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Saturday, August 13, 2011

A shellacking, a hammering, call it what you want. It wasn't pretty, and India have much soul-searching to do. But instead of going crazy and hammer and tongs at the team, we need to accept that that India were just poor, and were beaten by a very good team. England won session after session, leaving India with very little to clutch at. They came in at them and didn't allow much room to breath or flex their muscles.

Their lower order was far superior to India's, which in the first two Tests was rolled over. On day one at Trent Bridge, England lifted themselves from 85 for 5 to 221 with the last two wickets adding 97 runs. Conversely, India capitulated from 267 for 4 to 288 in a matter of six overs. In their first three innings, India lost their last five wickets for 46, 36, and 15 runs. It was heartening to see MS Dhoni and Praveen Kumar offer some fight in both innings at Old Trafford, and for India's sake lets hope this inspires the batsmen.

Crucially, England's catching has been superior. Their batsmen have all scored. They have failed to cross 300 even once. Where England have so far managed ten century-plus partnerships, India have just one. England's wicketkeeper has been also excellent. And then there are the bowlers.

Some will point to the bowlers that helped win the Ashes in 2005, but when Ian Botham and Bob Willis, England's top two Test wicket-takers, say that this is the best England attack they've seen, that is some tribute. James Anderson has led the way for a great bowling attack over the past couple years, Stuart Broad has evolved splendidly, and Tim Bresnan has stepped up after injury ruled out Chris Tremlett, himself a fine bowler. Anderson is in a great place as a pace bowler, and the manner in which he picks up big wickets is testament to his class. Broad has been the most compelling player of the summer, and the way he grabbed a hat-trick during the second Test was immense. To turn a match in seven deliveries, that too after Rahul Dravid has batted six hours to set a platform, is an incredible achievement.

Bresnan has been outstanding with bat and ball and brought a definitive edge to the team. He is a quality allrounder finding his place in this Test team a couple years late, but his attitude and enthusiasm will keep him in good stead. His bowling on slow pitches has been near outstanding, and his ability to hammer away and make things happen is Bresnan's greatest asset. The success of these three fast bowlers has smoothed over the indifference of Graeme Swann this series. Broad's hat-trick aside, the highlights have been Anderson's inswinger to remove VVS Laxman on day four at Trent Bridge and Bresnan's corker to bowl Dravid on day one at Old Trafford. That is what quality teams aspire to achieve, and there is no doubting that England possess a very fine bowling attack.

So yes, lets accept that India were beaten severely by a superior team. They were woefully under-prepared, as a result of a cramped calendar. This is a systemic issue which which needs to be addressed or else India will struggle to reclaim the top spot and hold on to it. The batsmen will bounce back - though there is plenty of work required on how to play bounce - but the bigger issue is the imminent transition that awaits Indian cricket. Dravid and Laxman will, in all probability, call it quits after the tour to Australia, and how much desire Sachin Tendulkar has to play Test cricket is anyone's guess. Virender Sehwag is two injuries away from ending his career, and the worry is that there isn't enough quality on the horizon. Yuvraj Singh remains susceptible at Test level and Suresh Raina has much work to do before he looks a convincing Test player.

More worrying is the state of the bowlers. The inconsistency of Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth is a big concern and the management really must be harsh on the pair. Zaheer Khan's four-month absence is sure to curtail his Test career, and the lack of quality replacements is an issue that will plague India in the future. Most alarming is the state of India's spin bowling.

Ravi Shastri believes India's focus this year was the World Cup, and that having secure that trophy after a 28-year wait, it should not be alarming that India have slipped into a bad patch. This comment came on air during another debate about what Indian cricket's priorities are. Defenders of the IPL - and there are a few - are saying that to label the IPL as the villain is incorrect and that the BCCI's focus should be on all three formats. There should be room for Twenty20 in the international calendar, but was it wise to schedule the IPL six - SIX! - days after the World Cup final? This only shows the greed with which Indian cricket is run. There is minimal, if any, concern about the fitness of players. The World Cup, played over 43 days, followed by the IPL, spanning 51 days and 74 matches? If that is what defenders of the IPL mean by allowing all three formats to happily co-exist, that is complete rubbish. Scheduling a Twenty20 tournament six days after India clinched a trophy they had striven for for 28 years? That is a joke.

This is the wake-up call Indian cricket needed. The BCCI has to provide answers and look at how it runs its cricket; they will have to re-look at schedules and workloads. It won't be easy for India to bounce back, but they can.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Links to latest pieces for GQ India: on Dravid's ODI recall and what India can learn from the Test series. More to follow.

Monday, August 08, 2011

There are some cricketers who manage to endear themselves to individuals for various reasons. I'm not talking of superstars or legends of the game, but of those smaller figures who, for one innings or shot or spell or catch or celebration or series, left an impression. For me, one such cricketer is Robert Croft.

Croft played only 50 one-dayers and 21 Tests for England, and will probably be remembered as an international cricketer more for his gritty unbeaten 37 scored in over three hours - and which made up for three wicketless Tests- to help seal a famous draw against South Africa in 1998 and for his decision not to tour India in 2001 because of security concerns more than for his prowess as an offspinner. For me, however, Croft will always be a cherubic fighter. 

I never saw him bowl live in a first-class game, but through telecasts of Benson & Hedges matches and clippings in newspapers and Sportstar when in school in the Himalayas, found myself drawn to his pudgy offspinner. He just looked like he was having a great time doing what he did, never mind that the wickets columns rarely reflected anything special. I first read about Croft in 1997, when his picture found its place in the back pages of The Hindu and subsequently in Sportstar, after he took seven wickets in England's win over New Zealand in Christchurch.

There was his face, lit up in celebration after scalping a wicket, as his England team-mates rushed to Croft. Having not seen him bowl, I imagined how he bounded up to the wicket based on Ted Corbett's copy, of how he turned his arm over during a marathon spell of 39.1 overs, which resulted in career-best figures of 5 for 95 in just his fifth Test. The report in The Hindu spoke of how England's attack on the day had been wayward, but how Croft bowled with much heart and discipline, and there were words of praise from the coach, David Lloyd.

It was around this time that I myself took to offspin in a big way. I imagined myself as Croft, a smiling, gentle tweaker of the ball. Once I caught his action during a B&H match on Star Sports, I did my best to mimic it. Of course the results were nowhere as fluent and easy on the eye. 

I did my best to follow Croft's England career. These were days when the Internet had not yet spread to our school, and so all I had to rely on were the newspapers and Sportstar. As the dailies mostly dedicated space to India, I relied mostly on Sportstar, and it sufficed. I read of how well Croft bowled on the tour of Zimbabwe, but then found his name wasn't taken as frequently. That meant that wickets weren't coming.


Then, in the summer of 1998, I went to London. South Africa were in England for a full series, and there was talk in the dailies of how Croft should be dropped. I knew he had not been in the wickets, and expected his name to be chopped from the squad. One day while at Lillywhites at Piccadilly Circus, I saw Croft, Nasser Hussain and Mark Ealham in the store for a promotional gig. Excited, I got into line and with a miniature bat which a relative had kindly purchased for me, handed it to the three England players. Here was the bowler whose career I had followed in Indian newspapers and magazines, and who I had not heard much of for a few months. Croft smiled his genial smile, asked my name, and duly scribbled on the bat. A week later, his name and pictures found their way back into the UK sports pages positively, because of his gritty innings at Edgbaston. However, an extended run of poor bowling form saw Croft dropped.

Back in India, and with the Internet now starting to become prominent, I was able to follow Croft's career on a regular basis. I did this while in college in the USA too, and eagerly checked the county scores to see what Croft was up to. He was in the wickets in a big way in 2000, and was recalled to play against West Indies. But he again failed, and was dropped. Croft spoke negatively of the England camp, only to blame "media misrepresentation" for the furor that followed. A few years later he was again recalled, for England's tour to Sri Lanka, but did nothing of note.

In early 2004 Croft announced his retirement, finishing his England Test career with 49 wickets at 37.24. As unobtrusively as he he had slipped onto the international scene, Croft stepped away. I continued to followhis county career closely, and was pleased when he captained Glamorgan to the one-day title in 2004, scoring 671 runs at 35.31 and taking 54 wickets at 34.55. I imagined him  plugging away, with that jump at the wicket and that animated celebration whenever he snared a wicket.


In 2010, at the age of 40, Croft became the first Glamorgan player to 1,000 wickets 10,000 runs. He still plays for his beloved county, and I recently saw him bowl a maiden in a Twenty20 match. Last week I came across a good interview with Croft on Star Cricket, one conducted by SKY's sports correspondent and one-time England batsman Ian Ward. It was a touching interview, with the affable and self-deprecating Croft talking about his illustrious career with Glamorgan, from chubby teenager to record-breaking bowler, and his stints with England. He was the same Croft, laughing and bubbly and keen about his craft and it was a treat to watch him chat about his career. Thanks for the memories, Crofty.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Dravid's recall: a knee-jerk reaction

Once again, youth has been jettisoned, the system has been done away with, journalist's Saturdays have been ruined and, quite amazingly, Rahul Dravid is back in the one-day team. The same Dravid who was dumped twice over the last four years and overlooked for the World Cup, a chance he silently pined for. WTF?

The decision, we are told, is a pragmatic, immediate one: the team is marred by injury and needs Dravid's vault of international experience - he is the seventh-highest run-scorer of all time, with 10,765 runs in 339 matches - and his innate ability to scrap and hold together an innings. 

But the man in question is 38 years and 207 days and hasn't played an ODI since September 2009, after being recalled two years from being dropped. The scenario then? India's young hopefuls had failed to cope in testing conditions in the lead-up to the Champions Trophy in 2009. The scenario now? Injury to Yuvraj Singh, Cheteshwar Pujara's absence through injury, the apparent need for solidity in tough conditions, and the selectors' lack of faith in Yusuf Pathan, Subramaniam Badrinath and Manoj Tiwary, who were part of the ODI set-up in the West Indies prior to this tour.

Beyond the headlines that Dravid will dominate, there is a bigger issue at hand - why and how this selection came about. Were there really no options beyond Dravid? Have the young men in whom the selectors had earlier placed faith failed to make the grade?  Keeping in mind the future of Indian cricket, would it not have been a bad move to bring in Tiwary or Ajinkya Rahane, giving them a a chance to taste English conditions? Or to look back on Robin Uthappa, perhaps see if Ambati Rayudu actually has the goods? To give youngsters the chance to spend time in the dressing room, to tour international venues, to soak in the team culture?

The message to the younger is brigade is clear. Sorry kids, you aren't up to scratch. Yusuf bhai, your 56 ODIs haven't inspired us. Badri, you're still not international quality. Ajinkya, runs for the Emerging Players side in Australia don't amount to much. Manoj, umm ... yeah ... well ... you know. Uthappa, Rayudu ... the IPL isn't actually a springboard for Indian talent.

There has been no batting crisis for the one-day world champions. The top three spots are fixed. Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni make up the middle order. Success or failure would have surely come in handy for the youngsters like Tiwary and Rahane. What does Dravid have to gain from five ODIs?

Given his form of late, and especially in seam-friendly English conditions, Dravid's selection would make sense if he were four years younger. But it is clear that the BCCI is not thinking of Dravid the ODI player beyond the upcoming five-match series. India's next ODI assignment is a five-match series at home on placid tracks against England, where they will surely not need Dravid. Yuvraj will be fit, Pujara should be available too, and knowing the BCCI, it won't at all be surprising if they pluck Tiwary or Pathan for fixtures in Hyderabad, Delhi, Mohali, Mumbai or Kolkata. It is, after all, India. Where the World Cup was one. Where Pathan can clobber 60-ball centuries. Where survival isn't necessary - notice Guwahati isn't a venue - and where players can drive off the front foot without worry.

India have enough players to field an XI without Dravid, but after recalling him, the management would do the man a huge disrespect by not playing Dravid. In November, Harsha Bhogle wondered whether Dravid was too caught up in the mechanics of survival to flourish. Since then, Dravid has responded with runs a aplenty, in conditions as diverse as Nagpur, Centurion, Kingston, Lord's and Trent Bridge. He is in a very good spot as a Test batsman, once again, though at the end of his glorious career. And he has never officially announced his retirement from ODI cricket. But is a one-day recall the right thing for Dravid? And for Indian cricket?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Two bad losses in a row. Bad bole toh ... BAD. Defeats by 196 and 319 runs is massive. The better side has won, and the poorer side has much to reflect on. But you win some, you lose some. India haven't looked a No. 1 side all tour, and they've been guilty of letting England off the hook several times during the past two Tests. They've got only themselves to blame because they had chances to shut England out on all of the first three days.

You have a team on the mat at 124 for 8, and then allow them to score 221. Then you get a lead of 40 with six wickets in hand and end up with a lead of 67. And on the third day, India's generosity in the field - what was Dhoni doing with his fielders? - meant they went from chasing 275 to over 478. That is poor cricket and you aren't doing yourselves any favors by ending up in such situations. Not the cricket of a No. 1 side, and the way India are shaping up means they will have to play extremely good cricket to retain their ranking.

Of course, India with Sehwag, Gambhir and Zaheer is a much different side, and they will fight in the remainder of the series. Of that you can be sure. England have been exceptional in patches, most notably through Stuard Broad who seems to be on a different level currently. His bowling has been relentless and his batting has come along wonderfully. He's shrugged off criticism in the best manner possible and is in a really good place as an athlete right now. 

Dhoni just didn't seem to be there over the past two Tests. The one time he woke up, he ended up recalling an appeal against Ian Bell which has polarized opinion. Was Dhoni right in recalling Bell, who was a complete chump in assuming Tea had been called and walked off? It was a daft thing to do, as Bell himself admitted to. All this jazz about Dhoni's action being sporting and morally correct and "the right thing do do" is not for me. Bell was naive, but there are laws in place for a reason. You cannot just shove them aside just because one set of people are being booed or termed unsporting or because it could leave bad blood between the two sides. This is sport, and its not always fair. Men are playing it, not boys.

What business did Strauss and Flower have in knocking on the Indian dressing room? There was no anger, disrespect or nastiness in what happened on the field. No law was broken, no umpire questioned or denigrate. The laws had been adhered to, by Mukund, Dhoni and the umpires. As a friend says, if it had been Steve Waugh who opened the door, he would have told Strauss and Flower just where to go. 

Obviously the mud is flying. But its not the disaster its being made out to be. India were undercooked, missing some key players, and had some bad luck. Athletes will tell you that getting to the top isn't as hard as staying there, and for India the challenge is to improve. They have not been consistently challenged, and when they have been pushed in every department by England in successive Tests, they've fallen flat. The need, for the BCCI, is to prioritize, as Nasser Hussain pointed out. Easy to say, tough to implement. They didn't have back-up batsmen, and to rely on the same bunch of jokers who comprise a weak bench is not productive.

The challenge is to manage the talent and the calendar. Its clear that Test cricket is not the priority for the decision-makers, and that's not the way to go forward. England have caught up, so too will South Africa. What then?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Better days of Test cricket are hard to come by. This is what we live for, the kind of battle we flock to the grounds to, put aside work and other daily activities and chores for, skip work for, the reason some of us become sports writers. Those of you who happened to be at Trent Bridge to day, I envy you.

The first session, to India. Dravid and Laxman, Indian cricket's third best partners of all time, but who had
never batted together in the first over of an innings before yesterday, once again seeing their side out of tricky spot. From the rigor and caution of the first evening, to the confidence and panache of the second morning. Laxman, the aggressor, cutting and driving and pulling, supple of wrist and keen of eye. Dravid, the indefatigable, pushing and leaving and tucking and dabbing and steering. Laxman, seeing the ball and judging the length early, playing late and punching through the line and on the rise. Dravid, quick to come forward and then deflect the ball with soft hands. Two artists, Picaso and Warhol, coming together to paint a canvas of luminous quality.

The morning came alive with four consecutive boundaries, two each to Laxman and Dravid either side of two overs. Ten boundaries in the first hour, six to Laxman, all off James Anderson. Laxman, pulling superbly, playing the shot with which he was dismissed in the second innings at Lord's with purpose. A whiplash cut, a flowing drive, two open-faced steers and two purring pull shots. Nothing violent.

No movement as on day one, and the arc behind point proved especially productive for Dravid and Laxman. Dravid, what more to say? One of his best centuries, up there with Adelaide and Trent Bridge (2002) and Rawalpindi, admitted by the man who witnessed such epics at close range, Sourav Ganguly. Every run was sweated over and carefully planned.

Laxman, chatted up and needled by the fielders. He and Dravid competing with each other, a lovely engagement. When one drove, the other attempted the same. When one steered wide of backward point, the other, rubber-wristed, placed the ball out of gully's reach. In between, testing stuff from Stuart Broad, who but for one delivery in the first session bowled only at Dravid.

And then, when it seemed Laxman would ease past his highest score of 74 in England, he fell, nicking a gem of a delivery from Tim Bresnan. Soon after it was Tendulkar, playing a poor shot. Trouble? Not quite, as Dravid settled the nerves by guiding four to third man to raise his fifty, off 131 balls; the runs to deliveries ratio reflected his graft. Dripping with purpose, Dravid shook of a blow to the right wrist and with Yuvraj, out after Raina sliced a wide ball to point - India still 82 behind at that stage - formed a sturdy alliance. Swann was attacked, clattered for three fours in one over. Trott fell to the ground attempting a save, hurt himself, and went off the field. Andrew Strauss once again misused a review. Safely, India took tea.

And then, England's man of the moment, Broad. Bowling fast and hard and with gusto, knocking India back. Again the match swung, and how. Dhoni, Harbhajan and Praveen gone in three deliveries, a fantastic hat-trick for Broad. From a position of control, and one from where visions of a big lead loomed, India slid from 267 for 4 to 288. England's spirits soared, India's sagged.

There was Dravid, watching in horror. And so he threw bat on ball, scampering to a splendid century - his third in the last five Tests - and finishing on 177. A magnificent effort, but a lead of 67. India had the final word, however, with Ishant Sharma removing Cook cheaply. England 24 for 1 at the close, behind by 43.

A day of rock climbing. India scrambled a couple of meters, then pulled back before regaining balance and moving forward again through Dravid and Yuvraj. The biggest slip came in the final session, when Broad grabbed five for five in stunning manner and England's resilience came to the fore. The self belief was immense, the joy of such a stunning comeback palpable. Ishant's strike at the end of the day gave India reason to smile, and now they will strive for some dragging down on the third day. The scales tipped often, and this match is tantalizingly poised after another gripping, low-scoring day.



















Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trent Bridge, the scene of a famous draw in 2002 and an epic win in 2007. India return to the venue having lost the first Test, and look in some trouble. Virender Sehwag is still not available and Zaheer Khan is a doubtful starter. They appear shaken, though not by any means down and out. With or without Zaheer, they will have to shape up and play a lot better than they did at Lord's.

Lets back the truck up a bit. Should we be surprised India lost the first Test? Taking nothing away from what India have achieved over the past few years, they had little time to acclimatize, had rusty players returning from injuries, and were without Sehwag. They lost, but weren't steamrolled. It wasn't a crushing loss. They will pick themselves up. That's what good teams do.

India have been No. 1 in Test cricket for some time. They've beaten Australia, England, Sri Lanka at home. They drew with South Africa home and away. They won in New Zealand, drew in Sri Lanka. There have been some fantastic wins in their ascent to the top spot, and thereafter too - Chennai, Hamilton, Colombo, Mohali, and Durban. Also, there have been commendable draws - Napier and Cape Town. But there have also been defeats like the one at Lord's - Colombo, Nagpur, Galle and Centurion. Five defeats in four years says that this is a very good side.

But, is it a champion side, fair earners of the No. 1 tag? No. In winning these matches and series, did India look like a champion side? In spurts. Never did they carry an aura of invincibility that previous West Indian and Australian sides have. They have never intimidated by their presence on the field. A few Australian and South African bowlers have admitted being cautious of Harbhajan Singh, but never was there any apparent feat in the way India took the field.

The bowling has always been suspect. Zaheer has been the workhorse; Harbhajan inconsistent; Ishant and Sreesanth unreliable; Mishra never convincing; Ojha too safe; Mithun too raw. That India managed to win as many Tests and move to top of the pile is proof of how much they have eked out of such an inconsistent bowling attack and how much they have relied on their big bats. Twenty wickets is the best way to win a Test, but having the likes of Sehwag, Gambhir, Tendulkar and Laxman carry the team has been immense.

The win over Australia in Mohali owed much to the batsmen; Tendulkar, Sehwag and the middle order set up the win in Nagpur; Chennai was all about Sehwag and Tendulkar; Sehwag's outstanding 293 downed Sri Lanka in Mumbai; Sehwag, Laxman and Raina starred in Colombo; that legendary last-wicket win over Australia in Mohali wouldn't have been possible without Tendulkar, Raina and - BIG PROPS - Laxman; in Bangalore Tendulkar, Vijay and Pujara played big roles.

Yes, the bowlers chipped in collectively and factored in these wins, but without the batsmen - and mostly the seniors - victory would not have been possible. There have been wins set up by the bowlers, but more often than not it has been the batsmen who have outweighed the bowlers.

And so, after the loss at Lord's, India need Gambhir, Tendulkar, Laxman and Dhoni to fire. The bowling, if Zaheer does not play, will be weaker but it is the batsmen who will need to deliver. Gambhir will need to bat out the first session of India's innings, shepherding Mukund. Tendulkar will need to get rid of whatever ailed him in London and forget this whole 100th century nonsense. Laxman will need to step up should these two fail, and Dhoni ... well Dhoni needs to sort out his head before anything else. He didn't seem to be there at all at Lord's. This happens to him sometimes. India can't afford to have their talisman leader out of sorts.

At Lord's India were under-prepared, overconfident, and outplayed. The better team won and now the series moves on. Test cricket at its best. 


Monday, July 25, 2011

The Chemistry Brothers

A mesmerizing fifth day at Lord's awaits. England need nine wickets, India need to bat three sessions to escape. Gambhir in some doubt following a blow to the elbow, Tendulkar unable to bat until half an hour after lunch or till five wickets are down. Dravid, yet to be dismissed in this Test, and Laxman, the man for a crisis, at the crease together, both having made it to the thirties before stumps on day four. The 2000th Test is set up amazingly.

Today, Dravid and Laxman will walk out for India as they have done so creditably and so often. Both at the end of their illustrious careers; Dravid, the second-highest run-scorer in Tests ever, a legend of the modern game and indeed of all times, and India's most dependable batsman and best No 3. Laxman, who summons his inner legend when the chips are down. The pair will be up against Anderson, Tremlett, Broad and Swann, England's best attack since the summer of 2005. Yet again, a Test to be saved, a precarious situation to be turned on its head like so many times before. 

This is Dravid and Laxman, of the 376-run partnership at Eden Gardens in 2001, still the highest partnership in India vs Australia Tests. Dravid and Laxman, of the 303-run alliance for the fifth wicket in Adelaide in 2003.

Consider the figures:

In the best overall partnerships for a pair, Dravid and Laxman stand at tenth place. In the overall partnerships records for India, this pair unsurprisingly features prominently. For most century partnerships for a pair, Dravid and Laxman are at 16th place overall (the Dravid-Tendulkar pair is top of the pile). In the list of highest partnerships for all wickets, Dravid features at 13th (410 with Sehwag against Pakistan) and 22nd (376 with Laxman against Australia). In terms of the times that Dravid has batted with Laxman, the numbers show us that this pair is due a big stand; their last significant association was the 175 they put on in Sydney back in 2008.

There is no doubt that Dravid and Laxman are partnership men, an able couple who work well in partnerships, infusing much value and substance. They know such situations, they have forged most of their partnerships under such pressure, and now, in the dusk of their careers, Dravid and Laxman face a very, very tough assignment. If they succeed, Dravid leaving and poking and nudging and Laxman cutting and whipping and blocking, fans of Indian cricket and Test cricket will be treated once again to sublime batting and displays of patience and resolve, and we can all raise our glasses to two fine cricketers and men. 

 








Thursday, July 21, 2011

Rain, rain, rain ...

So, a damp squib of an opening day at Lord's. A sedate start from England's openers after Dhoni won a good toss and opted to field, and I reckon India will feel a bit let down by their performance. Zaheer aside - he really is the most important player on either side - the bowling lacked bite.

Praveen, playing for the first time in England, got the new ball to move about significantly in a nine-over first spell, but was guilty of pitching a tad short on occasion. Seeing Dhoni stand up to the stumps on the first day of a Test was a bit odd, but then Praveen has little pace to speak of. With his style of bowling - a quintessential county bowler, though he's never played in England - Praveen should have been pitching the ball up more to the batsmen. He drew thick edges off Pietersen's bat, with the batsman defending both times. Neither time did the ball carry to a fielder, and Praveen thus should have been getting them driving, so that the harder the shot, the further the ball could have carried. Praveen is a good, smart bowler but appeared to be operating with the kinds of lengths he bowled in his debut series in the West Indies. But the pitches in England are far different, and his lack of experience in such conditions told today. He's a smart nut, and will only improve as the match continues.

Ishant's inexperience of the conditions also showed. He was too leg-side, and wasn't able to hit the deck as hard as he can. Not too many plays and misses or edges off his bowling, and just one peach of a delivery to beat KP's bat and narrowly miss the stumps. Ishant didn't look the bowler who picked up the Man-of-the-Series award in the West Indies.

Zaheer ... well, what to say about Zaheer? Lacking in pace, he was still miles ahead of his bowling team-mates. There was movement, bounce - what was Strauss thinking when he played that shot? - and he constantly had the batsmen watchful. Zaheer v Strauss was one of the key battles going into this series, and round one has gone to the bowler. He picked up Cook (12) with one that nipped back, during an opening spell of 7-3-9-1 and did for Strauss ten balls into his second spell, digging the ball in short. He should have had Trott - by far the most comfortable of batsmen on view - on 32 but inexplicably Dhoni didn't go for a catch off a thick outside edge to a lovely delivery. The ensuing boundary was the first runs England score off Zaheer in 34 deliveries, and his anger was palpable. Trouble for India, though, when he limped off the field with what looked like a hamstring injury. Very bad news for the visitors if he doesn't get better fast.

Trott was lucky to get to an unbeaten half-century by the time rain forced an early abandonment. He was reprieved off the first ball from Harbhajan, with Dravid diving to his right but failing to hold onto the thick outer edge. But he cut and flicked with much comfort, and looked decidedly unruffled. Maybe its just me, but there was a swagger and certain ferocity with which Trott chewed some gum today. He looks good to frustrate India a lot more tomorrow.

KP took 14 balls to get off the mark and was one stage 2 off 23. Hardly a convincing innings from him, with testy moments against Ishant and Praveen. Repeatedly Pietersen tried to off-set the pair by walking across his stumps or down the track, but never managed to put them away. Ishant drew an inside edge when Pietersen was 2, but there was no forward short leg or silly mid-on. Not so smart from Dhoni; at one stage he even operated with a leg slip, so why wasn't a more conventional catcher used?

An iffy sort of day. An engrossing first session, a proper way to get this much anticipated series going. Then India stepped off the pedal, dropped Trott, and lost Zaheer. India would have wanted more wickets, and England will be satisfied with Trott's fluidity and the fact that Pietersen was roughed it out. One of his more nervy innings for some time.

The rain was always expected. Lets hope it stays away, and we can get some more Test cricket in.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Here's to a summer of cricket ...

Tomorrow England will host India at Lord's, the 100th time the two countries will go at it in whites, and it will mark the occasion of the 2000th Test overall. That the match is being played at Lord's, the home of cricket - yes, that is what it is and will always remain, no matter what other countries will have you believe in this day and age - only adds to the significance of the moment. India's Lord's history is shaky, and that adds to the intrigue of this first Test of four. 

For one member of the current Indian squad, a return to Lord's is a very, very special occasion. And rightfully so. Fifteen years ago, at Lord's, began a very, very special cricket's very, very special journey. Today Rahul Dravid is 49 runs short of surpassing Ricky Ponting's Test tally and moving into second place behind Sachin Tendulkar, the only other current Indian player to have been at Lord's in 1996.

Tendulkar himself arrives in England with plenty of buzz around him, given that he is on 99 international centuries. He has never managed to get his name up on the honors' board at Lord's, and as this is will be his final tour of England Tendulkar will be driven to rectify that anomaly. To get that 100th century at Lord's would be special, but even if he does not, what will it matter?
Once this series gets underway, either with James Anderson running up the slope with the new ball or Zaheer Khan fixing a steely gaze on Andrew Strauss, most people will forget the series that just passed in the West Indies. That rather odd affair ended with India's much-maligned decision not to press for a win in the final Test, and now MS Dhoni's team has a chance to erase the bad taste of Dominica and play like the champion side they claim they are. As Harsha Bhogle mentioned, the prospect of holding on to, or earning, the No. 1 Test team tag cannot occupy your mind, it must happen as a consequence of good cricket, and both teams are capable of producing that.

India, unbeaten in Test cricket under Dhoni since the middle of 2008, and England, playing better than they probably have in the last 20 years under Strauss - "every player goes out to play for himself, and for the team," said Michael Vaughan on a cricket show for The Telegraph this week - and coming off a win over Sri Lanka. England-India series haven't always been gripping - Lord's and Chennai are about as thrilling as Tests between the two sides have got - but with this series comes the chance for Strauss and Dhoni to usher in a summer of competitive, gripping cricket and, one writer believes, even start a new premier rivalry. Strauss believes players must be the ones to make Test cricket more attractive, and what better time to start than now, by leading from the front, against the best Indian side for ages?

Cynics - and there are plenty, judging by newspaper and web space and Facebook and Twitter status messages - do not read much into the practice match against Somerset. Indian sides have never been good at beginning tours on a good note. In more recent times, a few examples: at the start of the competitive 2003-04 tour of Australia, the visitors were held to a draw against a Brad Hodge-inspired Victoria and then struggled to draw against the Queensland Academy, and were taken to task by twin centurion Lee Carseldine. We all know how that Test series ended. When India began their first full tour of Pakistan in 14 years, back in 2004-05, Pakistan A handed them a pasting in their only warm-up game. India went on to win the ODIS and seal a historic first Test series win over Pakistan, their first overseas series win in more than a decade. In 2007, India went into the Tests against England after drawing with Sussex and England Lions; after three Tests they ended up winning their first series in England since 1986.

What are the subplots that we can expect from this series? Zaheer versus Strauss and Cook, for starters - the spearhead of the Indian attack, the experienced Zaheer returns to the scene of his splendid series in 2007, and goes up against an in-form Cook and Strauss, coming off two handy innings playing for Somerset against the tourists; England's tall pace attack of Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Stuart Broad against a strong batting side missing Virender Sehwag; a rejuvenated Ishant Sharma hustling in and trying to bounce out England's batsmen; Graeme Swann - the man Dravid has termed as a big threat - to Gautam Gambhir and Tendulkar, India's best players of spin; Harbhajan Singh, who has just crossed 400 Test wickets and still finds himself criticized, could learn much by watching Swann bowl; the insatiable Jonathan Trott against Zaheer's swing and reverse-swing and Harbhajan; the prospect of more artistry from VVS Laxman, sandwiched between Suresh Raina desperate to cement his place and Dhoni needing to score some runs, and Kevin Pietersen bursting back into life with the intensity raised for the No. 1 Test team; Dhoni the captain versus Strauss the captain - the one who will take more risks will come out on top, feel many experts. These are just some of the tasty appetizers that will present themselves during the feast of cricket that is the next month.

And of course, there is the return to England of Duncan Fletcher, and his reunion with his former pupil, Strauss. Across the table, another Zimbabwean, Andy Flower, has called on England to raise their game. Neither man will be on the field, but this series has the possibility to provide an engaging insight into how Fletcher and Flower operate against the backdrop of their history with England.

There are spots to be cemented, such as for Raina and Morgan. Abhinav Mukund handled himself decently on debut in the West Indies, and with Sehwag out for at least the first two Tests, he has a chance to become the third opening candidate for the foreseeable future. For Ishant this is a big series, and he will need to extend that form and support Zaheer. Praveen Kumar seems to have done enough to nudge out Sreesanth for Lord's, and what a treat it would be to see him play at Trent Bridge. Tremlett is riding on the confidence of success against Australia and Sri Lanka, and has been in the wicket for his adopted county, Surrey. Back up against the team against which he debuted four years ago, and rattled in a pacy spell on the fifth day of defeat at Trent Bridge, Tremlett can go a long way in keeping his place alongside Anderson. Broad will be under pressure from Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn, and with Flower calling on him to be more controlling, there is much to be gained for the man regarded as a true allrounder by many. He will also do well to keep his mouth shut.

So, will Strauss and Cook struggle against Zaheer? Will Trott be found out by Harbhajan? Will Harbhajan raise his game? Will KP burst back to life? Will Tendulkar get his 100th at Lord's? Will Dravid and Laxman one final time bail India out of trouble under grey skies and with the ball wobbling and darting about? Will Anderson and Tremlett sort out Raina? Will Dhoni extend his unbeaten Test series record? How will Gambhir, without the security of Sehwag at the other end, cope in his maiden Test series in England?

These are a but a few of the things I am looking forward to. It promises to be a great Test series. Lets hope the weather doesn't intervene too much. Lets hope for packed houses and plenty of cheer. Lets hope for some heated exchanges, but no jelly beans. Lets hope for good umpiring, and no bossing around by the Indians. Lets hope for swing and seam, from both sides, and loop and drift and turn from Harbhajan. Lets hope for drives off back foot and front, and square cuts and pull shots.

As I write this, I am looking out at the old tennis court where, 15 years ago, as Dravid and Ganguly defied England's attack at Lord's, my friends and I played cricket on misty mornings and between rain interruptions. There was no TV then, and so, after reading lovely reports in The Hindu, and reading of how these two men had battled it out against the home side's pacers, I put to motion the shots I imagined they had played over the course of those five magical days in 1996. Today there is no one to play with and the field is in bad shape, but the mist still lingers and the rain still interrupts my thoughts and hopes of bowling at a makeshift stump, or of getting my friend Vinod to bowl a few off-breaks at me. Maybe I will do so over the next few weeks, inspired by more sparkling strokeplay from Dravid and fizzing off-breaks from Swann. Here's to a great summer of cricket.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Mussoorie in the monsoon

This place is home. Its been home for years, but over the past ten I've hardly been here for more than a couple weeks at a time. A couple Christmases, the odd weekend or four-day trip from Bangalore, one 36-hour visit and another 48-hour visit earlier this year from Bombay. Thus, after a busy few months (the World Cup and IPL, mainly) I decided to take off six weeks or so and come up to Mussoorie, to Oakville, and do some writing and running and bicycling. It was long overdue.

The writing is going along well, the running not so well, due largely to the rain, and the bicycling ... well, that's not happening. But I do get in a good five to six kilometers of walking a day, and twice did more than that with walks into the bazaar and back, up Mullingar and on to Char Dukan, then back around the chakkar and to Oakville. Here are a few pictures from early morning walks and late afternoon/evening strolls.

Morning mist up along the chakkar



Its something else to be able to walk alone through the oaks and pines and deodars and horse chestnuts and maple trees, not disturbed by the honking of cars - though the Cantonment has a lot more tourists than before, largely due to the presence of Rokeby Manor - or crowds.

View of the valley from near Lal Tibba     



Along the way I meet familiar faces now and then, and there are exchanged salaams and questions and answers about relatives and careers, sometimes a few back-slaps and jokes and memories from youth. Its a nice feeling to be able to able to return home and see friends with whom you played cricket with and watched movies with, and though its not the same - most of them have jobs and families, naturally - there is a certain pleasure from seeing these faces and catching up, briefly even.


The deodar along the chakkar's ridge 

Nice way to spend an hour a day, I reckon.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Oakville - our field of dreams

We each have our field of dreams. The space where we first really took to cricket, where we played the game because we just loved the sound of ball (rubber, tennis, cork, whatever) on ball, where we could square-drive like our heroes (Dravid, for me) and mimic bowling actions and try our hands at legspin or left-arm pace and try to intimidate and flourish, and where we could - for an hour, a day - escape the drudgery of school and chores. Maybe it was a parking lot or a sandlot, a maidaan, an open field, a side street, a gulli, a stadium, an terrace. You know what I'm talking about.

For me, that field was a beaten up, run down former tennis court tucked away between the magnificent deodar and handsome Indian Chestnut tree and sturdy Himalayan Oak and serene maple trees. A little piece of heaven where in days of yore British, American and Canadian missionaries spent sunny summer afternoons playing tennis and rounders but which by the time my buddies and I took over had withered into a rough, mossy mess of dilapidated cement and dirt. It was perfect.

It was here that I established and furthered friendships that have lasted years and will always do so. A friend and I, with help from my father, arranged for a crease at either end of the field be painted in thick, green paint. We measured the crease with tape, and ensured the specifics were to the T. We measured the length of the pitch, never mind that we were bowling on aging concrete and moss. We had the grass cut; the stinging nettle and dock leaf in two corners, square leg and long-on, the clovers along the wall that ran from second slip to fine leg. When it rained, we mopped up the muck and slush. A few times we used gunny sacks to absorb the muck and laid them down like mat, three feet from where we batted. The rains didn't deter us. Neither did the snow; one winter my oldest buddy - he drove up from Dehra Dun just to play cricket - scraped up the snow and bowled in the freezing cold until we were called inside for Christmas lunch.

We played eight and ten and twelve and fifteen-over matches. We played 'Test' matches. We played one-on-one matches. Sometimes I bowled alone to single stumps, offspin and medium-pace. Many, many weekends were spent on that field, from eight am to six pm, often with hardly half an hour for lunch. Sometimes I skipped lunch. Many times friends groaned that they needed to eat more than raw Maggi and lemon squash for lunch.

On once return home from college, I tried to wrap a tennis ball in black electric tape like my Pakistani friends had done so skillfully in college in the Midwest. It was an epic failure, because the tape wasn't sturdy and repeated hits along the rough, grainy surface and through thick and wet grass ruined the stuff. The most fun was had when I discovered the MRI cricket tennis ball, a hard white ball somewhere between a tennis ball and a cricket ball. It looked like a tennis ball but was much harder; if it hit you, it bruised. It was a great ball to bowl fast with, no matter how dodgy your action, and when you struck it firmly the ball flew. Good fun.

During the summers we welcomed visiting guests at Oakville and beyond, fathers and sons alike. We had many last-ball finishes - Atul, sorry for all those sixes - and once smashed a window of a study. How many balls were lost on top of trees and in their branches and down the khud over extra cover or over third man and in the garden or over the roof of the Big House, lost forever to the mountainside, I cannot begin to recall.

It was here that little Siddharth, whom a few of us doubted would every grow beyond four feet, played the paddle scoop long before Dilshan and McCullum. True story. We kept score in notebooks. Once summer, with help from Beth Norford, we each got white baseball caps with our names traced onto them in black ink. The Oakville cricket team was the best in the vicinity, beating teams from Char Dukan and the Cantonment both home and away. We all lived for cricket.

Left-handed or right, crooked action and smooth, hopeless fielder and natural athlete alike, we were a band of brothers. We fought, we cursed, we laughed and we celebrated. Tashi and I were fierce rivals; Tashi fancied himself as the best batsman on the team as did I. He was more technically accomplished, while I could hit a long ball. I had a tough time figuring out his whirlwind helicopter-like action, which Tashi never shied away from reminding me whenever I played and missed and got out. I liked batting with Gautam and Raghu. I enjoyed pinching singles with Gautam and standing at the nonstriker's end and marveling at how cleanly Raghu could hit the ball straight back over the bowler's head. Paras was capable of bowling fast, and his full deliveries with the MRI were the closest to Waqar Younis-like toe-crushers as we could imagine. Vinod had an action similar to Murali; Sanju had his patented karchi shot; Balli was the only left-hander for miles and had one shot, ala Robin Singh - the mow across the line.

My friends from Woodstock made regular appearances: Ronjoy, mostly, and John and Atul and Akash (seldomly). There were weekends when Ashis came up from Hostel, and I remember his elation and subsequent harassing of Ronjoy after he had him caught by Helmet, after a miscued slog - first ball, mind you - came down through the leaves and branches of the maple tree and somehow stuck in the little tyke's hands. On another occasion Balli managed to tick off Atul with his sledging, and scampered up the hillside with an irate Atul hurling stones at him. Great times.

Others also featured in our matches over that four-year period: my father, Momo, James Conrad, the mad Sardar who drove Atley Brar's jeep, to name a few.

One summer, John and I returned from the States during our college years. Ronjoy met us at the airport in Delhi and we drove through the night, picking up Atul and Vijay Roy outside Dehra Dun and getting 'the gang' together at Oakville. I proudly took out my handicam and had it set up to record me facing Ronjoy after two years. To my embarrassment and his elation, Ronjoy yorked me first ball.

Another night, the last before I flew back to the USA for college that same summer, we arranged for lights to be brought up from the bazaar. We had two installed, and they provided sufficient lighting for us to play from nine pm to 2 am. We had enough people to make three teams of six, and had a tri-series. It was an unforgettable night. The lighting behind the bowler was poor, and to spot a green tennis ball from out of the dark was damn tough. I remember telling myself to bat like Dravid or Steve Waugh on a bad wicket, and took guard a foot outside the crease. It worked, and twice that night I steered my team to victory after the rest had fallen in the dark. There was always last-man-batting at Oakville.

Today that field is used only by three large bhotia dogs, their own playground where they can chase each other or imaginary intruders and chew at whatever they happen to find. The grass is much higher, the cracks much larger, the mud even more prominent - especially now, during the monsoon - and there is a fence around it. But that has not changed my view of what was my field of dreams.

Ronjoy and I recently returned to Oakville and got an hour's play in during the rain. Sure, we were stiff and not as athletic, but it was as if no time had elapsed at all since our last visit here together four years ago. He still beat me many times with pace and spin and I managed to pitch a few on the right cracks to surprise him.

Oakville's tennis court will always remain my field of dreams, as I'm sure it will be for many of the friends I've mentioned. Maybe some day our children will come here and play cricket. I can only hope that they too will one day play the way we did, on warm days and wet, from morning to evening. Thank you, Oakville, for all the memories.

 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Haven't been able to get Harbhajan Singh's latest performance out of my mind. Yes, a good win for a new-look Indian side on a tricky surface, which that legend Rahul Dravid handled with customary determination. But watching Harbhajan return match figures of 3 for 105 against a sorry line-up when Devendra Bishoo grabbed 7 for 140 - including dismissing Laxman, Dravid and Dhoni in quick succession -  was tough to digest.

Here was a surface with bounce and turn - the two facets any offspinner will thrive on, and more so Harbhajan - but he failed to deliver. His line was all over the place: too many wide deliveries which the left-handers - and there were five of them in the West Indies side - could leave alone, and then an equal number of deliveries drifting onto the pads off a short length. The batsmen were rarely bothered. When Harbhajan switched to around the stumps, he continued to feed the batsmen on the pads. What offspinner thrives on that line? Coolly, the batsmen tucked runs off Harbhajan to the leg side. Too many to even recall, but there must have been a large percentage of runs scored to the on side.


This isn't a new facet to Harbhajan's bowling. For too long he's done this. Watching Younis Khan reverse-paddle Harbhajan, on 99, in a Test in 2007-08 is the most accurate indication I can recall of how predictable a bowler he can be.

While watching Harbhajan's uninspiring display, I re-read this article by Harsha Bhogle from earlier this month, in which he called on the bowler to look deep inside himself and strive to become the "great" he was born to be. It got me thinking: what is so great about Harbhajan?

Ninety-four Tests, 396 wickets. That's a pretty good career. You don't get close to 400 wickets by being an ordinary bowler. But is Harbhajan destined to be great? Or is he an ordinary bowler who has achieved more than he possibly set out to at the top?

A friend - while informing me that Harbhajan is the fourth most successful wicket-taker in Tests over the last three years - put forth the argument that Harbhajan is a decent bowler who is judged too harshly by those who expect him to be great. All too often Harbhajan is the bowler people go after, citing his inconsistency and negative flat-on-leg-stump lines and lack of drift and turn. How many times have we read certain former India spinners criticize Harbhajan for not having a stellar series, or for "lacking heart", or for failing to put pressure on the batsmen? True, there are many average batsmen who have played Harbhajan with ease, and many instances where the conditions assisted turn and Harbhajan failed to do as well as he should and could have.

So yes, over the last three years, only three bowlers have taken more wickets than Harbhajan; in 28 Tests over that span he has taken 121 wickets at an average of 33.78 and strike rate of 71.50. Not the figures of a "great" bowler by any means. Over the last 12 months, Harbhajan has taken 41 wickets in 11 Tests (average 39.95), with one five-wicket haul, in South Africa.

There is an argument that Harbhajan does better on wickets that are hard and bouncy, and his returns in India's last two overseas (outside Asia) tours, to New Zealand and South Africa, give credence to this. Harbhajan bowled very well in New Zealand in 2009 and, after a poor first Test in South Africa in late 2010, did well in the remaining two fixtures with 13 wickets. After the drawn series in South Africa, Harbhajan admitted he had adopted Graeme Swann's wicket-to-wicket line which yielded 21 wickets in four Tests in 2009-10. So, you need to look at another offspinner to figure out that a wicket-to-wicket line is key to taking wickets? After 13 years of international cricket? It shows a little into Harbhajan's thought process, and its scary.

It is also pertinent to note how Harbhajan's form has waned over the last five years, especially at home. Overall, from 2001 to 2005, over 42 Tests, Harbhajan's strike rate was 59. Since 2006, it has ballooned to 71.40. From 2001 to 2005, he had 17 five-wicket hauls. Since 2006, he has managed just seven. Bowling at home from 2001 to 2005, Harbhajan took 141 wickets in 23 Tests at a highly impressive average of 22.62. In the last five years, at home, he has 96 wickets in 21 Tests at 33.92. That's a jump of over 10 runs per wicket.

When New Zealand toured India in late 2010, Harbhajan publicly lashed out at the lifeless wickets provided in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, but clearly failed to notice how well Daniel Vettori bowled on those same tracks. Bowling to far greater batsmen than Harbhajan did, Vettori varied his pace and flight to compensate for the lack of turn; Harbhajan, by contrast, pushed the ball through flat and quick.

Test cricket's current leading wicket-taker isn't destined to be great, but a Test bowling average of 31.87 surely proves that. The 30-mark is generally taken as the cut-off between great and good/average Test bowlers, and Harbhajan has some work to do to get his figures below that point.









Friday, June 24, 2011

The tacky tiles ache for an identity.
The upholstery screams for comfort.
The neon sign above the entrance flickers for friendship.
The waiters' smiles quiver from claustrophobia.
The upturned glasses on the cold white tables beg to be toasted.
This is so not the breakfast of champions.