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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 Curious Case Of Rohit Sharma

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It was great to sit back and watch Rohit Sharma make an audacious and unbeaten 79 in 46 balls at number 4 in India’s T20 match against Australia where seven other batsmen who played above and below him made a total of 24 runs in 42 balls. Harbhajan Singh, who made 13 runs batting at number nine, was the only other Indian player to get to double figures.

Sharma appears to be out of favour with the Indian selectors and the team management. This could be due to his patchy ODI form and it also seems like he has been the fall guy after India’s early exit from the 2009 T20 World Cup in England. Sharma has an average of 40 in international T20 matches; something that can be called phenomenal in the shortest format.

The ODI average of Rohit Sharma is a low 25.62 in 42 matches and it belies his obvious talent. He has been in and out of the playing XI and on the last few occasions he has got a chance only after the series has been secured. Sharma belongs to a different breed of batsmen. He is easy on the eye and has all the time in the world to play his strokes. His first class average of 55.02, at a still early phase of his career, shows where he really belongs and such players don’t come that often to be wasted in warming the bench. In the team that took on Australia in Bridgetown no other player bar Gautam Gambhir has a better first class average than Sharma.

The longer the format of the game the better should be the chances of Sharma being in the playing XI. One of his memorable innings in a pressure situation should be reason enough to give him a longer run to prove himself.

The first final of the Commonwealth Bank Series in 2008 was played on the second of March between India and Australia in Sydney. Australia won the toss, decided to bat, and India restricted them to 239 runs as Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla bowled 20 overs between themselves for just 71 runs. Harbhajan also took two important wickets.

The first half of the game had gone well for India and they needed to back it up with smart cricket in the other half to win the game. At 87 for 3 in 18.5 overs, with the match hanging on a knife’s edge, the young Rohit Sharma joined Sachin Tendulkar who was batting on 50 in 56 balls.

Sharma started in style by hitting two gorgeous straight drives to pick boundaries in back-to-back overs by Nathan Bracken. The fourth wicket partnership added 123 runs at a fair clip to set up a perfect run chase that became completely one-sided by the time Sharma departed in the 42nd over having made an assured 66 in his beautiful languid style.

Tendulkar made an unbeaten 116 and was all praise for the way Rohit batted. “Rohit Sharma really batted well, full credit to him. He has a terrific head on his shoulders, he’s calm and composed, and today I batted with him for the first time for such a long time.” Australia’s bowling attack had Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Bracken, Brad Hogg and James Hopes.

Ian Chappell didn’t need that innings to see Sharma as a special talent as he had already taken that position by seeing him in the earlier games. Sharma then became one of the success stories of the inaugural T20 World Cup that India won; scoring a 50 not out against South Africa and then a crucial 30 off 16 balls in the final against Pakistan.

In the next edition in England, Sharma was made to open the Indian innings despite his great success down the order in the previous year. He did well in the games against Bangladesh and Ireland but was found wanting against West Indies and England, who used to short ball to good effect at Lord’s.

In total contrast Ravindra Jadeja is fast gaining a reputation as the man of the opposition on our side. In Bridgetown it was Jadeja who got Australia started after the first three overs had gone for just 16. The last three balls of his first over were rank long hops that Watson hit out of the park and then it was Warner who carted the first three length deliveries of his next over for sixes.

Jadeja’s highest score of 25 in a T20 international came against England and cost India the match. He walked in at two down and took 35 balls to score 25 runs and in the end it proved to be a very expensive experiment. Yuvraj had made 60 plus in the previous game but he was held back as Dhoni did not want to put extra pressure on him. Jadeja’s cameo ensured that Yuvraj walked in with much more pressure than he would have had at his number four position. He made 17 off 9 balls with two sixes and was then beautifully stumped off the bowling of Graeme Swann. Dhoni remained not out on 30 and Pathan on 33 off 20 and 17 balls respectively and despite that India fell short by four runs. Dhoni defended the promotion in a press conference but on the ground it had proved to be a daft move.

In the ODI against Australia where Tendulkar was raging a lone battle to take India past 350 in Hyderabad Jadeja provided him good support at number eight. Nineteen runs were needed in the last 18 balls when Tendulkar mistimed a scoop over fine leg and departed having made 175. Jadeja was batting well having scored 23 off 16 balls and all he needed was to keep his cool. This is how Cricinfo’s commentary described his run out: Exit SRT and the collapse begins. Jadeja is run out. He was run out last game under similar pressure conditions and he has succumbed again. It was pushed straight to cover and Jadjea sets for a non-existent single. Praveen Kumar does the obvious thing: sends him back but too late. The throw comes in to the bowler who takes out the stumps. Australian fielders erupt in joy.

Rohit Sharma has delivered in pressure situations and he should be a natural selection in the playing XI while Jadeja has panicked more than once and he should be made to sweat before giving him a game.

Twenty20: A Country For Old Men

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In comparison to the well-over-a-century-old Test Cricket and almost four decades of One Day Internationals, Twenty20 can certainly be called the ‘New Kid in Town’; a smash hit and wonderful song of The Eagles. However, it is the title of the multi-Oscar winning film ‘No Country For Old Men’ that puts the current IPL in perspective; only because it provides the perfect and sharp contrast.

The ‘so-called old men’ of cricket are having a ball at the game that is supposed to be tailor-made for young and fresh legs and that has been the biggest thrill that the tournament has provided so far. Who would have thought that the top names of the third season of IPL would feature Jacques Kallis, Chaminda Vaas, Anil Kumble, Sachin Tendulkar, Murali, Gilchrist etc?

Jacques Kallis has been phenomenal and he brings so much to the table with his rock solid batting that is sprinkled with assured and audacious stroke-play, his more than handy bowling, and safe catching to top it all. The graph of the Royal Challengers Bangalore has just kept going up since Kumble took charge of the team and besides leadership he has also adapted his bowling to the demands of this format that can easily kill the spirit of a bowler. But then what format can kill the spirit of a bowler like Kumble, even if he is measured in four over spells?

What these old men have proved is that no matter what the format one would be a fool to consider them as just a few guests at a party being hosted for someone else. It may not be right to club Andrew Symonds with the old lot but it’s worthwhile to note that he is about 35 and has been around for a while. Symonds changed a game by plucking out a beauty with sheer brilliance and the catch was so good that his pointing the finger ever so slowly towards the dressing room almost looked like an understatement.

It was the moment that changed the game on its head. Karthik was batting on 42 from 25 balls and the Delhi Daredevils were 152 for 5 needing 20 runs in 12 balls when Symonds came on to bowl the penultimate over having gone for just 15 in his three overs in which he had picked one wicket.

The momentum had just swung in the favour of Delhi with Karthik having hit Rohit Sharma for two fours and a six and then taken a single to retain strike. The first ball of the 19th over went for four with Karthik playing a lovely square cut and Delhi needed 16 from 11 balls with 5 wickets in hand. That is when Symonds came up with that magical catch that would gone for a certain boundary but for those outstretched fingers and the lunging towards the right side body of a superb athlete.

It was a great over in which he picked another wicket and gave a buffer of 14 runs for the crafty and retired from international cricket Vaas. Vaas was accurate as ever and two more wickets fell in the first two balls of Vaas and it was Deccan all the way.

The three top teams right now are captained by Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, and Adam Gilchrist; two retired and one the longest-serving Master on the circuit. Tendulkar notched up his second fifty of IPL 3 when his unbeaten 71 saw Mumbai home in the penultimate over against Kolkata. It was the bowlers who had restricted Kolkata for an under par score by sticking to their line and full length and then as Atul Wasan pointed out it was the professor coming out himself and giving everyone a demonstration of how it is done. The masterclass of Tendulkar was there to see.

This new kid called T20 certainly enjoys having the oldies around. The shorter form requires just about three hours of field work and that could be the reason why it is proving to be such a good country for old men.

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.

Dhoni Personifies 21st Century Leadership

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It was 97 for 3 after 15.1 overs when MS Dhoni joined Gautam Gambhir in the second ODI in Nagpur and from here he gently nudged India to a position from where he and Suresh Raina could then ferociously turn the course of the match.

The first ball that Dhoni faced was a bouncer from Hilfenhaus; he didn’t pick it and took evasive action without his eyes on the ball. It hit him on the back of the helmet, but he was alive to the possibility of a leg-bye; and at the non-striker’s end he could even afford a smile.

The rebuilding process began with the scrambling for ones and twos; haring between the wickets and picking the odd boundary in between. The period reminded me of a brilliant half-century that Dhoni got against Sri Lanka and saw India home without hitting a single boundary in Adelaide last year. The 119-run fourth wicket partnership at over six an over was broken with the strange run-out of Gambhir—the second time he’s lost his wicket recently while backing up.

Raina joined Dhoni with 16 overs remaining and India in a good position with 216 on the board. The next five overs yielded just 22 runs as Raina had time to get his eye in. India was 251 for 4 in 41 overs when the deft stealing had been done and the loot began. And what a loot it was.

In the next 8 overs India plundered 98 runs as Dhoni’s bottom-hand and Raina’s innovative hitting mercilessly butchered the Aussie attack. Dhoni may have curbed his style with additional responsibilities but he showed how much muscle he can pack into those typical MSD strokes if the situation demands. He jumped from 90 to 108 with three bottom-handed sixes in four balls. Flat sixes and fours that went like tracer bullets flowed from his bat before he fell in the last over having made 124 in 107 balls. There was ample support from the two southpaws and Gambhir’s 76 and Raina’s 62 later gave the captain the license to kill.

After losing his first ODI series as captain against Australia at home 4-2; Dhoni has won every bilateral ODI series home and away. The losses have been in tournaments with a format involving more than two teams; the Kitply and the Asia Cup and the two World tournaments this year.

The two finals that India won in the last edition of the Commonwealth Bank Series in Australia are the crowning glory of India’s ODI achievements. Teams with big names on paper have played in the tri-series before and Australia has mostly proved to be too hot to handle in the finals. Dhoni got Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla in the playing XI in the finals. Praveen opened the attack and took two vital wickets and Piyush was given the ball when Hayden and Symonds were hitting the seamers easily. They justified the captain’s faith amply and Australia managed a gettable 239 in 50 overs.

It needed a big performance on the big stage to go past Australia; and a magnificent 117 not out by Tendulkar and his vigilant and daring 123-run partnership with young Rohit Sharma, who made 66, ensured that India went to Brisbane with a lead. “He has scored 16,000 runs. I haven’t even played 16,000 balls.” That was the pithy comment from Dhoni when asked, halfway through the CB Series, if he was bothered by his senior-most batsman failing to make big runs. When his experience and ability to fashion a chase in a big match was needed Tendulkar played the perfect innings in a perfect chase.

The business was finished in Brisbane and Dhoni stepped back a little and asked for the youngest member in the team; and a grinning Chawla held the trophy aloft. That and the T-shirt he put on a young Indian fan after the World T20 win symbolises his leadership.

His giving Ganguly those few overs to lead the Test team for one last time before bowing out showed the magnanimity of his leadership—and coming ahead of all the big names in the Mohali Test showed he can take tough decisions easily if needed. He does not shy from trusting a youngster at the deep end of the sea. He respects the present and the past achievers but is pretty-much his own man. He has no need to foist himself on the team or to seek respect and that is one of the reasons why he earns it so well. Dhoni personifies the leadership required for a 21st Century India.

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.

Dhoni Can Blame It On The Rain

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The good news after the washed out match against Australia is that the mathematical probability for the Indian team to make it to the next stage is not over as of yet; there is a slim chance riding on a lot of factors going India’s way. The bad news is that some of the crucial factors are not in control of what Dhoni and his men do.

India has to hope that Pakistan beats Australia in the second last match of Group A. And if it wins, then India has to ensure that it beats West Indies by a margin that takes its net run rate above that of Australia.
This reliance on mathematical possibilities is quite a depressing situation for a team that has been flirting with the number 1 position in the ICC ODI rankings. Despite all the consistent play that has taken India to the top of the charts, this is not an unfamiliar situation for the team.

Remember the World Cup in West Indies; a loss against Bangladesh in the first match and it was two must win games for India. Bermuda was easy but the loss to Sri Lanka was the end of our campaign. It was also the end of a period defined as ‘commitment to excellence’ by former Australian legend and India’s pre-World Cup coach Greg Chappell.

Persisting with the same attack that won India the Compaq Cup final in Colombo may have cost heavily.
In that final, 18 overs were shared between Yuvraj, Pathan and Raina. Pathan was hammered at 9 an over in his four over spell and Yuvraj was decent at 4 an over. Raina was superb with 8 overs for 26 runs and a wicket. RP Singh went for above seven an over, Ishant and Nehra were not too different. None of the fast bowlers finished their quota. Harbhajan won the match with his five-wicket spell.

Also India had piled 319 runs with a top-class 138 from Tendulkar and a finishing kick of 56 not out by Yuvraj. There was no Yuvraj here who gave India a buffer of 20 extra runs and six frugal overs in Colombo.

What if India had to defend a modest total? And what about restricting a good batting line-up on a decent surface? In Colombo Sri Lanka was all out for 273 with 3.2 overs left; it was a 46 run win but that does not tell the story that the chase was on till the 42nd over. Sri Lanka was 60 for no loss after 7 overs. RP, Ishant and Nehra flogged out of the attack.

Harbhajan was brought in the 8th over with the field still up and he rattled Dilshan’s middle stump with his 5th ball. Jayasuriya hit two consecutive boundaries in Harbhajan’s next over and then took a single. Then a scrambled seam doosra with some over spin on the off stump line drew Mahela forward but he could only manage a leading edge that looped straight back to the bowler’s hands. Two big wickets in two overs for Harbhajan inside the first power play changed the tempo of the chase.

Still the chase was on and the scales turned in India’s favour when Raina had Kapugedera. Then Harbhajan took two in two in the 45th over to reduce Lanka to nine down and completed the formalities by removing Mendis in his 10th over.

The match before the final was even more instructional. Sri Lanka made 307 batting first. India used seven bowlers. Here also Raina bowled 3 overs for just 14 runs and took a wicket; Harbhajan was superb giving 37 runs in 10 overs for a wicket. All the others leaked runs in the range of 6.42 and 7.25. The chase was disastrous; we were effectively out of the contest by the 25th over. India lost by 139 runs.

Did it occur to the captain and the team management that there were some serious concerns? In the last four innings in which he came out to bat before the Centurion game, Yusuf Pathan had spent 5, 8, 4, and 12 minutes in the middle for a combined total of 2 runs. He was hammered for 9 an over and had two ducks and two singles in four outings with the bat. What was the role he was picked for?

Was their any concern for Dhoni and the team management when they went ahead with this composition in a crunch game? An abysmal RP, a low on confidence Ishant, no fifth bowler and to top it all a complete misuse of the only world class bowler in the team. So it wasn’t that you felt three bowlers short you were actually 4 bowlers short with only Nehra at your disposal.

To get the best out of Harbhajan you have to use him like a field marshal uses his most potent weapon; the way he was used when the Sri Lankan openers had hit 60 in 7 overs and it was still the first power play. It was Dhoni who let Harbhajan down at Centurion and not the other way round.

I don’t know if Rohit Sharma was available for selection but he’s played 41 matches and has four fifties to his name. The simple reason that he had in the company of Tendulkar guided India home in a tense one-day final against Australia in Sydney should have been reason enough to consider his case seriously.

The quality that Rohit would have brought to the team apart from his obvious batting talent was his experience and unruffled temperament. India was in a solid position when Kohli came up the order but his inexperience and not his form let him and the team down. Another six or seven overs later he could have pulled that risk easily.

Inexperience sees the five dot balls while experience knows that there is a long way to go and numerous opportunities to cash in will come. Inexperience is a lack of awareness of the state of the game while experience is exactly the opposite.

Raina would have been a much better promotion; the left right combination would have made it difficult for the spinners to choke runs. His natural ability to strike the balls in his zone would have been an added advantage.

The Centurion game was decided in the passive period between the 15th and the 25th overs. Pakistan was under the pump at 65 for 3 after the 15th over and they crept to 108 for 3 by the half way mark; 43 runs without losing a wicket. India was 97 for 2 at the end of the 15th over and by the end of the 25th they were 138 for 4; 41 runs and two big wickets.

Dhoni used the most ineffective bowlers at his disposal when Pakistan was reeling under pressure and Younis used his most effective bowlers when India would have been content to develop a sedate partnership. Ajmal and Afridi would not have been as effective if Younis had allowed a few overs to pass with just containing the batsmen as his motive. A set Kohli with Dravid would have played them much more effectively.

The most consistently-successful part-time bowler coming into the series was Suresh Raina; yet Dhoni didn’t give him the ball and preferred to experiment with Kohli and Pathan at a critical juncture.

The ice-cool Mahendra Singh Dhoni had a bad tournament; an awful one in fact. He knew exactly that his attack had no bite except Harbhajan; he needed Amit Mishra in the playing XI and also a replacement for RP. He could afford to be a batsman less and play Kohli at number 6 with Harbhajan to follow. Now he can just hope and pray for the Gods of fortune to oblige.

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