Monday, November 25, 2013

Can India do a Gabba? Ever?

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Reading a piece by Ahmer Naqvi in Cricinfo made me chuckle. Some Pakistani critics "insulted" Bilawal Bhatti by saying that looked like an Indian quickie! But there is a deeper story guiding that thought process than meets the eye. Many an Indian fan yearns for a fast bowler with swagger that can send stumps cartwheeling and put fear into the opposition batsmen. When will India win a test match on the backs of a fast bowling performance like Mitchell Johnson delivered at the Gabba or the West Indian quicks did with regularity or Akram and Younis did in the nineties.

India's victories usually happen due to guile, cunning, skill and above all attritional batting. Very rarely has India tamed a fast bowling machine on fast pitches and dished out what it has got. There's not much disrespect in posting small totals in the face of hostile fast bowling. That's the normal outcome. What's annoying to an Indian fan is that India doesn't dish it out in kind. There was much joy when Sreesanth made Kallis hop and had him caught on the last tour to South Africa. But those feats were few and far between. Even the great Kapil Dev never terrorized batsmen. Srinath was India's best fast bowler in my time (and probably all time) and even he managed it only a couple of times.

Opposing teams and journalists only grudingly respect India's victories at home because they only project cunning, not courage. There is something to be said for bravery and courage in a sporting contest. Indians know this too. This is why they celebrate Gavaskar's thirteen hundreds against the pace battery of the West Indies. While modern Indian batsmen have got the aggression down and pretty much bat like the West Indies of the eighties or Aussies of the nineties, India has still not developed a fast bowling culture like our neighbors next door to the west. The old fashioned gladiatorial instincts still stimulate a lot of fan excitement. The experience of watching Mitchell Johnson and the Australian pace pack hunt down England at the Gabba was pulse pounding. Contrast that to Ashwin and Ojha plucking out Aussie wickets at Mohali. While victory is sweet, it's sweeter when it comes in a contest where there is a fierce exchange of blows. And such a contest can only be generated by hostile fast bowling.

Here's to Umesh Yadav. May he simply bowl fast at the rib cages and armpits of South African batsmen and terrorize them. Make them cry and wanna go home like Jonathon Trott. I have sympathy for Jonathon's illness, but it's clear that Mitchell Johnson hastened the advent of those symptoms. And let me point out that they did not show up when facing spin bowlers in India. If Yadav bowls anything like Johnson and Zaheer is truly back to his smartest, then India have a great chance to be exciting in South Africa. With Ishant Sharma to play the containment role, India can keep the pressure on South African batsmen. Accomplished as the South African batsmen are, good fast bowling tames even the best of the best.

This is wishful thinking probably. The reality is that Indian batting is inexperienced, though talented. This will probably be a repeat of the 1999 tour to Australia where India lost 3-0 and only Tendulkar and VVS Laxman emerged with some honors. A couple of daddy hundreds will be needed from Pujara, Sharma or Kohli to make a statement. India's batsmen will also need to be ready for hostile, angry and intimidating fast bowling. They can't whine or complain. They need to stand up, man up and punch back. Only then will they really win respect in the eyes of the opposition. Bring out the hooks and pulls occasionally and put the opposition bowlers on notice that India were not going to duck and weave all the time but were ready to take it on. Michael Clarke put Stuart Broad in his place early in the second innings by doing just that. Ganguly did that in Brisbane in 2003 in the first test by crashing a fantastic century that included some delightful pulls and crisp cuts.

Most of that is day dreaming.  In all honesty I see India losing 2-0.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rohit Sharma's debut 100

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What is common between Venkatapathi Raju, Sunil Joshi, Vijay Dahiya, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Vijay Bharadwaj and Rohit Sharma?

These batsmen along with 12 others are the entire set of batsmen who have made their debuts for India in the middle order; numbers 3 through 6; since Sachin Tendulkar's debut Test for India in November 1989.

India has traditionally has had very strong middle orders, so I was half expecting this list to be quite elite but its not quite. I was also expecting this list to be much shorter than 18. Sachin's career has spanned 18 new batsmen tried by India in the middle order. 

As expected however, the period between 2001 and 2010 saw only 2 debuts handed out in the middle order. Virendra Sehwag and Vuvraj Singh

For a while I had resigned myself to the possibility that the seniors carrying on for far too long and Rohit's ODI struggles would unnecessarily derail a promising Test career. Thankfully, Rohit Sharma waited patiently and when the opportunity arose, played one of the more memorable debut innings by a middle order batsman.

The best debut innings, certainly given the match situation, since Sachin Tendulkar's debut.

V Raju, who obviously was not selected to play the middle order appears in this list only because he was sent as a night watchman (presumably). This surely must be an exclusive club. To go out for your debut innings as a night watchman. If I am not mistaken, Mohammed Azharuddin was also making his debut as captain and that surely must be a unique occurrence. A rookie captain, sending a rookie as a nightwatchman! V Raju scored 31 in the match and none of the batsmen he was protecting reached double figures. This included Sachin who was out for a duck

This list has only 3 Bombay batsmen. Praveen Amre, Vinod Kambli and Rohit Sharma. Praveen Amre of course scored a 100 on debut and Vinod Kambli's debut knock was followed by a half century and a double hundred batting with Sachin Tendulkar as India humiliated Graham Gooch's team in 1993.

Notable debuts in the middle order since the emergence of Sachin Tendulkar, that can seriously challenge Rohit Sharma's innings includes only two in my opinion...

Virendra Sehwag's 105, coming in at number 6 with India at 68 for 4 at Bloemfontein in South Africa. Sachin Tendulkar also scored a 100 batting along with Sehwag

Cheteshwar Pujara's 72 in the second innings of the Mohali Test in 2010 as India beat Australia comfortably, chasing a tricky 207 in the 4th innings. In fact I would say it was one of the rarest feats by Pujara to score a half century on debut in a successful chase on the last day.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Do the West Indies know their part in Sachin's retirement party?

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I don't know if any one has made this clear to the West Indian cricket team. They are supposed to show up, go through the drills, occasionally show their skills, and generally play their parts as in the big fat Sachin Tendulkar retirement party.

In a way they are invited to the party just like one invites 2-bit magicians, tattoo artists, clowns, caricaturists and sketch artists, to a Christmas party or a child's birthday party. They are expected to be part of the noise and celebrations for a while. 

It isn't possible to play a Test match without an opposition and West Indies are invited simply to meet this very basic prerequisite that must be fulfilled to recognize a game of cricket between international teams as a Test Match so Sachin and all of India can have his 200th and then retire

As per the BCCI script, India is supposed to win the series, with Sachin getting his form back and preferably score a double hundred in his last and 200th. The West Indians are supposed to put up a spirited display and lend legitimacy to Sachin's farewell Test Series.

The ICC script had called for Sachin to visit South Africa.... enough said

If all the song and dance and made up excuses of protocols broken by the CSA and unethical behavior of Mr. Haroon Lorgat, was to get a retirement guarantee from Sachin by mutilating the South African tour, then I say its worth it. Its still hard to feel excited about it. 

West Indies however are in ominous form and the ghastly celebrations Indians are likely to indulge in, in the name of Sachin's retirement party, may just provoke the West Indians into giving their best.

India won't mind.

We have been buying the Sachin Tendulkar story for far too long and nothing suggests we won't stop buying it any time soon. 

West Indies A not long back gave an excellent account of themselves in drawing the unofficial Test Series after winning the first Test by a big margin at Bangalore. That series and the general familiarity with Indian conditions after the advent of the IPL, gives the West Indies a decent chance to give India fright.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni can be expected to help the team focus on the business of winning Tests but there is no denying that the series has already deteriorated into a circus that is Sachin's retirement. 

As for Sachin himself, I hope he finds some semblance of form and puts up decent scores. It is rather sad that he never had a voice in many of the events around him throughout his career. He has singularly focused on his performances and his pursuit of excellence as a batsman and no doubt India for a long time were a better team for that. 

Even in his retirement, with so much adulation from the fans, respect from his peers he has stood silent as BCCI severely mutilated the South African series to stage this retirement party. One will never officially know what the reasons were for that, but I cannot shrug off the feeling that Sachin has yet again let himself be used, happy to go along with his now increasingly petty bosses at the BCCI. Surely he has a thing or 2 to say about the way the series was born.