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.