harbhajan

The No Spin Zone

After weeks of slow build-up, the much awaited Test series between India and England is finally here. It’s been a relatively silent prelude to the series, considering the hype generated before the previous series between these two teams. There hasn’t been the usual verbal spars or snarky newspaper articles this time around, apart from an occasional reference to the 4-0 English whitewash in the previous series; then again, both teams have their own issues to sort out in-house. England have been busy dealing with the ‘re-integration’ of Pietersen and managing fitness concerns of their bowlers; India are worried about Zaheer’s fitness and the iffy form of their top order.

Still, it is pretty clear, from the evidence of the last few weeks, what the most important factor is going to be in this series. England have played three warm-up games since they landed, against opposition of varied strength, and the defining feature of the practice games has been the paucity of spin practice for the English. While the first game had no genuine spinner in the India A squad, the second and third games had spinners who barely feature in the first choice XI for their sides. In fact, despite having Amit Mishra in their XI, Haryana didn’t even bowl him in the second innings of the third practice game. The message from the Indian camp to the English is very clear: No spin for you, lads.

So, when England come out to bat in the first test at Ahmedabad, they will face the highly effective pair of Ashwin and Ojha,  after having the advantage of landing in India early nullified by the lack of generosity from the BCCI. After their travails against Ajmal in UAE and Herath in Sri Lanka, the signs are pointing to another ‘death by spin’ exhibition of batting by the English.

Now, the rights and wrongs of the ‘no spin’ move by the BCCI is debatable and a matter of  individual opinion. Some may call it ungracious and unsportsmanlike to invite a team early, and not provide them with the best preparation possible. Others point out to similar tactics by teams like England and Australia who provide under-strength opposition and pitches unlike the ones used in the Tests, during the warm up games in their home series. Fact of the matter is, both sides have valid points, and ultimately the final decision lies with the home cricket board, as to what teams and grounds they choose for the warm-up phase of the series.

Personally, I started out being fully supportive of the move to restrict useful spin practice for the English; Now, it doesn’t look so great. Yes, it could backfire – the touring batsmen might have just played themselves into form and high confidence after facing weak oppositions. This could also have been a useful time for the likes of the maligned Harbhajan to regain confidence, or a junior spinner like Harmeet to try his wares against quality batsmen.

So, all said and done, the upcoming series will prove if this was the right move or not. An English capitulation to spin could pave the way for similar moves against other touring opposition as well. Either way, this has given an edge to the series which was lacking in antagonism between the two sides.

 

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Not sufficiently excited about the Mohali clash?

A World Cup semi final featuring India and Pakistan. It will be the mother of all cricket matches. War sans the weapons. A battle for pride and honor. A blood feud between two warring neighbors.

Yawn.

In truth, it will be a high pressure match between two very talented teams, who will play the game like their lives depend on it (in some cases, their lives do depend on it!). There has been a lot of hype as usual, with politicians and movie stars wanting a piece of the action and the security and secret service are being kept on their toes, but the real pressure will be on the players, who dutifully have to maintain that they feel no pressure at all, in front of the cameras. For the agnostic who wonders what the fuss is all about and who feels left out, take a look below, as to why you should get excited about the Mohali clash:

1. Miandad sets a template for things to come…

2. ‘More’ Miandad (see what I did there?)…

3. Prasad and Sohail share the love in 1996…

4. Kanitkar’s moment in the sun (floodlight!)…

5. Will we see a contest between these two for the final time on Wednesday?

6. Afridi does what he used to do best…

7. Dhoni returns the favor…

8. Its a tie!

9. Misbah gives birth to IPL…

10. Yuvraj and Gul…will we see Act 2 in Mohali?

11. Gambhir and Afridi…all they want is some space..

12. Gambhir’s comments on Akmal’s keeping skills gets him riled up..

13. The last time they met each other…

 

I rest my case.

(If anyone has a problem with my selection of clips, stop whining and let me know which ‘moments’ should make the cut; and I will be gracious enough to add it here….)

Lessons from the Castle Lager Test series in South Africa

  • Gautam Gambhir: Everyone knew Gambhir has been a brilliant opener for India at home and abroad against weaker teams; but the question was how he would fare in Tests against tougher opponents in countries like England, Australia and South Africa. He took a big step towards answering that by performing creditably in the two games he played. He faced the might of Steyn and Morkel at their furious best, and survived to ensure that India would walk away with a share of the series spoils. Dravid might be out of the team soon, but in Gambhir, India has a batsman who can battle through the tough times to see them through.
  • Virender Sehwag: Possibly, the biggest disappointment of the series. There was big anticipation for the clash between him and Steyn, but there was no contest really. In conditions favorable to the bowlers and against a pumped up pace attack, Sehwag could only manage 144 runs in the series at an average of 24 and a shockingly low SR of 70.24! He will be keen to put this series behind him and come out, all guns blazing in the World Cup at home.
  • Rahul Dravid: In an earlier time, Dravid against this attack and in these conditions would have seen a couple of marathon knocks atleast. Instead, all we got was the sad sight of seeing him struggle to get 120 runs at a SR of 33 and a highest score of 43. He played his part in saving India on the last day of the series, but there is no doubt, that the end is near for a wonderful career.

  • Sachin Tendulkar: In a series featuring the two top teams in the world, it was appropriate that there was a shoot-out for the best batsman in the world today, as well. Tendulkar might not have scored the amount of runs that Kallis did, but his performance was equally awe inspiring. In the first Test, he instilled self belief in the rest of the batsmen over the course of scoring a 50th Test ton, and at Newlands he faced one of the most hostile spells of fast bowling one will ever see, and came out with an innings which made sure that India were on level terms with South Africa. After 21 years in International cricket, there is no end to his gluttonous appetite for runs.
  • VVS Laxman: In a year featuring many classics from this man, the 96 he scored in the second innings of the 2nd Test was perhaps the most important of them all. In the company of the tail, he rescued his team from a precarious situation and gave them a total to defend. In the process, he helped them secure one of their most memorable wins in Test cricket. Its time, India and the rest of the world treasure his batting skills for as long as he is around.
  • Cheteshwar Pujara: It was always expecting too much from Pujara, to face the likes of Steyn and Morkel in their own backyard and come up trumps. Still, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. In the second innings at Durban, he played the most important innings of his brief career so far and weathered the bowlers for close to one and a half hours while giving Laxman valuable support. He would have learnt a lot from this tour and still remains an exciting prospect for the future.
  • MS Dhoni: He came within one wicket of securing his most famous series win yet, but Dhoni will take the eventual scoreline. After all, he has yet to lose a test series as captain. As a captain, his tactics were criticized and his handling of Sreesanth was also open to debate; but as a batsman, he did a decent job and as a keeper, he was safe without being spectacular. This series might have got away, but he can look forward to England and Australia with confidence.
  • Harbhajan Singh: It has been quite a while since he topped the bowling charts for India, and Harbhajan will be satisfied with his performance after receiving a lot of stick from fans and media alike, prior to the series. At Durban, he hastened South Africa’s demise in the first innings; and at Cape Town, he gave India its best shot at a series win. In the end it was not to be, but for once he starred with the ball, rather than with the bat.
  • Zaheer Khan: He was sorely missed at Centurion, and on return at Durban he made his presence felt. He might not have the speed of Steyn or bounce of Morkel, but he has plenty of guile and variations to make up for it. Once again, he had the wood over Graeme Smith so much that Smith asked his opening partner to take first strike against him. He faded ever so slightly on the 4th day at Cape Town, which allowed Kallis and co to take command; but overall, he led the attack very well, and will be a vital weapon for India in 2011.
  • I Sharma: While Zaheer and Sreesanth featured in the news throughout the series, Ishant had a relatively quiet series. A horror match at Centurion was followed by a modest one at Durban and he finished the series with another quiet performance at Cape Town. These were conditions tailor-made for him, but he was thwarted by some good batting and his own indiscipline. Still has problems with no-balls, and I have no idea why Eric Simons has still not found a remedy for that.

  • S Sreesanth: There’s something about South Africa that brings out the best and worst in Sreesanth. One moment, he is bowling vicious snorters to get rid of one of the best batsmen in the world; and the next, he is in trouble with the opposing captain, his own captain, the match refree and the crowd – all for his behavior. He is supposed to be an experienced bowler for India by now, but he is more of an enfant terrible at the moment. He has the talent, but can he maintain his focus in 2011?
  • Raina, Vijay and Unadkat: None of them grabbed the opportunities that came their way, and they have only themselves to blame for that.
  • Graeme Smith: A poor series with the bat, where he could not kick on to make big scores; was more in the news for his poor track record against Zaheer and clash with Sreesanth. Before the series, he made comments alluding that India cannot be considered top dog if they can’t win in South Africa. Forget India, he will do well to remember that South Africa has not won in South Africa for the last three series. By his standards, that’s not the stuff of champions either.
  • Alviro Petersen and Ashwell Prince: Apart from a good innings here and there, did not do much to put their detractors at bay.
  • Hashim Amla: The bearded one had a modest series by his standards. He resumed his love affair with the Indian bowling at Centurion by scoring a century, had a quiet match at Durban, and scored a rapid fire 50 at Newlands before succumbing to a self described ‘sugar rush’. Still, he was the third highest run getter in the series, and he looks in the best of touch. Yousuf might be fading away, but another bearded batting master is taking his place.

  • Jacques Kallis: In a long and distinguished career, Kallis has played some important knocks against top quality bowlers in demanding conditions; but I doubt that any of his previous innings would have given him as much satisfaction as the one he played on the 4th day at Newlands. South Africa was in trouble at 130/6, when he played a vital innings which was as painful (due to injury) as it was gutsy. This was following the century he had scored in the 1st innings to get South Africa to a challenging score. Fair to say, if it wasn’t for him, India would be toasting a historic victory now. If it wasn’t for an unfortunate run-out and a ripper of a delivery, there is no saying what the eventual result could have been. Along with Tendulkar, he proved that age doesn’t matter when you are in a purple patch for as long as anyone can remember, and ignited a debate as to who the better batsman is. Ponting can only look over, with envy. Oh, did I mention that he scored his first ever double century at Centurion?
  • AB De Villiers: Like Amla, he started brilliantly at Centurion with a bruising ton which deflated the Indians, but couldn’t sustain the form for the rest of the series. He was a surprise disappointment of the series.
  • Mark Boucher: If it wasn’t for his fighting half century in the 2nd innings at Cape Town, this could have been his last Test for South Africa. Instead, along with his long time friend and accomplice, he took the game away from India in true gritty manner. If it does prove to be his final innings, he would have signed off in typical style.
  • Paul Harris and L Tsotsobe: While Harris was ineffectual as expected, Tsotsobe was the surprise package. While they were on the look for respite from Steyn and Morkel, Tsotsobe rarely released the pressure, and only uncharacteristic dropped catches prevented him from getting more wickets. He held a phenomenal catch at Centurion to boot.
  • M Morkel: Along with Steyn, great things were expected of him before the series. While Steyn stole the headlines, Morkel did his part. After routing the Indians in the first innings at Centurion, he handed over the honors to Steyn for the rest of the series. He continued to bruise the Indians with his awkward bounce and ended up as the 2nd leading wicket taker in the series. If this was supposed to be a contest between the world’s best batsmen and the world’s best pace attack, there is no doubt who was the winner.

  • D Steyn: While two batting legends set about enhancing their reputations and breaking new ground, there was only one bowling legend in this series. If anyone had any doubts as to the greatness of Steyn, they should watch his bowling in the 3rd Test at Cape Town. Speed, swing, accuracy…he had it all. He had some of the world’s best batsmen at his mercy, and it was only his presence which forbade the Indians to entertain any hopes of chasing down 340 to win. He ended the series as the leading wicket taker with 21 wickets and an average of just above 17. He single handedly nullified the Sehwag threat, and along with Morkel established themselves as the top bowling pair in cricket, without a doubt. Now, only if he could replicate this form in the shorter formats…

Overall, for the third successive time a contest between these two sides has ended in a fair stalemate. It may not compare to the Ashes in terms of history and prestige, but for the pure joy of watching top quality, competitive cricket, this is one clash always worth looking forward to.

Best moment of the series:

Quote of the series:

We’ll need two goats to feed on this grassy pitch.

Harbhajan Singh, that delightful pitch expert, comes up with a novel idea to make the Kingsmead track more batsman-friendly

For my review of the Ashes, click here

All I want for Christmas – a cricket-related wishlist

Its Christmas time, and what better way of spending time, than watching some high quality cricket, around the clock, and from around the world. First, of course there is the Ashes, with the possibility of England retaining the Ashes well before the New Year; then there, is the India-SA clash, with both teams itching to prove that they are the better team. We also have a Pak-NZ clash down under, where two teams who have had tumultuous years will be desperate to start the new year well. Here, then, is my Christmas wish-list:

The Ashes

  • For Australia to display the same performance they did at Perth.
  • For England to show that their performance in the same match was just a matter of one bad game.
  • For Watson to finally score a century (hey, I’m in the Christmas spirit!)
  • For Ponting to display some of his old batting brilliance.
  • For Beer to play, so that we can all be subjected to some creative, and some horrible, puns.
  • For Swann to showcase a masterclass of spin.
  • For the English bowling to prove that they don’t need Broad again (wishful thinking, really)
  • Finally, for Australia to lose in a nail-biting finish.

India-South Africa

  • For the Boxing day test, to be a contest worthy of a clash between the top two teams in the world.
  • For more bowler-friendly conditions for the two teams.
  • For India to show some spunk in the batting, in tough conditions.
  • For the Indian bowlers to jog their memory, and try to remember how to take wickets.
  • For Harbhajan to forget his batting and concentrate more on his bowling.
  • For Zaheer to stay fit for the next 3 months at the least.
  • For the likes of Amla, Kallis, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman to display some vintage Test batting.
  • For Paul Harris to be smashed out of the attack.
  • Finally, for India to win the Test, so that the 3rd Test will be worth watching.

Pakistan-NZ

  • For the series to go ahead without one controversy, atleast!

Merry Christmas, everybody, and have a joyful new year!!

Day 1 1st Test Ind v SA – The case for warm-up games

Recently, when Dhoni was asked about the lack of warm up matches, whenever India tour abroad, he replied saying that, in an ideal world that would be great, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Well, the last time I checked, BCCI live in the same world where ECB also live. You just have to take a look at the contrasting performances of England and India, to realize the importance of warm up matches. It doesn’t matter how early you come to acclimatise, until you practice in a match situation. Due to this, everytime India play abroad, they are on the backfoot immediately, and play catch-up cricket for the rest of the tour. It would have been better if India had this collapse in a warm up; then they could have made whatever adjustments necessary.

This match or series is not lost yet, by any means. If this had happened four years ago, I would have written them off; but this team is number 1 for a reason. They have always found a way to fight back; and I believe that this will still be a tight contest. As much as it was disappointing to see the failures of Gambhir, Dravid, Raina etc, it was heartening to see the way Sachin, Dhoni and Harbhajan played. If the rest of the batsmen can play in a similar, confident vein, in the second innings, it will be easier for the bowlers. Despite Zak’s absence, I think these conditions are suited to Sharma and Sreesanth. So, it will be fascinating to watch, how this unfolds yet.

I am not taking any credit away from the Saffers. Steyn and Morkel walked the talk, and bruised some Indian egos, by the manner of their dismissals. Boucher’s run-out of Harbhajan was an example of smart cricket. So, they have made a strong statement on day 1 of the test. Now, it is up to India to return the favor.