Friday, October 31, 2008

Blessing in disguise

Australia scored 288 runs and lost 4 wickets in 90 overs. Remarkable, really, that at the end of the day, they are still looking down some serious gun barrels. Australia trail by 275 runs on a pitch that is getting better for bowling by the session.

The umpires appear more in tune with things other than adjudging batsmen out. Matthew Hayden was given out to one that would not have raised eyebrows if the opposite decision had been given, while Shane Watson was as plumb as a batsman can be in Amit Mishra's last over of the day, but that was denied.

The day's play was, however, defined by one glorious session just before the new ball was taken. With a ball about 70 overs old, conventional wisdom (i.e. talking heads on TV) suggested that the spinners continue for another 10 overs before relinquishing to the pace bowlers. But at that time, it was clear that Mishra and Sehwag needed a break. Anil Kumble had hurt himself earlier in the day and in his absence MS Dhoni took over reins. For a while Dhoni continued with Kumble's policies but as the shadows lengthened, the real Dhoni began to emerge. In Kumble's absence, Sehwag bowled 22 brilliant overs, and at the stage mentioned at the start of this paragraph Dhoni gave the ball to Isant Sharma and Zaheer Khan. Facing them were Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. Every ball looked like it could get a wicket. Ponting will have nightmares about Ishant Sharma for a long time, and yesterday just added to the drama. Sharma hurried Ponting, beat his bat, cut him in half, and did everything excpet get the captain out. Zaheer Khan was no less impressive. This was Test cricket at its very best.

This breathtaking stuff went on for almost an hour and Ponting and Hussey survived undefeated, but definitely not unscathed. The two balls that Sehwag bowled to dismiss the duo a little later were ones that Harbhajan Singh would willingly wash his mouth with soap a 100 times in order to be able to duplicate.

The 4th day's play should be riveting. Can the Aussies whittle the lead to less than 100 or even surpass India's total? Based upon how the innings has been going, I think that a lead between 150 to 200 will be obtained by India and then the commentators can indulge in their second favorite exercise - trying to predict when the batting team captain will declare. And no matter when he declares, it is always "half an hour too late".

Coming back to the big event of the day - if Anil Kumble had not injured himself, Sehwag would not have bowled more than 5 or 6 overs and a trick would have been missed. I hope Kumble was watching the proceedings on a TV somewhere.

I do not believe in telling people to retire. It is not my place to do so. People can retire as and when they want. They have earned that privilege. However, I do reserve the right to demand that a player be dropped from a team if he is underachieving. Kumble does not remotely look like he will run through the batting order. It is time for him to rest his shoulder, let it heal completely, and then make a return to the side. However, I fear this will never be possible in the current climate of distrust between selectors, players, and the media.

Indeed, uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.

Death by a thousand flicks

The second day of the second Test match between India and Australia featured two double centuries - one that was on the cards when the day began and the other that came as a breath of fresh air in these times of structured batting and graceless gestures and sledges.

The morning brought about Gautam Gambhir's first double century. But as his innings progressed it was becoming clear that he was tiring. And when he played on to a Shane Watson delivery it did not really surprise too many people. By then, however, the attention had been diverted away from Gambhir's end by the man Ian Chappell calls Very Very Special.

VVS Laxman has always elicited oohs and aahs when on song and yesterday he showed that he can carry the Indian middle-order for a few more years. At the very least. Reports of his cricketing death are extremely premature. When this series is done I shall expand on my admiration and respect for how and what he does on the field. For now, I shall refrain from adding anything else as I do not want to jinx him in any way.

Two articles on Laxman from folks who write better (and get paid a whole lot more for this) than I do. First up, the CricInfo staff writes a delightful piece on the man. When Laxman bats like he did today...

BD (or DSC) brings to my attention this piece by Harsha Bhogle.
Only four days ago there were suggestions that Laxman be left out of the eleven to accommodate another bowler. The same suggestions were made forty days ago and four hundred days ago. We seek change, and to be honest change isn't always bad, but somewhat we seek to dump as well. True, we need to groom another generation of middle order batsmen for we cannot have too many leaving at one time but try telling that to a player who is scoring runs; who is in the pursuit of the only thing he can do well in life.

This will be one of Laxman's more satisfying moments. He was treated very shabbily during the IPL, was prevented, in a most bizarre episode, from playing for a month in England and had to witness the swords being sharpened for his execution. Don't forget this is a man who gave up a million dollars a year so the Deccan Chargers could get better players and help develop cricket in his state. In England they are going crazy over a million dollars per player. Laxman gave up a million a year for three years! At the end of the first season in the IPL, he was sacked when he had been captain for six games and the job was given to a man who had led in the other eight!! And not a thank you for the extra three million
Coming back to the game. The wicket is still a good one to bat on as Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan showed. I expect Australia to begin well on the 3rd day, but as the day progresses and the wicket begins to crumble, batting will become harder and by the time the 4th day rolls around they will be in deep trouble, fighting to save the match.

The key to Aussie survival is Matthew Hayden. Australia must be hoping that his broad shoulders have a few more runs in him or else they can kiss the series goodbye.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The long kiss goodbye

The critical moment of the day for the Australians came when Ricky Ponting called incorrectly to lose the toss. Batting first is such a big advantage in the subcontinent (especially if you make a big score first up) that you could feel a lot of the wind going out of the Aussie sails.

For a brief while the Indians gave them some hope. Brett Lee got Virender Sehwag with a peach of an in-cutter that would have thudded into middle stump had Sehwag's leg not been in the way.

Rahul Dravid is in the phase of his career where old methods are not producing the results they once used to. So, in trying to change slightly, he is overdoing it. He was out, once again, to a wide ball from Johnson that the Dravid of old, unmindful of the sharpening knives of the media, would have left well alone. Instead he found the bucket-like hands of Matthew Hayden at first slip.

After that we were treated to a glorious period of batting as Sachin Tendulkar turned back the clock. Unfurling his patented back-foot punches and flourishing flicks, Tendulkar looked good for a big, big one when the onset of tea put him into the negative mindset that has been his downfall in the 2000's. Playing out for a break is not something that Sehwag does and you'd think a seasoned campaigner like Sachin, who professes to play every ball on its merit, would not worry about such trifles, and take his cue from the opener. Anyway, a tentative prod found the edge through to the keeper and the end result was a splendid 68 that was at least 200 less than he could have made on this track.

By this time Gautam Gambhir was well-settled, motoring along splendidly in a type of innings unique to Test cricket - the sigmoidal curve-like pattern of accumulation. At the other end, VVS Laxman picked up from where Tendulkar left off. This was a typical Laxman innings - an initial flourish into the 30's where his tensile wrists found gaps frequently enough to disperse the field followed by a patient accumulation of singles. Sanjay Manjrekar once described Laxman as an aggressive batsman with the temperament of a defensive player. Which means that Laxman is capable of playing through long periods of defensive cricket without letting it affect his ability to pick up and hit the juicy offerings when they do come along. (Tendulkar will do well to learn a little more of this from Laxman). For a batsman who has scored almost 60% of his runs in boundaries over his career, hitting 53 with just 3 fours must have been a strange experience.

But his presence at the crease was enough for Gambhir to relax and continue through the 60's and 70's and the Delhi-ite raced through the double digits till he found himself on 99 and a defensive prod followed by a scything square-cut should have signaled a 100. Instead Michael Hussey, at point, cut off a sure boundary. As an aside, Hussey has to rank up there with the great point fielders in the game. Anyway, Gambhir turned to Plan B as Ricky Ponting brought everyone into the close-in circle. The bowler was Shane Watson, who bowls in the 140-145 kmph range. As Watson delivered the ball, Gambhir took the two-step forward step usually reserved for spinners and, with a clean swing of the bat, deposited the ball into the stands beyond long-on. Just like that was was on 105 and continued the trend of improving on his score with every inning in this Test series (21, 29, 67, 104, and now 149 not out).

Tomorrow, the key will be to reach lunch without losing any wickets. After that the afternoon and evening sessions will be there for the taking. If India manage that, then the Aussies will be fighting for survival, not something conducive to taking the Indians down in a home Test.

I am going to keep my fingers crossed that Laxman can pass Mohammad Azharuddin's Test tally of runs. To do that, he needs 161 runs in this innings. If he manages it, then India will definitely have found themselves in the drivers seat. Good luck, Laxman, I'll be rooting for you, crossed fingers and bitten nails at the ready!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Desperate times

For a man who has contributed diddly-squat, Matthew Hayden is talking up a pretty high game. His only innings of substance in this series so far has been a maniacal 29 that did not just hint at the desperation behind it, it reeked to high heavens. Since the game (which, by the way, the Aussies lost) Hayden is in full form, filled with bluster much like the thirsty wanderer in a desert who will drink the sand if need be.

Matthew Hayden has made runs all over the world and will make many more in the days to come. It is highly unlikely that he will not make significant runs in the remaining two Tests. But his interviews are quite unbecoming of the man who has fronted Ricky Ponting's assault on the captaincy record books. Patrick Smith hits the nail on the head perfectly.
It is almost that Australia is in denial. Hayden, who has made 0, 13, 0, and 29, has said that he believes he has Zaheer Khan on the back foot. For the record the Australian opener has made 17 fewer runs than Zaheer, who bats when no one else can. And who has batted half as many times. With the ball Zaheer has taken 10 wickets - more than any Australian and second only to Ishant Sharma - at the very good average of 26.

Hayden's diagnosis that Zaheer is on the point of a nervous breakdown is based on the bowler's abuse of him when the Australian was dismissed for 29 in the second innings of the second Test. Hayden apparently had brought Zaheer to this brink when he charged his first ball of the second innings. That the ball was mis-hit and looped dangerously close to mid-off was, it seems, a victory for Hayden and not the bowler.

Said Hayden: "Zaheer Khan has been put under pressure a lot by myself and Gilly (Adam Gilchrist) in all the tournaments we've played in one-dayers. I have also tried to emulate that when we've played Tests. I just feel he is vulnerable when he's like that."

Not only is it such graceless gibberish, it is also foolish. Unable to bully India as it has in the old days, the veterans of the team hanker for the good times when they could back up their words with significant deeds. Times change. Australia has no response to losing other than a childish attempt to bully its way back to the top. In victory it has learnt to gloat and nothing else.
Contrast Hayden's desperate tones with the measured ones of his captain. In an age where cricketers can reel of all kinds of statistics to show how good their form is, Ponting is honest enough to accept that three failures by him have put a lot of pressure on the rest of the team. Incredible really, since he scored 123 in the first innings of the series. If this was almost anyone else, they'd be throwing that century in everyone's face.
"I've got to stand up as much as the next bloke," Ponting said. "It's been three innings since I had an impact on the game with the bat." Ponting opened the series with his first century in India but followed with 17, 5 and 2.
Which is why Ponting should have a good game at the Kotla while Hayden suffers. Unfortunately, cricket does not dish out answers in such a prudent manner. Let's see what transpires over the next 5 days.

The cricket match is about to start and off I go!

Two pack

While waiting for the third Test match to start, I found two contrasting articles by good cricket writers.

Peter Roebuck profiles Harbhajan Singh. This is vintage Roebuck, writing in a style all his own and engaging from first word to last.

Mukul Kesavan writes about MS Dhoni, focusing on his demeanor and contemplates what makes MS such a good fit for captaincy. However, this is not one of Kesavan's better efforts. He meanders around and ends on a note that rings a little too hyperbolic for my liking.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Reasons to Sing

Dew on leaf blades and velvety grass
People with personality and a touch of class.
Rainy days in summer when it gets really hot
Or finding something that I've given up as lost.

The smell of fresh paper and petroleum is heavenly
But not everyone takes to them so readily.
Freshly cooked rice, a starlit night
The glow of dawn in refracted sunlight.

The monotonous clip-clip of a moving train
As it glides towards destinations again and again.
The rush of adrenaline just after take-off
But then some air-sick people might, at this, scoff

The sound of my echo in the distance
And the chanting of hymns in genuine reverence.
The rustle of the newspaper as I read some good news
And the sound made on stone floors by leather shoes.

I could go on like this all day long
Recounting things that make me break out into a song.
But deep down inside me is always the thought
That the thing I treasure most is the freedom I've got.


It's not whether you win or lose...

ESPN, the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports", has increasingly blurred the line between sports news and tabloid-ness. Here's a random sampling of what the home page looks like with each passing day.

Look more closely at the top news stories for the day. Except for one article (second from bottom) none of the stories deal with descriptions of sporting activity, but are items more appropriate for some other website.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Come again?

Matthew Hayden, in his latest interview is in a very magnanimous and forgiving mood:
Zaheer Khan was fined for giving Hayden a send-off after he was dismissed in the second innings in Mohali. Harbhajan’s celebrations were not muted, but there was no ill-feeling despite the history between the two players. "Why wouldn't he [Harbhajan]?" Hayden said. "If I was bowling I would be doing exactly the same thing. I am planning on doing the same thing. I harbour no resentment or hard feelings at all about anyone on the Indian side. It's good competitive, hard cricket.”
If that was the case, why did Hayden complain that Zaheer Khan said something to him when he was dismissed?

What happened to the age-old "what happens on the field stays on the field" philosophy? Or does it only apply when you are the giver not the givee? Please spare me the hogwash.

Open mouth, insert foot, sell book

Adam Gilchrist and I share many things (those that know me know what they are, those that don't probably need not know) and I have always had the highest regard for him. We all knew that he'd be one of the first to pen an autobiography after retirement, and the Aussie gloveman did not disappoint.

However, he has raked up an old issue that should have been left untouched - the Sydney Test fracas between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds. It is Gilchrist's autobiography and he is welcome to give his side of the picture, but what gets me is that he was not involved in the Sydney fracas having been too far to hear (or not hear, depending upon whom you want to believe) Harbhajan respond to Symond's chatter. So, if he was going to write about the incident it should only have been to cast some fresh light on the episode.

When the reports first came out it appeared that he did have something new to add - that Sachin Tendulkar lied to protect his team-mate. However, in light of the severe criticism he has come under since the story broke, Gilchrist backtracked faster than he ever moved on the cricket field. In the end, if we are to believe him, we are back to square one. In that case, what did he actually accomplish with all this? I would have respected him even more if he had stuck to his guns and professed to saying all the things he said and not hid behind the age-old "quoted out of context" and "misquoted by sensationalist media" excuses. Perhaps the fear that he could lose out on the retirement fund (aka IPL purse) has a big role to play. One of the statements in there was about how the BCCI held the sport to ransom during the aftermath of the Test. Surprisingly, no one in the Board is bringing that aspect up. Surely, it cannot be because he is the captain of the Deccan Chargers and one of the prime selling points of the IPL, is it?

Then why did Gilchrist do this? Where is the upside to this? Ah yes, he will sell a few more copies of his autobiography. I was going to purchase it when I first heard about it, but not any more.

Sorry, Gilly, you lost more than just a reader in the past few days. You lost some of the respect I have for you.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Quick hits

a) CricInfo confirms what I had alluded to in one of my earlier posts - the Virender Sehwag - Gautam Gambhir duo is fast becoming one of the best opening partnerships in the business.

b) Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN interviews two of the Little Masters of Indian cricket (GR Viswanath being the original one) - Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. Read the entire thing. Sift through the mutual admiration that is evident all the way through, and there are quite a few interesting things in there.

For instance, Sunil Gavaskar says he never looked at the scoreboard, while Tendulkar admits that he does pay close attention to it.

Towards the end, Gavaskar repeats a recent plea of his to Sachin.
Gavaskar: (...) but what I will do is, not advise him, but I will make a plea - please regain the World Cup for us in 2011.

The set up

Reports of the demise of the Australian juggernaut are premature. Extremely premature. Ricky Ponting has won 33 of the 46 Tests he has helmed. Think about that again. Only Steve Waugh with 41 wins (57 Tests) and Clive Lloyd with 36 wins (74 Tests) have been more successful in the entire history of Test cricket.

True, this Indian team does not seem to be as intimated by the Aussies as some of the other squads are, but it would be foolish to suggest that the Aussies are done. Peter Roebuck writes that the Indians have passed the Aussies, and there is some truth to his arguments.
India are better balanced and stronger at the top of the order and from seven to 11. The great players are the weak point. It is quite a thought.
The problem with historic wins (of the 320-run kind) is that they distort one's perspective. Let's not forget that just 6 Test-playing days ago, the question on everyone's lips was whether India could survive the last day of the Bengaluru Test without collapsing to another defeat. Five days of domination should not swing the balance in the other direction.

Here's a sobering thought. Dhoni felt that he needed more than 500 runs to feel safe that the Aussies would not chase it down. Targets in excess of 400 runs have been chased successfully only 3 times in almost 1900 Tests. Surely, 500 runs were an excessive luxury (I am repeating myself for emphasis). I suspect that the Indian team knows best how strong the Australian team, sans all those greats (McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist, Langer, Martyn, etc.) still is. As long as Hayden, Ponting, Hussey and Clarke put on their pads, the batting is still strong.

It is the bowling that is weaker. Brett Lee does not even seem like swinging the ball except for a ball or two to start the innings. What happened to that brilliant out-swinger that surprised everyone, including me, when he threw it down at such a blistering pace? Mitchell Johnson is consistently bowling faster than Lee. There is something wrong about that. They lack that brilliant spinner, but then so does every other team except Sri Lanka and India. (With due apologies, Vettori and Panesar are more restrictive, than incisive, spinners).

Yes, the Aussies are down, but they are certainly not out of it. The Indian team was in a similar predicament before it went to Perth earlier this year. Australia had just won it's 16th Test in a row, and all signs pointed to an annihilation of India on the bounciest wicket in the world. Cast your mind back to that Test. India went in with a bowling attack that read - RP Singh, Irfan Pathan, Ishant Sharma (playing in his 4th Test) and Kumble. The fast bowlers took 14 of the 20 wickets to fall, and out-bowled the Aussies on their turf (Shaun Tait was so demoralized he even left the game briefly). Unheralded players can produce results given the right set of circumstances. Remember Shaun Udal?

Underestimate the heart of a champion at your own peril. I am sure that Australia will lose the series - India is, pound for pound, a far superior side - but I don't think it is a done deal as some people believe it is. I just hope that the members of the Indian team (yes, Harbhajan, especially you) do not start believing tales of their own superiority.

Luckily, India has two captains - Kumble and Dhoni - who are pragmatic and sensible. That, in the end, will determine the course of this series.

(Harsha Bhogle chimes in with a similar thesis in his column).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Que sera sera

It has been many years since one of my favorite Hindi movies - Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro - was released. I did not really appreciate the subtle nuances of this comedy until I watched it again a few years ago. Jabberwock (Jai Arkun Singh) goes back in time and describes his emotions while watching the movie again, 25 years after the fact.

You may think I'm shallow but my favorite scene is still the Mahabharat play.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man

MS Dhoni's ascendancy to the top of Indian cricket's totem pole is as surprising as it is uplifting. All kinds of articles have been written about the boy from the backwaters of Jharkhand making it to the Indian team and it is not going to abate any time soon. When he first came on the scene the long, streaked hair put me off and I dismissed him as a senseless slogger (so much for never judging a book by it's cover).

Then he scored 183, always referred to as the highest score made by a wicket-keeper batsman in an ODI. I remember it for something even more significant, but under-appreciated - it is the highest score ever made by a batsman while chasing a target in an ODI. However, I began to sit up and take notice when, in the very next match, he showed me that he was more than just a slam-bang type of player. He scored 45 not out in 43 balls with 1 four and 2 sixes, taking India to an easy victory over the Sri Lankans. But the numbers lie. Take a look at the way he scored the runs in the innings. The last two balls were hit for a six, with 12 runs required to win. Until then, he was patient, farming the strike and ensuring that there was no collapse. A thinking batsman hid behind the flashy exterior.

After that innings, I started keeping track of his batting, especially during chases. (I have previously blogged about it here and, in an earlier post, here). He has gone from strength to strength and is, currently, the #1 ranked batsmen in ODI's. I was surprised at his failures in Test matches and was hoping that he played them the way he played ODI's - looking to farm the strike and then opening up once the bowlers had lost some confidence. Based on the way he batted (and then later spoke about it) in the second Test, I believe he has come to the same realization. Bowlers everywhere - beware!

The CricInfo staff wrote a drool-worthy piece (especially for Dhoni fans) about the OCD of Indian cricket.

Anand Vasu, a fine writer who, in my opinion, does not write often enough, puts forth his views on the two Indian Test captains - Kumble and Dhoni.

On a similar note, Peter Roebuck chimes in, determined not to be left behind in the Dhoni bandwagon stakes, with a nicely written piece (no surprise there) comparing the Aussie skipper to the stop-gap Indian captain.

Continuing on this theme, Prem Panicker takes the CricInfo article referred to above, and continues on with his impressions of Dhoni.
This, too, is a personality trait that is yet to be tested under real fire—but this other thing? A calm, collected public demeanor? That’s for real, and that’s likely in the long run to prove to be his single biggest asset. Consider these two clips from the Cricinfo piece:

His 100% win record is safe but Dhoni isn’t shouting triumphantly from the rooftops just yet. “Playing [just] one Test and hitting a half century, you get an average of 50. So is the case if you hit a 100,” Dhoni said, moments after securing India’s biggest victory in terms of runs. “Your performance is counted over a longer duration of the game. I got my chance here but it was a team effort.”

Dhoni, however, has the Midas touch and it was summed up best when he asked the debutant Amit Mishra to go round the stumps in the last over of the second day. Mishra bowled an accurate wrong’un to trap Michael Clarke in front and one was reminded of the ploy to give Joginder Sharma the final over of the World Twenty20 final. But Dhoni, to the amusement of all present, only said, “Fluke tha yaar [It was a fluke].”

An ability to take the game seriously without taking himself seriously is invaluable.
On a final note, I just love this ad featuring Dhoni and Shah Rukh Khan!

Cricket links

1) Suresh Menon delves into the mystique of Sourav Ganguly in great depth in this well-written piece.

2) Here's an explanation for the 2nd Test defeat from an Aussie point of view, tongue firmly in cheek.

3) Peter Roebuck, who seems to get excited and write more frequently whenever an India-Australia Test series comes around, has his very simple, but eloquent take on the reason the Aussies lost. Look no further than the title of his article for the answer. I doubt that Ponting and Roebuck are the thickest of friends.

4) Andy Bull, on The Guardian's Sports Blog, discusses the balance of power at the top of the Test table and uncovers an interesting nugget that augers well for the future of Indian cricket.
More impressive still is the record of India's Under-19 team, which, almost unnoticed, have accrued a phenomenal string of results in recent years. Since 2003, in fact, India's Under-19s have won 57 out of 64 one-day matches and lost just one Test in 15.
5) Finally, the best piece of news I have had since the Indian win is this one concerning VVS Laxman's plans for next summer.


When Sachin Tendulkar crossed Brian Lara, a whole nation (and more) heaved a sigh of relief. Many articles written about the latest Little Master were dusted off and printed.

Here's Sunil Gavaskar's thoughts on the boy he called Tendlya. Of particular interest to me is the last sentence in the article.
And don't you dare call it quits until you have the World Cup for India in 2011.
Anil Kumble discusses the man behind the runs, ending with this thought about Tendulkar that does not surprise me one bit, especially considering some of the personal anecdotes I have heard about the person from people who have met him.
On a final note, while Sachin and I haven't had too many conversations over anything else but cricket, I've always admired him greatly.

The bigger they are...

The second Test match ended with a whimper. In a space of 4 balls, Zaheer Khan removed 3 of the five batsmen left at Australia's disposal. The rest of the proceedings had an air of inevitability to them, and took a little over an hour to finish.

When you consider that of the 11 Indians, at least 9 had major contributions (Dravid and Laxman being the ones that missed out this time), the victory is not that big a surprise. The key will be for the Indians to sustain it. India has not won back-to-back Test matches in the same series since 2005. There is no better time, and no better opponent than Australia, to rectify that blemish than now.

The choice of the Man of the Match was MS Dhoni, more for his captaincy than his batting, I believe. The future of Indian cricket is in good hands, for now. As long as he is winning, he is fine. He has to look no further than this Indian team to know that success (or failure) as a captain can have repercussions. In the Bengaluru Test, no less than 6 players had captained India at one time or the other in Tests -Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dhoni, and Kumble! Surely this team should not be bereft of ideas when the going gets tough.

There is a big gap before the next Test starts in Delhi. Enough time for the media to whip up a frenzy. I will weigh in on whether Kumble should participate in Delhi, as a bowler or bowler-captain, later. For now, I shall continue doing what I love to do whenever India wins a Test match - surf the web and read articles about the win.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Under the Iowan sun

The weather was gorgeous this past weekend and I took full advantage of it with a trip to a private woodlot in Iowa. Much fun was had. Further details to come soon. Until then, here's a few words...


For the 7th time in the last 8 innings, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir put on a a 50+ partnership. This time they kept going and going to the tune of 182 runs before Sehwag's conscience got the better of him and he got out. At that point in time Sehwag had blazed away to 90 runs off just 121 balls, uncharacteristically with just 8 fours. Gambhir was no slouch with the bat either, reaching 86 off just 115 balls, with 6 fours and a thundering six (a marginally better strike rate than Sehwag's, actually).

The startling (and refreshing) thing about their partnership was the willingness to look for ones and twos. Of the 182 runs scored by them, off just 39.1 overs, only 62 runs came in boundaries. In other words, they ran 120 runs between them, often stealing singles from under the in-fielder's noses. Ponting lost his temper at one point when Sehwag clearly edged the ball to the keeper but did not walk. Ponting was seen having a very animated conversation with Sehwag, asking him to walk, I suppose. Strange that the very same Ponting stoutly defended Andrew Symonds when he did not walk in the Sydney Test match. What's good for the goose has to be good for the gander, too, don't you think?

When Sehwag got out, MS Dhoni filled the breach and played the rest of the innings as if it were the middle portion of an ODI. Perfect. Then when Gambhir got out after a wonderful and richly deserved century, Sourav Ganguly came in to continue the left-right theme. All 6 of India's partnerships in this Test that yielded more than 50 runs featured a left-right combination. Do you suppose Dhoni reads my blog?

The Aussie innings began with the tempo of a gunslinger firing away his last bullets. Matthew Hayden was in a hurry. He was batting in a rage, it seemed, intent on bullying every ball to the fence. But 516 runs is a huge target to get and merely swinging for the fences would not get them there. There was more than a touch of desperation about the batting but Dhoni did not flinch. It would have been easy to spread the field and hope for a mistake but this man was borne out of a different mould. He threw the ball to Harbhajan, who immediately came around the wicket. Hayden went to sweep, missed, and was out LBW. A couple of balls later, Simon Katich drove without getting to the pitch of the ball and perished to a wonderful diving catch by Sachin Tendulkar (his 99th in Tests). After the tea break Michael Hussey went to pull a short ball that kept low, missed and was trapped in front of the middle stump. Australia's last hope was Ricky Ponting.

The two bowlers who have tormented Ponting the most in the past few years, since his ascendancy to the upper echelons of world cricket, are Harbhajan Singh and Ishant Sharma. Dhoni immediately brought Sharma back. What followed was a master class in bowling to Ponting, backed by imaginative captaincy. Ball after ball was pitched up, inviting the drive. Dhoni kept just one slip, but had a short cover and a short mid-wicket in Ponting's eyeline. Ponting likes to thrust his pad forward and bat around it, but the two fielders ensured that he did not bring his bat down with a full flourish. Having set him up, Sharma bowled an in-cutter from short of a good length. Ponting had thrust his pad forward, and the bat came down outside the line of the ball. The ball slipped through the gap, hitting middle and off, uprooting the off-stump, to trigger wild celebrations. I suspect the celebrations were just as wild at Mohali, too.

The score was 52 for 4, and Australia was effectively shut out of the Test match. A few overs later, Shane Watson departed to Harbhajan (3 for 3 at that point) and the Aussies had been reduced to thinking solely about survival. Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin pushed and prodded their way to the close of play, scratching around the crease, only occasionally able to stamp their authority with booming shots.

The pitch is still a good one to bat on, but the weight of the runs required and the overs still remaining will weigh heavily on the Australians. The Aussies know that it is possible to bat out a whole day against the Indians at Mohali - after all as recently as 2005 Pakistan got out of jail with a similar effort and the wicket-keeper was closely involved on that day, too. I saw that match, but the bowlers in this match are superior to the ones who bowled in that one (I am comparing their forms and skills, not overall career graphs) and I don't anticipate it happening again.

The Aussies will resist stoutly on day 5, but in the end will come up short. Way short.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The best form of defence

When Virender Sehwag had faced 30 balls in the second innings of the second Test match against Australia, an interesting graphic was flashed on the TV screen. At that point in time Sehwag had scored 22 runs, with only 3 balls having been left alone, and a further three that had been defended. The remaining 24 balls had been replied to with an attacking shot. A clear indicator of the fact that India was on the move, aggressive intent fully apparent. While the folks on TV were raving about Sehwag's attacking nature, the telling thing for me was this - at that point in time, Gautam Gambhir had played 36 balls, and was batting on 26. The Indian opening duo is not chalk and cheese when it comes to scoring. Gambhir is just as fast as Sehwag. However, their styles are enormously different. While Sehwag keeps his back foot anchored, preferring to stay beside the ball to give it a big thump, Gambhir walks across the stumps (reminiscent of Justin Langer) and shimmies to the pitch of the ball when needed.

Together the duo took the game further away from Australia, abetted by some curiously impotent captaincy by Ricky Ponting. When Brett Lee is charging in for the first ball of the innings and there is just one slip fielder with 4 men guarding the boundary it is obvious that damage control is foremost on the captain's mind. Ponting's thought was that if you dried up the boundaries, Sehwag would get impatient and get out. What he does not understand (or seems unwilling to believe) is that Sehwag gets antsy only if runs are not being scored by him. He is happy enough to milk single after single until he gets a chance to clear his shoulders and give the ball a fearsome thumping.

Australia began the day needing Michael Hussey to score big once again. Ishant Sharma made sure that did not happen. After multiple edges that fell short of the slip cordon, Sharma snared Hussey for 54, and the Indian's sensed a chance to wrap things up quickly. Into the cauldron stepped Shane Watson. He picked up four boundaries to an untenanted third man region early in his innings (I wish the Indians would keep a 3rd man for the entire innings without removing a slip fielder) and was very still at the crease, defending stoutly and putting away anything full or short of length. Playing in the IPL, where he was the Man of the Series, has given Watson immense confidence and he rode that to the tune of career-best 78 runs. Yet another batsman whose career-best is against India. He should have been out on 39 but for umpire Rudy Koertzen's largesse. The first ball of a new spell from Sharma thudded into Watson's pad just above the ankle in front of the stumps but Koertzen was unimpressed. On TV, Brendon Julian dryly remarked that Koertzen had gotten it right since the ball was clearly going to miss the leg and the off-stump! That's how plumb that was. Koertzen has made some egregious mistakes in the series and it is a matter of time before a howler will cause some furore. At least he has been an equal opportunity offender so far, unlike Steve Bucknor, impartially affecting both teams.

The day belonged, however, to another layer who has used the IPL as a launching pad to the Indian squad - Amit Mishra. He richly deserved the 5 wickets he picked up on debut - 2 LBW, 2 bowled, and 1 stumped indicating clearly that these were not wickets gifted to him by mistimed tailender slogs. When Kumble is fit, and that is the caveat I want to emphasize - that he is completely fit, he deserves to play ahead of Mishra, but until that is the case Mishra merits a spot in the playing 11. It is good to know that there is an able apprentice waiting in the wings. Mishra should not lose heart - I suspect that Kumble will not be around much longer - and at 25, Amit's best years are ahead of him.

But that is a question to ponder about after the match (or series) is over. I will not speculate on how many runs the Indians need before they declare or the timing of the declaration. Dhoni has played the fastest innings on the pitch and knows what target is attainable. The highest score ever made in the fourth-innings to win a Test match is 418. On that occasion, Steve Waugh gave the West Indies 200 overs to score those runs. They did it in 128. There are 180 possible overs left in this match (more realistically 165-170 going by the slow over-rates of the Aussies. On an aside, will they be censured by the Match Referee for this, I wonder?). India is 300 runs ahead right now. You can do the math and figure out what should be a good total to declare at.

I just hope that if one of the openers gets out on the 4th day, the incoming batsman is either Dhoni or Ganguly, depending upon whether the right-hander (Sehwag) or the left-hander (Ganbhir) gets out. Keeping the pedal to the floor and scoring quickly is imperative. So far in this match, India has had 3 century partnerships, and two over 70 runs. All 5 of them have featured a left-right combination. Coincidence? I think not!

The sooner the batsmen reach the target that Dhoni has in his mind, the more overs the Indians have to bowl out the Aussies. Once he reaches a big enough target, Dhoni can ensure that an Aussie victory is out of question, leaving him free to relentlessly attack without worrying about the runs being scored.

The Aussies are staggering. Can India deliver the knockout punch?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Language barrier

MS Dhoni tilted the balance of the second Test match towards India's favor with an inspired bit of captaincy, capping a brilliant day at the office.

The day began with a total of 450-plus beckoning. Anything less and the Aussies would feel they had been let off the hook. Ganguly played within himself, essaying the role that Dravid has played so many times. However, just after he got to his 100 he threw it away, needlessly throwing caution to the winds. MS Dhoni was blazing away at the other end, taking on the Aussies as they tried to bounce him out. Four fours and a six in the backward of square-leg region showed the Aussies that Dhoni was willing to take them on. In the company of the tail-enders Dhoni took the score to 469 before Rudi Koertzen got him out with a horrible decision that looked not out even as the Aussies were appealing for an LBW.

Anyway, Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma took out Hayden and Ponting, beautifully setting it up for Harbhajan Sigh and Amit Sharma to attack. Amit Mishra got a foruitous bounce to clean bowl Katich and the cat was among the pigeons. However, for India, there is a steel pigeon in the middle of the Aussie line-up - Michael Hussey. He survived two reprieves to steady the nerves in the Aussie dressing room along with Michael Clarke, who was playing an un-Clarke-like innings. The balance seemed to be tilting (not shifting just yet, but tilting nevertheless) towards the Aussies when Dhoni's captaincy broke through Clarke's resistance. More on that in a second.

I like Anil Kumble. I even like some aspects of his captaincy. But MS Dhoni is the better captain. More decisive, pro-active, aggressive, and constantly thinking ahead. Losing Kumble the bowler has been offset by gaining Dhoni the captain. When Katich and Hussey were at the crease he kept a leg gully for the former and a leg slip for the latter, effectively cutting off their favorite shot - the pressure-relieving single to fine-leg after walking across the stumps. He kept a short cover and a short midwicket in Ponting's eyeline, preventing him from thrusting his pad all the way down the wicket to negate the in-cutters of Sharma. With Dhoni captaining, there appears to be a spring in the step of everyone. Also, it is no coincidence that the over rate of the Indians in this Test is better than the over-rates of either team so far in the series.

But Dhoni's masterstroke was reserved for the last over of the day. Amit Mishra bowled three balls from over the wicket to Clarke. At which point Dhoni said, "Pair se dalna hai to is taraf se dal" (If you want to bowl on the legs, bowl from this side), gesturing round the wicket. Amit bowled another ball, a googly wide of the stumps from over the wicket. As soon as he collected the ball, Dhoni flung his left hand out and said, "Is taraf se dal" (bowl from this side, i.e. round the wicket). Dhoni then theatrically moved a fielder to leg gully as if to emphasize that the line was going to be outside the leg-stump. On TV, the commentators picked up on it, but Shastri was talking about bowling into the rough, a la Shane Warne. Mishra and Dhoni, while on a different plane of thought, luckily were on the same page - Mishra bowled a googly on the middle stump. Clarke had thrust his pad forward expecting a ball to pitch in the rough outside the leg-stump, and could not bring his bat down in time, and Asad Rauf had no problems adjudging him LBW. With that blow, the scales shifted firmly in India's favor. Maybe if Brett Lee, with his rapidly improving command of Hindi, was at the crease he may have been able to warn Clarke of the trap!

Australia still have a few batsmen left but I cannot see them surpassing 469 in this innings - India has 4 good bowlers to attack with. Even if India gets them all out before the follow-on is averted, I want (and I suspect Dhoni feels this way, too) India to bat again and put up a total beyond the reach of the Australians. Give them two days to bat out for a draw and keep a suffocating ring of fielders around the bat. Let's see how the Aussies respond when the shoe is on the other foot.

Dhoni is captaining his second Test and has shown no signs of a sophomoric slump so far. The future of Indian cricket is in great hands.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Growing pains

Amitabh Bachchan is an avid blogger. Much more regular than I am and I visit his blog every day. For a few days, ironically from the eve of his 66th birthday, he has not blogged (until yesterday) and the reason is known to anyone with access to a newspaper or television.

In a very revealing blog post (Day 472), Amitabh talks about the ordeal he went through. Read it here, and please read it fully. After an initial descriptive tone, the article begins to offer a much closer look into the man. If you ignore the fact that it is Amitabh who is writing this, you can almost see the makings of a haunting short story, with a kicker at the end. Wow!

The air up there

Sachin Tendulkar has scored more Test runs and centuries than anyone else. Tendulkar has also scored more ODI runs and centuries than anyone else. Naturally, anyone with a pen in hand and a column to fill will be toasting the little guy for the next few days. There are many such articles to pick from. Unless I see something really well-written I shall stick with these two (with Roebuck and Bal in the wings, if and when they do write something).

a) Harsh Bhogle muses about what Tendulkar has meant to India.

b) Aakash Chopra provides an insider's perspective on how Tendulkar prepares for the game.

Shadow boxing

The second Test began with a bang - literally - when Peter Siddle managed to pound Gambhir's hemet with his first ball in Test cricket. That was as good as it got for the next 80-odd overs for him, until he became the 18th debutant to bag Sachin Tendulkar as his first scalp. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Anil Kumble did everyone a favor by deciding to rest his shoulder for an additional week, giving up the reins to MS Dhoni. A fully-fit Anil Kumble at Feroz Shah Kotla is a much scarier proposition for Ponting than a half-fit player open to media criticism. Dhoni then did the Indians a favor by winning the toss and electing to bat. Sehwag got off to his (now customary) blazing start and then got out to a "strangler", a wide delivery down the leg-side that was tickled to the keeper. 70 for 1. By the way, this was the 6th time in the last 7 innings that the Delhi duo has put on an opening partnership of at least 50 runs.

Rahul Dravid came in, slowed down the scoring, as is the case with him, but did not get bogged down. After getting his eye in, he began to expand, and a Dravid not seen for a couple of years now began to emerge. Though he got out, chopping a ball he should have left well alone onto his stumps, Dravid showed enough to indicate that a big innings is around the corner. 146 for 2. Three balls later, Gambhir did not move his feet and edged to the keeper. 146 for 3. Another promising start for Gambhir, another wasted start for Gambhir. Someday he will have a conversation with Aakash Chopra and discuss the cost of not converting starts into centuries. If you are not one of the Fab Four these things are held against you by the selectors.

Tendulkar hung around, getting his bearings, while Laxman began to find the gaps. Just when it appeared that the tide had been stemmed, Mitchell Johnson bowled another "strangler", a wide delivery from over the wicket (Johnson is left-handed) that Laxman tickled behind for Haddin to pull of a very sharp catch, tumbling to his left. In the pavilion, long after he came back, Laxman sat quietly, glaring away at the ground as if he had lost a fortune there. And indeed, a fortune was what he gave away today.

Ganguly and Tendulkar then showed the previous batsmen what they had left at the table. Ganguly was the aggressor, while Tendulkar was content to pick up the ones and twos. It appeared as if Sachin had something on his mind. When he crossed 15, the relief on his face, and the commotion that followed showed what it was. Sachin contributed just 17 of the first 50 runs put together with the Bengali southpaw. Ganguly was on 32 when Sachin crossed Brian Lara. Once the mark was established Tendulkar began to expand his range. An on-drive, a square-drive, and a patented high-finish flick for boundaries showed us that the old Tendulkar was still among us, hidden for the most part, but still there. Going from strength to strength, Tendulkar became the first man to cross 12,000 runs, and a 40th century seemed inevitable when the great man showed some nerves. With about 2 or 3 overs to go before the close, Siddle was bowling with the new ball. Sachin was 20 runs from the century and it appeared that he wanted to get to the mark on the first day itself. The first ball was dispatched to the cover, high elbow and all. The next ball was inner-edged to the fine-leg fence. Three balls later, a wid-ish full ball beckoned and Tendulkar fell to the same trap that he had famously ignored during his 241 at Sydney 5 years ago. The ball flew low and fast towards Hayden's left ankle. Very calmly, the big man stayed low and collected the ball softly in his bucket-like hands and rolled over in joy. Mark Waugh and Warne have retired but the Aussies have not lost anything in the slip catching department with Hayden and Ponting.

Tendulkar's 88 was at least 112 runs less than I'd have liked to have seen from him. With that wicket the Aussies have inched back in the match. This pitch is one that demands a score of at least 450-500 in the first innings. Expecting the bowlers to hang around for a long time is a dangerous habit to get into, notwithstanding the fact that Harbhajan Singh has scored three consecutive 50's against the Aussies (wouldn't the Fab Four love to have that streak?!).

Ganguly and Dhoni have to take India past 450. The problem is that by sending in Ishant Sharma as a nightwatchman, we have effectively reduced one more tailender to play with. Hopefully, Ganguly can stick around till Dhoni comes. Anything less than 500 and I fear that Adelaide 2003, in reverse, may happen.

At the end of the first day of the first Test, Michael Clarke's dismissal put a spring in the Indian's step as they went in for the night. Tendulkar's dismissal did the same for the Aussies in this Test. The Aussies are slightly ahead right now, but another 100 runs with the loss of only a wicket or two will swing it heavily in India's favor.

I can hardly wait...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reading day

While waiting for the second Test match in Mohali to start, here are some of the links I have found interesting, of late.

1) Roger Ebert is, arguably, the most widely read/regarded movie critic in America. I regularly visit his blog and movie review page and have not found anyone else who writes a more coherent and thoughtful review than he does. We have differed in opinion a few times (notably for "The Ghost and the Darkness") but I tend to enjoy reading his reviews, sometimes more than the movies themselves. He has suffered a great deal in the past two years and this article documents what keeps him going in the face of such physical adversity.

2) A few days ago, before the India-Australia Test series began, Rohit Brijnath wrote what he called an elegy for the Indian veterans. I am not sure whether to call it an elegy or a eulogy. Either way, I think that tales of their demise are definitely premature. And why on earth is VVS Laxman being lumped into that category?

3) Harsha Bhogle talks about the merits and demerits of a Voluntary Retirement System for long-serving players.

4) I know, I know, I said that I would not bring up this topic again, but I cannot resist. Here's Simon Hughes talking about Graeme Hick's legacy.

5) The most fearsome fast bowlers I have ever seen (naturally on TV) were Malcolm Marshall and Imran Khan (circa 1982). Marshall is tormenting the angels with his wicked bowling while the Pathan is now a retired cricketer and active politician. In an extensive interview Imran Khan talks about cricket and politics. Articulate and not afraid to voice his opinion, this interview is a must-read. I wish more interviewees were as candid as Imran is in answering questions.

6) Peter Roebuck weighs in on the premier batsman of the last 20 years (and more), Sachin Tendulkar, as he sits on the verge of having his nose ahead of everyone else in the international run-scoring department. (The title of the article made me think of William Brown's lisping friend, Violet-Elizabeth Bott. By the way, I did not know until today that Richmal Crompton was a lady!!)

7) And finally, Prem Panicker wonders whether the lady (Anil Kumble) doth protest too much. I think he does.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Run, Forrest, run

Pictures can sum up one's sentiments really well. Look at the two photos,one of the Australian and the other of the Indians running between the wickets (courtesy of CricInfo).

The Aussies are 34 and 31 years old, the Indians 35 and 34, so it is not a matter of youth and experience. The Australians know that they cannot match the Indians on paper, so they look to maximize any advantage they have. They are fitter, better runners and fielders, and seek to drive home that advantage every time. The teams that take care of the little details invariably come out on top in the long run (no pun intended).

I understand that the contexts when the two photos were taken are probably different but having watched the entire match, I can tell you that these typify the efforts of the two sides.

(Thanks are due to AV for bringing these photos to my attention).

Crap-e diem

The first Test is over, India and Australia are still tied 0-0, and the Indian supporters can heave a sigh of relief. Three more Tests to go and the mighty Aussies will leave the shores. Hopefully, we can sneak in a win and take the series. After all, the Aussie team is the strongest in the world, right? They do have Hayden, Ponting, McGrath, Gilchrist, Langer, Warne, Martyn, Symonds, and Gillespie, don't they? No, wait, they actually have Hayden, Ponting, Clarke, Katich, Watson, Johnson, White, and Haddin, etc. in their ranks.

Before I continue further, take a look at this fantastic commercial by Nike, featuring Michael Jordan, the greatest performer under pressure I have ever seen in the sporting arena (along with Tiger Woods).

India did not sneak away with a draw in the first Test match. They clung on to it. Desperately. Like a one-armed man hanging off a cliff. An attack that reads Lee, Clark, Johnson, Watson, and White (don’t they sound like a law firm?) was able to reduce the batting line-up featuring names like Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, and Ganguly into defensive heroes. Where is that vaunted Indian batting line-up, that juggernaut that has evoked memories of another Fab Four?

The target was 299 runs in 83 overs, probably too stiff for a 5th day wicket and the downside (losing) was too much to bear after being under the cosh from the first day itself. (Because, when you are running uphill, no matter how close to the target you are, it still seems way above you.) My problem with the Indian chase was that they did not even try to go for it. The general consensus was that if Sehwag got off to his typical start then there was a chance. Huh? That’s it? One and done??? The strategy was so palpable that even the Aussie captain knew this – Ponting began with just 1 slip to Sehwag. Stop Sehwag and the Indian run-chase was done. It took a brilliant catch, that Hayden made look very simple, to get Sehwag at the very same position. Sehwag was attempting a flick, completed his stroke when the ball hit the back of the bat and flew low to Hayden’s left. Hayden, never taking his eyes off the ball, stayed down and picked up the ball with his fingers cradling the ball just before it was going to hit the ground. With that one catch, the Indian run chase was done!

Here was a chance to test the Australian attack (if you want to call it that). See what stuff they were made of. What would I have done? I would have held back Dravid and sent someone else in. If Gambhir got out first, I’d send in Ganguly. If Sehwag got out first, I’d send in Tendulkar (to maintain the left-right combination). With the clear instruction that they had to attack the target like it was a one day international. Ganguly and Tendulkar are the most secure players in the team in terms of having a place for the 4 Tests, so there is no pressure on them to fail, so to speak. Also, if it is very clear that they were going for the target, then a failure will be absolved as they would have been following team instructions (a simple statement at a press conference later on can clear up this fact). Australia had just one swing bowler – Lee. The rest of them hit the deck hard and look for seam movement. Wouldn’t it be harder for them to attack if they had to put 3 or 4 men on the boundary? And seriously, if after reading this the thought that goes through your mind is what would happen if the 4 get out quickly, then I want you to tell me why we make a big deal of the 25 or 30, or 40 thousand runs that the Fab Four have made? The Indian batsmen are fantastic players; a once-in-a-generation kind of fantastic. If given the license to go and attack they will find a way to do just that. India would have won the match or drawn with Australia clinging to a leg-stump, negative bowling line to slow down the run-rate. Wouldn’t that have been a great exhibition of the strength of our batting line-up and shown the rest of the country that the Aussies can be had?

Instead what we got was a defensive effort that only underlined what an innocuous attack the Aussies really had. Tendulkar and Laxman, between them, batted for a little more than 41 overs, scored just 90 runs, and are feted as heroes, only serving to further reinforce the negative mindset of the Indian camp. I like them both very much, and I was watching them with gritted teeth the whole time, willing them to survive, but I was mad at the Indian think tank for, pardon the pun, tanking the run chase even before it started. Tendulkar, the man who gave Shane Warne’s nightmares was unable to impose himself on Cameron White, making his debut no less, and even suffered the ignominy of getting out to him. Enough said.

India are the home team, with 5 batsmen who have scored about 40,000 Test runs, with two spinners who have taken more than 900 Test wickets, and three fielders who have collectively taken over 370 catches. The Aussies have one batsman who has scored more than 10,000 runs, another great who has over 6,000 runs. One bowler who has taken more than 100 wickets (Lee has 291), and their lone spinner was making his debut. And we are celebrating the fact that we drew the first Test?

Seriously, those that are afraid to win are indeed condemned to repeatedly fail.

P.S. I see that Prem Panicker has a similar view on this subject on his blog. He also adds a couple of other interesting tidbits along the way, notably one that concerns Anil Kumble's health, or lack thereof.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ticking odometer

It's the mileage, not the years.
Dr. Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark

From the far flung corners of the Indian cricketing empire comes the same cry of anguish - the Indian team is full of old people. Well, how true is it really? The numbers actually tell a slightly different tale. The two teams - Australia and India - are remarkably similar in age profile (see chart below).Additionally, what is striking is that the Indians have an enormous advantage in terms of experience. On paper, this should be a mismatch, right? Then why is India the team playing catch-up in the first Test after just two days? The reality is not quite so straightforward.

a) Look at the Australian side. Of the 11 in the team, only Stuart Clark can be considered to be a liability in the field. If Clark was in the Indian side, he'd probably be one of the shining lights! Ponting, Clarke, Watson, Lee, and White are world-class fielders. Matthew Hayden is as good a slip fielder as any in the game today, and the remaining players are no slouches in the field, either, who need to be "hidden". Contrast that with the Indians. Gautam Gambhir is the only one who even remotely resembles a spring chicken that can field. Dravid and Laxman are brilliant slip fielders, Tendulkar is a safe fielder especially in the outfield, but the rest are nothing to write home about. Forget the Aussies, I'd fancy my chances of pinching runs if I had to bat to this Indian fielding line-up.

b) "Experience" is a much-bandied about world, but over the first two days, the team that looked like it knew what it was doing was the Australian one. The Indians were in a safety-first mode. Aggression was non-existent. Singles were on offer throughout the day. The spin bowlers, the supposed aces in the pack, were supposed to be the overwhelming factor that tipped the scales India's way. There is plenty of time left in the Test to redress this balance, but with experience comes another baggage - the fear of failure. And the Indians have too many players under the gun to play with Sehwagian abandon. I hope I am proved wrong by them.

c) The first innings is already done, but I shall wager anyway that Cameron White, on debut no less, will have better bowling analyses than Kumble and Harbhajan (with over 900 wickets between them) put together.

Think of it this way, how many of you can say with 100% conviction that Kumble-Singh will outbowl White in this Test match? Can you? I cannot and that thought is putting the fear of all things holy and unholy into me.

Ruthlessly single-minded

The Australian cricket team knows how to twist a dagger. In a day full of engrossing passages filled with ebbs and flows of momentum, there were two constants. Michael Hussey was one of them. The other was the ruthlessly systematic exposure of the Indian fielding skills (or lack thereof), specifically Sourav Ganguly's. At the start of play, Ganguly was on the boundary. Every time the ball was hit to him, the Aussies scampered two, totally disregarding the strength of his throw. When Kumble brought him into the inner circle, at mid-off or mid-on, they routinely tapped it towards him and took off for a single.

Chris Berman likes to say, "One's a coincidence, two's a trend, three's a pattern." By the end of the day, the Aussies had left behind a path etched in stone - Ganguly as a fielder did not merit much respect.

Smart tactic this. Here's why: By announcing his retirement at the end of the series, Ganguly has basically ensured that he will play all 4 Tests. Even if he fails miserably, it will take a brave set of selectors to drop him. Therefore, the Aussies are going out of their way (and yes, if you watch a few minutes of coverage you can see that they are blatantly going out of their way) to highlight as many flaws of the man as they can. They are counting on the fact that nothing is more embarrassing than outstaying one's welcome.

The one thing in Ganguly's favor is that he plays best when his back is against the wall. Hopefully, he gets mad, rather than embarrassed, at the Aussies and bats them out of the series. A red flag has been waived in front of the bull. How will he respond?

The second constant on the second day was Hussey. How the Australian selectors ignored him until he had amassed over 15,000 first-class runs and already celebrated his 30th birthday is beyond my comprehension. (Frame of reference: Tendulkar has ammassed just over 20,000 first-class runs in his career to date). Hussey is in the Chanderpaul mode - assured, compact, and as deadly as he is silent. The Indians could learn a thing or two from him on how to farm the strike with the tail.

VVS Laxman's place in the side is in serious jeopardy. We sorely need a 5th bowler to cover up for the spinners. Kumble and Harbhajan will play on, even though their bowling is not good enough to merit a spot on the team right now. Of the batsmen, Dravid, Tendulkar, and Ganguly are not going to be dropped, so Laxman's head is on the chopping block yet again. Not for the first time, he will pay the price for someone else's failures. The ONLY thing that can save him is a century (and more) tomorrow. I shall be silently watching every ball, concentrating with him, willing him across that threshold.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Visible from afar

Ricky Ponting begins another series with a century. The newspapers are full of reports of how he has conquered his demons and has solved the Indian mystery. Sleep-inducing, really. I had predicted this a few weeks ago and watching him put together another century did not surprise me one bit.

Ponting is in that stage of his career where he is almost completely in control of what he wants to do. The only bowler to trouble him was Ishant Sharma. Ishant has come a long way, and hopefully, he will continue to keep going further. Do not get fooled by Ishant's career stats, his bowling is a lot more penetrative than that. Once Ponting survived Ishant (and yes, Ponting survived Ishant) the century was his for the taking.

For a few years, while Shane Warne prowled the scenes, the umpires began adjudging LBW's when the batsman was on the front foot, too. It appears that they have gone back to the old days again. There were at least two good shouts by Kumble that would have gone Warne's way. Sometimes, I wish Kumble would be more theatrical, like Warne was, full of oohs and aahs, and anguished looks at the umpire who had the temerity to refuse an appeal of his.

But I digress. The day belonged, front and center, to Ponting. I think it helped that he had to play 12 overs of fast bowling before the spinners came on. It settled him down. When Harbhajan's first ball was bowled down the leg-side, Ponting flicked him for a boundary and did not look back after that. He'll be disappointed at having gotten out as the Australians are not out of the woods yet. 254 runs in 90 overs is slow going, and they do not have enough runs on the board (yet) to make the Indians sweat.

As of now, odd as it sounds, the advantage is India's. But until they come back on the field for the second day's action, think about Ponting, and the fact that he is now within breathing distance of Tendulkar on the centuries list. A brilliant batsman at the peak of his powers. Australia's fate in this series rests on his shoulders. Beware Kumble!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A man apart

In the Pittsburgh Cricket Association league this year, there was a spectacular burst in the number of runs scored. Usually, 25 over matches are not conducive to big individual scores, but as many as 8 batsmen recorded centuries, and, incredibly, 48 batsman (in the 10 team league) made at least one score of 50 or more.

The shorter square boundaries and a completely benign pitch contributed to this run-glut and bowling on it was, truly, a nightmare. (The ICC would gleefully endorse the pitch for their ODI's, I am sure).

Even with all this run scoring, one person stood out. Not surprisingly, it was Sohail Chaudhry. On August 17th, he wrote a new chapter in his already PCA-legendary career. For years many of us have wondered what the ceiling would be for a Sohail inning where he batted the entire 25 overs. It turns out, we underestimated how potent he was. He finished on 232 not out, with 27 fours, and 13 sixes, against just 27 singles and 16 dot balls. It's not often that a batsman scores 80 runs in 31 balls and gets completely overshadowed, as Ajay Nayak was on that day. Check out the batting scorecard for this game against the Blitzers.

And, just for fun, check out the scorecard of the hapless bowlers. Sohail wasn't the only one to score a century that day!

Not surprisingly, he went through a mini-slump after that innings but recovered his mojo in the last game, where he scored 82 not out in just 28 balls, thereby locking up his third consecutive Champion Player of the League award, an honor he has achieved in every PCA season that he has been a part of!

Batting is indeed easy on the Edgebrook Field pitch but do note that Sohail's 232* is almost 60% higher (86 runs) than the next highest score (146*) ever made in the PCA league. To put that run differential into perspective, the corresponding highest score in Test cricket (as of today) would have to be 640 (to Brian Lara's 400*). No matter how weak the attack or how easy it is to score runs, this is truly a very remarkable feat.

And typical of the man, in the post-match huddle, the only topic he discussed was the fact that the bowlers gave up more than 200 runs to the Blitzers in their run-chase. To date, he has not spoken about the innings unless goaded by others to talk about it. Even then, the most you can get out of him are a couple of sentences.

Non sequitur

A constant source of amusement in these troubled times is's discussion board. After every article the web portal provides an avenue for readers to leave comments.

When it comes to cricket, the topic of the article does not matter one bit! Sometimes I think someone should just compile all these "discussions" in a book. Unintended hilarity has much to offer.

For example, check out this article and the ensuing discussion! While the topic is the appointment of umpires for the India-Australia Test series, the comments that follow have a life of their own.

I don't read Rediff for the news, I read them for the readers.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Table talk

Seriously, Roger Ebert, tell us what you really think of Senator McCain.

And while you are on the topic, let's find out your views on Governor Palin, too.

The genial gunslinger

Kurt Warner and I share the same number - 13 - on our sports jerseys. The similarities, however, end there. Kurt has worked his way into the role of an NFL quarterback with much more determination and humility than I probably would have shown.

Karen Crouse of the NY Times documents Warner's generosity and humble nature in this article.

Sometimes, good guys do finish first.

Untying the Gordian knot

The US economy is in trouble and numerous bail-out plans are being suggested.  While perusing Roger Ebert's site for movie reviews I came across this - an ingenious plan to help out the economy that seems very logical and mind-bogglingly simple.  I am not an economist, but I think this can work.  Can anyone more educated in money matters point out any flaws in this plan (please focus on the plan, not on the likelihood that it will be implemented)?
Ebert writes:

(...)"The Birk Economic Recovery Plan," by one T. J. Birkenmeier. I don't have any idea who that is, but it doesn't much matter. I am fascinated by the plan. See if you can find a flaw.

I will keep it simple. Here is Birk's reasoning: The bailout of AIG is said to cost $85 billion. Birk wants to distribute the $85 billion to all of us. Say there are 200 million U.S. citizens over the age of 18. That equals $425,000 apiece. Every adult would receive that amount.

That's when Birk got my attention. Alas, the payout would not be tax free. Assuming a tax rate of 30%, that would amount to $25 billion going to the U.S. Treasury. After taxes, every adult, including of course members of the military, would have 297,500 in their pocket. A husband and wife would have $595,000.

How would you spend the money? Birk suggests:

1. Pay off your mortgage ; mortgage crisis solved.
2. Repay college loans, or put aside money for college.
3. Place in savings, creating money for loans to entrepreneurs.
4. Buy a new American car, helping Detroit out of its crisis and creating jobs.
5. Invest in the market; capital would drive growth
6. Pay for health insurance. Your parents could pay for their own.

Birk's plan would cover even those who lost their jobs at Lehmann Brothers. "If we’re going to re-distribute wealth," Birk says, "let’s really do it, instead of trickling down the puny $1,000 economic incentive that is being proposed by one of our candidates for President.

"If we’re going to do an $85 billion bailout, let’s bail out every
adult U S citizen. As for AIG, liquidate it. Sell off its parts. Let American General go back to being American General. Sell off the real estate. (Lots of new buyers.) Let the private sector bargain hunters cut it up. We deserve it, and AIG doesn’t. And The Birk plan only really costs $59.5 billion because $25.5 billion returns in in taxes to Uncle Sam."

Colossus of different roads

The key batsmen in the upcoming Indo-Australia Test series will be the ones at the top of the order - Virender Sehwag and Matthew Hayden.

Hayden brings to the table an imposing physique and the tendency to dominate attacks even though he spends a big portion of his innings on the defensive. But even in defense he looks like he is attacking, simply because when he goes on the offensive there are very few batsman who can belt the ball harder than he does.  I am more scared of his batting than I am Ponting's.  If the Indian bowlers do not get him quickly, I fear we are in for a long series.  The last time the two teams played each other, he scored three centuries in three Tests.  

Virender Sehwag is the ultimate trump card - just as likely to get out caught at third man as he is to reach a triple century with a six. Not surprisingly, his career strike rate (runs per 100 balls) is a mind-boggling 77.45 in Tests (99.14 in ODI's). (Frame of reference: Sourav Ganguly's strike rate in ODI's is 73.70!!). Ironically, his slower innings have been the ones that have yielded less than 100 runs. Once he is set, Sehwag tends to motor along at well over run a ball. (For instance, his second triple century in Tests was scored off just 278 balls). Slammed by many foroften "throwing" his wicket away, Sehwag impresses me as the one player on the Indian team who plays to his strengths all the time. He is easily the Indian batsman most feared by the opposition today. And that is saying something when the others are Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, and Ganguly!

Peter Roebuck echoes similar sentiments in his latest column.

Freedom of expression

Some men just want to watch the world burn.
- Alfred Pennyworth, The Dark Knight
Shamsher's life was based around the news. Upon waking up, he immediately turned on the TV, scoured the Internet, and read every newspaper he could lay his hands on. He absorbed every news item looking for any sign of injustice meted out to (or by) a prominent person. Any insult, whether real or imagined, was filed away for immediate reference. You never knew what could trigger the next round of public outrage.

A dramatic increase in the number of media outlets competing for rating points worked in his favor. Now, every sensational item was beaten into the ground, with every media-person looking for that unique angle to grab a few more eyeballs.

The easiest way to stir up trouble was to use a part of a quote. Denials and apologies would follow in their own course, but the immediate spike in the ratings was worth the hassle. Stir up trouble, incite a few people (invariably, there would be a hitherto unknown group of folks aggrieved enough to vehemently protest the "injustice"), and let them make the newsbites for you - that was the new way of manufacturing scandals.

Burning effigies in public was the most visible way of expressing this outrage. No one knew this better than Shamsher. After all, his livelihood depended on it.

You see, Shamsher specialized in selling life-like effigies that could be burnt. And business was good.