Friday, December 17, 2010

What's eating Gilbert Grape?

Jacques Kallis usually scores at about 45 runs per 100 balls. A big chunk of the criticism directed towards Kallis, and a huge reason why he is not revered as much as his mind-boggling stats indicate that he should be, is that he tends to hold one end up and bats in a frustratingly sedate, single-minded, plodding manner irrespective of the match situation.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the very same Kallis blasting his way to a 130 ball century. One of the hopes I held out for the 2nd day was that the South Africans would bat slowly, scoring only about 270-300 in the day's play. Instead they motored along at more than 4 runs per over and are extremely close to batting India completely out of it.

Kallis was a revelation, looking to score all the time, almost reminiscent of Sehwag in one of his moods. I have never seen Kallis chase as many balls outside the off-stump as he did today. Time and again he thumped the ball, under-edged it, missed it or some combination thereof. Very quickly he put the Indians on the backfoot and left them wondering what exactly was wrong with the fellow. Could Kallis's resurgence, like Sampson's, be traced to the extra-thick hair he is suddenly displaying on his previously-balding pate? Surely not!

A few years ago, after Australia had nailed their "Final Frontier" under Adam Gilchrist's captaincy, Ricky Ponting came back to lead the Aussies in Mumbai. On a minefield of a pitch India defended a 4th inning target of just over 100 runs. Why do I bring that up? Well, during the 4th inning, Sanjay Manjrekar in the commentary booth said something that has struck with me ever since. On a wicket that is extremely responsive to spin bowling, a bowler should look to bowl flatter and faster as the ball is going to spin anyway and the less time he gives the batsman to guage how much it is going to spin, the better it is. Carrying on in that vein, he added this gem (I am paraphrasing liberally):

When foreign fast bowlers get to bowl on fast pitches like the one in Perth (or say Centurion), they get excited about the bounce they are getting and bowl a shorter length than they are typically used to. The home batsman are able to play on the backfoot and leave balls knowing fully well that they will not hit the stumps. The key on these pitches is to bowl a little fuller and mainly in the good length spots, allowing the natural bounce to cause discomfort to the batsman even as they lean forward in response to the length that the ball is being bowled at.

Today, all three Indian bowlers carried the shorter length bowling for far too long. It looked pretty to see the SAffers on the backfoot or leaving the balls but, in reality, the Indians were wasting the new ball. All they had to do was think of the way Steyn and Morkel had bowled the previous day and they would have known what to do. Having a plethora of South Africa-raised coaches is not enough, it appears. And I find it interesting that the "senior" players on the side did not appear to be talking to the bowlers about the length to bowl either. THIS is where Zaheer Khan was sorely missed. From his position at mid-on, ZAK has been the bowling captain for the past few years and nurtured his less-experienced compatriots through tough periods.

The weather is definitely not going to help India over the next 3 days, so we are left with the old-fashioned way - bat it out. Based on the way the SAffers bowled in the first inning I do not see the India team pulling it out.

The Indian team's best hope is that South Africa keep batting all day on the 3rd day, declaring only an hour before close with a lead of about 450 runs. That leaves India a total of about 200 overs to bat out the Test. If India bat close to 150 overs they will overhaul the South African total, leaving them with the job of surviving another 50 overs. More realistically, every run they score means more time for the Saffers to chase it down, hence the actual number of overs to bat out decreases with time.

Of course, if Kallis continues to bludgeon the ball, all equations will change. I am probably tempting Fate by bringing this up, but I shall say it nevertheless. Kallis has scored 38 centuries in Tests, yet his highest score is just 189. (His highest first-class score is just 200). Scoring large centuries is just not his style. So, historical data suggests that Kallis is not the one who will be leading the charge on the 3rd day. Lying in wait is Abraham Benjamin de Villiers.

The Indians are in for a leather hunt and statisticians worldwide are going to be reaching for the record books. And I'll be watching every ball of it. Yay for Saturdays!

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