Friday, March 02, 2007

The bat men

Have a look at this S Rajesh analysis of best individual and team performances with the new ball in ODI's since Jan 2006. India rank rather high on the latter list, just behind South Africa and Australia. Compare the wax-n-wane Indian results over the time span with consistent Protean and emphatic Antipodean returns and the picture surfaces - India have failed to convert many of those good fielding starts into wins.

The Indian new ball bowlers have repeatedly done well in the starting overs but the regular spinners (with the exception of Ramesh Powar) have often failed to sustain pressure. That valve leakage problem subsequently gets worse during the slog [here's proof from Superstatman Rajesh again]. Even the Indian spearheads over the past 14 months - first Irfan Pathan (Economy rate 6.54 in last 10), then Agarkar and then Zaheer Khan (E.R. 7.32) - have all returned from impressive early spells only to prove ineffective in restricting the scoring rate of lower order opposition batsmen.

Part of the explanation comes from that amusing story of rapid succession. None of the three have been able to sustain top performance for a full season. Those stats from Rajesh allow us to go further and replace the 'season' with 'match'.

The tale of Indian bowling is B-grade movie-like, all too familiar and largely disappointing. Promising though they are, this Indian attack is not exactly in late 70's / mid-80's West Indies class. Or even early 2000s Australia grade. Not yet. They can deliver the goods with some regularity but they remain suspect under extreme pressure, especially in batting conditions. The pacers fail to bowl blistering yorkers, effective slower ones or perfume balls. The spinners Harbhajan and Kumble are concentrating too much on containment for anybody's good.

Zaheer's five-wicket haul on either side of middle overs in India's 2nd last pre-world cup match was a vital dose of confidence booster but his mates have to do a lot more in the next month and half before "Expect wins from Indian bowlers at your peril" becomes an unfair allegation. That more than decent record in Powerplays since 2006 is a good beginning.

I hear other rumblings in those figures. Repeated stories of losing grip over a match firmly under control do not a good captain make. He let it happen in three matches on the trot during the Sri Lanka series. Rahul has often led commendably in 'attack or lose' situations. For an Indian skipper he has an enviable record in defence of low totals, especially on pitches that suit our spinners. I am sure he would like to display better captaincy form even in other situations.

Indians, on their best days, can be smart catchers. Unfortunately that is a prerequisite in 2007 rather than a bonus. About the collective ground fielding and percentage of direct hits (timely ones, that is), the less said the better.

That leaves the team only one department with a potential to do the lion's share of match-winning work match after match. Those hallowed guys at the top of 'deliver the goods' chain have to remove mental cobwebs and take responsibility if India are to reach last four.

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