gautam gambhir

One angry man leaves, another returns – the contrasting fortunes of Gambhir and Harbhajan

The Indian squad for the first two tests against Australia has been announced and apart from a couple of surprises, it was pretty much along expected lines. After a prolonged lean patch, Gautam Gambhir has been replaced with his Delhi team-mate Shikhar Dhawan, Ravi Jadeja has been retained ahead of Suresh Raina, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar earns a call-up and Harbhajan Singh returns after a one Test hiatus. Apart from Wasim Jaffer, no other player needs to feel aggrieved over his non-selection. This is possibly one of the better squads assembled by the Indian selection committee in recent times. Here are my thoughts on the selected 15:

The openers

Virender Sehwag, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan

It came as a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, to hear that Gautam Gambhir had been dropped from the Test side. This was long overdue and it’s hard to see this kind of decision being taken by the previous selection committee. Gambhir has trotted out all kinds of excuses and reasons as to why he should open for India in the long form, but his luck has finally run out. Without a century in nearly three years and with plenty of alternatives turning up, dropping him was the right choice. Hopefully, he will make a strong case for a return when he captains India A in their practice game against the Aussies.

Seeing the fate of his friend, Sehwag cannot rest easy. This should be motivation enough for him to raise his game. The message has been sent loud and clear by the selectors: Reputation doesn’t matter. Perform or perish.

Murali Vijay can be considered lucky to retain his place in the team, considering his poor Ranji season. Then again, his ability to come up with the big scores when the spotlight is turned on him, suggests that he has it in him to become a big-match player. This is an ideal opportunity to silence his detractors and prove that he belongs to this level.

Shikhar Dhawan is one of the consensus picks, in that I doubt his selection would have merited too much of a debate. He had a good season and it is time to see if he has what it takes to succeed at this level.

The middle order batsmen

Cheteshwar Pujara, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni

Despite Kohli’s indifferent form of late, he is a certainty in the middle order along with Pujara and Tendulkar (who has warmed up nicely with a ton in the Irani trophy). That leaves the perennial battle for the number 6 slot between Rahane and Jadeja. Rahane is one of the best batsmen in the domestic circuit and has shown the capacity to rack up huge scores, but he is pitted against Jadeja, who himself is capable of compiling marathon knocks with the added bonus of bowling left arm spin (and we all know Dhoni’s favorite kind of player). Added to the fact that Rahane fits the mold of a top order player, coupled with his poor run against high quality bowling in the ODIs against England, we might just see Jadeja get another shot at Test cricket.

The spinners

Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Harbhajan Singh

Ashwin and Ojha were always set to retain their place; but it was interesting to see that the selectors walked back their policy of having variety in spin options by dumping the leg spinner and opting for a second offie in Harbhajan. By this decision, they have opted to play their three best spinners; and it a fairly good choice. Harbhajan has shown glimpses of old in the Irani trophy and the sight of his favorite opponents might just awaken the “wicket-taker” in him.

The fast bowlers

Ishant Sharma, Ashok Dinda, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar

Given the lack of options due to injury concerns to the first choice pacers, this is the best alternative. Ishant will lead the attack, but will have a debutant to share the new ball. Dinda has been on the sidelines for a while, and Kumar has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks, thanks to consistent performances in the limited over games. So who should partner Ishant? Its a tough choice but I see both of them get a game each before the next selection takes place.

My first choice XI:

Vijay, Sehwag, Pujara, Tendulkar, Kohli, Jadeja, Dhoni, Harbhajan, Bhuvneshwar, Ojha, Ishant

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Skyfall for an Indian Cricket Fan

Testing times

Boy, even by usual standards, there have been a lot of articles written in the last week over the state of Indian cricket. Apart from cricket journos, ex-players, former selectors, bloggers – all have weighed in, on what is ailing Dhoni’s men. Here is what I have learnt from the sum total of all these articles:

1. Gautam Gambhir – Out of form for too long and hasn’t scored a century in nearly two years. He did score a fighting fifty in Mumbai, but batted selfishly by not shielding the tailenders and caring more for his batting average. Not in sync with the captain or the rest of the team. Drop him.

2. Virender Sehwag – Scored a big hundred in the opening Test but has been off the boil overall. Keeps wasting good starts. Needs to value his wicket more. Drop him.

3. Sachin Tendulkar – Experience highly needed at the moment. Let him stay; but his knocks are painful to watch and age has clearly caught up with him. Drop him.

4. Virat Kohli – After a promising start to the home season, he has faded away. Place him on notice. Oh wait, it will make him complacent. Drop him.

5. MS Dhoni – Can’t bat. Can’t keep. Can’t captain. In Tests. Drop him.

6. R Ashwin – India’s best batsman over the last year, but is in the team for his bowling. Which has been disappointing. Drop him.

7. Ishant Sharma – How does he keep getting picked? Drop him.

8. Duncan Fletcher – ROFL. Sack him.

9. Che Pujara and Pragyan Ojha – Please. Don’t drop them. Ever.

 

PS: On a serious note, it is time to accept that this is what Indian fans will have to put up with, for the foreseeable future. The Indian team is clearly not one of the top sides in Test cricket anymore, and are facing a shortage of world class Test performers, who can take them back to the number 1 ranking. Then again, it was just over a decade ago that England were at the bottom of the pile; and look where they are now. The road to the top is actually a wheel of fortune. The BCCI and team management will have to make some smart decisions in the coming months, irrespective of the result of the Nagpur Test. It is too much to expect of course, but there is always hope – the eternal companion of a cricket tragic; nay, an Indian cricket tragic.

Indian Cricket on the Road to Somewhere

0-8. Never forget.

Over the course of two tours, to England and Australia, Indian fans were treated to soul crushing and legend shattering performances from the team, as the number 1 ranking was surrendered, and then the retirements of long-time servants of Indian cricket were hastened. Indian cricket was well and truly forced into the transitional phase, which it kept talking about for years, but never really took any steps towards it.

That is why, the series against New Zealand raised a lot of interest and expectations towards how India is going to plan ahead. With tough home series against England and Australia, and an overseas assignment against the current number 1 team to follow, the situation called for some bold and visionary thinking from the selectors to pick a squad keeping the future in mind.

Well, if you know anything about Indian cricket and its selectors, you know what was always the most likely thing to happen. Kris Srikkanth and gang opted for the safe route and picked pretty much the same squad which had been failing overseas, but could be trusted to deliver in home conditions. Retirements forced the hand of the selectors, allowing come-back opportunities for Che Pujara and Suresh Raina, but there seemed to be no tangible measures taken in response to the drubbing in two consecutive overseas tours.

On the basis of the two Tests against the Kiwis, most of the issues remain un-resolved. I’m going to take a look at some of them and give my ideas about how to tackle it.

The opening conundrum

When Gambhir and Sehwag notched a 50 run partnership in the second innings of the Bangalore test, it was their first in 12 innings. It is hard to believe that this is the same pair, who just a couple of years back, formed one of the best opening pairs in international cricket. They were instrumental in India’s rise to the top of the rankings, and it is not a surprise that India’s fall coincides with a decline in their performances. Of late, Gambhir seems to be more assured in the shorter formats than in Tests, and his dismissals mirror that fact. He keeps edging deliveries to the slip cordon while trying to run the ball down to third man, and for an opener that kind of misjudgment is career suicide. All the qualities which made him one of the best openers in Indian cricket history, seem to be in short supply and it doesn’t help that his partner is going through a similar crisis himself.

Sehwag has never been a conventional opener and his success to date has defied belief. He averages over 50, has two triple tons apart from several other big centuries, and gives rapid fire starts just about every time he gets into a groove – all this despite a very unorthodox batting style bordering on the very definition of risk. Most of the time, he gets out to a poor shot and immediately is excused, saying “that’s the way he plays”. Unfortunately, nowadays we are treated to short cameo knocks from Sehwag before he gifts his wicket away, and coupled with Gambhir’s inconsistency, his inability to play the big innings he is famous for, is starting to cause headaches for India at the top.

So what is the solution? Can we afford to drop either or both Gambhir and Sehwag? Should India stick with them, trusting and hoping, that the proven performers will shine against England and Australia?

Personally, if there was any time to drop either opener and blood new batsmen, it was the series against a low profile team like New Zealand. With England dropping in soon, it is unreasonable to expect a replacement to perform immediately against quality opposition, when under a lot of pressure. The next best step is to give the pair another go, against England and hope they regain their appetite for huge knocks. If it doesn’t work, it is time for the team to take a leap of faith and try new players, regardless of reputation. Pujara and Kohli are good examples of youngsters who have grabbed their opportunities to replace batsmen who were considered irreplaceable till recently, and there is no reason why the likes of Rahane or Mukund can’t do the same.

The middle-order blues

While two batsmen established themselves firmly in the plans for the upcoming contests, Sachin Tendulkar and Suresh Raina had a forgettable series against the Kiwis, despite looking good in patches. Tendulkar is the last of the old guard and while he may resist any overtures, his time is drawing to a close. It is a just a matter of, how he is going to leave the game – in a blaze of glorious run-scoring or a series of painful torturous innings. On the other hand, Raina is still trying unsuccessfully to convince everyone that he can handle Test cricket. These are two batsmen at different stages of their careers, but at a time when the team is going through a metamorphosis, the management has to decide whether they figure in their long term plans.

In the case for Tendulkar, his experience is invaluable considering the newly re-modeled middle order is still finding its feet. While the manner of his dismissals in the series indicate a slowing of reflexes, I have seen many a Tendulkar slump before an inevitable deluge of run scoring silences the critics. He is a proud cricketer who will be hurting from the whitewashes in England and Australia, and I wouldn’t put it past him to raise his game one last time against high quality opposition.

As for Raina, he’s got to go. The likes of Rahane, Badrinath and Tiwary will wonder what else they can do to get a place ahead of him, considering his inferior record in first class cricket. Despite a scratchy fifty in the first innings of the Bangalore Test, his dismissal in the second innings confirmed the fact that he does not have the temperament to be consistent in this format. If he continues to be in the XI, England and Australia are bound to feast on him. This should perhaps be the easiest decision to take for Dhoni, when the next series starts.

The captaincy question

While many agree that MS Dhoni is one of the finest skippers in international cricket when it comes to the short forms, the opinion is more divided when it comes to Tests. The arguments are mainly ‘he is too defensive’ and ‘he doesn’t deserve a place in the XI’. They have some merit, but are they really viable at this stage?

Yes, Dhoni was captain during the two disastrous tours, but would any other captain have made a difference? If your batsmen experience a collective loss in form and your bowlers cannot maintain a consistent line and length, it wouldn’t matter if you were Mike Brearley. Apart from that, there are no quality alternatives at this stage. Gambhir and Sehwag are not in the best of form, and Kohli is too raw. Instead, it would be wise to groom Kohli for the captaincy, so that there is a smooth transition at the appropriate time, at least when it comes to leadership. At the moment, Dhoni is still our best bet as he commands respect and more importantly, with his performances in this series, no one can ask questions of his place in the team…for now.

Whither the fast bowlers?

India has never been known for producing quality speed merchants, or for that matter any pace bowler who can compete with the best in the world. Despite that, India had two decent options this series in Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav. Thanks to the spinners, they didn’t really have to do much apart from taking the shine off the ball and occasionally coming on, to provide the spinners some respite after long spells. That is why it was disappointing to see their underwhelming performances, even in limited roles.

Zaheer Khan is in a steady decline at the moment. He is no more the bowler he was at his pomp, and at the moment, its his guile and experience which still warrants him a place in the side. It is up to the team management to use him wisely in the coming months, as contests against quality teams are lined up. Stop using him in ODIs and T20s; preserve him for the Tests. Use him to mentor the youngsters; and given the way, Yadav bowled in the series, he has his work cut out.

Umesh Yadav was one of the rare positives from the ill-fated tour down under, and much is expected from him. Unfortunately, his pace seems to have dropped off a little and he still has trouble with control. Given that Ishant Sharma faces the same issues and the remaining reserve of fast bowlers are even more inexperienced, there doesn’t seem to be any easy solution on hand.

This is where the role of bowling coach Joe Dawes is amplified. By this time next year, India may have to depend on a completely fresh pack of fast bowlers  and it is imperative that between now and then, the management identify who they think are going to stick around for a long time and prepare them for the long haul. If India are serious about retaining their number 1 ranking, they can ill afford to neglect their fast bowling resources.

To summarize,

  • Give Sehwag and Gambhir one more chance during the England series. If they continue to fail, bite the bullet and blood replacements for them.
  • Tendulkar’s presence is vital for the team till the South African tour to provide experience and guide the freshly re-modeled middle order. Raina has run out of chances, and it is time to try someone else.
  • MS Dhoni remains our best option when it comes to captaincy. Make Kohli the permanent vice-captain and groom him for leadership in the future.
  • Manage Zaheer wisely and build a good reserve of fast bowlers.

Indian cricket is notorious for its disregard to planning ahead and taking corrective measures. Here is hoping that there is someone in the Indian cricket hierarchy, who can look past the eye-pleasing win over New Zealand  and identify the short-comings. Then, hopefully we won’t need to experience anything as painful and harrowing as an 0-8 score line.

Never forget.

MS Dhoni vs the World

Don’t give up at half time. Concentrate on winning the second half.
-Paul “Bear” Bryant

I wonder what is going on in the mind of the usually inscrutable MS Dhoni these days. The last 12 months have been disastrous for the Indian skipper – whitewashed on the England and Australia tours, losing ODI series to both those teams  abroad, failing to qualify for the Asia Cup final, and even domestically, a loss in the final of the recently concluded IPL. As someone pointed out on Twitter recently, the last year has seen Dhoni conceding the number 1 ranking in Tests and failing to retain the CB series, Asia Cup, IPL and the Champions League trophy. In an age where memory spans are getting shorter, it is easy to forget that this was the same man who led India to their first ODI World Cup win in 28 years with a majestic innings in Mumbai, not too long ago.

For a while now, there has been scattered talk of replacing Dhoni as skipper with someone else; but in the absence of a viable alternative, those arguments quickly died down. Suddenly, with the triumph of Gautam Gambhir’s KKR against the Dhoni-led CSK in the IPL-5 final, the momentum to replace Dhoni has gathered steam again. Former skipper Saurav Ganguly has been one of the more prominent voices who has called for Gambhir to be appointed Test skipper, with Gambhir himself proclaiming that he is ready for the responsibility. To make it interesting, Dhoni has publicly stated that his choice for skipper would still be himself. This is hardly the ideal run-up to some important series which are coming up, including the T20 World Cup.

There is an element of frustration mixed with impatience, which is leading to the murmurs of dissent against Dhoni. After all, he started his captaincy stint with a bang. His first assignment as T20 skipper brought home the World T20 Cup, vanquishing Pakistan in the final. Alongside Gary Kirsten, he led the team through an upswing in fortunes as the trophies started piling up. India’s ODI performances became consistently better and soon the Test team became number 1 as well.  Dhoni himself became one of the best batsmen in ODI cricket and alongside a bunch of legends in Tests and a team of talented youngsters in the shorter form, he took the team to a level where their cricketing prowess became worthy of their board’s clout in the affairs of international cricket. It all culminated in a fairy tale finish at Mumbai on an April evening last year as Dhoni became the first skipper to win the World Cup on home soil. Since then, nothing has gone right for the team or him.

The clamor for his removal from captaincy is mostly suggested by people who believe that his past successes are due to luck and that he has been able to position himself in the right place at the right time. Many of them feel vindicated by the twin failures in England and Australia, where all the ‘luck’ disappeared and his defensive tactics didn’t seem to help in any way. Well, I disagree.

While it true that Dhoni inherited a team of talented players in the ODIs and legends in Tests, there is nothing lucky about  the way he carved out his own identity and molded the team into a single unit. When you lead a team consisting of some players who had made their debut at least a decade earlier, you need to be special enough to earn their respect. As for the younger players, you need to prove that you are worthy of the top spot, so that your authority cannot be questioned lightly. Dhoni succeeded in both these tasks. It is one of the main reasons why his leadership hasn’t been questioned all these years, until now.

When a team starts losing, the shortcomings are amplified for all to see and analyze. Dhoni’s tactics and decisions of late have mostly backfired, but he didn’t do too much different when the team was winning as well. To blame his captaincy for all of India’s recent travails, only serves to ignore the bigger picture.

A captain is only good as his team. Never is it more truer than in India’s case. The team’s free fall correlates with the sharp decline in form of their main batsmen and resurfacing of inconsistency among the bowlers. The skipper can only do so much with what he has at his disposal. It has been a collective failure and I don’t see how Dhoni’s captaincy could have done more to change that. Sure, some of his field placings have been negative to say the least; but it is not like he has a fearsome bowling attack to dictate the game more aggressively.

Think of it this way. 2007 to 2012 can be considered just the first half of the game where Dhoni had the luxury of captaining proven performers in both forms of the game and which ultimately brought India more glory than scorn. Now, Indian cricket is heading into the second half where the old timers are moving on and a fresh batch of youngsters are staking their place. It would only be fair for Dhoni to be given the chance to fashion a strong team from here on and see if he can succeed. Then we can think about replacing him with Gambhir or anybody else for that matter.

The only question that remain is, ‘Does Dhoni still have the fire in the belly to take charge of the team and force a change in fortunes?’

Knowing Dhoni, he would simply say with a smile, “Well, Of course!”

A Date with Destiny at Mumbai – India are World Champions

Many years ago, a friend asked me why I spent so much time obsessing over a game which did not directly benefit me. To use his phrase, it did not ‘put food on the table’. In fact, it affected my studies, tested relationships with close ones and on a broader spectrum, decreased an entire nation’s productivity. This game had the ability to influence the mood of a country and yet, at the end of the day, apart from benefiting those involved in the game directly, it would not change the common man’s status for better or worse. So, why then care so much about this sport, or any sport for that matter?

April 2, 2011.

These are the moments why they matter….why we care….why entire nations can be lifted by sporting deeds performed by a few capable individuals. These are the moments why you can set your problems aside for a while and immerse yourself in a pastime which can give you as much joy, as it can give you heartbreak. These are the moments why sports exist.

The winning moment..

The men who won us the World Cup...

19 years...worth the wait...

 

The man behind the scenes..

The future...

The man who made it all possible...

 

Appreciation for an outgoing legend....

History making 15

A man who deserved to be in a World Cup winning team..

This is how much it matters to people on the street..

...in the streets of Delhi..

..Mumbai..

..and in Kolkata

 

Check out the final unforgettable moments…

So, there it is….moments to cherish for the Indians who were born after 1983 and never experienced the joy of winning the World Cup. For once, TV channels will stop showing clips of Amarnath’s last wicket in the 1983 final and replace it with Dhoni’s winning shot!

Once again, congratulations to Team India for a performance worthy of champions through the last few weeks; and to Sri Lanka and their magnificent cricketers for providing a tough fight. Not to forget – Ganguly, Kumble, Dravid, John Wright – who kickstarted the revival, and to Kirsten, Simons, Upton and the rest of the support staff for ensuring everything worked smoothly in the background.

Let the party continue!

Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. —Muhammad Ali

People don’t play sports because its fun. Ask any athlete, most of them hate it, but they couldn’t imagine their life with out it. Its part of them, the love/hate relationship. Its what they live for. They live for the practices, parties, cheers, long bus rides, invitationals, countless pairs of different types of shoes, water, Gatorade, & coaches you hate but appreciate. They live for the way it feels when they beat the other team, and knowing those two extra sprints they ran in practice were worth it. They live for the way they become a family with their team, they live for the countless songs they sing in their head while training all those hours. They live for the competition, they live for the friends, the practices, the memories, the pain, its who they are. It’s who we are. —Unknown

The Cup has come home!

All pictures are courtesy of Cricinfo.