Saturday, December 4, 2010

One for the umpires...

It would be an understatement to say that the umpire's job has become tougher over the past decade and a half. Long gone are the days when the umpires could easily and quickly make their decisions (one has to see the earlier English umpires, the speed at which they either raised their fingers or declined the appeal was amazing). Now of course the men in white deliberate in their minds before taking a decision, ever aware that technology has virtually taken over their role, their slightest mistake cruelly exposed before the eyes of demanding fans. And if the batsman in question is a Tendulkar or a Sehwag, then the umpire is made the villian of the piece.

No wonder then, that the job of the umpire is similar to housekeeping, It comes into focus only when there is a speck on the floor or the flower vase is dropped. A spotlessly clean room is hardly noticed, let alone appreciated. So when there is an instance of an umpire making brilliant judgement consistenly over a test match, then it deserves to be applauded. Aleem Dar's umpiring in the first Ashes test at the Gabba belonged to that category. A series of excellent decisions, that survived the scrutiny of the UDRS, firmly establised Aleem as one of the two best umpires of the day (along with Simon Taufel). For me, Aleem's moment of glory came at the very first ball of England's second hit. Consider the situation of the game then: England were 221 behind on the first innings, and came out to bat with just an uncomfortable hour to go on the third day. The very first ball, Strauss padded up to a fairly straight delivery from Peter Siddle. I was watching on TV and my first reaction was that Australia had got off to the dream start. But Aleem was unmoved. The Aussies refered the decisions, and the replays showed that the ball was going a couple of inches above the stumps. Aleem Dar was one of the very few who picked that up. Had he, like most other umpires -especially the ones who do not like batsman padding up - given that out, I doubt that Strauss would have referred (though as captain you have that luxury of not having to consult many other people). And with 0 for 1 with 221 behind, its possible that the test match, and maybe the series, would have taken a very different turn. If England reclaim the Ashes with a series victory, they would do well to reflect on this moment as one of the game-changing ones. And they would need to thank a good umpire for his excellent judgement. 
Here's to you Aleem Dar, and all other umpires who have done a great job earlier !!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Let the Ashes begin...

In a few hours from now, either of Messrs Aleem Dar and Billy Doctrove will utter that four-letter word: ‘PLAY’ and with it, the action will begin. The reams of newsprint and hours of air-time spent in the months leading up to the event will no longer count. All that will matter is the performance on the field as the two oldest test-playing nations take the field in another edition of the oldest rivalry of them all. Bring on the Ashes.

And it promises to be an exciting one. The consensus view that seems to be emerging is that, while the Aussies might not be there for the taking, England certainly should be fancying their chances. For one, they are encountering a unsettled and confused unit (refer my last post) while the English themselves have known, for months now, the eleven that will take the field at the Gabba. And man-to-man they certainly match, if not score over, the men in Baggy Green. After all, they have probably the best spinner in the world today in their ranks, their captain has shown a pleasant inclination to lead from the front and they have chosen a new-ball attack carefully to suit Aussie conditions. But to believe that England can win even when not at their best is naïve. You can only beat Australia by playing at your very best. Very rarely do the Aussies hand over games on a platter through poor cricket. And this is where Strauss needs to seize the pivotal movements. A large part of the outcome of this series hinges on Strauss’ captaincy. Whether it be that inspired bowling change or the unusual field placement, the Ashes are going to be a test of Strauss’ tactical acumen and quick thinking. After all, not many English captains are expected to win in Australia (unless of course, you ask the British media !). Also on the radar would be Strauss’s ability to bring the best out of Kevin Pietersen. If Strauss and KP fire consistently through the five matches, England would be assured in batting.

And what about his opposing number ? Ricky Ponting has, justly so, garnered a fair share of criticism over the past few months. The 0-2 reversal in India and squandering of winning opportunities against the Lankans did not help. Ponting, of course, is aware that not only his captaincy, but his place, is on the line this series. A third Ashes loss as captain would be too much for the Australian public to swallow and there is no former captain in an Australian XI. Hence, Ponting would lose both the captaincy as well as his place, not withstanding his pedigree as a batsman, should England retain the Ashes.

So while there are twenty two who decide the outcome of the game, it is the face-off between the two captains that is the most captivating side-show of the Ashes. So let it begin tomorrow. I cannot wait to switch on to Channel Nine and their high quality of coverage, listening to Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and the rest and soaking in the pleasures of (hopefully) high quality cricket.

May the best team win !!


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kiwi resilience and Aussie (crisis of) confidence...

The past week has been interesting, not least because of Test match cricket played at three different places across the world. In the Emirates, Pakistan and South Africa played out for a draw in the First Test, but not before the Pakistanis gave a good account for themselves in the fourth innings (so much so that Misbah-Ul-Haq, their latest captain, actually termed the result as equivalent to a win !!). The star there, in that innings, was of course, their comeback king Younis Khan with a fluent century. Though the Proteas were never in danger of losing, the strong Pakistan rearguard action means the second test would be interesting to watch. Over in Galle, the West Indies surprised most observers (including, perhaps, themselves) by asking Sri Lanka to follow-on on home soil (the last time it happened was in 1983 !!). There, it was the Gayle-force that did Sri Lanka in the first couple of days. Quite simply the most nonchalant and flamboyant cricketer around today, Gayle joined a select band of batsman who have scored two triple hundreds in Tests. And it lent further credence to the theory that the batsman most likely to break Lara's 400s would be a free-stroking dare-devil like Sehwag or Gayle rather than their technically accomplished, infinitely patient peers.

However, the big match of the week was the second test between India and New Zealand, which saw test cricket return to Hyderabad after 22 years. And again, it was a case of the Indians failing to drive home the advantage on the fourth and fifth days at home. This allowed New Zealand to post a strong second-innings total and to leave Hyderabad with a moral victory under their belts. Given that they had also reduce India to 15-5 on the fourth evening at Ahmedabad, it no longer looks a battle between No. 1 and No. 8. Indeed, should India not be able to win at Nagpur, it would be regarded as a series victory for the Kiwis. And to add, it would prove invaluable practice on Indian tracks ahead of the World Cup in February. After the hammering at the hands of the Bangladeshis, Vettori and his men have bounced back very well, showing that New Zealand, with their strong work ethic that more than makes up for their limited talent, should never be taken lightly.

 Of course, no discussion these days excludes the Ashes. And in the run up to the first test at the Gabba next week, the Aussie selectors announced a team of 17 for the Gabba !!!! It left me dumbstruck. I have never, ever, heard of a home team announce a squad of 17 for a single game. And I am not sure whom it helped, if any.  The ostensible reason given in the press is that to cover for injuries and to keep everyone, including the seniors, on their toes If so, surely a private word from the selectors and captain to the fringe players would have helped. Announcing a squad bigger than the entire touring party surely would not have given a Marcus North or a Xavier Doherty any comfort or confidence, For a team that used to announce its final XI a day before the match (so that the 12th person could be released to play domestic cricket), this has been quite a fall. And it betrays a lack of confidence in a shaken Aussie setup after their losses in India and against Sri Lanka.  England has never had conditions so much in their favour even before the first ball is bowled. They better capatilize, else they have no one else to blame.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

TESTing times ahead...

As a supporter of the Indian cricket team and a fan of the five-day game, the last three weeks could not have gone any better. A 2-0 win (or 'brownwash' as it has been called in some sections of the media) over the former numero uno side was something not many people would have thought of at the start of the series. And mind you, this was without employing the time-tested Indian victory formula: win the toss, bat first, declare around tea on the second afternoon at 600-5 and then let the spinners do the rest. Indeed, Dhoni lost both tosses (taking his unbroken tally to 10) and had to contend with tricky 4th innings chases on both occassions. In Mohali, a very very special innings did the trick in a heart-stopping finale, while at Bangalore, a debutant announced himself on the stage with a matured and composed knock (and credit must be given to Dhoni for sending Pujara at No. 3). All in all, a victory well-deserved and the No. 1 ranking looks set to stay for some more time to come.

But if the victory in Australia was heart-warming, it is what is coming up over the next 12 months or so that is truly mouth-watering if you are, as mentioned before, a test match lover. India play three tests in South Africa this December, followed by four in England next June and four more against the Aussies in their own backyard next summer. Eleven tests in demanding conditions and in places (atleast SAF and Australia) where India has not done well traditionally. This is not too say that England would be pushovers by any stretch of the imagination. But if South Africa and England are overcome, maybe Dhoni can call the tour to Australia next December as the 'final frontier' !! What a grand-stand finish would that be !! But to cut down on the castle-building, it is going to be one big test of Dhoni's boys on whether they can handle their No. 1 ranking and come back with their reputations enhanced. 

All this makes the forthcoming series against New Zealand the perfect appetizer. Although it is generally accepted that team India should not have much trouble against the Kiwis, it would be a great opportunity for Kirsten & Dhoni to build the team for the post-SRT,RD,VVS era (similar to my earlier post where I talked about using the next 12 ODIs to build the WC team). In fact, it might also not be a bad idea to rest each one of them in a game and create that additional middle-order position. Who knows, someone like a Pujara or a Ajinkya Rahane can capatilize on, getting a good bench in place. In this context, what is also heartening is the BCCI decision to send some team members early to South Africa. It will immensely benefit, for example, Suresh Raina (on his first major test match tour) to play a  first-class game in South Africa instead of playing the ODI's against New Zealand. With warm-up matches already belonging to a past era, this is the next best thing one can ask for. For some of the young bowlers too, it will be a good learning experience, for it is essential (and not widely appreciated) that bowlers also get some time to adjust to the bounce and lengths of foreign pitches. So an Ishant Sharma would be better off bowling in match conditions in Jo'burg or Cape Town instead of getting collared for 70 runs in 10 overs at Chennai by Messrs McCullum and Ross Taylor.

So starting November 4, the next 15-odd months promise to be one of the most crucial periods in recent memory. The stalwarts will silently ride into the sunset (its hard to imagine Dravid or VVS lasting beyond the start of 2012, with SRT you never know ;-)) but will the younger generation be ready to take over the torch from them ? Only time will tell, and I, for one, cannot wait.


PS: My playing XI for the Ahmedabad test: Sehwag, Gambhir, Pujara, Tendulkar, VVS, Raina, Dhoni, Harbhajan, Zaheer, Ishant and Amit Mishra  (Dravid rested)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Let the countdown begin..

Its the 19th of October today. In exactly four months time, the World Cup will kick off with the co-hosts India and Bangladesh locking horns. And as the buildup to the big event starts, its that part of the countdown wherein each team starts focusing on the big event and the think-tank uses the matches leading up to the World Cup as opportunities to fine-tune their squads and develop new strategies. The Men in Blue have 12 one-dayers before the opening match of the World Cup (2 v/s Australia and five each against New Zealand and South Africa) and it is imperative that Messrs Srikanth, Kirsten and Dhoni use every match in getting all the remaining pieces right. And as far as India are concerned, following ought to be their main priorities:

a. Having the original prince in the side: That Yuvraj Singh is an integral member of the ODI team is beyond much of a doubt. Along with Tendulkar and Sehwag, he is the engine of the batting and by inference, the team too. But lately, the trouble has been getting the right Yuvi on the park. Hopefully, the test match snub (he is now further down the pecking order below Pujara and looks unlikely to make it to South Africa with the test team) will not rub off on his ODI form, where he remains, alongwith his handy left-arm spin, an important asset. And, of course, his fitness will be under watch. A good regimen under Kirsten's watchful gaze would help.

b. Getting the bench strength in place: The problem with the team is not really the playing eleven. Most of the team (Sachin, Sehwag, Gambhir, Raina, Yuvraj, Dhoni, Harbhajan, Zaheer) select themselves, but its the remaining places and the bench-strength that can make all the difference. So it is upto Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ashish Nehra, Abhimanyu Mithun, Sreesanth and Ravichandra Ashwin etc. to put their hands up. I am particularly interested in Ashwin and would be keenly watching how he goes against the Kiwis and in South Africa.

c. Getting 15 overs from part-timers: Given that we have not yet found Kapil Paaji's replacement (but boy, do we persist at searching !!), it becomes absolutely imperative that Sehwag, Yuvraj and Raina cover for 15 overs (10 of the fifth + 5 assuming one of the frontliners has an off-day). So in the 12 matches, I would love to atleast two of them (if not all three) getting 3-4 overs in every game. That allows an extra batsman at No. 7 (with Dhoni at 6), which suddenly makes the side good on paper.

And last but not the least, as we all now....

d. Being more than competitive in the field: All of the above will come to nought if we dish out rubbish on the field. In my opinion, the fielding is going to decide India's fate in the World Cup. So it goes without saying that topmost priority needs to be accorded to it. Giving away 10-15 runs to limited mobility is simply not going to acceptable in the big event. So if it means that we have to look beyond people like Nehra and maybe even Zaheer, then so be it. These 12 games will give us that opportunity.

It is in the above aspects that the next four months leading up to the World Cup and going to be keenly watched. And if past experience is anything to go by, am sure Gary Kirsten and MSD have already got their minds together.