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Monday, 10 December 2012

England Turnaround Reminiscent of Botham's Ashes

In eight days of play Captain Alistair Cook and his troops have produced a famous turn-around for English test cricket. One which ranks very close to the Botham, Willis, Dilley inspired return from the dead against Kim Hughes' Australia in the Ashes series of 1981.

The first test at Ahmedabad was a one-way street and the 2011 nightmare of the desert against Pakistan seemed likely to repeat itself. The conditions were not conducive to say the least - tracks were certainly going to be turners, better suited to India's batting and bowling strengths, and the absence of the DRS stuck in the throat. Skipper Dhoni was screaming for square turning tracks for the games ahead. It had all the trappings of another trial by spin series.

England learnt from Ahmedabad very quickly indeed. They did.

They responded to the team selection error of the first test, bringing in a second spinner for Mumbai. The England double spin attack of Monty Panesar and Graham Swann seized the opportunity, using the turn and bounce of the track way better than the triple spin attack of India. The key difference was the extra pace with which they hit the track, forcing false footwork and extracting more from the pitch.

Skipper Cook learnt from observing his opposite number that spin and reverse swing were the real weapons. His previous persistent use of pace made way for early use of spin. The increased spin resources at his command worked like a charm, but did not lead to complacency when it came to team selection decisions. First Tim Bresnan and then Stuart Broad made way for replacements. Steven Finn was included for the Kolkata test adding the additional dimension of pace and bounce to the attack. The combination came into its own at Kolkata, with Jimmy Anderson leading from the front, reverse swing and all.

The first innings was always going to be crucial in the conditions. Chasing in the fourth innings on tracks that turn on day one of the test match is always a tough proposition. England's first outing with the bat was the key. Here Alistair Cook has led the way from the front, like no skipper in recent memory. His unflappable temperament, true footwork, solid technique and regular rotation of strike, have been a real batting masterclass. At age 27 he is a legend, having scored more test centuries than any other Englishman, five as skipper in as many tests. He does love to lead from front, doesn't he?

The other key player to have come good at a suitable time has been the the super-talented Kevin Pietersen. Having looked unsure of his defence in Ahmedabad, he put that issue to bed effectively in Mumbai, and the runs have flowed freely since. Pietersen never let the Indian bowlers to build pressure on him, not by rotating strike, but by hitting the ball to all corners of the park.

England seemed to have recognised after the first game that the toss and the track were uncontrollable. The odd ball may turn square or keep low, so trying to keep everything out as they did at Ahmedabad wasn't going to be enough. Their approach in the middle shifted effectively to keeping the scoreboard ticking, rotating the strike, after taking the time to get used to the pace of the track. It has paid off handsomely.

With the Cook anchoring the big first innings at Mumbai and Kolkata, England built formidable leads to win both tests in nearly similar fashion. Every batsman who came out put a high price on his wicket, intent on occupying the crease. The weary legs in the Indian side allowed easy release of pressure more often than not. The Indian bowlers did not achieve much by way of reverse swing, and the spinners bowled at a slower pace allowing that fraction extra to adjust. It also needs to be said that the footwork of the England batsman against spin has been exemplary compared to their opposition. That much for old mythology!

The real difference in the two sides has been application and the will to scrap. In the past two tests the Indians have looked particularly jaded, playing an attritional brand of cricket. The Indian team is top heavy and ready for a few big changes, as we can agree. With the series now poised as it is, the question is when and how many. The dropping of Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh has been announced, but the real interest would be the eleven who take the field for the final test.

With only the Nagpur test to go, England have made a brilliant comeback into this four test series. They are up two games to one, looking at worst to a drawn series. Irrespective of the Nagpur result, England have already pulled off one their biggest turnarounds in test cricket, in a long time.

Friday, 16 November 2012

England on the Ropes

By the end of the second day at Ahmedabad, England seem to have walked straight into the trap laid by India, without making any significant effort to side step it.

Sounds like unfair criticism on the face of it, but let us examine the evidence so far.

England lost the toss and it was a crucial toss. It generally is in any test match, in any conditions. But consider the way England have gone about their business aside from that.

1. Team selection was in line with the standard model preferred by England, going in with four specialist bowlers, three seamers and one specialist spinner. Statistics and norm, not conditions, dictated the wisdom of that. It was precisely this mix that England were forced to change in their last two subcontinental series, having to field two specialist spinners in the second test of each of those series. Expect the same delayed wisdom in the current series.

2. With Sehwag and Gambhir going well against seam in the first session, Cook persisted with more seam than spin, giving away early momentum advantage to India. The ball was coming slowly off the pitch, and the batsman were grateful for the pace on the ball. Not taking away anything from Sehwag, conditions demanded better use of resources by Cook, rather than going with the "normal" seam heavy model.

3. That leads to the question of spinning options available to Cook. Given the side picked, Samit Patel and Kevin Pietersen could have been used much more. Maybe even Trott to take pace off. If nothing else, Swann in shorter spells with fewer scoring opportunities from the other end, may have proven even more effective.

4. Yes, there were fielding lapses, and they can not be criticised endlessly. The issue that glared was that the previously tested and reliable fielders in specialist positions were missing. I'd have gone with Cook at short-leg, Jimmy at slip, and so on. On flat batting tracks, typical of fresh test match pitches in the subcontinent, fielding lapses can prove expensive, as they did here.

5. Bowling consistent offside lines works well, creating opportunities in seaming conditions and on bouncy pitches. However the same line can offer easy width and scoring opportunities on slow low tracks. This was not worked out by the England seamers in the crucial early part of the innings, as they continued to bowl in their "best areas", ideal for seaming conditions.

6. Good bowling, with well thought out plans, disciplined lines and lengths creates trouble for batsmen, English or Indian. Swann bamboozled Kohli on day one with a beauty, as did Ashwin when going through Compton's gate on day two. Common aspect was the cauldron like pressure created by the bowler and the close fielders, allowed by the batsman only looking to keep everything out, rather than looking to rotate the strike.

Notably much of this hind-sight may only be worth considering for the second test.

So what can England do, if anything, to stay in this contest at Ahmedabad? It is the last issue that England need to focus on for the rest of this match. There will be the odd ball keeping low, the one that turns square and the one that bounces more than expected, so trying to keeping everything out defensively will not ensure it.

The best way forward for England at Ahmedabad is to keep the scoreboard ticking with one's and two's. Sounds easier than it is, but instead of wondering about the pitch or getting bogged down by their track record against spin, the English batsmen would be best advised to keep seeking comfort at the non-strikers end. Best place to be batting if you want to occupy the crease for long. Precisely what England need to do now, occupy the crease for long.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

England Back to the Wall

England are up against a well rested and eager Indian side on home turf. They start the test series in Ahmedabad on what will undoubtedly be a slow low turner, left to bake without covers in the past few days.

The humiliation of India in the English summer of 2011 still fresh in the minds of several Indian stalwarts. This is a grudge series, make no mistake. Dhoni's press interviews highlight the respect that teams must accord to their oppositions, something the Indians missed in the England last year.

The odds are stacked against England. Never mind the past track record or the time spent on the crease in the warm up games, nothing will matter when the first ball is bowled at Ahmedabad. The challenge for the English batting line up will be truly testing.

The last two tours of the subcontinent by England, against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, have been rather forgettable. Much tougher for them to digest was the recent plastering on home soil at the hands of the South Africans. Not only dis the Proteas displace England at the top spot, Graeme Smith claimed his third England skipper, when Andrew Strauss retired after the series, leaving Alistair Cook in-charge. Effectively England go into this series certainly a lot less confident than at any point in the past 18 months.

The relative absence of spin in the tour warm up games has left England wondering what to make of their acclimatisation process. While much of the talk is about spin, reverse swing will play a key role in this series. The series could well be the perfect sign off for Zaheer Khan. The combination of R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha will exert real pressure, the moment the shine is off. Yuvraj Singh has made a big comeback, in more ways than one, after a poor test series down under. He will be an added slow bowling option for Dhoni, to keep attacking.

Sachin Tendulkar, M S Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag will want to re-assert themselves on the English bowlers. The purple patch of Virat Kohli, if it continues, the Indian number three will make England pay in familiar conditions.

England have Kevin Pietersen, back and in good nick, debutant Nick Compton, skipper Alistair Cook and dependable Jonathan Trott, all looking to make the backbone of the batting line up. I suspect Ian Bell and Samit Patel will struggle in the test series. Key to playing long innings, as it always is in the sub-continent, the English batsmen will have to keep rotating the strike, avoiding pressure build up.

Test match cricket is about taking 20 opposition wickets, and in this series India look like the team better equipped to do so. Would it be a 4-0 whitewash? Maybe not, but I'm thinking 3-0.

The DRS will come up in conversation at least twice in each session of play. That is one prediction that you can bank on.

What do you think?

Saturday, 6 October 2012

15 Reasons Why Gayle is a Legend

Christopher Henry Gayle, the big Jamaican, has established himself as a legend of the shortest format of cricket. His batting average of over 44 in T20s is enabled largely by his 306 big hits over the fence, some bigger than his fellow country man, Usain Bolt's, favourite distance!

Gayle wrecks havoc when he gets going and is undoubtedly the biggest nightmare for bowlers and their captains. He fills stadiums everywhere he plays, with fans all over the world eager to witness the "Gaylestorm". T20 record books have new chapters and statisticians remain ecstatic each time he steps out to bat. With his consistency in the format, he may well remain the best T20 specialist batsman for a long time.

But what makes him so special? What sets him apart and above the other big hitters of the game? His strength and power, ultra-cool demeanour and that tree trunk of a bat, while impossible to miss, conceal the underlying attributes that set him well above his compatriots.

Elements of his technique, his mental strength, his awareness and cunning, all make Gayle the real danger that he is. Consider some of the less obvious strengths that combine to make him a such a lethal willow wielder.

1. At the crease when setting up to receive, he gives little away by a big trigger movement. To intimate and force an error, he may move around occasionally, as a specific tactic.

2. Gayle has no favoured sides of the pitch, the on-side or the off-side are both his favourites, making it impossible to pack one side or force a false stroke.

3. He is classical in his shot selection, more often than not playing with the sway, be it spin, seam or swing.

4. Gayle has great balance when striking the ball, keeping a steady head, never really over-hitting and losing his shape in the process.

5. He has good hand speed to complement his strength and heavy bat. The momentum that generates has to be truly immense.

6. Gayle plays in the "W", a wider version of the classical "V", if you will. He clearly favours the full straight blade, to cross batted horizontal shots. Not to say that his horizontal blade strokes, when deployed, aren't equally fierce.

7. He demonstrates surprisingly nimble footwork in the crease, using the depth well, although he rarely charges down the track. Digging out full pitched deliveries for straight sixes is more than brute strength.

8. Gayle plays from a rather stable stance, but is very adept at making room quickly, with the front toe pointing perfectly, for a full free swing of his blade and a comprehensive follow through.

9. While he intimidates by his sheer presence, he is also cunning, in targeting the right bowlers and forcing them into errors. While it all does look easy flowing, Gayle's awareness and ability to pick out the bowlers and the areas to target makes him a real headache for fielding captains.

10. His supreme confidence in his own ability, to drive up the run rate, allows him and his team mates, to be never daunted by a few tight overs. This takes away one of the key pressure tactics of the T20 format.

11. Gayle is taken for granted for his impeccable execution of the big shots, allowing little margin of error to his opponents. That in itself has to come from hardwork and practice, despite appearing completely natural.

12. Gayle's awareness extends to knowing his own weaknesses. Being a big man he needs few strides to complete a run. Yet he hardly ever pushes for cheeky singles, risking a run out.

13. The ability to think boundaries from the first ball is never in question, yet Gayle takes a few deliveries to get used to the pace and bounce of the surface. Despite being aggressive, he does not get frustrated by lack of strike or a few good stops in the field.

14. A subtle yet crucial skill is Gayle's ability think like a bowler, anticipating and pushing them into bowling his areas, being ready to pounce as they do.

15. He brings no apparent weaknesses or pre-dispositions, which can't be an accident. Never have you heard that he needs pace on the ball to play his strokes or conversely that he is susceptible to seam or bounce. Never rated as a great player of spin, he is not threatened by turn and mystery.

Chris Gayle is the cool assassin who genuinely enjoys his profession to the hilt, as is apparent from the flair and joy with which he plays, speaks and celebrates. His calm presence at the crease, allows his team-mates the freedom to play their game, with the confidence that they have the most competent partner at the other end.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Champions plastered by South Africa

The concluded Oval Test was only the sixth test match defeat at home for England since July 2007, three of them at the hands of the South Africans.

The last time England lost at home by an innings was against the Australians in the summer of 2009. The margin of defeat was by an innings and 80 runs. Yesterday England were trounced by the Proteas by an innings and 12 runs at the Oval. But the margin really hides the plastering received by the Test cricket champions at the hands of the South Africans.

Since last summer when England achieved the numero uno status and displacing India with disdain, they have looked head and shoulders above all visiting sides - Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia. This series was to be the contest, top team versus top contender. If the Oval Test is anything to go by, the hunters are now the hunted.
The true margin of defeat at the Oval was 2 South African wickets against England’s 20. It doesn’t get more one-sided than that. It was the 5-day express version of a whitewash. Where are the clouds when you need them? And why was the series opener not played at Lord’s?
The Proteas landed on the shores after a training camp in the Swiss Alps, played only two warm games before the Test match. At the end of day one, England were sitting pretty. The curators had produced a  bald brown track, obviously to keep Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Kallis at bay. Strauss won the toss, elected to bat and England finished Day 1 on 267/3, with Cook unbeaten on  114, having completed his 20th Test century. A big first innings score was on the cards, normal service likely to continue. There was even talk of the South Africans being a bit “undercooked”.
The first session of the second day changed all that and more. The South African bowlers came to the party. England lost the last 7 wickets for 118 runs and were wrapped up for 385, with Morkel, pick of the bowlers, accounting for four wickets. That brought the determined Smith to the pitch, who lost his partner cheaply. And for a while the England total looked par. What followed in the next couple of days is what dreams or nightmares are made of. Two massive partnerships, the first between Amla and Smith, and then an undefeated one between Amla and Kallis took South Africa miles ahead in morale terms.
This Test match will be remembered for several records, but mostly for the unbeaten 13-hour vigil at the crease by Amla. The calm and modest South African became the top Test scorer for his country, remaining unconquered on 311 when the declaration came at tea on Day 4. Smith scored a determined 131 in his 100th Test match appearance and King Kallis produced his 43rd test century, remaining unbeaten on 182. The England bowling attack seemed to be completely out of ideas, mostly working on containing than attacking. The swing and seam movement had completely dried up. The pitch was flat and the sun was out.
However all that changed in the second innings! With England 252 adrift, the ball started to move laterally in the hands of the South Africans.  By the end of day four they had already accounted for four English wickets, including the two most stubborn, Cook and Trott. The fifth day was further testament, as Steyn moved the ball both ways, as did Philander. The rough helped Tahir, and Morkel was intent on increasing the pressure. The end came swiftly with the second new ball, with one session to spare in the match.
The England bowling-attack had worked much better in the UAE against Pakistan, and then in Sri Lanka, in conditions where they did not expect any help from the pitches. Broad seemed to be over-pitching often, searching for swing but with little effect. Swann bowled long spells, often hitting the track harder but unable to extract enough spin and bounce. Anderson and Bresnan worked hard but could not deliver the goods. Bopara was probably the only one who caused a few problems – with the ball. The holding game didn’t work for England. The subcontinental pitch didn’t work either.
The South Africans were relentless in the game, with ball and bat, after an average first day. They played with AB, as the make shift wicket-keeper in the absence Boucher, needed to use only four batsmen and did all the damage with their four main bowlers in short sharp spells.
The crown is looking slippery tonight. England will come back stronger in the next two Tests. They will not roll over, not at home. This series is very much on. What remains to be seen are the tactics, the team mix and the pitch conditions that the home team comes back with.
The Olympics will be a distraction, so stay tuned in! It’s not over yet.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Contest of the Summer

We are nearly there. It kicks off tomorrow, on the 19th of July, at the Oval in London.

For test cricket connoisseurs, it is the highlight of the summer cricket calendar. The heavyweight championship of test cricket, between two rather evenly matched contestants.

The number one ranked English will be challenged by the number three ranked South Africans, nine points now separating the two sides in the recently refreshed ICC point system. One thing is clear though - the winner of this series will be champion of test cricket. It doesn't get tighter than that, especially when the contest is limited to only three tests, and the weather likely to play a bigger part than usual.

This series will be a treat! On display and slugging it out will be the top bowlers, batsmen and all rounders of the game today. Factor in England's form, unbeaten streak at home, perfectly balanced and stable team, on the one hand. On the other hand, star performers amongst the South African ranks, an unbeaten away record since 2006 and the memory of having humbled England at home four years ago.

Graeme Smith has set his side the challenge of knocking the crown off England's head. There is no doubt that if anyone can, the Proteas can.

Both teams will be led by experienced campaigners, gritty left-handed opening batsmen. Smith will lead his side out at the Oval for the 100th time, while Andrew Strauss will play his 100th test at Lords.

Absolutely the best bowling talents of the present day game will be on display in the series. In heavy green conditions it will be a true test for batsmen. So hold on tight as Dale Steyn, James Anderson, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn or Tim Bresnan steam in. Or when Imran Tahir or Graeme Swann mesmerise. For good measure South Africa have options in young Marchant de Lange and left-arm seamer Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

To contest the bowling quality promised in the series, are some of the best batsmen in the game. In addition to the two skippers, the batsmen who will be a treat to watch in the series include Alastair Cook, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. And above all, the superstar cricketer, the best all rounder in the world, Jaques Kallis.

So in this toughest of contests, who will prevail? Will England retain the crown? Or will South Africa finally reach the pinnacle? The prize makes the contest even more juicy.

It will be close. Maybe even wonder if South Africa could repeat 2008, and win by a slim margin. But, honestly, I can not see this England unit crumbling in home conditions. Yes, there will be tight sessions, and South Africa will have their nose ahead in a few. If we get three completed tests, expect three results. In the end though England will prevail.

One last thought. Watch out for Imran Tahir! Wrist spinners have always been trouble, and Tahir has the skills and deception to cause a ripple or two for the English batsmen.

Happy viewing!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Edgbaston - Significant for the West Indies

The ongoing test series between England and the West Indies is decided before the first ball is bowled on Thursday at Edgbaston, Birmingham. The test champions are 2-0 ahead in the three test rubber.
To be fair, the results so far have not surprised anyone. In recent years England have been dominant, particularly at home, and despite a tough series in the UAE against Pakistan, continue to have the winning formula and combination for home conditions.  And yet, the upcoming third test of the series remains very significant to the West Indies cause.  
In all quarters, commentators and the media have been working hard at not sounding condescending or patronizing the West Indies side. The team arrived on the island with notable talents missing in the ranks, thanks to their continuing impasse with the West Indies cricket authorities. Undoubtedly this is a source of big disappointment for cricket fans, within and outside the West Indies.  A side which includes the likes of Chris Gayle, Jerome Taylor, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Dwayne Bravo, could give a much better account of the true strength of West Indies cricket.
Here is the painful part! The unstated expectation from the present outfit reminds one of the pre-Clive Lloyd era, when the West Indies were entertaining, with a few excellent players, the occasional dazzling performance, but not really expected to win! The passion and frustration of past West Indian greats like Vivian Richards and Michael Holding is palpable in the media. After all they were a part of the West Indian resurrection and domination during their time, now immortally and beautifully captured in the documentary “Fire in Babylon”.
In the first test match at Lords, the West Indies surrendered initiative in the first innings. They played hard in the second knock, though not enough to save the game. In the second test, by contrast, they put together an excellent first innings, with determined centuries from Marlon Samuels and Darren Sammy, but collapsed miserably in the second outing. In both these games, the application and skill of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Marlon Samuels have been exemplary, matched in determination by their less gifted skipper, Darren Sammy.  Adrian Barath, Denesh Ramdin, Kemar Roach, Ravi Rampaul and Darren Bravo have displayed ability, but have not yet been able to put in telling performances, to impact the game in a significant manner.
With Kemar Roach ruled out of the final test due to a shin injury, and Sunil Narine expected to land in the UK today, Edgbaston will hopefully see the test unveiling of the young mystery spinner. Narine has had a fantastic impact on the recently concluded IPL, and will certainly be a topic of discussion in the England team meetings and preparations during this week. The footage from the IPL will be analysed and ideas thrown up to enable reading his variations early. The nightmare of Saeed Ajmal in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the winter cannot be allowed to repeat!         
The West Indies have to work hard and apply themselves in both the innings at Edgbaston. This outfit has shown commitment and resolve, but in critical patches have suffered from lack of self belief.  If they can string together the Lords second innings and the Trent Bridge first innings, which incidentally were back-to-back in a sense, we could witness a brilliant and very significant test match in this dead rubber yet.
Until the playing eleven is announced on the morning of the Edgbaston test, I am keeping my fingers crossed that the West Indies authorities and Narine don’t fall into any discord! Yes, this is an issue that concerns cricket fans, particularly in a week in which Kevin Pietersen announced his retirement from international limited overs cricket, and Australian players have threatened to strike over pay!   

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

England Have The Opportunity

The test match at Galle, between hosts Sri Lanka and the number one test team, England, is poised tantalisingly at the end of day three. England have the perfect opportunity, and the challenge, to prove that they are deserving holders of the test cricket crown. They can do so only by winning in the subcontinent.

The winter has been a big wake up call for England test cricket. Their domination of Sri Lanka and India during the English summer is already a fading memory. In the recent series against Pakistan played in the UAE, England fared miserably with the bat, getting white-washed by a resurgent opposition. To be fair, they completely reversed their performance in the limited overs format, with very positive batting and clinical bowling. It is this new found aggression in batting that England quite obviously walked in with at Galle.

The positive approach did not pay off in the first innings at Galle. Some premeditated shot selection and unforced errors handed the initiative to the hosts, who themselves have struggled with the bat in this match. Two exceptional performances, one from each Jayawardene, has got Sri Lanka with their nose ahead. English batting has certainly put Herath on a pedestal, though quite clearly the demon is in the mind. Anderson and Swann worked hard to pick the wickets, but once again the result depends upon English batsmen, and their mental battles.

The English batting skills are not in question, to my mind. There was some evidence of that in the assured partnership between Trott and Pieterson in the last session today. England finished the day at 111 for two, chasing a record 340 for victory.

Let's assess the English batting yet to come. I believe that Ian Bell's return to form is very timely. After a nightmare series against Pakistan, Bell showed his skills against the spin of Herath and Randiv with a dominant half century in the first outing. If England can avoid losing wickets in bunches, an cobble a partnership involving Bell alongside Trott or Pietersen, it could prove to be the match defining one. Unfortunately, the opposite could be equally true. Sri Lanka want two key wickets to gain control, certainly Bell is one of them.

There is more. Prior is an accomplished test batsman, topped batting averages for England against Pakistan recently. His application to a situation has given England a match winning grip in many a test in the past few years. His presence at one end always is a comfort for England.

Patel is in his debut test, and did certainly look nervy going back to a well pitched up delivery in the first innings. He will be looking to make amends. Broad and Swann never give up and can certainly take the attack to the opposition and work themselves out of trouble if so required.

Records and stats notwithstanding, I think England are definitely in with a chance. Trott looked less than comfortable today but applied himself well during his stay at the crease. It will be about application and building partnerships, about keeping the demons at bay, one over, one session at a time.

The champs could be back tomorrow!

It is always compelling to watch a well contested test match. Nothing else comes close.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Sri Lankan Lions The True Gladiators

If you, like me, enjoy supporting the underdog, the Sri Lankan Lions present a veritable feast. They play a fiery brand of cricket and refuse to roll over and die. True gladiators this bunch.

The CB Series final down-under has been a feast of elegance, spirit and skill. Undoubtedly the two best teams made the final, and what a three match final it is turning about to be. One game a-piece and all to play for in Melbourne.

The Aussies have had an absolutely brilliant summer, drubbing the Indian tourists consistently. The rub of the green, resurgent and new talents, it's been fun all the way really for Aussie cricket. Michael "Pup" Clarke mentioned world domination more than once, as I recall from press reports.

And then came Mahela and his brigade.

Leading from the front, elegantly using his golf drives and deft nudges at the top of the order, the Lions aren't struggling any more. Dilshan has struck the purple patch of his life after being relieved of captaincy and Prince Sanga is creaming the bowlers with his own special brand of south-paw elegance.

The youngsters are not far behind, with Chandimal and Thirimanne showing a clear glimpse of the future of Sri Lankan cricket. The all-round talents of Kulasekara have surfaced, finally, too.

The Aussies look fallible. Something that escaped our imagination when they were mauling the Indians a few weeks ago. Warner and Hussey have looked brilliant with the bat, but suddenly the Aussies are beatable. Overwhelmed by the purpose and application of their opposition.

A small island producing such amazing talent and leadership, a true credit to the sport. I grew up in the generation when Sri Lanka gained test status, and despite being the rookies back then, they demonstrated amazing depth, skill and talent. To Sri Lankan cricket followers of the new generation this may sound strange, but they can really be proud of the state of their cricket in their short history as a test playing nation.

I look forward to the big finale of the CB Series come Thursday night, as do a few million Sri Lankan and Aussie fans. If you are a betting person, don't bet against Sri Lanka unless the odds are really favourable. This team doesn't really know when they are beaten.

And, while we are on the subject, the Asia Cup will be a true feast for the cricket glutton. With a spirited Sri Lanka, a resurgent Pakistan, and India on the rebuild, it promises many a sleepless night.

Enjoy the final on Thursday!

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Accumulator Returns

Alastair Cook has expanded his comfort zone. Despite an up and down relationship, he has now taken the one day game by the collar and made it his own. Not in the style of a Sehwag or a Warner, but with his characteristic powers of application and concentration. Cook, the tireless accumulator of runs in test match cricket, undoubtedly the best of the present era, has now turned it on in the 50 over format. 

English selectors memorably excluded Cook from the World Cup 2011 squad, despite his unbelievable exploits Down Under in the preceding Ashes test series. After a mixed showing in the tournament, the selectors reinstated Cook back into the ODI team, and as the skipper this time. This certainly was a strange decision at the time, particularly in the context of his World Cup exclusion and the justifications offered, his relatively low strike rate and inability to play the big shots. The obvious intention of Alastair Cook's reinstatement as skipper of the ODI team was to provide him a grooming platform as the potential successor to Andrew Strauss. And Cook has not disappointed.

At age 27, Cook has played only 43 ODIs so far, having led England in 20 of these. To put this in some context, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, who are considered upcoming Indian talent, have each played more than 70 ODIs already. Cook avergages just over 41 runs per innings in ODIs, with a strike rate of 80 runs per 100 balls faced, having produced 14 innings of 50 plus runs in his 43 outings. Notably, his average when batting as the skipper is above 55 runs, with a strike rate of 92. He has scored 3 out of his 4 one-day centuries as England captain. In the two recent, rather convincing, ODI victories over Pakistan, Cook led from the front, completely turning around England's dismal tour of the UAE. He is now the only England captain to have scored back to back centuries in the ODI format. Strong evidence that he enjoys the added responsibility of leading the side. 

Worth a mention here that the legend Sir Ian "Beefy" Botham had excluded Alastair Cook, the skipper, from his prefered eleven for the one dayers, while tweeting on the last day of the test series when Pakistan completed the England whitewash.

What stands out is Cook's ability to apply himself to the task. He has shown yet again that not being the quintessential elegant left handed batsman does not get in the way of being most effective. He works on his technique to minimize the risks in the context of the conditions and the attack. He plays within his limitations, works on his scoring shots, rotates the strike and does not miss many scoring opportunities. His ability to play long innings is already legendary. Make no mistake, this determined cricketer will sunset many a record before he calls it a day.   
He chose to drive away from the Church in a farm tractor with his new bride, but that's Alastair Cook for you. Not flamboyant, but effective! 

Friday, 3 February 2012

England Gain Early Edge in Dubai

The champions have fought back like ferocious cornered lions this morning at Dubai. At the time of writing they have Pakistan reeling at 44 for 7.

The fourth innings victory target of 145 at Abu Dhabi presented England a fair opportunity to square the series. However disaster struck as they folded up for 72, surrendering the series 2-0. Strauss and his team made no excuses, although it was just the last session that lost them the game, one in which they had dominated all the preceding sessions.

Today England have turned up strong and committed, out to prove their status and their ability to win in sub-continental conditions. The seamers, Anderson and Broad, have bowled with aggression and discipline, giving Pakistan no room for error.

The Dubai pitch is flat, as it was in the first match of the series. This surface has runs to offer. Pakistan will no doubt hope and expect their bowlers to get them back into this game. Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman have troubled England so far in the series. With the DRS and accurate spin bowling, England will need to do better, no doubt. But I suspect England have turned the corner!

Speculation is fraught with danger, but the first session here has been match defining in my view. England are in the driver's seat and this match can only have one result from here.

Of interest might be whether England can return Pakistan the favour, and bundle them out for a double digit total after lunch. I expect the England first innings to have a few big individual scores and partnerships. The retained batting order has the opportunity to prove itself, particularly Strauss, Pieterson and Morgan. So it's all worth looking forward to. If Pakistan can work their way back from here, it will be quite a feat to savour, but don't expect England to let go their grip on this game easily.

Monday, 16 January 2012

England's First True Test Since Crowning

Pakistan cricket has been known for it’s bowling strengths, atleast  since I was a boy. They are the true pioneers of reverse swing, the doosra and the 100mph delivery! Pakistan have regularly produced good seamers and spinners, who in the worst of times and even in alien conditions, have never really allowed oppositions to get away without a contest. Things are no different in the upcoming contest against England.

The series starting tomorrow in Dubai will be England’s first big test, since being crowned champions of test cricket in August 2011. The Pakistan bowling unit will undoubtedly be England’s biggest worry.  With bowlers like Saeed Ajmal, who is playing the ultimate mind-game of the “teesra” (the third one; or yet another one, if you translate the “doosra” as the other one), England’s batting will be tested.  The orthodox slow left-armer, Abdur Rehman, and the competent all-rounder, Mohammed Hafeez, will add to the pressure, forming the best spin trio in test cricket at this point. The seam attack, led by the experienced war-horse Umar Gul, with the young left-arm medium pacer, Junaid Khan, at the other end, will be quite a handful too. And there are more options that Pakistan have on the bench.
England are a very competent batting line up, and have been working hard in training to adapt to the conditions of slow low turning tracks that can be expected in the UAE. Ian Bell, Kevin Pieterson, Jonathan Trott and Andrew Strauss are particularly good players of spin bowling. Nimble footwork and using the depth of the crease become particularly important against good spinners. This is not to discount Alistair Cook, Eoin Morgan or Ravi Bopara, who certainly add to the batting resources that England will or could call upon.

England are struggling with injury niggles in the seam department, with the latest scare regarding Stuart Broad. However, with the spin of Graeme Swann and the option of Monty Panesar, one can expect James Anderson and Steven Finn to be quite a handful. As per latest updates, Stuart Broad might take the field tomorrow, giving the side the required balance.
Truly speaking, the Pakistan batting has not been tested by a world class bowling attack in a while. The middle gets its strength from the experienced Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, and young Asad Shafiq. The pair at the top has been rather reliable over 2011, Mohammed Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar, with the sparkling talent of Azhar Ali, playing one drop. Pakistan batting will need to work hard to put enough runs on the board, to allow their bowlers to have a real go at the English batsmen.  

In recent times, Pakistan have entrusted captaincy to 37 year old, Misbah-ul-Haq, who despite a brilliant run as skipper, has come under criticism for defensive play by the media and the fans. In times of rebuilding, it is critical to close the door on losses first. Full credit to Misbah, who has taken the reins late in his career, clearly mandated to getting Pakistan cricket back to even keel, and to nurture a potential successor.
The shadow of the spot-fixing saga which clouded the last series between these two teams, has to be lifted with combative cricket in the desert. The series promises much and will undoubtedly deliver. It will be a true contest. In the conditions, I give the edge to Pakistan over England.

Happy viewing and commenting!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Silver Lining for India from the Perth Test

There is a silver lining to India's drubbing at Perth. Believe me, there is!

Though trounced comprehensively, in half the time allocated for the Perth test match, India managed to cement two special building blocks for the future of their test resurrection.

The onsite selection panel need to be congratulated for persisting with Virat Kohli, despite the string of four failures. Kohli top scored in both the rather modest Indian innings. But more importantly, he played through tough periods, showed good temperament, concentrated hard and applied himself. He handled his examination by the relentless Australian pace battery rather well, never missing a scoring opportunity and rotating the strike routinely. Kohli repaid the selectors trust, demonstrating the qualities of a test batsman. He put up a fight, and looked more comfortable than any other Indian batsman through the match.

Rahul Dravid played hard, but looked jumpy and was uncertain of his footwork. The brilliant technique, which set benchmarks for batsmen the world over, was conspicuously absent. For the fifth time in six innings he was castled. When batting alongside Kohli, it was Dravid who looked under pressure and uneasy by comparison.

The other positive outcome for India from the Perth test was the arrival of Umesh Yadav. We know he can work up a pace and he has been amongst the wickets a few times already. Perth announced his arrival as a combative, intelligent, quick learning seamer. 

Despite the amazing Warner knock, and his match defining opening stand with Cowan, India managed to get ten Australian wickets for 220 runs on day two. A feat not accomplished by India for a while. Thanks to some brilliant and consistent line and length, Yadav was rewarded with a well deserved five wicket haul. He showed that he had learnt, adjusted his length, applied himself with patience and consistency. He looked positively menacing. 

I believe the test baptism of Kohli and Yadav is now complete.

India have another important opportunity at Adelaide, to continue the rebuilding process of the test team. With Dhoni handed a one match ban by the ICC, Saha will get his test debut. It is most definitely time to rest Laxman and allow Rohit Sharma his long awaited break. Adelaide being the best batting track in Australia, it will be advisable to play with the two spinners, Ashwin and Ojha. Vinay and Ishant must make way. This also reduces the length of the tail, thanks to Ashwin's ability with the bat.

The journey of rebuilding is never easy, but will most certainly be exciting. Undoubtedly there will be calls of a complete rethink and restructure. India might do well to study the cricket structures of England and Australia, to glean ideas that may work. 

My final point is really a plea to the BCCI, to allow the senior Indian players the required grace and dignity, in the winter of their long and honourable careers as servants of Indian cricket. Press stories like the one about VVS Laxman in the Times of India yesterday are definitely not the way to sunset a glowing career.  

Friday, 13 January 2012

Retirement Contemplation Night

On Friday the 13th January 2012, Indian cricket burst into flames. History shall record it as such. Much like the Phoenix, the mythical bird, made famous by J.K.Rowling in her classic Harry Potter series, Indian cricket now has the opportunity to be reborn from its ashes. To regain the ability to cure all wounds and carry weights well beyond its own, read Indian cricket fans!  

Today, the first day at Perth, was the most one sided of days in recent test cricket. India, ranked the champion test side until six months ago dropped to new lows in each department. The batting and the bowling crumbled spectacularly under relentless pressure.  You know the scorecard, however, some telling stats that justify the burning down analogy. In batting, this is India’s third innings sub 200 from the last four outings. In bowling, they have now conceded 771 runs for one wicket, that of Ponting at Sydney.
The harsh reality of international sport at the highest level - one can’t win from memory. It’s a complex mix of ability, agility, ambition, application and form; relative to the opposition, in the given conditions, with a dollop of fortune. It takes more than just ability, particularly when other factors weigh against it. India is now delivered to the doorstep of change, and change they must.
Australia might thank India for helping complete their two year long rebuilding program. After mixed series recently, consistent and dominant performances now will certainly propel Australia up the rankings, and ambitions. Assuredly the next Ashes series is fantastically set up. India have been good for English and Australian cricket in the past six months!  
To be fair, India owe gratitude to Australia, for finally pushing them to the precipice, making a convincing argument to get past inertia and begin the rebuild. Strong argument I’d say, when you consider that this Perth test is at real risk of becoming India’s biggest embarrassment. It could well be over in just two days of play! Consider this - Warner continues until lunch tomorrow and Clarke declares 250 ahead, say an hour after lunch. Will India manage to keep the Aussie bowlers out until day three? If you are with me so far, you can’t argue that this match will not see tea time on day three.  
Some senior Indian players are contemplating their test future tonight, no doubt. The channels need clearing up for younger ability, to join the ranks and have the time to establish. In my estimation, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Zaheer Khan, M S Dhoni and Virender Sehwag need to rethink their future in test cricket, beyond Australia. As to Tendulkar, he continues to demonstrate the ability to play test cricket, despite the pressure of reduced agility. His 100th century pressure notwithstanding, he could choose to continue for the present.   
Given the Indian squad on the tour, I would be surprised if Rohit, Rahane and Ojha don’t get a game at Adelaide now. In addition, the selectors need to have the rebuilding agenda to include spinners and all-rounders for tests. I’d like Rahul Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Irfan Pathan to be given breaks sooner rather than later.
This subject of rebuilding is a pandora’s box! Let the good times begin.   

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Obsession with Batting Heroes

In the continuing debacle of Indian test cricket, analysis and theories abound. There is much passion and disappointment amongst Indian fans. Several explanations proposed with many ringing true. But a lot does seem, let’s say, a bit “Bollywood”. Good or evil, black or white, comedy or tragedy, hero or villain. The ICC World Cup hang-over continues!      
The Sydney victory was a bigger triumph for Australia than the scoreline. An emphatic win in itself, it brought first evidence of consistency for this new Australian side, under skipper Michael Clarke. After mercurial performances in South Africa and against New Zealand at home, two back-to-back convincing victories against the fancied Indian will help build momentum and the winning habit. The return of vintage Ricky Ponting and the batting form of Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey augur well. The most heartening though is the performance of the Australian bowling unit, and mind you not their first string selection this lot. Ben Hilfenhaus has added a few yards, swinging and seaming well, partnering Peter Siddle and James Pattinson, both of whom have bowled with discipline and aggression. The bowling reserve list is rich, allowing Australia to manage injuries as required. Pattinson will be replaced by Ryan Harris at Perth. The only real areas of worry for Australia are the spin and wicket keeping department. Brad Haddin is having a nightmare of a series so far.
India’s troubles overseas continue, with batsmen struggling to play for long periods and occupy the crease for a session of play. Some skill and temperament was on display in the second innings at Sydney, where India managed 400 for the first time in 18 overseas outings. This ratio is evidence of an incompetent batting unit, not a strong one. The misplaced confidence in the batting undoubtedly influenced the team management to elect to bat first in Sydney. Hoping to put up a decent first innings score, put scoreboard pressure on the Aussies and avoid batting last in the match, as they had to in Melbourne. That was the crucial error of the match!

There are superstars in the Indian line up, yet the batting is underperforming consistently. Recent performances suggest India to be a fragile batting side. Excluding the last innings of 400 at Sydney, India averages 245 per innings overseas, since Dec 2010. The sum of individual career averages of the first five Indian batsmen exceeds 250. With six batsmen yet to bat! Rough method, but definitely highlights the anomaly!
Much less gets written or said about Zaheer Khan or Harbhajan Singh, and their contribution to India’s rise to number one Test side. Not until one gets injured and the other underperforms.  Zaheer is now playing from experience, and is lacking the strength and fitness required for his profession. The Indian bowlers toiled for nearly two days, picking one wicket for 622 runs in Sydney, unable to contain the runs or trouble the batsman. That was a real low point for the Indian bowling unit. Dhoni may not have got all his tactics right, but then he was setting fields for experienced bowlers most often, who supposedly had plans of attack or containment. The lack of discipline, temperament and execution was in stark contrast to the Australian bowling attack. The bowling unit needs a big overhaul too.

So what are India’s options going into the Perth test? Given the touring squad, including the other spinner, Pragyan Ojha, is well advised, however the decision to drop Ishant, Yadav or Zaheer will be a tough one. Wonder if track-hitting tall leg-spinner, Rahul Sharma, could be flown in? On a skiddier and bouncy track like Perth, he could be a great option. The calls to replace Virat Kohli with Rohit Sharma will be louder. In my view, dropping Virendra Sehwag down the order, bringing in Ajinkya Rahane for Virat Kohli, to open the batting with Gautam Gambhir might serve the team better. If the team management take courage and rest VVS Laxman, Rohit Sharma could be another good addition to the side.
Time for change is well and truly here. India should start taking the hard decisions. It can’t get worse than 4-0, in a four test series, can it?   

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Double Double Hundred Day!

What a run feast today!

Test double centuries by Clarke and Kallis, in addition to centuries from Ponting and AB, all in the same day. Certainly a day that Indian and Sri Lankan bowlers would dearly love to forget.

Clarke revels in test captaincy and has batted brilliantly since taking over the mantle from Ponting. His recent knock at Cape Town Newlands against South Africa was special. The one today at Sydney is his highest so far, and is yet unfinished, could easily become his first triple century. Clarke has notched up four tons in ten matches as test captain. Led from the front, Australia are well and truly in the ascendency.

In another part of the world, Kallis, the superstar, went about notching his second double hundred, this one against Sri Lanka. His first was in Dec 2010 against India. Today's feat was achieved at his home ground of Cape Town Newlands, albeit on a different track than the one which saw Australia recently crumble for 47.

Yes, that's how fickle this game is!

The second day at the Sydney test was a complete contrast from the first day when 13 wickets fell. On day two the only wicket of Ponting saw India concede 366 runs in the day. The inability of the Indian attack, which by no means is a second string attack, was not able to trouble or contain the Aussies. Clarke closed the day at 251 n.o. off 225 deliveries. Insult to injury!

As things stand, the Sydney test is all wrapped up, and only a miracle would prevent Australia going 2-0 up in the series. Also a magical wave of infeasible calm will save Virat Kohli from further abuse by the Australian crowds.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Batting Might in Question, Again!

Sydney Cricket Ground, where the Indian batsmen were hunted down, once again. In the 100th test match at this epic venue, two of its better entertainers of previous years, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, disappointed. Alongside eight other colleagues, of the increasingly hapless Indian batting line up.

A brave decision to bat first on a grassy track, no doubt motivated by the desire to have Australia play the last innings of the match, backfired for skipper Dhoni. The regular procession of Indian batsmen, despite an attractive though brief innings by the Little Master, showed serious ineptitude against the disciplined and aggressive Australian seam attack. Pattinson, Hilfenhaus and Siddle delivered again for their side, as Dhoni ran out partners, closing out the Indian first innings for a paltry 191.

India's recent track record of overseas completed innings, since the South Africa tour of 2010, averages to an innings score of 245. Only three scores of 300 plus figure in this list, with four below 200. At best this is evidence of poor batting, and most certainly does not evidence the mighty Indian batting line up.

Something is fundamentally wrong. The desire and application to play long periods seems conspicuously absent. Keeping the good balls out, minimising risks and waiting for the bad ball, all cliched statements, but rudimentary skill requirements to perform in test cricket. Is the limited overs mentality at the root of the malaise? Indian team management has ignored the wake up call for long, it is time now to take cognizance.

This test match is open at present, but only just. Expect the outcome to be determined by the end of the crucial first session of play tomorrow. If Australia hold wickets, and go on to gain a first innings lead of a hundred runs or more, the match result can go one way only. Ponting and Clarke have batted with commitment so far, and will come out with intent tomorrow. India's hope lies with Zaheer Khan pulling out another magical spell in the morning, and wrapping the Australian innings cheaply. Hope Dhoni is attacking and not defending in this crucial session of the match!

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