Monday, August 15, 2016

Pakistan Near the Pinnacle

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This week, we saw a refreshing show of strength by all the South Asian teams. Sri Lanka hammered Australia at home and exposed their vulnerabilities to spin. As numerous articles in Cricinfo have pointed out, Australia simply have not recovered from the loss of their previous greats. Angelo Mathews must heave a sigh of relief after the virtual obliteration in England. Sri Lankan cricket seemed to have descended into mediocrity after Jayawardene and Sangakarra. But Mathews, Chandimal and Herath have brought them right back. Mendis' excellent innings in the first test too may raise hopes of a long term find.

Meanwhile, India recovered swiftly from their second test set-back (if one can call it that) and made quick work of West Indies. Virat Kohli made some astute changes and quickly put behind him, the tough draw in the second test. His desire to win every game is apparent in the way he attacks the opposition and throws everything he has in his arsenal at them. India can seal the number one spot with yet another win in the next test at Port of Spain. India have done well there traditionally and chances are that India will dominate that test. Virat Kohli is almost Steve Waugh-like in his desire to be ruthless. His team selection is un-emotional and exciting. Very few saw these changes coming (including me) but never-the-less it was a pleasant and pulsating exercise by the captain. At the risk of repeating myself, watching India play test cricket is a dream come true. So purely on results alone India deserve to be number one.

But the most remarkable cricket story is Pakistan's redemption at the Oval. They've firmly put back the spot-fixing, squabbles and domestic security issues and built themselves into a formidable team. They've beaten a strong team away from home against all odds. At the start of the series, Pakistan was not given much of a chance. England were formidable at home with their varied bowling attack. Pakistan's frailties with the bat are well known. Few thought that they could win the series with their bowling alone.

In the end, Misbah-ul-Haq was named man of the series and aptly so. Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq have made us fall in love with the Pakistan brand of cricket all over again. The sheer romance of Pakistan's cricket lies in the fact that they play what many consider to be an old-fashioned game. Yet time and again, they've proven that their passion for the game is second to none and their ability to switch on in key moments is top class. They've given us many moments to remember.

Younis Khan's 218 will rank as one of the greatest innings played in England. I can't remember the last time anyone scored a 200 against Anderson and Broad in England in their prime. To dig deep and come up with such a special innings away from home is the definition of greatness. Even more endearing has been the honest post match comments and interviews from both Misbah and Younis. They have the rare ability to remain in the present and grounded. Truly great sportsmen and we are lucky to have watched this series. Add Wahab Riaz to this pantheon and we have a group of cricketers who are grounded, real and salt-of-the-earth likeable.

Regardless of whether India becomes number one, Pakistan will rule the hearts of true cricket fans for months to come.

Monday, August 8, 2016

It's enjoyable watching India in tests.....

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Watching India play test cricket has never been more enjoyable than now. The only other time India played more entertaining cricket across any format was in the 1985 B&H World Series in Australia. This was an ODI tournament. Whether the TV made it that way or whether the flamboyant keeper Sadanand Vishwanath did that I can't say, but it was mind blowingly entertaining.

This test team is by far the most entertaining Indian side I have watch in my lifetime. It plays riskier cricket than the Azhar-Tendulkar generations did  or the Kapil/Gavaskar one before that and plays more solidly at the same time. A cool paradox, if you ask me. While the Tendulkar generation has accumulated a number of runs and records, this generation will accumulate more wins. Virat Kohli is the lynch pin of this transformation. Much like Clive Lloyd transformed the West Indies from merry losers to into fearsome winners, Virat is transforming Indian cricket from a team afraid of losing to a team daring to be beaten.

The most refreshing thing about Virat is that he is not afraid to lose. Between the lines I read, we used to lose anyways, why not lose fighting? At least give ourselves a chance. Change the reaction of the opposition with the team's attitude. I love his persistence with Umesh Yadav, who hasn't truly delivered yet, but from time to time delivered breathtaking spells that make one sit up with bated breath. The pressure he creates when on song and when he makes the batsmen hop is a connoisseur's dream. The bowling attack will create more wins. It needs a little more time. They are not in the same class as England or Australia, but those two teams possess generations of fast bowling knowledge. The Indian team is just starting out.

Appointing Kumble as coach has been a mistake in my opinion. But not a big one. Kumble will hopefully not be tainted by the safety first attitude of the Tendulkar/Ganguly era in overseas tests. Virat's refusal to include a sixth batsman is awesome. It may fail at times or even many times, but it's the only strategy that gives India a shot at winning more test matches. Four bowlers will tire after 2-3 test matches. Five bowlers can last longer assuming they bowl 30-45 overs per test. Srinath used to be run into the ground by his captains bowling 45-60 overs per test. Kumble's strike rates also tell a tale of overworked bowlers. It's a lose-lose proposition.

India won the first test with ease and put themselves into a winning position in the second. The wins will come with more experience of bowling with five bowlers. The new era is now underway and for one this writer is back watching test cricket after the listless last years of Tendulkar and Dhoni.