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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?