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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.

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A drawn series this time is disappointing for India

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When South African captain Graeme Smith has to make a cheeky comment he usually goes ahead and makes it. At the post-match presentation in Newlands though he was a man at sea and he struggled for the right words. He rumbled about this and that in a hasty manner and was unsure whether to go forward or back. Then he said something to the effect that as a team we’ve managed to compete well with the best team in the world.

Begrudgingly, but he did sound like he meant it. Maybe he had to say it on a day when his bowling attack toiled for 82 overs on a fifth day wicket for three measly wickets. What was worse was they never looked like taking a wicket.

Disappointment was a word he chose not to dwell on. In 2008 in India he was more precise. Sample this from a news story: It must have been disappointing to lose at the brink of a major upset, but Smith said 1-1 was a result the hosts will be more disappointed with. “If we were playing India at home, and it was 1-1 we would be sitting in our dressing room a touch disappointed. Both teams are strong at home. We would obviously have loved to win the series, but we have played some terrific cricket so far in this season.”

When South Africa won the first Test in Centurion, Smith didn’t shy away from his customary verbal barrage. Check exhibit II: MS Dhoni, India’s captain, placed a lot of importance on the toss and the way the pitch played during the first two sessions on day one but Smith thought it was a case of too much hype. “I don’t think the wicket actually did that much. For a wicket that was under covers for four days, I thought it would do a bit more.” He added that the expectation of a bouncy wicket, and not the wicket itself, may have been what undid India. “In my mind, I think India expected more from the wicket than what actually happened. They were tentative and were on the back foot a lot of the time.”

Then Smith tried to rub salt on India’s wounds when he said that he expected more of a fight from India on the final morning and was surprised at how easily the last two wickets came. He was pointing to the fact that Sachin Tendulkar didn’t try to farm the strike and exposed the tailenders to the South African quicks.

Smith also took a dig at Harbhajan Singh when rating Paul Harris’ performance. “If you compare him to Harbhajan, the way he controlled the game for us was brilliant. Paul gets written off every series, whether it is the opposition, or the media, everyone seems to bad-mouth him or write him off. He always seems to find a key way to do something for us, to allow other people to do big things. In our dressing room, too, he plays a big part.”

For starters let’s give credit where it is due. The South African team has been the only consistently-competitive international team to tour the subcontinent in the last decade; and this despite the fact that they’ve never really had a genuine spinner. They won a two Test series in 2000 when India’s batting was insipid and South Africa’s attack had bite. This was prior to Graeme Smith entering the South African dressing room. India won the two Test series in 2004 but the fact that South Africa managed to draw a Test was also considered an achievement as at that time a result of 2-0 in favour of the hosts was the pre-series expectation.

In 2008 and in 2010 the South African team was leading the series before the final game and on both occasions India came back and squared it. On both the occasions South Africa won the toss in the deciding game yet could not manage to prevent India from winning. At the Eden Gardens in 2010 they were sitting on 218 for 1 and there were no gremlins in the wicket. South Africa was one up in the series and AN Petersen and Hashim Amla had scored flowing hundreds at a strike-rate of over 60. Then followed a passage of play that is hard to describe on a benign first-day surface and nine wickets fell for the addition of 78 runs—thirty-five of them courtesy the last wicket partnership. That’s where you say that the wicket didn’t do too much and it was all in the mind.

Eden Gardens can be intimidating and in the din that day the South African batsmen froze. Ashwell Prince and J.P. Duminy went to successive and identical deliveries and A.B. de Villiers ran himself out. India made 643 for six and scored at a rate of 4.20 runs per over. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel combined gave 230 runs and shared three wickets but not one of them was that of a key Indian batsmen. South Africa tried batting time the second time and Amla scored an unbeaten hundred but no one else crossed 25 and India won by an innings and 57 runs. It wasn’t even a rank turner of the kind they got in Kanpur when India squared the series in 2008.

The wicket was damp in Centurion and India had not played a tour game and when they lost the toss it was tough going on their first outing in South African conditions. India backed this claim with performance and got 459 runs in their second outing in Centurion. They again lost the toss in Durban but applied themselves better to get 205 and then on a distinctly South African surface bundled the hosts for 131 in better batting conditions. The series was levelled in Durban.

Compare this to South Africa in India in 2010. They won the toss in both the matches and had scored 558 runs in the first Test in Nagpur and won it by an innings and six runs before they came to the Eden Gardens. You would have to say that they were acclimatised. The pressure was on India yet it was South Africa that wilted. Ditto in 2008 in Kanpur.

In Centurion India also missed the leader of their attack Zaheer Khan and the impact of it cannot be overstated. It is the same as Steyn missing for South Africa. Had Steyn missed the first or the third Test the series would have gone in India’s favour as he broke crucial partnerships in Centurion and brought the game to an even keel in Cape Town with his brilliant burst with the second new ball.

Dhoni has had an exceptional home leg where India has beaten virtually every team they’ve played. If you ask him he’ll perhaps tell you that India is more disappointed with the 1-1 result than South Africa as in Cape Town only India was in a position that could have resulted in a win. The South Africans had no scent of it.

In Cape Town India missed the moment whereas South Africa never had that moment. There is no such thing as over attack when a team is at 130 for 6 or even at 64 for four. With the series on the line India should have gone for the kill but unlike Durban they allowed the game to drift.

South Africa has failed to register a series win at home for the third successive season but that was not something that Smith was worried about. He instead rued the fact that the wicket didn’t do much on the fifth day though it was the same one where South Africa were six down for 130 on the fourth day.

At the end of the series Dhoni said if the side had applied itself a little better in Centurion, where they disintegrated on a damp pitch, the series would have looked completely different. There is every reason to believe that what he says has merit because India had the better of South Africa in both the Tests after that. Deep down Smith would know that a 1-1 result this time around is a lucky escape for him but he wouldn’t be cheeky enough to come out and say it.

This piece was first published in The Sunday Guardian, Delhi’s only Sunday newspaper, on January 9, 2011 and can be accessed via this link to the paper’s website.

Defensive India Lose Golden Opportunity

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It was a strange day at Cape Town. MS Dhoni finally won a toss and put South Africa in with conditions being ideal for fast bowling. Having come out of nowhere to blow South Africa away in Durban India had every right to feel that now with luck on their side they can show what they are capable of doing in helpful conditions at Newlands. It was their opportunity to inflict the kind of pain that they had suffered on the first day in Centurion and in Durban.

It was a stop-start first half of the day with intermittent rain and bad light punctuating play. South Africa used the situation to their advantage while India were left wondering what went wrong when there was help for the fast men all day long. The day started well for India and at the end of the first nine overs South Africa was 21 and had lost their captain Graeme Smith once again to Zaheer Khan. A light drizzle and inadequate light meant an early lunch and play continued in the afternoon for 12 more overs before bad light and some rain again halted play. South Africa was 61 for two at the end of 21 overs and the ball was seaming around and there was swing as well.

Then there was a short second break and when play resumed India had lost their discipline and they allowed South Africa to get back in the game. Amla was the aggressor as he took three boundaries off Khan’s first over after resumption. His aggression took South Africa past the 100 mark but it soon cost him his wicket and at 106 for 3 in 28.3 overs the bowlers could tell the captain that they were backing his decision to bowl first. From that point on South Africa added 126 runs for the loss of just one wicket and completely took away the honours for the day.

It wasn’t that India bowled badly—they beat the bat throughout the day with prodigious lateral movement. One thing though can be said with certainty that India didn’t bowl with intensity and they gave too many boundary balls. They did adjust to the wicket and bowled full as was needed on this surface but unlike Durban they could not get a vice-like grip on the game. The Indians were also appreciably down on pace and at 34 for two Dhoni perhaps didn’t attack sufficiently. The ball was darting around and with the kind of control his bowlers had displayed in Durban Dhoni could have gone for an attacking 7-2 field and made life difficult for the South Africans.

It’s difficult to say why the Indians were down on pace and even low on aggression after such a superb showing in Durban. If they were thinking on getting the ball in the right areas and sacrificed some 10 kph of speed for control then the tactic didn’t work. It would have been better to come out and bowl their heart out to send a strong message to the South African dressing room. The right areas can also be hit at the optimum speed and India’s move was baffling.

Apart from his first spell Zaheer was disappointing throughout the day. Harbhajan only played a holding role and the batsmen worked him around for singles. The rub of the green switched sides and unlike Durban it favoured the South Africans in Cape Town. The outside edges eluded the catching men and a leading edge went to no man’s land. Jacques Kallis batted superbly for his 81 not out but he survived a close lbw shout and also played and missed quite a few. His would be the key wicket on Monday. The new ball would be due in six overs and having largely wasted the first one India has to be spot on with the second. If they fail to use the second one and South Africa manages to survive then India would be in for a long and tough day. If things don’t go India’s way on Monday they would be left to rue the fact that a made-to-order opportunity was missed on Sunday.

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