two teams in Mumbai. The Indians batted first in Mumbai and were bowled out for 104 and Australia responded with 203. The wicket was getting tougher by the hour and India needed above 200 to give the Aussies a target of 100 plus batting last.

India was 14 for two and Laxman on 8 when Tendulkar joined him in the sixth over. One run came from the seventh over of the innings bowled by Jason Gillespie and then the Aussies bowled three maidens on the trot. Then the counterattack started and Tendulkar hit three fours in an over to Gillespie and Laxman hit three to McGrath. At the end of 10 overs India was 15 for two and at the end of 12 they hopped to 41.

Laxman made 69 with 12 fours and combined with Tendulkar, who scored 55, to give India a total to defend. Needing 107 to win the Aussies were bundled out for 93 and India salvaged some pride out of an otherwise disappointing series.

In the Sydney Test in 2008, Laxman again batted at number three and scored an impressive hundred that revived India after the hiding in Melbourne and under the pressure of big first innings runs in the New Year Test. The crucial performance of the tour came in the second innings in Perth. India took the first innings lead of 118 runs but the team was in a tough position in the second when Laxman joined Irfan Pathan at 125 for 5. The stylish Hyderabadi was the last man to be dismissed on 79; with the team total at 294 and a target of 413 for the Aussies. India went on to create history by becoming the first team from the subcontinent to win at Perth.

“Nothing calms you like Laxman,” Rahul Dravid wrote when Laxman moved past the 100 Test mark. That calming influence could be the reason that Laxman has been involved in three partnerships of over 300; two with Dravid and one with Tendulkar and all against Australia. The Wisden rated Laxman’s magnificient 281 against Australia at the Eden Gardens as the sixth best Test innings of all times.

Laxman has manoeuvred India’s ship out of choppy waters many a times even though he hasn’t enjoyed that kind of safety for his own place in the side. On second thoughts it may not be such a bad thing for Laxman as we all know that the tougher the situation the more are the chances that Laxman would come good.

Written by Deepan Joshi

August 9, 2010 at 9:23 pm

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