Monday, March 25, 2013

Dhoni's team scales a peak

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A 4-0 blanking was definitely not a predictable script. Other than Harbhajan who also predicted England being blanked, no one seriously thought India would hand such a drubbing to Australia. Although, some may sneer at wins achieved on friendly, doctored surfaces and some (like me) may not derive a great deal of pleasure from such wins, a 4-0 sweep is a huge achievement for any Test side.

Having grown up watching the West Indies take England apart in what were known as "black washes", I had yearned for similar ruthlessness from Indian teams. Even when conditions were favorable for India to deliver such wins, our captains demurred. The 3-0 verdicts against England and Zimbabwe in the early nineties were the closest India came to being ruthless. Kambli being the destroyer in chief in those series.

Our fabled four didn't get to bask in such a series win although they did deliver rare overseas series victories on the back of strong batting performances. The wins in Pakistan and England being the most notable with the drawn series in Australia and South Africa being very engaging.

A new India team has arrived on the scene and the retirements of Dravid and Laxman have hardly caused a hiccup. If anything, it appears that they overstayed slightly in an Indian sort of way. Tendulkar's presence in the team has been rendered irrelevant by mainly Pujara and by that smart batsman Virat Kohli. Pujara's mountain of runs and consistent performances, including 4th innings deliverances have outshone even the genius that is Tendulkar. Pujara and Kohli's consistency gives India the perfect cover to groom a replacement for the master.

Obviously, the hope is that this team takes baby steps overseas and does not get destroyed like Azharuddin's side got drubbed in England in 1996 or Tendulkar's team got blanked in Australia in 1999. Pujara and Kohli have sufficient pedigree and more miles in them than Dravid and Ganguly did on those two tours. Hopefully, the results are better. While a series win in South Africa this winter may be far-fetched, a fight would be well respected. Taking test matches into the fifth day will be a great beginning for a side lacking the quality that Zaheer Khan brought to overseas tests as well as the spine that Dravid provided the batting.

The jury is still probably out on the opening combination. Dhawan's magnificent and confident debut augurs well, but more needs to be seen from him before anointing him successor to the mad genius that Sehwag has been. Vijay has done very well to cement his place. Although at times he has not looked convincing outside the off stump, he has gutted it out. He has heart and that is a critical ingredient to succeed overseas.

Jadeja will likely play as the second spinner even overseas with Ashwin being the main spinner, which means Jadeja has to clock more runs. His 45 in the Delhi match was a promising start hopefully to more consistent batting. Umesh Yadav, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma are likely to be first choice seamers overseas.

All of this means that Dhoni well and truly has steered India through a difficult transition with minimal fuss. All the batsmen barring Tendulkar who delivered the 4-0 away series drubbing are now out of the side. A new look team has emerged and is demonstrating a ruthless streak never before associated with Indian teams. It's a matter of time before a Tiwary or a Sharma or Chand or Rahane or other take the master's place in the side. Kohli will likely take the number 4 position in the lineup. And like all the transition that has happened till now, that too may become a non-event. Maybe that's the greatest contribution that Tendulkar will make in that he didn't leave the team in disarray with his departure.

We are fortunate to have Dhoni who has now led India to World Cup victories and a "brown wash". A series win in Australia and South Africa are the holes in India's resume. Will those happen on Dhoni's watch too?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Yesterday's 'smart' is today's 'obstructing the field'

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What was once a smart thing to do as a batsmen, will get you out, today. Pakistan's Mohammed Hafeez found that out the hard way. He was ruled out 'obstructing the field' for running straight in between the line of the fielder's throw and the stumps as he attempted to reach the non strikers end. This happened in the 4th ODI against their ongoing series against South Africa

I don't have the patience to actually read the changed rule. I was aware of it when it was announced and I vaguely know it singles out batsmen who alter their line of running, while taking a run, and deliberately come in between the  line of the thrown ball and the stumps.

I remember not being very impressed with the changed rule but that is true for many of the new rules especially in the ODIs

Watching cricket in the 80s on Doordarshan, and even on Channel 9, we were constantly reminded by commentators that it is the batsman's right to attempt to block the balls path and an expectation to decline to run overthrows resulting from a ricochet from the batsman's body or piece of equipment. This was considered in line with the unwritten spirit of the game. And it made sense. Unless of course the ricochet results in the ball crossing the boundary in which case the umpire would signal a four. I don't know if the batting side has any means to decline a boundary. May be it can ask the umpire to signal a dead ball. I haven't actually seen that happen though, which doesn't mean it hasn't happened of course.

It was also understood that if the ricochet happens while the batsmen was not making an explicit attempt to block the path of the ball, the batsmen were well within the spirit of the game to run any resulting over throws.

The new rule of declaring the batsman out 'obstructing the field' if he blocks the balls path while running, is hard to adapt to. Its something batsmen instinctively do. When in danger of being caught short of the crease, it is natural for the batsman to look where the ball is being thrown from and once that is established and once the batsman realizes that the fielder has an open view of the stumps, its quite unnatural, against instinct, to keep running the same line when you know a slight alteration might save your wicket.

Additionally it will make the on field umpire's job more difficult because now he has to look at whether the batsman changed course of his running path, after accounting for the line of sight at the stumps for the fielder or it was a natural change in his running path. Shouldn't the umpire be looking at the business end to deliver a correct run-out decision? And are batsmen allowed to change course by guessing the line of sight for the fielder?

Its one of those rules that have come in place, I guess because the ICC Technical Committee needs something to do to justify their existence. Like the rule that prohibits runners. It seems the committee wants many decisions taken away from the opposing captains and don't trust them to work out an arrangement agreeable to both. This is also evidenced in ODI cricket and the endless power play rules. It's like the committee wants to 'captain' the ODI game to make it more interesting.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A rare Test match at Mohali

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Winning a Test match after conceding 400+ runs in the first innings is rare. Its happened only 39 times out of over 2000 odd Test matches. Interestingly post 2000, its becoming somewhat of a trend. with 23 of the 39 instances all happening in the last 13 years.

400 is not what it used to be, perhaps because of the rate at which runs are scored these days. It still leaves a lot of time for the conceding team to come back, if they respond with a higher scoring rate.

Of the 23 times it has happened, in the last 13 years, India feature 8 times, 4 against Australia alone. In fact prior to 2000 India never won a Test after conceding 400 runs to the opposition in the first innings. England and Australia have won 6 times each, and Sri Lanka, Pakistan and South Africa once each, since 2000.

But the just concluded Mohali Test was, perhaps, the one and only instance where a side won after conceding 400 runs in the first innings in what was effectively a 4 day Test (4 1/4 if you go by the number of overs bowled).

This was made possible, quite clearly by one person...

Shikhar Dhawan. 

187 runs in 174 balls. 

The rate at which he scored, in a way created time for India to go for a win aided by Australia's fight back. 

At the start of Day 4, India were 283 for no loss still in their first innings. M. Vijay in his interview to the press suggested India would bat on and on and try and dismiss Australia in the second innings while still in deficit. 

Given India's traditional reluctance, underscored in Dominica, to force wins when the series can be won with a draw, whether India would have declared in time for a win is worth pondering. But Australia's fight back played right into India's reluctant hands. 

To add to the time Shikhar Dhawan created, Australia's bowlers created even more time for India's bowlers to go for the kill by dismissing India in their first innings with 115 possible overs still remaining in the match and India only 91 runs ahead. 

Ultimately, India took almost a day to dismiss Australia (90 overs) in the second innings, with 3 crucial wickets coming in the last 20 overs of Day 4. Had Australia not fought back, I wonder when India would have declared. Of course had wickets not fallen, India would have scored more runs in the same time but even so the onus to force a win would be on India. India has rarely grabbed such opportunities, or even thought it necessary to.

In sum Shikhar Dhawan and Austraia's bowlers teamed up to deliver a rare Test. A team won after conceding 400 runs in the first innings in a 4 day Test.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conceit is costing cricket

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Australia has sunk to a depth that will take a few series to resolve. Any and all blame for axing talented players or not integrating them successfully must fall with the management. Cricket and indeed all sport is a spectator sport. The public pays to watch entertaining players perform and revel when their team wins. It's that simple. Cricket's long term economic muscle improves when teams with flair do well, not machine like robots showing up on the field.

Much like India lost Kambli, Sandeep Patil and a few others, Australia are now onto their second big loss after Andrew Symonds. The conceit of administrators, sometimes selectors and coaches is amazing to me. The episodes with Flintoff, Pieterson, Symonds, Taylor and now Watson is stunning in its impact. What's also stunning to me is the number of fans that are willing to buy into this theory of "discipline".

A whole host of cricket writers, bloggers et al seem to be hitched to this bandwagon that believes in the virtues of military like discipline as a requirement to win sporting contests. Curfews, wellness programs, limits on calories, exercise regimen etc seem to have taken precedence over actual performance and results. It appears that Clarke and Arthur have successfully diverted attention from their failure to deliver by backing their methods over players' lack of buy-in into those methods.

My own corporate experience tells me that leaders fall into this trap of not taking enough ownership for the failure of strategies and instead blame employees for not delivering. It is the leadership's responsibility to bring players on board. To fire players for anything other than performance is thus self-serving and inherently stupid. It is clearly a product of conceit. Clarke semi-about face today suggests a lack of confidence in the stance he has taken. This is a further erosion of his credibility. The less said about Arthur and Howard the better.

From my perspective, the Australian selectors gave the team management the best available talent in Australia. It is the management's job to build this set of talented people into a cohesive team. Some of the management methods have not exactly convinced the players. This means management has to work harder to get the players to buy-in an perhaps show some early results of their methods without input from some of the non-believers. Benching them is a big mistake that's going to negatively affect others too. I'm not saying Australia will necessarily lose, but the public and the players will now pay too high a price for such an Australian win.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Is this really happening to Australia?

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Please...someone please tell me this ain't so...

Is this really happening in the Australian Cricket team? Is modern cricket and coaching come to this? That you have to send in 2 areas of improvement; one individual and one for the team; as a benchmark for meeting 'high standards'. Since when did national cricket teams get infested with corporate ailments.

Filling out reports and post it notes are "standards" created by people in the corporate world to justify their jobs because they have no real work. I was under the wrong impression that cricket coaches were a much nobler creed. How wrong I was...

And what is Michael Clarke thinking? Does he think he is able to score runs because he fills out his work out schedule and slides it under Mickey Arther's hotel room door?  

Yes, I get it...its the little things that matter. It's the little things that add up to creating something bigger and long lasting. When people do get fired however, they should be fired for not getting the big things done. Not for not doing the small things. 

Firing someone for not filling time sheets is petty. 

It takes incredible amounts of foolishness to fire cricketers for not submitting their '2 points worth of improvement ideas'. It's foolish because it means you just fell for your own sales pitch. 

Arther and Clarke would have gained far more in respect had they fired the 4 for non-performance. 

Like India did with Virendra Sehwag.

Like Sunil Gavaskar did when he dropped Kapil Dev and Sandip Patil for playing rash strokes and costing India a Test match 2 decades and more ago. 

And I am curious, what did the 12 cricketers who did comply with the high standards set by Mickey Arthur...what ideas did they have? Daily Wellness Reports? Group hugs? Lunch and learns? Bring your sons and daughters to work day?

India's own reaction to consecutive away white washes, is now beginning to look like a model of restraint and common sense. 

Duncan Fletcher's stock in my eyes has sky rocketed. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Australia In India: Questions in the middle of the BIG series

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Where is the series headed?
It pretty much looks like humiliation for Australia and unlike when India lose, Australia don't even get into denial mode, so there's that much less to make fun of. If Gautam Gambhir were in the Australian team, he would have issued the 2015 threat, right after the first test and we would have known David Warner and Shane Watson's average strike rate in the IPL.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is now the winning-est Indian captain. Is he also the best?
When Sachin Tendulkar was approaching his 50th Test 100 and later his 100th International, he kept saying 'Its just another 100'. His celebrations on reaching  his 50th 100,in  a Test which India lost was pretty revolting and betrayed the 'just another 100' remark. Similarly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has suggested that the team does not think in terms of wins by captains and that this is all hype. 

It is quite disappointing that India's cricketers themselves are incapable to putting in perspective their own achievements. One can only wonder and speculate why they do that. Why is a Dhoni incapable of giving a coherent response to what he thinks his achievement means in the context of Indian cricket?

All of them approach questions thinking that there is a right and wrong answer and they don't want to get into trouble with anyone by giving a wrong answer, so the strategy they employ is to ridicule the question. Its worked for decades; so why change?

Who is a better bowler Vernon Philander or Ravichandran Ashwin?
ESPN takes a unwarranted dig at
Sachin Tendulkar
If you judge them by their wicket taking ability then clearly there is reason to get excited. No other pair in history has started their careers in such prolific manner. Between them they average 5.7 wickets per Test with not much separating them. However, neither has dismissed Sachin Tendulkar even once so neither can be considered much of bowler anyways. 

(If you are wondering what we are blabbering check out the image)

Has India turned the corner with these 2 Tests?
Most certainly. At Hyderabad, two young Indian batsmen scored 100s. No one from the media sought them for questions on Sachin Tendulkar. In the Indian sports setup, to achieve something and not be asked questions about Sachin, not having Sachin congratulate them, not thanking Sachin for his role in influencing those achievements had never happened before Hyderabad. I think its a big step in the right direction for India

Is this the worst Australian Team to visit India?
Yes. Ravi Shastri has said so without his ego being under the influence of IPL induced intoxication. So it must be true. Kim Hughes Australian team that visited in the late 70s/early 80s might come close.

And what of Ravindra Jadeja?
If any team thinks that they absolutely need to have a player like him in the side like India does, I would say, the ICC should revoke the team's Test status. But India is winning and he is taking wickets and the ICC is in subservience to the BCCI. So we will just shut up and grin and bear. Not before suggesting however, that once India finds a performing batsman at number 4, they won't need a Ravindra Jadeja. 

Is there any way for Australia to come back?
India's template to win is always based on scoring runs. Their bowlers, however strong, have always needed the cushion of runs to win matches, home or away. Australia will have to find a way to get India out, more than they need to find a way to look less bemused against spin, which also undeniably is a tough ask. I think, in short, based on evidence its a 0-4 wash with another 10 Tests against England. Things don't look good for Australia.

Can anything go wrong for India?
Yes, if the selectors expand the reservation quota for seniors from 33% to 50%. India can carry Sehwag and Sachin and still win but if Gambhir walks in then it will be tough. 

Does this series add anything to the legend of the Border-Gavaskar trophy?
I think, Mahendra Singh Dhoni's double hundred does add a dimension to it. It was one of a kind, certainly. It also adds to an already rich set of achievements for Dhoni. In a land of batting captains, it took a wicket keeper to become the only Indian captain to score a double hundred in a winning cause. And even when you  consider other teams, no wicket-keeping captain has won a Test match for his country with a double hundred.

Monday, March 4, 2013

This one's in the bag

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The most heartening sight about the ongoing test match between India and Australia has been the crowds. More than 28,000 on Sunday and close to 18,000 on Monday. This is good news for test cricket in India. There had been intense speculation about interest in this format after the batting greats Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman and Tendulkar left the scene. It was heartening to see people show up to see the match and Cheteshwar bat.

On the subject of Pujara -- l have been struck by the way he goes about his batting. I had written about his unhurried approach, playing the ball on merit regardless of match situation, etc. He added another feather to his cap by his fortitude on Sunday to bat through injury. Even though only 49 runs were scored in the morning session on Sunday I wasn't bored. Feedback from others would be nice, because I have to admit I used to occasionally get bored of Dravid grinding bowlers downtown by playing no shots other than leaves and dull thuds for the ball to drop dead. Pujara to me has a tempo to his batting that is different. I need to compare strike rates.

However, this is not to suggest that Dravid was a lesser batsman or anything like that. Just comparing their effect on my senses. Pujara's big test will obviously come abroad. If he can come close to changing the courses of test matches the way Dravid did in that period from 2003 to 2006, then he is it. He has already done enough at home. India are one batsman away from being able to take the fight to the bowlers overseas in my opinion.

Surely, Sehwag has played his last game for India as opener. He did get a good ball, but openers are supposed to deal with those. If it does happen that Sehwag is let go, then it will be a sad ending to an electrifying career. Rahane must get a game now. Vijay has bought himself more time and if he follows up this one with another good one in the next couple of test matches he would well and surely have arrived. But I wasn't mightily impressed with the way he batted. He was effective, but could not impose himself at any time on the bowlers.

On this match - Mumbai Indians will be pleased with their purchase of Maxwell. I thought despite his poor start and occasional lack of control (which I attribute to inexperience in Indian conditions), he bowled smartly. Switching to round the wicket was a good tactic though the lack of rough would have normally suggested it to be a poor choice. He isn't as good as Lyon, but I thought he has that Greg Matthews kind of feel to him.

This match is pretty much in India's bag. Someone from the Aussie batting line up must step up besides Clarke to make a statement. Kinda like Laxman's 167 in the doomed Sydney test from years ago. David Warner has been a huge letdown. I was hoping for some good feisty batting from him. Hughes is clueless against spin. And there are no batsman to follow Clarke. Henriques, Wade and Maxwell can chip in, but not own the batting except on the odd good day. And Watson hasn't shown us yet that he cares enough to grind, grunt and grit out tough sessions of play.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Rethinking "Settled Combination"

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"I never learned anything while I was talking", said Larry King, the popular CNN host. I should do that more often. I spent some time through ESPN's videos. Rahul Dravid's latest video provided an interesting insight to me about some of the spin strategies that teams apply on the sub-continent. This wasn't new information or a brand new tactic, just that I had lost sight of a vital piece of the puzzle.

Dravid mentioned Panesar's spell on day one at the Eden Gardens when he conceded only 70 odd runs in 35 overs. This put the lid on one side and racheted up pressure on the batting team to score more runs. Obviously, Indian batsmen didn't step up and they lost. Jadeja is expected to play a similar role in the current set up where his role is to bottle one end up. Keeping this in mind, a 3-fer or a 2-fer is fair game provided he concedes less than two and a half runs per over.

A tight bowler at one end and an attacking one at the other is the most basic template of test match bowling. Play on the batsmen's minds, don't give them balls in the areas where they are strong and let them make decisions to attack or not. More often than not, batsmen who are successful playing long innings are probably likely to play the waiting game rather than make anything happen. And then there are the others who probably instinctively know when it's time to take over and disrupt bowling team strategies. Tendulkar did this in 1998 against Australia. Kevin Pietersen did that in Mumbai, Richards would routinely do it and most recently Dhoni against Australia when nothing you throw at him seemed to matter. He literally willed the bowlers to bowl into his "areas".

Australia don't have such a batsman right now. I think Hussey could have been it, but he's retired. Watson could don that role, but he doesn't want to bat that far down the order. Clarke remains too classical and too effective with his current methods to do anything different. Henriques demonstrated great patience and effectiveness in dealing with the situation, but he didn't seem to have the audacity and confidence required to be disruptive.

So maybe, this is what Dhoni meant when he was talking about a "settled combination". Maybe he's not looking for wickets and runs from Jadeja. Maybe he's simply looking for tight, disciplined bowling spells that Ravi Shastri would often reel off. Maybe he's looking for Jadeja to simply occupy the crease and let Dhoni and Kohli do the damage required, except perhaps in the rarest of cases. India no longer have the batsmen of Dravid and Laxman's pedigree for whom conditions didn't matter. Clearly, Dhoni seems to be ok carrying Tendulkar at this time given his stature. Tendulkar couldn't convert his great start into a big one and for a number four to not score centuries at least once every four to five tests is tough on the rest of the folks. It's  prime batting order real estate when it comes to opportunities to score big. But I suppose this is a not so good Australian bowling attack and it's ok.

However, India do need to look at things in a different perspective when it comes to selecting a team for South Africa. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav should be cut loose and a good bowler to control runs such as Praveen Kumar or even Ishant Sharma (given his inability to take wickets despite being oh-so-close). Batting-wise this supports the need for Gambhir to come back and bat within himself. It would be unfair to blood a new opener in South Africa of all places

So it appears that India will go in with four spinners into the Hyderabad test, with perhaps Kohli opening the bowling with Ishant or Bhuvaneshwar.  Looking forward to a "disruption" strategy from Australia. Who will it be?