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.