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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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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.

That Was A Number 1 Performance

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“We wanted to be at the top of the table; we know we have the players to keep being No 1,” Harbhajan said after the game. “We are very happy and it’s fantastic to win the way we did. The heart was pumping in the end.” The hunger and the controlled aggression of the Indian team was visible in the game throughout. This has been as good a win as any; but spare a thought for Hashim Amla, who stood defiantly not out on 123; and I guess it was that thing for which the word in cricketing lexicon is ‘unbeaten’ as he was hardly ever beaten by a bowler or by whatever else was happening at the other end or at the stands that were bubbling with expectation. Amla batted with assurance and poise for more than 8 hours without giving a hint of a chance. You’ve got to doff your hat for such an unbelievable performance.

As for turnarounds, this is an even bigger one than the famous Indian victory in Perth after the debacle of Sydney. Going in to Perth India knew that Sydney was a close match and lady luck was not in their favour as the two most-evident umpiring mistakes dented India at vital stages of the game. India was convincingly-thrashed in Nagpur where South Africa amassed 558 and Steyn struck both with the new and the old ball to destroy India for 233. India made 319 in the second innings and South Africa won by an innings and 6 runs. India could manage just 6 wickets and climbing from 6 to 20 with the same set of bowlers looked impossible. A headline summed the debacle; “No crumbs of comfort for India’

After Nagpur, when Smith was reminded that the last time when they were one up after another Steyn special in Ahmedabad, they headed to a rank turner in Kanpur—where some great batting by Sourav Ganguly and the spinners on a responsive surface helped draw the series—he said: “So are you telling me there’s a guy with a rake at the Eden Gardens? India have more control over the conditions. We need to focus on the specifics…prepare and execute our gameplans.”

In Nagpur, once Amla and Kallis got in, the runs came nice and easy and they batted beautifully when the surface was the best and then put India in after two days of batting. An exceptional new ball burst by Steyn exposed the soft belly of the Indian middle-order; there was no Dravid and no Laxman and Tendulkar fell to the ball of the day.

At the Eden Gardens, though, India did not need a rake and they even lost the toss and were staring down the barrel when South Africa were coasting at 218 for 1; with Kallis and the entire batting line-up having Duminy at number 7 to follow. The wicket had no gremlins and not a single ball kicked up like it did when Dhoni got dismissed in India’s first innings in Nagpur. That makes it a special turnaround because it takes some character to come out of a demoralising defeat like Nagpur and then go on and inflict an even bigger damage to the rival camp.

South Africa would know that they got bowled out twice on a surface that was good for batting even on the fifth day and that India took the second innings wickets without the crafty Zaheer Khan operating on the last day. They would also know that about a day in this match was lost to rain and bad light. In the end India won the match by an innings and 57 runs despite having their backs pinned to the wall. When a team wins like this then the number 1 rank has meaning and it seems to belong.

Having fallen today can India rise tomorrow?

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What a day of Test cricket. It was all Dale Steyn; he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house apart. On a wicket where playing a fast bowler was not impossible, it was on the slower side and without extravagant bounce, Steyn breathed fire. He barged in through the gates, destroying any attempt of resistance from India, during two hostile and fatal spells separated by a middle session where Sehwag and Badrinath raised hopes of some kind of a resurrection.

The straight-talking Sehwag said, “We are very angry with the way we batted.” Sehwag was more critical of the fact that they did not last long enough to tire the opposition and stitch meaningful partnerships apart from the one he had with Badrinath. “It was not a pitch where you could get out so easily. If there were a couple of more partnerships their bowlers might have got tired. But you have to give the credit to the bowlers led by Steyn.”

Steyn gave some credit to the ball change before tea as the seam of the earlier one had come apart; but losing six wickets for 12 runs in eight overs after tea is a combination of some great bowling and some gormless batting. India did not have the batting to survive good spells and to have the reserve keeper Saha making a debut as a specialist batsman shows how the bench was planned. Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh were out of the squad much in advance and Laxman was iffy before the start of the match. So what were the choices for Dhoni when Rohit Sharma got injured on the morning when his big valuable chance was about to be served to him in a platter?

With a flimsy batting line-up that had very little experience the three early wickets took the cream away with Morkel taking Gambhir and Steyn getting rid of Murali Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar. In the boiling cauldron at Nagpur today India was desperately missing what you call seasoned campaigners; the players who can bat in the heat of a furnace. One of them is still at the crease in the second essay and these days when he gets going he is a much more wiser, battle-hardened and tough customer than he was in his resplendent days of yore.

Sehwag on his day just requires someone to stay with him and he has shown that he has both application and amazing stroke-play to get near a triple hundred on his own. Today he fell into a trap; India was not even two hundred when after having reached a hundred he chased a wide one shortly before tea. His was the fourth Indian wicket to fall and his tea would have barely finished when he was back opening the second innings for India.

Sehwag was back in the hut in the second innings but he was not short of the belief that is needed after a day like this. “He refused to accept that India stood on the brink of disaster, saying the hosts had the firepower to stage a fight back. ‘They need to play their own shots but they need to exercise patience,’” he was quoted in a Cricinfo story.

A target of 150 plus on a fifth day wicket with Harbhajan and Mishra could be a tricky one for South Africa; but in order to get there India would have to play a different ball game than the one they played today.

South Africa And India In Wonderland: “Curiouser and Curiouser!”

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It says something about Australia—and a whole lot more about the other world teams—that with just two seasoned world-class batsmen, two proven performers with the ball and aided by an all-rounder with reasonable experience they comfortably won the Champions Trophy.

Out of the line-up that India faced when they last played Australia in March 2008—the two finals of the Commonwealth Bank Series that India won—only five familiar faces lifted the Champions Trophy. With this win, Australia is back to the top of the ICC ODI rankings; followed by India, South Africa and New Zealand. South Africa and India are very confounding cases; both of them were jostling for the number one position for quite some time before the Champions Trophy. The consistent cricket that they have played over a year reflects their rise in ODI rankings.

Their performances in big tournaments, on the contrary, can best be defined by the immortal words that Lewis Carroll gave Alice in his masterpiece Alice in Wonderland: “Curiouser and Curiouser!” These words came to Alice after she fell down a rabbit hole and was so bewildered by what she saw that she even forgot to speak proper English. It is since then used as literary shorthand to describe wonder and disbelief; and the kind of perplexity that India and South Africa display in major tournaments.

With the 2007 World Cup in sight, Aussie legend Greg Chappell was taken as India’s coach in May 2005 and fellow Australian Tom Moody took over Sri Lanka. In far away South Africa Mickey Arthur replaced Ray Jennings as the national coach. The first big World tournament for the new coaches and their teams was the 2006 Champions Trophy in India.

India was knocked out in the first round at home. South Africa reached the semi-final but got blown away by a Chris Gayle tropical storm that hit Sawai Mansingh Stadium, Jaipur. Gayle blasted 133 not out and the Windies chased 259 with 6 overs to spare. Australia routed the West Indies to claim the only silverware missing in their impressive collection.

In the last 6 world tournaments going back to the 2004 Champions Trophy in England; South Africa have not reached a single final and India have crashed before the first hurdle 5 times and they eventually won the solitary event where they went ahead; an uncanny position for consistently-winning teams.

India was out of the 2007 World Cup in the filtering process of the initial stage. They lost two of their 3 qualifying matches. South Africa got to the semi-final, and Smith said he’s never seen the squad so confident after winning the toss against Australia. That became a non-issue as the ‘Pigeon’ was on full flight that day in St. Lucia; nibbling the heart of South African batting and leaving them bleeding at 27 for 5 in 9.5 overs. McGrath got Kallis, Prince, and Boucher in his first spell. Australia trampled South Africa on their way to the final.

Greg Chappell resigned after the World Cup, having spent 18 months with the team and Moody moved on from Sri Lanka. Dhoni led a young Indian team that had an indifferent start to the inaugural World T20 championship in South Africa and faced two must-win games against England and the fancied South Africa.

Yuvraj came in to bat with India at 155 for 3 and 3.2 overs left against England; he was on strike when Stuart Broad came in to bowl the 19th over. It was a spectacle or a bloody carnage depending on how one saw it; 6 massive sixes in six balls got Yuvraj to 50 in 12 balls. He used the depth of the crease with great anticipation to get under the ball and time it beautifully, without ever committing early. With 218 runs on board, England fell short by 18.

The last match of the Group stage between South Africa and India was an organiser’s delight: all three teams—South Africa, New Zealand, and India—had a chance to go to the semi-finals with the probabilities in that order. After a bad start, a gritty performance by Rohit Sharma (50) and Dhoni (45) got India to 153. Two great moments in the field and three perfect deliveries reduced SA to 31 for 5 inside 6 overs. Boucher and Morkel took the score to 97 for 5 in 16 overs; 29 needed in 24 balls to qualify and 57 to win; South Africa finished on 116 for 9 in 20 overs.

In the semi-final Yuvraj came up the order and was brilliant again: 70 in 30 balls. India posted a healthy 188 and Australia fell short by 15. Dhoni and his young team lifted the championship in a fight-to-the-finish final with Pakistan.

The defending champions crashed out of the 2009 version at the first hurdle; losing all their three big games. South Africa was brilliant throughout and had accounted for everything, even for the inherent unpredictability of this format.

Pakistan reached the semis in tatters; their journey was nothing short of miraculous. It can be best described by the modifiers used in headlines after they lost to England. Sloppy Pakistan face litmus test—this classic was before the Netherlands game. Then rusty, lacking discipline and erratic; the analysis after the New Zealand match said Charismatic Pakistan.

The semi-final for which South Africa had accounted for everything, they could not account for one man; neither with the bat nor with the ball. Afridi came in at number 3 and made the fastest fifty of the match in 34 balls; very slow by his standards—since he has an ODI hundred in 37 balls against Sri Lanka. His bowling figures were 4-0-16-2; the only bowler to take two wickets and the most frugal. With 29 needed in two overs, Umar Gul bowled the 19th over, perhaps the best over at death that cricket has seen for a while. Just six singles and the buffer of 23 for the last over was more than enough.

When Pakistan met Sri Lanka in their Group match at Lord’s on the 12th of June, the green and blue intermingled; they stood alongside each other in their first meeting after that Lahore morning. And after the wheel turned a full circle to bring these two teams as final adversaries, it became an event that transcended sport. That this final was being played was in itself an immensity that made the game and its result completely inconsequential.

As for India and South Africa, the perplexity is at the opposite ends of the spectrum—India’s bane has mostly been the first hurdle, in fact the first match; and for South Africa it has usually been near the end. India needs to wake up and get their act together for the first match and South Africa needs to avoid sleeping near the end.

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