Friday, November 6, 2009

The heart wept yesterday....

The heart wept yesterday. Not for our country, but for our hero. And unless it was out of sheer exhaustion, I doubt if Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar would have slept yesterday. He is a fiercely private person and in his own private world yesterday night, I suspect he would have reflected on a lost opportunity and maybe, silently shed a tear or two.

Being Sachin Tendulkar would be many times more difficult that all of us can imagine. The man cannot step outside his home for fear of being mobbed by millions of his devotees. And yet, amongst those millions, there is an extremely tiny minority of churlish fans who hold that ultimate grudge against him: he does not perform in high-pressure run chases and take his side to victory. No matter what the statistics might say, this has always been held against the maestro, just like a one-inch long scratch in a corner of a Van Gogh masterpiece. And while Sachin is above all this and hardly needs to respond to any of this mindless chatter, he would certainly have been aware of this (so-called) missing jewel in his crown. And yesterday it all seemed to be finally coming together. The man was batting in a different zone and was well on his way to taking India to what would have been the second highest successful chase in ODI history (behind only that incredible 437 chased by South Africa). And the icing on the cake was that Sachin was well on his way to becoming the first man to score an ODI double-hundred (atleast until Jadeja hit those couple of boundaries). And can you imagine what a fairly-tale ending it would have been ? India 351/6, Sachin 201 not out !!!. In an instant, he would have risen another level in the stratosphere, much above all of us mortals, including the churlish minority. In an instant, he would be permanently abolished any lingering doubts held by anyone about his batting greatness even that the age of 36. In fact, had he been of the emotional variety or of the Sunny Gavaskar school of thought, he would have had half-a-mind to announce his immediate retirement !!!. And while all and sundry readily acknowledged that the 175 was one of the greatest innings of all-time, there is little doubt that 201 not out would have made it THE greatest of all time.

Alas, it was not meant to be that way. And that ill-fated paddle sweep has made its way into cricketing folklore, ranking up there with Gatting's reverse sweep. Only that Gatting's folly impacted the World Cup, while the paddle sweep has meant that a legend, a batting God would still need to live with that finger pointing towards him. Yesterday was one of the great tragedies of sport. Which is why the heart wept yesterday..... :(

~ Amit

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What now for Team India ??

So in the end, the miracle did not happen !!. Australia squeaked home with two wickets and thus marched into the Champions Trophy semi-finals and in doing so, dashed the hopes of millions across India. Not that the hopes would have been too great, since an honest Indian fan will admit that India got out of jail on Monday, saved by the thunderstorm that hit Centurion. Therefore, Indian fans had no real business wanting Pakistan to win. Our team was clearly not amongst the top four teams in this competition and hence are on their way back.

And once they do come back, Dhoni and co. have some thinking to do. Hopefully, they would not walk into a more-than-neccessary adverse reaction. The team at an overall level are still amongst the top four teams in world cricket and they were missing three of their main ODI players. But the fact remains that for the second time in four months, India have failed to qualify for the last four in a major ICC event. Shades of South Africa anyone ? Hope not !!!

Two questions will be uppermost on the minds of Dhoni and the selectors when they meet to select the team for the next (meaningless ?) ODI assignment - 7 ODI's against Australia starting October 25th. The first would be the vexed question of what to do know with Rahul Dravid ??? He was recalled after seeing the young brigade jumping like a cat on a hot tin roof in the T20 World Cup, in the expectation that pitches in South Africa would be similar in nature. Instead, what we encountered were slow turners, first in Sri Lanka (expectedly) and then in Centurion (not so expectedly). And our man has managed returns of 14, 47, 39, 76 and 4. Not bad at all, though some people can still be harsh on him in saying that the 76 could have been scored slightly quickly. But now the question begs, what next with him ? Do we again push him back in the ODI wilderness (especially once Sehwag and Yuvraj are back) or keep him until he calls it a day on his own terms. It seems that the former is the more distinct possibility. I guess when the throw hit the stumps directly some time back (in the game against the Windies), Rahul Dravid himself realized that he had ran himself out of the Indian ODI squad. And that would be a sad end to the ODI career of one of India's best servants.

The other question is that of the pace bowling. Ashish Nehra apart, the rest looked plain ordinary in South Africa. Zaheer was, of course, missed but the form of Ishant Sharma is worrying. His honeymoon is clearly over and, given his limited batting and fielding ability, some time away from the ODI team might do him a world of good. With RP Singh also struggling, the pace bowling cupboard looks bare again. Sreesanth must be seeing the Indian team recall closer than ever. When it comes to spin bowling, things are not that better either. We need to develop an alternative to Harbhajan, and the ODI version might be the best place to start. Mishra performed creditably in the Australia game, but we need others to step in. Piyush Chawla faded away after some promise, but the boy has age on his side and must be persisted with. Ditto with Pragyan Ojha. Its time that Bhajji is rotated along with the other spinners in the ODIs and T20. And of course, our search for that successor to Kapil Dev continues !!! First Agarkar, then Irfan Pathan and now Yusuf Pathan. But like a mirage, that dream keeps running away from us.

So it is quite a task for the selectors. And just to put myself in their boots, here is my 14 member squad for the Australia series (assuming Yuvraj and Zaheer not fit till then):

Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar (to be replaced by Yuvraj when fit), Suresh Raina, VIrat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, S Badrinath, MS Dhoni (C and WK), Abhishek Nayar, Ashish Nehra, S Sreesanth, Praveen Kumar, Amit Mishra, Pragyan Ojha

Of course, performances in the Challenger Trophy starting October 8th can change the above !!



Monday, September 28, 2009

Drama galore in the Rainbow nation..!!

So the Champions Trophy is a week old and before you know it, it will be over as well !!!. In my previous post, I mentioned the importance of the CT in preserving the 50-over game. On the evidence of the eight matches so far, it has certainly been successful in doing so. And maybe there is a lesson there for the ICC. Short tournaments (involving only the best teams in the world) being held regularly (maybe every year) might be the next big thing. In fact, it was widely believed that this would be the last CT. I guess that is no longer certain now. Who knows, the ICC might just schedule one next year !!!.

And the cricket in South Africa has been of quite a decent standard. The results have been nothing short of shocking. The hosts have, yet again, been found wanting in a home event. The team that was virtually written off before the tournament started as a second string side have performed quite creditably. And another team that lost six of seven games in the last fortnight has suddenly become the team to beat. Maybe this is England's best chance of bagging its first ever ICC ODI title. The fate of the other two favourites, India and Australia hangs in the balance, with both of them facing off in a virtual QF later today. All in all, no one can be certain who will be holding aloff the trophy come next Monday at the Centurion. And that is just what the doctor ordered for the fifty over game.

To add to the exciting cricket has been the drama. The latest incident being Strauss's refusal to allow his opposite number, Graeme Smith, a runner during the late stages of Smith's epic 141 yesterday. While many have lambasted Strauss (no doubt taken in by the high emotion surrounding Smith's heroic effort), I am on Strauss's side. This incident also brings into focus the particulary thorny issue of having a runner in the first place. The reason I agree with Strauss is that cramps do not constitute an injury. Wikipedia defines cramps as 'unpleasant, often painful sensations caused by contractions or over-shortening of muscles.. and excessive dehydration'. Hence cramps are the natural side effects of spending hours on the fields, first fielding and then batting for virtually the entire innings. Therefore a runner should not be allowed for pure cramps. Much as I salute the effort of the South African captain, I do not agree with a runner to be given to him. And the on-field umpires have the final say in the matter, not the fielding captain. Hence it is time that the on-field umpires arrive at a general consensus on when should a runner be allowed (in my book, it should be only in the case of leg injury sustained during the course of play (hence, I am not sure if, earlier in the day, Ryder should have been allowed a runner as well - It seemed he came into the game with the hamstring problem).

Nevertheless, the CT is gearing for an exciting finale !! Hope the last few matches give us an even better spectacle and make this fortnight a time to remember !!.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

The test of the ODI format !!

A new season has begun for the Men in Blue (now-a-days just a few days rest is enough to distinguish between two seasons !!) and they start off, like they seem to do quite often, by playing ODI's in Sri Lanka. And playing day-night matches at the Premadasa means that the most important moment of the match happens before the first ball is bowled !! Have some decent spinners in your side and call right at the toss, and you have done more than your bit :). Then back your batsmen to score 300 and only an outrageously good batting performance by the opposition (or some really poor bowling) will get them home. Yesterday, Dhoni was on the receiving end at the toss, maybe he needs to practice tossing the coin more than batting or wicket-keeping before the final tommorow.

After that, Dhoni and boys go to South Africa for the Champions Trophy. On most occasions, this would have been the show piece event of the year (and I am so glad that it will be telecast on ESPN Star, with Harsha and gang in tow). But with the ICC T20 World Cup and the Ashes having just concluded, the tournament has been relegated to the back stage. To add to that is the raging debate about the existence of ODI's itself. The fifty over game finds itself squeezed on both sides. Above it is that purest of forms of cricket, the five-day game. The connoisseurs delight, Test match cricket will always live on since it is highly regarded by both the players and administrators alike. And with contests like the Ashes and Indo-Australia still delivering rivetting cricket, it is still a economically viable proposition, atleast in some parts of the world. Below the ODI format is that brash young upstart, the T20 format. In a little over six years since the first such international game was played, it has taken the world by storm. So much so that we are seeing the unique spectacle (possibly unparalleled in any other sport) of World Cup tournaments in successive years (April-May 2010 will see the teams gathering in the Carribbean for another few weeks of slam-bang cricket). The blockbuster that brings in the moolah, it is inevitable that T20 will soon overrun the ODI format, both in terms of its prominence and popularity. So with both the other formats squeezing it out of the spectator's imagination, where does ODI cricket go from here ?

The events in South Africa from Sept 22 to October 5 will go a long way in providing the answer. ODI cricket, in fact cricket in general, badly needs a good Champions Trophy. And the format could not have been better. Only eight of the best teams (disregarding the plight of the West Indies), only 15 matches, no Super-6's or Super-8s and the whole tournament done and dusted in under two weeks !! It promises action for the entire duration of the event, unlike the 2007 World Cup where most matches of the early round were an exercise in futility. I for one, cannot wait for the long weekend starting September 26th, with India taking on Pakistan that day and then the Aussies two days later (on Dassera day !!)*. It is going to nothing short of a treat !!. But a word of caution. Irrespective of how the Champions Trophy pans out, the ICC urgently needs to bring some innovation to the game. To be fair to them, they have tried quite a lot. The Super-Sub rule, though excellent in theory, was badly executed (the super-sub should have been named after the toss). Now there are still more changes being thought of. Two innings of 25 overs each is the latest and Ian Chappell also mentions a few more in his article on Cricinfo. The ICC needs to implement the best ideas in a better manner in order to revive spectator interest in the 50 over format.

Till then, lets hope that we see some really good cricket in South Africa and may the best team win !!


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some good lessons to be learned !!

Back again on this blog after two months !!! And two months of non-stop T20 cricket, first with the IPL and now with the World T20. And for MS Dhoni, life seems to have changed quite a bit in these last two months. In mid-April, he returned with the Indian team with a test series victory after 41 years. He was being hailed in the media as the best Indian captain ever (starting with the 2007 World T20 victory, the CB Series truimph in Australia followed by ODI series victories in Sri Lanka, test series wins against Australia, England and New Zealand). But as Indian hopes in the World T20 faded (in tandem with the mid-summer days sun setting on London on Sunday), there were already calls for his head !! How things change !!!!

But I have been pleasantly surprised to see the T20 game develop over the past two months. In South Africa, against all expectations, we saw the spinners coming into their own on the late-season slow tracks there. A species of cricketers thought to be cannon-fodder for the rampaging willow-wielders suddenly became a potent weapon. Even part-timers like Jean Paul Duminy began to bowl 4 overs in most games, keeping the runs in check and taking important wickets. Now, on fresher wickets in England, it is raw pace and aggression that has become important. And the Indians, quite plainly, have been found out.

So the first important lesson for the Men in Blue is that raw pace (accurately directed, of course, else Brett Lee would not have suffered so much in the Gayle-storm) will always remain a weapon in any form of the game. Make no mistake, more than anything else, it was the surprise that both West Indies and England threw up in the form of chest high balls that did India in. Our top order, already missing a prolific cutter and puller in Sehwag, simply did not have the practice and experience in handling such pace and fell easy prey. So it is back to the drawing board for Raina, Rohit and co. and one hopes that Gary Kirsten, with all his experience and skill in handling opening bowlers, will fix up that lacunae soon.

Another important lesson to be learnt is in the team selection itself. In the last two games the bench strength was: Ojha, Karthik, Praveen Kumar and Irfan Pathan. None of them a top-middle order batsman. After Sehwag was ruled out, it suddenly turned out that the Indians had not selected a back-up batsmen in their squad of 15 !!!.. And even then, the selectors had no one to turn to and finally settled for Karthik based on this IPL performance. So quite clearly, there is room for one or two young, pure batsman in the T20 team. As for Ravindra Jadeja, one felt sorry watching him bat at Lords. Evidently, the 'pace attacks' one faces in the IPL are no comparison to international bowling. But I do hope he returns after this scarring a better cricketer and man.

So a lot for the team to think to when the put their feet up after a week or so (after playing a set of irrelevant ODI's in the Windies !!). And hope to see them return in the coming season, a better team. One setback, after all, should not undo the good work of the past eighteen months or so.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Indians in Kiwiland: Job well done !!!

So the Men in Blue are back from Kiwiland (and already in South Africa for the second edition of what is arguably cricket's biggest party today !!). And Dhoni and his boys can look back at the 45 odd days in New Zealand with some satisfaction. While much was made of the fact that it was India's first series win there in 41 years, it should be remembered that the Indians were expected to win the series anyways. So to that extent, 1-0 in the end was not a suprising result by any means.
However, that is not to take away from the neat manner in which the Indians went about their job, particularly in the Test matches. And in doing so, they have taken yet another significant step in their quest of becoming an all-round side. And for the Indians, the story of the series was, of course, Gautam Gambhir. From being just one of the good young players in the side, he became an integral member of the Test squad during the course of his twin hundreds. And he is possibly India's best player over all the three forms of the game combined. A certainty in the XI in any format. Most importantly, his match-saving effort at Napier showed his temperament in the longest form of the game, prompting Sehwag to rate him as the best Indian opener since Gavaskar. Given the musical chairs we used to play with the openers during the 90s (remember Vikram Rathour, SS Das, Sadagopan Ramesh, Devang Gandhi ??), Sehwag's assessment has probably more meat to it. Another important factor was Harbhajan's good showing in the Tests. In his first overseas tour as the premier spinner, he performed creditably, not just throttling the runs but also picking crucial wickets (am sure he would have been delighted to see the pitches that were on offer !!). With Zaheer also close to his best and Ishant being steady, the bowling attack served India pretty well. The third seamer was, of course, the weak link. Munaf Patel emerged with hardly anything to his credit and you can be sure that the likes of RP Singh, Sreesanth, Balaji et al will be breathing down his neck. An even bigger dissapointment was Yuvraj Singh. Here he was, given three tests on batsmen-friendly conditions overseas to cement his place in the middle-order, and he managed to blow it up. Like Munaf, his performance (or lack of it) might have escaped notice because of the splendid efforts of his senior batsmen, but there is no mistaking the fact that the middle-order cupboard after the Dravid and Sachin era looks a little barren. It is time for the next wave of great Indian batsmen to stand up !!!.. But will we find them ????.
All in all, a more than creditable showing against a side that was competent at best and on pitches that simply did not resemble the traditional New Zealand pitches. But a series win is a series win, and the Indians will take it. Later this year, they will tour South Africa is what would definitely be their biggest challenge, but till then, the Indian fan can sit assured that his team is poised to take on the best in the world, anywhere in the world !!!

Monday, March 16, 2009

BCCI's dadagiri !!!!...

Over the past week or so, the BCCI's latest acts of dadagiri on two fronts (the IPL scheduling dilemma and their insistence on disallowing anyone smelling of ICL to come anywhere close to them and their players) are nothing short of disgraceful. In the latter case, the NZ media has very rightly taken the BCCI to task, something that the NZ Cricket Board cannot do for fear of offending the hand that feeds it. But by 'requesting' that Craig McMillan not be allowed to do commentary on Sky Sports during the test series (because of his ICL links), the BCCI surely have overshot their limits. Not sure what gives them the right to decide who should be working with a private TV channel, that too in a foreign land ? But as the saying goes: 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'. Once you have the power of money backing you, everything seems within your kingdom !!.

If this incident leaves a bad taste in the mouth, then the way the BCCI (and the IPL council and Mr. Modi in particular) is standing up to the government is nothing short of shocking. Of course, the terror attacks in Lahore precipitated this chain of events, since both parties knew of each other's schedules much before March 3rd. To be sure, the government should have raised the security concerns involved in having the IPL and elections simultaneously much before the Lahore attacks. Now it is being seen as having lost its nerve in the wake of what happened in Lahore, much to the delight of the barbarians behind all these acts of violence. But on the other hand, the way the IPL council is defiant on its stand of continuing with the IPL is not funny. Quite how Mr. Modi can proclaim that 'players security is our responsibility from the minute they land in India to the minute they leave', when the very agencies that he depends on to provide security are not willing to take any chances, is beyond comprehension. It is quite like declaring 'I am the safest in the world' when your body-guard is carrying a kid's toy gun. To add insult to injury, the BCCI's knowledgable badshaahs are now linking the IPL to national pride !!!!!. I admit I cannot take that any longer (though I have nothing against the IPL enjoyed the first season every bit) and having seen the drama for more than a week now, I seriously wish the Home Ministry should simply put its foot down and withdraw from providing security to the IPL. Once that is done, the IPL will be as good as dead, since even if Mr. Modi buys the services of the best private agencies using his dollars, they would simply not be equipped to handle terror attacks. And if the IPL is indeed dead (atleast for this year), I would not be shedding tears since the arrogance of a power-drunk cricket board cannot and should not be allowed to come in the way of national security.

This would also teach a good lesson to the 'travelling goons' of the BCCI !!!!


Monday, March 9, 2009

Much gloom but some hope !!!...

This would pretty much sum up the week, and most of the last month, for most international bowlers. The past month or so has seen the odds so much stacked against them that you could forgive them for refusing to show up for warm-ups on the morning of the match. The recent Pakistan-Sri Lanka series (tragically aborted) provided as much activity as one can see in a glass of soda left open since yesterday. Over in the Carribbean, the last three games have been played on wickets which were so devoid of any life that had timeless tests been played in this day and age, this series would have continued almost till the start of the English summer !!. Teams have regularly got 600+ in their first innings only to see their opposition trump them to that score. Such matches used to be dime-a-dozen in the Ranji Trophy till some time back (when matches used to be decided on 1st innings lead if drawn: this led to one memorable match between Delhi and Karnataka in 1981 or so when one team scored 700 in the 1st innings but the other team got to that score late on the 5th day and hence won !!!). But to see such matches at test match level is sorely dissapointing. Surely the curators can do better than that. And if the pitch is OK, short boundaries make matters equally worse. Yesterday, at Christchurch, 726 runs were scored in an otherwise thrilling match. But the area of the playing field had as much a role to play in the run-fest as did pathetic bowling (I hardly saw a slower ball bowled throughout the day).

But amongst all the dark clouds was the proverbial silver lining in the form of Mitchell Johnson's opening spell at Durban. Now Durban is one of the few grounds remaining that still holds some hope for the bowlers. And while I did not see the spell, to have two of world's premier batsmen injured is quite a feat !!. This spell further establishes Johnson's credentials as an exciting talent. Add to that his near-hundred in Johannesburg, and he seems to have the 'x-factor' in him !!. No wonder Ponting and his men are on top in that series...


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Challenge in Kiwiland !!

I return to my blog after a gap of nearly two months. Not much has happened for Team India in the interim. The cancellation of the Pakistan tour opened up a gap in the calendar which was promptly filled in by the 10-day trip to Sri Lanka (and it was really heartening to see an additional test scheduled in New Zealand rather than a couple of extra one-dayers !!). To their credit, the Men in Blue played really well. The batting looked in great shape, the bowling was sharp and incisive (Ojha is proving to be a capable backup in the ODIs) and MS Dhoni seems to be more in control of things with each passing day. Off the field also, the past couple of months have been relatively quiet, except for the IPL gathering momentum with the second auction.

Now, Team India finds itself deep in the Southern Hemisphere in a land that not many of them have experienced, let alone played cricket in. The battle against New Zealand (that starts in just over a couple of hours) carries more significance than a normal series. This will be a good test of a largely inexperienced Indian side as they progress in their quest to being the top team in the world in all forms of the game. And while they have improved their overseas showing with each tour (to the point that they are actually being termed favourites to clinch this series), New Zealand presents completely different challenges and is one place the Indians have traditionally struggled to make an impact . Part of the problem, of course, is that these two teams do not meet each other with the same frequency as say India-Australia or India-Sri Lanka. The last time we visited there led to an experience we would rather forget. And while we are unlikely to encounter the same conditions now (Mark Richardson notes wryly in his column on Cricinfo that the NZ Board is now aware of who feeds it ;), playing and winning in New Zealand still remains a challenge. Cold and windy conditions, small but irregular grounds and of course, lack of match practice all pose significant hurdles. And while the hosts do not boast of any bonafide superstar in their ranks (they traditionally have never), the team consists of a set of more than competent individuals, led by an intelligent and stable captain in Daniel Vettori. And like most teams, they are a different kettle of fish on home soil. So the Indians would be tested, more so in the test matches where the likes of Yuvraj (provided he gets a middle order berth) and Gambhir will have to be at their best to counter the moving ball and the cold conditions. The others, of course, are more experienced but with Dravid and Laxman not having the best of times lately, batting might still turn out as India's weak link. A lot will depend, as usual, on Sehwag and Sachin. The bowling of course looks fit and raring to go. Zaheer and Ishant have formed a potent opening attack and Balaji, Munaf and newcomer Dhawal Kulkarni capable of providing more than adequate backup (though I would have liked to see someone like Sreesanth or RP Singh in the team).

But before the test matches are the T20 and ODIs (which is a good thing for the Indians). There the variability is much less and thus the Men in Blue should prevail over the Kiwis. All in all though, it promises to be an exciting series and if the Indians can emerge on top, they would not only have conquered their 'last frontier' but also can lay claim, unquestionably, of being one of the top two sides in the world.