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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 hubris of poor travellers

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The brilliant Anderson
A 4-1 series loss is a 4-1 series loss. Statements from Captain Virat Kohli and Coach Ravi Shastri undermine the fact that there’s no hiding place on a cricket field or in any other sport for that matter. The aggressive Kohli’s statements in the press conference after the fifth Test were extremely defensive in nature. To paraphrase, he said that the scoreline of 4-1 to England didn’t show how competitive the series was, and that both the teams and those who understand cricket know it. Add to this the fact that Shastri said that the current crop of players are travelling much better than the teams of the last 15-20 years and you get a perfect example of the team management’s hubris.
If Shastri wasn’t speaking metaphorically then it means that this crop is better than any settled side that toured outside India 1998 onwards. Under Kohli India has won 9 matches away from home (5 against Sri Lanka, 2 against West Indies, 1 each against South Africa and England) and lost 8 (1 against Australia and Sri Lanka, 2 against South Africa and 4 against England). We have had series wins in Sri Lanka many times before Kohli took over and have registered series wins against much better sides than the West Indies that the current crop defeated. We’ve never won a series in Australia or South Africa and the best result of a drawn series in both the countries came with the crop Kohli grew up admiring. To put forth my brutally honest opinion, we could have ticked Australia twice, under Ganguly and then under Kumble but were denied both times by Umpire Steve Bucknor (It wasn’t about just one decision but several in Sydney in Steve Waugh’s last Test when Shastri was in the commentators box and remarked whether the Umpires were given a great breakfast for extending favour after favour and Mark Waugh and some other Australian commentators agreed). The second was too acrimonious to talk about but had that massive edge of Andrew Symonds who rescued Australia in the first essay been given, India would have had a decent chance of closing out the game.
There have been close encounters with South Africa as well but no blame can be laid on being hard done by bad decisions. The South Africans have defended their turf brilliantly. We were 1-0 ahead under Dravid but lost the 3 Test series 2-1 where the last Test was tantalizingly close where Zaheer Khan made getting 10 runs look like 40 and a needless change in the batting order that had succeeded in the first innings led to our undoing in the second. We came from being 0-1 behind to level the series under Dhoni when we were the number 1 Test side in the world rankings. The final Test was a brilliant draw, the first time we drew a series in SA, with Steyn bowling what is known as the ‘spell from hell’ and Tendulkar scoring a brilliant 51st Test hundred. It was Kallis who denied India on both the occasions, a very cautious and defensive partnership in a low-scoring chase with Ashwell Prince the first time round when we lost and a hundred in both innings to save the game when Harbhajan had left them reeling in the second innings under Dhoni’s leadership.
These were performances to be proud of and where a little bit of luck could have led to India recording series wins. We fought extremely well in South Africa under Dravid and Dhoni and in Australia under Ganguly and Kumble with the series being competitive till the last Test match. Under Dravid we also won a series in England but to be fair to Bucknor he did rule a plumb leg before in our favour at Lord’s else the series would have been a 1-1 draw.
The current crop is not battle hardened and they meekly surrendered against a struggling English side. They chopped and changed too much and got the combination completely wrong in the first two Tests against South Africa and England. Two wins and six losses against relatively beatable sides is not a record that qualifies this team to be labeled as the best travellers in the last 15-20 years. They might actually be somewhere near the bottom. The best player is not always the best person to lead the side, so we must at least ponder if a change is needed there—Rahane displayed a very cool demeanour in the Test where we won against Australia at home and wrapped the series as well. As for the head coach, a change is surely needed.

Written by Deepan Joshi

September 13, 2018 at 12:15 pm

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.

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.

The Cobra Strikes In Mamba Land

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Durban will no longer be synonymous with a meek Indian capitulation. That India came out and defied all odds to leave South Africa in tatters at Kingsmead is perhaps the biggest confirmation of the fact that this team never gives up.

Durban has not been a happy hunting ground for India. Back in 1996 the Indian team had one of its worst defeats at Kingsmead where the fiery Allan Donald supported by the menacingly-accurate Shaun Pollock ran through the Indian batting line-up in both the innings. India could not last 40 overs in either innings and collapsed to 100 in the first and 66 in the second innings. It was not a high scoring game and yet India lost by a massive 328 runs.

On India’s last tour to South Africa in 2006, they came to Durban for the Boxing Day Test after having won the first Test comfortably at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Almost a day’s play was lost to rain and bad light and India just had to survive about two sessions to eke out a draw and head to Cape Town maintaining their lead. South Africa hustled India in under two sessions on a rain interrupted day where a little more resistance from the top order would have made it much easier for the lower order to hang in there when the light was fading fast.

This time India came to Durban with not just its past history of struggling against the bounce of Kingsmead but also after a drubbing in the first Test at Centurion. There is no denying the fact that India got the worst of the conditions at Centurion. With a wicket that did much more on the first day than it did on any of the subsequent ones and despite a good batting performance in the second innings India lost by an innings and 25 runs.

Shaun Pollock was asked after Centurion: “One up, two to play. How difficult would it be for India to come back from here?” Pollock replied, “It’s massive. I really can’t see them coming back. When you watch their performance, just the four test wickets that they got in this match, I am not too sure where they are going to get the 20 wickets from.”

The South Africans can’t complain that India didn’t give them enough warning that things could change and that they could change drastically. In Nagpur earlier this year South Africa won the toss and put 558 runs on the board. Dale Steyn ran through the Indian line-up picking 7 for 51 in India’s first innings and then another three in the second to set up South Africa’s win by an innings and six runs.

The action then moved to Eden Gardens in Kolkata with India’s number one Test ranking at stake. South Africa won another important toss and they were coasting at 218 for 1, looking set to bat India out of the game. South Africa may have heard about and prepared for an Indian comeback in Kolkata but then nothing prepares you for the kind of madness that took place that day. South Africa slumped to 298 all out; at a crucial juncture they lost five middle-order wickets for the addition of four runs. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, and M S Dhoni scored centuries as India declared at 643 for 6 and then bowled South Africa under 300 again to win by an innings and 57 runs.

That was in familiar conditions at home and this has been in alien conditions suiting the South Africans completely where India was also pegged back having lost another vital toss. Smith smiled on his luck and South Africa decided to insert India in. In overcast conditions India came out to combat the swing, seam and bounce that Steyn and Morne Morkel got on a fresh wicket that had a bit of moisture. It was a better batting effort but not enough to be out of the woods till the bowlers came and ripped open the Test.

If Centurion wasn’t a 136-run wicket, as the South Africans kept saying, then was Kingsmead a 131-run wicket on a sunny day when the bowlers got less assistance? Zaheer Khan led the attack brilliantly and the Indian team caught fabulously to take a very handy 74-run lead. The game, once again, seemed to be on an even keel when India was reduced to 56 for four. And then, like a colossus, V V S Laxman stood up and steered India to a lead of over 300 with his brilliant 96 on a wicket where the second highest score from either team in both innings was 39.

The way the Indians bowled as a unit is something South Africa would be wary of before heading to Cape Town. It was on the fourth morning when they gave nothing away that the South African team wilted under pressure. Runs were plugged from both ends as Sreesanth bowled his best spell of the tour and Harbhajan Singh bowled with such control that one wondered if he had the ball on a leash.

The abiding memory of the Test would be the dismissal of Jacques Kallis. Sreesanth got the ball to dart in from a length and venomously leap like a cobra towards Kallis’ head. Kallis was airborne and like a supreme athlete his body was arched like a human C but he couldn’t do anything but glove the ball with sheer survival instinct. The ball ballooned to Sehwag at gully and Kallis was on his way. Allan Donald said on television that it was a ball that had Kallis’ name on it and what made it such an impossible one to deal with was the fact that it did so much so quickly that the batsman had absolutely no time.

South Africa was a cock-a-hoop after Centurion and they were undone by an absolutely brilliant performance by the Indian team at Durban. All this bodes well for Cape Town, where the South Africans will be smarting from the defeat at Kingsmead and the Indians will be well aware that this could be their opportunity to finally win a test series in the African nation. The return of Gautam Gambhir augurs well for the visitors and this time it will be the South Africans who’ll need to do a bit of soul searching.

(This piece was first done for The Sunday Guardian website on December 30, 2010)

Magical Durban Test On A Knife’s Edge

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It’s still anybody’s game. Although India are certainly better placed having accounted for three wickets and still having a cushion of enough runs (South Africa need 192 more to win) to get the remaining seven. The pendulum would have swung heavily in India’s favour had Cheteshwar Pujara been able to hold on to a very tough chance when Kallis was yet to open his account and South Africa were 86 for three.

In the 11 balls that Kallis played before getting off the mark he survived three anxious moments. After that tough chance Zaheer Khan was pretty close to getting his man when Kallis almost nicked the first ball of the 21st over of the innings and was then lucky that his mistimed pull on the fourth ball did not carry to Tendulkar at mid on.

South Africa had earlier got off to a flying start with Smith in particular finding the boundary easily. The new ball did not work for India and South Africa raced to 60 for no loss in 12 overs. The 15 overs after that were fruitful and three wickets fell for the addition of 51 runs. For India it is a game of patience now and they would need to bowl in good areas consistently and then take their chances. If they stick to a plan and make it difficult for South Africa to get runs then they have a better chance of making the batsmen commit errors. The first hundred runs have come rather easily for the South Africans and India can take better control of proceedings if they can stem the flow of runs.

In the morning South Africa got off to a perfect start when Morne Morkel removed Pujara in the first full over of the day with just a run added to the overnight score. MS Dhoni walked to the crease and played with the same assuredness that he has displayed throughout in this series. VVS Laxman, who was looking in supreme touch, and Dhoni put on 48 quick runs to extend the lead above 200. South Africa again came back in the game strongly with two quick wickets and Laxman on 47 was again in the difficult situation of taking his team to some kind of security. And once again Laxman did the business brilliantly.

It was just a matter of finding someone to give him support and Laxman would have done the rest and this time that support came from Zaheer. The partnership started with Zaheer trying to heave a couple of deliveries in typical cross-batted and lower order style. Then he calmed down and there is all the reason to believe that it was the presence of Laxman that led to Zaheer applying himself. The partnership added 70 invaluable runs before Zaheer perished in the post lunch session. Ishant fell in quick succession and running out of partners Laxman was the last to go four runs short of his century but having taken his team a couple of runs over 300. It promises to be a match winning and series levelling innings. If that happens then it will be another addition to the priceless gems that he has produced with amazing consistency.

India have been at the top of the ICC Test rankings for almost a full year now but having played most of their cricket in the subcontinent South Africa was always going to be their first real test. No matter what they say India needed a couple of good tour games and then some luck. Their plight was exacerbated by the fact that they got to bat when the wicket was at its liveliest in Centurion and perhaps in Durban as well.

It no longer sounds like an excuse because now India have bowled South Africa out for 131 when the sun was out and the wicket was playing much better than what is was when India got 205 in their first innings in Durban. Harbhajan Singh saying that India was well-prepared for the series but not for a wet wicket has much more weight now as they batted well in the second innings in Centurion and have bowled and caught spectacularly in Durban on Monday. Whether India was undercooked is now debatable. Monday’s performance in the field was worthy of their number one ranking. They’ve come from being miles behind after the hammering in Centurion to sting South Africa badly. It remains to be seen whether they can turn the wound they inflicted in the first innings into a fatal blow in the second but regardless they have at least maintained their reputation by bowling South Africa out for 131 in decent batting conditions.

The bowling performance in Durban on Monday was delightful. It was as if Durban had turned into Eden Gardens where India squared the series after being blown away in Nagpur the last time the South Africans travelled to India. As has been the case with most of India’s superb bowling performances in the last few seasons it was Zaheer who gave a lion-hearted performance. For the first hour or so he toiled single-handedly taking out both the openers and being miserly with runs. The runs leaked from the other end though as Sreesanth was all over the place in his first spell. Then came the piece of luck that comes when whatever you touch is turning to gold and Jacques Kallis was short of his crease at the non-striker’s end when a firm hit from Amla brushed past Ishant Sharma’s hand and dislodged the bails. The short session became sweeter as Sreesanth produced a ripper of a delivery to get rid of de Villiers for a duck. The score at lunch read 74 for 4.

The magic started post lunch when Zaheer came to bowl his second spell and Harbhajan his first. Pressure was building from both ends and four runs came in three overs. Harbhajan struck with the first ball of his second over and trapped Amla leg before with a straighter one. From the other end Zaheer bowled two top quality overs to make Ashwell Prince unsure before nailing him in the third. Two more tight overs followed and then Harbhajan produced a magic over, the kind he does when he gets a wicket early in his spell. Steyn nicked a straighter one and Dravid took an unbelievably good catch at first slip. Four balls later Pujara at short leg took a sharp chance to send Harris back; South Africa sank to 103 for 8.

Then Harbhajan took a beauty at fine leg off Sharma’s bowling to end a small partnership between Morkel and Boucher. Next over he completed the formalities by getting Tsotsobe. South Africa 131 all out in 37.2 overs.

In the second innings India was coasting at 42 for no loss after nine overs and the South African bowling was looking flat. Steyn was out of the attack having conceded 21 runs in three overs and the openers were looking settled. Sehwag then went for a tempter well wide of his off stump and edged it to Boucher. Next over Vijay got a nasty ball from Morkel that reared up towards his head from a tad short of a length and had him fending in an awkward fashion. The ball ballooned up and Amla took an easy catch at short leg.

Then there were two moments of indiscretion from India’s most-experienced campaigners. And it was disappointing to see. The very next over in rather uncharacteristic fashion Rahul Dravid chased a wide one from Tsotsobe and nicked it to the keeper. From 42 for no loss and South Africa looking hapless it became 48 for 3 with India under pressure. Laxman walked out to join Tendulkar who was batting on four having cracked a short delivery from Morkel to the point boundary to get off the mark.

Tendulkar does not have a good record in Durban and it is his poor performances in Kingsmead that are mainly responsible for his overall record in South Africa being below par. The partnership lasted just 16 balls and Tendulkar was snaffled at third slip of the first ball of Steyn’s second spell. It wasn’t an edge it was rather an uncontrolled steer from the face of the blade. Steyn did him in with pace as Tendulkar was late for the stroke and couldn’t get on top of it for the drive. The shot was on but with just a few deliveries under his belt Tendulkar was not accustomed to the wicket that had quickened up a bit.

Laxman and Pujara took the score to 92 at stumps on day two with some sensible batting. Tendulkar has had a poor Test with the bat after a long time and with the kind of form he is in his presence would have made a lot of difference to the team in either innings. That’s why they say that sometimes good form can be your undoing as you tend to play aggressively without first getting used to the wicket.

Despite the great bowling performance on Monday the argument for poor preparation for the tour remains. Teams come with detailed plans and they plot well in advance on how to bring down the opponent in his own den but India seems to be an exception. It is only the television channels who seem to do the preparation by building the series up as India’s Final Frontier. How on earth do you otherwise explain the inclusion of journeymen like Jaidev Unadkat, Wriddhiman Saha, and Umesh Yadav. Was this really a tour where two uncapped players and the third a veteran of one Test had to be unleashed?

Tendulkar’s 50th century is definitely a landmark to be celebrated in isolation but it does nothing to ease the pain of a complete drubbing in the first Test. The wicket at Centurion was a perfect surface when India batted second and they got off to a great start before throwing it away. Having seen off the new ball threat Sehwag blew it away by being rash. Gambhir, Dravid, and Dhoni were wickets South Africa earned by their brilliant bowling but India was dented by a couple of casual dismissals.

Pujara should ideally have been drafted in during the New Zealand series and he would have been battle ready come South Africa. From the looks of it he seems to have both skill and temperament and he needs an extended run to be judged. MS Dhoni has shown guts in all his outings and the top six should take a leaf out of his book.

If India square the series in Durban then both teams will have all to play for in Cape Town. And if South Africa manage to chase the total then the series would be sealed in Durban and Cape Town would be a battle for the Number 1 ranking.

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