Saturday, March 4, 2017

Go Green



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It is now no longer about skills. Australia have assaulted India's pride. India might think it's about lack of proper judgement on part of their batsmen, Virat Kohli might admonish his fellow batsmen all he wants for not adapting or applying themselves. That is not going to salvage this series.

The desire that Australia have shown to keep the Border-Gavaskar trophy with themselves seems to have shocked the Indian team into a state of immobility. That Australia have not rolled over into submission as they were expected to have left the Indian team without the back to stand up to Australia's spinners.

Before this long Indian home season, Kohli had marked England among the visiting teams as the team to watch out for. Perhaps he was playing mind games with Australia. Either that has backfired or he was simply wrong in his assessment.

Perhaps India are simply mentally tired after a long home season. May be they did underestimate Australia even though they may never admit it. Perhaps it's just a case of Australia being too good for India so far. There was always the possibility of Australia's spin, with top class pace support and the prolific Steve Smith against India would make this a competitive series. No one was counting on Australia producing such a dominant performance.

There is no precedent to a visiting team felling India's famed batsmen under 200 in 3 straight innings. The response then also needs to be something that is unprecedented. Playing to their traditional strengths has been a shocking failure.

They can't seem to get Steve Smith out before he reaches three figures and they can barely last 2 or 3  sessions against Nathan Lyon and Steve O'Keefe. And KL Rahul's optimism about R Ashwin running through Australia on day 2 appears firmly grounded in delusion. Steve Smith himself has scored a comparable number of runs against India in the last 3 innings than the whole of India's batting has scored against Australia. It is beginning to feel like 20 of Steve Smiths 18 Test 100s have come against India.

Unless something remarkable happens tomorrow this is looking like 0-4 for India. Perhaps too early and irresposible to make it a prediction but after all we do know the making of a white wash feels like around this point in a series.

The only way I think India can now salvage this series is to swallow their pride about spin, and try to trip Australia on green tops. Nathan Lyon and Steve O'Keefe who were scoffed at before the tour are now the most fearsome duo of bowlers ever to visit India.
To take them out of the game is India's best option if they lose this test too to Australian spin.

Among the many things so refreshing about Virat Kohli is how he has kept his fast bowlers engaged even in home conditions. It's time to ask them to salvage this series. Results from 3 innings is good enough to conceded that our batsmen can't handle Lyon and O'Keefe. Let's ask Australia to deal with our fast men. Surely they didn't come prepared for that.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

An Epic Backfire



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One of the most refreshing aspects of Virat Kohli as a sportsman has been his willingness to feed off cricket crazy fans. While those before him at times seemed bogged down by misreading the adulation as "unreasonable expectations" to win every game, Virat Kohli has openly stated that his team will play every game to win and engages with the crowd urging them to egg his team on. 

Those who came before him were willing , for the most part, to grind the opposition down by putting up runs on the board and slowly chipping away at the opposition batsmen and wait for the wicket to naturally deteriorate and go for the kill. This seemed to the Indian Template. Where runs on the board created the pressure in the absence of genuine fast balling and Tests, that appeared to head nowhere suddenly got alive on the last day. 

Most Indian batsmen know how to play on these wickets. When India's own batsmen struggle at home and collapse in consecutive innings one has to wonder if the pitch was a factor. Nathan Lyon is an accomplished spinner and India have lost to him in Adelaide not too long ago. Steve O'Keefe had shown promise in the one Test he played on Australia's recent horror tour of Sri Lanka. Neither are this good though. To knock India out 2 innings in succession in India.

Kohli is the kind of sportsman that most fans of my generation: who grew up watching cricket in the late 70s and 80s, yearned for. A bad ass, no nonsense leader who wants to cleanse Indian teams of their infuriating tendency to seek personal milestones on the road to victory. A trait that has plagued the team for decades. 

However his tendency to seek wins by controlling the pitch curating process is off putting. Not just because it sometimes backfires to humiliate like it did in Pune but it's not how most fans want to see India win.

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, 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.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

India v South Africa: An Inauthentic Series Win for India



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Most of the top 5 India batsmen in the recently concluded India v South Africa series had averages in the 20s and 30s. Ajinkya Rahane is the only one with a 50+ average and the only century maker over 4 tests in India. I don't remember any series in India where our top batsmen have averaged so low. Unless anyone thinks this South African attack was the most lethal to ever play on Indian shores; there is no question that the pitches behaved contrary to traditional Indian pitches.

When your team is winning, pumping their fists and thumping their chests at the fall of a wicket and you as a long time fan of the game, and the team, feel something hollow inside and don't even feel like joining in from your living room, you tend to question the authenticity of the win. The pitches in this series played out of character. Mohali didn't look and play like Mohali, Nagpur didn't look and play like Nagpur. It was hard not to question, whether the team had crossed the line and ordered an under prepared pitch and were justifying it as "home advantage"

For a casual fan, the most joyful wins are wins away from home, away from the subcontinent. We know those wins are rare but when they do come, we hold on to those forever. Those are wins our teams have achieved under conditions not only foreign but also achieved in settings where our teams had no control over.

And those same fans hope that home wins are authentic. Authentic in the sense that teams don't try to tweak too many control-ables in their favor. There is no honor in just winning for winning's sake. India may have won the series, India may feel they have the right to order pitches that their own batsmen struggle on, India may feel they have the right to deny criticism of the pitches. But they don't have the right to dictate what fans feel. If India's players want to win and enjoy their wins alone, they are welcome to. If they want to gain respect of their rivals and support of their fans, then they need to seek more authenticity to their home wins

The new Ricky Ponting?

I hope this madness ends. I hope India learns not to counter their insecurity of winning on typical Indian pitches by doctoring them. This 3-0 score line is the most hollow, most in-authentic win I have ever witnessed