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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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