Saturday, December 15, 2007

Down Under: Here we come !!!

So finally, Anil Kumble and his men are ready to go Down Under to battle the world champions in their own yard. While there may be understable hoopla post the series victory against Pakistan, the skipper would know better than anyone else the enormity of the challenge ahead. Even at the best of times, Australia is a tough place to tour. Now, with an ageing middle order and a not-so-great bowling attack, the Men in Blue (or Whites during the tests) should have to do something out of the ordinary to rattle the Aussies.

This is probably what the selectors had in mind when they took the Sehwag gamble. Evidently, memories of Boxing Day in 2003 are still fresh in their minds, and if Viru can play even one innings close to that, the selectors might be vindicated. But if not, then we would start off with problems right at the top. Jaffer has never played against Australia in tests (and since he is not in ODIs, he probably has never seen an Australian team on the field before !!). So, it will be expecting much of him to provide the good starts that we need to have the middle-order fire. He might still do it, in which case it will be a huge bonus (in fact, I believe Jaffer's performance might go a long way in deciding the course of the series !!). But by picking Sehwag, the selectors are sure to give a severe headache to Kumble on Christmas day, when he has to finalize the 11 who would walk out at the MCG. Whom does he leave out ??? If Sehwag is in the 16, then it does not make sense to leave him out of the 11. So Karthik gets benched. And then the wretched question: What abt Yuvraj ???. I saw his 169 at Bangalore and, while the bowling was pedestrian and the pitch benign, it still was a damn good innings (especially coming at 61/4). But, if he is to be picked, then who goes out ?? Dravid is too good a player to be left out, Sachin is in good form and is still our best bet, Sourav is in the form of his life while Laxman is being counted out on to score against the Aussies. It is going to be an interesting decision.

On the other hand, when it comes to bowling, Kumble has the opposite problem: Whom does he pick ??? Zaheer and RP Singh are sure to play if fit. The fourth bowler is the question: Harbhajan has played only 1 test in Australia so far and anyways, the pitches their wont require 2 spinners. But of the remaining three bowlers, Ishant Sharma and Pankaj Singh are raw and untried. Picking either of them is a gamble which no captain can afford especially when he is going in with only 4 bowlers (to understand that, Just look at Pakistan's plight at Bangalore when Shoaib walked off). With 4 bowlers, you simply cannot afford any bowler to lose his line and length, or worse still, be injured. And in my book, on Australian pitches, Irfan Pathan is only as good as the 5th bowler who bats quite decently and bowls 12-15 overs a day of line and length. My guess is that Kumble would play safe and go with Zaheer, RP, himself and Pathan and rely on Ganguly and Sachin to bowl those 12 overs. Either ways, never in recent memory would the selection of a final 11 of a Test match be so tough.

All the best to Kumble and his men !! I cannot wait for 26 December, 5.30 am !!!


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

In the evening of his illustrious career, one of India’s greatest cricketer finally gets the coveted hot seat. With his appointment as India’s Test cricket captain, Anil Kumble’s cap of achievements finally got that last golden feather. No one doubts that this honor should have been conferred to Kumble much earlier but ironically still, he had very few backers all these years, at least in the captaincy stakes. But then, this is how Anil Kumble the person is. He is not the one who would send a capacity crowd into frenzy with a flurry of sixes or with a 150kph bouncer. He is the practitioner of an art widely acknowledged to be cricket’s toughest: the art of wrist-spin. And there is no doubt he is one of the very best.

For a long time, the one word that was used to describe Anil Kumble and his contribution to Indian cricket was: ‘servant’. He was, and still is, thought to be a great servant to Indian cricket. And this was is in no way disparaging. He was always the behind-the-scenes worker while his more illustrious compatriots at the top of the order became Indian cricket’s poster boys or MTV’s Youth Icons or, indeed, Indian cricket captains. All this while, he went about his job with almost boring nonchalance. But he has had his fair share in providing Indian cricket with its champagne moments during the past decade and a half: his routing of England in 1992-93, his 6-12 in the final of the Hero Cup against the Windies in 1993, the unforgettable sight of him coming out with a plastered jaw to bowl in the Caribbean in 2002 (and trapping Brian Lara in front), one of the most romantic centuries hit by an Indian at the Oval a few months ago. And not to forget the crowning glory: the all-ten against Pakistan in New Delhi in 1999. But inspite of all this, he was hardly ever a captaincy candidate. Even now, he has got the job almost by accident. His Karnataka team-mate and predecessor gives up the job, another former captain declines a third shot at the captaincy and the natural successor for the job is thought to be too young to take over, especially with two big series round the corner. One can almost imagine the following scene: The selectors are at a loss to decide who the next captain would be. Then they look at the team sheet and see one familiar name. One of the selectors suddenly realizes that this guy has played 118 Tests without ever captaining in one of them. He suggests Anil Kumble’s name. The others look at each other with shocked looks that say ‘Why didn’t we think of him earlier?’ While this scene might sound exaggerated, this is largely how Anil Kumble’s career has played out.

But accident or no accident, Anil Kumble will accept this challenge, as he has accepted so many over the past 15 years: bowling on unhelpful tracks abroad, being expected to bowl India to victory at home irrespective of opposition and pitch,. And he would be the first to acknowledge that his appointment is only till MS Dhoni is deemed to be ready to take over. It would be refreshing to see a bowler captaining a cricket side. It brings a different dimension to the game, simply because bowler-captains have been so uncommon in the history of cricket. Indeed, Kumble is the first specialist bowler to captain India since Venkatraghavan almost 3 decades ago (Kapil Dev excluded). It would be really interesting to see how he handles the team, particularly his fellow bowlers in getting those 20 wickets required to win test matches, especially since the one complaint about batsmen-captain has always been that they do not understand their own bowlers. And for once, let’s not demand immediate results. Kumble’s first two assignments are probably the most toughest series: Pakistan at home and Australia away. Let no one be under any illusions as to the enormity of the task ahead. But for once, let’s put results aside. Let us applaud India’s new cricket captain on his long-deserved appointment and back him through thick and thin, just as he has backed Indian cricket ever since he made his debut as a 19 year old kid with spectacles in Old Trafford in 1990 (in which, he was promptly overshadowed by Tendulkar hitting his first test hundred).

For once, the servant has become the master !!



Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ian Chappell v/s Ian Botham

Here is some stuff on one of the most high-profile but lessser-remembered match-ups off the field...

Two ways of looking at it:
- It sad that two great cricketers should still harbour grudges against an incident that happened three decades ago..
- On the other hand, something like this today would certainly spice up the game.. ;-).. How abt Sreesanth getting into the act with some Australians later this year Down Under ????.. On seconds though, Sree will always give about 6 inches and 60 odd pounds in a physical match-up with the Aussies (and that does not include guys like Hayden n Symonds), so he is better off not attempting it :)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The need for change !!!

A lot has happened since that euphoric night of 24th September. The country first witnessed an unparalleled, and almost obscene, victory celebration in which politicans outdid each other, first in announcing cash prizes for the Men in Blue and then in trying to hog the limelight in the aftermath of the win. Oh, and not to forget the outcry it evoked from the rest of the sporting fraternity, and quite rightly so !!! (read my take on that). Then, in a mere five days after the win, the boys were back on the field, and that too in a gruelling 7 match ODI series against the World Champs (in the 50 over version). Given all that, I am not suprised that we ended second best.

Quite a few things have changed over the past month or so. And one man, in particular, would agree more than anyone else. From occupying the hottest seat in Indian public life (even the PM I suspect has a easier time) to suddenly finding no seat amongst the first eleven, life has changed dramatically for Rahul Dravid. I suspect there are two main factors behind this slide. The first are the doubts in Dravid's own mind. He is too classy a player even in ODIs to not be considered in any starting line-up (in tests of course he remains our best batsman and I pray that he does not carry over his current form to the tests against Pakistan and in Australia later). So he just has to get over the demons in his head and clear his mind. But he is not helped at all by the silly and outrageous cries from the public to drop the senior brigade from the team (which is the second factor). People have got so carried away by the T20 win that a fundamental difference between the 20 over and 50 over format seems to have been overlooked. In a 50 over game, there is always need for experience on several fronts: in seeing off the first 10 overs, gauging what is a competitive score if you are batting first, in juggling your bowlers as per the demands etc etc. So you still need the old heads on the field in the 50 overs. Sachin Tendulkar has been our highest scorer in the recent ODIs, followed by Sourav Ganguly (while Gambhir and Karthik have struggled) and that should put the case to rest. But while dropping all three is not the answer, neither is playing all three. This is where we are not doing a good job of change management. We have five major players in the evening of their careers (including Laxman and Kumble) and hence the need for a smooth transition is critical. A similar thing happened with Australia in 1984 when Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillie all said goodbye in the same test. For about 4 years after that, Australia were close to being the worst team in the world (dont believe me, then sample this; England beat them in the 85 and 86-87 Ashes, New Zealand beat them in 85-86 in Australia, and had it not been for the weather, we would have also beaten them 2-0 in the 85-86 series Down Under). But then the 1987 World Cup victory happened, and Aussie cricket has not looked back since. We dont have the robustness of the Aussie system to bounce back that well, and hence if the five of them leave at once, it will set us back a long time atleast in the Tests. Which is why I firmly believe that Sachin, Dravid and Ganguly should henceforth, never play in the same ODI. Having only the two will give one extra place in the batting order and there are quite a few knocking at the door (Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary, Cheteshwar Pujara etc). Not to mention the positive effect the infusion of youth will have in the field. And I am sure that some amongst them would be good enough to make the transition to test matches as and when the big five call it a day.

The way forward is neither one extreme nor the other. As with most other things in life, the truth lies somewhere in between. How well we understand that will determine where Indian cricket goes from here.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A (young) gentleman's game !!

The last two weeks have been a real spectacle in the world of cricket. The baby born on September 11th has not only learnt to walk and talk, but is in fact taking giant strides on its way to living and prospering with the big boys i.e. Tests and ODIs. Before the World T20 began, there were a lot of skeptics of the format, yours truly included. The apprehensions were various: T20 would make bowlers an extinct species, it would entice youngsters into slogging thereby hampering their development and, of course, the suggestion, rather unkind at that, that T20 is nothing but a 3 hour evening entertainment show rather than a contest between bat and ball. On most counts, T20 has proven everyone wrong. Although we have seen a lot of big hitting in this competition, hardly any has been of the shut-your-eyes-and-swing-the-bat variety. The bowlers have suffered quite a bit but there is plenty of evidence that the good ones (notably Vettori, Asif et al) will not only adjust to this format but also become the key men for their sides. Spinners have managed to hold their own against the marauders at the batting crease and in some cases have actually turned the match around. And most importantly, it has bought the crowds back to cricket, at least in South Africa where there was a significant drop in game attendances over the past few years. All in all, the World T20 Cup has been an unqualified success, converting even stalwarts of the old school of batting like Boycott into ardent fans.

And at the end of two-weeks of high quality cricket, we are left with two teams and the dream final: India vs. Pakistan. Not many, not least the organizers, would have thought of this lineup. But such has been the level-playing field that T20 has provided, very much in contrast to test matches. And the two finalists have every right to be there: Both have defeated the current World Champs plus another high-quality team (South Africa and Sri Lanka respectively). So this final match-up is no fluke. But for me, having two sub- continental teams in the final means a lot more than just a dream matchup (not to mention the artillery outside the field that goes with it !!). It is symbolic of the way the T20 format has opened up new and exciting possibilities in the game of cricket. For years, Indian and Pakistan were thought of as having a bunch of very talented cricketers, but the word ‘team’ did not fit in very well alongside them. But the advent of a new form has changed things around: for starters, both teams left out their senior players. They were quick to grasp what T20 was all about and invested in youth. A bunch of first-timers were pushed onto the world stage and they have delivered, whether it be Misbah-ul-Haq, Sohail Tanvir or Rohit Sharma. Both teams have young and new captains with fresh and aggressive ideas, ideally suited to this format. And most significantly, the T20 format has cleared the cobwebs in the mind and has unleashed the raw striking talent that cricketers from our part of the world have. While I have been awed by each of the dozen-odd sixes that Yuvraj has hit so far, what has struck me even more than he is playing with a very clear mind. He is no more wondering whether to attack or keep wickets intact, to go over the top or keep it safe along the ground. T20 teaches you to play in only one style: your natural style. And the natural instincts of Yuvraj Singh have finally come out in gay abandon. And yes, I will go as far as to say that this has been the cleanest hitting (no slogs mind you !!) that I have seen in my two decades of watching cricket. And the running between the wickets has also been the best I have seen from the Men in Blue for a long, long time. The concoction of youth, natural talent, energy, fearlessness and T20, of course, makes for a very intoxicating drink indeed !!!!

So irrespective of the result on Monday, there is some evidence that it will be these kind of players and teams that have them who will lead the world in dominating this brand of cricket. The rest of the world would do well to see the signs. Win or lose tomorrow, both India and Pakistan will leave South Africa two steps ahead in their understanding of this fine game.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

New-age Cricket !!!

We are entering a new age in cricket. Cricket’s latest avatar is taking the world by storm. Started just about 2 years back, it has got everyone’s attention like nothing else before. Already, the ICC deems it worthy of a World Cup (remember, the 50 over format had a low-key WC more than a decade after the limited-overs game was introduced in England). And to follow that up, four of the world’s richest and most influential cricket boards have joined hands to create an ‘official’ Twenty-20 international league, much on the lines of the Champions League in European football. I suspect the dynamics of world cricket are going to be altered fundamentally in the years to come.

So what is it about T20??? The first word that is usually associated with T20 is ‘fun’. Talk to about half the cricketers about the new baby, and this is the word that you would find in their first sentence. Yes, it is very much about fun, primarily for the spectators. A game that is done and dusted in three hours is ideal to take your family and friends out to on an evening after work. The innovators have also made some smart moves to ensure more activity and fun for the players. The ‘dressing room’ has been bought on to the field (you surely wont find anyone dressing thereJ), so that the tensions and tactics of the games can be seen by all. The new batsman pretty much sprints to the wicket or else he is timed out. And not to forget the cheer leaders entertaining the crowd after every boundary or wicket. There is a definite carnival atmosphere to this format of the game. For the organizers, this attracts newer segments of the population to the game which hitherto had stayed away from game because of its slowness and excessive length. It is truer in England than anywhere else, where the overwhelming success of the format has resuscitated the game in the counties. It is therefore, without a doubt, a win-win both for the authorities and the spectators.

But what about the players? I saw the first game of the World Cup and the frightening manner in which Gayle and Gibbs murdered the bowling put me off a bit. I have always been an advocate of an equal contest between bat and ball, and that game did not do the bowlers any favours. Thankfully though, the other games have seen more of a level playing field, with the India-Pakistan contest being a real classic to rival any ODI or Test match. Still, the T20 format inherently favours the batsmen. Here, they have the license to go for the big hits from the first ball without too much worry about wickets (you have to be really ordinary to lose 10 wickets in 20 overs !!). Infact, after the first game, I thought that having only 8 batsman bat (i.e. maximum of 7 wickets only) might be a useful thing to try out. The pitches and conditions in Durban and Cape Town have favoured the bowlers a bit, which is why you see first-innings scores of 130-150 rather than 200+. This makes for a much more interesting game. But these pitches are the exception rather than the norm, and therefore, expect the bowlers to suffer a lot more in T20. This needs to be addressed sooner or latter by the ICC. That apart, this World Cup looks set to be a great success and the T20 format would sooner or later be the primary format of cricket played over the globe.


Friday, September 14, 2007

End of series but start of a journey...

A lot has happened in the week since my last post. India have finished the one-day series in England with mixed success, the World T20 Cup has taken off in spectacular fashion in South Africa, almost simultaneously, 4 of the biggest cricket boards in the world have united to form an ‘official’ league of the Twenty20 format. And today comes the news that India’s cricket captain has abruptly decided to step down from what arguably is one of the hottest seats in Indian contemporary life.

We can look back at the 7-match ODI series with a mix of positives and negatives. However, when seen with a long-term perspective, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. The batting did mostly fine, but the best batsmen in the series are all above 32 and are approaching the evening of their careers. It is upto Yuvraj and Dhoni to take over the mantle of the batting through the next few years. They, hopefully alongwith Sehwag, would be the fulcrum around which the next generation of talented batsman can build their careers. It was good to see Utthapa succeeding at the The Oval, this will hopefully go a long way in his development as a decent international cricketer. For the team management, now is the time to keep on blooding new guys in the one-day team. In fact, I would even suggest a rotation policy where one of Sourav, Sachin and Rahul is rested in every match and fresh talent is given a chance. To take it further, if Sachin were to retire later this year as reported, not only would it be a fitting end to a great career and would also pave the way for Gen-Next to make their mark. Coming back to the series, the bowling and fielding looked pretty ordinary though. Apart from Zaheer and Powar, the others were too inconsistent (although Chawla has a good future ahead of him). As for the fielding, we really need to improve our standards (as mentioned in the previous post) to be able to compete with top international sides. To sum up, the series provided us with quite a few lessons. Hopefully, we will be good learners and take two steps forward in our journey towards the next World Cup and beyond.



Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Warnie's final googly !!!

The irresistible Shane Warne has done it again. After getting 708 victims on the field with that mesmerizing mix of flippers, googlies and leg breaks, he has now delivered yet another googly that has left many stumped. And he might have got a few ‘wickets’ in the process as well. His list of Top 50 cricketers (cleverly executed as a daily countdown of 10 each) was bound to raise some eyebrows and, of course, a lot of controversy.

I see no reason why any rankings/ratings/list should generate any controversy. But cricket has a history of having too many such ratings and, not surprisingly, lots of controversies to go along with. Remember the Wisdens top 5 players of the century and how we were shocked at seeing Sachin out ?. Ratings and lists are no more than opinions of either individuals or panels, who are helped by their own vast experiences of playing, commentating or writing about the game and also by the enormous statistics available at their disposal. But finally, they are still opinions and therefore, bound to vary. But in Shane Warne’s case, what is very obvious is that he has allowed ‘non-cricketing’ issues to creep in his judgement of his Top 50. I wonder what Steve Waugh will tell Warne the next time they meet. Waugh at No. 26 cannot be a pure cricketing opinion. Warne defends the rating on two counts: a). Waugh being a match-saver than a match-winner b). he being handed a great time by Mark Taylor. Somehow, I find it hard to buy that. While the second argument might be true, and Taylor also was a better captain that Steve, it was under Steve that the Aussies developed that ruthless streak of winning matches (remember that 16-Test winning streak ?). Therefore, to brand Steve Waugh as a defensive captain is baffling. He might not have been one of the greats entertainers as a batsman and that might be where Warne is coming from. But, all said and done, Waugh at 26 is too hard to digest. And yes, there have been enough theories going around in the past few days to account for that, which I find hard to shun.

Some other Australians also seem to have got the advantage of being part of a great team. Brett Lee ahead of Donald and Pollock seems too biased. So does Darren Lehmann. Six Indians find a place in the 50 (most after Aussies and English), which is testimony to the hard-fought Indo-Aussie rivalry over the past decade or so. But even there, Laxman has reason to feel aggrieved, having tackled Warne with almost as much distinction as Sachin and Lara. And Dilip Vengsarkar, though a very fine player overall, finds a place even though he would have faced Warne in only 2 tests on that 1991-92 tour, where neither performed with much distinction.

Finally, as one of the letters in the English newspapers said, Shane Warne has a right to name his own children, so why not his Top 50 ? All we need to acknowledge that these are no more than opinions of one man and live with the baggage of non-objectivity that comes along with it. Read it, chuckle and forget it rather than spending hours debating on captaincy rifts.

PS: Here is a good article by Tim De Lisle on the selection

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Great Indian Team Balancing Act. !!

India's woes in the ongoing one day series in England are very much evident for all to see. The defeat at Old Trafford must be especially demoralizing, because when you have got the opposition on the mat at 114/7 with another 100 to get, you expect 9 out of 10 times to finish the job. Sadly, that didnt happen and instead of a 2-2 scoreline (which would made the last 3 games potential classics), we are down 1-3 and wondering where the next win is going to come from.

Coming to the issues that plague the Men in Blue, while they are embarrasingly obvious, there is no quick-fix to it. The 2 most burning issues are: Fielding and Team Balance. Ground fielding has been India's achilles heel for years now. While we may be good at catching, covering the outfield and sending good returns in is an area where we are, quite literally, few yards behind the rest of the world. Recently of course, we have got the best man for the job. Robin Singh not only was one of our best fielders, he also was a classic example of sincerity and hard work. And that is what is needed in fielding. Not great skills or even speed, but just hours of hard practice put in. However, he needs to work with the youngsters in the team, possibly even the Under-21s. I dont see what improvements Robin can bring about in, say, a Ganguly or a Dravid, because you get the passion for fielding at 17, not at 34. But hopefully, give Robin enough time and he will give some results.

The problem of balance arises because, as Harsha Bhogle put it so succicintly, "bowlers cant bat and batsman cant bowl !!". We are comfortable neither with the 7-batters nor the 5-bowlers and keep shifting from one strategy to other. Thats where the all-rounder and utility players come in handy. In fact, I have put together a summary of the strengths of each of the curent members in each of the three departments and the sum of the scores is what they bring to the table. The sheet reads as follows (note that the numbers are based on current form)

Bat Bowl Field Total
Ganguly 7 5 5 17
Tendulkar 8 5 6.5 19.5
Dravid 8.5 1 6 15.5
Gambhir 6 0 6 12
Karthik 6 1 7 14
Yuvraj 8 4 8 20
Dhoni 7 0 6 13
Agarkar 5 6 7 18
Zaheer 4 8 5 17
Chawla 5 7 6 18
Powar 5 7 5 17
RP Singh 3 7 5 15
Munaf 3 7 2 12

One look at the sheet and you realize why Yuvraj and Tendulkar are India's MVP in one-dayers. They contribute in all three departments. Agarkar, inspite of his rotten bowling form, should be in the side on most days while youngsters like Chawla should be groomed carefullyl. Those below 15 should consider at improving another aspect of their game to make themselves a saleable proposition in the limited overs game. On the other hand, there is also the danger of picking too many bits and pieces players. England and West Indies used to do it in the past but without much success. My own theory is that you have need to have a minimum of 3 very good batsman, 3 very good bowlers and a good wicketkeeper-batsman (say 8 and above). If anyone of these contributes in the other department, thats a bonus. The remaining 4 can be utility cricketers. And needless to say, most should be atleast 7 or more on the field. For India, this remains a distinct dream. Two guys currently out in the cold need to do what Dada did in 2006 and come back better players. We need Sehwag and Pathan back as more fitter players and also, with their heads clear. They are going to be crucial over the next few years.

In the past, a very close association of India was with the Great Indian Rope Balancing Act. We need a Great Indian Team Balancing Act now !!!