Monday, December 17, 2012

Competence can be found but what about loyalty?

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I would like to see Dhoni given a chance to run his own team. A team wherein he is the undisputed decision maker. A team where he does not have to worry about the legends who inadvertently command more respect and influence on decisions than he does. 

It is one thing to be captain. Quite another to be a Sachin Tendulkar or a Rahul Dravid.

I think he will do well if he is the undisputed leader of the team. 

He was man enough to lead a side wherein almost everyone was his senior, either in age or length of career. Even Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Virendra Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh had played a good 5-6 years of cricket for India when Dhoni was made captain.

While he initially enjoyed the fruits of superlative individuals  in his team, once the IPL started encroaching on national interests and priorities got jumbled up, none of the seniors stood up to support him. They had their own money making ideas over the fate of the national team.

Sachin Tendulkar and co. were more interested in negotiating with the BCCI a deal wherein they will get compensated if they were to miss the IPL while playing for India, than to discuss with the BCCI how to protect the National team's interest. 

That became only Mahendra Singh Dhoni's problem.

Team India's culture that allows leadership shy cricketers to play 'just as a player' means the team has many leaders who demand a share in its success but only one that can be held accountable for failures. 

Its fine to assume and say that Sachin Tendulkar is a great influence on the team. Its fine to assume and say that the 'dressing room benefits from his vast experience'. How does one measure the effectiveness of these contributions. How much of India's recent poor performances can be attributed to Sachin not doing his job as a mentor? 

Its tough and probably harsh on SachinTendulkar to be asked the question. 

But that is precisely the problem with having so many non performing seniors in the team, who are held to no accountability when the times are bad.

India's lamentable record warrants changes. Also warrants a hard look at Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

But India's problems are not problems of competency. Its an issue of attitude, priorities and loyalty to national interests. 

Ever since Lala Amarnath scored a 100 on debut against Douglas Jardine's English team, there haven't been many periods where India have been without great batting talent. India may feel that replacing Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar will be impossible, but neither is such talent a prerequisite for winning nor is it prudent to believe that there is no talent waiting to be found. 

Talent will be found. Both batting and bowling.

What we need a solution for is how to balance the IPL with national interests. A problem Sachin and other seniors have become a part of.

No captain can lead India again with honor and distinction unless the national game is given priority. Its not the losing that hurts its the mortgaging of India's national team to the IPL by the seniors that rankles. 

To hold Mahendra Singh Dhoni alone responsible for that and expect that somehow Virat Kohli can fix that is delusional.

Monday, December 10, 2012

England In India: Questions in the middle of an ugly series

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Who is winning the series?

Are there any positives for India?

For starters there is no infighting like when England lost to South Africa or when Pakistan plays. Although I won't call it a complete positive. I think it makes me quite uncomfortable that the team is so united in humiliation. I smell something fishy. 

Secondly, as bad as they have played, the series is still not lost. 

Thirdly, the best fielder in the series is Indian. Don't trust what you hear about Sehwag's careless running and Gambhir's poor signalling, that led to the match starting horribly for India. While all that is true, it was triggered by Samit Patel's brilliant effort on the boundary line. 

And Finally Zaheer Khan did not break down as we had incorrectly predicted. In our view he is in the top 56 of the fittest bowlers in the world 

How will the series end?
With Sachin Tendulkar not retiring.

No seriously, what's the prediction?
The series will end with the Pakistan circus series as a 'fresh start'. 

Is Naseer Hussain right to call India's cricketers 'God-like'?
Yes. But it must be tough being Naseer Hussain. Last year he called them donkeys and got criticized. This year he calls them God-like and he still is unlikely to win fans. My advice to Naseer is them salesmen or entertainers. It will strike a chord.

Why do Indian cricketers and coaches bother to speak to the media?
With the express intent to launch an assault on people's intelligence. I think in their minds we have brains the size of Gautam Gambhir.

How good is England really?
Once they investigate why they lost in Ahmedabad, they can build on the series result.

Who is to blame for India's losses? Bowlers or Batsmen?
This one is easy - Batsmen. You need good bowlers to win consistently. You need good batsmen to draw matches consistently. But matches are almost always lost with poor batting. It means you are not good enough to draw. In fact the weaker your bowling, your batsmen have that much less to bat to force draws.

Who is more angry Sachin-ists or Sach-atheists?
Sachin's fans are more angry. Just based on personal experience, I get a lot of (okay may be one or 'You...Sachin hater' type greetings from well wishers. I don't know of anyone who is angry with Sachin fans. Perhaps its proof that Sachin is not God after all. People who don't believe in God are not called God-haters so why this venom against people who no longer believe in the 'Sachin Story'...Just like traditional atheists I just don't believe Sachin should exist in the team. The rest are free to enjoy and experience his existence. Stop being angry with me. I am as stupid as you are.

If there is one lesson in this series for India what is it?
Next time a visiting side arrives, please give adequate practice to Indian batsmen against visiting spinners. When you are this bad, tour games are opportunities for home teams as well. Think outside the box.

Can things get any worse for India?
Yes, If they win at Nagpur

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dirty Picture: The Indian Story 2011

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(A post reproduced from almost exactly a year ago...)

India started 2011 in the most enviable position. Ranked #1 in Tests and with a legitimate chance of winning the World Cup. With tours to the West Indies, England and Australia lined up, I truly believed India had the resources and the motivation to extend their supremacy.

The year began well when Greame Smith; possibly  out of respect to Virendra Sehwag; chose not to force a series win and India gained much needed respect for drawing a Test series in South Africa with a win in the Durban Test.

Then India and Mahendra Sing Dhoni delivered one of the most memorable performances in World Cup history by lifting the World Cup under the most intense pressure any home team is likely to face, possibly in any sport. Barring a freakish loss to South Africa, India were hard to beat throughout the entire tournament. Against the lesser teams they did just enough and they beat every other past World Cup champion as the tournament progressed - a fact that made this World Cup win that much more sweet.

In April 2011, to be an Indian cricket fan meant... bragging rights and endless hope

Then we had the IPL; something like 28 minutes after Mahendra Singh Dhoni clubbed the World Cup winning 6; although the break seemed a little less than a tea break in a Test match.

Leaving the player auctions aside; the IPL generally is a good thing. For the game in India. For business. For the players; both Indian and foreign. But sometimes its benefits are overstated and the disruptions it causes in the short term are ignored, denied and wished away.

2011 was a good example of that. The negative impact of the IPL's 2011 edition to India's standing as a Test nation cannot be denied. There is no doubt in my mind that had we rested our Test team after the World Cup, made national cricket a priority, sent a full strength team to the West Indies, had adequate practice games in England, the results would have been vastly different.

But as the IPL progressed and player after player revealed injuries deep into the tournament, our fears for the worst started to emerge. Suddenly England and Australia seemed daunting tours because it was evident that even the greatest of our great cricketers had completely succumbed to and enslaved by the politicians, corporations and film makers that run the IPL.

Test Cricket was no longer the focus of India's leading cricketers and for the BCCI, maintaining India's #1 standing in the format suddenly had no business case. Whatever sound bytes that were uttered around Test cricket being the ultimate; was mere lip-service. 

From West Indies - April 2011 to Sydney - January 2012, the sum of all fears; the disruption caused by the IPL, ageing batting line up, injuries, conflicting priorities and hectic scheduling; all amounted to something far greater than the sum of the parts and Indian cricket spiralled uncontrollably, but not unexpectedly into mediocrity. 

Helping it along the way were the men who run, play, and sell Indian cricket. They insulated themselves so much from the visible problems that to them every set back was occasion for an excuse and doing nothing became the only solution. Cobbled together the actions, in-actions, decisions and in-decisions paint an extremely dirty picture.

Here is the story line as we saw and captured it in our posts...

Sachin Tendulkar decides that IPL is more important than a tour of the West Indies. Of course the Ambani's had a say in this but if Sachin cannot be backed to put country before club, why even fool ourselves into believing that between club and country, country stands any chance. Under the guise of 'I want to spend more time with my family', Sachin Tendulkar skipped the entire tour of the West Indies and while a Test was on, was seen prominently in the most repulsive set of images I have seen in 2011. Flirting with Roger Federer @ Wimbledon when he should really have been giving his all to help India win all Test matches on the West Indies tour.

2011 is the year Sachin Tendulkar became just another cricketer.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni leads India to an expected win in the first Test on the West Indies tour. Then he takes the mike in the post match press conference and delivers perhaps some of the the most arrogant and unsportsmanlike responses to questions by any Indian captain. He creates a babel of words around his love for hotel rooms and makes personalized comments against a specific umpire.

India never won another Test away from home in 7 more tries. 8 if you consider Sydney as well.

Then in the 3rd Test at Dominica Dhoni actually believed that India would lose 7 wickets chasing 90 odd in 15 overs. As the year progressed that belief turned into reality many times over as India's famed batsmen failed to routinely cross 300.

Emotionally exhausted after the world cup, physically spent after the IPL and after a tour of the West Indies which many cricketers viewed as a voluntary social service, India arrived in England foolishly believing that they can compete. 

They could not.

Just as we predicted.

Pre Series, we predicted a 0-2 loss which after Lord's was down graded to 0-4.

Why men like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virendra Sehwag, and Zaheer Khan did not do more to come better prepared left me with a sense of betrayal. What value do these seniors bring to the team if they are unwilling to influence priorities and make a stand and instead simply be content to play the 'We are victims of the system' card. 

A 0-4 performance was engineered by a total failure of the middle order and a green bowling attack. And yet no one took accountability for the disaster. India sold the humiliation as a 'one-off'. Perhaps the first instance of a whitewash which was successfully but ultimately wrongly; attributed to a perfect storm of minor events.

There is no known instance of the #1 ranked cricket team getting white washed. India became that team. The miracle wasn't the whitewash it self, rather it was the consummate ease with which the media bought the pathetic excuses; mostly conjured up from thin air and occasionally from the back sides of players and administrators.

We did not buy it. We called it a spectacular betrayal and called for the seniors (Sachin, in particular) to make way for the next generation

Rebuilding had to start post-England. Although realistically we knew India's cricket setup is not designed for such proactive measures. When Sachin played in the first Test in the home series against the West Indies, following the England tour, we said, he has played one Test too many.

India moved on. Settling yet again for celebrations of personal milestones. It was like the 90s all over again. Only this time celebrating personal milestones seemed hollow. That Dravid had a prolific year as a batsman meant nothing because India kept losing. We did not buy the world cup narrative that finally Sachin had achieved everything in his career. No. Far from it. It will always be a painful reminder that in spite of having the luxury of playing as part of the world's best team, he will retire without having won a Test series in Sri Lanka, West Indies, Australia and South Africa.

A 100 100s may have meant something more in the 90s not any more.

Greed and Insult
The BCCI like many boards, have sold far more than they think with the TV rights to corporations. That fact was exposed when England toured India for a series of 5 ODIs immediately after defeating India 0-4 in a Test series. 

The series had no context in a cricketing sense.

From a dollars perspective, it was perhaps necessitated because of an ODI series abandoned in 2008 after the Mumbai terror attacks.

The sponsors packaged it as a 'Revenge Series'. It was a direct assault on the intelligence of the common fan. They responded by staying away.

Irreversible Mediocrity
After the England ODIs West Indies visited India for a full tour even at home, India embarrassed themselves by failing to chase a sub-300 score against a friendly West Indies attack. The embarrassment however was not felt, so its wrong to call it an embarrassment. So let's call it plain denial. By now India's cricket team had miraculously insulated itself from any criticism and taken an ostrich-like approach to introspection. England was sold as 'bad luck' and every defeat or non-performance was drowned as a statistic in the face of meaningless personal milestones including the nation's quest for Sachin's 100th.

There was a time when there was legitimate pride in individual achievements and milestones. Gavaskar's 10,000th run was truly historic. The joy of Gavaskar's 29th Test 100 lasted for months. It didn't matter that we lost the Test Series 0-3 to the West Indies. Kapil's quest for his 432nd was laborious but with international Test wins scarce, the pursuit of the goal seemed wholly acceptable to most except probably Javagal Srinath.

For brief periods men like Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Ajit Wadekar had the skills to create winning teams from superlative individuals but it wasn't until Saurav Ganguly that India learnt how to win consistently. While the nation still celebrated Sachin's milestones during Ganguly's era and it continued to overshadow India's achievements; against the backdrop of Sachin's achievements was India's growing supremacy in Test Cricket.

In 2011 as the wins dried up, there was nothing to hold on to other than the personal milestones of Sachin, VVS and Dravid.

When the Australian tour came, India continued to live in denial. Expecting wins when England and West Indies had shown that the core team was far too obsessed with managing their own career extensions than deliver wins or think about what's in India's long term interest.

Unwilling to trust assurances from VVS Laxman and Dravid, once again we predicted a 0-2 trashing. It confirmed to us that India's seniors are now completely out of touch with reality and had an over sized estimate of their capabilities.

Disrespect, arrogance, betrayal, greed, and insult resulted in India embracing mediocrity. Inventing excuses along the way. To us, it is evident that the rot is irreversible. We need a new team. When a number one ranked team filled with all-time greats loses 6 in a row; something drastic needs to be done.

Looking ahead
India needs to shed its obsession with Sachin Tendulkar. Without any fault of his own, he has succeeded in taking us back into the 90s where humiliating losses are swept under a carpet decorated with individual achievements.

India needs to rebuild. And if Sachin, Rahul and VVS do not agree, their agreement should be deemed unnecessary. They need to be dropped (asked to retire) not because there are better players waiting but because we need to invest in players who will give us new wins again; may be not in the next few year but shortly after that.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Harvard University announces new course for the study of Sachin's Retirement

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The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University has just announced a new one-year Masters degree in Journalism to begin in Fall 2013 solely dedicated to the study of Sachin Tendulkar's retirement. The department of Labor Statistics, in a just released report had estimated a severe need for journalists that can cover the field of Sachin's retirement. The report said that by the year 2030 the world's print and online media combined, would need 10,000 journalists who can cover the fast growing field.

The program will be offered by the prestigious university beginning the Fall of 2013

The Harvard University Program seeks to create graduates who can achieve the following

  1. Present both sides of the view of why Sachin Tendulkar should not retire
  2. Apply Bollywood's tactic of producing mediocre movies under the garb of 'escapist cinema' to Sachin Tendulkar's situation...he is the hope of a nation, he makes people happy, etc, etc and such emotional nonsense
  3. Use of Satsguru to analyze Sachin Tendulkar's slumps to show how each of them have been temporary
  4. Argue endlessly about each of his bowled dismissals to hide his obvious struggles against the balls he manages to survive
  5. How to get artificially excited each time he breaks his own record
  6. To research, discover, unearth, manufacture new records from existing performances that can never be surpassed by Cook, Amla, etc
  7. To deal with emerging trends in arguments that favor his retirement and devise opinions to reject them

As course Prerequisites, a degree in cheer leading is a must

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Art and the Artist

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Playing cricket is perhaps very different from playing music. However, good cricketer is probably a good artiste much like a good musician. A good cricketer appreciates the honor and applause of his excellence much like a musician perhaps does. The motivation to please and be appreciated must rank quite high. Both these motivations are noble. However, when the audience stops appreciating one’s music, does one stop playing? Or does a poor player continue to play music though he knows that his notes are flawed?
Both are difficult questions to answer. An artiste true to his art form and one that finds art to be a spiritual pursuit might choose to stop playing when he is not striking the right notes. He might choose to do so despite audience clamor for more. He might view playing music despite flaws as being akin to blasphemy. Yet others might continue to provide happiness to their dwindling numbers of fans. Several aging rock stars and bands come to mind when I think of this scenario. And yet more artists, actors and sportsmen come to mind when I think of those who left the scene leaving only a memory of pure and high class.
Sachin Tendulkar’s continuing saga led me to think about this. I find it hard to justify my desire to push him into retirement. And I also find it hard to believe that there are people who are willing to continue to listen to bad music. Lata Mangeshkar is a great example of someone who sang past her prime and diminished herself in the eyes of many. Yet there were equal or more numbers of people willing to forgive these musical flaws for a chance to keep listening to her.
When fans are devoted to the musician rather than the music, this is likely to happen. But then there’s probably nothing wrong in being devoted to the musician instead of the music. We bloggers may state an opinion and take sides but that’s it.

Maybe this is why we see the division among cricket fans between those that want Tendulkar to continue playing and those that want him to retire. Tendulkar fans may be less interested in the success of the team when he has not contributed. Maybe they care less about watching cricket when he is not playing. Maybe they find other batsmen like Cook and Pujara boring in comparison. I have no idea. I'm simply speculating.

And those that truly desire that Indian cricket evolve into its new avatar quickly, so that we know whether they can go head to head once again with the elite teams, may be wanting him to retire. There is a huge amount of interest in people to see Pujara, Kohli and others play. The crowds at Mumbai and Kolkatta bear testimony to that.

And so it goes on and on....

The interesting thing is that neither side is wanting the selectors to axe him. In that there appears to be a consensus. That the man of such huge accomplishments must be given the space to call time on his career.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ricky Ponting Retires

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It is tough to comment on Ricky Ponting's retirement without mentioning the non retirement of the big white elephant in the room - Sachin Tendulkar.

It is safe to say however, that were Ricky Ponting Indian, his recent slump in form would have been brushed aside as a minor early-career slump and he would have at least given a decade more to compile largely meaningless 100s and assemble 3 more Ashes losses.

Fortunately he is Australian

It is easier to envision someone breaking Sachin Tendulkar's records. There may never be another Ricky Ponting however

From an Indian point of view, I was never sure what was more pleasurable. Beating Australia or beating Ponting. To see him lose and struggle as a batsman in India early in his career was a special treat.

There was no question of liking him even though I did feel that the Australian media was unnecessarily too critical of him during Sydney 2008. I don't even think Ricky Ponting cared whether he was liked. 

Many batsmen, after a good innings talk about how they simply responded to the match situation. In most cases its just a standard line batsmen say but it was only Ricky Ponting who I felt embodied that. Even among his peers there were far more destructive batsmen than him. Sachin Tendulkar (before he became just another cricketer) and Brian Lara come to mind. Only Ricky Pointing however, I felt, started every innings by answering the questions, "What do I need to do to win the game from here?".

It was a luxury neither Sachin nor Lara had. Ponting did and he made it count....

As Sachin's career has meandered with no specific goal in mind other than perhaps some perverted sense of personal gratification, Ponting sought gratification in wins. He would afford to, given the weapons he had around him.

One day, however it is easier to envision someone breaking Sachin Tendulkar's records. There may never be another Ricky Ponting however. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

If Sachin Tendulkar were the curator at Eden Gardens

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If Sachin Tendulkar were the curator at Eden Gardens, how would he respond to Mahendra Singh Dhoni's suicidal request to deliver a spinning track for the 3rd Test...

  1. No one can tell me what type of pitch I should make
  2. I will let my pitch do the talking
  3. I need a month to spend time with my family (Roger Federer)
  4. The day I feel like making a spinning track, I will
  5. All pitches are the same, the turn and spin is created by the media.
  6. All of the above
  7. None of the above

Monday, November 26, 2012

Positives for India

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It’s not all bad for India. It may seem that way. Dig a little bit deeper. There are positives all around.

In 3 innings, Sachin Tendulkar has been clean bowled only once. Surely the man’s reflexes are still at his peak.

The lower order has shown spine. Once they stop showing that the mauling India will receive in the next 2 tests will make the Mumbai loss seem like an honorable effort.

The IPL is still the biggest league around the world

No one is yet calling for VVS Laxman to come out of retirement. This is a clear indication that India has its eyes firmly on building a team for the future.

Virendra Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir (Average 53) are still the best opening pair India has ever had

The world is still jealous of the IPL

Sachin Tendulkar is still not the worst batsman in the line up. Statistically he is but we are giving consideration to his ‘colossal record’

The best spinner in the series is a Sardar

Harbhajan Singh’s stature and non-performance has slowly risen to levels that has Mahendra Singh Dhoni itching to call him the ‘Sachin of Spinners’

The IPL is still the biggest league around the world

The one thing that irks Indian fans is no longer true. We are no longer bullies at home. Now we can lose abroad with our heads held high.

The IPL is still the biggest league around the world

The best fast bowler in the series is an Indian. So what if he now injured.

Nobody’s houses were burnt after the loss. This is a sure sign that Indian fans are maturing. Either that or they don’t care.

Dhoni got to retire to his hotel room early

The IPL is still the biggest league around the world

India has accidentally found a nice transition plan. We can now transition to a young team who can match the seniors; loss-for-loss

The IPL is still the biggest league around the world

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mumbai may end in dull draw

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Michael Clarke, David Warner and Mike Hussey lit up my TV screen like nothing else in recent times. The counterattack that Clarke and Warner launched post lunch was breathtaking. Clarke has scaled a batting peak few others will come close to. Granted it was achieved in home conditions, against the worlds best attack minus two. Plus, if SA are settling for Imran Tahir, then Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla may want to consider emigrating to SA.

I was wrong about Clarke. In the aftermath of the Sydney fiasco versus India in 2008, I had boldly opined that Clarke would meet the same fate as Kim Hughes. That the coming changes in the Australian team would lead him to despair. But Clarke is made of tougher stuff. Hats off to him on his batting. And for being an inspirational leader in his own right.

We now await India's next encounter with England. Given that Mumbai has recently lost its warlord, the curator will likely make a wicket for a draw. The logic being that a flat wicket would ensure that India don't lose and that a Sachin century would make him a hero. He would then dedicate his work to the recently departed satrap. India have no confidence in their attack though they eked out a win in Ahmedabad. Plus, a win in Mumbai without a significant contribution from Sachin would not satisfy the diehards. All in all expect a flat track with a run fest in the making.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

India's attempted shortcut to redemption hits a roadblock

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England have already proved, inside 4 days, that they are less bad in India than India were in England in 2011. For one, India never reached 300 in any of their 8 innings, I think.

When India arrived in England, they were not only the best ranked Test side, they also had been unbeaten in a Test Series in England for 15 years. 

They knew how to not lose and sneak in a few Test wins to win an entire series in England. Its not like to expect them to compete was to expect the BCCI to be statesmanlike.

The last time England won in India, Alastair Cook was not even born. England achieved their #1 ranking without conquering the sub continent. Early this year they were humiliated by Pakistan and their weakness against spin laid bare by Saeed Ajmal.

Yet, they came to India wanting to win. They gave themselves everything they thought they needed to win. They even patched up with disruptive forces in the dressing room. They gave themselves 3 practice games ahead of the Tests.

Contrast this to the summer of 2011 when India landed in England...

Indian players hid injuries, and exhausted themselves playing the IPL. India's losses in England and then in Australia were not because of inherent weaknesses to conquer these conditions. Those were conquered to the point where India knew how to compete in these places. India's losses in England and Australia were because something basic had changed in her thinking and priorities. 

And yet India's plan to redemption was to do nothing. Cook up delusional excuses. Confront none of the tough questions about the Seniors the IPL, etc. Their short cut plan was to prepare turning tracks, pick a few spinners, show up for the Test matches, expect England to roll over and then go on stage and say..."See nothings changed.."

After the first 2 1/2 days, I watched the score every morning worried that India's shortcut plan to redemption was working.

Then Alastair Cook stood up. Then Nick Comption. Then Matt Prior. And I know Tim Bresnan and Stuart Board will too, tomorrow

I am hoping again.

Hoping that England will pull this off. Hold on for a draw or score just enough runs that forces them to force a win.

I don't think its unpatriotic to hope your country loses or is embarrassed in a win. India's focus on the IPL that hampers their Test outcomes, as happened in 2011...that is unpatriotic.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Familiar Script, But India needs the Confidence....

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Two days of the first test match are behind us. A very familiar script is unfolding. England have their best weapons in the middle at the end of this day. If they are to make a match of this test, KP and Cook are their only hopes. Cook, made a debut hundred in India and is right up there among the best to have played the game of test cricket. His record of reeling off hundreds at a pace faster than Tendulkar is out there for everyone to see. KP is well, just KP. He is Tendulkar, Sehwag and Laxman rolled into one when the mood is right. The ask is steep and two batsmen can't win England test matches in India.

Graeme Swann has done what Shane Warne couldn't do before. Commanded the respect of Indian batsmen and at times even foxed them and bossed them. Watching him bowl, with virtually no variation, but good, disciplined off-spin makes one feel if doosras and carroms are over-rated balls. Most pundits have pronounced that Shane Warne's success was attributable chiefly to his accuracy and then to his ability to intimidate. Swann may be the off-spinning version of a Shane Warne style bowler. It's always fun watching Indian batsmen play good spinners.

If anyone truly mastered Swann, it was Cheteshwar Pujara. This guy has vindicated everyone's trust in his ability. His composure is remarkable. He wasn't batting too slowly. He was simply batting according to the ball being bowled. So at times he seemed to be circumspect and at other times he seemed aggressive. But nothing was pre-determined about his batting. It was like watching Geet Sethi notch up his huge billards scores. Keep going by playing according to the merit of every ball being bowled. Nothing more or less. Being on 98 overnight was a direct product of this discipline. It was almost like he truly internalized Tendulkar's mantra that 100 is just a number. Pujara is practising what Tendulkar wishes he could. We all know that even the great Tendulkar plays differently while approaching landmarks.

The question that comes to mind is this. Are the selectors looking in the wrong places for replacements? Pujara doesn't set the T20 world alight. He doesn't play ODIs for India. He is a thoroughbred test batsman. Maybe he'll break into the ODI team, maybe he won't. But his test place is assured. We worried about whether he can replace Dravid and he has. Pundits will say, "Well, we have to see how he performs overseas." But we all know that  Pujara has bought himself one or two overseas series before doubts are cast about his ability to step up overseas. Personally, considering his temperament, I'm sure he'll do well overseas too. He'll defintely prosper in the Adelaides, Sydneys and Ovals. And if one or two centuries per overseas series are the benchmark to keep your place in the team, then he'll easily make it.

Virat Kohli seems to be hitting a slight patch of bad form. He could do no wrong in the last 12 months and it appears that he is now finding run making that much more difficult. But I give him a lot of credit for struggling through his 67 balls and not giving away his wicket. He should have been taken by Trott, but he shrugged that off and kept going. Attitude wise, there was no shortcomings, but I do believe that his form is beginning a worrisome downward trend. Happens to every batsman, but they work it off. Time for Virat to spend time with coach Fletcher and figure out a way out of this. Grit it out - as they say.

Yuvraj too played a determined innings and his hunger was evident in his approach. This is fantastic for Indian cricket that Yuvraj is respecting test match cricket for what it is and is working to crack the code. This is great news for the survival of test cricket too. I hope he makes a couple of good hundreds in the next few tests coming up and cements his place in the side for the next 8 or so years. For India, a formidable Yuvraj coming in at number 6 can only demoralize the opposition bowlers. He can take the right to the opposition as the situation demands and looks like is willing to buckle down and graft if the situation requires. Fantastic.

If I have no words about Sehwag's hundred, its because whatever I say, he can prove me wrong in the next few matches. He could end up throwing his wicket away or he could slam a triple. The guy is nuts. The team can afford him and also feed off him. His failures don't necessarily result in losses, but his successes invariably lead to victory. A nice place for the Indian team to be.

And finally the elephant in the room, Tendulkar. What's he doing in this team of kids? It feels like Amitabh playing a college kid in a bollywood movie. Of course the man can act well, even act like a college kid. But why? I'm sure he'll reel off a couple of hundreds in this series. He's still got it. But I ain't watching test matches to see him score hundreds anymore. Been there, done that. Now I'm watching Pujara, Kohli and even the new Yuvraj and perhaps Rahane or Rohit Sharma. That's right, I  haven't given up on that guy yet. :-)

Friday, November 9, 2012

England In India: Questions ahead of a potentially ugly series

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What trophy is the series played for?
The first India-England series I was aware of was in 1979. I remember vividly following the Oval Test on All India Radio, where India fell 9 runs short of chasing a mammoth fourth innings target. The match was drawn. Later, I remember Botham came to India and single handedly won a one-off Test. Ever since I have followed series’ with England keenly, without knowing that a certain Anthony De Mello’s name was associated with the series.

But now I am curious, what sort of relationship exists between the BCCI and ECB. Each board plays its own series for a different trophy? They can’t even agree on what to name the series, why were we expecting them to agree on the technology that aids LBW decisions.

Can’t these 2 boards agree over dead people at least? I mean surely Anthony De Mello and the Sr. Nawab of Pataudi can’t sort this out.

Personally, I liked the Pataudi Trohy. Border-Gavaskar, Murali-Warne, etc seem too lame. Pataudi played both for England and India evenly. Someone from the De Mello family can be invited to present the trophy. Win-Win… Isn’t it?

How much more farcical will practice matches become?
If the next time England visits India and the BCCI schedules a practice game against, say Essex 4th XI in Chelmsford and completely avoid giving the English team any orientation to Indian conditions, I will not be surprised. Further I will be aghast if anyone raises eyebrows because what England have been given on this tour is not far from the farce I am painting.

How many times will Sachin get bowled?
Forget the technologies behind the DRS, India is yet to embrace research from the beginning of time that as man (and woman) ages, his (or her) reflexes slow down. Sachin Tendulkar is great. See I said it. But he is now truly a comic hero. I mean he triggers comedic support from his die hard fans. I would love to see Sachin getting bowled a few times, preferably early in the series. Then read all the articles on how ‘Sachin will silence his critics’. Frankly it’s the balls that he does not get bowled that bother me. A number 4 batsman struggling at a rate of 2-3 runs per over when the out of form openers (average 53) have been scoring at 5-6 an over, is painful to watch.

What does India’s dossier on English players look like?
My guess is that India’s dossier on English players would contain personal statistics of each of the Indian players against each of the England’s. So 15 by 15… Do the math. And that will be used in press conferences to defend a poor passage of play.

How many overs before Zaheer Khan breaks down?
I say by the 3rd Test he will be out, so I say sometime after 50 overs.

Is Alastair Cook the next Sachin Tendulkar?
Yes. Get him out and India will win.

When will English players stop talking their ECB mandated line on ‘Kevin Pietersen’?
No. It’s mandatory for all to English players to say how nice it is to have Pietersen back in the ‘fold’ and how England is a better side with him in it.

Does the series matter?
No, whether India wins or loses…IPL will be the winner

If India loses what will be their excuse?
Pitches were not made to match our incompetence to fast bowling in our home conditions. Gambhir will say…we will show you in the IPL

If England loses what will be their excuse?
I think England believe they can win this series. If the going gets tough for them things might get ugly between the teams. I am sensing a very ugly series… Ugly in a good way. Like the March 2001 series against Australia. Or may be that’s what I want. Test cricket needs what I want

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Where is the hurt India?

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When most teams lose, there is an expression of hurt, disappointment. Australians talk about ‘being gutted’. South Africa usually crash out of tournaments shell shocked, oftentimes resembling characters from Tintin when struck with lightening or something entirely unexpected and its often hard not to laugh at their plight. When Pakistan lose the infighting intensifies but the desire to win and the hurt at not getting it is amply expressed.

However when India lose the entire apparatus gets into overdrive to deceive themselves that…you know what, its not as bad as it looks. If they are disappointed then the evidence is nowhere to be found.

It’s always ‘that one partnership that was the difference’ or ‘we are going through a bad time’. There are attempts to put the loss in perspective. Matches long archived in history are referred to, to suggest that things were fine not so long ago and the current loss is just an aberration. Lady luck is accused of not being in escort. ‘We will show you in our backyard’ or dialogues to that effect are muttered. The team almost wishes that when they lose the individuals should still be adulated for glories past.

The defenses come up even before criticism is expressed.

For starters, I do buy the assessment that the margin of loss to Australia hurt us in the World T20. It is also obvious that the rain hindered India’s chances.

But where is the disappointment? Where is the hurt?

Why are attempts made by the team to justify status quo? Why is it that with India that a year and more of sustained drought of wins does not trigger attempts to change things to find wins?

When you look at it individually perhaps there is a case for Virendra Sehwag to be given more chances, may be it would be harsh to drop Gautam Gambhir, may be Zaheer Khan still has some wickets in him. May be Yuvraj Singh, he batsman, will eventually find his form and further that he is entitled to use international games as net practice. May be Sachin Tendulkar deserves to carry on and achieve whatever it is that he has set his eyes on. May be there is some future value in giving Rohit Sharma endless chances, may be celebrating Harbhajan Singh’s monthly comebacks mostly with the bat are justifiable.

May be…

Collectively however, its simply not working. Not in Tests, not in ODIs and not in T20s.

What is it about India that it has found comfort in losing? Has the benchmark for success changed? Has pride in winning given way to pride in TRP ratings? endorsements?  revenue?

Is this what it means when they say that cricket is now a business and players are entertainers?

Does winning not matter at all?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Is this time for South Africa to unchoke?

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One day, India will lose a World Cup game to Pakistan. Till then every unanswered win against Pakistan in any 'world event' is cause for celebration. 

Champions Trophy does not count. 

And even if the World T20 is not a World Cup, we will call it one; especially now since Pakistan have yet again lost to India.

For those of us who have lived through Sharjah...may the wins keep coming.

The current Pakistan team had gathered a lot of adulation and respect for their performances over the last year. They betrayed that thoroughly today. They fielded like the Pakistan team we know of, batted with little brains and their bowlers lined up to pay tribute to and further feed the legend of Virat Kohli.

Can't remember a more hollow win for India against Pakistan. 

Both teams are still alive. Both teams can lose their last Super 8 games and still hope to qualify on 'Net Run Rate'. Both teams to a large extent control their own destiny. Purely in a logical sense, India are better placed however. They play last knowing exactly what they have to do in their game against South Africa. Pakistan on the other hand will be at the mercy of Shane Watson. A daunting task for any team. 

A cricketer I had initially written off as Australia's version of Sanjay Bangar or Manoj Prabhhakar. Shane Watson, has since silenced me but the way he is playing in this tournament, if he were to compete as his own country he would start as among the favorites.

Australia and Sri Lanka do look like they could win this thing. Sri Lanka along with West Indies was of course in my list of teams favored to win the World T20 but now I would like to swap West Indies with Australia. 

There haven't been very many close matches but close finishes do not define a good game of cricket and the Super 8s have been exciting even without them.

South Africa and New Zealand have been surprisingly disappointing but while South Africa have always choked from positions of strength, this is the first time they are playing with their backs against the wall.

Who knows...

This may trigger a South African resurgence that might get them their first ICC Trophy. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Undropppable Mr Sehwag

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Once selected for a tour, Virendra Sehwag is essentially undroppable.

What I mean is with players like him it is the selectors who need to drop him for poor performance. It should not be left to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Its unfair.

The only way for Mahendra Singh Dhoni to come of this unscathed was for India to win the match and once he executed on this ‘most difficult decision’ he exposed himself to criticism if India lost the game.

They did lose the game and the criticism that was expressed as analysis during the match is now a full blown questioning of Dhoni’s decision making abilities.

I feel for Dhoni. The selectors are not doing their jobs and the task of managing the egos of the seniors while still trying to win games is squarely on his shoulders.

During India’s 0-8 run, he never once influenced any change in the batting team composition or the batting order but in the LOI format he feels he has enough control to exert his influence.

I have always argued that Virendra Sehwag is more comfortable with the Test format and his consistency after a decade of LOI cricket nowhere near his Test match consistency. His career should be managed like VVS Laxman’s and preserved for Test matches.

That will require selectoral consensus, which was too much to expect from Srikkant’s team. Will Sandip Patil be any good?

Time will tell

The skill gap on paper between India and Australia without Sehwag is too huge. Even with Sehwag in the team the bowling is threadbare.

Had Sehwag played and scorched a 100, I have no confidence that our bowlers would have defended the score. Not with the rain that clearly hindered an almost all-spin attack.

I think the right thing for Mahendra Singh Dhoni to now do is to show he is flexible, get Sehwag back in the side for the must win game against Pakistan and deal with the issue of Virendra Sehwag with the selectors.

There are a few players who are above such policies like ‘horses for courses’. Even in the most abject of forms like the one he is in right now, Virendra Sehwag is one of them.

Dhoni should be applauded for trying but in the supposed power struggle between him and Virendra Sehwag, he may have raised the stakes higher than what was necessary.

It’s better to lose with Virendra Sehwag in the team than lose by benching him

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The World T20 finally poised for a take off

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The World T20 Story so far... 

3 matches affected by rain. A must win game ends in a no result and we find out that West Indies make it to the Super 8s without winning a single game. More rain is expected and the ICC responds to questions of the scheduling of the tournament with “Everyone knew and agreed to the schedule”. Actually such is the pull of cricket’s newest format that ICC can organize a night game in the North Pole in the middle of the summer and make a profit. This one though has all the makings of another Champions Trophy from a decade ago when India bowled twice in the finals on consecutive days only for the second innings being washed out on both days. 100 overs of cricket and the trophy was shared.

Me No Love
The minnows, who don’t like to be called that we learn, had earned much sympathy and love during the 2011 World Cup and the previous edition of the T20 Cup 2 weeks ago or so. This time with most matches being lopsided, the minnows have been shown their place and the only love they are getting is based on ‘archived in statsguru’ performances. Much like the lifeline India’s seniors are enjoying

The Format
Even after a week, the tournament feels like its still in the warm up matches stage. SA have batted for all of 19 overs, England technically ‘threw’ their match against India for it was a game of absolutely no consequence and no matter how hard the ICC tries they just cannot design a format that can keep all stages interesting. In that the fault lies less with the ICC and more with the disparity of skills between the Test and the non-Test playing countries.

The Leading Unfavorites
India - I am not reading too much into the embarrassingly thumping win against England for India. For all its experience with the IPL, India seems to be a side just a nudge away from completely falling apart. Ever since Virat Kohli carried Sachin on his shoulders after the World Cup win, the list of seniors that India have had to carry is mounting. Sehwag, Gambhir, Zaheer… and now, Yuvraj. I was very excited with Yuvraj’s return and said to whoever would listen that he would be biggest thing in Indian cricket for a while but he just does not seem match fit to me. It’s only a matter of time when one of these non performing seniors will cause the camels back to break only for the blame to be shifted to Ashok Dinda.

Of the Other Unfavorites
England are not as stupid as they looked against Harbhajan and Chawla, South Africa are actually looking good, Pakistan likewise. Australia were mauled by Gayle and remain along with India the most unfavourites.

If the rains stay away most of the games in the Super 8s will be worth watching. Also with no baggage being carried forward from the previous rounds all teams start as equals. The idea of carrying forward points while it worked to create an incentive to take every group match seriously, had the downside of not allowing lower seeded teams any room to make a run to the top in the Super 8s. 

Better to have meaningless matches in the group stage than in the Super 8s

Personally, I would love for West Indies to win. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Unfavourites

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If cricket boards across the world could figure out how to make money on the sighting of Haley’s comet, they would find a way to make that thing appear every other year. With T20, they don’t have to do anything as dramatic other than dropping the ‘World Cup’ tag from this tournament. People are somehow conditioned to think that World Cups happen every 4 years so by smartly dropping the tag it has allowed boards to have this tournament every week if they so choose.

Of course we will be following the World T20 cup. So lets kick start the coverage with these teams who are most unlikely to win the cup; “The unfavourites”…

There is enough evidence to suggest that wearing the same uniform design does not yield similar results. From what I can tell the strategy failed in Tests. I have vivid memories of India wearing whites when they became the #1 Test side in the world and then promptly lost 8 Test Matches in a row; also in white. In addition the ROI on winning the World T20 cup is questionable.

There was a bowler... correcttion.. Fast bowler. He was once carted for 6 sixes in 6 balls. He now captains his country. Enough said. On the bright side England are united and united they will fall.

South Africa
At the end of the day they are a team of proper cricketers. Ultimately too good to win the World T20. On the positive side I did not suggest they will choke

Their captain will not even make the 15 member squad of 80% of the countries including Ireland. Its hard to see why he would end up holding the T20 cup. They are also ranked below Ireland in the T20 rankings. There is nothing to be said on the brighter side for Australia

In all probability they will end up issuing a formal complaint to the ICC that no one told them that the game they just won against India was a warm up game. Then they will boycott the rest of the actual tournament and hold their own World T20 cup. Ajmal will win the man of the series award.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sri Lanka and West Indies cricket take the lead

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The recent decision by the Sri Lankan and West Indies Cricket boards to scrap Test matches in favor of ODIs, possibly involving India in a tri-series is a brave one. After the initial rolling of the eyes, I settled down to understand that this is actually a sane decision.

The scrapping of the Test Matches means that both Sri Lanka and West Indies can allow their players to play the entire season of IPL. While the presidents/executives of both boards will deny this, and indeed Sri Lanka's has, the motivation for this move is transparent to all.

Test Cricket needs to be played in earnestness or not at all.

When India and New Zealand shoe horn a 2 Test series with no practice games, when marquee teams like Australia and South Africa play a 2 Test series, when South Africa are in England for as long as they have been this summer and have only 3 Tests to show for it, when India's players treat tours to the West Indies as an entirely voluntary exercise, its like even the game's leaders are simply ticking the Test Cricket box on a checklist as conformance to the Future Tours and Programs.

Lip Service is what that is.

The Future Tours and Programs is increasingly looking like a weather forecast or worse an astrology reading. Its not a guarantee for anything other than the likelihood that the featured events might occur.

By contrast the lesser boards; lesser in monetary terms strictly; do not have the funds to even pay the lip service to the format like India, England, South Africa and Australia do and are thus forced to take the lead in confronting the truth that unless there is a will among the cricket playing nations, Test cricket is not worth the trouble. These smaller boards by their actions will either accelerate the eventual demise or force the men who matter to decide if cricket should follow the money at all costs.

When men like Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble suggest that all 3 formats can survive, without the need to address anything really, I wonder if they are simply joking, saying a straight faced lie, are incapable to comprehend the impact of IPL and the other leagues, or are simply reading out from the BCCI party line afraid not to jeopardize future incomes. Whatever the case, these statements sound hollow, far removed from reality, and clearly not what these gentlemen truly think. Because as players they were both analytical and articulate.

India obviously want to milk every dollar they can via the IPL and are in no mood to play the lead in devising anything that might sustain Test cricket. So while its administrators and legendary players continue their lip services to Test Cricket, the New Zealands, Sri Lankas and the West Indies of the world will adapt their cricket to the new model and the Test World will shrink.

When a game far more boring than cricket, Golf, that like Test cricket goes on for 4 days before a winner emerges, can be a money making machine; I do not quite get the do-nothing-because-there-is-no-money-in-test-cricket line of wisdom

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Pakistan unnecessarily wallow in self pity over Saeed Ajmal

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With so many ranking systems, awards, and the various world cups I had assumed that outside of the ODI world cup these things were only instituted to generate sponsorship money and largely artificial interest in the sport of cricket. Ok and perhaps to help seed teams and draw schedules (a purely functional exercise but relevant nonetheless)

It is quite amusing to follow ESPN cricinfo’s headlines covering the on-going ODI series between England and South Africa. They were generating a feeling that the #1 ODI ranking was changing hands every ball. South Africa is not fielding their best team for this series for whatever reason and England are united without Pietersen. Neither team is giving any indication of really playing for the #1 ranking. I seriously doubt either of them really care one way or the other for the ranking.

There is only one real World Cup and its going to be pretty difficult to shake that off. While a Test Championship will be welcome for its promises of high quality cricket, I doubt it will be the new World Cup

I have never really paid much attention to the ICC awards.

They too like the T20 Cup seem to come around every few months but then I must be confusing them with the ESPN Cricinfo awards. Even so I have rarely paid much attention to them. I simply assumed they are another vehicle to generate money, generate employment and create a superficial buzz around the sport.

This year though, I have been browsing through the stories and blogs crying foul over the exclusion of Saeed Ajmal from the Test Cricketer of the Year award.

In general, I feel for Pakistan only because they play their cricket with a natural flair that is a joy to watch. However I also feel the state their cricket is in is largely their own doing. You can’t blame India or the evil West for appointing comical chiefs to head your board who consistently pick the wrong battles to win. The new chief Zaka Ashraf seems a little more sensible but its still early days and the signs are not good.

Once again the PCB picked a wrong battle to win.

Saeed Ajmal has had a pretty spectacular year in Test cricket and plotted a clean sweep of England the then #1 Test side. His efforts were recognized with his name being included in the nominations for the ICC Cricketer of the year award.

But when the nominations were cut down to 4 only Hashim Amla and Vernon Philander (South Africa), Michael Clarke (Australia) and Kumar Sangakara (Sri Lanka) made the cut.

Saeed Ajmal did not make the list.

Fans were upset. Bloggers thought this was racist, that there is more to this than the ICC were willing to reveal. To an extent the fans reactions were understandable if viewed as frustration. Then the PCB decided to act and lodge a formal complaint against the ICC to include Saeed Ajmal in the short-list. Pakistan themselves were represented in the process that they now question.

The ICC promptly rejected the objection. And now Pakistani fans are frustrated and hurt.

There may be some validity to the perception among Pakistani fans that their team is never given their due. How this latest mis-step by their board that seemed to succumb to its fans’ frustrations is going to help them is anyone’s guess

In my view there is not even circumstantial evidence to suggest that there was any conspiracy to exclude Saeed Ajmal. I mean its simple, if his name was included, I would have accepted it, just as I have accepted his exclusion from the short-list. All these 5 cricketers have very little room that separates them.

No decision making process involving humans can be entirely objective. Does popularity of a cricketer, affiliation to certain countries, personal prejudices play a role in drawing up a short list? I am sure they do. Only Pakistan however can help change that and wallowing in self-pity on every little slight does their image no good at all.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Winning in Transition

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India's transition has one foot stubbornly in the late 80s but ignoring that, the series win against New Zealand though anticipated, is a welcome relief after the string of losses in England and Australia.

The Indian side does not look settled at all but no side can be after the string of recent losses and the retirements of 2 of the game's greats. What is of concern though is that it is not the transitory elements but the established ones that are looking vulnerable. Zaheer Khan averaged 60 for his 3 wickets and Sachin Tendulkar 21 for his 63 runs. Yet conventional wisdom among experts is to 'preserve them' for South Africa. An idea that is unlikely to flatter India's youngsters while also being debatable given the two might be past their prime.

Both Gautam Gambhir and Virendra Sehwag are 'under observation'. Patience with both is running thin and given that both have spoken their minds against Mahendra Singh Dhoni's tactics neither has an option to just be passengers in the team. In normal circumstances, a prolonged period of less than optimal productivity will leave their fate in the hands of the captain and the selectors. Neither performed in this series and set bad examples with the choice of their shots. With the IPL and private money (and thus influence) nothing is normal about cricket any more. Neither the captain nor the selectors may have any say in how long is prolonged. I for one doubt whether the two will produce anything meaningful when India travels abroad. Bad habits have crept into their batting a direct influence of T20 cricket and whether they have the discipline to curb the T20 instincts is something we will know only in time

India’s transitory elements Virat Kohli, Pragyan Ojha, Cheteshwar Pujara and R Ashwin were the core team that engineered the series win and that is the biggest positive from the series.

Even Rahul Dravid has acclaimed Virat Kholi as the best Indian batsman today. It is as much a statement on Sachin as it is a compliment to Virat. How much in future monetary compensation this statement may cost him remains to be seen but cynical remarks aside, seeing Sachin Tendulkar struggle against the weakest team in Test cricket was painful to watch. It is entirely his choice that he is okay to reduce himself to a passenger on the team.

Another problem is Suresh Raina but he is a problem produced by the system or ‘process’ as is fashionable these days with cricket. Whatever ODI opportunities he has been given he has come through. Even in the most high pressure situations; most notably his batting in the World Cup quarter finals against Australia and semi-finals against Pakistan. It is hard to ignore him. His captains and coaches all seem to love his work ethics. His inclusion in the Test team can be justified because he meets all ‘pre-requisites’. Yet I have never harbored any great hopes from him. He just doesn’t look like a proper batsman to me. I hope he has something else in him that will help him sustain his Test career.

In sum, I believe it is reasonable to say that India’s youngsters delivered a series win under Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s captaincy in spite of the seniors.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The numbers behind Strauss' retirement

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Sachin Tendulkar has said that 'its just a number' but speculation is rife that the BCCI may have played a pivotal role in the retirement of Andrew Strauss.

They now have their sights on Grame Smith - The English captain killer himself

Here's Why

Team# Of Captains Since 1989
New Zealand9