Tuesday, January 8, 2019

India's away campaign in 2018

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In any other time in Indian cricket, 4 Test wins across consecutive tours to South Africa, England and Australia in a 12 month period, would be hailed without conditions. This is however not any other time in Indian cricket. This is the time of Virat Kohli. The one of a winning mindset. The one who puts team goals before individual milestones. The one who wants his bowlers to bowl fast. The one who doesn't mind losing a Test in the quest for a victory. The one who appears willing to live and die by outcomes of cricket matches an not by the number of 100s he and his mates score. 

Virat Kohli is not your regular Indian great. Winning is a large part of who Virat Kohli is. In order to win, Virat Kohli is willing to put the building blocks needed to seek victories. He batted for the coach he wanted, he pushed his players to be more fit, he invested in fast bowlers, he embraced a no-excuses mindset and he created a team culture that did not honor seniority by default. 

And he talked of winning abroad. 

Some saw the spark and a glimpse of what was in store in his first match as captain in Adelaide 2014. Even as India lost that Test, they lost going for an improbable win. 

Since that Test, Virat Kohli has taken India to number one in Test rankings. India have won pretty much everything in sight at home. Outside India, they have won in Sri Lanka and the West Indies. While winning in West Indies is not as hard as it used to be, winning in Sri Lanka as India did after 22 years was special. 

When it comes to winning in England and South Africa, Virat Kohli's India has not broken new ground and in fact under performed in comparison to some of the previous teams who have won tests and drawn series in South Africa and won Test series in England. While the series win in Australia may go a long way in giving the Kohli-Shastri team some breathing space, overall the combined outcome of the 12 Tests in South Africa, England and Australia is a bit disappointing. 4 wins, 7 losses and 1 draw does no justice to the promise of Virat Kohli from 4 years ago. 

I had expected more.

Even so, when you dissect the Test matches, you can draw some conclusions that may lead to a more optimistic outlook for India in the future.

India now have a Test team that can capitalize when conditions and turn of events are even slightly in their favor. Except for the rain in Sydney, India won all Tests when they batted first and when their bowlers were presented the opportunity to bowl last in helpful bowling conditions. They even delivered under pressure of defending smallish first innings targets set by their batsmen. The 250 in the first innings at Adelaide and 187 in the first innings at Johannesburg come to mind. India now have the bowling to get them back in games when their batsmen fail to provide the first innings cushion. Prior to the 2018 tours, in Tests since January 2000, India had lost 15 tests on the road when their batsmen scored 250 or less in the first innings; 11 of them either by an innings or 10 wickets. 

India's bowling has improved but only compared to their own bowling from previous teams. Both in South Africa and in England the home team out bowled India. Previous pace attacks from India were so abysmal or good only in spurts that an attack that consistently takes 20 wickets seems above any criticism. To win Tests however, you have to out bowl the opposition bowlers consistently. On the tour to South Africa, the home bowlers did not match up to the exploits of the South African pacers and in England the home teams all rounders proved too much for India's bowlers to match in skill and variety. 

On difficult pitches India's batting hasn't been able to produce one of those freakish performances that defy norms and conditions. The pitches on offer have been tough and the fourth innings targets have been tricky. As a collective batting unit, rarely across the 7 losses; all when batting second; have India's batsmen been blown away, any more than the home batsmen have struggled. Batting conditions have been tough across the 3 series. To compare the averages of batsmen in this series with previous performances on more friendly pitches and conclude that India's batting has let themselves down is misleading. The only way India could have won any of those 7 tests they lost is if their bowlers would have out bowled the home team bowlers or their batsmen produced a freak performance. Singling out only one aspect is trying to ignore the context of conditions. 

Winning in Australia is satisfying but the performances across the 3 series which was the most anticipated away season was ultimately humbling. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Australia Gains the High Ground

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The condemnation from the Australian media, past cricketers, commentators and the Prime Minister himself was swift and furious. The ink had barely dried on Steve Smith's arrogant acknowledgement of cheating and self absolution, claiming that he was "still the best man to lead" the Australian team. This is a player who has been on a Bradmanesque run making streak. Almost single-handedly holding the team's weak batting together to give their bowlers enough to win matches.

Now we hear of a possible life ban. His deputy, Warner, often in the cross-hairs of the behavior police, and Australia's second best run-maker in the team is also being potentially benched. An unheard of fierce response to an offense that is not the highest offense in the ICC's list of things that can get you in trouble.

There's glee, schadenfreude and a merry goulash of emotions emanating from all over the cricketing world. Past players, current players, commentators, bloggers have all been piling on. The reaction from many thinking people has been one of confusion. Unclear as to why Cricket Australia and the public would be willing to dump their best and second best player for a seemingly trivial offense. That too when the perpetrator has acknowledged, apologized, received the due punishment from ICC and is ready to move on.

The tendency of most boards is to "back their players" when charged with offenses. Most recently, South Africa mounted a furious six hour defense of Kagiso Rabada to dumb down a serious charge. India has routinely thrown tantrums when their players were caught on camera messing with the ball or charged with offenses that would lead to bans. Pakistan has deemed it worthy to forfeit a match and work "posthumously" to get their captain acquitted.

Australia taking the opposite route. Not only are they not backing their players, they are throwing the kitchen sink at them. They are putting the spirit of cricket above a book of ICC rules. Australia have always been proud of playing hard, but "fair". The people had been supportive of the players as long as they felt they were not cheating. But that thin string of trust has been broken by evidence and followed up with a banal apology.

No Australian till now had ever been sanctioned for cheating (ball tampering). Siddle came close but was found not guilty by the referee. Australia has never appealed against a match referee's decision for any offense. They have lived up to the commitment to the process. Contrast that with the responses from other nations.

Australia is willing to let go of their best players to maintain the sanctity of their country's hard won image of fair play. There is no better way to demonstrate commitment to fair sport. Those who see shallowness, opportunism or hypocrisy in this are well-served to look into their own country's responses. The best way out of darkness is sunshine and the Australian PM, public and board are willing to lose the cricket games to ensure that their integrity and sanctity is not put in doubt.

Australia has refrained from spinning a yarn around this, not played the victim and is copping it on their chin. Past players have spoken with one voice. Not one player past or present has come out in support of the players or coach seeking a more lenient view.

Other countries have defined patriotism to mean that any "smear" on their reputation is to be dealt with fierce outrage and potential retribution. This approach serves to embolden perpetrators to bend rules in the name of national honor (winning games). Australia, refreshingly I may add, has taken the approach that no one is allowed to compromise the honor of the nation by cheating in the name of the nation. Australia have attained the moral high ground and the hypocrites stand exposed. India, South Africa and others would do well to follow the Australian example instead of doubling down.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Something fishy about the South African pitches

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When South Africa toured India in the winter of 2015, the Nagpur Test lasted 247 overs. A little shy of 3 days assuming a 90 over day. The Capetown Test in comparison lasted 230 overs. And yet after the Nagpur Test questions were raised about the the pitch. It clearly seemed like the pitch had played out of character in comparison to previous Tests on the same ground. A combative Ravi Shastri; the architect of the "Hirwani Test"; had argued the right of the home team to make pitches that suit the strength of the home team.

It left a bad taste in the mouth for purists and Ian Chappel, who'd rather not have host captains meddle with pitch preparation. There was no real evidence of that but Ravi Shastri's comments did not help rule that possibility out.

South Africa lost the Nagpur Test by 124 runs. 40 wickets fell and The highest score in 4 innings in that Test was 215 that India scored on the first day. India too struggled to bat on the pitch

The ICC promptly called out Nagpur for the pitch not meeting Test standards. Or something like that.

Take the Capetown Test, the first Test on India's the ongoing tour of  South Africa.

India lost the test by 72 runs. 40 wickets fell and The highest score in 4 innings in that Test was 286 that South Africa scored on the first day. South Africa too struggled to bat on the pitch.

The Capetown pitch too played out of character. Just like in Nagpur, the scores in this Test at Capetown deviated from the norm. Yet the reaction from commentators which included ex-players was that this was a great Test match. No one questioned the pitch. Just that it had "spice". The ICC is unlikely to sanction the pitch.

The shortness of the Test even compared to the short Nagpur Test was perhaps masked by the fact the official 3rd day in Capetown was washed out.  Another factor could have been that India gave a much better account of themselves and thanks to some sparks from Hardik Pandya, and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar did not get blown away, like the South Africans were at Nagpur. Yet another factor that masked its shortness and prevented any questions about the pitch was that the scoring rate at Capetown across the Test, was 3.3 runs per over as compared to only 2.6 runs at Nagpur. So the Capetown Test was indeed more exciting than the Nagpur Test. There was more attractive cricket.

The single biggest factor though I feel that the pitch was never brought into discussion and assumed to be true and sporting was that India did not make an issue out of it. They had promised not to do so because otherwise it would have been hypocritical.

India seemed to have boxed themselves into letting South Africa and popular opinions; which do not always lend kindness to a traveling Indian team; run away with dictating the narrative of the pitches. So much so that in the second Test, they let Morne Morkel get away with setting the narrative that the Centurion pitch was "like playing in the subcontinent". India did not counter. They could not.

The rivalry between South Africa and India has deteriorated to a point that both sides are scared of losing at home to the other and not confident of winning in typical home conditions.

India started it.

I was hoping South Africa would take the high ground which would lead India to follow suit.

Monday, July 17, 2017

India Coach: Kumble has himself to blame

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When Anil Kumble was plucked out of nowhere and inserted as coach of India's national team, he was staring at a 13 Test home season and a mildly strenuous tour of the West Indies. 

He was in charge of a team that was already the best in the world in Test cricket. He had friends in high places who had put him as coach in the first place, removing his predecessor Ravi Shastri on what can be called a technicality. In Virat Kohli, he had a captain who had in the previous year and a half showed a willingness to play for wins at all times. A captain who seemed to have developed specific ideas on how to go about doing it. 

A 5 bowler strategy; albeit which was occasionally sacrificed, banking on pace - no more just bowling in the "right areas", a premium on scoring rate; which put Cheteshwar Pujara's spot under pressure early on and lastly fitness by example. Those ideas were already bringing in the results. India's batting had a memorable tour of Australia in 2014/2015 and when India's fast bowlers joined the captain's vision, they won an away Test series in Sri Lanka for the first time in 23 years. 

All Kumble had to do was to understand this blueprint and build a rapport with the captain, his team and treat them as equals. More importantly, treat them like adults. Ravi Shastri before him, tends to do just that. He becomes one of them. This is not to say that this is an ideal strategy for a coach. For another team, for another time, Shastri may just be the wrong man for the job.

It is pretty hard to argue though that this particular Indian team with abundance and variety of skills, a professional approach to fitness led by a captain with definitive ideas on winning and early results that validated his leadership; needed anything more than a catalyst coach. A coach who would focus on removing any roadblocks with the board and help the team execute this blueprint. 

If Anil Kumble now finds himself out of a coaching job, it is quite baffling that he has botched up a very easy assignment. What really irks me about the whole Kumble episode though is that he has managed to walk away with all the sympathy and the media and ex-players have tried to paint Virat Kohli as the "spoilt brat". The people, the experts and the media seem hurt that a legend was treated unfairly. Is being a great leg spinner for your country an insurance against future job firing, without your value even so much as considered.

There are however 2 things one must credit Kumble for. 

One of that is the pitches. Ravi Shastri is a hawk when it comes to over engineered pitches. His only Test has captain and the few Tests with him as the Team director (coach) for home Tests have coincided with pitches that were minefields. There is admittedly no evidence of a coach having an influence over pitches but Ravi Shastri has wholeheartedly defended India's right to engineer minefields, claiming that "everyone else does it too". Under Kumble the pitches have been true and Kumble has a higher sense of spirit of the game than Shastri. The later is more like an Australian; willing to challenge norms if not the rules outright. 

Secondly, he seemed to have played a role in getting Chetashwar Pujara back into the team after he lost his place to what Virat Kohli claimed as an inability "to force the pace". Pujara is a valuable player at a crucial spot and his dropping may be a case of Virat Kohli being too aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. Notice how England have been struggling to win Tests without a solid number 3. 

In sum though, Anil Kumble has probably only himself to blame for his inability to forge a working relationship with Kohli and to get on board with his blueprint. This is after all Kohli's team and the choice of Kohli over Kumble in a situation where the 2 are not on talking terms, is the most logical one. It should have been made without showing Virat Kohli in bad light.

And what of the Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC)?  Their job is actually easier than Kumble's. It also comes with no apparent accountability. How do we know for sure the CAC is doing its job well and what's the consequence of not doing it well? Who is to tell Sachin Tendulkar not to show up for work and face the wrath of crazed fans and a worshiping media? 

This committee exists to advice on the selection of a coach. It is understood by most reasonable people that an advice is kind of a recommendation. On the 2 instances they were tasked with the mundane job of finding a coach; a job most boards and the BCCI themselves carry out without much fanfare; the CAC have raised eyebrows. 

The CAC consists of Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly and VVS Laxman. Very important people and big names all. Just because a job is carried out by important people doesn't make the job itself any more important than what it originally is. It was to simply recommend a coach. 

Instead, the first time around they offered the job to Anil Kumble who had not applied for it; removing Shastri because he chose to interview via Skype and the second time around they seemed reluctant to give Virat Kohli, the coach he wanted and when they did offer it to Shastri, they  seemed to sneak in 2 more of their classmates as batting and bowling coaches. 

Leaving their on field exploits from their playing days, aside the CAC have not shown the maturity, the ability to rise above personal friendships, remain on the sidelines and do what's right for Virat Kohli and Team India. There is no bigger conflict of interest in cricket today than the CAC recommending their classmates for important jobs in the day to day functioning of the cricket team. The committee, if needed at all, needs to be more diverse and educated on the basics of cricket administration. Right now its just runs and 100s heavy. 

That leaves Virat Kohli and his role in this episode. So far he has played it with a straight bat, like his new coach would have liked and managed to stay above the immaturity shown by his seniors in using the glory of their playing days to garner sympathy and writing letters leaked to the press playing the victim.

In my books Virat Kohli comes out of this episode the clear winner by simply staying out of it and knowing how to get what he wants to execute his strategy to win Test matches for India. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Mistakes are Piling Up

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Virat Kohli arrived like a breath of fresh air as captain in 2014 and has delivered on nearly every front. I was sold on his brand of cricket. It was the brand that I had wanted from the Sachin generation, but never materialized. I was disillusioned when Sachin quit as captain and gave up on wanting to mold an aggressive team that would play to win. Kohli had reversed all that. Losses didn't matter. What mattered was the brand of aggressive cricket we played. We played to win, not draw and as a result we probably lost some matches we could have drawn.

The recent home season in India continued that brand of cricket. New Zealand and England were put to the sword in an almost Australia-like manner. Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma were unleashed and spinners too bowled aggressive, attacking lines. Batsmen, led by Pujara and the captain himself bossed some of the best bowlers in the world.  This was a never before seen exhibition of big cricket from an Indian team. Gone seemed to be the days of percentage cricket to minimize losses and attrition methods to swoop down on the opposition with a spin attack when the chance came.

All of this came to screeching halt in the second test versus Australia. The opposition won the first test by besting India in its own conditions. The captain himself was tamed and Australia romped to a well deserved win. The first signs of mistakes started in the second test. Kohli was pouting about sledging, his runs deserted him against a well-thought out strategy by Australian quicks and spinners and he seemed to have no answers. Instead of backing his original strategy and demanding execution from his team-mates, he caved in and gave up on the three fast men strategy. It was only in the final test that India returned to its Kohli roots and Umesh Yadav's blistering spell opened up the Dharmasala test for India to win the series. But a lot of unanswered questions remained.

Who backtracked on the team composition? Why did it take a test played under Rahane (Kohli was injured) for India to redeploy the plan that had worked so well for most of the season? Why did Kohli retreat to a "draw first" mindset? Why did Kohli sulk and pout about sledging when he knew what is always in store playing versus Australia? Shades of the Anderson-Jadeja "pushing" saga where India promptly lost the remaining tests? Kohli's inability to cope with Australia's bowling plans too was pushed under the carpet following a productive IPL. Clearly, Kohli didn't work on these weaknesses as we will see later.

On the ODI front, India are a team that is rebuilding. However, the approach in the Champions Trophy didn't reflect that at all. The loss versus Sri Lanka should have opened the captain's eyes to India's weaknesses. As much as people want to make it about bowling, it wasn't. The weakness was in India batting. The batting line-up is being re-built with Yuvraj, Dhoni in unfamiliar roles. Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya as finishers too was a new set up. In the first ODI versus England at home, Yuvraj and Dhoni both failed in pursuit of 350 and it was Kedar and Hardik along with Kohli that brought India home. A first sign that experience didn't count for much when chasing big runs. Perhaps. In the last ODI too India failed to reach the target by five runs, but it was Jadhav and Pandya that nearly pulled it off and not Dhoni and Yuvraj. Including both these veterans was clearly proven to be a mistake.

It's safe to say that India over-achieved in the Champions Trophy. On a day when Jadhav and Kohli have off-days, India cannot chase much is what it feels like. Yuvraj and Dhoni are not the answers. The real shocker though wasn't the decision to chase with an unproven batting line-up. The biggest mistake was once again perhaps on the bowling front. Excluding Umesh Yadav to bring in the "experienced" Ashwin was probably the biggest blooper that no one wants to talk about. Yadav has demonstrated his shock value in pressure situations. Where both teams are under pressure. In the final test versus Australia when they had to force the situation in order to gain the Border-Gavaskar trophy back, Yadav broke open the game with a blistering spell. Perhaps the best ever by an Indian bowler in my life time on Indian soil (with due respect to Srinath). Yadav proved this again in the first game of the Champions Trophy where he broke the back of Pakistan's batting. He was dropped based on his performance versus Sri Lanka, though the real issue there was Yuvraj's inability to fire and help put up a total beyond Sri Lanka's reach on that featherbed.

Speaking about Kohli's failure in the final. He fell exactly the way Australia plotted his downfall in the test series. Played on his patience outside off-stump with away swinging or angling deliveries and forced him into a mistake. Kohli didn't have an answer then and no answer versus Amir either.

Add to this Kohli's spat with Kumble. The first cracks became visible in the curious case of Cheteshwar Pujara. Pujara forcing his way back into the team on Kohli's terms was a heart-warming event. And Kohli said the right things about Pujara and his re-invented batting style. The first mistake was perhaps Kumble speaking out of turn to suggest that his word about Pujara mattered more than what the captain felt.

Apparently, the duo wasn't on speaking terms for six months. Yet, Kumble claims that he only came to know from BCCI that the captain didn't have confidence in  him. Ridiculousness at its worst. A captain deserves a coach that he can work with. We dumped Chappell who didn't do well with Sachin (though he wasn't captain). No one knows where Dravid stood on that. Luckily Kumble excused himself though the hypocritical Committee wanted him to continue. Hypocritical because this was the same group that rebelled against Chappell and got him canned.

We really don't know who had the final say in team selections or the strategies. It's clear that a number of mistakes have been made that have produced bad results and is souring the team's relationship with ardent, thinking fans, who have yearned for an approach like Kohli seemed to have been advocating. Hopefully, Kohli will reflect on these last few months and usher in the few minor changes that are needed to reduce mistakes. I hope that the new coach is supportive of the captain and is willing work with him to make his vision a reality. The ODI team has a few leaks yet before it can be deemed ready for the World Cup. The test team has fewer holes, but some disturbing things have happened.

It's time to eliminate these mistakes and play to potential  A well fought loss (like the ones in 2014 in Australia are more exciting than dull draws and pusillanimous cricket. Cheers once again to the new India.