Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Time to stop the blame game and look ahead

It is indeed sad that the failure of the middle order has become a subject of finger-pointing exercise; post the defeat of the Indian team against the Sri Lankans in the final test. One cannot forget the fact that cricket is a team game and the failure of a team to win a match cannot and should not be attributed to the failure or success of a couple of individuals.

The performance of the Indian middle-order, especially that of the big four left much to be desired, would be stating the obvious. But to put the blame for the defeat on these men alone would be too simplistic. Cricket is a team game and the team as a whole has to own up responsibility.

What is alarming is the fact that none of these India-Sri Lanka tests stretched beyond the third or fourth day. This definitely isn’t a good sign for both the teams. The Indian camp has reason to be more worried for being at the wrong end in the final test.

One might be tempted to attribute this to the failure of the Indian middle-order. The Indian middle-order, made up of highly experienced and classy individuals who have lorded over some of the best spinners in the world, were ironically done-in by a pair of spinners from within the sub-continent. No doubt, these players are in their twilight years of cricket and time is perhaps ripe to find and groom replacements for some of these great men, but it isn’t going to be easy. We should learn to be patient and be prepared to face some initial set-backs for long-term gains. Fortunately, we have enough talent readily available but the enormous experience and sheer greatness of these men presently donning the Indian middle-order would be hard to replace.

The Indian bowling also needs some revamp. The spinners have been no match for the Sri Lankans and haven’t been consistent. Overall, the Indian bowling remains another weak-link in the side and will need some dressing up.

The Sri Lankans can be proud of beating the Indians in their own game. Never before in the history of cricket have spinners been able to dominate the Indians, as the duo of Murali and Mendis did in this series. Mendis was easily the find of the series and I am sure we are going to hear a lot more about him in the coming years. The Indians haven’t still figured him out completely, notwithstanding claims to the contrary from the Indian camp. His eight wicket haul in the final test bears this out. However, I strongly believe Murali’s presence was largely responsible for his phenomenal success. Fortunately for Mendis, Murali has some more years of cricket left in him. Together, the duo can rock some of the best teams in the world. It would be interesting to see how the Aussies play this duo!

Monday, 28 July 2008

Shocking capitulation

The manner in which the Indians have lost the first test to the Sri Lankans is absolutely shocking. The abject surrender in just one and a half days of play by a team which is renowned for its prowess in playing quality spin bowling is appalling, to say the least. Some of the best spin bowlers in the world have struggled to make a mark against Indians and it is disturbing that a couple of spinners from the sub-continent have dealt a crushing blow to this reputation and reduced the Indian domination of spin bowling to a myth.

What is even more worrying is the manner in which the Indians lost their wickets. That most wickets fell to close-catching positions (catches at slips, forward short-leg, lbw’s, caught and bowled, etc.) is an indication that all is not well with the Indian batting. It is clear that most batsmen failed to read the balls being hurled at them and ended up messing up their strokes. To think that the Sri Lankans scored 600 runs on the same wicket, with four of their batsmen getting hundreds, is even more disturbing. There was no devil in the wicket and if at all it did, it only existed in the minds of the Indians. The Indian batting line-up was thought to be one of the best in the world, but the inept display we saw today is a cause for serious concern. If the Indians are hoping to make a come-back in this series, there was no indication of that whatsoever in the way the Indians meekly surrendered to the guile of the Sri Lankan spinners.

This is not to take the credit away from the Sri Lankan spinners. Muthiah has proved what made him to be the highest wicket taker in the world, and in Mendis, he has found an able partner to rock the Indian boat. That the duo managed to do this on a “not-very-spinner-friendly track” should be a disconcerting thought for the Indian camp and an indication on what to expect in the series. The onset of Mendis seems to have sharpened the lethality of Muthiah, and unless Indians do some serious soul-searching, the series might well turn out to be a one-sided affair. Sadly, the Indian spinners have turned out to be no match for their Sri Lankan counterparts. The Indian spinners should stop looking for spinner-friendly tracks every time they need to take wickets. It is time for Harbhajan to deliver on unhelpful tracks……If Muthiah can deliver with Mendis, why not Harbhajan with Kumble?

Monday, 31 December 2007

Forget the MCG, bring in Viru for SCG

The big question when India left for Australia was whether Kumble and Co had it in them to pick 20 wickets. Not much was asked of India's 'famed' batting line-up. The reason was clear. A plethora of runs against Pakistan in familiar conditions gave them a false sense of security. There were no demons in the MCG pitch; nor was the home side's bowling menacing to warrant two sub-200 scores. In fact the wicket was more Indian than Australian and the bounce was true till the end. It was disheartening to see the Indians surrender meekly.

The crushing defeat in the first Test has opened the big debate again on the famous batting line-up's ability to score runs in tougher conditions. It was the bowlers who orchestrated India's Test wins in South Africa and England. The batsmen have consistently failed to deliver when taken out of their comfort zone. Notwithstanding the odd good knock, the bitter truth is there is not enough firepower in our batting to challenge sides such as Australia and South Africa.

The seeds for India's appalling show were sown in the first innings. After the bowlers had managed to keep the Aussies to a reasonable score, the batsmen failed to keep the match alive. The result was on the wall the moment India was set a target of 499. The match was lost on day two. The batsmen would have done well to get some runs on the board and minimise the margin of defeat. The shot selection of the top-order left a lot to be desired.

The approach of Dravid and Jaffer continues to puzzle me. How on earth are runs going to come in Australia if batsmen continue to defend balls that have run written all over them? Scoring areas have to be identified and every opportunity has to be seized. India's strength is scoring off boundaries but they will be tough to come by on these big grounds and against Australia's watertight fielding. They will have to create plan B.

It is important for the visitors to approach the remainder of the series with a positive frame of mind and not delve too much into this defeat. There is no harm in bringing in Virendar Sehwag. It is vital to have one player at the top of the order who can unsettle the attack. If Yuvraj has to be sacrificed it has be to done in the interest of the team. It will be harsh on the southpaw after just one match. But it is important Kumble gets the strategy right before it proves too late. I liked what the Indian skipper said after the match. He insisted the batsmen have to bat more freely and that to me will lift the gloom that seems to have descended on the team.

Patience is wearing thin with India's poor running between the wickets and fielding efforts. The attack can do with all the help they can receive from the fielders. The Aussie intensity even in the fourth innings was admirable. The Indians can take a leaf out of that. It has certainly not been the best of starts but Sydney provides a chance for India to redeem themselves.

The wicket at the SCG has always assisted spin and India should continue with two spinners. Dravid going back to his familiar number three is also important for the team's success. Bring in Sehwag at the top and force the World Champions do some thinking.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Australia prove they are light miles ahead

The distance is alarming. What looked like a classic match up between the World 50-50 champions and T20 champions is turning out to be anything but. Each of the first three games has proved beyond doubt the difference in class. Superior athleticism has only widened the gulf.

The Aussies have come here with a definite plan and a bruised ego. The strip in Kochi and the one at Hyderabad should have favoured the hosts than anyone else. Though they were not turners by any stretch of imagination there was enough for the tweakers to exploit.

The team looks jaded and disoriented. The body language is negative. The third game was a bigger disappointment. Dhoni and his band should have got a measure of the visitors by now. The bowlers are suffering for lack of discipline. They are either too full or short, the three quarter length that Stuart Clarke and Mitchell Johnson hit is ideal on these wickets and the sooner the Indians resort to that length the better.

The start in Bangalore and Kochi was wasted. The new ball did initial damage but the momentum was not to be sustained. It has a lot to do with the energy levels. The fielders don't swoop on the ball rather they wait for it come to them. Lack of urgency in the field is hitting the team dearly. With any other side in World cricket one can make up with brilliance with the bat or ball but poor running between the wickets, poor throwing and dropped catches all add up sizably against the World champs. Give an inch they end up with a mile.

Coming to the game on Friday, M.S. Dhoni might have been a trifle unlucky with the toss. The wicket looked like losing pace as the day wore. After a good start Australia was pegged back by some good bowling by Harbhajan and Yuvraj Singh. The new rule that insists on the ball to be changed after the 34 th over has not been kind to the men in blue. Runs have been plundered in that phase. The best bowlers must be preserved for that phase.

The ball might be a used one that is cleaned but there is a huge difference between a sphere that is used in practice and one that is used in a match. The hardness will be pronounced and it will come on to the bat better. It is an area captains will have to start putting some thought to. From 166 for three in 34 overs Australia plundered 124 runs in the next 16 at 7.75 per over on a wicket that was getting increasingly difficult to bat on. Once the target went beyond 260 it was always going to be an uphill climb for the Indian's.

Yuvraj is doing justice to his enormous talent finally. He has always played the occasional blinder but the consistency he has brought to his game is refreshing. The team management can look up to him now for runs during crisis consistently. His shot selection has improved considerably and for a player blessed with enormous natural ability, it is only a question of getting into the right frame of mind. Yuvraj is in that 'zone' where nothing much can go wrong. Physically he did not look at his best yet played one of the best knocks in recent times.

The match further showed the importance of a solid top-order. Mathew Hayden makes the difference at the top for his side with his consistency. Matches cannot be won in the Power Play phase but one can set up a solid launch pad. 75 for three at the end of 20 overs was not the ideal start when chasing a big target. The opening overs will have to be counted. The problems are aplenty for Dhoni, The team has to start believing it can beat Australia and for that to happen they have to be more positive on the field.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Just reward for team work

Hearty congratulations to the Indian team. The indomitable spirit proved decisive in the end. Not having a reputation to live up to was the blessing in disguise. M.S. Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh did not meet expectations in the final yet India pulled it off, thanks to players accepting responsibility and not getting overawed by the big stage.

It was a fearless and modern approach from a bunch of youngsters in a format that is still foreign to many. Both sides played a final which, made it worthy and only a mistake as elementary as one would get to see from the usually cool and collected soul, Misbah-ul-Haq was to be the difference between a nation rejoicing and another left in despair. There was not much to choose from the two sides.

There were many positives India can draw from this campaign. The foremost being the captaincy of Dhoni who remained unruffled throughout the championship. His calming influence was the apex on which, the Indian wave rode. There was no place for individuals. Every win was constructed on the nucleus called 'team effort', it helped shatter myths. No one was indispensable. If there was one player who was unable to deliver, there were two putting their hands up to chip in.

The T20 has caught the imagination of the public and this win will herald a new era. As there were one-day specialists trying to make a mark in the early '90's, there will be a set of players who will train their thoughts and mind entirely to suit the demands of this format. One thing is certain there would be no place here for pretenders.

Dhoni winning the toss was a huge favour he did to his side. The pressure of a World Cup final and add the name of the opponents, it would be an uphill task to chase the most meager of targets for India. Gautham Gambhir who received so much flak for not coming good against quality opposition silenced his critics with a knock that gave his team a chance to fight. His shot selection was sublime and effective at the same time. Rohit Sharma was a revelation; the youngster came good whenever an opportunity presented itself.

The target was never going to be tough if Pakistan resorted to percentage cricket. Sorry that cannot be achieved in a India-Pakistan clash. The pressure gets to you at some point and the mistakes start creeping in. Younis Khan and Shoaib Malik went into a shell and handed over the match to India. Misbah is a player who takes calculated risks and believes in the theory the match is not over until the last ball. It reminded me of the great Javed Miandad who pulled the rug from under our feet on numerous occasions.

R.P. Singh delivered when it mattered and so did Irfan Pathan with his canny slow cutters. The entire pace and power had to be generated by the batsmen as Joginder, and the Pathan siblings provided them with nothing. It was a tactical ploy that worked on a wicket that slowed down a touch towards the end of the Pakistan innings.

A week from now no single player will be remembered, while the whole team would be. The most defining moment would yet be the brutal assault of Yuvraj on a hapless Stuart Broad. The knock made the team believe it can test the best, and it was great to see the team carry the momentum from there. It was no fluke as the best in the business were left on the wayside.

The transition has started. It is up to the selectors to try and help players from this team make a seamless change to the ODI squad. The win has ushered in a new era. Looking back the team was only a stroke away from defeat but they held their nerves. Pakistan threw away an opportunity. Misbah was better off hitting the ball straight and the shot he tried was never going to come off against the pace of Joginder. The man who took them to the doorsteps of glory muffed it with a piece of poor cricket thinking. The pressure of India-Pakistan cricket has made a Mickey out of the best and it was no surprise it even had a cool head thinking otherwise.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Batsmen put India on top

Indian batting displayed its true strengths and potential on the second day at the oval as they piled 348 more runs in addition to their overnight score of 316 runs. Indian first innings ended at a mammoth 664 all out but not before the cricket fans were treated to a feast of batting.

In Test cricket, half the match is won if the team batting first piles up a big enough total in the first innings and aims for an overwhelming result of an innings victory over the opposition. The Australians have perfected this art and hence they are the number one side in the world now. It is very special to see the Indians getting into this act and executing it in conditions away from home. Cricket is a funny game and we have seen sides squander, given the best of batting conditions.
Nothing of that sort happened today and the Indians made the best use of the pitch and started from where they left on day 1.

England bowling was found much in wanting and their quality was exposed a great deal by a superlative Indian batting. A tally of over 50 in the extras, wickets for part-timers like Collingwood and Pietersen, and the absence of Sidebottom for a significant part of the day, made the English bowling look pedestrian and ineffective; full marks to the Indian team for taking full advantage of the wayward English bowling and putting up a total that reflected a complete team effort.

Cricket is a team game and it takes all members of a side to contribute one way or the other for writing a success story. Today, the Indian batting was no less than a spotless team effort, with almost all batsmen contributing significantly with the willow, which made the mammoth 600 plus score a reality.

Tendulkar and Laxman started the day's proceedings and the latter's innings had class stamped all over it -studded with 10 glorious hits to the fence. When the best of batsmen in world cricket today is willing to wait and spend a good time in the crease, it is ominous for the opposition. Laxman and Tendulkar built 78 for the fifth wicket before Laxman was dismissed. Tendulkar's hard-working innings was once again left unrewarded as he was dismissed caught in the slips for a well-made 82.

417/6 could have easily become 450 – 460 all out, with the tail-enders meekly surrendering their wickets, but that was not to be. The determination of the lower order to contribute runs to the team’s kitty is what separates a normal team from a great team.

The Indian lower order showed grit and confidence in scoring runs. The final four wickets fell to a substantial addition of 247 runs, but there was more to it than mere statistics. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was in his usual belligerent mood, smashing a quick-fire 92 of just 81 deliveries and his innings was studded with 9 fours and four sixes.

The baton of run scoring changed from the belligerent Dhoni to a determined Kumble. A batsman, after getting a body blow, can easily develop mental block and fade away. It takes a strong character to show determination to fight it out in the middle, and Anil Kumble is not new to this as he had shown us in the West Indies in 2002, when he was hit in the chin while batting and still came back to bowl and claim Brian Lara's wicket. This time it was his batting that made all the difference, for a change!! He has the earned the distinction of being the first Indian to score a century in this series. This knock is perfectly befitting a man who has won many a matches for India in his glorious career, and perhaps, in his final Test in England. Kumble's unbeaten 110 was studded with as many as 16 hits to the fence and one over the ropes as well. Sreesanth, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh also chipped in with decent contributions to help Kumble reach his century and take India to a commanding position in this Test match.

England have only themselves to blame for some bad bowling, ordinary fielding and mediocre behind-the-stumps effort, with byes accounting 33 of the total 54 extras, much to the dismay of Matt Prior. Wicket-keepers in cricket are best judged by the number of byes they concede and England seems to be lacking in that area as well.
Lots to cheer for India on their on-field exploits today and lots to think for the England team management at the end of the second day's play at the Oval. With Kumble scoring a 100, one would fancy his bowling to come good for India. If it does happen, this test might well be remembered for Kumble’s exploits and greatness as a tough cricketer.

Coming to the English batting, if the Indian bowlers can get Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pieterson out early, it will be half the match won. I am looking forward to more positive cricket from the Indians, as do the millions of you fans of Indian cricket out there.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Team India, stay positive and the series is yours

It is imperative for Team India to keep the momentum going. A closer look at history reveals that India almost immediately hand over the advantage after taking the lead in an away Test series. The latest example was the tour to South Africa where the cricket became suddenly unimaginative after the win in Johannesburg.

The focus should be on continuing the good work. A win can make a team to take it a bit easy, and Rahul Dravid and his men would do well to continue with the positive ways and not get caught in a negative mindset. Sourav Ganguly proved his detractors wrong and there should be no doubt that the visitors will play the same team in the final Test.

Runs are available aplenty at the Oval. The first morning might have something in it for the bowlers but from day two it should become a perfect batting strip. It would take a gutsy captain to bat first on this wicket. Batting second would be a safer option and batting last at the Oval is not a tedious job. I would expect Dravid to take field if he is to win the toss. With the lead already in hand India has a good chance of batting England out of the series.

The form of V.V.S. Laxman and Sourav has provided the cutting edge. It is always important for the middle order to fire at the Old Blighty. Once the second new ball is on life can be difficult even for the batsman who is well settled. Chris Tremelet with his bounce and lift proved what he is capable of and the Indian's should have chalked out a plan for him by now.

The difference between victory and defeat even for the mighty Aussies hinged on Adam Gilchrist's success at seven in the last two tours. In 2001 he had the English bowling at his mercy but in 2005 he was not half his own self and that tilted the balance in the hosts favour. It is important for Dhoni to contribute with Sourav and Laxman. One bad session and things can turn upside down.

The bowling department looked no good on paper but it has exceeded expectations. Zaheer Khan has taken the burden of spearheading the attack brilliantly. Add Sreesanth's inability to deliver Zaheer's work stands taller. The success of Zaheer has a lot to do with the attention he has started to pay at what is happening at the other end. He has learnt to deal differently with each batsman.

Bowling is two-way traffic. There will phases in a match where a bowler will have to get to run-control mode but that is not getting defensive it is just a part of a ploy to get to the batsmen. Zaheer has done just that and add Anil Kumble's ability to mop the tail quickly the duo has more than made up for the lack of consistency on Sreesanth's part.

R.P. Singh has been the surprise element. His deceptive pace and his strong wrist is tailor made for English conditions and his ability to move the ball both ways has left even the best a confused lot. With the top three performing brilliantly, the only change that could possibly happen is R. Bose coming in place

The visitors should approach the game as they would to any other. It has happened in the past, the team has tried defensive ploys when they are trying to defend a hard earned lead. It has cost them dear and this resurgent side that has shown great mental fortitude and losing the grip after gaining the lead could be a thing of the past.