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Thursday, 17 November 2011

It’s Shutters for Yuvraj Singh in Test Cricket

Batting is cruel business, most definitely in the longer format of the game. Test match cricket is a true examination of batting skills, technique and temperament. With field restrictions and run rate pressures absent, the nuances of the pitch, its wear, the weather, match situation and session objectives, all present a whole new challenge. No wonder then that test cricket champions have always been good bowling attacks coupled with solid batting line ups.

Yuvraj Singh earned his first test call up in October 2003 at age 22, at his home ground of Mohali. His test record since, despite a few memorable performances has been chequered, one might say rather average. In 37 test appearances, stepping out to bat 57 times, including yesterday’s knock at Kolkata against the West Indies, he averages 34.80, with an away average closer to 29. Notably he has scored 80% of his test runs in matches played in the sub continent.

The shorter format is a different story though. Who can forget Yuvraj’s brutal willow in the first ICC Twenty20 World Cup of 2007, where he sent Stuart Broad into orbit six times in six deliveries? Awesome, clean, long hitting, at will and controlled. His contribution to the World Cup winning Indian team of 2011 has been the peak of his career so far. He scalped 15 wickets with his slow left arm, in addition to playing crucial knocks with the bat, amassing 362 runs, picking up four Man-of-the-Match awards, and the Player of the Tournament.

It’s like two different guys we are talking about, isn’t it? With the game now having settled to three formats, it is getting specialized. While in each country there are few exceptions i.e. players who can play and adjust to the needs of each format, equally there are others who have chosen to exclude themselves or are excluded from formats that don’t work for them.

In test match cricket, Yuvraj has not been the game changer or the reliable middle order batsman that he has been in the limited overs format. He enjoys the confidence of skipper Dhoni and the selectors, to be presented opportunities to resurrect his test credentials, first in the English summer following the World Cup, and then again in the current home series against the West Indies. However, it has not worked as desired and hoped. His apparent inability to deal with seaming conditions or even pace in placid conditions, are both suspect, more now than ever before.

So while the world is wondering when the 37-38 year old stalwarts of Indian batting will be replaced by young talent, it does seem prudent to replace the nearly 30 year old Yuvraj with a 23-25 year old.

This may all be moot. From the very apparent body language of Yuvraj on the field at the Eden Gardens today, after his dismal, almost embarrassing outing with the bat, in the Indian first innings, the message from the team management seems to be clear. The hero of the world cup will not be playing the next test at Mumbai or the Boxing Day test in Melbourne come December. It is now very unlikely that he will make the test squad for the Australian away series. Sensible for the team AND for Yuvraj Singh, I’d say.

We will most certainly see Virat Kohli in the side for the last test match against the West Indies at Mumbai. This will be his big opportunity to get ahead of two other strong contenders for the vacancy. I believe that Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma should present a good problem to the selectors when deciding the test squad for the Australian tour, in the next few weeks. Rohit averages over 63 in First Class cricket, has had several appearances for India in limited overs matches. Raina has played 15 tests, but has been in a similar mould as Yuvraj, more reliable and fluent in limited overs, but not best suited for testing conditions against genuine seam and pace.

My clear choice is Rohit Sharma, yes, ahead of Virat Kohli. Kohli has amazing big match temperament and a good cricketing brain. However he was visibly rattled by the genuine pace of Fidel Edwards in the West Indies earlier this year. That weakness will certainly be captured on tape, and will expose him at the test level again. Rohit, on the other hand, has the gift of extra time. The few additional nanoseconds of reaction time should give him the ability to stand head and shoulders above other contenders in really tough conditions. His opportunity in test cricket is yet to come, so difficult to say if he will pass the test of temperament, although his first class record of the longer format is most encouraging.

The Kolkata test is looking set for a fourth day finish, so let’s catch up after that!


Friday, 11 November 2011

Freedom Lies Beyond The Final Everest

Sachin Tendulkar has been the “boy” wonder of Cricket since he first donned the Indian cap in 1989 as a 16 year old. Yes, all that has been said and written about him by team mates, opponents, fans and journalists is well deserved and testimony to his supreme talent.

His mental and physical strength get lesser attention especially in the face of all the records that have crumbled in his path over the last decade or so. Keeping a steady head on his shoulders through a long career, never involved in controversy or scandals, this man has been a brilliant ambassador of the sport. His energy and enthusiasm still clearly visible on the field, obviously someone who was born to do this one thing – play cricket and score loads of runs!  
With the territory comes the amazing adulation of his fans, who seek to take personal joy in each of his achievements. He has had his critics and they have been silenced time and again with the very responsive willow he wields. Sometimes these critics have had to change perceptions, thanks to sophisticated statistical analysis of cricket records. It is now almost a rudimentary marketing tactic for a book written about cricket to include in its sales promotion some criticism of Sachin Tendulkar. It does certainly get attention for the book, although not sure if it sells more prints as a consequence.  

Long may he continue! He is still looking in command on the pitch. After a few months rest, he is looking fitter, with reflexes in tune to deal with the 90mph speedsters. However, I submit to you that the Little Master is probably now staring at his final Everest of batting records.
For any ardent follower of the game, this may not be new, yet to summarize some key batting records that Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar of India holds, include:

  • Most International matches featured (Test 182, 300 innings; ODI 453, 442 innings). Underestimated, but an amazing record in itself, of longevity and form. Never once dropped for lack of form in the last 22 years. 
  • Most career runs in Test Matches 15,048 and ODI 18,111, giving a total over 33,000 international runs. This is miles ahead of the next best.
  • Most international centuries with 51 in tests and 48 in ODI, now standing at a total of 99 international centuries. The next best is Ricky Ponting at 69 centuries.
  • Sachin also holds the record for the highest runs in an ODI innings at 200 n.o.
  • Ironically, he also has the highest number of scores in the 90s in internationals. A total of 27, from 18 in ODI and 9 in Tests. Just take a moment to wonder, what if?

But then even for this giant of batting there are a few important records which are now a bridge too far. These belong to other big names and legends of the game. They will remain so, when Sachin does hang up his gloves. Records that come to mind are Brain Lara’s highest knock of 400 n.o., Don Bradman’s career test average of 99.94, as also his 12 career double centuries. There are several other records in this hugely statistical sport of ours, but these are the real big mountains.  
In the recently concluded test match at Delhi, Sachin clearly became conscious of the opportunity and pressed on the pedal. Instead of playing on merit, as he was doing so comfortably, he began to take risks and manufacture shots, clearly in an effort to reach his 100th century before the winning target was breached. In this effort, he even missed a leg bye, to ensure strike for the rest of the Bishoo over, and perished in trying to force the pace.
Unfortunate but true, the Master is feeling the pressure, eager to reach this last Everest. Is he seeking independence from the pressure of this final frontier?  The expectations of his fans have always been his shadow, so it is something from within that woke up the devil on the shoulder at Delhi.   
In the near future Sachin Tendulkar, his family, his team mates and all his fans will celebrate this amazing feat of 100 international centuries. What I am really looking forward to are the matches and series that will follow! The feeling of independence, and the final innings of the Sachin career will begin then, and don’t be surprised if it is more exciting than the last 22 years.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Fresh Indian Attack for First Test Match on Home Soil in 2011

The last time the West Indies toured India for a test series was nine years ago. Yes, it was that long back, hence my stated position - Not Enough Cricket! Played at the Eden Gardens in Oct 2002, the last game of the three test series was drawn, a series India had won 2-0 before arriving in Kolkata.  

The dependable Chanderpaul is the only link to the West Indian side of that era, although for India, still carrying on the hard work are Dravid, Sehwag, Tendulkar and Laxman.  The match winners for India with the ball in this last series were the spin duo of Harbhajan and Kumble.  And here is where we have big change. The Indian bowling line up will sport a new look. A look, a real hard look, certainly forced by the debacle of the English summer.
The first test match of the present 2011 series kicks-off tomorrow at the Kotla in Delhi. This is also the very first test match on India soil this calendar. You can bet the stadiums will be rather empty. The starts maybe late and finishes early, with the track low and slow, with maybe some promise of bounce in the early stages.

Most significantly, you will see a new look bowling attack turning out for India. No Zaheer, no Sreesanth, no Praveen and no Harbhajan.  Suddenly the Indian selectors have new purpose and conviction!

Three from this lot of specialist bowlers,  Ashwin, Ojha, Yadav, Aaron or Rahul Sharma, will be teaming with the new leader of the Indian bowling attack, Ishant, who turned 23 a couple months ago, and is a veteran of 38 test matches. Dhoni will most likely pick Ashwin, Ojha and Yadav, having promised at least two test debutants at the game. Besides going in with two specialist spinners will be the sane choice in the conditions and considering the opposition.

That’s not the half of it. More gratifying is the fact that the selectors are clearly making use of this series to work out the best bowling combination for the Australian tour ahead.  Yadav will be working hard to make use of his opportunity, with a younger and quicker Aaron breathing down his neck. Harbhajan, Mishra and Jadeja will also be on the selectors’ radar, so the spin department remains contested.  This is the bowling unit for the test side, not to mention the other options from the limited overs format, like Vinay, Aarvind and Mithun.  With the Ranji season having kicked off, central contracts signed with 34 players by the BCCI, it is gratifying to note the Indian selectors are taking nothing for granted anymore and nor are the players.
Thank you England!    

The Indian selectors have assured 100% fitness, the fielding coach has been working the lads real hard, so it should be a good test for India, albeit in home conditions. Can the Indian bowlers take 20 West Indies wickets to win test matches when there is no run rate pressure?

Yes, I hear you. Is the current West Indies opposition a real challenge? Will this really prepare India for the upcoming away series against Australia?  But then as Dhoni pointed out earlier today, England is in the past, Australia is in the future, India needs to address their present challenge against the West Indies.  

It would be naive to underestimate the West Indies. This team is building in experience and in confidence rapidly. They have put player absences and debates behind them. Undoubtedly they have some high class talent, in Darren Bravo, Devendra Bishoo, Fidel Edwards, Kemar Roach and Ravi Rampaul. In the recent series against Bangladesh on similar tracks, Kirk Edwards showed his value with the bat.  Marlon Samuels is losing time, and has to return to the good times. Of course, let’s not forget the West Indies “Wall”, Shivnarine Chanderpaul. His open chested two eyed stance and Guyana style of marking guard is iconic, as are so many of his dogged innings over the years.  The West Indies have a good bowling unit, who undoubtedly will be working out plans on how to dislodge the Indian batting stalwarts on their favourite flat tracks. Not easy, but certainly this West Indies bowling unit is no push over.

Enjoy the match. Darren Bravo could still win you over, if he hasn't already!

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