ODI

Never Back Down – Virat Kohli Version

The last time I made the mistake of giving up on watching a cricket match to its finish, was way back in 2002, when India faced South Africa in a Champions Trophy game in Sri Lanka. South Africa, led by a Gibbs century, were cruising to victory at the end of 40 overs, when i switched off the TV and went to sleep dejected. Imagine my consternation (albeit, a pleasantly surprised one) when I woke up and found out that South Africa did what they do best in crunch situations and fold to a combination of mesmeric spin and electric fielding, as India stole a win by five runs.

That day, I promised myself that I would never give up on India till the last ball is bowled. By and large, I have remained true to it, and willed myself to sit through agonizing and thrilling games alike. Then, yesterday happened.

Numbed after a series of overseas losses over the last year, I gave up on the team yesterday. Halfway through the game, India had conceded 320 and generally looked listless on the field. It was as if the players had mentally completed the tour and were itching to get back to the comforts of home. As the team disintegrated on the field, I decided that enough was enough. If the players were not interested, why should fans bother? So, I switched off the stream and went to sleep frustrated with another abject performance by Dhoni’s men.

Sure enough, when I woke up and groggily checked the CricInfo app on my phone, the headlines “Kohli masterclass keeps India alive”  jolted me up. Since then, I’ve watched the highlights three times (not enough apparently!) and pored over the press reports; and yet, the exhilaration of an improbable victory has not left me yet.

 

So, thank you Virat, for a gem of an innings. Not only did you keep India alive in the series (just!), but you also gave me 133 reasons to never give up on this team again!

 

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That man Afridi!

75 runs and a 5 wicket haul...as you like it

Shahid Afridi is a freak of nature. You can take away the captaincy, take him out of action and blame all the ills of  Pakistan cricket on him; but give him a bat and a ball, and he will proceed to show why he is still the most valuable player in the shorter forms for Pakistan. He may say the darndest things, and even do some of the craziest acts imaginable; but there is no doubting the existence of a fighter in that crazy persona that is Shahid Afridi.

Pakistan is the most resilient cricket team there is, no thanks to their board ofcourse. No other team could face the amount of controversies and upheavals they do, and still manage to produce a side capable of beating any of the top dogs at any given time. Despite losing many world class bowlers over the last few years due to varying reasons, they still possess one of the finest bowling attacks in the world. Now if their batsmen can become more consistent, they could pose a viable challenge for the top rankings in international cricket; and that is saying something.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka are in decline. Their bowling lacks tooth with the absence of Murali and restricted appearances of Malinga, while the batting revolves around Dilshan, Sangakarra and Jayawardene who aren’t gonna last long either. They have a good bunch of youngsters, who unfortunately have been around for long and are yet to realise their full potential. New coach Geoff Marsh has a tough task on his hands to rebuild this side, and he will do well to build it around the exciting Angelo Mathews.

India Shining, England Whining

"...and a happy Diwali to you too!"

At the onset of this series, most of the Indian fans labelled this as a “payback/revenge” series (conveniently forgetting that winning a series against a 5th ranked side does not compensate for losing the Test crown in a humiliating manner), whereas most English fans dismissed this as a pointless ODI series (how would one determine that, I would love to know). The truth lies somewhere in between; that India would win the series was almost a foregone conclusion, but more than anything else, they needed to experience the winning feeling again. Not to forget, they had a bunch of youngsters to groom for the future. For England, this was a chance for the new ODI skipper and young players to test themselves in unforgiving conditions. In the end, the final scoreline was a just reflection of the gulf between the two sides when it comes to ODIs on the subcontinent, despite the absence of a few star players from the Indian side. Here are a few other thoughts from the series:

  • The continued absence of Tendulkar and Sehwag meant that there was yet another opportunity for Parthiv Patel and Ajinkya Rahane to press their cases for permanent inclusion. While Patel flattered to deceive, Rahane’s solidity was reassuring to watch, though the tendency to throw away starts was a bit infuriating. Either way, a Test call-up is not too far away for the Mumbai youngster.
  • Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli were the bulwarks of the middle order. In particular, Kohli continues to rise and rise. He had a good Champions League prior to this series, and his purple patch refused to stop. Despite a poor Test tour of West Indies, his maturity and form warrants him another shot in the longer format.
  • What is left unsaid about MS Dhoni? Calm, cool, unflappable, the man with a plan….and by the end of the series, he was invincible too, as England just couldn’t out him at all. Experts are falling over themselves to anoint him as the best finisher in ODI history, and few would disagree.
  • Ever since his debut, I was never too enamored with Ravi Jadeja; but with impressive back-to-back series, he has won me over. While his batting is not as destructive as a certain Yusuf Pathan, he is more consistent, and he is a much smarter bowler. Also, along with Kohli, Raina and Rahane, he has lifted the Indian fielding by several notches. Deserves a prolonged run in the team.
  • With Harbhajan Singh getting dropped from the side after a long time, there was no small amount of pressure on the shoulders of Ravi Ashwin to perform. To his credit, he didn’t disappoint, with his maturity standing out. While calls for a place in the Test team is a bit premature, he should have cemented his place in the ODI team with this performance.
  • Praveen Kumar was steady, Vinay Kumar was consistent, Umesh Yadav was lacklustre – but the one pace bowler to stand out from the Indian camp was the young Varun Aaron. He had pace, but more importantly he hit the right lengths too. He has four wickets as of now, all of them coming through knocking the stumps down. Now, if only he does not get ‘Munna-fied’, India might actually possess a ‘fast’ bowler.
  • To see India put up such a commanding performance in the absence of stars like Tendulkar, Yuvraj, Sehwag and Zaheer was a reassuring sight for Indian fans. With the likes of Rahane, Kohli, Raina, Jadeja, Ashwin and Aaron still in their 20s, the future looks bright for the Indian ODI team.
  • It was a baptism by fire for Alastair Cook, for whom it was the first ODI series outside England as official skipper. He book-ended the series with a couple of 60s and failed in between. As a captain, he was outsmarted by Dhoni, while his failure to exert any authority over his team-mates during a fractious series was disappointing. Looking on the bright side, it can only get better from here.
  • Craig Kieswetter might as well be called Kies-dropper. In a series where the opposition keeper shone with the bat and barely made any mistake with the glove, Kieswetter had a shocking series, even by his own standards. As an opener, he could never convert his starts, and with the gloves (barring a couple of sensational catches), he was unusually sloppy, none more damning than the fluffed run-out of Jadeja in the fourth game. With the likes of Bairstow, Buttler and Davies jostling for places, it is hard to see if Kieswetter will get to keep his place for the next OI assignment.

Behind every successful batsman, there is Kieswetter

  • Jonathan Trott might be wondering what he has to do to get some love from the fans. Despite being the most successful ODI batsman of the year, there are calls for Bell to replace him in the playing XI (this despite Trott possessing a far superior average and strike rate compared to Bell). In a side consisting of batsmen who looked completely out of their comfort zone, Trott was perhaps the only player who seemed to have a measure of how to play the spinners. Whether the English accept it or not, Trott is the only batsman who warrants his place in the side, based on current form.
  • While I have never been convinced that Bopara is one of the top 6 batsman England have, his performance in the series was utterly non-descript and has done enough to justify his future exclusion from the team. The real disappointment was Kevin Pietersen. Despite one good innings, it is alarming how his batting has fallen away in ODIs. For a player who was once the most exciting batsman in the game, it has been a steep decline, and one hopes that he still has it in him to resurrect his brilliance.
  • A lot was expected from Samit Patel and Jonny Bairstow in this series. While Patel had one good match with the bat and a mixed series with the ball, Bairstow found out for himself how much different the subcontinent is, compared to England. Ashwin and Jadeja toyed with him and by the end of the series, Bairstow’s inexperience was clearly exposed. This will be a valuable tour for him though, and he can only get better for the experience.
  • Graeme Swann came into this series with the reputation of being the world’s best spinner. In the end, he was outbowled by his own team-mate and will be remembered for his unflattering figures, churlish outbursts against team-mates, dropped catches and a poorly timed autobiography.
  • In the absence of Stuart Broad and James Anderson, Tim Bresnan was the leader of the pace attack; but the real hero was Steven Finn. Easily, the biggest positive to come out of this series for England; While his boorish behaviour and misplaced aggro can be put down to his age, his bowling was the only thing which kept most of the games competitive. Like most of the youngsters in the team, this experience will be invaluable down the road.
  • Jade Dernbach has been hyped for a long time now, but over the course of three games, his ‘variations’ were dismissed to all parts of the ground and sometimes over it. In the end, all he showed was poor discipline on and off the field.
  • Overall, the English team was completely different to the one which defeated India in the rain-affected home series a month ago. They were clueless against spin and the batting always seemed one wicket away from a collapse. A lack of support for Finn meant that the bowling was never going to contain a rejuvenated Indian line-up. The biggest shock of all, was their huge drop in fielding standards, as the Indian side outperformed them in the department by a mile (Donkey jibes, anyone?). When they were not busy getting into verbal battles with the Indians, they occupied themselves berating their own team-mates. Normally, this would point to a side in decline; but in Andy Flower they have one of the top coaches in the world, who is capable of turning the fortunes around. While it has been yet another whitewash in the subcontinent for them, the players will be wiser for the experience and hopefully, it will lead to wiser team selections in the future.
All in all, it was a great Diwali gift from the Indian side to their fans. While it will not erase the memories of the Test series humiliation, it has gone a long way in applying balm over the wounds.
Cheers!

In Dhoni we trust

Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

There is something so reassuring about watching the Indian skipper come out to bat in an ODI chase, when the Indian team is under the pump.

There is something so reassuring about watching him nudge the singles and twos first, then accelerate when the situation requires it.

Its like he knows exactly what he has to do and how to do it. It has all been mapped out in his mind, and all he needs to do is not lose his head and shepherd the chase to its logical conclusion.

It is almost anticlimactic when he hits the winning runs (honorable exceptions – the World Cup final and the 3rd ODI in this series) because we knew it was coming all along; and there are few sights more pleasing for an Indian fan, than the sight of a victorious skipper walking back with just a hint of a smile while his team-mates just explode in joy around him.

As @mspr1nt said on Twitter, he might be the real Mr Cricket after all.

"The name is Dhoni.....MS Dhoni"

When Harbhajan made it too large

So, Harbhajan Singh is droppable after all. Who knew?

On a day the Indian selectors showed a middle finger to the off spinner, who arrogantly announced himself ready for the England and West Indies series, they also brought in a fresh faced leg spinner whose route to the national team was on the basis of ONE impressive IPL season, and selected three rookie fast bowlers to face a rising English team on flat tracks.

The umpire does a bhangra after hearing the news of Harbhajan's drop from the team

 

Despite Tendulkar, Yuvraj, Sehwag and Rohit Sharma still nursing their injuries, the batting still retains a solid look. With Parthiv, Rahane, Raina, Kohli, Dhoni and Jadeja all enjoying decent form with the bat, India will not be too bothered about the absentees. It is another matter when it comes to the bowling.

Praveen Kumar is the only comforting pick among the ‘pace’ bowlers. Umesh Yadav has not shown any promise in the brief opportunities he has received and Vinay Kumar is Praveen Kumar without the guile or angry scowls. Hopefully, Varun Aaron and S Aravind get enough chances to impress.

That brings us to the spin department. It was about time Bhajji was dropped. It has been a long time since he was a match winner for the team, with the ball. It is interesting that someone like Harbhajan Singh gets more chances than Rahul Dravid has in ODIs in the last few years. Hopefully, the selectors will not bring him back for the remainder of the series, and he will work on his bowling with trusted and well meaning coaches.

While the selections of Ashwin and Jadeja makes sense, it is unfair that someone like Rahul Sharma gets a place in the team, based on an impressive IPL season. Whether he grabs his chance and shines in his debut series is another matter. It is disappointing for bowlers like Pragyan Ojha and Iqbal Abdullah who do whatever is required of them in domestic cricket and the IPL for the last few seasons now.

Either way, this is the squad for just the first two games; and with Cheeka at the helm, it is hard to predict if they will make any changes to the team after that. Still, by the look of this squad, the selectors are hoping to stumble on to some bowling superstar. For their sake, and for the sake of the team, I hope they do.

Squad: MS Dhoni (capt & wk), Gautam Gambhir, Parthiv Patel, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav, Vinay Kumar, S Aravind, Rahul Sharma, Manoj Tiwary, Praveen Kumar.

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!

 

Chris is the new Shane; Kohli is the old Tendulkar

Once upon a time, only in the Australian team could a debutant just walk in and win a game for his side; its a sign of the times, that the baton has been passed down to the English team. Kudos to coach Flower for pushing Woakes ahead of Swann. It pays to have a coach who follows the domestic scene and has an idea of the capabilities of players.

Meanwhile in South Africa, there is another changing of the guard. In the 90s, it was the sole preserve of Tendulkar to score consistently while all around him collapsed, despite the team winning or not. Now, he follows the ‘all or none’ principle by either scoring big centuries or nothing at all; and India has managed to find a way to win without him in the ODIs. Instead, it is the young Kohli who has taken on the responsibility of scoring while all around him perish. He has a pretty good average for someone who has always had to play second fiddle to the likes of Gambir and Yuvraj. It is just a matter of time before he breaks into the Test side, and takes on Tendulkar’s role once he retires; and once again do the rescue acts, which will be inevitable once Dravid and Laxman leave as well.