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Monday, November 29, 2010

Watching England post 517 for 1 in their second innings at the Gabba showcased that this England could bounce back from adversity at a venue where historically most touring sides have shown a propensity to wilt, but it also further drove home the fact that this Australian team does not have fast bowlers who can deliver under pressure. By the time the players shook hands as the Test ended in a draw, Peter Siddle's six-wicket haul, including a hat-trick, on the first day was completely out of the memory. Instead, images of Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Watson and that most over-rated of fast bowlers, Mitchell Johnson, with their hands on head or hip, looking forlorn, where what remained strongest. Cardiff, Mohali, Melbourne and now Brisbane. Four instances where an Aussie attack failed to take wickets when they had to; each ball and each over resulted in the opposition's confidence increasing and the Australians' falling.

The first man to attract criticism would be Johnson. He seems likeliest to be dropped for Doug Bollinger for the second Test. An 18-ball 0, a dropped catch, and match figures of 0-170; his first wicket-less Test in 39 opportunities. I've never been a big fan of Johnson - look closely and many of his wickets have come off not-so-good deliveries - and he isnt' express pace nor is he as good a swinger of the cricket ball as many point him out to be. His waywardness is too frequent. He vacillates between being good and horrible (last summer, anyone?) but now he just seems confused as to what role he's supposed to be playing: flat-out quick to rough up the batsmen, swing bowler to try and work out the opposition, or defensive bowler?

Johnson drifted the ball onto Strauss and Cook's pads too often, as if off stump were the plague. The bouncer was more tennis-ball fair which the two lefties could pull with ease. There was no movement, and Johnson's pace was well short of what he's capable of.

Ricky Ponting has always backed Johnson, but what does he do now?  Shane Watson said it was silly to focus on Johnson as all the bowlers had struggled for consistency, but Johnson's last five Tests have produced 11 wickets at 55.36. You can always argue that numbers don't define a player, but Australia's management has some serious thinking to do ahead of the Adelaide Test. They need their strike bowler tearing in and hustling the batsmen, repeatedly producing breakthroughs, not kicking the turf in frustration and loping back to his mark.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Is Gautam Gambhir really out of form? The question is being asked, and a few people - MS Dhoni, Gary Kirsten, and Gambhir himself - have spoken about it without really offering any answers.

In 2009 Gambhir amassed 727 runs in five Tests at 90.87. That included four centuries in four Tests. Then he made a silly decision. He opted out of the third and final Test against Sri Lanka at the Brabourne. He had just hit 114 and 167 in the two previous Tests. In 25 Tests leading up to that decision, Gambhir was averaging 77.

Since opting to skip a Test match for his sister's wedding, Gambhir has averaged 24.41 from eight Tests (he's yet to bat in the current Test in Hyderabad). On return in January this year, he began with 23, 116 and 68 against Bangladesh, but since then has scratched around for just 86 runs in five Tests. I understand he picked up an injury during this period as well, and struggled on comeback from that injury, getting out twice in the first over in Galle, but is there something ominous about that decision taken in November last year?

His was the first instance I've heard of an international player skipping a Test to attend his sister's wedding. Sunil  Gavaskar went an entire tour of the West Indies without seeing his son Rohan who was born while he was on tour in New Zealand. Many cricketers have gotten married during the off season. Death, illness and paternity leave, have been accepted in this era. But a sister's marriage? That is unacceptable. We live in an era where even the BCCI, for all its shambolic management, announces dates for matches well in advance; at times even a year in advance. You're telling me Gambhir and his family couldn't have scheduled the wedding after the third Test? And would Gambhir have missed an IPL match to attend his sister's wedding? 

This sets a dangerous precedent. Gambhir wasn't injured, he wasn't fatigued. Test cricket is supposedly the ultimate, but seeing a player skip a match was unpardonable. Forget the injury. The reason for Gambhir's drastic dip in form is a change in mentality. He thought he could do that because there was no one else available to challenge his place in the team. Now he's struggling for runs and has M Vijay, with a century in his last Test innings, looming in the background.

Anshuman Gaekwad, speaking to Mid-Day after Gambhir's decision, had this to say: "Anything can happen in this game. When you are in form - and Gambhir is in great form - it is very dangerous to take a break, however small. You never know... the guy who takes your place might just score a big hundred and you'll struggle to get back."

And that, as they sail, is the proverbial nail on the head. 

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

I quite enjoy not having to to office anymore. I get my work done, and I have some free time to watch cricket (the odd day of a Ranji match, an ODI or Twenty20 live on TV, as well as highlights of random games).

The ODIs in the UAE were exciting, and a great advert for the 50-over game, but I doubt the Tests will be. A two-Test series in the UAE of all places just seems a bit odd. We don't know what the tracks will be like, but we can expect high scores. South Africa v Pakistan is hardly one of the most engrossing rivalries in Test cricket, primarily because there have only been 16 Test matches between the two, with South Africa the dominant side. In fact, of all current Test-playing countries, Pakistan have the worst record against South Africa. In 16 Tests, they've won just thrice and lost eight times for a success rate of 37%.

I jogged my memory trying to recollect some memorable moments in Tests between these two teams, and most of what I could remember were South African highlights. Here are the few that I could recall, and with the help of some scorecards and stats, unfurled a few nuggets that Pakistan fans won't remember too fondly.

1. Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs' monstrous partnership of 368 in 69.2 overs at Newlands in 2003. The two first broke all the possible partnership records for South Africa against Pakistan before passing the 260-run South African first wicket partnership, between Bruce Mitchell and Ivan Siedle against England at the same ground during the 1930/31 season. Next to fall was the 341-run highest South African partnership for any wicket, that set by Eddie Barlow and Graeme Pollock against Australia in Adelaide during the 1963/64 season.

2. Gibbs' 228 from 240 balls in that Newlands massacre is South Africa's highest individual score against Pakistan. He's not playing, and those who remain the Pakistan squad will probably think that a good thing.

3. Fanie de Villiers had a thing for Pakistan batting line-ups. It isn't the best individual bowling analysis in an innings (that record belongs to Paul Adams and his 7 for 28 at Lahore in a losing cause in 2003), but it is perhaps the most memorable. "Superficially, Pakistan looked even more powerful going into the final Test," wrote Wisden in its verdict of the third Test of the 1999 season. Instead, Pakistan imploded and South Africa leveled the series with some ease. Starring was de Villiers, in what he said was his final Test, with his best figures, 6 for 23, to make it 8 for 48 in the match.

4. Not only does he have the best individual bowling analysis for South Africa against Pakistan, de Villiers also has the most for a Test. In a one-off Test in 1995, de Villiers inspired South Africa's biggest ever home victory in terms of runs, while Pakistan surrendered their record of at least one Test victory in their inaugural series against each of their opponents. His 6 for 81 skittled Pakistan for exactly half South Africa's total, and after Cronje chose not to enforce the follow-on, de Villiers was at it again with 4 for 27 to complete a crushing 324-run success.

5. Its not the javelin thrower who leads the way in South Africa v Pakistan wicket-taking prowess, however - its Shaun Pollock (45 at 21.35 apiece), then Ntini (41 at 24.07) and Donald (27 at 22.37). Polly's finest hour against Pakistan came in the third Test at Faisalabad in 1997, on a pitch which Wisden said "looked positively emerald by Pakistan's standards". By bundling Pakistan out for 92 on the fourth day, South Africa took the series stunningly. At stumps on the third evening, Pakistan were 4 for 0 needing 142 in two days. The next morning it was all Pollock, and a thrilling win was sealed quite against the run of play. Wisden described it thus: "Then Pollock, bowling with impeccable discipline to a specific plan for each batsman, took four in seven balls. The batsman played like rabbits but Pollock became the headlights which paralysed them. Lunch was taken at 79 for six - "I don't know how they felt," said Pollock, "but we couldn't eat a thing. We all just sat, staring at the clock, willing the minutes to go by. . ." "

6. One of the most frustrating innings against Pakistan has to be Pat Symcox's only Test century, at The Wanderers in 1998. Symcox became the first No 10 batsman to score a Test century for 96 years, and with Mark Boucher he put on ninth-wicket partnership to 195, a Test record, on the second day of the first Test. Symcox, 37, and Boucher, 21, - the oldest and youngest members of the side - beat the 190 set by Asif Iqbal and Intikhab Alam for Pakistan against England at the Oval in 1967. As if facing Symcox bowl wasn't boring enough, Pakistan had to watch him bat his way to a century. Those present during that match probably don't remember it too fondly.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The most intriguing aspect of tomorrow's play will be how Brendon McCullum applies himself. He's done really well to get himself to 38 from 75 balls at stumps, but with New Zealand needing to avert the follow-on, he's going to really have to outdo himself. Having given up wicketkeeping in Tests to concentrate on his batting, he really has no option but deliver. Touring India is tough, and given that he's never played a Test here before, and the psychological impact of the 4-0 hammering in Bangladesh, McCullum has his work cut out.

McCullum, at 29, is something of a father figure in the squad, but needs to perform like one. Having given up wicketkeeping to concentrate on increasing his batting average, McCullum has to deliver no matter where he bats. His naturally aggressive ways haven’t always worked, most noticeably in Sri Lanka last year, where a little over a year ago, sitting in Colombo, I wrote this about McCullum.

Since then, he's averaged about 50 in Test cricket batting at No's 6 and 7. Now, after requesting he be shunted up the order, McCullum has a chance to prove he can deliver as a senior statesman on a very difficult tour. He also has to shed the image of a dasher. To succeed in India you have to get down and dirty. That's the key. The most successful non-Asian batsmen here have been those with the ticker for battle: Andy Flower and Matthew Hayden in 2000-01, Damien Martyn and Michael Clarke in 2004, and Michael Hussey and Strauss in 2008.

McCullum needs to become patient and rein in his attacking instincts. Too often he's been guilty of throwing away his wicket with an over-ambitious shot. Too often it appears he's done that not because of an inclination to dominate, but because of poor judgment when he's getting carried away. McCullum's technique is not set up to block, nudge and accumulate but he has to evaluate himself on this tour, and tomorrow could dictate the course of his series.

In the subcontinent, overseas batsmen have often been found wanting in proper footwork against spinners. Having to stretch far forward to try and suffocate the turn, coincidentally having to be prepared to rock back and cut, is a tough task and then there is the need to produce the sweep shot. McCullum cut and pulled well today, and his defense was also very impressive. He's shown patience today, but tomorrow the real challenge will be to curb his natural game for a longer period. Not so much that he bats in a way that is alien to him, but enough to show his team-mates and critics that he's not going without a fight.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Poor attack aside, Virender Sehwag's 199-ball 173 today was a masterclass on how to bat on a slow and low wicket. It was an innings that Sachin Tendulkar would have been proud of, having played many such gems the first half of his career. But it was so very different from any Tendulkar innings.

Its been so long since people viewed Sehwag as a Tendulkar clone. In his early days, from the time he batted alongside the master in his debut Test, Sehwag was labeled The New Tendulkar. His idolization of Tendulkar aside, the stance, grip, backlift and shot selection was eerily similar. When they opened together against England the ODI series of 2002, many found it difficult to differentiate. There was even a chase in that series when the pair seemed to be trying to outdo each other, shot for shot. If Tendulkar drove on the up past extra cover, Sehwag repeated the shot with more ferocity. If Sehwag clipped off his toes, Tendulkar outdid him for sheer panache and placement as if to say hang on, that's my shot.

Sehwag is an artist as much as Tendulkar is, but today there are differences in their styles. Tendulkar innings are studies of character. Sehwag's innings are studies of plot. Indeed, you could say he's an artist of plot.

This is both Sehwag's brilliance and his weakness. Sehwag can frustrate as much as he can thrill. In the same match he can scythe through an attack on the opening morning en route to a rollicking century. In the second innings he can flash at the first ball and nick to second slip. His centuries are most often like a madcap Glasgow pub crawl: it makes you elated in the moment and sorry when its over. His oeuvre encompasses the gamut from sublime to suspect, and there is much to be frustrated about. There is no denying his extreme popularity the world over. He is the most fascinating cricketer going around today. His willingness to laugh at himself only adds to his likeable character.

Sunil Gavaskar, on air today, said he thought Sehwag often got bored after crossing a quick century and that he should put his mind to sorting out ways to play the short delivery better. I disagree. Sehwag's beauty is that independent-minded aesthetic; he wants to entertain. Any ideas that pop up about his technique or conditions or the bowler running in are secondary.

To see him signal a free hit today after Chris Martin overstepped, and then nonchalantly drive the next ball for four, was to appreciate him for what he is. A maverick, a free spirit.
Have uploaded PDFs of my recent interview with Daniel Vettori, published in the November issue of ASM, which is now available at news stands across India.

You can view the article in three parts ... here, here, and here. Sorry its not in one PDF. I'm a bit technologically challenged.

Comments, etc welcomed.      


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

New Zealand are in the country after a 0-4 ODI whitewash in Bangladesh, and they're not carrying a lot of confidence or numbers going into the three-Test series. Apart from the sheer weight of experience, runs and wickets that separates India from the tourists, what stands out is the ability to bat in pairs and to do so for long periods. A glimpse at the two teams' records over the past 12 months is enough to suggest a lop-sided contest. 

In the past 12 months of Test cricket, India's record of batting partnerships is outstanding. Twenty times have pairings crossed 100 and eight have passed the 200-mark. Once even the 300-run threshold (Tendulkar and Vijay's 308 against Australia in Bangalore) was passed.

The two men most likely to feature in a century-plus stand is Tendulkar. Not surprising, given the form he's been in over the last 12 months. Of the 20 century-plus stands, Tendulkar features in eight. Sehwag has had a hand in seven such alliances, Laxman five.

The bulk of these partnerships are clustered around the third, fourth and fifth wickets, which is very encouraging. That shows the strength of the middle order, and the ability to deliver on the occasion when the top order hasn't done a whole lot. The four century-plus opening stands have predictably been dominated by Sehwag. An unbeaten 259-run stand between Dhoni and Laxman, India's second best this past year, came for the seventh wicket. Sufficed to say, batting in pairs isn't a real concern for India.

Compare this to New Zealand. There are just five century-plus partnerships - three for the sixth wicket and one for the seventh. McCullum features in four of the five: 339 for the sixth wicket with Guptill (New Zealand's best stand over the last 12 months), 176 for the sixth wicket with Vettori, 164 with Vettori for the seventh wicket, and 126 for the sixth wicket with Vettori. That's three times that Vettori has had to bat deep for his team's cause. None of the top five collaborations have come from the top of the batting order. New Zealand's best opening stand was an unbeaten 90 between McIntosh and Watling against Pakistan in Napier when a result was improbable. The best for the second wicket was a paltry 50 between McIntosh and Ingram against Bangladesh in Hamilton, while the highest for the third wicket was 117 between Guptill and Taylor against Pakistan in Dunedin.

India's top ten partnerships weight in at a hefty 2374 runs as compared to New Zealand's 1357. That's a whopping 57% more.

Individually, over the past two years India are also streets ahead of New Zealand. India have scored 34 centuries as opposed to New Zealand's 13, with three double-centurions compared to Ryder's 201 against India.

I'm particularly interested in following Tendulkar against New Zealand, against whom he managed just 71 runs in four innings when they toured here seven years ago. He's got a good record against New Zealand (1,406 runs in 19 Tests at an average of more than 52) and in 2010, Tendulkar has scored 1,270 runs in nine Tests at an average of 97.69. If you want some spending money for Vegas, have a little wager on Tendulkar scoring that elusive triple century in the month of November.

India's top 10 partnerships in Tests: Nov 2009 - Nov 2010

Tendulkar & Vijay       308      vs Australia (Bangalore)
Dhoni & Laxman         259*    vs South Africa (Kolkata)
Raina & Tendulkar      256      vs Sri Lanka (Colombo)
Sehwag & Tendulkar   249      vs South Africa (Kolkata)
Dravid & Sehwag        237      vs Sri Lanka (Mumbai)
Gambhir & Sehwag     233      vs Sri Lanka (Kanpur)
Dhoni & Dravid          224       vs Sri Lanka (Ahmedabad)
Dravid & Tendulkar    222*     vs Bangladesh (Dhaka)
Sehwag & Vijay          221      vs Sri Lanka (Mumbai)
Sehwag & Vijay          165      vs Sri Lanka (Colombo)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Spent a couple hours at the MCA ground today watching the Ranji Trophy match between Mumbai and Saurashtra. About the only moment of excitement was when Rohit Sharma, after a long session at the nets, took over a photographer's camera and began shooting shots of us journalists sitting in the press enclosure.

The cricket, to say the least, was mind-numbingly dull and that is because of the nature of the wicket. How can Indian cricket survive when the curators are happy to produce such benign surfaces? Ajit Agarkar, will all due respect to his batting prowess that earned him a Lord's Test century, and 20-year-old left-arm spinner Iqbal Abdulla, career batting average of 21.64, with a previous best of 30*, should not have been able to bat like Ponsford and Woodfull. Abdulla was steering, cutting and deflecting with such ease and regularity. There was nothing in the wicket for the bowlers, and Ravindra Jadeja deserves a medal for managing four wickets on that track. Abdulla was unbeaten on 150 - 150!! - when Mumbai declared at 580 for 9.

Why can't Indian curators lay pitches that provide a fair degree of bounce? Ask anyone in the know and their response will most always be unsuitability of the soil and interference by captains and host associations. But how long will curators offer these excuses? Why are there but three sporting five-day wickets in the country? To me, the root of the cause is that typical 'sab chaltha hai' attitude. So deep is the malaise that now few can attempt to change anything. There is no other excuse. The BCCI isn't short of money. Is the pitches committee such a threat to administrators of state associations? How can state associations demand wickets of their own liking? 

One suggestion, not a solution, would be to scrap the home and away system currently in place. This has been suggested by others at the highest level but to no avail. This should be done for both the Super and Plate leagues. Have matches at neutral venues where pitces are not doctored according to the preference of a captain, coach or board official. 

In most grounds across the country, the honorary curator is an elected position within that respective state associations. Many are qualified, but not all. It is those who lack the necessary experience or skills that is killing domestic cricket. In countries such as England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, the curator is a professional position; the individual has graduated to level of education in cricket pitch management.

The BCCI and its various state associations need to implement a structure in which new curators are trained. The legion of geriatrics in existence need support and ideally need to be replaced. A system is in place, of that I know, but the pitches committee needs to work harder on formalized training of junior curators. The system must run deep.

What kid today will want to become a bowler if he watches the kind of cricket that was on view at the MCA ground today?