Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Future Guys of Indian cricket & the non-‘plus’sed seniors

I could not believe my ears when I heard Maninder Singh defending Yuvraj Singh in the face of questions raised on his form and fitness in a tele-discussion on dropping Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly from the one day side.

Upon being reminded of Yuvraj Singh’s inability to last long in any of his Australian outings Maninder argued that Yuvraj is mostly getting dismissed through slip catches in the first class matches; however since Yuvraj bats at number four / five in ODIs & T20s there will be no slips when he comes in and he should score! Whether that comment was more insulting to Ponting’s captaincy or Yuvraj’s batting ability is for you to decide.

I have long been supporting the cause of picking only those players in ODIs who are either good batsmen or good bowlers depending on their trade but who necessarily have the accepted ‘plus’-es called good ground fielding and deft running between wickets. The philosophy is more rigidly applicable to T20 teams.

I have always believed that Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly should have retired from ODIs just after the 2007 world cup. Both are very good batsmen. But unlike Sachin Tendulkar the Lords 1996 twins do not have quick feet; they are neither skilled ground fielders nor quick runners between wickets. They are not going to contribute that little extra to the team in normal ODI / T20 conditions where we need slip fielders (Dravid’s specific plus) for only 10-15 overs and part time seam bowlers (Ganguly’s specific plus) only in overcast conditions. This means they are susceptible to finger pointing and selection hazards even if they do not perform in 2 or 3 games. You don’t want to see players of their calibre facing it.

However Australia is a place where the Golden generation boys’ batting assumes greater importance than that of the next generation of batsmen simply because the men hold their performances in these shores while the boys have been unable to do so. It happened during the 2003 tour and it has happened this time too in Test matches. I see no reason for that not happening in ODIs unless the matter is as simple as explained by Maninder.


These two ex-captains should have deserved serious thought from selectors just as the right, experienced horses for the course. There are horses by the dozen for Indian courses but the away courses have not yet been happy for the colts. The benching of the senior pros could be postponed by one series in this context.

Moreover, the specific ‘plus’-es of Dravid and Ganguly (and even Laxman’s catching, for that matter) come into play so much more in Australian conditions.

Let us ignore that all. Now we go to their ‘minus’-es, i.e. lack of the commonly accepted pluses. Since both were dropped after a very short run of failure in ODIs and don’t look likely to be considered for a re-admission we can safely attribute their dismissal to their minus-es which can no more be improved unlike form.

Surely we can then safely assume the chosen few for the ODI side for the tri-series to have those ‘plus’-es.

Let us check up on the facts with the names in the announced
squad. We will call them the ‘Future Guys’. Bowlers first.


S Sreesanth
Speciality: bowler
Plus: Virtually None - not much batting, was not impressive in the outfield in the last series he played, is coming back from injury

RP Singh
Speciality: bowler
Plus: Virtually None - not much batting, not the quickest outfielder.

Ishant Sharma
Speciality: bowler
Plus: None - No batting at all, quick legs but lousy outfielder.

Piyush Chawla
Speciality: bowler
Plus: batting has never clicked in international matches, but a good outfielder.

Irfan Pathan:
Speciality: bowler
Plus: Has developed into a very good outfielder, good runner between wickets
Plus 2:. Very capable with the bat

Praveen Kumar is unknown to me. Harbhajan is an adequate selection displaying some plusses for his lower order batting and decent outfielding in ODIs.

The batsmen’s list: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt & wk), Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Dinesh Karthik, Robin Uthappa, Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma.

All the batsmen are good outfielders, and most are good runners between wickets. Some are excellent catchers.

So even if the omission of Ganguly & Dravid looks unjustified if we look at the bowlers, it looks less debatable when we see the people they are competing with. If some of these guys can perform like a Ganguly or Dravid in his prime over the upcoming tri-series they would be justifying the selectors’ faith in them as the ‘Future Guys’. They would have then rightfully ousted the two iconic batsmen from the ODI squad simply by being better than them.

What if they do not live up to it? It has already happened once, and the same Ganguly was at the centre of it.

We will all be watching. We have been hearing this ‘blooding youngsters’ theme for sometime now. We have seen how our youngsters can be relentless in 20 over games some months back. And we have also seen in the very next ODI series against Australia how they start looking like amateurs in longer games. We have seen confirmation of it in the ongoing Test series.

We remember that these same ‘Future Guys’ fielded incompetently and batted poorly for first half of the ODI series at home against Australia. That they won two matches out of seven. That the 1st win came from the bats of Sachin & Ganguly, the second from the bats of their bowlers and they wasted the platform to win a third that was laid by – who else – Sachin and Ganguly.

It is not the fault of the ‘Future Guys’ themselves. Many of them are talented, agile and intense (enough for T20s) but have not yet acquired the stamina required for long games. Moreover Sourav and Rahul are greats – and to replace such people you must develop their successors over a period of time. You can’t just select their replacements in the hope that you will be as lucky as the guy that picked the two of them for the same trip 12 years back. The system they came up from did not ensure Sourav and Dravid were excellent by the time they played in the national team – they just turned out that way. Are we living in the hope that such players will just emerge out of nowhere?

We hope the concerned people – the selectors, the board members, all that are party to this young team theory - have studied the reasons of failure of the earlier ‘Team building for the future’ effort ahead of the 2007 world cup. We hope they have ensured that the youngsters included in the sequel to the big flop are adequately groomed. If not then I’m afraid the whole exercise, even when done with best of intentions, can look like one big and dangerous experiment quite resembling a conspiracy against the seniors to replace them with inferior players. Just as it did the last time.

Suresh Raina has already faced one such ‘battle with oldies’ in his first stint with the national team. It may not be good for people like him if they are to be declared losers in this ‘war’ the second time round. The missile, however, has been launched now.

The future of Indian cricket will look healthy if the Future Guys achieve the double bill of performing with the primary skills as well as the 'plus'-es right throughout the series. However if they do not then people representing the BCCI selection process should accept their inability to develop (as against ‘select’) replacements for the older generation in public and ask the rich board of India to arrange a detailed training for them from Cricket Australia.


Meanwhile, the effect this selection has on the team morale ahead of the Adelaide cruncher remains to be seen. I would have no doubts on the effect if Dhoni was also the Test captain. However Kumble’s absence from the ODI side should help calm down the dressing room infinitely.

PS: Let’s give the selection guys, at least one of them, some relief. Vengsarkar picked and backed Ishant Sharma all through and must be complimented for the way he identified this boy’s gift of natural bounce and accuracy.

[cross posted on Desicritics.org]

Perth Win: An Analysis

What were the major factors behind India's Test win at Perth? We have discussed all of them barring three in various posts on this blog since India landed in Australia.

One of the factors we did not discuss was Matthew Hayden's absence. Such is his dominance over all Indian bowlers in both Tests and ODIs (less so in T20 till date) that they get a low just by seeing him at the batting crease. They often let their bowling plans drift and tend to forget that they can at least try cracking up the other end. To have a nervous rookie playing as his replacement at Perth would have felt like a belated New Year Gift to the Indian bowlers.

Let me list out the other factors tha we have already talked about.

A. Winning the toss & batting first, playing Viru & getting team selection right, Indian bowlers not getting carried away by the Perth bounce, Perth pitch not supporting Australian 'strangulation' method: discussed in this post on Perth Test.

B. Good opening stands, the Australian catchers' susceptibility & Indian catchers not returning those favours: we discussed these in the series opener preview.

C. Australia being aware that faster pitches may backfire and end up reducing difference between the sides: Find a line on it here and try to forget the rest - Perth should help us to move on.
D. Having good catchers at right positions: Kumble got it right on the 4th day with Dravid back at first slip (RD caught well through the current series and has left behind his frightening catch-dropping spree since England last year) and Laxman at silly point. It wasn't so on the 3rd day (as we discussed in the concluding section of this post)
I said we had not discussed three factors. The second & third are Ponting's continued failure and Indian quicks moving the ball in both directions to up the pressure on opposition batsmen. We will discuss those two in unison, both of which happened in the first session of 4th day's play.
1st session, 4th day, Perth
The Indian quick bowlers exhibited pack hunting intent in the pre-lunch session and that was not lost on Australia. Ishant Sharma's role in that memorable session and his act of removing Ponting in that extra over induced by Sehwag cannot be discussed enough. It is the best passage of Test cricket I have watched since the 5th day of the Old Trafford Ashes Test of 2005 when Ricky Ponting showed his true calibre as a batsman against genuinely fast swing bowling and saved the Test almost single handedly (Mcgrath will think he can take some credit; I included the 'almost' for him).
Ponting and Hussey did an admirable job in keeping the bowlers out for so long on 19th morning. And that is not something we can say often when Indian quick bowlers are concerned. It is common experience to see one of them start yielding soon; the stranglehold seldom lasts this long. In the preview post we had discussed relentlessness against a big team like Australia. We have seen it in the past from our great batsmen. We have seen Kumble do it on Indian pitches with help of other spinners.
But the 4th day morning at Perth is the first session in a long time where I have seen it come from a pack of Indian quicks on an away pitch that is not necessarily the best for their kind of bowling. It would have come to nought had Ponting, the batsman who I believe could actually help his team to this total, stayed on till lunch. But then as cricinfo put it, justice would have been denied had Sharma not dismissed Ponting.
If we watch a replay of the Ponting dismissal we find that the Australian skipper has played at a straight ball from Ishant Sharma on the 6th stump and edged it to Rahul Dravid at 1st slip. To someone who missed out on the morning session this might look like a batting error. Had Sharma been bowling only outswingers all along, Ponting would have left this one alone with ease. Had Sharma been bowling just in-cutters this ball would not have happened. Ponting had barely survived close lbw shouts from deliveries that jagged back from pretty much the same spot. He was eager to get outside the line of his off stump to the one that moved in. The ball held its line and sucked him in.
It was pretty much the same with Hussey. He had obviously gone through videos of his dismissal in the first innings and was intent on not letting the outswingers from the two Indian left arm bowlers kiss the edge of his bat. When Pathan was bowling he saw a few balls get pitched within 2 inches from the off stump line and still left them alone. Being left handed in batting, he was armed with the knowledge that Pathan is only going to swing it outside with the new ball.
RP came and bowled the same outswingers for a few deliveries. However I suspect he bowls to certain plans and backs it up with adequate practice. He is the only Indian pace bowler who looks comfortable bowling around the wicket, something that requires good practice, and employs the move effectively as demonstrated in England. Here he stayed over the wicket to Hussey but soon came up with one that pitched in line and went straight towards the stumps.
RP's extra pace combined with Hussey's predetermination (borne out of having seen only outswing all morning) made sure his bat came down a little too late. Hussey was a tad unfortunate with the lbw decision considering the height where his pads were rapped, quite like Sachin in the first innings. But the ball could beat the bat mainly because the surprise delivery moved unlike the stock one.
UPDATE: Ishant's spell to Ponting and both the above dismissals can be watched here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Now & then..

7 years ago, another 17th consecutive win beckoned Australia at Eden Gardens.

They had to beat India to get it.

They lost
the match.

It was pretty similar
today at Perth. Not just the figure 17 and the opposition, but some other things.

The similarities?


At the outset India winning the match appeared as unlikely then as it did this time.

Then too India got out of jail through the batting of VVS Laxman & Rahul Dravid.


Australia, on both occasions, were led by a man widely regarded as the world's best Test batsman under pressure.

India were far from fielding their best bowling side in Eden 2001 & Perth 2008.

An unheralded rookie took the wicket of the Australian skipper in both matches.

But there were big differences too.

What were the differences?

That rookie (Harbhajan) bagged 13 scalps in the Eden Test Ishant took just 3 here. [Did I say just? That hour of tormenting Ponting culminating in his wicket had the impact of 3 or 4 wickets, I reckon]

VVS and Dravid never met on the crease in the second innings this time round.

Like 2001 VVS was the no.6 and Dravid the no.3 when the Perth match started. But unlike 2001 they hadn't swapped positions in the 2nd outing.

There were no centuries in the Perth Test.

Harbhajan Singh was not playing in Perth.

Indian pacers did extremely well this time. (Zaheer's series tally in 2001 was 3 wickets if I recall correctly, same as Tendulkar's. They were the joint highest wicket takers outside of Bhajji)


There was no follow on this time. [And perhaps there never will be in an India-Australia Test match]

Ponting was quite disppointing in the 2008 match but still managed more than thrice his 2001 series aggregate in the Perth match alone.

India win at Perth: video clip of the moment

Captain Courageous collects a stump after RP castles Tait

and

Look who's captain too - Sehwag!

Bowling vs Batting

Most of us believe that the bowler is more important in Test matches than the batsman. They are there to win you Test matches. Perhaps the great bowling sides of 70's and 80's have also supported this 'bowlers are king' theory. Today we will explore the validity of this assumption.

For all their runs the batsmen won't get you the 20 opposition wickets you need to be a victor. To get the 2 points you need 4 good men to handle the red cherry. The value of bowlers can not be undermined in any way.

But the coin has another side. The batsman can score 600+ in an innings and make sure that the opposition will never win the game. For all their wickets, the bowlers cannot ensure that the draw is the worst result for their team. Fundamental difference is good performances from bowlers shorten the game while competent batting ensures greater length of play.

Let us put it this way: a team requires a good bowling arsenal to turn (i) a potential loss to a win, and (ii) a potential draw to a win.

However the bowlers cannot turn a potential loss to a draw. You need the batsmen there. And the only time a self-respecting team considers a draw a decent result is while playing a better team. That is because against the better team a loss is more likely than a win, and when the former looms large the draw seems more honourable. Batsmen must stand up and be counted against higher ranked opposition.

But then the need to opt for a draw depends on the game situation. The importance of the batsmen's performance, therefore, is a dynamic quality. Are the bowlers allowed to think likewise? Are they exempted from performing in the 3rd innings when at the end of the second innings the team will be happy to earn a draw by batting out the 4th innings? They are not. We need the bowlers to do well regardless. As long as a team keeps winning as the first option the bowlers will have to strive for wickets irrespective of quality of opposition and game situation.

That is where the bowlers are important: they drive quality through the very nature of their role. They bowl to win. Their primary role is to aim for the ultimate result - a win - while the batsmen's primary role is to support bowlers by giving them time and runs to achieve the aim.

We tend to think of big 4th innings chases where the batsmen are apparently 'batting to win'. Are the batsmen too not winning us games there? Well, are they? There may be the odd instance when they actually are winning games that could only be won by them (Brian Lara scoring 15o odd against Australia in 1999 comes back to my mind). At all other times in 4th innings chases the batsmen may only be playing catch up, covering up for their deficiencies in the first innings and / or their bowlers' inadequacies in the two opposition innings.

The ongoing Test match in Perth is a case in point. At the end of the 3rd day the Australian batsmen are battling to make up for their bowling and batting drawbacks. The Indian bowlers are bowling to win. And the best thing about it is the draw being taken out of the equation.


Corollary

Where does the fielder (the catcher, to be specific) figure in that hierarchy? Well he supports the bowler directly. He is no less important than the batsman. Their positions in the field must also be wisely chosen, much in the way batting orders are for batsmen. Asking Sourav Ganguly to field at point while hunting for wickets is a far bigger indiscretion than asking Rahul Dravid to open the batting in Australia without an adequate notice period (or even not selecting the more compact Dinesh Karthik ahead of Wasim Jaffer as Sehwag's opening partner for Perth).

You may have taken 600 wickets, Mr. Anil Kumble. You are even allowed to bear a grudge that your phenomenal Laxmanesque feat of taking 100+ Aussie wickets at around 5 wickets per match in an era dominated by them has gone virtually unattended in the media. But you cannot put fielders at wrong positions in a match where you need to hold on to all your chances and forget worrying about all other things.


Update: This post was made before start of 4th day's play at Perth. The task turned out to be too steep for Aussie batsmen.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Waiting for the wrong side of 30

Sehwag's 29 now.

He scored 29 the day before.

And he's on 29*..

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

WACA

This man was the fastest and best in his trade during the early 90’s. At the time he must have been the most suited to play in Perth. Why, even the home Association of Perth has a name resembling him.

It is therefore no mean tragedy that ‘WACA’ Younis never played a Test match at WACA.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Viru carries Indian hopes in comeback match

Now this is interesting. We are not going into the right and wrong of exchanging one Punjab Pipegun for Delhi Dynamite and the other for Baroda Bomber. Let’s just say India have put up an interesting combination. At this particular point of time they have perhaps given themselves their best chance to turn it around. They will also need to bat first here - only Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly amongst the Indian batsmen have, in recent memory, looked likely to script an innings of note on the last two days of a Test match. टस जीतो और बल्ला घुमाओ। (That was 'win the toss and swing the bat' in Hindi, for the interested)

If Virender Sehwag fails, it was going to happen anyway with one of the openers. But if his 100 in the previous innings has brought back some of the good things that he used to unconsciously do right in his glory days then we may expect a good match here. For this is the only surface in the series where Australia are most likely to find their ultra-successful plan B (strangulation) removed from the equation.

Both teams need wickets to restrict the opposition here – which is not necessarily bad for an Indian team fielding Viru at the top and an extra half-batsman at the bottom. Of course we are merely speculating on the 20% chance India have in the game. I’m afraid all of it hinges on them batting first and young Indian fast bowlers adjusting their lengths well in the face of seduction by the legendary Perth bounce to go astray.

It's crazy, the kind of effect this man Virender Sehwag has on people's expectations. Now I was calling his selection a mistake and now I am writing a post with this heading.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Marlon Samuels' quicker one..

..is under the scanner once again. I am unable to speak on the legality of his action in delivering that 'Perth special' but I was amazed a year and a half ago that he could deliver it at that kind of speed. 82 miles an hour, to be precise.

He was bowling those darts off five steps when India toured West Indies in 2006! I have a sneaking feeling that the trauma of watching Marlon effortlessly go past them on the speen guns was too much for our nascent medium pacers to handle. Irfan Pathan lost his pace soon after, Munaf Patel his fitness while Zaheer had already lost his form and place in the Test side at that point of time. I am reproducing what I thought at the time about the delivery that shattered their psyche:

"AND.....this creep n' slime delivery got unleashed while their fast bowler Ian Bradshaw was consistently clocking late sixties from the other end, with a flummoxed Carlton Baugh standing up at the stumps. I almost screamed in protest (muted it with great difficulty, as it was midnight in India) when the otherwise lovable bore Tony Cozier tried to vilify the poor keeper for missing a stumping chance. Guess he wanted to call the little gloveman a dumb ass for not realising, after all those years of keeping to 'fast' and 'slow' bowlers, that a stumping was easier attempted off quickie Bradshaw?!

West Indies cricket losing potential quick bowlers to basketball? Huh! Ever thought of blaming off-spin?"


Why just blame the Indian bowlers for succumbing to the Samuels shock? If you think hard about the match where he clocked such speeds and the state of Indian cricket in its aftermath, it is easy to rule that the 1 run defeat in that 2nd ODI against West Indies toppled the fortunes of Rahul Dravid's invincible ODI juggernaut and turned them into a shellshocked lot over the time span of a 50 over match, a setback that they are still recoving from.

You say the 82 mph stuff is taken a few miles too far? Well here's more damning evidence. It took R P Singh's vigorous 140 kph stuff at England in the summer of 2007 to assure the poor Indian pacers and their supporters in India that the the giant leaps of our quicks could yield slightly better results than the 5 steps of Marlon. You will agree that the Indian new ball bowlers, post RP's quick overs in England, have looked a more confident lot and done far better than they did in 2006 in all forms of the game. Zaheer got back his hunger and Pathan his place while Ishant Sharma is making people sit up and take notice.

It is hardly surprising to me. These days all four (those three along with RP) are easily capable of crossing the 82 mph barrier..

Not that we love mother less but that we hate monkeys more

That's the Symmo-Hogg standpoint. It's not necessarily so in these parts of the world where, as Steven Waugh knows better, calling someone a monkey will not be deemed a serious insult unless used in a boardroom meeting.

Let's get into the Indian standpoint on such insults through the words of Kalki on Prem Panicker's Smoke Signals:


The Indian team is now expected to argue at Harbhajan’s appeal hearing that he called Symonds a Maa Ki… (he abused Symonds’ mother) in his native tongue, according to a report in Daily Telegraph.

"Looks like with this defense Hogg and Harbhajan will be brought on to the same level of offense and will be let off with a warning."

What the hell!! When I was in school/college, abusing someone’s mother was the ultimate insult and there have been cases of violence and even murder reported just because somebody called someone a bastard. And calling someone a monkey was one of the first things you learn as a toddler. Looks like as we grow up, we have to re-learn how to abuse others.

Indeed it's all down to cultural differences, Steve. And how your successor tried to cash in on it.

Update: I am quite prepared to let Mikey's word be the last one on the 'monkey' controversy coz' it hits the off stump right at the top:

I do not understand how this (monkey) is a racist term. The scientists say we all came from monkeys, so how can this be deemed racist?" the fast bowling legend said.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

No-o-o-o

That’s my answer to the 'sms poll' question for today on a local news channel: “Did Australia deserve to win the Sydney Test?”

That also happens to be the answer to a lot of other questions clouding my mind. Here are some of them:

“Did Australia deserve to get 450+ in the first innings?”

“Did Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting deserve to go scot-free (which I know they will) for lying to an umpire’s query just because they belong to Group ‘A’ and not Group ‘B’ where a Rashid Latif got banned for some matches for a similar offence?”

“Is it a mere coincidence that the wrong decisions from umpires tend to go up in crunch ‘Group A team – vs – Group B team’ matches and that far more of them go against the Group B team?”

“Is the Australian team confident of beating India fair & square – even in Perth?”

“Am I sure that the Aussie players genuinely have a grievance against Harbhajan and they are not trying to get the ‘monkey’ off the embarrassed skipper’s back?”

“Should India have left Akash Chopra out of the touring side?”

[Group ‘A’ : Australia / South Africa / England
Group ‘B’ : Bangladesh / Sri Lanka / India / Pakistan]

You may be wondering what happened to the burning issue of standard of umpiring. Even I, a very ordinary blogger, consider it below my dignity to even discuss about the unprofessional, even partisan attitude shown by Benson and Bucknor. That was more obnoxious than the deluge of bad decisions against the visitors. The latter followed from the former.

I sensed something more. It sounds genuinely outrageous but I have to say it. The umpires appeared to have been instructed by their ‘bosses’ / ‘patrons’ to help the hosts win their record 16th consecutive Test. Right from the bad decisions going in the hosts’ favour in both Australian innings at touch-and-go situations to the decisions going (and made to go) against the Indians in both of their outings the decision making had the look of an ugly ‘set up’.

I will try to leave this comment with a consoling thought. Australian cricket lovers are blokes that deserve none of this. And from whatever I have learnt about them, they may be as upset as Indians with their New Year Test win coming in that fashion. But if they aren’t, I’m afraid I am prepared to lose some more admiration. [There goes the consoling thought. It is one of those days…]

Update: Peter English & Peter Roebuck have a few things to say about the Sydney Test.

Peter English:

"Australians see catching differently to appealing and walking. They say it's up to the umpire to decide on edges and lbws, but when it comes to knowing whether a ball has carried, the fielder is the best person to judge. What they miss is that both arguments are about telling the truth. Why should Clarke be trusted to rule on a potentially match-turning catch when he stayed at the crease on day four after edging a ball to first slip?"


Here's the the part that was sadder than all others for me as a cricket fan and worshipper of that incredible package called Adam Gilchrist:

Roebuck:

"Then came the moment that compromised all subsequent events, rendering meaningless the continuation of Australia's run of victories. Dravid thrust his pad forwards at a wide delivery and wisely took the precaution of tucking his bat out of harm's way. The ball brushed the front pad and was taken by the local gloveman, a man with a high reputation for sportsmanship. Adam Gilchrist and his
comrades around the bat immediately roared a raucous appeal. Gilchrist was especially animated. To think there was a time when teammates chided him for holding back."