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The Nagpur Nightmare Can Haunt India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Acid Test For Indian Cricket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boy From Bandra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Brilliant Hitting And Great Batting

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The effort of the IPL sponsors and the marketers of the game got a great advertisement in the match between the Mumbai Indians and the Rajasthan Royals. This was a shorter form of the delight that IPL is hoping to cash on. Mumbai won the toss and batted first and got to a healthy 212 courtesy a good start and some wonderful middle-order batting.

The Mumbai Indians dominated the match for the first 27 overs with the Royals tottering at 43 for 3 which soon became 66 for 4 in 9.2 overs when Paras Dogra joined Yusuf Pathan. At the end of 10 overs the Royals were 69 for 4 and needed 144 runs in 60 balls. Pathan was 15 in 13 balls with a six and Dogra was 2 in 2.
It was that situation for which captains would tell you to go and knock the daylights out of the bowling attack without losing your wicket. Pathan got the message and played himself in before the carnage began with three consecutive sixes off Murtaza.

Dogra brought Pathan back on strike with a single and then it was 6446Wd4; 26 off Sathish. Then it was McLaren and again Dogra pinched a single and Pathan went 44Wd4Wd11; 17 in the over. Three overs leaked 62 runs and the match was alive with 82 needed off 42 balls.

Then there was some sanity as Tendulkar brought his two main weapons for an over each in a game where he was missing the magic of Harbhajan; who suffered a blow to his inner thigh while batting. Malinga and Khan gave 7 and 5 runs respectively to restore order and then Murtaza went for 11 in the 16th over of the innings leaving the Royals with 59 to get in 24 balls. Tendulkar needed two overs before he could go back to Zaheer and Malinga and with Pathan on 83 in 33 balls and Dogra on a boundary-less but calm 16 in 18 balls he picked the hard-to-get-under Jayasuriya.

The first three balls seemed to justify the decision with just singles coming and then Pathan launched into Jayasuriya and hit him for two massive sixes either side of a four—100 in 37 balls and Royals needing 40 in 18 balls. Sathish with a reputation of being India’s best fielder did a remarkable job at the non-striker’s end when he fielded and flicked Dogra’s drive to catch Pathan short and the Royals needing 40 off 17 balls.

That was when Dogra took over and the next four balls went 6, 6, 4, 4 and then he took a single to keep strike. The way the match had gone 19 off 12 balls should have been an easy ask but that is the value that regular good bowlers bring to the table. Zaheer Khan went for seven despite a first ball wide and Malinga was just phenomenal. He bowled a brilliant yorker and then ran Dogra out diving full stretch while picking the ball at the striker’s end. Next man was bowled and the buffer was more than enough for the brilliant Malinga to see Mumbai through.

It was a great effort by Pathan coming in at a hopeless situation and hitting cleanly and brilliantly. On October 4, 1996 at the Gymkhana Club Ground in Nairobi, a boy looking more than his official age of 16 years and 217 days and going by the name of Shahid Afridi came out to bat for the first time in his 2nd ODI match and made a 37-ball hundred against a Sri Lankan attack that had Vaas, Murali, Dhramasena among others. Andrew Symonds has a hundred in 34 balls.

Saying it was the best hitting I have ever seen is one thing and saying that it was the best innings I have seen quite another. It surely would not make the cut if I had to pick the 50 or 100 best innings I’ve ever seen but it would be right up there if I had to pick clean and brilliant hitting on a batting beauty with most of the runs coming off part-timers. Would Shane Warne pick him in the Test squad on the basis of this innings? Would the Generation X captain MS Dhoni consider it?

I would pick the 60 odd that Laxman made on a vicious turner in Mumbai against Australia or the 55 that Tendulkar made in the same game. What about the way Damien Martyn played in the 2004 series in India? The hundred that Steve Waugh got at the Eden Gardens and the ones that Brian Lara got against the Aussies. Haven’t Shane Warne and Navjot Singh Sidhu played enough cricket and seen much more to put a magnificent T20 hundred on the same pedestal as the runs scored in the heat of Test cricket?

Brilliant hundred by Pathan; chanceless, clean and brutal along with some deft strokes in a tough situation but give me Dravid, Ponting, Tendulkar, Gambhir, Sehwag, Jesse Ryder, Hussey, Jayawardene, Sangakarra, Kallis, Duminy, Clarke against a good Test attack or a recording of the double hundred that Sir Gary Sobers got against the rest of the world any day.

This is not to take away from the super effort of Pathan but this wasn’t even remotely close to the dozens of 50s that I’ve seen in tougher situations leave apart the many hundreds and the double and triple ones.

Indians are considered to be good players of spin and Indian wickets traditionally are suited for spin bowling and if Shane Warne wants to understand what I mean then he has to see that he never got a five-wicket haul in an innings against India in India till 2004 in Chennai. He took 6 for 125 in 42.3 overs in India’s first innings of 376 and it was a tantalising contest where rain on the fifth day was the winner and the match a draw.

In the last match of the same series in Mumbai, Michael Clarke took 6 for 9 in 6.2 overs in India’s second innings and still ended up on the losing side. Warne could never manage to bowl Australia to victory against India. He chipped in but he was never the one man responsible and here also Michael Clarke beats him. In 2008 in Sydney when the shadows were lengthening and it seemed that India would hang on for a draw with just about 10 minutes of play left and three wickets in hand, Michael Clarke took three wickets in five balls with his left-arm spin.

Does it mean that Clarke is a great spinner or does it mean that he’s had a couple of lucky days? Can Clarke be compared to the Wizard of Oz? As a spinner, Clarke would probably not make it to a good club’s playing XI while Warne would be a serious contender to a four-man bowling attack picked out of over a hundred years of Test cricket.

The T20 lesson: Enjoy the fun but don’t lose your perspective mate.

That Was A Number 1 Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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