Monday, December 23, 2013

The 'Draw' at the Wanderers

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When Faf Du Plessis was brilliantly run out by Ajinkya Rahane with 16 runs still to get at the Wanderers yesterday, I thought India had decisively inched ahead of South Africa. During the entire Test match, while South Africa kept coming back; India for the most part seemed ahead of South Africa. Having been in a position of advantage for a longer duration and having Faf Du Plessis run out with 16 still to get, I thought India would be more disappointed at not having won this Test. 

At the end of the ODI series, however, had anyone offered a draw to India at Wanderers, I am sure India would have gladly accepted. 

South Africa on the other hand after the ODI series, would be very disappointed with a draw at the Wanderers. However, Once India's bowlers, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara put India into a position of authority in this Test by the end of the 4th day; South Africa may be more relieved with escaping with a draw. Of course there must be a sense of disappointment at not having enough left to force a win. even while AB De Villiers and Faf Du Plessis put South Africa to striking distance of a win, at no point I felt South Africa could go for a win without taking risks.

Even after tea time when both Faf Du Plessis and AB De Villiers were batting so well, there was far too many runs and quite a bit of time still left for India to bowl South Africa out. South Africa could ill afford taking any risks. By the time the target had reached touching distance, they were just one wicket away from exposing Imran Tahir and a severely handicapped Morne Morkel to India's fast bowlers.

I can understand why South Africa did not go for the win and settled for a draw. Victory for them was never really possible without risking a loss.

Once South Africa started playing for the draw, what surprised me was that India too did not try to force a win. The last overs bowled at Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander didn't have any balls that looked like balls to take a wicket. The bouncers and short balls at Steyn were way too harmless and the intent was to go along with South Africa's desire to draw the game.

Perhaps, India reflected on how far they had come from the ODI series and assessed the draw positively given how heavily underrated they were to even put up a fight against South Africa. 

Ultimately the first Test of the series ended up being engaging affair and through out the Test I was wondering what Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Gautam Gambhir, and Virendra Sehwag must be thinking. For far too long we were sold the story that only batsmen of that caliber can compete on foreign pitches. In England, Australia and South Africa. Gambhir had us believe that somehow career averages count for runs in matches in progress.

That a young team on their maiden "away" Test arrested the 8 consecutive away losses was in it self uplifting. A win at the Wanderers would have been one of India's greatest away wins. Bigger than Adelaide 2003. 

Why were we holding back these young players and why were we clinging on to players well past their prime who were delivering loss after loss?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fear of fast bowling

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Not that I can ever claim to know this for a fact but anyone who is in the path of a cricket ball hurled at 95, 100 miles per hour is bound to have a moment where questions regarding personal safety crop up. While the ball is coming at your head, these safety questions are being addressed in the mind and an appropriate response; whether to duck, fend, hook, etc is being formulated; for that brief micro second, (the period before a response is finalized) there is bound to be a bit of fear.

I don't care if the batsman is the great Sir Vivian Richards, Sunil Gavaskar or Monty Panesar.

In one of the most candid recollections of India's World Cup win in 1983, Sandip Patil openly talks of the 'fear' of having to face the great West Indian bowlers. So the fear is real, acknowledged by all. And Patil knows a thing or two about giving it back to the fast men. Ask Len Pascoe and Bob Willis.

That facing fast bowling requires overcoming of ones fears is a given. 

Hence, I find comments by David Warner and Dale Steyn openly suggesting that English and Indian batsmen respectively are 'scared' of fast, short pitched bowling extremely distasteful. Because their statements imply 'fear' not as something batsmen are willing to overcome, rather something less manly and cowardly is implied.

Its not like England and India have not played and won games in Australia and South Africa before. These are not teams of untested amateurs. England and India are accomplished teams of proven performers. England have been the best Test Team in the world and India are holders of the Champions Trophy. A trophy they won, not in India, but in England, beating teams like South Africa, England, West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Many of these teams have world class fast bowlers who weren't bowling spin. This team that won the Champions Trophy is the exact same Indian team that is struggling in South Africa. Shekhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma Ishant Sharma, et al included 

The ongoing Ashes series has been absorbing to watch. Mitchell Johnson has provided the kind of exhilarating performances not witnessed since the glory days of Wasim Akram. Yes Mitchel Johnson has left the English batsmen gasping for breath. They don't seem to know how to respond to his pace and accuracy. 

However, when Australian batsmen come to India and dance to the tune of Indian spinners does anyone taunt them, suggesting they are "scared"? They are afforded the basic respect that they simply do not have the technical expertise and training to play spin in conditions alien to them. Similarly, lets not question the English team's professionalism. When a David Warner says that he saw "fear" in Trott's eyes, let me assure you the player who falls in people's estimation is not Johnathan Trott, its David Warner. What kind of a player taunts an opponent like that?

When a Steyn says "Indian batsmen are scared" its his standing as a fair competitor that takes a beating. For everyone knows that there is nothing embarrassing about this Indian team. Yes they will struggle against fast bowling. Yes, they will close their eyes, get hit with a ball headed for their skulls, but they have the heart, the smarts, the will, to win Test matches in South Africa. Like the generation before them, these guys will learn to win Test matches in South Africa.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Show some heart

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In an analysis of England's abject surrender at Adelaide, Cricinfo cited the very public loss of control. Batsman after English batsman openly showed their inability to counter Johnson and the rest of Australia's bowling. They just didn't seem to have a plan. As I watched the proceedings of both test matches, it seemed to me that England were just hoping that something would come off as opposed to a confident clear mind to pull or hook Johnson out of the attack. This attitude and batting seemed to me to be very strange, given that until recently Cook, Trott, Bell and others seemed to almost be mocking the Australian attack. They were in complete control. They would play the shots they had planned to play and block or leave everything else flung at them. How quickly did the English lose that plot? Did sheer pace do that to them? Did India's senior batsmen also succumb to sheer pace on their last trip down under? Or was it just mental fatigue? They just didn't have the reserves to stick with their plan. Did sledging and constant goading by Australia do it's part? It's very hard to say.

India's lowest moment against pace came not two or three years ago but way back in 1976 when Bedi virtually conceded a test match to the West Indies. He followed up on that act by conceding yet another game to Pakistan two years later. India's weird stance at the time was to claim a moral high ground by saying that intimidatory bowling was not cricket. That somehow it wasn't fair. The fact is that India just didn't have the leadership to cope with the pace. It had quality batsmen who eventually played pace with heart - Gavaskar, Gaekwad, Amarnath, Vishwanath and Vengsarkar. But in those two instances they didn't have the leadership or a plan to deal with what was thrown at them. Sports is also a type of battle. It's physical and it's mental. There are statements to be made, adversity to be overcome and hostility to be quelled many times.

India did very well on their last trip to South Africa. They had a superb plan for Steyn and company and executed it very well. They also unleashed Sreesanth on the South Africans. The tail-enders took some body blows and the team came back with its head held high. Gone was the crazy flailing that we routinely saw of the Azharuddin teams of the nineties against pace. As a fan of test cricket that's what we want to see. Whether the team shows heart. It may sometimes not have the ammo to fight the opposition but does it have the courage? Does it have the smarts? Does the team stay in the fight as long as it can? Sometimes it may know that it's going to lose, but does it still fight till the last ounce of energy?

In the two ODIs that we have seen so far, India's batsmen may have failed, but they didn't surrender. They are wanting in their technique but they seem have the heart. Suresh Raina ducked into a few but also executed some really good pulls. It's clear he's trying harder to counter the short stuff. He's facing up to it. Dhawan still needs some work, but both Rohit and Kohli appear to want to get in there and counter punch. Sharma especially in the first ODI was impressive. He left a lot of balls alone despite the huge total to chase. He knew he couldn't mindlessly attack and had to wait his turn. Raina did panic somewhat and unfortunately ran him out, but then he came back in ODI number 2 and hung in there. The bottom line is that these guys seem to want to improve. They seem to want to be world beaters. They seem to have a desire to succeed against all comers. There is a West Indies of the late 70s feel to this team's batting attitude. It may not yet have all the skill.

And as a fan, I like that. I want to see a fight, not a surrender. I want to see Cook, Pietersen and Bell counter Johnson. Likewise, I want to see Rohit, Kohli and Pujara blunt Steyn and Morkel. I want them to figure out Philander. India may yet lose the series because the bowlers lack experience and quality but it would be nice to see the team show heart. They are also a watchable bunch. Kohli, Sharma, Pujara, Dhawan and Dhoni are eminently watchable.

I'm hoping that the batting continues to evolve in the third ODI and gets somewhat ready by test match number 1. Give the fans a watchable performance. Where they are not insulted by the lack of heart. And that would be good news for India's test match fans. And also good footing for the future overseas tours to come in the next 8 months.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Looking forward to the Test matches in South Africa

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The India v South Africa series about to get underway tomorrow is literally the crumbs BCCI has thrown at people who still care for Test Cricket.Its tough to view this series without feeling betrayed and insulted, knowing what happened before it.

One wonders what more levels India will stoop to with the power it has administratively. One wonders what the BCCI has to do for other boards and commentators to develop a voice. A Test series with the West Indies was created out of thin air to say Good Bye to Sachin Tendulkar and another with South Africa which everyone had looked forward to for almost a year was mauled for no apparent reason at all.

It is hard for me to see any positives in the way BCCI functions for the simple reason that given current market forces even a baniya on any street corner of India can run cricket in India and make money. BCCI cannot be judged by monetary yardstick alone. I would rather they be judged on what they are doing to protect the long term viability of Test cricket or say determining the role of technology in the sport or protecting the game from corruption.

On all those fronts the BCCI is failing miserably. With the Sachin Tendulkar retirement circus they showed that a Test Series can be arranged and covered as distastefully as the IPL and with the South African series they have shown they value the traditional format as much as Ravi Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar and Harsha Bhogle value expressing independent unrehearsed opinions. 

Firstly the series starts with the ODIs. The bilateral ODI model has been around since the 70s, but its stopped being exciting for me for a few years now. I would rather we reserve the ODI for ICC tournaments and make the Test phase of a tour longer. Of course this may be both wishful thinking and financially naive but honestly does any one remember the results of these ODI series?

The 2 Tests that follow will be interesting. India, after having lost all 8 away Tests by comfortable margins, none of the greats are going to be missed unless India manage to lose more Tests than scheduled.

Of immense interest to me is how India's batsmen and bowlers both young perform on the first tough assignment since their debuts. Cheteshwar Pujara has been to South Africa before and looked distinctly uncomfortable in the Tests he played. However this time he goes with the confidence of an established top order batsman.

It would be interesting to see what batting order India settle on. Something that brings relief to me is the absence of Suresh Raina from the Test Team. For some reason he seemed to be the chosen one. Marked by Greg Chappell for future greatness and leadership and then courted by Mahendra Singh Dhoni endlessly in Tests.

Both Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma seem quite capable of batting at #4 but asking Rohit Sharma to bat at #4 makes more sense since it is less disruptive to the batting order. The #6 slot will be contested between Ambati Rayadu and Ajinkya Rahane. India even have an option of including neither and going in with Ravindra Jadeja. With Jadeja in the side, Mahendra Singh Dhoni can bat at #6 and Jadeja can play as a genuine all rounder - bat at #7 and afford India a 5th bowler. However Jadeja might lose out since playing 2 spinners in South Africa may not be wise.

On the bowling side, Zaheer Khan is sure to play in the starting XI. He is one of those selections that are made by the selectors to be in the playing XI. Mohammed Shami after the debut he has had and with his ability to get clean bowled dismissals thanks to his pace and movement, is also an automatic choice I think. It is the third seamer that will require some thinking. .

My vote would go to Bhuvansehwar Kumar but playing Ishant Sharma would also not be a bad move. My gut feel is that Bhuvi, if selected, will do a Sreesanth. Both India's Test wins in South Africa from the last 2 tours were possible because of Sreesanth; and Bhuvi seems to have the crispness, speed and seam positioning needed to get wickets in South Africa.

India has only gains to look forward to from this series. Hence it would have been good had this been a full series. Even if India lose all Tests which I think is the most likely result, it would be looked at as progress. Unless of course the losses are so hugely the one England experienced at Brisbane.

My team for the tests would be
Murali Vijay, Shikhar (twirler) Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma (#ThakYouSachin) , Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, R Ashwin, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Zaheer Khan, Mohammen Shami