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Saturday, 15 November 2014

Look into the mirror, Mr Tendulkar - Anti-Matter

What was Sachin thinking when he and his ghost-writer sat down for the cuppa to pen his auto-bio?

Probably his publicist was in a hair pulling dilemma - here was a guy who had a squeaky clean image (along with a squeaky voice), no flings and bash-ups, no affairs to remember, no brawls or outbursts - in all a boring guy to write an auto-bio about. Just centuries that piled up like jalebis on an Indian wedding plate - they all look discerningly similar and sickeningly bland after the first few.....so no gossipy and syrupy masala that people salivate for. So instead go find a Pac-Man that all want to hate and kill and VOILA - Greg Chappell offered himself to plunge their knives into!!

Did Sachin need any more negatively positive publicity? Did his publicist con him into sharing dressing room secrets to drop a few more pennies into his piggy bank, as otherwise his book would have been as drab as his last half decade of his career?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/sandeepm/3094723375/
Image Credit Sandeep (snapper san)
For me, from God status going towards Moksha, he reverse geared to Diwana Duniya and became a mere mortal overnight, as he has reduced his life to blame games and petty politics which somehow feels so unbecoming of his otherwise stupendous achievements or demeanour.

Has he not earned enough playing cricket on the green that he could have penned a book cutting out the salacious bedroom talk and focus instead on the greatness of the game which gave him fame. Could it not have been his opportunity to rise above individuals (which most memoirs tend to implode into, as people don't have half the records and achievements of a Sachin, so resort to name ringing)? But instead make a timeless case diary as an encyclopaedia for the true aficionados of the game in its purest form that he excelled in...it could have been inspirational to all those youngsters who want to emulate him for his greatness and contribution to the game rather than share prejudices and have a bare all, tell all story. SRT reduced his career to a Bollywood pot-boiler in a trice with plots and persons.

Since all through his playing career he kept saying that he will make his willow do the talking, why in his memoirs has he made his word
and his Indian cricket world look like a vile, vicious and scheming entity.

Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar has truly poked his finger in his eye.

Not taking away the greatness of the man and his personal records, his image cultured and cultivated all through his playing career had been one of a person focused and committed to playing cricket, impervious of the noise and clatter of the surroundings.

This translated into piling on the centuries when it mattered less than more and the scoring for self-pride and records. His records though awesome in isolation were shadowed by self-fulfilling needs.

His reputation though seemingly blemishless has had some glints of nepotism and manipulation through the Ferrari and the BMC issue. The ball tampering case is also on record. So to call a spade a shovel looks empty and vacuous. The auto-bio doesn't believe in coming clean on all this.

And awkwardly bending  the great game down with his larger than life perspective by isolating and flogging a fall guy, Greg Chappell, while being drummed and supported by his  lackeys, is indeed being churlish and immature.

So let's come to Greg Chappell.

But for a moment, indulge me some stereo-typing. Let's understand us Indians...we are a set of emotional, nervy, clannish, over sensitive, whining individuals always finding an excuse when we fail or flounder. (The Poms finish dead heat with us - blame it on them for their colonial hand-me-down)

And then let's look at the Ozzies…they come across as an aggressive, boorish, professional, devil-may-care attitude, manipulative, strong-willed characters. Now this inter cultural mashed up, mismatched relationship from the very beginning was a tinder box to go up in flames. In my view, GC did his job. If he found Saurav unfit for the top job, he had his reasons. If he found Dravid better or worse, he had his reasons. And if he found SRT an able choice he had his reasons too.

The coach is needed to guide players, build their careers and drive the team forward to sustained achievement. But Indian cricket has had several prima donnas and personas that are larger than the game. So the coach will always be at odds with his team under the circumstances, as he doesn't shape talent but ends up stroking egos. And if the coach has strong feelings and is self- opinionated, he’s a dead man walking.

G Chappell was a coach who believed probably in getting performance through confrontation and speaking his mind rather than conciliation. And his records speak for themselves. India's winningest captain in that era was Saurav when GC was coach while he had the maximum problems with him - that’s a true oxymoron. But you can't deny that he shook the system by the scruff of the collar, bringing in a degree of fight and aggression not consistently seen in Indian cricket. 

And then at the other end of the spectrum was Kapil Dev, who like Salman Khan's refrain from Big Boss before sign off of each episode, “Do whatever you want to do, maan". That didn't go down well with the Tiny Master (Little Master already patented for Sunny), felt he wasn't a true guide. So on one end of the spectrum you have a dictator and the other end you have a liberal...and you hated them both!

It would then behove that the great man desired one from his Bandra household to be his coach, to either stroke or strike him as per his own dictates. Professionals at that level, with those achievements, don't need coaches...they need to coach themselves and remain inspirational and reach the Zen state on their own. If they need a coach then they abide by his diktat without a murmur, a la Dhoni however great he may be.

The Multan test declaration was an eye opener to me. By his own admission, Sachin became quiet and reclusive with Dravid's decision. This to me is all that Sachin is about....records. The captain decides for the team, however wrong or right the decision turns out, not for the individual. And as a senior one should take it in the stride and set an example for the youngsters in the dressing room rather than sulk and show feelings of disdain that a personal milestone was missed. But in public conferences mouthing inanities like - “I play for Team India and not for myself”. An obvious contradiction.

And the betting controversy that was the integral part in the greater chunk of his career - he could not have been a silent spectator or an innocent bystander or a knowing innocent who slept through it all. As a sportsman or a cricketing statesman he could have been the catalyst to clean the rot, but he chose silence over disclosure.

I am not getting into his flawed captaincy. That to him was his Achilles heel...and if that too was breached with diamond studded victories, the equivalent of a Paramatma would have been born in India.

And his latest acquisitions of an MP nomination or the Air Force anointment came with responsibilities but didn't get fulfilled.

Whatever may be said, Sachin did great service to Indian cricket. He did bring a new zing to our efforts, raised expectations, created a buzz, electrified stadiums and brought a whole new generation into the arms of cricket. But when the day dawned on November 4th 2014 to stamp his presence with a century to be forever remembered - he would be remembered for the duck he scored by "Playing it His Way".

Contributor - Faiz Ahmad, India

Sunday, 24 August 2014

India - An Opportunity for Redemption

Pre-match analysis of the India England One Day International series kicking-off at Bristol in a few hours. Much to play for, particularly for India. 


As the five match one day international series between India and England gets underway in a few hours at Bristol, one is tempted to make predictions. But hey, if the predicted results did not throw a surprise, it would not be sport.

Indian Squad

The Indian eleven likely to take the field at the opener would be - Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, MS Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Karn Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami.  Missing the game most likely would be Mohit Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Stuart Binny, Dhawal Kulkarni, Ambati Rayudu and Sanju Samson. However irrespective of stats outside England, the decision concerning Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma would certainly give the Indian management something to think about. The pace of Umesh Yadav would be a useful asset for Dhoni to call upon, and let’s face it, the threat of Bhuvneshwar Kumar was minimal as the recent test series progressed.

Sounds a very promising Indian squad, until, you stack it up against the England squad, the conditions and the form.

India has promise in the batting line up, and will have to ensure they take their time to see off the early threat, and build partnerships through their innings. Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina could be pivotal at the top and the late middle order for India’s cause. Not to undermine the importance of  the other batsmen in the top order to come good for India, it is these two who have escaped the scars of the recent test series, and offer a mix of skills and application necessary to take the battle to the opposition. Some crystal ball gazing here, no doubt, but England’s plans against Kohli, Dhawan and Jadeja seem to have worked well so far. Unless they dig deep and demonstrate an ability to overcome technical weaknesses and fight with grit, they may be struggling again.

The biggest promise for India is presented by the spin duo of Ashwin and Karn Sharma. If early in-roads can be made with the new ball, India may be able to control the game with their spin options in the middle overs. This may sound counter intuitive on a track fresh English track, but with field restrictions and run-rate pressures, it is a different ball game.

The Opposition

The England eleven to take the field at the Bristol opening game could be Alastair Cook, Alex Hales, Gary Balance, Ian Bell, Eoin Morgan, Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Chris Jordan and James Anderson. The tough decision for England would be leaving out Harry Gurney and Steven Finn, although resting Ben Stokes and James Tredwell is an easier call, given the performance of Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes with the ball in the recently concluded test series. The absence of Stuart Broad should not be a big headache for the English team management, as they have enough and more options available. They had to drop Ravi Bopara from the squad, which is ample evidence of the abundance of choice they are dealing with.

England have a formidable new opening partnership in Alex Hales and Alastair Cook, with Hales in scintillating form, eager to prove himself in the 50 over format and push further. Opening with Hales, Cook will have the perfect opportunity to take his time and play anchor. The top and middle order for England gets even stronger in this format with Morgan joining Balance, Bell, Root, Buttler and Moeen Ali. The bowling will be led by James Anderson, no doubt, and it is his early spell which will play a pivotal role for England.

Condition will Dominate

One could argue about the recent ODI form of both teams, but it does not aid the discussion much. Take for instance England’s ODI series loss to visitors Sri Lanka, after taking the lead in the opener at the Oval. India won an away series in Bangladesh, with a side which excluded a few of their star performers. But as would be obvious to followers of the game, these results are mere statistic and will account for little in predicting the outcome of this series.

The conditions that India have contended with in the recently conclude Test series, their inability to cope with English swing and seam bowling is the key factor which will determine the outcome of the ODI series too. Back in 2011, the ODI leg of the Indian tour to England was white-washed 5-0, in line with the one-sided result of the Test series which had preceded it. The reasons were the conditions, as also the momentum from the test series. Players bringing in confidence from individual performances, comradery and unity of a winning team, the green, damp and colder conditions will certainly put wind into England’s sail. In my assessment, India is really in a corner here.

The BCCI have made some swift moves to rejuvenate the support to the team, and the dressing room talk must be full of tough love certainly. But as many experts have said, it is the players on the field who have to perform. And in case of this Indian team, show a real will to fight.

A series result of 3-2 either way should be welcomed by both teams and their fans, as long as the games are close to 100 overs each. No more meek surrenders please, that is not a good advertisement for the sport.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Indian Test Cricket: What can be done?

All the rhetoric in press conferences and post-match interviews cannot camouflage the serious malaise that ails Indian test cricket today. All the talk about young team learning from the series defeat at the hands of England, is just that, plain talk. With the one day series coming up soon, the root causes and the need to focus on remedial measures will be forgotten.

For the statistically inclined there are some dismaying numbers, which highlight the extent and the potential causes. The obvious one amongst these, is the headline item, that India were 1-0 up in the series, and then crashed to a 3-1 series defeat, recording one of their worst losses in recent times.

In their last five innings of the series, starting with the second innings at Southampton, the Indian team averaged a total of 146 runs per innings. The obvious reason was the utter failure of the top half of the batting line-up, the specialist batsmen who let their team down with unerring consistency.

Including the two early individual centuries from India, one each from Murali Vijay (Trent Bridge) and Ajinkaye Rahane (on a lush green first day pitch at Lords), the top five Indian batsmen averaged…….hold your breath, a princely 16.27 runs per innings through the five match series. 

India lost 77% of their wickets to English seam bowlers, which is not a big shock. What was really shocking was the repetition of the errors and flaws in technique, which repeated with alarming consistency. That much for learning from experience. 

After the win at Lords, to go one up in the series, England got their act together, as India obligingly disintegrated. Was it complacency, was it the distraction of the off-field affairs, but it certainly was something that the guys in the dressing room know. 

The margins of defeat expanded exponentially with each reverse. At Southampton, where England drew level, their margin of victory was 266 runs. At Manchester, as they pressed ahead to take the series lead; they trounced India by an innings and 54 runs. This widened to an embarrassing level at The Oval, where India were beaten by an innings and 244 runs. A banner just outside the arena summed it well -  “Give Them Another Go Cookie”.

The legendary Sunil Gavaskar, who once scored a flawless double hundred for India at the same ground, was crestfallen. The manner of his summing must have really hurt - “it’s embarrassing, it’s inept, it’s pathetic!” - is all he could muster.

Hard Thinking

To begin with nothing should be off the table. It must start with a clear acknowledgement of the problem, and its depth needs to be accepted by the Indian cricket authorities.

Players, managers, coaches and staff supporting the team need to be held accountable. Professional sportsmen cannot walk in an arena where they do not wish to try their best and perform. Some serious questions need to be asked about the role and effectiveness of the coaches and advisors surrounding the players.

Talk about matches coming thick and fast, causing players fatigue and exhaustion are laughable. These are sportsmen who have all the facilities and support to build the required strength and stamina for the sport. If they cannot, it begs the question of their suitability at a very basic level.

The consistency of repeating technical flaws makes one wonder about the desire, intent and abilities of the players and of their coaches to fix the problems that need fixing. The issues were not only with the batting but slip catching too, and through the series. A team playing in England just has to learn to catch the nicks. It is bread and butter.

The bowling was good in patches and spells, but lacked the consistency of a bowling unit. In the series of 2007, when India beat their hosts, Zaheer Khan demonstrated amazing consistency, guile, bowling in tandem with Anil Kumble to keep relentless pressure. After the debacle of 2011, when Dhoni had to take his pads off and bowl seam up, India should have been better prepared with a well-oiled bowling unit, which had the ability to keep pressure. Five good deliveries and one boundary ball is what good test batmen feed off all day.

The overall commitment to the task was absent, and was most evident today, the last day of the Oval test. India were battered in the morning conceding 98 runs off 11 overs in the first session, fielded poorly and then batted with no intent to pretty much concede the match without any resistance.

Players struggling with poor form, while showing little resolve and effort to correct things, cannot be allowed to retain assured spots. Virat Kohli was a strong case for being rested after six failed innings, maybe after eight, but one wonders whether it was a consideration. If it was not, then it should be. That’s the way a standard gets set, based on performance and accountability.

It is apparent that a strong diet of limited overs cricket dulls many of the traits required for test match cricket. The powers of concentration get limited; the will to fight and apply oneself with patience and resilience for long periods, session after session does diminish. A separation of leadership and personal for the different formats is a route many of the leading countries playing the game have already implemented. Undoubtedly there will be a few exceptional players who will apply themselves to more than one format, or in fact all three, for parts of their career. But the point is to recognize that excellent ball striking skills did not come naturally even to the great Rahul Dravid or Sunil Gavaskar, but they had the technique and resolve that test batsmen would kill for.  

Increasing exposure to alien conditions needs to be strongly encouraged and enabled by the Indian cricket authorities. This could include various options. Many more India A tours to difficult terrains like England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, ensuring selectors put a high weight on performances of such tours. 

Playing first class cricket outside the sub-continent will help hone the skills for many, assuming they can find time from other commitments and contracts. Another big step that cricket authorities can help themselves with is the development of suitable venues in India which can support hard grass top pitches, prepared for domestic cricket, selection and trials, not just academies.

Many pundits will volunteer many more mature ideas. The real risk is apathy, with the one day series just round the corner. A rude reminder though – on the last visit in 2011 India lost all the limited overs matches to the hosts. And the way the momentum has shifted, and the confidence has moved for both teams, this could be still a long painful summer for Indian cricket. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Deja Moo at The Oval

Only real optimists are hoping to use their tickets to the fourth day of the Oval test. No surprise that fourth day tickets are available easily, with a family deal discounted by £60 pounds, by stumps on day one.

On an unlikely Oval green-top, sporting live damp grass, Alastair Cook won the toss, and put the Indians in. With rain the previous week, the previous night and then some in the morning, the conditions couldn't have been more testing. The square resembled a village green ready for a Saturday fixture of the local league early in the season. 

England retained an unchanged side, walked in confidently, knowing they had a real chance to push India into a corner early. India replaced the flamboyant but ineffective Jadeja with Binny, insisting on a five bowler attack (read four-and-half). The hapless Pankaj Singh made way for the hero of the Lord's test, Ishant Sharma, back from an injury-forced break of two tests. 

The Indian top half had to come good, to show skills and determination, to deal with the ferocious English attack in testing conditions. To stay in the game and the series, a first innings total of 300 was mandatory. 

But, like the two innings at Old Trafford, the Indian batsmen disappointed again. It was total deja moo.....seen this bull before. 


Personal struggles with form, in seaming conditions, against a relentless attack were a bit too much to cope with. The conditions were tough, no doubt, requiring a bit of luck and a lot of pluck to play a meaningful innings. Only Dhoni stood up to the test, again. Vijay, Ashwin and Ishant survived for short spells, but all the efforts accounted for only 148 first innings runs, all done and dusted soon after tea. 

There doesn't seem to be a way back into the match for India, not after the unbroken opening partnership of Cook and Robson, finishing the day for England at 62 without damage. The writing is on the wall. The only matter of interest that remains is whether this contest will go into a fourth day. 

The story of the Indian innings was familiar one, albeit the details may have differed a bit. 

Gambhir was gone for a first ball duck to Anderson, looking to shoulder arms, but not quick enough to get out of the way of a leaping delivery. As Geoff Boycott suggested, "he lost it, has still not found it". Anderson was not on a consistently good length, but quite unplayable with big outswingers at pace. Pujara was proxy opener again, and looked uncertain. For a second time in the series, prodded forward leaving the gate open for one from Broad that jagged back. 

Kohli had much on his mind, working hard at being selective about what to play at, ended up leaving one from Jordan that came back more than he expected. Rahane who had looked good until Old Trafford, pushed one tentatively back to Jordan, as it seemed to stick in the pitch a bit. India 28-4, in big trouble already.

Vijay showed some grit and good technique, as in his previous innings of the series. But his brief vigil ended with a brilliant catch from Root in the slips, off Jordan. Root staying low grasped it on the second attempt. At lunch India were 43-5, with England giving nothing away in the field, and latching onto every chance that came their way. 

Conditions did not improve for batting after lunch, with heavy overhead, and the ball retaining much of its shine. Soon Binny was gone to classic outswinger from Anderson. Ashwin looked more comfortable than his mates, showing better technique than his more illustrious colleagues. Root brought off another brilliant catch pressing forward to a low catch in the slips to send Ashwin back. Bhuvi who has run out of luck in the series, flashed at a wide from Jordan getting caught behind off the bottom edge. Aaron was given a bit of his own medicine, spooned an easy one to short-leg off a rising delivery. India 9 down for 90. 

Dhoni continued his lone battle meanwhile from one end. Ishant got a reprieve, a rare drop by Bell in the slips, which was all the impetus Dhoni needed to accelerate. By tea India scrapped to 125-9. After tea the last wicket partnership pushed past 50. Finally Dhoni himself fell to the bouncer trap, caught off Broad, while Ishant remained not out after facing 42 deliveries. The Indian innings wrapped up for a paltry 148, with Dhoni contributing 82 of those. 

England pressed home the advantage.


The heavy roller was sought by England, and the pitch had aired enough to lose the surface moisture. It looked more even paced and easier as Cook started out tentatively. He was plumb in front to Bhuvi, but Paul Rifle thought otherwise. The absence of DRS hurt India, and not for the first time in the series, adding to their woes. 

The conspiracy was complete. 

At stumps England got to 62 without losing a wicket, looking in a great position already to wrap up this series with a 3-1 margin. The weather forecast ahead looks favourable, the pitch will ease out as the sun shines and the green top goes brown. India's only remaining hope is a magic spell from Ishant or Aaron early on the second morning, if they want to get back into this test match and make it a contest.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Indian Cricket Plummets Again

What an amazing turn-around by both England and India, in the past few weeks, albeit is opposite directions. Gotta love sport for that. 

Just a few short weeks ago every expert was baying for Cook's blood. And now he is back, with a team that can do no wrong. England outplayed India in all departments at Old Trafford, wrapping up the game in less than three days. 

India showed that they can find new lows. 

The batsmen demonstrated that they can make any bowler a hero, even a part-time finger spinner on a seaming track, if they decide.  Taking absolutely nothing away from Moeen Ali, who has made very significant contributions to his team's cause with bat and bowl in this series already. 

England were also kind enough to run a master class (on the side), on how to stand properly in the slips. Yes, crouching low, not like royalty, hands resting on knees when the ball is bowled. A simple basic that has been forgotten by the Indian slippers throughout this series. 

It was an appalling all round performance by India. That is the only way to sum it up. There were sparks of brilliance from England, with ball and bat. Anderson, Broad, Root, Moeen all sparkled in spells and stints, but it was how India responded which was decisive.  

Selection errors and batting first irrespective of the overhead conditions were the early mistakes, but then India demonstrated inabilities in all departments through the two and half days. India pretty much handed over the game to England on a platter, with a total absence of grit, application, determination or consistency. 

The worst part was that several Indian batsmen seemed to believe that mindless aggression could get past a tough situation, like in a T20 spurt, turning the game around. I've never really agreed with the view that T20 was doing harm, but I'm reluctantly changing views now. There is merit in different leadership and personnel for the test format. Australia, England and South Africa have got it right. 

Well, like me, if you thought it couldn't get any worse than the 2011 tour of England for Indian test cricket.....it can, and it just did. This series has rapidly dwindled to a non-contest. The quality of Indian batting, catching, bowling, pretty much all the big and small things, exhibited by the Indians have been quite appalling. The absence of DRS only adds further frustration, thanks to the terms of the series agreed by the BCCI. 

And there seem to be no easy answers in sight either.  The return of Ishant in the next game will not be adequate to inject the nerves and determination required to bounce back. If India want to rebuild, serious rethinking and big change will be required. Change of leadership must be on the cards too.

More power to Cook and his men for achieving the amazing turnaround, and putting the absence of their star players of recent past well and truly behind them. 

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