Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Break time

I must share with you the reason behind my recent silence: I'm enjoying an unseasonal 10-day break.

[I can almost hear whispers that I may as well extend it indefinitely if my breaks are going to be this good for Indian cricket. I only wish my employers could agree with you seeing the patriotism of it all and award me a 45-day break during the World Cup!]

Friday, January 26, 2007

WC'07 semi finalists: a revised prediction

I was just reviewing my July-2006 prediction of World Cup 2007 semi-finalists. It went:

"Semis: Australia, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan (in that order)"

I feel the need for a few alterations. After India's dwindling ODI fortunes of late they are no more the 2nd team on my list. They have slipped to a wobbly fourth slot, and are now facing serious threat from West Indies for that position.
However I see the Indians nose ahead of the Windies in the round of Super Eight. They may struggle to win the clash against the home side but a few higher ranked teams are likely to suffer in their hands.

Inspite of that 4-0 battering at the hands of South Africa in recent ODIs India are certain to do better than South Africa on West Indian tracks. That is, unless
1) the pitches are batting beauties instead of the slow and low turners we saw in 2005; and / or
2) left arm spinner Paul Harris, the latest South African slow bowling find, indeed turns into "Lord Harris" within the coming month or two. (Ravi Shastri had quipped as such when the Indians played Harris with too much caution)

So my revised order for semi-finalists is:

"Semis: Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India (in that order)"

Younis and Akmal

I bow to these two Pakistani gentlemen. The climax of the 2nd Test in the ongoing RSA-v-Pak series saw two contrasting characters clinching the final hours of a tense game to keep the series alive for Pakistan.

One is a flamboyant skipper-in-the-making who grows in stature with every passing series, a cheerful yet tough go-getter ready to walk his ‘we will do better than India’ talk all by himself.

The other, Kamran Akmal, is a shy and silent man who, in the early months of each of the past two years, has made sure we listen to the willowy roar of his bat in a keenly fought Test series when we were least expecting it. He scored some unforgettable, invaluable runs against India at Karachi last year and he does it again at Port Elizabeth in 2007.

Inzamam, sure, had ensured through his indescribably cool batting in the first innings that their task was a lot less tough than it could have been. Few people besides the Multan Maahir expected Pakistan to take such a big lead when they had lost six first-innings wickets and for that I bow to Inzy a thousand times. [That is a respectable figure for bows, you will appreciate; nearly as many as reserved for Mohammad Asif who is easily the best fast / fast-medium bowling package in world cricket today. ]

But tough it still was for the subjects of this post to come aboard in the midst of a fourth innings storm at ninety something for 5 with a hundred odd runs still to get, steady the ship first and then steer it to safety.

Make no mistake; Younis Khan and Kamran Akmal did it when their team was well on its way down from a position of some supremacy. Even the present South African bowling attack is more than a handful in their backyard and a sub continental tail, in those conditions, often amounts to little without a top order batsman making it wag.

The two batsmen (Akmal may average moderately with the bat but I refuse to refer to a batsman of his ability as anything but a ‘batsman’) chose to be the last men standing between the aggressive Africans and an easy series win ahead of the World Cup. Eventually the pair scripted an unbeaten comeback partnership in style to level the series and set up a live 3rd Test.

From a regional supremacy point of view, together they have ensured that the crown of ‘best team in the sub continent’ stays with them for now, safe from the valiant snatching attempts of the Lankan tigers.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

He came back, I never saw, but I ate my words

Most of us missed the telecast of Sunday’s India-West Indies game. Most of us in India had to depend on the media sources to soak in the developments of the match. The highlights of the day were flashed on news channels. The next days newspapers were more eagerly awaited than normal. The common big news was Sourav Ganguly’s emphatic innings of 98 on his ODI comeback after 15 months.

I was one of those who admired ‘Dada’ for what he was at the peak of the Ganguly era. However when he was dropped in November 2005 under controversial circumstances I found enough cricketing reasons – like Ganguly looking like an over-the-hill cricketer - not to join the cries of protest.

The treatment Ganguly got from his board and selectors around this time a year ago, however, was deplorable. The insensitive handling of a valuable performer and inspirational skipper beyond his prime irritated me no end.

But frankly I did not see him coming back. History suggests players having a hand-eye-reflex-talent based game that is not reliant on technique have a smaller shelf lives than their ‘correct counterparts’. The pattern of decline in Dada’s performances ever since that away series Down Under made me think, ‘there I see him nearing his end’.

No more did we see him step out and hit lofted drives against spinners and medium pacers. Even after getting ‘in’ he no more looked the batsman whose only possible downfall even against best bowling attacks could be poor shot selection.

We saw him succeed in South Africa last month. I was pleasantly surprised and happy for him. He showed he could still come up with his best when it was most required and make a few effective adjustments to the technique I so suspected to suit the variant conditions facing him in an away series.

But was it a great player declaring that he is still not past his prime, or a gritty aged player performing above his present abilities for pride? Frankly I could not be sure. The situations when Ganguly came in to bat in those three tests and the nature of pitches in that continent did not help matters either.

This Sunday they did. And Dada showed us ‘athiests’ [in Bengal I expect to be labelled likewise for not having kept faith on Dada] that he has indeed found his lost clock and turned it back by quite a few years.

I drank gulps of Sourav Ganguly's comeback to glory from the highlights packages of the Sunday match, and ate generous helpings of my own words.

PS: Not all aspects of that Sunday game were glorious for Indian supporters. This Times of India report underlines the continuing non- improvement in the Indian fielding efforts and the West Indian scorecard for the match backs it up. ‘Are we really ready for the World Cup’ must be a question worrying the Indian Team Management more than the West Indian Organisers of the apex event.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Prasar Bharati agrees to compromise on 'near future' for distant gains

You may smugly coil back in your sofa watching the second ODI on good ole' DD tomorrow, secure in the knowledge that India, chasing 267, are 195/3 at the end of the 38th over. You are bored by the monotony of the proceedings and decide upon a quick flick through channels - only to be shocked by a 'futuristic' newsreader that your beloved team is destined to gasp for air at 190/6 by the 41st!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Get ready for the rush hour with Colonel

Got to hand it to Dilip Vengsarkar. I doubt how many of the youngsters of Team India other than Sreesanth took to Greg Chappell's version of the iron-fist-velvet-glove motto of "be Indian but think Australian." However the one person who has shown glimpses of that attitude in most of his actions - be it selecting players, overruling the team management's preferences or explaining decisions to the media - is the Indian Chief Selector Dilip Vengsarkar.

He shows a distinct flair for direct talking whenver he takes up the last-mentioned of those activities. And today at the press conference announcing the Indian squad for a crucial forthcoming series against West Indies he outdid himself:

Despite having to field a volley of questions from a packed hall of media-persons, Vengsarkar was in his element, explaining things candidly and lucidly. When one reporter asked him why there were no legspinners in the list of 30 World Cup probables (other than Kumble) he replied by asking, "Can you name one?"

Similarly, when another reporter put it to Vengsarkar that Ashish Nehra played well in the last World Cup, and wondered why he was not included in the squad, pat came the reply. "The last World Cup was four years ago. This is 2007. Even I played in the World Cup in 1987."

Sourav is back in the ODI squad. Indian team is struggling for the past few months.We can only keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best as a bunch of 30 players fasten their seat belts to the roller coaster car of Indian Cricket scheduled to traverse a few heart stopping bends over the next 3 months. A bumpy ride is expected but touchwood (my PC desk is wooden), the now-wobbly Indian car will be sturdy enough to last the full distance.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Mind of the Metronome:2

All along his career Glenn McGrath has been coming up with verbal gems aplenty. Most of them are lol stuff. One the more recent, hilarious ones was when he wondered about the number of Test centuries he could have rattled up on his 'form' days batting at number 11 if only the other guy would not get out soon.

But ever so often the odd quotable McGrath quote would kick off from a length and leave you puzzled like English batsmen facing him. As a general rule these teasingly boastful statements, an integral part of Steve Waugh's 'mental disintegration' package, come as declaration of his 'targets' ahead of an important series or tournament. You do not quite know what to make of those.

One moment you take the outrageously cocky words to be tongue-in-cheek exercises in promoting self-confidence. The very next you wonder if there is a serious observation concealed in it. That confusion would not have popped up if the words had come from anyone else but McGrath; such observations would then easily pass off as good jokes. Not so when this man speaks out.

In the depths of your heart and from the pages of memory you know that McGrath knows a thing or two about measuring up to wildest of dreams. His 'Lara' declaration ahead of the 2000 Test series Down Under comes to mind. This 2005 interview catches that cocky side of his.

Are you thinking of his famous '5-nil' forecast ahead of 2005 Ashes? That was one rare occasion when his prediction seemed to go awry but NOW we know he was planning long term, don't we?

And now we also know why Mick Jagger, a die-hard English cricket buff, said this about The Pigeon last season:

"That Glenn McGrath ... what a bastard."

Sample this latest one from McGrath:

McGrath, who has 342 one-day wickets, has achieved almost everything during his 13-year career but he still wants to complete a perfect game. "Basically it means I bowl every ball where I want to bowl, and everything I try comes off," he told the paper. "The closest I came was the first game in New Zealand in 2005.

"I reckon there was one ball I would've changed. The rest I was happy with." McGrath had figures of
4 for 16 from 9.4 overs as Australia won by 10 runs.

"It's still always the ultimate goal to play the perfect game. I haven't achieved that yet and that's what I'm always striving for. It would be great to bowl it in the World Cup final, but if not, at least I'm always trying to improve."

Knowing of his impending retirement, this must be one of the very last pearls to emerge from the larynx that sledged countless rival batsmen. And knowing him, I would be least surprised to find his team playing the 2007 World Cup final and him bowling 8.5 overs in it for 10 runs and six final scalps. The perrrrfect game.

We end this lookback on Glenn Donald McGrath's verbal volleys with a genuine gem he unleashed around the same time last season as that '5-nil' bait:

"To me body language is the biggest key, and that is one thing Australia does so well. .......It's easy to get yourself going and be aggressive when things are going well. To date they [England] haven't shown any of that when they've been under the pump, and I think that's the time for a true team to really lift and turn things around."

That last line is so true, Glenn.

[Read the earlier 'Metronome' post here]

'nother day in Adam's Paradise

I remember watching "Hong Kong Cricket Sixes" matches in the 1995-96 season. Having difficulty recalling those? Maybe this will help: it is the same stuff where Sanjay Manjrekar had a strike rate of around 150 or more.

One player who was frequently heard of, but seldom seen, in those matches was a young wicketkeeper batsman from Australia, yet untried in Tests and ODIs, going by the name of Gilchrist (didn't care to know his full name until later that year).

Reason: As per HKCS rules batsmen had to leave the field after scoring 30+ (those were 5 over matches; I believe they are still playing that tourney in the same six-a-side, 5-over-innings format). Before you could spell his name this Gilchrist fellow would pocket his 30+ and quietly leave the scene. Often 70-80% of those runs would be in sixes, albeit hit over very short boundaries.

Cut to 9th January, 2007. We have an 'Ashes' game in a new format called Twenty20. This new format is, well, a bit of a cross between "Hong Kong sixes" and the other, more orthodox forms of cricket.

Around 11 years have passed since that season we just talked about. Wonder what Adam Gilchrist does for a living these days? Not much has changed,
it appears, over a career of 90 Tests and 247 ODI's.

Mankind would perhaps have continued living in paradise if the original Adam could boast of the stuff this Adam is made of. Who can forget the treatment Gilly reserved for the proverbial serpents in Indian pitches during
Mumbai 2001 and Bangalore 2004?

His 57-ball Test ton the other day and that recent Twenty20 innings were scored off hapless opponents. But they still stand for a few words that Gilly boy's
player page reserves for him:

....a flap-eared country boy who has walked when given not out in a World Cup semi-final, and swatted his second ball for six while sitting on a Test pair. "Just hit the ball," is how he once described his philosophy on batting, and he seldom strays from it.

Emotional Yellow, and Bloody Black

I just read two stories, one after the other, on cricinfo's Surfer. They came from rival sides Australia and New Zealand. One is a charming piece of news about a born charmer who once belonged to the yellow side, and the other a blood-and-guts story of survival of a fighter struggling to be back in the black side's belongings.

In context and content the two stories are as different as chalk and cheese, as Twenty20 and Tests, as Australia and New Zealand. But strangely each involves you just the same.

Doing it the other way

Certification: No more cheap innuendos in this post.....(lest the title leads you to think otherwise)
I heard Sunny Gavaskar narrating this strange Ranji game a few weeks back. He was commentating in South Africa and Harsha Bhogle pressed him to share a word or two on the incident.

It transpired that to this date Sunny is mighty proud of having saved his Bombay side (he was skipper of 'Bombay', as Mumbai was called then) the humiliation of an outright defeat in a Ranji match by batting out the better part of an hour of the last day while Karnataka's Raghuram Bhat was making the ball talk. And why should he not be? After all Sunny - arguably the greatest right handed batsman in the world at one point of time - was batting left-handed that day!

He did it to smother Bhat's prodigious turn. "I thought I had no chance if I batted right handed," he observed in between deliveries during the Indo-SA test series. Reminds one of The Don, who once turned the batting order around in the 3rd test of a 5-match series that Australia were unexpectedly trailing 2-0, and thereafter turned the series upside down with his 'normal' batting.

Indeed it is a pity that players and skippers have not acted this imaginatively of late. I refuse to believe modern players and skippers are any less intelligent, or skillful. Perhaps the glare of media plants a few seeds of doubt even in the most creative minds. Rahul Dravid certainly betrayed quite a few such moments in South Africa.

Wait wait, let me confess before you point out: This Dravid connection is largely unrelated, except that he too is a top world batsman hailing from Sunny's part of the world and at this point of time he is also making a rare Ranji appearance. And Rahul is certainly facing less fancied opposition (Saurashtra) than Sunny's Bombay did in that match 25 years ago.

The last 2 paragraphs are rather ordinary concoctions included with the sole aim of wishing the much-maligned Indian skipper, a perennial favourite of mine, a Happy 34th Birthday on January the 11th. Here's wishing him an easier day at office than South Africa 2006-07.

Raghuram Bhat's take on that Karnataka-vs- Bombay match is worth going through. The gentleman, now the manager of Karnataka, reserves no less admiration for Sunny's feat than you or I.
"That cannot be forgotten. The ball was turning right angles on the day. I was just pitching the ball in the good length spot, because I did not know how much the ball was going to spin; sometimes I tried to bowl an armer and it turned," he said, in a freewheeling chat on the sidelines of the Karnataka-Saurashtra Ranji Trophy match.
"The ball was beating the bat and the only way to play on that day was to play left-hand and play forward and offer pad. That's how Gavaskar played and he really played well and saved the game for Mumbai. It was a great thing to bowl to him and the guts he showed in batting left-handed, for some 12-13 overs, was amazing."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Gimme the name & I'll give u the rule

The BCCI is about to admonish the North Zone selector for criticising Rahul Dravid in public. cricinfo reports:

Although they will not directly take action against Bhupinder just yet Cricinfo has learned that the BCCI will be writing to Bhupinder on Wednesday seeking an explanation. They will also, in the same missive, be reminding Bhupinder that it is not in his place to be making comments about individual players in the Indian team.

Your first reaction: "That is impressive". But I am afraid you are in for a long wait if you are about to take your hat off to BCCI on that. No way, they just won't let you. Apparently these press ettiquettes, e.g. not singling out players for direct criticism, are to be expected ONLY from the selectors, those necessary evils that rank just below the players on the list of topmost necessary evils.

That ettiquette book, however, gets thrown out of the window when the board secretary speaks. He is obviously swimming in another ocean and can blast any individual player in public at will. Niranjan Shah has this to say about Munaf Patel and his mysterious injury:
"I had yesterday summoned John Gloster to get a report from him on Munaf Patel. According to his report Gloster said they had taken all the fitness tests necessary and felt that he was totally fit. I think Rahul [Dravid] and the other members of the team management must also have been convinced of Munaf's fitness before taking him in the eleven. Certain injuries are such that the physio may believe that the player will recover any time. Whether the player has that same confidence or not is something else. The players should be honest with themselves, there's no point blaming the physio."

Moreover, if you get into the intent behind the Bhupinder blasting then it sounds more the rant of a disappointed Dravid fan than the planned assault of a ruthless critic sharpening his knife since the ODI debacle. Let us take a look at Bhupinder Singh Senior's take on the probable reasons of Rahul Dravid's unimpressive returns on South African soil:

"I just feel that Dravid's mind was not on the game....."

"Maybe the poor form of the top order was affecting his confidence. We all know what he is capable of and lack of runs from his bat definitely wasn't helping our cause."

"Dravid is like a bedrock on which our batting revolves. He looked a far cry from the kind of batsmanship we are used to seeing from him. In fact, the whole batting department was a big disappointment."

If I were the Indian skipper and had done my job to the best of my abilities, I would perhaps be a little hurt by that first line. But I then would also feel reasonably compensated by the stuff that follows. It is a veiled appreciation for Rahul Dravid the batsman, an indirect proclamation that we take Rahul's overseas success as granted and that even reasonable shows by the rest of our middle order batting could not compensate the unexpected failure of the 'bedrock'.

Do write back if you feel "India's most promising fast bowler for the future" would think the same of his board secretary's discourse on his physical misfortune to the media.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The great folly of the greats

In team sport and, inevitably then, in life there are two kinds of people. One group projects they are doing the needful. The second group does the needful.

The first group does it because they lose focus of the job at hand and start thinking of the negative possibilities and the criticism it will bring. So they take an option which, even though they know it to be second best, looks hardworking and thus inevitably brings them the sympathy of having trying hard.

"What will be said about me if I fail" becomes an intimidating thought to these men and women and following the processes that fetched them success becomes an impossibility. They stop realising that their chosen path is adverse to the job they got to do. They keep on taking this option even though they have perished with it time and again. So much for the argument of 'maybe this was the right way for them'.

In the process these people undermine the efforts of that other group who have not lost focus and who indeed were trying equally hard, and in the right way.

On the fourth day of the 3rd Test, as in that 3rd Test against England in Mumbai in 2006 and against Pakistan at Bangalore in 2005, [that is, the defining moment of many a Test series in the recent past] Dravid and Tendulkar belonged to the first group while Karthik,
again, confirmed his place in the second group.

So was Dada. The highest run aggregate amongst Indian batsmen in the 3 Test series came from the reinstated Sourav Ganguly. Comebacks this late in the career have seldom been more emphatic than that in Indian cricket.

Some time before the 1st Test he had shared his ways of success at Potchefstroom with others in the team. He followed those narrated methods right through this series. By the end of the 4th day at Newlands Dada's approach has been confirmed to be correct in emphatic fashion, while the reluctance of some others to heed his well-meaning advice shows them in rather poor light.

These are extreme moments when we actually start seeing some worth, and purpose, even in Viru's recklessness.

True that there were other let-downers like Laxman and Zaheer who got out to themselves and were an insult to the basic education of cricket and to the faith that millions of people, including the selectors, place on them. Also not too insignificant were the umpiring blunders that have continued over the series. Fascinating how most of them go against Asian teams whenever they are (deservingly or otherwise) on the verge of inflicting humiliation on one of the 'big' Test nations. Since those errors come from many umpires irrespective of nationality, I sometimes wonder if that ability to err against the Asian side at critical moments is a pre-requisite for becoming an ICC elite panel umpire.

Yet the partnership between two of India's best ever batsmen at a seminal moment for cricket in their country will remain the most unpalatable of them all irrespective of the result this fascinating match throws up today.

Their coccooning disheartened all viewers that have seen them batting with purpose in the past. Worse, it confirmed a sense of deja vu that came with the dismissal of Ganguly in his born-again avatar of the free-scoring strokeplayer of yore.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The other Darrell

The ICC Elite panel has another Umpire with the Darrell name and a surname starting with H and ending in r, but his interpretation of exceptional situations could hardly be any more different from his infamous namesake.

cricinfo live commentary shares this bit of info about the Tendulkar incident in the 1st session at Newlands:

Umpire Harper said at the lunch break, "South African boys did discuss the possibility of a time-out, but this is real cricket ... This is Test cricket. I explained the situation to them and said I wouldn't give them out. You have to consider the circumstances and these were exceptional ones."

The Old New (or New Old) face of Indian Team

A friend was looking incredulously at the scorecard of the ongoing 3rd test at Cape Town. He has done so umpteen times since Jo’burg irrespective of state of play. He always looks at the Indian batting card, precisely the names on it. And now the look on his face gets even more incredulous as India inch towards the near impossible – returning without defeat after a Test series in South Africa.

Picture this and ponder over the thought behind his bewilderment:

Ting tong.

Film producer Dilip Vengsarkar (opening the door): Yes?
Man At Door: It’s me.
DV: Who ARE you?
Man (flabbergasted): You do not actually recognise me?
DV: Do I look to be joking?
MAD: But it’s been just a few days…Okay, surely you must recognise him (point at 2nd man at door)? You saw him at the studio the other day.
DV: I’m sorry but I do not know him either. Now if you can excuse me…
MAD: And him?
DV: What is this bloody game going on - some sort of a memory test? The three of you have no business coming here.
MAD: But Sir ….[SLAM]

For a moment Yuvraj Singh, the aspiring actor, looks blankly at the closed door and walks back with comrades Suresh Raina and Mohammad Kaif. Up to this point, all of them were under the impression that they had succeeded in the nationwide auditions for title roles in a movie called ‘The Young Musketeers’.

“So what we heard was true. The old fart’s lost the original script and is beginning work on a bloody new one.”
“Never mind – we’ll come back hard and push for roles in this one! What is it called, by the way?”
“The Old Age Home.”

Taking on the post-War-post-Pigeon Kangs

India have managed a slender but potentially critical 41 run lead at the end of 3rd day’s play at Cape Town. Barring a wretched capitulation on 4th day, they would expect to end the Test series on a high note and, maybe, even a high voltage series win. That bodes well for the big series awaiting them in Australia later this year. That is if the overdose of one-day matches in the next few months can be survived and the primary aim of doing well at the World Cup can be achieved with little or no focus loss from the other long term aims.

The 2006-07 Ashes ends on the 6th Jan as per official schedule but the match ispoised to be over by the 4th day - tomorrow. On this day will occur the 2nd great mass exodus in Australian cricket since the present Indian coach walked into the sunset. The present lot of wavers includes two bowlers, Shane and Glenn, who are good enough to fancy their chances of qualifying in an all-time XI across the ages and continents.

During the late 90’s there was widespread concern in the Australian Cricket Board about an early millenium mass exodus when Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Ian Healy and Shane Warne were ageing simultaneously. Well, Warne preserved himself and refused to join that one. History says that the changeover was seamless and – unthinkably– revitalising to the Baggy Greeners.

Common sense says the transition will be tougher, a lot tougher, this time round just like Chappelli had predicted at the time dismissing the late 90's ACB concerns. He had predicted that the real challenge to Australian supremacy will come when McGrath and Warne leave the scene.

That time is upon Australia. In another 1 year and 1 day’s time from tomorrow, the world will either learn that Australian Cricket has indeed established an inconceivable, foolproof system that functions in a Matrix-like realm beyond the influence of even the greatest individual performers, or it will get confirmation of the age-old concept that any sporting team, even THE Australian team, is only as good as its present bunch of players are.

I guess we know now why Lara wants to play Tests till he is forty. Ever since that series 14 years ago Lara never found himself on the winning side of a Test series against the one time he craves to beat. To be factual his team hasn’t even come close to beating them.**
Lara must fancy his chances now. He has expressed a burning desire to play for Australia but that would perhaps rank a distant 2nd highest in his priority list, after his desire to win against them.

The impossible is turning into possibility as West Indians continue their upswing and the day of an Australia without Warne and McGrath is nigh. His expression of this upcoming Australian problem betrays a suppressed glee. Make no mistake - that is not Lara the batsman, who will miss the perennial challenge from his old foes, but Lara the West Indian. But people who expect Lara to retire from both forms after the forthcoming World Cup may be missing out on this angle.
As I read his intentions, he will wait for one last crack at Australia the next time they tour his part of the world.

** His side was well placed on one occasion when West Indies were leading 2-1 in a 4 Test series with one Test remaining in 1999 before they lost the last one even as Lara scored a breathtakingly quick century in a losing cause. But then the series had earlier seen Brian Charles Lara follow up a match-winning 213 with a 4th innings 153 not out for the very next match to earn a 2nd victory – the second greatest Test knock of all time according to a Wisden exercise.

Never the twain shall meet at this time

“Dec 29: Makhaya Ntini bowls out first innings centurion Ricky Ponting 1st ball to change the course of a Melbourne test on the 4th morning.”

“Jan 2: Michael Hussey greets the New Year at Newlands with a century after tea during the first day’s play.”

Bizarre match reports, those. Never would they appear on any newspaper. For these two sides are not going to play each other in the Boxing Day and New Year Test matches, certainly not anytime in the near future. Australia and South Africa belong to the southern hemisphere and each year both of them will have a home Test series scheduled at traditional venues at this time of the year.

Which reminds me: around this time 14 seasons back a rookie Test player must have been busy scoring his maiden Test ton for the West Indies – a small matter of 277 whereafter he was dismissed through a run out – to keep his trailing side afloat in one helluva thrilling five-match series Down Under.
[You can read more on that classic duel between WI & Aus under 'Caribbean Flame' here.]

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Capetown Carnage of 4th Jan, 1997

I left my maiden job in December 1995 after barely six months of service. Upon hindsight I must rate it as an impulsive move, but at the time I took it partly to enforce a turn in the career path and partly from dissatisfaction. I returned home, put my feet up, gave myself a few days to unwind and then, rather surprisingly, lost all desire to get myself another job.

The ‘surprising’ aspect there was the reason behind the laze: watching cricket on TV. Till that winter 11 seasons back, I never realised I loved watching cricket THAT much (though I have always loved playing it). Starting Christmas 1995, I gobbled up pretty much every bit of international cricket on offer from the telemedia, live or recorded. I recall having deferred joining my next job as the 1996 World Cup was still not over.

This zombie-like phase continued throughout the whole of 1996, 1997 and right up to April 1998 when a certain personal distraction (that, as I punch in the objectionable phrase unnoticed, is playing with our 4 year old Titli) swept me away from frequent cricket viewing for a few good months. Thereafter I invited a never-ending problem of time-sharing and consequently my cricket viewership hours went down. The problem remains unsolved till date but luckily it is now mitigated to remote-snatching during matches.

No more of jabber; let me come to the point behind the above reminiscences. At the present time, that mid-90’s phase of cricket-gorging roughly splits my years of cricket following in half; I had started off with the Down Under tour of India in 1985-86. In the past one year of blogging I have often written posts celebrating 10 years of some memorable cricketing incidents of 1996 (like
this, this and even this).

However in these two decades and little bit I have not watched another passage of live cricket that comes close to a particular hour of batting that unfolded after lunch on 4th Jan 1997 in a 2nd test of a 3 test series at the foot of the Table mountains. Another 10 year celebration is coming up dears!

But unlike those earlier posts I need not spend many words today explaining that spectacle. I had already touched upon this exhilarating hour in
this post, commented upon it here, and probably referred to it in numerous other posts when the slightest opportunity presented itself. But most of all, I am hardly blessed with the ability to narrate a sight as balladic as that. Suffices to note that the two put up a 222 run stand (from 58/5 after allowing SA to set a 530-odd 1st innings total) in 40 overs. That hour after lunch produced 105 in 14 odd overs against the best fast bowling side at that time.

If I were to live another hundred years and spend each of them watching live cricket, I would still not harbour high hopes of a repeat of the Sachin-Azhar show (although it hardly matters, personally I prefer to designate it the other way round) from that sunny 3rd afternoon at Newlands. Like a devotee I can only pay homage by trying never to miss a re-telecast of that partnership on sports television.

There is always a certain amount of risk associated with making lofty predictions in cricket though. I
learnt the lesson the hard way less than a year ago. Just to prove this statement of mine wrong maybe some young man in early twenties somewhere in India or South Africa may switch on his television set tomorrow and watch a never-before hour of cricket unfold in the 3rd day of the ongoing decider of a 3rd Test.

Same day, same place, same teams, ten years ahead….what’s wrong in

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Dravid’s current lean trot and Sachin’s long haul

Failing to recall a single test series since Australia 1999 in which Rahul Dravid failed to pass fifty in any of the innings, I checked up on his career profile @ statsguru and ignored all one-test farces (sometimes called ‘series’). I was fairly spot on. There are only two instances in his 10 year plus career when Dravid has failed to score a fifty in a series of 2 or more Tests – and those two instances occurred in consecutive series: Australia 99-00 (scoreline: India lost 0-3) followed by the 2-0 drubbing from South Africans at home in early 2000.

If India get to a real big total tomorrow and capitalise by putting the hosts under pressure in the first innings then the current series in South Africa might well be an undesirable “follow up act” after seven years. Expect some loud whispers after this Test, irrespective of result. A common refrain will be “Is Dravid over the hill?” “He will be over 34 in another month” would probably rank second.

I have just one advice for any such speculation: “Forget it”. Why? Because I watched the 29 he scored today. It was the most breathtaking under-forty Test score that I have witnessed in quite a while, quite unlike the regular Dravid-ian approach to starting an innings. It was not scored under pressure, but we know a bit about his response to pressure and that is not going to be a point of debate even when Dravid is 60 years old. We are discussing his physical powers as a batsman here. I think he is just fine.

Incidentally I have been feeling exactly the same about Sachin and his physical ability as a batsman for quite a few months. His Durban first innings shots confirmed my belief. I saw nothing that suggested Sachin has become a lesser batsman over the past year of diminishing returns.

Problem is, even though the two players are fairly the same age (they are both 33) Sachin has now played 17 years of international cricket to Dravid’s 10. I have come to believe that as a 5 day game progresses the inevitable mental fatigue of it all starts to show up on the batting of Sachin these days and then, the fatal mistake comes early.
I have fair reason to believe in such a ludicrous-sounding hypothesis on a not-too-old all-time great: of late Sachin’s batting average shows a startling decline as the match wears on. And this trend is observed not only in the period of his off colour performances in the last 2 years but also over a rather long period of four-and-a-half years.

Avg: Career,Eng’2002onwds,since2005

Match 1st innings: 70.08, 65.68, 50.00
Match 2nd innings: 52.06, 39.16, 32.00
Match 3rd innings: 51.47, 48.23, 25.25
Match 4th innings: 34.28, 29.00, 26.00

Overall 54.87, 47.88, 33.85

Sachin always had this less-than-impressive second innings record right through his otherwise glittering career, a deficiency that he acknowledged and wished to improve. The above stat, I’m afraid, indicates that the Sachin of today is less likely to get a big score in the latter part of a Test match than ever before.
At best it suggests a dip in his conversion rate of Test hundreds in this final phase of his career unless he does a Lara hereon. In practical terms, Sachin will probably need to bid adieu to one version of the game soon after the Caribbean World Cup in order to preserve himself and - more importantly - his drive to play the game. And his call may well be a different one from Lara’s.

Coming back to that Dravid stat in the first paragraph, it only goes to show what a ‘wicketkeeper’ (by that I mean ‘an uncebrated but critical performer’ and not his erstwhile one-day role) Rahul Dravid has been to the much improved Test displays put up by Indian sides in this decade. It also reflects the good work that his team has shown during the current series in not depending heavily on a handful of proven performers to put up a creditable ‘away’ show.

The "Shoot 'em or Hang 'em?" variety of cricket journalism

I do not expect the ‘Go Chappell' / 'Remove Dravid’ section of the media to exactly salute those 2 gentlemen for the successful move of opening with Dinesh Karthik in the opening day of the 3rd test. This section plays on the baser instincts of sports lovers and prefers spewing venom in retrospect when a move or a strategy fails.

Surely everything Dravid and Chappell get right – like today’s Karthik move, like the bowling combination in Jo’burg, like the vindication of continued faith in Jaffer even as Pathan was left out - must be the craftwork of some bald-n-bearded ghost the two of them summon after the team meeting by rubbing an old lamp that Greg Chappell bought from Sharjah while commentating there in April 1998.

A specific case of tale-twisting comes to mind in this regard: the Irfan Pathan affair. So many of these people sat on the fence and heard clearly when Dravid – during all those heady (one)days of late 2005 and early 2006 when Pathan could do nothing wrong with bat or ball – kept repeating in press conferences that Pathan was merely a bowler who could bat. It must have been clear enough message for Pathan that he was getting picked solely on his bowling.

More than a year has passed but nothing has since been said either by the team management or even Pathan himself to indicate a modification of that primary role expected of Pathan. Yet the daggers came out when Pathan’s bowling took a dip and his struggle with the bat unfortunately coincided with it.

Only these helical thinking people – perhaps still nursing a hangover from the Ganguly-Chappell split - can explain exactly how ‘Pathan’s bowling was destroyed by Greg and Dravid when they made him bat higher up’.

Agreed that the team management deserve some criticism for their obvious inability to rectify Pathan’s degenerating bowling and yet not calling for the services of a bowling coach. At this point of time, it is bloody unnerving to know that one fine day such trouble can also befall Srisanth and then the present supporting staff for the Indian side would be able to do precious little to get him back on track except suggesting a return to domestic cricket – to the bowler’s personal bowling coach, to be precise!

But it still beats me how his pinch hitter role in batting – on which he was not being assessed – could even be proposed as a reason for that bowling problem he continues to suffer from (apparently he conceded 108 for 2 wickets today out of the the opponents’ score of 270 odd at close to 5 runs an over in the Ranji match versus Uttar Pradesh).

Needless to think of them media nitpickers; those no-hopers making up such stories are forever attempting to yellow people’s minds by speculating on the first and third ways that the Dinesh Karthiks (and Irfan Pathans) do not even bother to think about.

The Karthik perspective: choosing the second way, all the way

Imagine yourself preparing to sit out the final decisive Test match of an open series and then being told on the last day to prepare to pad up in place of the injured 1st choice keeper. You would be taken aback by the development. The 1st way of reacting to it – the easier way, that is - would be a spontaneous complaint of not getting enough time. But perhaps you are different. You take the surprise in your stride as a good tiding and look forward to this unexpected outing on the morrow.

You are aware that you rank amongst the best keepers in your land. That would give you some confidence, as would the knowledge that people would automatically expect less batting from your avatar as the new no.7.

Now comes the testing part: you are told that you may have to open with the bat if your team gets to bat first. This was more than you ever bargained for. Once again there is more than one way of looking at that.
You could either perceive that arrangement as a way to find a scapegoat in order to accommodate and shield a struggling opening batsman down the order; or you could react the second way - spot the best chance you ever had to show your calibre and to play an unforgettable cameo role in a golden chapter in your country’s cricketing history that may just get scripted on the back of your success in this new role.

Wait, there’s a third way. You simply close your eyes, say a curt ‘yes’, and start praying like a madman that your team gets to bats second (that more or less eliminates the possibility of your getting an opening role with the bat unless your skipper has sinister plans of dehydrating you to death).

You take a deep breath. You are incapable of seeing things in any but the second way inspite of your moderate performances since landing in this continent. You nod and smile.

Your skipper wins the toss, comes back into the dressing room and puts his thumb up at you with a wink. You pad up for a strange future you never prepared yourself for.

Imagine how fulfilling it must be
when you come back quite a few hours later after providing a do-or-die opening partnership that was not just the best your team has managed on this tour but also started getting close to your team’s last innings aggregate!

You hardly care that even this effort of yours will never get even half the newspaper footage as your ex-skipper’s inspirational return managed. For you did all this even after being virtually certain of sitting out the next Test match your side will play quite a few months later as the first choice keeper will be back in business well before that.

If you are Dinesh Karthik of India then you did all that for the team. Little gems like today's effort of his often help rewriting a bit of sporting history. Reminds me of another honest trier.
Sanjay Bangar did it for his team (opening in daunting circumstances, that is) at Headingley 2002 to trigger off an unprecedented 2 years when India hardly put a foot wrong even after leaving their shores. [For the record, India won that Headingley Test by an innings.]

Bangar was not there in Australia 2003-04, Pakistan 2004 or even World Cup 2003 (which was not too distantly separated in time from Headingley). By the looks of it, young Dinesh Karthik too is destined to have an in-and-out stint with the national side owing to the towering Dhoni. It makes his job of keeping focus tougher – like Damien Martyn’s was before he sealed a place in the Australian middle order.

But now we know that as long as he is not given a raw deal Dinesh Karthik will not be complaining about or backing off from his destiny. We have been getting glimpses of his temperament over this tour; we saw a whole lot more of it here in the past 24 hours.
There’s some reassurance for the future of Indian cricket in that the temperament is quite the same as what we thought it to be when he accompanied Dravid in a critical second innings partnership in the Eden Gardens win against Pakistan in early 2005 - and quite the opposite of what some of us thought when he called wrongly and apparently turned his back to run Kaif out in one of the recent one-dayers!

Monday, January 01, 2007

That special something 'bout Dhoni

If you are an Indian cricket supporter you must often be getting to the brink of banging your head on the nearest wall at the man's propensity to discard reason for valour just when he is getting on top. His self-dismissing horror of a shot just 2 balls before the tea interval on the 5th day at Durban had just that effect on me, as did his dismissal at Capetown in the 3rd ODI of the preceding one day series and his hoick at Malaysia in the knockout match versus Australia a few months back.

Yet we must let go of the numerous failures-at-the-doorstep-of-success that this amazing player has returned for his team this year if we desire to sit back and relish the clean, dunno-what-to-expect entertainment he made available to all who cared to watch these cameos.
Even as we watch him walk back after each such dismissal, do we not sometimes wonder about what puts us off more - the implication of his dismissal to our beloved team at a crucial juncture, or being denied the promised lump of sumptuous old world cricket entertainment rarely allowed in any sport by the result-oriented ways of most modern players?

These are 2 successive mails I sent to friends when Mahendra Singh Dhoni scored his 47 at Durban:
Mail 1:
-----Original Message-----
Sent: 30 December 2006 17:23
To: *****
Subject: look who's batting
MS Dhoni (rhb) 2 (32)
Mail 2:
-----Original Message-----
Sent: 30 December 2006 17:53
To: *****
Subject: Look who's batting AGAIN

MS Dhoni (rhb) 36 (54)

Of all the men playing international cricket at this point of time, I cannot think of a name other than that of another wicketkeeper in another hemisphere who can knock a few years off blokes like me in that fashion.