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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

South Africa - Chokers no more

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This was a curious South African team. Confidence misplaced, more words than deeds. Taking themselves too seriously. For a casual observer they gave a sense of someone running in the same place and feeling mighty pleased with themselves.

As a player, AB DeVillers is all action. His performances speak for himself. As a captain he led a South African team who were seduced by themselves. Previous South African teams seduced us, this one was self seduced and we watched in amusement their skipper speak tall, bold words even as they lost almost all their matches to decent teams.

Except Sri Lanka, South Africa failed to beat any serious team.

And yet, they believed they could win the cup. This is quite different from traditional South African teams who others believed in, spoke less, did more but ultimately did not have the self belief.

Before their game with India, in the group stages, South Africa were the favorites. They lost. Before their game with Pakistan, in the group stages, South Africa were the favorites. They lost. Before their semi final game with New Zealand, South Africa were the favorites. They lost.

It took sustained ineptitude to finally get rid of the chokers tag. Nobody can say South Africa choked. This time they were simply not good enough.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why do we let South Africa seduce us?

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I remember the days when South Africa were banned from international cricket. There was a lot of intrigue around them. I had read about people like Clive Rice, about Graham Pollock; that he had a batting average of almost 61... I had read about the exploits of Barry Richards, Mike Procter who bowled off the wrong foot; if I remember my reading correctly... knew a bit about Eddie Barlow, Ali Bacher....

I knew that without South Africa international cricket was missing a formidable team.

I watched with keen interest when India welcomed South Africa back to the international fold and I remember watching on TV Alan Donald charging in and bowling fast in India in a one day game. He was bowling faster than Malcom Marashall I had thought. Later when India became the first team to tour South Africa for a full Test series, I remember Pravin Amre scoring a dour century on debut.

Then came the 1992 world cup. Within a year of South Africa returning back to the international game, they were getting a chance to play the World Cup. Every one was curious as to how would they compare and compete with other international team. Having followed India's games with them, they clearly seemed a stronger side to me.

A lot of buzz around the 1992 world cup was due to South Africa's presence. It seemed like they had the sympathy vote. For what .... I don't know but it seemed to me that people wanted them to do well.

And then Johnty Rhodes flew out Inzamam Ul-Haq....

And the world was seduced.

South Africa brought in a very different brand of cricket to the World Cup. They fielded like no other team had fielded before, they seemed better coached and their cricket seemed rational and unemotional. They didn't smile like the West Indians did, they didn't have nearly as much the passion like the Pakistanis did, they seemed a bit like the Australians, scowling all the time and taking themselves too seriously but more mechanical. They didn't seem to have India's flair or guile. They were as good as any other team and different too.

But ever since that 1992 World Cup they have seduced cricket fans like no other team has.

Since their re-entry they have started every world cup being considered as legitimate favorites. And yet after 26 years of World Cup history behind them, they have yet to win a knockout game in the World Cup. Their exits are a combination of bad luck, foolishness, panic, screwed up rain rules, math errors, tactical blunders and stage fright.

In 1992 silly rain rule left them needing to get 22 runs off one ball, when before the rain they had 18 balls to get them.

In 1996 they came up with a brain dead idea of dropping Alan Donald for the quarter finals and Brian Lara made them pay.

In 1999 they picked Alan Donald for their semifinal against Australia but he had a brain freeze of his own which resulted in his getting run out, the game ending as a tie and Australia progressing on the basis of a previous Super Six match win.

In 2003 they forgot that D/L targets list scores needed to equal and that teams have to score one more than the D/L score listed to win a game. As the rain came down Boucher meekly tapped the last ball before the rain meekly to mid wicket which tied the game when they needed to win it.

In 2007, they were too jittery in the semi finals and the match was effectively over in 10 overs with South Africa 27-5

In 2011 they collapsed chasing a smallish target against another fellow chokers, New Zealand who before that game hadn't won any knock-out game themselves.

This is their 7th attempt. But isn't 6 flops good enough to ask the question why do we let South Africa seduce us every 4 years?

Why for instance before their game against Pakistan, were South Africa considered favorites and no one was giving Pakistan any chance. What is it about South Africa's weakness we are willing to ignore and what is it about Pakistan's strengths which they have demonstrated in almost every world cup barring 2007; that we are unwilling to acknowledge.