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Monday, 29 August 2011

Will England dominate again?

With less than an hour to go now, India take on Leicestershire in a T20 game at Grace Road. Leicestershire are champions of the Friends Life T20 tournament, the English equivalent of the IPL, if you will, which concluded only last week. One hopes that Leicestershire have had time enough to clear their heads after what deservedly must have been a big celebration.

India have brought in reinforcements to replace half a dozen big names - Zaheer, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Ishant and the latest addition to the list, Gambhir. The last two practice games against Kent and Sussex have been won by the touring side, with notable performances notched up by Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Parthiv Patel and R P Singh. Well, does this indicate that India are better prepared for the limited overs games ahead? The side certainly looks fitter, and is probably hungrier too. The other advantage being that the morale of the new arrivals may be better preserved than team-mates who were at the receiving end of the test series humiliation.

The game today against the English T20 champs will certainly be a good test. Conditions are now wetter and colder than in the past few weeks. The official end to the English summer cricket season is a week away, but six internationals are yet to be played between India and England.

Notably, the games against Kent and Sussex did not feature any of the quicks who will figure in the England T20 and ODI sides. In addition to the test quartet of speed and spin, the tall and quick Dernbach and Finn are itching to get a crack. Dernbach bowls a well diguised slower ball dropping nearly 15mph, and Finn when bowling right areas, is a handful in any format. So does the Indian batting line up get a breather?

Expect the speed and steep bounce to continue the torrid examination of the new look Indian line up. You will see Patel, Kohli and Raina being bounced and tucked up. The only young batsman who may have the time to adjust could be Rohit Sharma. But his predominant onside play may well be tested by the swinging ball in the heavy conditions. The only relief the Indian batting can expect will be the use of the white Kookaburra ball, instead of the Duke cherry used in the test series. Hopefully the swing will be less menacing and reverse swing not as pronounced given the softer ground conditions.
It will be a better contest than the test matches, but rest assured England continue to hold the upper hand, India's world champion status notwithstanding.

There is little to say about or to expect from the Indian bowling attack. One can hope for a few performances, given occassional scoreboard pressure, but  it remains very mediocre in the context and the form of the England batting line up.

Cook could consolidate his position as the England ODI skipper, after a good first outing in the role against the Sri Lankans, and move one step closer to test captaincy.  

The other highlight of the series could be role that Rahul Dravid plays in this his last ODI series. The Wall looked miles ahead of his team-mates in dealing with the English attack in the test match leg of this tour. He will just have to continue to play anchor again through the ODIs now.

Here's hoping for a contest! A real one this time, please!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

India must force the English attack

Will the Oval test head the same way? Is a whitewash inevitable?

Fans on both sides are waiting for a real contest, at least one in this otherwise one-sided series so far. The Indian batting line up has much to prove. They have to find a way to take on the challenge of the relentless English pace attack. The Oval will present conditions suitable to achieve this goal, certainly more conducive than the previous three venues.

Much has been said in recent days about the causes and fixes, short term and long term challenges, facing the Indian test team. Some have even expressed the risk to the popularity of test match cricket itself. There are five solutions listed somewhere, and ten elsewhere.

In my humble opinion, way too much analysis and criticism of everything is going around. Here are the facts - England on relative strengths and form are deserving test champions. It is the margins of victory which have astounded all.

If the margins must be explained, it distills to only two issues. One of these issues was kind of expected. The weakness of the Indian bowling was scripted, not much surprise there really. This was further accentuated in the very first session of the series, when Zaheer walked away with a hamstring injury.

The second issue has been the real surprise and root cause of the big margins of defeat. The most mature batting line up in test cricket has not yet found a way to deal with the England pace battery in this series. There have been glimpses of solidity and aggression, but not enough consistency to post competitive scores.

The tall English seamers have bowled with good pace, very disciplined lines and consistent nagging lengths. They have used the occasional bouncer to a plan and achieved the result, more often than not. They have worked in combinations, giving no respite from either end.

The only one way forward for India is to try to get the English bowlers off their groove, upset their rhythm. India just have to force experimentation, change of lines and lengths, wavering of plans. And the Indian batting order have the ability and the experience to do so. They have to create the bad balls. Attritional cricket can not work in these conditions, not against this attack, not when they control each session and defintely not when they are under no threat. Sehwag, Gambhir, Tendulkar, Laxman and Dhoni have to attack, ideally play around Dravid, and stretch Strauss' bowlers into errors. 

And finally something I have maintained through this series. India can not go in with four bowlers, not with their quality, and as the series has proven, with the consequent workload. Munaf, RP and Ojha should get the Oval game alongside Ishant and Mishra. At this level, PK holds limited threat. But hey, he could be in for Mishra, as an all-rounder !

To the final test of this series, here we go! Happy viewing!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

England Deserving Champions of Test Cricket

There it is! England have reached the pinnacle of test cricket. A goal they have built toward slowly and surely over the past six years.

Historically test match cricket domination has been built on bowling strengths. While India have had their months in the sunshine, this England side certainly looks set to hold the crown for a few years. With a bowling attack second to none, England will be hard to displace at the top.

The Dhoni era of infallibility has ended with a rude thud. The time to consider a range of questions is upon India. The manager and captain get much credit and stick in cricket. Is this then the perfect time for the leadership to commence the rebuilding process?

In India's case there will be a spate of theories clogging cricketsphere. Too much cricket, too much money, too much adulation, too little drive, too old. The IPL schedule and BCCI's issues with the DRS will also find their way into explaining India's miserable humiliation.

Be that as it may, this is the opportunity to recognize the England team, the leadership and some very fine individual performers. The balance of this team and the quality of it's all-rounders is easily the best.

Congratulations England! You deserve the crown.

Looking forward to the Oval.

Best Accumulator of this Era

England started their journey of world domination in test match cricket in the summer of 2005 at Edgbaston. In a historic Ashes test against the Aussies, England began to believe. Four year on, with poetic symmetry, England will now reach their goal at this same venue.

A couple of things have changed since. The Edgbaston venue has had a recent £32m facelift and now competes with the best cricketing venues in the world. The team that England will displace is not Australia, but India, who the current ICC leaders in test cricket since Dec 2009.

So if you are a casual visitor to the planet, don't get down on yourself. Cricket is a complex game and yes, the team England are pulverizing are the current owners of the test crown, however one sided the contest may appear. India in this series have proven that sport is unforgiving to the complacent and under-prepared. Past performances count for nothing. Each session in test match cricket is a new battle, no matter what the record books say.    

My heart goes out to Alastair Nathan Cook, undoubtedly the next England skipper, for having missed his triple century yesterday. His patience and concentration were amazing, yet again. Easily the best accumulator of this era. Not flamboyant or expansive in his stroke making, but a lesson in focus and desire. Since his appearance on the test scene five years ago, against the same opposition, Cook has played anchor in many England victories.  

Incidentally, my heart also goes out to Virender Sehwag, a man of two test triple centuries, who walked into this game with a massive burden of expectations, and played two deliveries in all. Spare a thought.

India will surrender arms tomorrow. The England bowling battery will be all over them like a rash. The Indian batting may get past 300 in the second innings, and notch up a first this series, could be the only sidelight.

The last over of day three suggested that even Kevin Pietersen was able to extract spin and bounce from the pitch. He actually looked good enough to be picked as an off-spinner in the Indian team. That was the extreme paucity India suffered in the bowling department through this match, not unlike the previous two.

Big day tomorrow, for England fans and for all test cricket buffs, to usher in the new champs.

Keep watching!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

"Empire Strikes Back" at Edgbaston!!!

Four years and one day ago, on 10 Aug 2007, India piled on 664 first innings runs against England at the Oval. Yes, it's true. I saw the entire five days from the stands.

It is now payback time.

Anil Kumble registered his maiden test century in his 118th appearance in that outing. There were six other half centuries in the Indian innings. India were one up in the series and wanted to close the door on any possibility of an English comeback. Skipper Dravid did not declare and preferred to bat till the end.

India won the three test series 1-0, after barely achieving a draw at the Oval. Seven of the present Indian team played that match.

Strauss was there, and I suspect he remembers. Will he declare at the end of day three? Will he declare with a lead of 300? Or will he bat on?

More than half the current England side is new by comparison, younger and at the peak of their powers. The exact opposite is true of the Indian side.

In sport there is no shame in losing to a better opponent. But the relentless thrashing of the Indian test team that is on going at present is certainly disgraceful. The number one test team, represented by the richest and most adulated stars of the game, fresh from the euphoria of the "championship that matters" have been outplayed on each of 12 days of the series so far. Sorry, 11 days, Trent Bridge test was done and dusted in four days, wasn't it?

Just for the sake of some viewing pleasure, I hope India can put up a bit of a fight.

Goodnight from me, and goodnight from them!

Bresnan, you beauty!

The English seam attack is relentless. They delivered a faultless performance on day one of the Edgbaston test. Strauss throws the ball to any of his three seamers, and they bowl disciplined lines and a nagging lengths, never letting up the pressure on either end. And as we know bowlers are like Alsatians, they hunt in pairs.

For me the stand out performer was Bresnan. Unassuming big lad, who seems to amble in, tick the speedometer at 85mph, and always bowls to a plan. He induced the hook from Laxman with a surprise bouncer, yet again, to be caught at fine leg. But the real beauty was the outswinger, bowled from wide of the crease, moving away just enough to beat the technically perfect defensive blade of the man in form, Rahul Dravid. It doesn't get better than that. Inducing a mistake throw a false stoke or a poor leave is one thing, but to produce that beauty was something else. It was unplayable, if there ever was an unplayable delivery.

The Indian batting crumbled into submission, Sehwag, Gambhir, Tendulkar, Raina, until Dhoni with support from Praveen, took the attack to the bowlers. The belligerent Dhoni got his side past 200, and for once in this current series demonstrated that the only way to deal with a world class bowling battery is to take the attack to the opposition.

By the end of the day, England were back in control of the game completely, exposing yet again that India can not take the field with four bowlers, not with their quality. Today, on day two, India will be made to toil and be lucky if they can pick five England wickets.

It was good to see Strauss back amongst them, and Cook working hard to find form. As the pitch gets slower, Bopara, KP, Bell and Morgan will be a handful. India may not regain control of this game hereon, but it will be shame if they don't put up a fight.

Hope we get a full day of play. Happy viewing!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

India play the joker!

Don't get put off, I mean it in the best possible manner. With a weak hand, India had to pull out the joker. The joker being Sehwag, the all powerful card that is hoped to prevent their steep fall from grace and delay the loss of the test crown. Much has been written and cyberspace is full of expectations from him like never before. If he pulls off a stunning knock in the first innings, he truly deserves the invisible cape his fans swear he wears.

The series I'm afraid does look like going in one direction only. Every injury news on the Indian side has elicited snide comments about the IPL, which is a bit unfair, in my view. That these injuries have upset the team balance and weakened the already weak Indian bowling attack is the story of the series so far. Unless Sehwag can turn his arm over and get a few, which I am guessing he is not yet ready for, I fear the challenge of 20 England wickets will remain unconquered.

In both, the Lords and the Trent Bridge tests, England averted risky situations with the bat, to come back and dominate the games. The second innings burst at Lords by Ishant was negated by a superb display of counter attack with the bat by Prior. This was the match defining knock which then allowed England to win the game easily on day five. At Trent Bridge, when the England first innings looked like wrapping up for very few, Broad and Swann counter attacked brutally, to take control of the game thereafter. These two critical sessions were won by England, exposing the inability of the Indian bowling to go for the kill. It was also notable that during both these sessions runs came at a fair clip, and the bowling could not stem the flow, never mind pick the wickets.

The lucky break that Bopara is likely to get tomorrow, in place of the injured Trott, opens his contest with Morgan once again. On a relatively slow Edgbaston deck, that's not good news for India. Also worth noting that Edgbaston is a happy hunting ground for KP, who must be suffering withdrawal symptoms since his double century at Lords. Cook and Strauss have been out of the runs, and Bell batted like a dream at Trent Bridge. In gist, the task for India bowling is cut out. And when they have sorted this lot, they have Prior, Broad, Bresnan and Swann to worry about.

The real issue with team selection that the Indian think tank face is not Raina or Kohli. In my view, both are suspect against quick seam and bounce. The issue is can they afford not to play five bowlers? It is a risk, but for a team with no genuine all rounders, balance is always going to be tough. With a relatively slower brown track, as is expected, India maybe well advised to go with both spinners, Mishra and Ojha, alongside three seamers. I'd pick the left arm seamer, RP, to combine with Ishant and Sreesanth. Yes, I know Praveen has picked a few wickets and bowled long spells, but I can not see him as a real threat against the England batting line up, especially when wickets are needed to push home an advantage. Harsh, but true.

The riots in London and other cities have been a big worry since the weekend, but let's hope everything will calm down tonight, and cricket will captivate all our attention tomorrow morning.

Keep watching and keep reading!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

England ready for the crowning

The Trent Bridge test will be long remembered  as the match in which India, the reigning number one, were made to look like a minnow side by a dominant England.

During this test much has been said about fitness, player absence, the winning template and the spirit of the game. Trent Bridge has  left England with two championship points, to borrow some tennis terminology, to the number one spot. India will scrap hard in the next two test matches of the series, but make no mistake, it will not stop England from winning the series and the crown.   

In April 2011, during the build up to this England India series, I had written on my blog the following passage in my post "Cricket -An Asian Sport"

"India has held the number one Test ranking since Dec 2009. This rise was hard fought over a long period of building. Like every team sport which has top drawer contenders, at some point the top spot will be occupied by another competent side. The era of Test Cricket domination for a decade or more is now probably over. In the long history of the game there have been long periods of domination by England, Australia and the West Indies. The top spot in recent times has always been under threat, much like ATP rankings of tennis pros. This is good for the game, as uncontested leadership makes the sport less exciting. Recall the period of domination in F1 of the Ferrari Schumacher combination, which forced significant changes to the sport, to open up the field. In Test Cricket today there are at least five teams at any point within striking distance of the number one spot, keeping the whole “Cricket Industry” interested. Akin to the changes in F1, the threshold into this variable era of Test Cricket leadership was marked by the famous English victory over the dominant Aussies in the Ashes summer of 2005. 
No team can afford complacency, beyond a healthy level of confidence, aiming to maintain the winning habit and the momentum. India will be very conscious of complacency, either for the upcoming West Indies tour or the English tour this summer. England, they well know have always been very tough competitors, especially in their own typical conditions."

The present England side has built the strongest test match combination in the game today. Following the template of the Windies of the 80's, they have a quartet of four tall seamers at 80-90mph, with atleast two amongst them who are competent allrounders. Allrounders are rare breed these days, aren't they? They also have the best spinner in the world, making the bowling attack a real handful. No respite offered at all to opposition batsmen. It is worth also mentioning an impressive reserve list of pacemen who could make it to any other test side as first choice. That is a formidable bowling battery, a great problem of plenty, and one that no other test side can compare with or come close. Add to that five very competent top order batsmen and the best keeper-batsman in the business, and the combination is complete. This is easily the best English test team in decades. And at a time when other test sides are on the verge of or in the middle of a rebuild. This English side looks set to dominate test cricket for a couple of years, if not more.

India have held the crown for less than two years, thanks mainly to their batting strengths. A line up that put up or chased down scores which the thin bowling resources could deal with. With the present series, one can see the results when the batting has struggled to get past 300 in the four innings played so far, against a very demanding English attack. The bowling has been further impeded by  absence and injury to key bowlers. Remember Australia soon after McGrath and Warne retired?

England will be deserving test match champions, when they finally get there in the days ahead. They definitely look set to hold their domination for a while. The Strauss-Flower plan, and execution, of world domination is  now very close to fruition.

Well played England.

Can't wait for the third test, and hopefully watch a more complete Indian side take on England in Birmingham. Another great match in prospect.

Keep watching!     

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