Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Mistakes are Piling Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

India's ODI Template is Outdated

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The vibrancy that is India's Test team is not reflected in its ODI and T20 outfit. The promise that every Test will be played to win is Virat Kohli's most refreshing and welcome quality. The days of hiding behind processes and being almost demure about going for wins is thankfully behind us...

...In Tests.

In LOI cricket however, the hangover of the previous generation persists. Virat Kohli, so far, has either been unable to shake it off or he is less confident of imposing his own fresh, new vision. When India's squad was announced for the Champions Trophy, it seemed a good one to win a World Championship if it were held a decade ago. IPL performances were ignored and the middle order and spin slots were treated as long service appreciation or servitude awards. Virat Kohli is clearly behind the curve when it comes to LOI cricket.  

The captain of a country that is home to the most explosive T20 league in the world that throws up innovations every few years said,  
"Explosive cricket is not our brand"

There is something not quite Virat Kohli in India's LOI team. This still seems very much Mahendra Singh Dhoni's team. His vision. Something that worked in 2011, 2013 and to some extent in 2015 but clearly not good enough for the Fakhar Zamans and Shadab Khans of the world. Dhoni is a once great LOI master who probably doesn't have it in him to outsmart the bravado and fearlessness of the next generation of Pakistan Super League stars. He increasingly resembles a dead man walking, constantly checking around to see if he has done enough to keep his place in the side. 

The win for Pakistan was a good one and for cricket romantics... even a heart warming one. India's LOI approach has been outdated for a while now and it would have been a tragedy if it wasn't "found out" in a global event of this scale and in the humiliating margin that eventually separated the 2 teams. It clearly calls for a fresh approach. 

Pakistan, a country that is internationally isolated when it comes to cricket and doesn't have access to the IPL, shed its aging heroes and trusted the talent the Pakistan Super League threw up to leave the reigning Champions shell shocked and humiliated. If this were a 100 meter race, India wasn't even in the frame when Pakistan crossed the finish line. If this were a game of soccer, it had parallels to Brazil 1 - Germany 7. 

India's approach to maintain the LOI supremacy it gained in 2011 have been to indulge in half measures so far. There is plenty of local talent to be found in the IPL only if India is willing to ignore the past achievements of our middle order and spinners in particular. None of whom had a half decent IPL but were still picked to maintain status quo; as if to assume that the opposing teams have stopped evolving themselves. 

India's Test team is far more mentally strong. Right from the Adelaide Test in 2014, Virat Kohli's first Test as a stand in captain, the team has promised to play for wins and have delivered on that.  It has lost matches going for improbable wins and set up wins from hopeless situations. Its a joy to watch them because no other Indian team has played such a positive game. 

India's LOI side however, still has one foot in the old world. 

India have world class talent emerging every IPL season but strangely unwilling to trust its own platform that throws up these stars. Why were IPL non-performances ignored when it came time to defend the Champions Trophy.

Its not like I think Pakistan will sustain their success over a period of time. Come the 2019 World Cup at the same venue, they will obviously start as favorites but if Virat Kohli is fully entrusted with the reins for LOI cricket, I have a good feeling about 2019.