munaf patel

Pace is ace

So, after what seems like an eternity, India have put up a full strength side for arguably the most important Test series of the last two years. India won the series last time they toured under Dravid’s captaincy; but this English side under Flower and Strauss are a way more tougher side and are legitimate challengers for the top ranking. So it is pleasing to see that both sides will be playing pretty much their first choice XI, in what promises to be an appetizing series for connoisseurs of good ‘ole Test cricket.

For once, India will not be the only side boasting of a world class middle order in bilateral series involving them. Trott, Pietersen and Bell will be tough to get past with Morgan and Prior providing more headaches lower down the order. Of course, they will have the small matter of dealing with Cook’s ominous Test form.

That is why I feel that this series will be decided by the mini-battle between the Indian seamers and the English batsmen. While the Indian batsmen will be challenged to the extreme by Anderson, Tremlett and Swann, the English batsmen will feel more confident of dealing with the Indian bowlers. Apart from Zaheer Khan, no other bowler is going to give them sleepless nights. So it will be imperative for the support bowlers to raise their game during this tour.

It is safe to assume that India will play 3 seamers and a lone specialist spinner in Harbhajan. It is still safer to assume that Harbhajan the bowler is not going to be much of a factor considering the fact that the English batsmen get to practice against Swann in the nets. So, the burden lies on Zak and co, to get among the wickets. Here is a look at the men who have to make a difference for India to emerge victorious.

Zaheer Khan is India’s lone world class pace bowler. One of the major reasons for India’s victory in the last tour to England. He might not be express pace but more than makes up for it with his skill and experience. This time around, he will have to guide his younger colleagues to form a potent attack. His contests with Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott will prove to be some of the most critical moments in the series.

Shantakumaran Sreesanth was a supporting act to Zaheer and RP Singh on the last tour, but this time he will have to step up to share the burden with Zaheer. No one doubts his talent and drive, but it is his temperament that lets him down most of the time. If he can keep himself under check and churn out spells like the ones he produces in South Africa, he will be one helluva weapon for India.

Munaf Patel is an enigma when it comes to Test cricket. In ODIs, he is a parsimonious bowler who manages to prise wickets at crucial junctures while keeping the run rate down. In Tests though, batsmen are more than content to just play him out, nullifying his effectiveness. It is hard to see him getting a game until one of the other pace bowlers get injured or have a drastic dip in form.

When Ishant Sharma bowled THAT spell to Ricky Ponting, it was as if Indian cricket had been blessed with that rare gift: a fast bowler who could hustle the best batsmen in the world. Since then, Sharma has seen both extremes of the success scale, and is currently in a upward swing. He has been the most impressive fast bowler for India in the series against West Indies and will be expected to carry his form to the England series. It will be fitting if he can make a good impression in a country where he got his first call up to the national team.

Praveen Kumar has been a surprise package in the series against West Indies. They said that he is primarily a short format bowler, that he can’t bowl with an old ball; still he has proved to be more than a handful, even in unhelpful conditions. England will seem like heaven, considering that pitches there are tailor-made for bowlers like him. He might not be an automatic pick in the XI, but if given a chance, will prove to be an effective option for India.

So, there it is. For all of India’s traditional strength in spin, it could well turn out to be quality pace bowling which could win them a closely fought series. This is possibly India’s top 5 pace bowlers and if they can’t do the trick, I doubt anyone else can.

 

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Lessons from the India – West Indies ODI series

The ODI series between India and West Indies concluded recently with a predictable result in favor of the Indian team. It was an auspicious start for Team India’s new coach Duncan Fletcher, and was Suresh Raina’s first series win as skipper. For West Indies, the major positives were the progression of Andre Russell and Anthony Martin to match winners, while Lendl Simmons and Marlon Samuels shone at various times. Still, old problems remain; the batsmen don’t inspire confidence against spinners and the team as a whole freeze at the sight of victory. Meanwhile, India without their senior players, still managed to win the key moments and closed out the series despite the less number of players who enhanced their case in this series. Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Amit Mishra were three players who did everything that was expected of them, while the likes of Subramaniam Badrinath, Manoj Tiwary and Yusuf Pathan will rue the missed opportunities. Here’s a look at what I learnt from watching the series:

  • Subcontinental fans might be the most passionate in the game, but no one can celebrate like the Caribbean fans.
  • Chris Gayle might not have played in the series, but he remained the hottest topic of discussion during the series; He did attend some of the games though, where his afro during the final game was a show stealer.

'The 70s are back, maan!'

  • West Indian umpires have proved that they can be even worse than their Indian counterparts.
  • Throughout the series, the only Indian commentator I heard was Sunil Gavaskar. Small mercies.
  • Lendl Simmons can bat. Its just that he has not learned to bat as long as possible. One of two batsmen in the West Indian team who can boast of good consistency.
  • Ramnaresh Sarwan might not be the same batsman he once was, but there is no doubting that he still retains the same fighting spirit.
  • Marlon Samuels is not a batsman most Indian fans would forget in a hurry, after all the thumpings he administered to the Indian team in the early 2000s; He is still slowly getting into his groove, which is not a good sign for opposition bowlers.
  • It has been drummed over our heads that Darren Bravo bats like Brian Lara; in the final game of the series, he added some substance to the style to give the Caribbean something to cheer about.

The Fresh Prince of Trinidad

  • Kieron Pollard still needs to convince many that he can perform against top teams, despite handy contributions towards the end of the series.
  • Like his Indian counterpart, Carlton Baugh is short and handy with the bat; unlike his Indian counterpart, he is reliable behind the stumps, showcasing his skills in the 4th game.
  • Darren Sammy might never be accepted as a deserving member of the team, let alone its captain. Still, he showed a lot of heart with decent performances at the start of the series, even as his team-mates floundered around him.
  • Andre Russell is starting to become the new poster boy of West Indies cricket. With the ball, he is quick and has a precious knack of taking wickets at crucial junctures; with the bat, he is feisty and as he showed in the 4th game, he can give the ball quite a thump. Now all West Indies needs to do is protect him from a few IPL franchise owners.

'Somebody gonna get hurt real bad'

  • I expected a lot from Devendra Bishoo, but it was another leg spinner who rose to prominence in this series; Anthony Martin might be a professional fire fighter, but when it comes to cricket, he is all for creating panic amongst the opposition. If handled properly, West Indies might just end up with two quality leg spinners in their ranks.

'When you mess with fire, you get burnt'

  • Shikhar Dhawan and Manoj Tiwary might be two of the more promising batsmen in Indian cricket, but in this series, they looked out of their depth. Looks like more India A tours might do the trick.
  • Parthiv Patel played all games in the series, depriving W Saha any chance of making an impression in the absence of MS Dhoni. He did his job as a batsman, though his keeping behind the stumps still left a lot to be desired.
  • Virat Kohli has established himself as the best batsman of the younger lot. A place in the Test team beckons, and he might just leapfrog Suresh Raina in the captaincy stakes next time.

The Kohli-nator

  • Rohit Sharma could well turn out to be a typical West Indian cricketer; for all his talent and high praise received from peers and experts, he has rarely done any justice to his skill. This series, he took a step towards correcting that, with a couple of match winning knocks and bagging the Man of the Series award. Only time will tell if this was a break-out series for him, or just another flash in the pan.

The Tease

  • Subramaniam Badrinath is running out of time. The senior-most player among the second rung, he does not have age in his favor and has had to sit back and watch young guns like Sharma and Kohli steal the show. While he guided India to victory in the only T20I, he didn’t make enough use of his chances in the ODI series, thereby signalling a possibly premature end to his ODI career. He still has the Test series to prove himself; whether he gets a chance is another matter.
  • Yusuf Pathan is not quite in the same boat as Badrinath, but he cannot live off two blistering centuries forever. With the ball, he was steady but non-threatening. With the bat, he didn’t quite set any pulses racing. Luckily for him, his competition did not do that either.
  • Suresh Raina had a poor series. On one hand, he captained the team to his maiden series win; on the other, he combusted as a batsman, perishing to the same infuriating slog shot, over and over again. Along with Kohli and Sharma, he is a player for the future; but if he keeps performing like this, the critics will be baying for his blood soon.

Deja vu strikes again...

  • This was a series for the Indian spinners, in particular Amit Mishra. He came into the series with a lot to prove, after his omission from the World Cup squad. At the end of it, he made the selectors look foolish with his returns. R Ashwin impressed in the brief opportunities he got, though he would love to take more wickets and forget his last two overs in the final game.
  • Among the seamers, Praveen Kumar impressed, ultimately earning a call up to the Test squad. Munaf was called a ‘spinner’ by a West Indian pace legend, but he still remains as one of the few quality pace bowlers in the side. Ishant Sharma and Vinay Kumar showed glimpses of their abilities, but still have a way to go before they can be considered as regulars in this format of the game.
  • All in all, the 3-2 margin is a fair call; India’s second string team was marginally better than a West Indies team sans Chris Gayle. If anything, this should increase expectations for a tighter contest in the Test series.

Champions!

Lessons from the India-South Africa ODI series

South Africa were the well deserved winners of the tightly contested ODI series with India. This is because in Steyn, Morkel and Tsotsobe, they had three bowlers who were on top of their game and dominated the Indian batsmen barring the likes of Kohli and Pathan. In the batting department, Amla and Duminy got the runs when it mattered, and the fielding was better than the opposition’s (as expected). On the other hand, India relied on Kohli to put runs on the board, and if it wasn’t for two scorching Pathan knocks, the scoreline could have looked even worse. The bowling ranged from disciplined to non-threatening, and ultimately the home team managed to put the touring side away, destroying any Indian hopes of a historic series win.

  • Murali Vijay and Rohit Sharma justified their non-selections for the World Cup with their continued non performances, despite umpteen opportunities. They are a select band of cricketers, who seem to do well only in the IPL and will be pleased that the 4th edition is coming on the heels of the World Cup.
  • On the other hand, Parthiv Patel continues to impress in the limited opportunities that he gets, despite not making any substantial scores. He deserves to be India’s 2nd choice keeper.
  • Sachin Tendulkar figured in all of two ODIs and looked stable without threatening to make a big score. Calm before the storm, perhaps?

  • Along with Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli will be expected to form the backbone of the Indian middle order in the years to come, given his proclivity for standing tall amidst the ruins of batting collapses. Before the series, it was a question of whether Kohli can be accommodated in a line-up of big hitters during the World Cup; now, the question is as to which batting position he should hold.
  • Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni were big disappointments, failing to muster even hundred runs in the series. India can only imagine the state of the series, if they had fired. If they maintain this kind of form over the next two months, India can kiss their chances of winning a World Cup at home, goodbye.
  • While Kohli played himself into the WC playing XI, Suresh Raina has played himself out of it. Once, he was considered the trump card for the tournament, but with the emergence of Pathan and a dip in form and confidence, it is hard to see him being picked ahead of the other contenders.

  • Yusuf Pathan was India’s biggest positive of the series. Despite scoring a thrilling century against New Zealand in the last ODI series, it remained to be seen whether he could reprise these kind of performances against tougher oppositions and in foreign conditions. In a series where he scored two violent innings taking India to victory once and nearly there in the other one, he cleared all doubts and looks set for a big tournament at home.
  • As is the case most often these days, Harbhajan Singh didn’t end the series with a bucket-load of wickets; but he did exert a modicum of control over the batsmen, who seemed hesitant to attack him. If he can transfer this aggressive bowling to the World Cup, India’s chances are much brighter. Finest moment in the series, was helping India to a win at Cape Town – with the bat.
  • Once again, Zaheer Khan was India’s finest bowler in the series. He led the attack well and his mental hold over Grame Smith is as amusing as it is predictable. Along with Pathan, he gave India hope at Centurion. Might have a handy role with the bat at the WC, as well.
  • India’s leading wicket taker was, surprisingly Munaf Patel. With 11 wickets at an average of 18.72, he might just have booked his slot in the playing XI at the WC. Discipline, accuracy and a knack of picking wickets at crucial moments are all valuable assets in pressure situations; and he might yet star in the next two months.
  • After a stellar 2010, Ashish Nehra has been off-color in ODIs since the NZ series. Like Harbhajan, his finest moment came with the bat in Cape Town, but it is his bowling which is under scrutiny. With the good performance of Munaf and Dhoni’s reliance on Praveen Kumar as an ODI specialist, Nehra faces a stiff contest to figure in the playing XI in the WC.
  • An interesting choice for the 15th spot in the WC squad, Piyush Chawla did nothing to justify or rubbish his selection.
  • What is it about Zaheer Khan that Graeme Smith cannot understand? Whatever it is, South Africa will hope that he sorts it out before their clash against India in the World Cup. Otherwise, he had a middling series with just one fifty and will hope to sign off as captain, in glory at the WC.
  • He might be of Indian origin, but Hashim Amla has no qualms about scoring plenty against them as he rounded off another ODI series as the leading run-getter. Going into the World Cup, he will be one of South Africa’s main weapons and it will be a delight to follow him over the next two months.
  • Colin Ingram and David Miller were two players I was looking forward to following more closely, but they couldn’t even last till the end after disappointing in the first half of the series. In Miller’s case, he was not even selected for the World Cup, while Ingram might have just lost his slot in the playing XI to Du Plessis. Still, I believe that Ingram will be one of the players for the future.
  • Morne van Wyk had just two games to make a name for himself, and he grabbed his opportunity with a valuable fifty in the decider, which might see him slot in to the playing XI next month. He is what Ravi Shastri would call a ‘busy’ cricketer with aggressive strokes while batting and lots of bustling on the field. He could become a critical component of South Africa’s World Cup campaign.
  • AB de Villiers capped off a disappointing summer against the Indians with an average of just over 22 in the ODIs. I still maintain that he is going to be one of the players to watch in the World Cup, but he sure does have to regain his mojo fast.
  • Faf du Plessis made a bright entry in international cricket with a fine looking fifty, but after that didn’t really bother the scorers much. With the ball, he looked decent enough without being threatening; but it is a safe bet that he will figure in the starting XI next month.
  • He might have lost his spot in the Test XI but JP Duminy is still going strong in the ODIs. Apart from Amla, he has been the most consistent bat for the Saffers, and his off-spin is a valuable asset to have in subcontinental conditions.
  • The almost-million dollar man for the Rajasthan Royals and the ODI skipper in waiting for South Africa, Johan Botha batted at one position too high for him (at no. 7) and still managed to get some crucial runs particularly at Port Elizabeth. With the ball, he was not extraordinary; then again, it is not expected from him. His finest moment – getting Tendulkar out bowled; forgettable moments – getting the violent treatment from his IPL team-mate Pathan, at Cape Town and Centurion.
  • Wayne Parnell and Robin Peterson didn’t impact in any major way, though Parnell definitely made the series memorable by choking at Jo’burg.

  • It is an amazing transformation by Morne Morkel to become a fearsome operator in the shorter formats, which he sucked at for a long time. With a bowling average of just over 11 and economy rate of less than 4, it is safe to say that he dominated the Indian batsmen so much so that they never really got off to a flyer in any of the five games. Only Pathan seemed to know how to handle him, and even he treated Morkel with more respect than he did with other bowlers. It will be interesting, though to see how he will fare in the subcontinent.

  • Like Munaf Patel, L Tsotsobe (aka Lopsy) was the surprise leading wicket taker for his side, and for the whole series with 13 scalps at 13.53. Over the course of this summer, he has earned a lot of respect from his opposition and a lot of love from the home supporters. He could turn out to be a game changer at the WC if he can adjust to the subcontinental pitches quickly.
  • Dale Steyn was outshone by Morkel and Tsotsobe in this series, but by no means was he inferior to them. His economy rate of under 4 shows a man who is in control of his skill, and it was clear that he had a mental hold over the Indian batsmen. He will still remain as the speedster to watch, at World Cup 2011 and how he fares could determine how far South Africa will progress in the tourney.

As you can see, this series was all about how the two teams were shaping up for the big one – World Cup 2011. India might have lost the series, but as Dhoni said, the emergence of Pathan as a reliable allrounder and the disciplined bowling at the death were the two major positives, keeping the World Cup in mind. I wouldn’t be too worried about the batting – the return of Tendulkar, Sehwag and Gambhir will inspire confidence in the middle order, who in any case will regain their form upon setting their sights on familiar pitches. As for South Africa, I’m not too convinced about their middle and lower order. Botha is batting way too high and du Plessis/van Wyk will have tougher tests against better bowling attacks. The inconsistent form of Smith and de Villiers will also be a worry. What will give them a lot of confidence is the way the bowlers and Amla/Duminy are shaping up. All in all, I still consider them to be one of the favorites for the Cup. After all, they did win two deciding ODIs against Pakistan and India and might have just laid the dreaded C word to rest!

Munaf and Watson – cometh the hour, cometh the men

Cricket can be so infuriating sometimes. Just when you think you know it all, and how a game is going to pan out – thats when it bites you in the ass. Yesterday, I switched off from the India – South Africa game, when SA were 106/3; fully confident that South Africa would easily win the game considering the way Smith was playing. Of course, I conveniently forgot another India – South Africa clash which took place in 2002, a semifinal match in the ICC Champions Trophy in Colombo. South Africa were cruising to victory chasing 262, with Gibbs and Kallis leading the way, when I switched off the telly at 180/1. The next morning, I woke up to the news that India had won the game by 10 runs due to a combination of uncharacteristic Indian fielding and characteristic South African choking. That day, I made a vow to myself, that I would never consider any result as a foregone conclusion, based on halfway scorelines. Instead, I fell into old habits, and voila, 24 hours later when I decided to check the latest cricket news – ‘Munaf stars in stunning one-run win’.

After frantically searching for highlights, I managed to watch how the game was won (and lost by South Africa). There will be a lot of critics throwing out the ‘C’ word, but how else can you describe this, other than saying that the Saffers choked big time. The pitch was slow alright, but with Smith playing the way he was, and the presence of legitimate batsmen like Duminy and Miller for support, there is no way that they should have lost the game. The Indian bowling was disciplined but not threatening, and they were more generous with the bad deliveries unlike the South African bowling. With the World Cup around the corner, they will face more pitches like these in the subcontinent, and it is time they think about a deeper batting line up. Botha and Parnell can get you runs now and then, but you cannot expect them to score all the time, and against tougher bowling attacks.

On the other hand, when India needed a player to step up to the moment, Munaf Patel came forward. I don’t think he was unplayable, but he did his part to the best of his abilities. First up, he took out the big wicket of Amla and that was invaluable considering the form he is in. Then, he returned to trigger the slide, with the wicket of the skipper; and hammered the final nail in the coffin with the wickets of Morkel and Parnell. The thing about Munaf is, that like the South African Tsotsobe, he is not express pace like Steyn and does not generate bounce like Morkel; but when the mood strikes him, he can bowl with unerring discipline and accuracy, which is a potent mix in ODIs. With the World Cup team selection next week, Munaf grabbed his chance to impress the selectors, and in the process brought about a morale boosting win for the Indians.

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Since I had switched off from the cricket for 24 hours, I missed another classic game between cricket’s oldest traditional rivals. In the first of a marathon ODI series, England had set Australia  a target of 295, which was duly chased down with Shane Watson leading the way. I haven’t yet seen any highlights of the game, but from what I read, he played one of the finest one-day knocks ever seen, and even without seeing any of it, I can agree with that.

Throughout a horrendous summer for the Aussies, Watson has scored umpteen fifties, without ever carrying on to make a big one; and it has hurt the team, as he is one of the few batsmen in good nick. On a Melbourne Sunday, that changed, as he led the way with a fine unbeaten 161. As I cannot judge his innings without having seen it, I can appreciate the context in which he has scored it. Having lost the Ashes at home and tied the T20s, Australia would have been desperate for some good news, anything to divert their minds from the devastating floods. Watson himself had so much to worry about, with the floods having caused havoc in his hometown of Ipswich. Additionally, he had the burden of leading the batting forward in the absence of support from his fellow top order bats. A loss in the first match of the series, could have plunged the team into serious doubt over their own abilities as a winning side and adversely affected their mindset for the impending World Cup; but as they say, ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ and Watson was the man for Australia. I was never really a fan of Watto, but he has won me over. In the face of doubts, criticisms, ridicules and severe strife, he played a defining knock to cheer his country and give his team hope. For that, I can get behind him, and even make an honest effort to like him. Here’s to an actual contest between England and Australia!