test series

No Pain, No Gain

courtesy: ESPNcricinfo

At the time of writing, India are getting quite a beating from Cook’s men at the Oval. The rapid disintegration of the players in the last three tests has been painful to watch; actually, scratch that…I have stayed off from watching most of the days’ play since the Ageas Bowl test. As Devanshu pointed out in a brilliant article recently, the emotional toll that my team’s performance exacts on me can be draining in defeat as exhilarating as it is in victory. After all, I still have not fully recovered from the 0-8 memories of 2011.

Talking about 2011, going from the highs of a home World Cup win to the nadir of whitewashes in England and Australia really tested my loyalty and support for the team. The only other performance that brought me similar grief was the 1999 whitewash down under. At least, then it was expected by all and sundry, as a weak team (barring SRT) wilted under the dominance of the mighty Aussies. The 2011 England tour, on the other hand, consisted of a phalanx of experienced veterans who were supposed to defend the number 1 ranking in style. Instead, the team went down with a flurry of injuries and contagious loss of form, as England steamrolled the tourists. As crushing as it was, I consoled myself saying that it was all bad luck. Then came the tour down under.

The Aussies seemed ripe for the taking; yet a fully fit Indian team continued it’s disastrous run overseas. That tour signaled the end of Rahul Dravid and further down the road, VVS Laxman. India were forced into the transitional period, kicking and screaming.

Fast forward to now. The Indian team picked for the England series did not boast of many high profile names like the previous tour; but given the travails of the English team and the promising performances in the previous two overseas tours, there was reason for cautious optimism. Indeed, the Lord’s test raised hopes that a corner had been turned with regards to tactics, skill and guts. Instead, the following three tests has been a sobering reminder, that there is a long way to go for this team to mature into a strong test side capable of challenging the best sides on a consistent basis.

That brings me to the point of the article; there is hope. Yes, the manner of the defeats in the last few games has been very dispiriting, to put it mildly; but as @srinivyasan pointed out, this team is on the upward curve of their careers. Players like Pujara, Kohli and Rahane will only get better. The likes of Bhuvneshwar, Ishant (yes!) and Aaron promise good signs for the future. Vijay has shown that he has the discipline to succeed overseas. While there is a question mark on the likes of Dhawan, Jadeja and Ashwin, they have age on their side. Short-term pain might have to be tolerated before the long-term gain comes to fruit.

The captain likes to talk about the importance of process over results. So far, neither the process nor the results has gone India’s way; but Dhoni himself has offered a template (courtesy, his bat) on how to keep fighting and trusting on one’s own strengths. If his players can imbibe those qualities, these present-day shambles might just kickstart a revival for this team.

 

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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.

 

A Letter to the Creaking Terminators

Where to now?

Dear Sachin, Rahul and VVS,

Hope you are all enjoying the pleasant Australian weather at this time of the year. It sure is a good time to take out the family on sight seeing visits or shopping trips, and I don’t half blame you for wanting to finish the games quickly, so that this can be accommodated in the schedule. After all, who needs 5 days when you can lose in 4?

Oh, I’m sorry. Did that sound too bitter? You will have to forgive me, as I’m not in a particularly good mood. Apparently, it was not enough that my favorite cricket team got whipped in the first two Tests of a much awaited series;  my favorite NFL team got knocked out of the play-offs today as well.

I digress. This letter is about you. More specifically, it is about your cricket. As you very well know, the series against Australia has not gone to plan so far. And that is stating it lightly. In any other time or era, that would have been accepted as standard fare; but in this series, we have had one of the most experienced batting line-ups in the world (barring number 6), a canny wicket-keeper/captain, a couple of talented spinners and a not too shabby pace attack led by Mr Khan. A lot was expected of you.

Instead, what we got was, embarrassing batting implosions, defensive captaincy, thoughtless bowling and ragged fielding. For a legion of fans who tune in to the game at odd hours and for a multitude of supporters who have invested so much in attending the games at the grounds, this is most disappointing. Again, note the understatement.

..and they all fall down

Now, when it comes to the bowling and captaincy, there is not much we can do. MS Dhoni is the best leader we have, for lack of viable alternatives. His captaincy can be defensive at times, but apart from hoping that he does a rethink of his strategies, there is nothing much one can do about it. As for the bowling, don’t get me started.

Gautam and Viru are an enigmatic pair. You never know when the mood strikes them, so that they will put on an attacking partnership and set up a platform for you guys. Don’t hold your breath though. As our dear captain likes to say, let us ‘control the controllables’.

That brings us to you – The Three Musketeers. Or as Rahul put it eloquently, ‘creaking terminators’. Sadly, you seem to be going out of your way to prove it. Not you, Sachin! You look in delectable touch. Rahul and VVS, you guys have contributed a couple of 50s, but it has not really inspired much hope for your supporters.

Now, I’m not going to rant about how you are pulling the team down, or anything. You guys are legends. You have served the team incredibly well over the last two decades. At the peak of your collective form, you were the envy of all opposition teams. Mammoth scores, incredible rear-guards, and thrilling chases (courtesy Laxman) were the staple diet which the cricket world got to engorge on, when you guys were in prime form. That is why, it is painful that it has to come to this.

You know, I was one of the innumerable supporters who rejoiced when the team won the World Cup last year. It was a victory that I will never forget. My dad’s generation has 1983, mine has 2007. Even then, I knew that only one event could complete the cup of joy for an Indian fan. A series victory down under.

When you guys lost in England, it was scarcely believable. It was not just the loss which hurt; it was the manner of capitulation, which was depressing to witness. Even then, we went along with the BCCI’s excuse list of injuries, insufficient practice games and seaming conditions. It was just bad luck, they said even as they quickly swept memories of the series under the carpet. Australia would be different, they promised.

We had a fully fit squad. Two practice games before the start of the Test series. The pitches were traditional Aussie pitches, but mostly without the lateral movement seen in England. To top it off, the first two days of the Melbourne Test promised so much.

Since then, it has been a depressing ride. While the opposition rejoices on its come-back men, new bowling sensation and  a leader who has enhanced his reputation with giant strides – we are left with nothing but pieces of our shattered expectations and fading memories of a batting order who once bowlers across the world used to dread. Where do we go from here?

Now, there are a lot of voices in the media (print, TV, social) calling for this player to be dropped and that player to be given a chance. Apart from providing a possible quick-fix, what would it solve? We might lose 2-0, 3-0 or 4-0. Ultimately, we are still leaving with a humiliating scoreline.

Now, knowing the BCCI and the selection committee, they will react to this result in the same way they did after the England tour. Putting it down to bad luck and concluding that it is a one-off phase – and with no away series scheduled till November 2013, they would feel very secure in the knowledge that they will be invariably right.

This is where you, giants of the game, have to take a stand. If the powers that be are not going to take the corrective steps that will benefit Indian cricket, then you guys will have to. You owe it to the fans, you owe it to yourself and most importantly, you owe it to the game. We don’t want our last memories of you as out-of-sorts veterans who didn’t know when to leave the game.

We are not asking you to retire en-masse; but we hope that you will formulate a phased out retirement plan among yourselves, if you have not done it yet!  Don’t worry about lack of worthy replacements. Thousands of runs and hundreds of match experience cannot be replaced overnight; but we are willing to lose for the initial few months with the inexperience of youngsters, if that will result in the Indian team regenerating a strong middle order in a few years’ time. And given that we have Che Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Abhinav Mukund and Suresh Raina chomping at the bit to be given an extended run, I can safely say that it shouldn’t take too long.

Sachin, you are in good touch. You have rolled back the years with some classic stroke play, and in many ways, it is the 90s again, with you standing among the ruins of another batting collapse; but even you know that you cannot go on forever. While it may be uncomfortable to face a future without playing cricket (after all, that is what you have been doing for more than half your life!), life isn’t too bad for former players. So, give it a year, and leave on a high. As they say, leave when they ask ‘why’ and not ‘when’. By the way, stop getting bogged down by a record that does not statistically exist, and get on with the business of heaping misery on Australian bowlers!

The Wall is losing one brick at a time...

Rahul, you are one of the last gentlemen cricketers of the game. You have endured criticisms and calls to quit, for most part of the last three years. This despite, scoring tons of runs in the last year, especially in England where you were the only Indian batsman whose reputation was left intact after a grueling tour. Then again, this series has shown that despite your hunger for runs and bloody determination to stay at the crease, the end is near. The mind is willing but the body is weak. Your reflexes have slowed down, resulting in a now familiar sight of uprooted stumps while batting and dropped catches while fielding. You are arguably the most sensible cricketer in the team right now, and you know that a decision has to be made in the bigger interests of the team. With no major away series for a while, it is up to you to plan a graceful exit. The Indian fans expect nothing less.

Very Very Shaky

Finally, VVS. The most graceful among them all. While Sachin has form to fall back on, and Rahul has the records in England to lean on, you have no such comforting stories. Yes, you did score a 176 in your last Test series and you are still the youngest among the trio; but take those two factors away, and your record, particularly in the last few overseas Tests are not encouraging. So, the money is on you to be the first to leave. You have served the team hard and long, but when it is time to go, it is time to go. Hopefully, you will make your last two Tests in Australia memorable and leave on a high.

So, that is what I wanted to get off my chest. I trust that you guys will do what is necessary to set the team off on what is going to be a long and painful journey back to the top of the rankings. Cheers and best of luck for the remaining games of this series.

Yours sincerely,

An Indian fan

 

I have a dream – India’s tour of Australia

Four years ago, the Indian cricket team landed on the Australian shores led by one of the finest gentlemen in the game, with a world class bunch of batsmen and bowlers (Ok, thats stretching it a bit!) with one single mission on their minds: beat the hosts and win a series down under for the first time in their history.

Despite possessing the likes of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, MS Dhoni, Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan (albeit, for one Test), the mission remained unfulfilled. The tour descended into acrimony, even as the visitors could only manage a solitary win at Perth. Many feared (Ok, just the Indians) that with the next Australian tour a good four years away, the Indian stalwarts would have retired, and the best chance of defeating Australia in their own backyard had just been screwed up.

Well, here we are four years on. How things have changed and yet remained so same! Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman are still here (like old creaking terminators, as Dravid put it), while the Aussie team is barely recognizable from that tour. It is safe to say that with all of the current problems plaguing the hosts, THIS could turn out to be the best chance for India to secure a historic series victory down under.

Yes, India has an aging middle order which will have to contend with a fiery combo of James Pattinson and Peter Siddle. Yes, they have a largely inexperienced bunch of bowlers consisting of one fragile world class seamer and an assortment of medium pacers who don’t trouble too many batsmen at domestic level either. Yes, they have two exciting spinners who will be playing on seam friendly tracks, far from the comforts of home-made turners against weaker opposition. And yes, for all of Australia’s troubles, they still are a bunch of tough nuts to crack, with the likes of Warner, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey, Siddle, Pattinson and Lyon around.

Still, as a famous man once said (in a completely different context), “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair”.

For, I have a dream.

I have a dream, that for the first time this year, Gautam Gambhir will score an international century.

I have a dream, that Virender Sehwag will carry forward good memories of his last test match at Melbourne; not to forget, his recent barn-storming innings against West Indies in the ODI series.

I have a dream that Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman will have one last victorious hurrah in a land, that at various stages in their careers, made them the batsmen they are now.

I have a dream that this series will be confirmation that Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma can take over when the big guns retire.

I have a dream that this series will be MS Dhoni’s proudest win as test skipper.

I have a dream that Ojha and Ashwin will continue to enhance their reputations in a country which hasn’t always been favorable to spinners; also, that they will make up for the supposedly missing ‘fire-in-belly’ due to Harbhajan Singh’s absence.

I have a dream that Zaheer Khan will last atleast two consecutive matches; and win the games for his country, while doing so.

Ditto for Ishant Sharma.

I have a dream that Umesh Yadav can match James Pattinson for pace and guile; and that Vinay Kumar and Mithun will be ready when another pace bowler eventually breaks down.

Most of all, I dream that it will be a fascinating contest between bat and ball, adorned with thrilling performances by seasoned veterans and passionate youngsters; After all, these are #testing times.

This is my hope, and my faith.

No Blunders for Down Under

Back to the nets for the Turbanator

I cannot remember the last time the Indian selectors received credit from all quarters for picking the best Test squad possible. Kris Srikkanth and co deserve it rightly for ignoring the likes of Shastri, in picking players based on their form and promise instead of past exploits and ‘getting under skin” crap. Harbhajan Singh has done nothing of note in the recent past to merit inclusion, while Ravi Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha have grabbed their opportunities with glee. There is no shame in it though, as Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Saurav Ganguly showed that they can come back as better players after an enforced absence from the team. It is up to Bhajji now to work his ass off and show the world that he still has got the goods for the international stage. The Indian team will be the better for it.

Apart from the spin department, there are a few minor quibbles here and there; Abhinav Mukund getting dropped after a poor tour of England, Rohit Sharma ahead of Cheteshwar Pujara, and picking two raw pacers for possibly the most demanding overseas tour for an Indian team. Still, the decisions are all justifiable. Ajinkya Rahane has impressed in the brief opportunities he has got and will have more confidence than Mukund, Pujara has just returned to full fitness and there is no need to rush him back when he have an in-form Rohit Sharma, and the pace combination is the best we have, given the lack of viable alternatives.

So, it all adds up to a pretty good team to tour Down Under. I would say that this is the best chance for an Indian team to win a series there, for the foreseeable future. Still, the Aussies won’t just roll over of course; they might be a team in transition, but with exciting players like Pat Cummins and seasoned veterans like Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey, they will still remain as tough nuts to crack. Hopefully, this series will end on a better note than the way the England tour ended.

Squad: MS Dhoni (capt &wk), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Virat Kohli, R Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, Rohit Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Praveen Kumar, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, Zaheer Khan (subject to fitness)

When Cummins kept going

Thanks for Cummins!

When Pat Cummins scored the winning runs off Imran Tahir in the 2nd and final test of the series, it signaled the birth of a star cricketer. At the tender age of 18, he made his Test debut against the World no. 2 and helped his team to a series-leveling victory, with both bat and ball. There had been a lot of hype surrounding him prior to this tour, but it is altogether a different task to actually meet those expectations. The ease with which he handled pressure situations while bowling in the 2nd innings, and when he came out to bat with a few runs to win, has confirmed hopes that he can stand the test of time and become a future great of the game. These are early days yet, but there is nothing wrong in dreaming.

Australia can thank Cummins and few others for the win; namely, the much maligned Ponting, Haddin and Johnson. The victory might have just bought them an extra series, but there is no doubt that Oz need to look beyond them. There is no  shortage of options with Khawaja, Wade and Pattinson available as ready-made replacements. Ponting is an exceptionally difficult case, as the likes of Dravid and Tendulkar have shown that temporary loss in form almost always makes way for permanent class; but how long can the selectors wait? It will be an interesting next few weeks for Australian cricket.

Oh, South Africa. Four home series have gone by and still they have not won one of them. For a team fighting for the top rank in international cricket, this is a staggering statistic. They have the batsmen, fast bowlers, spinner, keeper, captain and coach to make them a formidable side; and still, that final hurdle just cannot seem to be overcome. Fortunately for them, Sri Lanka is next. They have some serious issues if they cannot put it past the troubled Lankans. Also, Philander seems to have sealed the 3rd seamer’s spot ahead of Tsotsobe. Another debutant to have a dream start to his Test career.

Lastly, a mention about the 2-test ‘series’…..while there is no doubt that the contest between two equally matched sides deserves a minimum of 3 tests to sort out the better team, it was hard to fault the logic of the two boards. After all, while the internet buzzed with rage over the short series, there were hardly any spectators in the ground to justify an extra test; in any case, the revenue is mainly made from gate collections. Of course, the cricket boards have only themselves to blame for the obvious reasons. If all cricket boards can sort out these simple issues, the crowd will come. After all, I believe that Test cricket is not dying; its just the crowds for Test cricket, that is dying.

 

Dead Man Walking – the Indian cricket version

It hurts.

The last time I felt like this was when India were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup in the first round itself.

This time, the pain is worse. Watching your team lose its number 1 ranking is never a pleasant thing, but the manner in which they lost it is the most galling. Its hard to come on Twitter or read any news related to the on-going series because of this. A lot of people have been waiting for India’s reign to end, and now that it has happened, they are in what can only be known as ‘orgasmic’ delight.

The much vaunted batting line up has failed to fire. The bowlers have been inconsistent. The fielding has been in shambles. The players look disinterested in the field. Every other day, a player gets injured. All in all, it has been one of the most depressing and soul sapping tours for an Indian cricket fan, let alone an Indian player.

There is still some light at the end of the tunnel. When England got whitewashed in the 2006 Ashes in Australia, the ECB reviewed what went wrong and took some steps, which has ultimately resulted in their team being crowned as Number 1, 5 years down the line. Even Australia have taken some dramatic steps based on the Argus review of their disastrous Ashes performance recently. While it would be too much to expect the same from the Indian board, I hope that they keep aside their obsession with money for just a while, and take some important and necessary steps towards correcting the inherent flaws present in the system, which is preventing the Indian team from being better than they can actually be. There is no shortage of well meaning former players and other experts with intelligent suggestions; hopefully, the BCCI will take heed.

For what its worth, here are some ideas:

  • Appoint someone like Anil Kumble or any other respected former player to review what went wrong with the same team that fought better when they toured Australia and South Africa; and implement the suggestions.
  • Something which has been repeated ad nauseum – we need more practice games when we tour abroad. We just can’t afford to start slow everytime we play an away series.
  • There is no dearth of talented players in the country, and many of them seem to do well, when they play A tours or other Emerging Players tournaments; but when they make the leap to the international arena, they are being found short. Its not only about the cricketing skills; players need to be mentally ready when they make their debuts. This is where senior players like Tendulkar, Dravid and Zaheer have just vital roles to play. Their best days might be over but now it is necessary for them to train the younger generation in matters which even the IPL can’t prepare them for.
  • Players are not machines. Unless the Board realizes that, they will just have to do with the all too frequent injury breakdowns. Review the packed schedule and ensure sufficient recharging time for the players, so that the best team is always available to play when marquee series are round the corner.
  • Cricket can be a cruel game. One day you are feted as world champions, the next you are being pilloried by all and sundry for one lousy series. This team is lucky to have a level headed skipper and battle hardened coach who has seen his share of disastrous tours; but some of the players could be psychologically scarred, what with all the spate of cricketers confessing of depression during their playing days and this is where a sports psychologist is handy. Employ one on a full-time basis, so that players learn to handle depressing days like this better.
These are just some ideas, and there are more experienced people with wiser ideas out there. Hopefully, something good can come out of this right royal mess.
Meanwhile, kudos to the English team. They have played like champions and deserve top billing. All credit goes to Flower, Strauss and his band of merry men, who have the attributes necessary to stay at the top longer than India did. While they will look to win a series in India to establish indisputable credentials for the top ranking, they would do well to take note of an opposition who might be following the proceedings keenly: South Africa. With a new coach and a bunch of world class players itching to prove that they are the best, South Africa remain as their biggest threat to the top ranking. At least THAT would be a contest to savor!

What’s the fuss about?

So, Dhoni decided to call of his batsmen when the target was 86 more runs from 15 overs with 7 wickets in hand. Cue, the outrage in India and sanctimonious crap from rest of the world. Cricket sites and Twitter raged with comments from Indians decrying it as shameful and calling the team not worthy of number 1 status; while others concluded that the England series would go in favor of the hosts since the Indians decided not to bat on and try to win the game. As Andy Zaltzman pointed out, India is not the first team to play it safe when the series is in the bag; so the self righteous whingeing can stop.

Yes, the Australian team of the 90s and the West Indian teams of the 70s/80s might have chased this target down; but this team is nowhere close to those sides; so such stupid comparisons can also stop.

While I would have loved India to bat on and try to win the game, I don’t have the same experience and pitch awareness, that the likes of Dravid, Laxman, Dhoni and Fletcher possess; so I will accept their decision, even as I regret the missed opportunities of the last two days. For a team missing its best batsman and bowler, and playing some inexperienced rookies against a side which played beyond its expectations, this was a good result; and no made up controversy should take anything away from that. The England tour will be played with a different set of players and in different conditions; so that will have no relation to how the West Indies tour panned out. I can’t wait for all the talk to stop and let the actual contest be decided between bat and ball.