Saturday 29 December 2007

The Absolute Zero

Yesterday night I had an opportunity to hear noted classical singer Aarti Ankalikar in a live concert. I had been waiting for it for quite some time, not the least because her name bears a close resemblance to my better half’s. It was a wonderful mehfil, with Aarti Ankalikar regaling her fans with a wide array of music from the Raaga ‘Madhukans’ to the semi classical Thumri, Dadra, Chaiti and chipping in with a rare Ghazal too.

With the fourth days play at MCG only couple of hours away from the end of this concert, I thought a similar performance from the Indian batters could have been a real icing on the cake. But deep inside I knew, it would remain just what it was – a wishful thinking.

So Indians took the field in hope of venturing, where none has been before. The noises emanating from the players were right too. Bhajji talked of being positive and the team coming to Australia to win and nothing else. The only problem was Indians did not walk their talk. Or dare I say, they simply did not have enough ammo to do it.

Even the most ardent fans would not have hoped for an Indian victory. What they were looking at were those little battles within the war, which would have helped team India to compete in the series ahead. They scratched the surface, even dug a mile, but there was nothing that could remotely suggest an Indian fight back.

Over the next days we may delve on what went wrong and what could have been right. But getting bowled for less than 200 runs in each outing, in less that two days time, is a moral shattering defeat, which ever way you try to look at it. I am not sure if Indians can recover from this mauling.

You criticize the players when you harbour some expectations from them. But when the needle points to -273.15 on a Celsius scale, there isn’t much to write home about.

For me, that is also the saddest part of it.

Friday 28 December 2007

The great Indian run chase...

Flashback to the 1967-68 series against Australia. Indian team, led by Tiger Pataudi, had arrived in Brisbane for the third test, with Australia leading the four test series 2-0. ML Jaisimha had joined the team, just hours before the test, as a replacement for Chandra. (Yes, an opening bat replacing a leg spinner. Strange were/are the ways of Indian selectors). But the jet lag did not prevent Jaisimha from scoring a solid half-century in the first innings. Set to score a daunting 395 runs in the fourth innings, India soon slumped to 191/5, at which point Chandu Borde joined the stylish Hyderabadi. They carried the score to 310 and just when India's first win on Aussie soil looked probable, Borde glanced one down to fine leg for Ian Redpath to snap a good catch. Indians folded for 355, falling short of the Aussie total by a mere 39 runs.
Scorecard

Clive Hubert Lloyd's captaincy was under serious threat. The Australian attack led by Lillee and Thomson had walloped Windies 5-1, just few months ago. Against this background, Indians arrived in West Indies to play a four test series in 1976. West Indies won the first test and narrowly avoided a defeat in the second. Indians had sensed blood. Port of Spain, where the second and third tests were scheduled, was Gavaskar's favourite hunting ground. Set a near impossible target of 403 runs, which hitherto only Don's Bradman's invincible team had achieved way back in 1948, most Indians had given up hope. The batsmen though, had other ideas. Gavaskar laid a solid foundation with a regulatory century, only for Mohinder Amarnath and Gundappa Vishwanath to cap it with a fine victory. India won that match by whopping six wickets to set a new fourth innings record then.
Scorecard

Fast forward to the 1977-78 series. Kerry Packer had wrecked most cricket teams around the world. Australia being the home country was never going to be an exception. Amongst the major players, only Jeff Thomson had decided to stay back with the national team. Bobby Simpson was forced out of retirement to lead a hugely weakened Australian team. The five match series was tied 2-2 when the teams arrived at Adelaide for the series decider. Australians had set an improbable target of 494 runs in the fourth innings. Almost every frontline Indian batsman chipped in, with Amarnath, Vishwanath, Vengsarkar and Kirmani scoring creditable half centuries. Their valiant effort was in vain however as the team fell short of the mammoth Aussie total by just 47 runs.
Scorecard

By the time Indian team arrived in England in the second half of the 1979 summer, it had acquired a reputation of scoring big in the fourth innings. The 4th test at Oval test bears testimony to that. English bowling was led by Willis, Botham and Hendrick. As Indians began chasing 438 runs, they met with an unexpected stroke of luck. Hendrick was injured and England had to rely on Willis and Botham for pace. Gavaskar, in company of Chetan Chauhan, put on 212 runs for the opening wicket, erasing a 43 year old record set by Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali at Manchester Oval. Gavaskar looked in ominous form as he scored a glorious 221, which Len Hutton described as one of the very best innings played in England. Only an error of judgement on the part of Indian skipper S Venkatraghavan, who promoted Kapil Dev ahead of Vishwanath in hope of getting some quick runs, prevented what could have been yet another famous victory. India eventually settled for a draw at 429/8, just 9 runs short of the huge English total.
Scorecard

Team India sets out on yet another mammoth run chase tomorrow at MCG. For a team that has managed only 196 runs in its first essay, it would come as no surprise if it fails in the second one too. But tomorrow will also present a huge opportunity for India's lead batsmen to play an immortal innings and carve out a special place in history. An innings that would put to shade even VVS Laxman's epic 281 at Eden Gardens. That alone should be good enough for motivation, if there is any required.

All the very best India.

Thursday 27 December 2007

It was a throwback to the nineties

If Santa Claus had told the Indian skipper on the eve of Boxing Day test, that India would bundle out the Aussie team for 350 runs in their first innings, Kumble would have been as happy as a child dreaming of sugarplums dancing in his head.

Sure enough, the jolly old elf kept his words.

Although Mathew Hayden's century on a Boxing Day is a customary thing by now, it is extremely rare for an Australian team to get (almost) bowled out the on the very first day at MCG.

Having feasted upon the unexpected gifts, one would have hoped that the Indian batsmen extended their festivities over to the next four days. Instead, the openers played as if they had been on a leather hunt for better part of two days, as if they were facing an imposing score of over 600 runs and as if the only saving grace was batting out a draw. They displayed same tentativeness, which, a rabbit caught in front of glaring headlights, would have been proud of.

The only saving grace and a reason for Indians to smile was the way Sachin Tendulkar played. His fans were so dearly longing for such an innings. Hopefully, it gets only better and bigger from here.

The Indian batting was, in more ways than one, a throw back to the sorry nineties. It was so similar then - the opening slot being treated like a game of musical chairs, Sachin Tendulkar being the lone becon of hope and the rest of them falling like ninepins after his departure. And I thought those dark days were well and truly behind us.

Contrast this with the Australian approach towards the end of day's play. Even in the final eight overs, when most teams would have played for the shutters, they maintained an impressive run rate of 4.0 per over.

Fear often clogs the mind and breeds tentativeness, so glaringly obvious in the Indian approach today. Kangaroos have taken the game by the scruff of its neck. Indians must play fearless cricket from hereon, only for the tougher battles ahead, if not for this test.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

The day of Frank Sinatras of Indian cricket

It is almost twenty years since the original 'Frank Sinatra' of Indian cricket played his last test match. Today belonged to the neo 'Frank Sinatras' of Indian cricket.

Playing 100 tests is a great achievement for a any cricketer, by any yardstick. What looked like a distant dream just a year ago, is now a richly deserved reality. For this reason alone, Mohinder Amarnath must be extremely proud of Sourav Ganguly, especially the way he forced his way back into the team. It was pleasing to see Sunil Gavaskar and then Anil Kumble felicitate one of the India's most hotly debated player/captain in recent years, on a fantastic landmark.

And what a comeback has it been for the other Frank Sinatra - Zaheer Khan! He has been ably shouldering the Indian attack ever since his return from a forced exile, again courtesy Chappell and Kiran More combo. As Sunil Gavaskar said in the post match show, Wasim Akram would have been proud of the ball with which he bowled Ricky Ponting. No praise can be higher than that, if you happen to be a left arm fast bowler. Not only did that ball sent the dangerous Ponting back to the hut with almost nothing against his name, it also opened the floodgates for Kumble to barge through.

For Anil Kumble, life has come a full circle. It was in Australia during the 2003 series, that he reinvented himself with a typical Kumbleish spell of 5/154, when Ponting's bat was raining runs in torrents. Up until that series, Kumble had done little noteworthy on an overseas tour, despite having a phenomenal record back home. The Adelaide test changed all that, and since then Jumbo has been a vital cog in most of India's test wins outside India. More importantly, captaincy seems to have renewed his vigour to play test cricket for some more time and made him even more determined. His spell today was a testimony to that.

From the Aussie stand point, standing up to the Indians was the enormous Mathew Hayden, with an unmistakable swagger in his walk. His innings reminded me of Sehwag's in the Melbourne test of 2003 series. India folded out for a paltry 366 after being comfortably placed at 286/3 at one time. Australian innings seems to be treading a similar path. Anil Kumble would dearly hope it does so on remaining days too.

Like on numerous occasions in the past, India's unsung heroes - the bowlers - have delivered on their promise. It is time for their more illustrious team mates to put up their hands and be counted.

The onus is squarely on you gentlemen.

Monday 24 December 2007

Boxing Day test and a Patiala Peg

During the early days of my initiation to the wonderful game of cricket, I was often intrigued by few terms associated with it. Topping them was, where does ‘Ashes’ derive its name from? What is the significance of a ‘Boxing Day’ test?

It was the second query that lingered for some time. Much longer, in fact. And when I attained enlightenment, the Australians had started on what seemed like a never-ending ascendancy.

Wiki has this to say about the Boxing Day:

The celebration is traditional, dating back to the middle ages, and consisted of the practice of giving of gifts to employees, the poor, or to people in a lower social class. The name has numerous folk etymologies and the Oxford English Dictionary attributes it to the Christmas box the verb box meaning: "To give a Christmas-box (colloq.); whence boxing-day."

As India starts a much-anticipated series on 26th December 2007, it should not expect any such goodies or boxes from Australian team, even though in terms of cricketing prowess, they, along with most other teams, still count from amongst the ‘poor’ or the ‘lower social class’.

With its newly acquired muscle (read money) power, India has succeeded in forcing Australia (probably for the first time in years) to change its cricketing calendar and start the series on a ‘Boxing Day’. It bodes well, especially for the fans in India. Imagine a regular schedule, so, by the time the Aussie juggernaut reaches Melbourne, the series more often than not, is a dead one. Such has been Australian domination over the decade.

From my recollection, I cannot think of any team in last decade, that has gone into a Boxing day test with its slate clean, let alone being in the lead. India did that on their last tour, only to trip at the goal post.

Here’s something that might help them avoid a repeat:

Unlike ‘Boxing Day’, which had no connection whatsoever with the game, but has become a cricketing folklore since, ‘Patiala Peg’ actually owes its origin to cricket.

In its early days, cricket used to enjoy princely patronage in India. Maharajah of Patiala was one of the few royal bloods, who played the game on the field too. It was commonplace for the visiting English teams to play a friendly match against the ‘princely’ states. But the Maharajas simply loathed losing and so the visiting Irish team, supposedly stronger than the local team, was treated to extra large pegs of whisky on the eve of this match. Needless to say, the locals won the tie with ease, and Maharaja’s famous reply, "Yes, in Patiala our pegs are larger" became a part of cricketing history.

Indian team’s support staff has couple of days more to work behind the scenes and ensure the lead Aussie players guzzle a few ‘Patiala pegs’ on the test match eve.

Therein lies India’s best chance.

Friday 5 October 2007

Hyderabad blues leave fans red

There must be something about Hyderabad’s air that it has produced three of India's most stylish batsmen in M L Jaisimha, Mohammad Azharuddin and VVS Laxman. As if inspired by these illustrious players, the ‘Yuvraj of Chandigarh’ produced a Nawabi innings of similar pedigree in the third ODI at Hyderabad. Alas, it was not enough. Against the champion Australian side it was never going to be!

As Dennis Lillee has often said, to win against the Australians you need all your eleven players ready in a combat mode. Yes, individual brilliance can fetch you an odd win or two on a given day, as Sachin Tendulkar showed on 22nd April and 24th April 1998, but they are as rare as they come.

Indians did approach the series in a combative mood, but of a different kind, and I am not sure if this has helped their game plan. They have already handed the initiative to the opponents by being unnecessarily aggressive; by playing the game Aussies would have wanted them to, from the very start. And Ricky Ponting hit the nail on its head when he said, “The Indians are actually not what they are looking to be. We know them well, and it’s just that they are trying to be a bit aggressive to match up to the situation.”

The loss at Hyderabad was much worse than what the final scoreline suggests. At 13/3, the men in blue were well and truly shunted out of the game, Yuvraj and Sachin’s partnership not withstanding. Even when the two were on a consolidation path, it seemed defeat was just one wicket away. If you let the Aussies a toehold, more often than not, they are bound to gate-crash into your party. And the men from Oz did bang in, in style.

What this defeat does to the moral of the team, and more importantly, to that of the seniors is of vital importance, for, you don’t want a situation where some players (I am not alluding to anybody) are playing just to secure their place in the team. The main reason for India’s success in the Twenty20 cup was they played fearless cricket and more importantly, enjoyed themselves on the field. One can clearly notice the spark missing from this team.

With Australians comprehensively dominating the first three ODIs, Ponting’s prediction of a clean sweep is in real danger of coming true. Even if it doesn’t, Aussies look set for a crushing win over the hapless Indians.

As Bill Woodfull, Australian captain during the Bodyline series, would have, with due apologies to Yuvraj, said - ‘There are two teams out in the middle and only one of them is playing cricket.’

Thursday 4 October 2007

Harold Larwood -The Prince of Bowlers

Yesterday’s (3rd October) Indian Express carried an article on the (in)famous Bodyline series. The steamship SS Orontes, carrying Douglas Jardine led England team, arrived at Freemantle, Australia on 18th October 1932, and this month marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the most turbulent tours in the history of cricket.

Can you think of any other series that had so much of intrigue, drama, plots, and sub plots all converging to make work, one grand plan – of stopping the indomitable Don Bradman?

The Bodyline series may have happened 75 years ago, but fortunately, so much is written about it that you can almost relive the moments, that brought the game to its brink. One such book is ‘Cricket Crisis – Bodylines and Other lines’ written by Australian batsman of 1930s and one of my favourite cricket writers, Jack Fingleton. If you are looking for an English perspective, what better than Bodyline’s Principal Architect - Douglas Jardine’s ‘In Quest of Ashes.’

Jack Fingleton also reminds me of two of his beautifully written articles on the lead players of Bodyline –Harold Larwood and Don Bradman. Now, if you are a fan of Fingleton’s writings, these articles would not have escaped your attention. In case, you have somehow managed to miss it, I am reproducing excerpts from it.

Harold Larwood – My friend, the enemy

One has not to talk long with Harold Larwood to realize that he is still embittered over the bodyline days. There were times during the bodyline tour when Larwood thought the game was not worth the candle. He knew abuse. The tumult was overpowering, the work of a fast bowling hard. He has a very sensitive side to his nature and often wondered whether it was worth it.

I don’t think his embitterment was with the Australians, but rather with those English officials who were glad to have him and use him before bodyline became ostracized, and then, conveniently put him aside.

He finds that impossible to forgive. Like the prodigal son, he would have been welcomed home by the MCC in 1935 and had all forgiven, but Larwood is a man of strong beliefs. To satisfy all and sundry, the MCC wished Larwood to apologize to them. But Larwood could not see that he had anything to apologize over and so he remained adamant and went out of the game under a cloud.

In spite of being invited to watch the 1948 series against the visiting Australians, Larwood never came. I think the inside of an English cricket ground contained too many sad memories for him. He deserved better of the game; he deserved better, particularly of English cricket because, in tactics, he was only a cog in the wheel. He was for a certainty, the only bowler who quelled Bradman; the only bowler who made Bradman lose his poise and balance.

There is something tragic about his finish in cricket that he wishes to have no ties with the game at all. It is interesting too, to look back to those days of 1932-33, and reflect what time has done for the central figures, Larwood and Bradman. The game has been overkind to one and unkind to the other, but that has ever been the ways of cricket. It is a game mostly for batsmen….

Isn’t it ironical that the same Larwood, who was baying for Aussie blood in the Bodyline series, eventually settled down in Australia?

The Australians on their part, welcomed Larwood with open arms, for they had always considered him the ‘Prince of Bowlers'.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Fame is a fickle food

After the rain-curtailed one dayer at Bangalore, MS Dhoni said, "Discretion is better part of valour," in an apparent retort to Adam Gilchrist’s charge that Indian team shied away from taking the filed.

“If you play 10 Twenty20s in a row, you can't put money on who's going to win because it's so variable. But in 50-over cricket, the better side will win more often than not,” snapped Gilchrist at Cochin, as if to suggest India’s success in South Africa had much to do with the format than a sudden resurgence in their cricketing prowess.

As the war of words continues, Gilchrist has hit where it hurts India.

But this series has already seen things, that are hurting the game, most.

I felt the pre series Babel typified the Aussie idiosyncrasy. But inside the ring, players from both sides are plumbing new lows. It is one thing to be aggressive and other, to be downright vicious (in your mannerism), given that millions of kids of impressionable age are watching you. If this is what is being dished out at the start of the series then I do not want to imagine how ugly things can turn at the end of it. Someone needs to reign in the players, and fast too.

Aside that, there has been some fascinating cricket, mostly, and expectedly, from the men in yellow. Australians bat deep and inspite of none so good start from the openers, they have managed 300 plus totals in both the matches. It is a tribute to their strength that a player like Brad Haddin has had to wait on the fringe so long. Or perhaps, Michael Clarke and Symmonds should consider themselves plain lucky that they broke into to this champion team in their early twenties.

But for the rain at Bangalore, Australians would have headed to the ‘Charminar city’ with a comfortable 2-0 lead.

Indians have found out how difficult life can be, post world cup win. And as Emily Dickinson would say, Fame is a fickle food. Ask Tendulkar and Dravid, whose heads are almost on the chopping block, coming as it does on the back of a successful overseas tour of England.

With selectors picking the team for the next four one dayers, Rohit Sharma and Virendra Sehwag will most certainly bulldoze their way into the team after the Hyderabad one dayer. The question is at whose expense? Can India afford the luxury of playing the ‘big three’ in all the matches from here on? Even if the selectors defer taking a call on the future of ‘big three’ in the ODIs, can they keep public sentiments at bay?

These are tough questions and it would be most unfortunate if the future of Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid is allowed to be dictated by public outburst than common sense. Selectors and the powers that be in the BCCI should talk to these players and chalk out a road map for their eventual retirement from the ODIs, regardless of the outcome of this series.

For the starters though, India must square the series at Hyderabad, failing which, they will need to beat the Australians in next four matches – something the Indian team has never done before.

Saturday 29 September 2007

'Aussie Way' Vs the 'Mahi Way'

Australia takes on India in the first ODI match at Bangalore in couple of hours from now. And the Australian skipper has begun their so-called ‘fine art of mental disintegration’.

No surprises there. You will rarely find an Australian skipper in Mark Taylor’s mould, let alone in a Kim Hughes one. Australians play their own brand of cricket and pre series blabber is an essential part of it. Whether it really leads to ‘mental disintegration’ is another topic of debate. I believe it only spices up the proceedings a bit. But tell me, how many teams have guts to make public, their intention of making a ‘clean sweep’ of almost every other series?

Ricky Ponting would be aware of it as much as anyone else. With two world cups and a Champions Trophy under his belt in last five years, Ponting has had a smooth sailing thus far. And when the going got tough – like it did in the Ashes 2004 as also during Australia’s straight loss to England in the triangular series just before the world cup – he fought back with vengeance. With Dhoni’s team denying him Cricket’s Grand Slam in Johannesburg – Test Championship, Fifty50 WC, Champions Trophy and Twenty20 WC – trust Ponting to strike hard at the Indians in their own background.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni on the other hand is a rookie, and for a change, hugely successful too. To call Dhoni’s journey a ‘dream’ would be gross understatement. How many captains have laid their hand on a world cup in their very first assignment? You can look beyond cricket, yet won’t find any parallel. (In cricket, Kapil Dev probably comes closest with a world cup win in only his fourth month of captaincy).

What stands out for Dhoni is his temperament, whether as a batsman or a leader. He has played many innings, both match winning and match saving, in tests and the ODIs, which went against his natural instinct. More importantly, in his short reign he has shown to be ‘different’, without being really stupid.

As Saurav Ganguly has said of Dhoni, beneath the cool demeanor lies an extremely aggressive man, who trusts his instincts. How many captains would have the guts to toss the ball to a young bowler in a world cup semifinal and final and say, ‘Look, doesn’t matter whether we win or lose, give it your best shot.’ Not many, I guess.

For me, this one day series is a battle of two captains, one who plays cricket the tough ‘Aussie Way’, and the other whose style is yet to evolve, but which will, most certainly be called ‘The Mahi Way’, few years down the line.

Bring it on, Aussies!

On a different note, my ‘bitter’ half (pun intended) has a theory on why India succeeded in the recent Twenty20 world cup. She believes Indians are brilliant only in phases and lack consistency to be successful over a period of time. Twenty20 format allows them that luxury. It also explains our mediocre performamce in tests and only moderate success in the Fifty50s.

Time for Dhoni and co to prove her wrong.

Friday 28 September 2007

28th September and all that

When the history of One Day Cricket in India is written, 28th September will find a mention in bold. Exactly 23 years ago on this day, Australia played the first of the five match ODI series at Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi. Ashok Patel, who soon faded into oblivion, made his debut for India in that match.

But obviously, this isn’t the only trivia associated with the match.

28th September marked the first official ‘Day/Night’ match in India. That, it was also the first ever official day/night match played outside Australia, makes it even more significant. I am saying ‘official’ because, almost exactly a year before this match, on 21st September 1983, Kirti Azad had single-handedly scripted one of India’s first and most famous wins over Pakistan in a day/night encounter on this very stadium. The match was however accorded a ‘festival tie’ status.

So when the Australian team led by Kim Hughes, played the first day/night ODI match in New Delhi, little did they know that it would be the harbinger for what has essentially become an Asia centric format today. Little did they imagine that the novelty of day/night cricket coupled with India’s success in England in1983 and Australia in 1984/85, was to spell death knell for Test matches in India.

As the Aussies, led by Adam Gilchrist, take field for the first of seven ODIs, cricket is once again at similar cross road. The success of Twenty20 World cup, and more importantly, the success of Asian teams in the inaugural championship, has put a question mark over the future of Fifty50 format. Can the Twenty20 do to Fifty50, what the latter did to Test cricket in India?

I am inclined to believe so, unless ODI format undergoes a radical change and reinvents itself.

Foot Note:

September 28th also marks Lata Mangeshkar’s birthday. A known cricket buff, she was amongst the lakhs of Mumbaikars who treated MS Dhoni and his team to a grand welcome on Wednesday. Dhoni must be hoping that the next seven one dayers against Australia are as melodious as the ‘Sargam’ or the ‘Seven Swaras’ of the nightingale.

But beyond these ‘Seven Swaras’, Sachin would be hoping to play his own Octave – a string of 12 consecutive one-day matches – seven against the best team in the world and remaining five against his traditional rivals.

With over 15000 runs and 41 hundreds to his name, there isn’t a thing that Sachin needs to prove in the shorter version of the game. And 2011 World Cup looks miles away.

What better way then for Sachin, like all maestros, to end his great ‘One Day Mehfil’ with a classic rendition of ‘Bhairavi’ at Jaipur on 18th November 2007?

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Trent Bridge, We Love You

"What a lovely day, It's a lovely blue sunshine here today."

Henry Blofeld, in his trademark plummy voice, was referring to the Lords cricket ground when he spoke these words. But day four at Nottingham was equally glorious, with clear, 'forget me not' blue skies. And as the sun shone over Trent Bridge, it was Indian bowlers who added sparkle to what can be described as one of the best days for Indian cricket.

But why single out only the fourth day? The whole of second test has been like a fairy tale for the Indian team. If Rahul Dravid was asked to script his own version of a dream overseas win, I am certain, he could not have written any better - win the toss, skittle out the opposition for less than 200, take an almost 300 runs lead, and finish it off in style with a resounding 7 wicket win, as if it were a well oiled machine at work.

Of course, a well-oiled machine, is more often than not, a misnomer when one uses it in the same breath as Indian cricket team. Most of India's recent away wins have been a result of a standout performance from couple of players at the most. With due apologies to Ajit Agarkar and L Balaji, India's test wins at Adelaide and Rawalpindi conjure up the image of Rahul Dravid's epic double tons. The 'Sultan of Multan' - Sehwag springs to mind when one talks of India's first test win on Pakistan soil. And India's first ever win at Sabina Park owes much to Dravid's technical brilliance in scoring two half centuries (the only two scored in that match) on a crumbling pitch.

Some victories, though, are more satisfying than others. Trent Bridge is one such win. It is also different, in that, the whole team contributed - something akin to the one at Jo'burg, few months ago.

Zaheer Khan, in all probability, will get the man of the match award - he richly deserves it too - but if ever there was a case for breaking traditions and giving 'Men of the Match' award, this was it.

If bowlers sent the team's stock soaring high, on Friday - when the benchmark indices around the world came crashing down - it was the batsmen who fended off the 'Bears' over next two days and ensured their effort did not go waste. The platform firmly in place, it was only a matter of 'When' not 'How', Zaheer Khan and co capped it with yet another display of superb swing bowling. For a change, almost every player came to the party.

There remain some loose ends and few lacunae, though. But this is not the time to delve on it.

For the moment, let us savor this magnificent - also one of India's very best - test win.

Take a bow, TEAM INDIA.

Thursday 26 July 2007

Batt(L)ing with the tail enders

"Don't worry, just hold on," said Viv Richards to Michael Holding as the latter plodded down to crease at Manchester Oval. West Indies were precariously placed at 166/9 in first of the three match ODI series against England. 'Held on' did Holding. But for him, the best seat was at the other end, from where he watched, with awe, the King launch a ferocious attack on Messrs Botham, Willis, Miller, Foster and Pringle. Next 15 overs produced 106 runs with Holding contributing a mere 12 and Richards making a world record score (then) of 189.

Narendra Hirwani, the quintessential number 11, did not inspire similar confidence when he came out to bat in the first test of 1990 series at Lords. India needed 24 runs to avoid a follow on and Kapil had already played first two balls from Eddie Hemmings without scoring a run. But like Holding, Hirwani was best positioned to witness Kapil's breathtakingly audacious shots of the next four balls - all six - in the region from long on to long off. Follow-on was averted and Hirwani duly completed the task he had set out for - getting out on the second ball of the very next Angus Fraser over.

Two great players reacted in contrasting fashion, when faced with an identically perilous situation. The end result however was spectacularly effective. There is an underlying message in how Richards and Kapil took charge of the situation. That, playing with tail enders is an art, and not all players are adept at it.

M S Dhoni showed he was, in the just concluded Lords test, although at times, I felt he should have batted more against Monty Panesar and allowed Shreesanth to face the non regular spinner, Michael Vaughan. But as they say, all's well that ends well and Dhoni displayed a tremendous temperament, not only in playing an innings that went against his nature, but also controlling the game to its intended finish – bad light and rains - from Indian stand point.

Of all the players I have seen bat, Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Brian Lara were brilliant when it came to batting with the 'tail'. I remember many of Border's fighting innings esp against India like at Melboune in 1984/85 series and Sydney in 1991/92, the former innings depriving India of the what could have been their first ever series win in Australia. Who can forget Brian Lara's 153 n.o. at Barbados, when he single handedly chased the Australian score of 308? That innings was also rated as the second best in Wisden's 100 all time great innings. And it took VVS Laxman epic 281 to completely overshadow Steve Waugh's superb rear-guard action in the first innings of the same Calcutta test.

But is batting with the tail a 'single handed' show as it is deemed to be? I don't think so. Like a good Cuban Salsa, it takes two to tango. The less endowed batsman plays an equally critical role. Even more, I believe lower order players with a good 'cricketing sense' are more likely to succeed in playing more match saving/winning innings. Andy Roberts, more than once pulled WI out of a certain defeat against Pakistan, in the league match of 1975 corld cup and then in the opening test at Barbados. Ambrose similarly helped WI 'tie' their match against India at Perth in the 1991/92 tri series and also played a crucial innings in the 1997/98 series to deny India her first ever test win at Barbados. His contribution in that Lara special innings of 153 was no less significant.

Of the current players, Jason Gillespie and Mathew Hoggard have shown the enough 'common sense' to play a responsible innings lower down the order.

Indian team has sorely missed good lower order batsmen since the exit of Roger Binny and Madan Lal, both of whom played some useful innings coming down. While one can excuse the number 11 for falling to their 'moment of insanity', it is the runs scored (and the time spent in the middle) by number 8, 9, and 10 that can often make difference between defeat and a victory/draw.

Zaheer Khan, Shreesanth, RP Singh and co. better learn your lessons fast.

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Will history repeat?

When Steve Bucknor surprisingly (or shockingly, as some would say) turned down Monty Panesar's appeal against last man Sreesanth, all his past indiscretions against Indian team and its players were forgotten. For, that was as plum as a rather large plum from a big plum tree in Plumshire! To me, it was also the most definitive moment of the final day of the intensely fought first test at Lords. Simply because without it, everything including Karthik's gritty 60, MS Dhoni's gallant 76 n.o, his stand with VVS Laxman or even the heavenly intervention would have been rendered ineffective.

Much as I would have preferred to see the first test end in an unambiguous manner rather than a rain forced draw, I was also relieved that India luckily wriggled out of what potentially could have been a series costing loss. In recent past Indian team has found itself agonisingly close to victory, most notably during the test series in Caribbean last year, when they failed to dismiss the WI tail enders both at Antigua and St Lucia. May be India deserved the rub of green too!

Indians may have escaped defeat, but make no mistake, their batsmen are scarred. If a young and second string English attack can so rattle the 'famed' Indian line up, I don't want to imagine what a full fledged seam attack of Flintoff, Hoggard and Harmison was capable of. And we aren't even talking of Simon Jones. There are questions asked of the Indian middle order, and rightly so.

Sachin Tendulkar finds himself in the spotlight and as often was the case for last couple of years, all for wrong reasons. Along with Rahul Dravid he is still the 'untouchable' as far as selectors are concerned. But it may not be for long. This series could well answer the questions that his critics have raised on his reliability as a frontline batsmen. Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman seem to play to survive the next test. Atleast it appears so. If Sachin still has couple of tests to prove a point or two to his critics, Ganguly and VVS won't be so fortunate. One of them will have to make way for Yuvraj, who is too good a player to be sitting on the bench when others on the field are either failing or are only moderately successful.

The bowlers meanwhile have come out of the Lords test with their reputation enhanced. If not for their efforts, India would not have possibly taken this game into the fifth day. I believe they have a more prominent role to play in the remaining tests, for, Trent Bridge and Kennington Oval will offer more help to bowlers than Lords.

India has a 100% record of winning the series when they have forced a draw in the first test in England. The 1971 series was won without 'meaningful' contribution from batsmen. 1986 was more of a all round effort, with almost equal contributions from both bowlers and batsmen. If India are to maintain that record, they will need batsmen to set aside their 'tentativitis' while facing the swinging ball and bowlers to continue their good work.

Will the real Chandra, Vengsarkar and Chetan Sharma from current squad stand up please?

Saturday 21 July 2007

Lords Test, Potter Mania and the Blank Out

What does one do if he is smitten, equally, by the ‘Potter Mania’ on one hand and the good old genre of gentleman’s game called ‘Test Cricket’ on the other? Saturday dawned upon with a mad scramble to get hold of the ‘Deathly Hallows’. That the book was last in its series and over 600 pages long did not help in making the choice less difficult.

It was ‘Star Cricket’ that unwittingly solved this conundrum by blanking out the first test. If you are living in India, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. It happens every time a new sports channel sprouts up from nowhere. ESPN - Star Sports already has two channels in their bouquet, exclusively dedicated to sports. What value did they bring by having a third channel is beyond imagination, if one discounts the ‘raking in moolah at the expense of end user’ factor. With cable distribution largely in the hands of unorganized sector, I suspect, it isn’t the end of travail for sports fans in the country.

But having your cable feed blanked, comes with its own fringe benefits. I took this opportunity to tune in to BBC’s Radio Five Live. Listening to the likes of Boycott, Henry Blofeld, Gavaskar and Christopher Martin Jenkins was a throwback to the 1980s, when live telecast was still in its nascent stages in India. To some extent, it alleviated the gloom of having missed out on a test match at Lords.

The Lords test itself is tantalizingly poised. Like the two England wickets that tilted the balance slightly towards India on first day, Jaffer’s wicket last evening couldn’t have come at a better time for England. At 145/4, it reminds me of the first test against Australia at Brisbane in 2003. Then, Australia, having scored 323 in their first essay, had reduced India to 127/4. Gangly was fighting the demons of fast bowling, both in his mind and on the field. In company of VVS Laxman added 145 priceless runs for the fifth wicket and in the process not only scored his first century in Australia, but also earned a creditable draw for India.

Coincidentally, that match was also marred by weather. Weather permitting, this one looks dead set for a result. Indian bowlers have got their team back into the match after letting them down on the first day. Can the batsmen do the same for their team on day three?

As for Harry Potter’s last book, I would rather disclose not its content. But a word on my favourite charm/magical spell from the HP series - The Patronus Charm - which conjures an incarnation of the caster's innermost positive feelings, such as joy, hope, or the desire to survive, known as a Patronus.

I expect Indian team to conjure up a good Patronus Charm to shield themselves from First Test Blues on an overseas tour.

Expecto Patronum!

Wednesday 18 July 2007

The turning point


When Rahul Dravid leads his country for the first time at the ‘Holy of Holies’ Lords, tomorrow, it will be a proud moment for arguably the greatest ‘Number 3’ in Indian cricket. And for once, the spotlight will be firmly on the man who would rather work behind the stage and ensure the show runs efficiently, than make a flamboyant statement standing in front of it.

Although he made a dream debut eleven years ago at Lords, Dravid’s early career was clearly overshadowed by the genius of Sachin Tendulkar and to an extent, by the magical class of Azharuddin. Every once in a while, he came up with a Dravid esque innings of typical grit and determination, as if to remind everyone that he was also the vital cog in the Indian wheel. And just when one thought he was finally standing shoulder to shoulder with Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman almost threatened to steal the thunder right under Dravid’s nose with a very very special 281 against Australia at Kolkata in 2001. Almost, because Headingley, Adelaide and Rawalpindi happened in quick succession and Dravid, in his quiet and unassuming manner, took over from Sachin Tendulkar, the mantle of the mainstay of Indian batting.

Often in the quest of analyzing ‘Dravid - The batsman’, we tend to overlook ‘Dravid - The team man’. Dravid was every captain’s dream deputy. India’s golden run for three years starting from 2001 owes as much to Ganguly the captain as it does to Dravid. He was to Ganguly what Sachin was to Azhar. Perhaps no other Indian cricketer in recent years, save Kumble and Sachin, has been so unflinching in their support to the skipper.

As team India steps on to the hallowed turf at Lords, Dravid would be well aware that India’s performance at Lords has always been a case of brilliant individual display, than an all round team endeavor. The sum part of these individual acts have almost always, fallen way short of the England team as a whole.

What’s more, Indian cricket is currently at crossroads. The ‘ring out the old and ring in the new’ phase has already been ushered, going by the selections for Twenty20 world cup. By all accounts, this is also the last tour, which the ‘Famous Five’ of Indian cricket – Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman and Kumble – have undertaken of England. At the same time, the air is pregnant with expectations from the new crop of players, trying to establish themselves as able replacements, if not challengers, to their more illustrated seniors.

So, like the first one at Lords in 1932, this series is poised to be a turning point in Indian cricket. But unlike then, this could also take a turn for worse. It would be cruel fate, if Dravid, the ultimate team man, is at the wheels if things come to such a pass.

All the best Rahul Dravid and all the best Team India, although, you would need much more than just good wishes to defy history at Lords - the ground where it all began for you and your country.

Monday 16 July 2007

Q and A

Q: How many series has India played abroad, subcontinent included?
A: 59.

Q: How many times has India won the opening test of an away series?
A: India has won the opening test on just 10 occasions. This includes twice against Zimbabwe (2001 and 2005), thrice against Bangladesh (2000, 2004 and 2007), twice against the lowly placed New Zealand (1968 and 1976) and once each against England (1986), Pakistan (2004) and South Africa (2006).

Q: How many times has India lost the opening test of an away series?
A: 28 times, almost every second 'opening' test of the series.

Q: What about the ‘draw’ in the opening test?
A: Daft question. The answer is 59 (-) 10 (-) 28 = 21.

Q: Has India managed to draw any series after losing the opening test?
A: Yes, but only on two occasions. The first was against Greg Chappell’s Australia in 1981, courtesy, Gavaskar’s 'inability' to forfeit the match, Vishwanath’s century, Kapil Dev’s inspired bowling despite a thigh injury and Karsan Ghavri and Dilip Doshi’s crucial blows in the fourth innings. The second was against England in 2002, when the ever dependable Dravid and the long forgotten Sanjay Bangar ensured that a good toss won by their skipper did not go waste. On both occasions, India managed to draw the series 1-1 after losing the opening test.

Q: In last 75 years, has India ever managed to win a overseas series after losing the opening test?
A: No, never.

Q: What are the corresponding figures for the series in which India has managed to either draw or win the opening test?
A: The chances of an India winning the series or leveling it, increases manifold when India either wins or draws the first test of an overseas tour. India has shared the honours or won the series on 19 occasions, after drawing/winning the first test.

Q: Surely there must be times when India has lost the series even after drawing the first test?
A: Yes. Inspite of a ‘draw’ in the series opener, India has gone on to lose the series on 10 occasions. Last time was against Pakistan in 2006.

Q: Has India ever lost a series after winning the first test?
A: The slate was clean until the recent SA series, which India lost 2-1 after winning the Durban test.

Q: What is India’s record in England, series wise?
A: India has played 14 series in England before the current one. It has won 2 series, lost 11 and drawn 1. The two times they won the series are the ones in which they drew (1971) or won (1986) the opening test.

Q: Out of 14 series in England so far how, how many times have India lost the first test?
A: Twelve. India also went on to lose the series on 11 of those 12 occasions. The only time they avoided losing the series after losing the opening test in England was in 2002, as mentioned above.

Q: Does India’s record at Lords offer any hope for their fans?
A: Unfortunately, no. Out of 14 tests at Lords India has won just 1, lost 10 and drawn 3.

Q: Moral of the story?
A: Take care of the first test and the series, more often than not, will take care of itself.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

The name game

What’s in name? This famed Juliet poser to Romeo would qualify as the ultimate cliché in English. Yet, I am tempted to use it, albeit, in a twisted manner.

Can any other name sit as majestically as ‘Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards’ would, on a player known to lord the cricket field? And, to borrow words from Juliet - Would Lara, were he not Brian Charles Lara called, resonate the same grace and elegance that the batsman so epitomized?


Probably not.

But when Morne Van Wyk, Duminy and Thandi Tshabalala’s names appeared on the score sheet during the recent India Vs South Africa ODI series in Ireland, I found myself - much to my dismay - gravitating towards the Shakespearean logic of ‘What’s in name?’

(Imagine what it would be like when Holland becomes a full-fledged test-playing nation and once the Chinese start storming cricket’s citadel too. Some of the names would be as tongue twisting to us as Venkatraghavan’s was, to the Englishmen during the 1971 tour. They renamed him 'Rent a Wagon'. Sometimes I wonder what they made of his teammate and the stylish batsman, Motganhalli Laxmanarsu Jaisimha’s name!)

There are curious tales behind some of the famous names in Indian cricket.

Vijay Madhavji Thackersey, India’s opening batsman of 1930s and 40s, became Vijay Merchant during his school days. One apocryphal story goes that Vijay’s schoolteacher had asked him his family name. It seems Vijay confused it as a query about his family business and said – Merchant, and thus, ‘Merchant’ became his family name forever.

Is there a similar story behind how Mulwantrai Mankad became ‘Vinoo’ Mankad? I know not of any, but amongst the other instances known to me, former Pakistan captain played many a memorable innings as Abdul Hafeez - most notable being his 173 against the Australian Services team, led by Lindsay Hassett, that came to India in 1946 – before he migrated to Pakistan and played as AH Kardar. India’s legendary leg spinner Subhash Gupte earned forever, the name of ‘Fergie’ on the West Indies tour of 1952, courtesy the famous West Indian leg spinner Alfred Fergusson. More recently, Vangipuruppu Venkat Sai Laxman became 'Very Very Special' in the eyes of Ian Chappell after his dazzling form against the invincible Aussies.

Cricket historian Ramchandra Guha informs us in one of his article that Mohammad Yousuf was not the only cricketer to play under two different names and two different faiths. Former Indian test player A G Kripal Singh too did so, without changing his initials. AG Kripal Singh, converted to Christianity to marry the love of his life, and played under the name of ‘A.G. Kripal Singh’, with Amritsar Gurugobind becoming Arnold George!

Whilst on faiths, it is indeed striking that the longest names in Indian cricket invariably invoke multiple gods. VVS Laxman and S. Venkatraghavan invoke three, while Laxman Sivaramakrishnan appeals to four! Still a miniscule figure, considering there are 330 million gods to pray to!

Some of the longest names in world cricket undoubtedly belong to the Sri Lankans. The team’s unsung hero -Vaas’ full name is Warnakulasuriya Patebendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas. Imagine the commentator calling him by his full name, everytime he comes up to bowl. Vaas would probably be halfway though his over! And what if Denagamage Proboth Mahela de Silva Jayawardene insists that his partners call him thus, every time they give him a shout for a single?

An elementary search on this wonderful medium of internet reveals that the player with maximum number of initials is Amunugama Rajapakse Rajakaruna Abeykoon Panditha Wasalamudiyanse Ralahamilage Ranjith Krishantha Bandara Amunugama, although the current Sri Lankan leg spinner, Siththa Brahakmana Herath Mudiyanselage Walawwe Buddika Thaminda Bandara Ellepola, would give a good run for his money.

Talking of the ‘long’, can the ‘short’ be far behind? I will limit myself to Indian cricketers in this particular case. Nazir Ali and Wazir Ali - both played India’s first test in 1932 at Lords - can be ‘short’listed in this category along with Rusi Modi. However, the honour of being the most ‘Lilliputian’ name would go to Ajit Pai and Abid Ali, both only seven letters ‘long’.

It will take a Chinese invasion to shrink the names any further!

While the Sri Lankans would stake claim over the longest string of names and Indians over the shortest, the record for the longest family name belongs to a Fijian cricketer, who was called Ilikena Lasurusa Talebulamaineiilikenamainavaleniveivakabulaimainakulalakebalau. Phew, a surname of 62 letters!

Read that and beat that.

Thursday 5 July 2007

How much is too much?

Amidst the excitement over India’s fine series win over South Africa, the disappointment over the washout of India Vs Pakistan tie and the sad demise of Dilip ‘Sardee man’ Sardesai, one news seems to have quietly escaped everyone’s attention.

Given the low key reaction to it, I can’t say for certain that this news is not a part of speculative reporting. I only hope it is not.

The International Cricket Council has finally put a cap on the number of tests, ODIs and Twenty20 matches that can be played in a series. It has also decided that the maximum number of Twenty20 matches in a year be capped to seven per team.

ICC has in past, tried out several things to reduce the stalemate that seemed to afflict the game. Super subs, power plays etc were intended to make cricket - ODIs in particular - more exciting. Some of these steps met with moderate success while a few were discarded altogether.

But in terms of sheer impact on the game – in a positive way - I cannot think of any other decision in the recent past, which comes even close to the one currently proposed by the ICC.

It is no coincidence that the decision to limit the number of matches comes against the back drop of India playing seven ODI matches against England this summer and an Englishman, David Morgan, assuming the charge as ICC president. There is an ‘English feel’ to it. And if I may add, also a distinctly ‘unIndian’ one. But even at the risk of sounding like an apologist to the ‘Raj’, I welcome it whole heartedly.

So, how much cricket is too much cricket?

Quantifying the number of matches, would lead to a raging debate. Nonetheless, I am willing to stick my neck out. I believe the number of Tests, ODIs and Twenty20s must be limited to 12, 25 and 10 respectively (give and take a couple), per team per annum.

Not only would it leave enough time to arrange first class matches on an overseas tour, it would also allow players time to recuperate from their injuries. A positive spin off would be the incentive it provides to test players to hone their skills in domestic cricket, thereby making it (the domestic cricket) exciting and competitive.

Having said that, I am not oblivious to the fact that money is integral to the development and sustenance of the game. I believe even with a cap on the number of games, money can still be kept in a ‘free flowing’ mode.

A mere glance at the cricketing calendar of test playing nations suggests that the game can be played 365 days a year, even with the embargo on. February- April in West Indies, May to August in England, Sept - Dec in Sri Lanka and Sept – March in India, Pakistan, Australia, SA and New Zealand. With some more innovation, imagination and a generous sprinkling of common sense, ICC can arrive at a much better schedule than it does at the moment.

Noted New York Times columnist and author, Thomas Friedman, mentions Dov Seidman’s book titled ‘How’ in his recent column. It delves on how the ‘Hows’ matter more than the ‘Whats’ in today’s rapidly changing world, whether corporate or everyday life.

With a cap on the number of matches, ICC has got it’s ‘Whats’ right. Can it summon some more common sense and get its ‘Hows’ right too?

I would dearly hope so.

Thursday 28 June 2007

The Don Bradman of bowling

If there is one record that is most likely to go unsurpassed in test cricket, it is Don Bradman’s batting average of 99.94 in 52 matches.


Well, there’s competition brewing up from none other than Muthiah Muralitharan. With the ball, ofcourse!

Murali’s wicket taking spree has reached Bradmaneqsue proportions. He is etching a graph similar to that of Sir Don, as far as bowling is concerned.

Murali’s 58th five-wicket haul in just 111 tests is truly mind boggling and puts him more than a country mile ahead of his contemporaries. His 683 wickets in 111 tests mean, he takes a shade over six wickets every match. Only Sydney Barnes has a better ratio of wickets per match – seven - for the statistically inclined.

These are remarkable figures and should have ensured a confirmed ticket to ‘greatness’ for Murali. But to his and his fans’ misfortune, Murali was in the news for wrong reasons since the beginning of his career. He has been called twice (1995 in a Melbourne test and 1999 in an ODI at Adelaide) and reported once by match referee Chris Broad, as late as in 2004.

Rewind to1963, when Australian Ian Meckiff was ‘called’ for his illegal action. It took another 32 years for ICC to detect a dodgy action, when Henry Olonga was ‘no-balled’ in tests. Are we to believe that in between those years, every bowler to play test cricket had a ‘spotlessly clean’ action? Or do we put it down to sheer incompetence on the part of umpires, who failed to detect the ‘straightening’ of elbow?

Perhaps the answer could be found in former England fast bowler and an authority on biomechanics, Frank Tyson’s article, in which he narrates the following story:

Let me start with a hoary anecdote about Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe. During one of their many fruitful opening partnerships they encountered a blatant chucker. Herbert was reputed to have met Jack for a mid wicket conference and said, "Jack, the bloke bowling at my end is a chucker."
"I know," replied Jack, "Don’t complain. They might take him off."
The empirical moral is clear. Its okay to chuck provided you don’t do it successfully.

This is not to insinuate that Murali chucks. But to ICC’s great discomfort and horror, Murali was hugely successful in test cricket. He was now a ‘problem’, they could neither sweep below the carpet nor shoo away. The blame for this predicament lay squarely at ICC’s doorstep. They ought to have taken a proactive, and more importantly, firm action, if in their opinion, Murali chucked. But they chose to be ambiguous and as a result Murali, even at the height of his glory, had to endure constant public scrutiny, sometimes, even ridicule.

Lesser players would have wilted long ago under the extraordinary pressure. But not Murali. He was made of sterner stuff. To his eternal credit, Murali came out stronger every time he passed through the ‘kangaroo’ court.

Today, Murali is only 26 wickets shy of overtaking Shane Warne, another great spinner, as the highest wicket taker in test cricket. They say, spinners get better with age. Murali, Warne and Kumble are living examples of this adage. He has minimum three years of good cricket ahead of him, in which he can easily add 150 more to his wickets column.

After he is retired, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) should have a dedicated Post Box Number to honour his achievements - the Sri Lankan equivalent of 9994!

Friday 22 June 2007

A Sense of Occasion

History is often peppered with small moments, whose symbolism far outweighs its historical value. 25th June 1932 witnessed one such moment, when India played her first ever test match at Lords against Douglas Jardine led English side.

Here’s what the Evening Standard of 19th April 1932 had to say, when that Indian team first arrived in England:

(In 2004, Outlook magazine came up with a special issue on Indian cricket edited by Boria Muzumdar. The issue featured Colonel CK Nayudu’s scrapbook containing this Evening Standard article)

There has never been such a team of contrasts meeting on common footing of cricket. The 18 players speak eight to ten different languages among them, they belong to four or five different caste, some may not cat this and some may not cat that; a few are denied smoking by their religion laws; some similarly have drinking proscribed; they are captained by a Maharajah rich beyond the dreams of county cricket treasurers and they have tradesmen who earn their living with their hands; some come from the plains where cold is almost unknown and others from the hills where the climate has inured them even to English summer.

The team contains six Hindus, five Mohammedans, four Parsis and two Sikhs. Caste demands that Hindus do not eat beef or veal, and that Mohammedans avoid pork, bacon and ham. The Mohammedans foreswear alcohol by religion and most of the others do so by choice. The Sikhs, who will play cricket in turbans, will be similarly denied smoking. So to prevent any difficulties at meal times, men will eat mutton, chicken and fish.

But these are all forgotten for the present in the quest for cricketing success. With all of them the game is a passion and they know as much about the form of our players, records and scores as the most enthusiastic schoolboy.

Almost the only cricketing thing they know nothing about is a sticky wicket, and they are hoping to get to Lord’s for some practice before wet is out of the ground.

Small step for world cricket it was, but for Indian cricketers, a test match at Lords was indeed a giant leap. No one expected them to win, but even in defeat they managed some credible individual performances.

The reason for raking this up is that, to mark the 75th anniversary of this test, MCC is commissioning a Pataudi Trophy and Bletchley Park Post Office is issuing a special stamp.

I wonder, why this was not an Indian initiative in first place? Have we, like on numerous occasions before, failed to seize the moment or do we lack the ingenuity to celebrate this small, but significant milestone in Indian cricket?

I remember reading how the Ashes centenary celebration in Australia was a grand affair. Let alone that, even a Boxing Day match is almost a ritual in Melbourne. A match at Lord’s is still sacred to many cricketers and fans alike. No wonder, cricket, in all its forms, is still thriving in these countries. Unlike Indians, they don’t trivialise the game. They preserve it as an art form, without making it elitist.

Sometimes, even a largely symbolic event is sufficient to trigger an avalanche for bigger things in future. The lone test in 1932 was one such trigger that has enabled the game to flourish into its current form in India.

Indian cricket history may not be as glorious as some of the other test playing nations, nonetheless, we need to commemorate landmarks around which the history of Indian cricket is woven. Cricket has and still plays an important role in India’s social fabric. Occasions like these should be exercised not only for reminiscing on the game’s past, but also to honour our past heroes, many of who have faded from public memory.

The moot question is, ‘Do we Indians, in general, lack a sense of occasion?’

The answer, I am afraid, is yes.

Monday 18 June 2007

President, Coach and Politicians


Last week saw a frenzy of activity over two of the most high profile jobs in the country – the President of India and the coach of Indian cricket team.

The hunt was truly on.

I am amazed by the uncanny similarity in the way the ruling coalition in India nominated its presidential candidate and the way BCCI went about selecting the coach of cricket team.

I must admit that Indian Express was first to come up with this interesting analogy on the President and the coach, in one of its editorials. The edit, though, was written before Graham Ford declined the coaching offer and well ahead of the ruling coalition naming its presidential candidate.

In both cases, things were markedly haphazard to begin with, borne out by the lack of structured agenda. Again, in both cases, early front runners fell wayside, as the race gathered momentum. Dark horses were sidelined by ‘influential’ sections. Favourites were tripped at the goalpost. And the eventual winners were pulled from relative obscurity and thrust into national limelight. In the end, the ruling UPA coalition chose political correctness over expertise and ability. BCCI, similarly, chose a non-controversial way out, after being cornered by its own incompetence. (I can also point that the eventual winners were of the same age – 72 – would that amount to stretching things too far?)

Politicians have long ceased to surprise me with their antics, like the one they played out to select their presidential candidate. I have accepted that unprofessionalism (is it a right word?) and lack of accountability are no longer the ‘add ons’, but they come as standard fitments with all politicians. What worries me is that the BCCI - helped in no less way by politicians scrambling to take charge of it - is going down the same drain.

BCCI is the golden goose amongst all sports bodies in India. The very fact that it is THE richest sports organization in India is acting like a magnet, attracting avaracious politicians from all corners, who hitherto had no clue about the game whatsoever. In past, politicians like Madhavrao Scindia, Sheshrao Wankhede, NKP Salve have fiddled with the governing body. But I suspect, it had more to do with the unprecedented publicity that this game offered, and not the money. Not anymore. Corporates are loosening their purse strings like never before and will continue to do so in future. More money is certainly not a bad thing, provided the heart is in right place. I am afraid, with politicians, that may not always be the case, for, money and power often make a potently dangerous mix.

Back in the late eighties, there was a general sense of despondency over the lack of free and fair elections in the country. Public confidence in Election Commission's neutrality had reached its nadir. It was then that, TN Sheshan, as Chief Election Commissioner, cracked the whip. He not only set a strong precedent of free and fair elections, but also ensured that no politician worth his salt, dare infringe on commission’s autonomy ever after.

BCCI needs to be an autonomous body not only in letter, but also in spirit. And for that, it needs a TN Sheshan of its own.

Thursday 14 June 2007

A huge relief, indeed


Jamaican police’s confirmation that Bob Woolmer died of natural causes should bring a welcome relief to cricket fans. It has ended months of speculation, which sometimes bordered on mindless sensationalism.

Bob Woolmer’s demise, the night Pakistan lost to Ireland, had cast a dark shadow over the Caribbean extravaganza. It was like the Dementor’s ‘kiss of death’, that almost sucked life out of the world cup.

Cricket has had its fair share of controversies in the past. The bodyline series, the packer circus, the match fixing episode, the doping scandals and the recent Oval gate have all contributed to tarnishing the image of ‘gentleman’s game’. But never was it about life and death. You don’t play cricket to kill someone. You don’t watch cricket to see someone die. Woolmer’s death threatened to carry the game into that very murky zone.

Worse, the story was played in full public glare. Ever since Jamaica Observer first broke the news that Woolmer’s death was not natural, it was a trial by media. Every news on Woolmer was sensationalized into a ‘breaking’ news. There was no voice of reasoning. And as is often the case, truth was the first casualty.

Now that Jamaican police themselves have explicitly stated that it was a natural death, I believe, heads should roll in Jamaican administration. If that seems far-fetched, they atleast owe an unequivocal apology to the cricket fans around the world for messing it up big time.

My heart goes out to Bob’s widow, Gill Woolmer, who was dignity personified, through this entire episode. It was easy to get provoked in face of rumours flying thick and fast since the day her husband died. She can now reflect on his memories, without being tormented by the exact cause of his death. And spare a thought for the Pakistan team. The age-old axiom of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has been applied in a reverse way to them. They were guilty until proven otherwise. It is a shame that some of them have been viewed as convicted killers in this entire episode. Amidst the massive turmoil, we seem to have missed that, a great career has met with an appalling end. Inzamam Ul Haq certainly deserved a better exit from world stage than this.

While the pathologist Dr Ere Seshaiah still stands by his earlier report that Bob was indeed murdered, I hope we have heard the last on Bob Woolmer’s death.

Cricket can do without any more ambiguities.

Monday 11 June 2007

Welcome, Graham Ford

Dear Graham,

Welcome to India.

In the midst of some very important businesses like arranging one day matches in Ireland, Scotland, Timbuktu etc and deciding who (and who not) should telecast them, BCCI has finally managed time to appoint you as the national coach.

Your appointment should have been a straightforward decision, once Dave Whatmore was out of the fray. (Don’t ask why he was out, in first place). But trust BCCI to add twists, turns and intrigue to a fairly simple plot. It is an indication of things to come, or perhaps, an ingenious way to prepare you for all that.

Welcome to the world of BCCI.

Frankly, Indians know very little about you, except that you succeeded Bob Woolmer as South Africa’s coach in 1999. I believe it bodes well, for, your appointment will be viewed with some optimism, some curiosity, even apprehension, but not with prejudice.

More than your success with the South African team, it was heartening to read, that you are known to work with individual players, helping them sort their flaws - both technical and temperamental. There is no dearth of such players in the current Indian side, who would need your advice, coercion and both. Even outside the team, your will find players like Mohammad Kaif, Suresh Raina, Venugopal Rao, Balaji, who have lately fallen out of favour with the establishment.

There are other issues, which will keep your hands full.

Injuries to the lead bowlers like Munaf Patel and Sreesanth has been a concern in recent times. Dilip Vengsarkar has more than once expressed displeasure over these injuries, considering the busy season ahead.

A few youngsters need to be tagged with a ‘Handle With Care’ label. Ishant Sharma, Manoj Tiwary and Piyush Chawla are all in their teens. Their success in international cricket depends as much on how you, in conjunction with the selectors, handle them in next few years, as it does on their own ability to adapt to the rigors of international cricket. There are more than couple of promising players in domestic circuit and it would do no harm absolutely, if they make it to test grade.

You are also likely to preside over the retirements of VVS Laxman, Ganguly, Tendulkar and perhaps Dravid. I can’t think of any era in Indian cricket that boasted of such a fine middle order. Add Anil Kumble to that list and you have the core of Indian team of last decade or so, making way for the next generation. Your challenge will be to put in place a succession plan, la good corporate entity, well before these greats make a final bow.

All these are long-term concerns. Some issues merit your urgent attention. The loss of form to Sehwag, Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan is a huge setback. They are proven match winners and have anything between 5 to 10 years of good cricket still left in them. You must ensure they are not lost to Indian cricket.

Finally, you won’t find a better time to start your assignment. No one expects you to take India to dizzying heights, as they did from your predecessors – Chappell, Wright and Kapil. After team India’s debacle in the recent world cup, expectations are at an all time low. The good part is that, there seems to be a reality check from the fans and sponsors alike. It may be temporary, but it argurs only well for you.

They say, India is the spinach of travel destinations - you may not always like it, but it is probably good for you. I hope you are one of those who like their spinach. I also hope you enjoy your stay in India, and importantly, during your tenure, the players enjoy their game too.

For, when that happens, it will make a beeline for success.

Welcome once again, Graham, and all the very best.

Truly

Cricket Guru

Saturday 9 June 2007

First In First Out - Part III

You won’t find two opening batsmen, poles apart from each other - both in style and their outlook to the game - as Vijay Merchant and Syed Mushtaq Ali were.

Vijay Merchant was the epitome of concentration. Once, after getting out on 250, in a first class match, he said in a non chalant way, "My concentration ‘slackened a bit’, else I could have easily carried on." Mushtaq Ali on the other hand had a dare devil approach and often stepped out of the crease to hit fast bowlers. Remember, he did that in 1930s! In the words of Ray Robinson, "The only time he is still is when he takes guard from the umpire. Why he goes through the formality is one of the mysteries of the Orient because, after making his mark, he takes no notice of it."

Neither of the two started their test careers as opening batsmen. But when they opened together for the first time at Old Trafford in 1936, they put on 203 runs for the opening wicket, exactly the same no.of runs that Indian team had scored in its first innings. It was no fluke, for they combined together by sharing 81 and 64 run partnership in the very next test at Kennington Oval.

World War II robbed more than 7 years of cricket from their prime, but it failed to diminish the spark from their batting. In one of the wettest English seasons in 1946 (pitches were left uncovered then) they scored 124 and 94 runs in two of the three tests that they opened in. Alas, it was also the last series in which they opened together. In four tests as openers, their impressive record reads 3 half centuries, 1 century and 1 double century, all in away tests.

I can’t resist posting this beautiful piece on Mushtaq-Merchant opening pair by Sujit Mukherjee. He writes: "I wonder if the Mushtaq - Merchant combination did not contain the finest possibilities of Hindu Muslim collaboration in India. Sustained by profound mutual regard, they complemented each other – Merchant representing the wisdom, the endurance, the deep rooted nature of Hindu India and Mushtaq representing the dash, the vision and the grand design of Muslim India. Appropriately matched, it made an irresistible combination".

Like their predecessors, Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy were as different as chalk and cheese. Pankaj Roy was the more aristocratic of the two. It won’t be out of place to say that Roy often played in binary states - 0 and 1. He probably holds the record for the highest percentage of ducks for an opener during his time. But he also held up the Indian innings for a decade, first with Vinoo Mankad and then with Nari Contractor. His partner - Vinoo Mankad - was more gifted, in fact, one of the most gifted cricketers of his time. A pucca Gujarathi businessman, he had the audacity to ask the board to compensate him for the loss of revenues during the 1952 away series against England. No wonder he was a miser, both in giving away runs off his bowling and gifting his wicket while batting.

And as with Merchant – Mushtaq, Roy and Mankad first came together against England at Calcutta in 1952 and straightaway shared an opening century partnership, followed by a half century in the very next innings. The ‘Mankad’s test’ at Lords in the following series saw them break 100 runs mark once again, but it got overshadowed by otherwise disastrous tour. Their crowning glory came in the last test at Madras against New Zealand when they put on a 413 runs in 471 minutes, a world record that has stood test of times till today.

How badly India missed a good opening pair after them is brought out in the fact that in 15 years after this world record stand, India could manage only 4 opening century partnerships.

Gavaskar’s debut changed all that.

Two years before Gavaskar made his debut, Chetan Chauhan had opened Indian innings with Vinoo Mankad’s son, Ashok Mankad, against Australia at Madras. But he had to wait for further nine years to combine with Sunil Gavaskar. The Perth test of 1978 spelt the beginning of the most successful opening partnership, hitherto unknown in Indian cricket. In eight series including the Australian of 1978, Indian cricket witnessed a familiar sight of Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan walking out to open the Indian innings. For four years from then on, they provided much needed stability at the top. Only 4 of the 36 tests that India played during this period saw a different player in the opening role, Roger Binny and Anshuman Gaekwad being the ‘culprits’ on two occasions each.

Gavaskar’s debut is well documented. What is hard to believe, is that Chetan Chauhan’s first two scoring shots in tests were, a square cut for four and a flick for six! Other wise he was an out and out defensive batsman. But he was a perfect foil to the little master and carved out some memorable partnerships like the 192 at Lahore against the likes of Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz, the near match winning 213 at Oval against England in 1979, the courageous 124 at Manchester in the same series following on, the match winning (and series winning) 192 against Australia in Bombay and the superb 165 against Messrs. Lillee and Pascoe at Melbourne.

They remain the only opening pair in India to put over 3000 runs in test matches and by far, the best India has ever had.

Apart from these three pairs, only handfuls have threatened to be successful. Contractor – Jaisimha, Prabhakar - Sidhhu and of late Sehwag – Chopra, have flattered to deceive. A rather grim scenario, given that this June 25th, India will be celebrating 75 years of test cricket.

An opening pair is often a measure of team’s strength and overall success. In India’s case, the paucity of thoroughbred openers is a good measure of its long drawn failures in test cricket.

Thursday 7 June 2007

First In First Out - Part II

Given Indian selectors’ penchant to choose makeshift openers over the regular ones, it won’t be a bad idea to advise young players against opening the innings early in their careers. It might actually brighten their chances of opening for India some day!

How did the idea of makeshift openers take its roots in Indian cricket? Was it the lack of reliable opening batsmen, or just a case of aping other teams? Either ways, when Janardan Navle and Jaoomal Naoomal walked out to bat for India at Lords in 1932, they set a precedent, which Indian cricket could have done without.

A cursory glance at the list of openers reveals that out of 84 players who have opened the Indian innings so far, only a third were qualified openers. Indeed, an abysmally low percentage by any standards.

This is not to devalue the contributions made by some of the make shift openers. Players like Mushtaq Ali, Ravi Shastri, Navjot Singh Siddhu, Virendra Sehwag have adapted superbly to opening position after playing some of their early innings in the middle and late order. Why, even Vijay Merchant batted at number six in first three tests of his career. Pankaj Roy, was originally a middle order batsman in domestic cricket before graduating to opener’s role in test matches.

But it hurts that there wasn’t an honest effort made, to tap and groom genuine opening batsmen. As Sujit Mukherjee says:

Indian selectors and captains seem to regard numbers one or two in the batting order as ritual sacrifices to propitiate whatever gods that promise prosperity to rest of the batting.

And so, Indian batting inspite of having some fine middle order players, never prospered, for they rarely enjoyed the luxury of a good opening stand, which they could build their innings upon. The sorry state is mirrored in the fact that in 117 tests before Gavaskar arrived on the scene, there were just 9 opening century partnerships, including one double and one quadruple. (The corresponding figure during Gavaskar era is 21 century stands in 129 tests. Post Gavaskar era, it reads 25 century stands including 1 double and 2 quadruple, in 161 tests)

What about India’s near obsession with wicket keeping openers? Perhaps, no other test-playing nation has flirted with this idea as much as we have. Even 75 years after Navle first opened the batting, it seems India has not gotten over the ridiculous notion of doubling up the wicket keeper as an opener. Of 34 players who have kept wickets for India thus far, almost half of them (15) have also opened the innings.

There are honorable exceptions here too. The aggressive Budhi Kunderan, the dynamic Farooq Engineer, the tedious Nayan Mongia and the lucky Deep Dasgupta have all scored hundreds opening the innings and keeping wickets in same match. In fact, Budhi Kunderan’s swashbuckling 192 at Madras against England in 1963/64 series, remained for many years the highest score by an Indian on the first day of a test (it is still the highest ever made by Indian wicket keeper). His tally of 525 runs in that series is also a record for Indian keeper.

But these were mere exceptions, than rule. Take a bird’s eye view and you find that most Indian batsmen have, more often than not, floundered at the top. There’s another reason to it.

An opening batsman needs to have supreme levels of concentration, gumption to take on fast bowlers and technique to counter the shinning red cherry. There have been instances when Indian batsmen were accused of backing too far away from fast bowlers, most notably during the 1952 tour of England. The apocryphal story goes that, at the point of delivery, Indian batsmen were no where in the range of English bowlers’ vision!

A major part of this blame can be apportioned to the docile pitches that breed and feed Indian batsmen. More importantly, these pitches also impede the growth of express fast bowlers, so essential during the formative years of an opening batsman. With little or no experience of facing high quality fast bowling, nor of playing on fast and bouncy pitches, the gap becomes difficult to bridge, when batsman takes the international stage.

But like a silver lining that accompanies every dark cloud, there were batsmen - openers - who proudly glittered though this gloom.

(to be continued)

Wednesday 6 June 2007

First In First Out - Part I

Almost exactly 20 years before Rahul Dravid and his men succumbed to Bangladesh’s Mortaza, Razzak and Rafiq in the first round of 2007 World cup, Sunil Gavaskar was waging the last of his numerous battles, this time against Pakistani spinners Tausif Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim, on a treacherous Bangalore pitch. The day - 16th March 1987 - was Gavaskar’s last in test cricket.

It was also the beginning of a long drawn struggle for Indian openers, a struggle, which shows no signs of abating even today.

How uphill the task has been for Indians can be gauged from the fact that in last 20 years, India has selected no fewer than 30 openers in test matches and in the process tried 50 different combinations of opening pair. That means a new opening batsman after 5 tests (approximately, for India played 161 tests after Gavaskar retired) and a new opening combination every 3 tests! A sure recipe for disaster, won’t you say?

What do the figures during the Gavaskar era say? In 129 tests that India played since his debut at the Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1971, Gavaskar has partnered 19 batsmen to open the Indian innings. This list does not include players like Raman Lamba, Suru Nayak and Lalchand Rajput, all of whom have opened the batting when Gavaskar was either unfit or had dropped himself lower down the order. The number of opening combinations during this period reads 30.

If we peek into the pre Gavaskar era, i.e. from 1932 to 1971, during which it played 117 tests, India has had 30 openers and 45 different combinations of opening pair. An opener every 4 tests and a different combination every 3 tests.

Dig deeper and we find that in 75 years of its test history, only four Indians had an extended/continuous run as opening batsman. Pankaj Roy - for almost a decade in 1950s, Nari Contractor - between 1955 till the time he got injured during the WI tour of 1962, Sunil Gavaskar - from 1971 to 1987 and Virendra Sehwag from - 2002 to 2007.

What do these figures suggest? Obvious inference is the lack of quality opening batsmen over a period of time. But more damning is that, when we were fortunate to have a quality opener in the side, we failed to capitalize on it by not having a stable opening partner at the other end.

There are only four instances in Indian cricket, when the same opening pair batted a full series involving 5 tests or more. Three of those involved Gavaskar (with Chauhan against Australia in 1979, with Gaekwad against WI in 1983 and with Srikanth against Pakistan in 1987). The other instance was in 1955 against Pakistan, when Pankaj Roy and P H Punjabi opened in all 5 tests.

Opening batsmen, like bowlers, hunt in pairs. Hutton - Washbrook, Lawry - Simpson, Greenidge – Haynes and Hayden – Langer, to name a few, form cricket’s most celebrated opening pairs. No wonder, their stay at the ‘top’ coincided with the team’s domination in world cricket.

So when Rahul Dravid said, at the end of recent Bangladesh series, that during the last ten years he has seen only ‘makeshift’ openers open the Indian batting, he wasn’t merely stating the fact. He was also alluding to the deeper malaise that has been part of Indian cricket since 25th June 1932 – the day India played her first test match at Lords.

(to be continued...)

Friday 25 May 2007

Legacy

Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar both started as quintessential middle class Maharashtrians. Gavaskar played his early cricket in Chikalwadi and Tendulkar grew up playing at Sahitya Sahawas, the abode of Marathi Saraswats (intelligentsia).

Their cricketing exploits are well documented. But beyond the cricketing field, they have pioneered and abetted in their own way, a process of frenzied commercialization of the game. A legacy which subjects these players to alternate deification and vilification.

When Gavaskar started his career, team India had achieved little noteworthy in the preceding 40 years of international cricket. His advent coincided with two of India’s most famous overseas wins in West Indies and England. Gavaskar, in fact, played a huge part in the former. He was catapulted to stardom overnight. Not that there weren’t many stars before him, but Gavaskar challenged and demolished the stereotypical image of an Indian cricket star. He used his fame to commercially venture into areas that were never tapped by an Indian cricketer before. For some Indians entrenched in a socialist mindset, it was akin to desecration of the sacred game of cricket. After all, was cricket not played for the love of it?

Mihir Bose in his book ‘A Maidan View – The Magic of Indian Cricket’, devotes an entire chapter titled ‘The Besieged Hero’ to Gavaskar. He writes:

Indians respect Gavaskar but they also fear him. He is not for instance, able to invoke the sort of warmth that was accorded to Kapil Dev or his own brother in law, Vishwanath.

Bose quotes MAK Pataudi from the article ‘The decline of Indian cricket’. Writes MAK,

Gavaskar opened up entire new vistas of making money. He had noticed how quickly cricketers once out of the limelight were actually shunned by the same people who had fussed over them, fought for the pleasure of inviting them home and queued to have photographs taken with them. In Bombay only money seemed to matter, and there was more than one way to make it. Gavaskar found them all. Advertising, film producing, writing articles (on the same match, but for different publications), taking fee for organizing matches, writing instant books which were spiced to sell better, appearance money and signing contracts with manufacturers of sports equipment. He became the first millionaire through cricket, rich enough to buy a flat in the centre of Bombay. In a capitalist cricketing country, he would have been considered a genius. In India they began to call him a mercenary, and within the team he became the envy of some of who felt that their contribution to Indian cricket was not much appreciated. Why should Gavaskar hog all the publicity as well as the money? The answer was simple: he had reached those dizzy heights to which no Indian cricketer in his right mind would even dream of aspiring. As importantly, he was articulate where others were dumb, he was controversial where other dared not to be, he could even be witty and this made him ideal material for the media and advertiser.

What Gavaskar started, Tendulkar took to another level. Sachin was fortunate that within two years of making his international debut, India had shed its socialist mindset to become a free economy. Economy, that celebrated entrepreneurial spirit. Sachin was shrewd enough to capitalize on it. He wowed the Indian public, first with his Rs 200 million deal with World Tel in 1995 and then followed up with a mind boggling Rs one billion deal in the year 2000. It helped him no less that in the intervening period, Mark Mascaranhas had made BCCI aware of the gold mine they were sitting on, by successfully bagging the TV rights of 1996 world cup. Ofcourse, Sachin was also riding the crest of his batting form.

And so long as Sachin performed, his money matters remained a part of largely private domain. Tongues started wagging when there was a perceptible decline in his batting post 2002. Initial murmurs gave way to noisy talk. Fans who were previously dazzled by his multi-crore contracts, raised questions on Tendulkar’s attitude, something unthinkable five years ago.

Whereas other Indian sport icons like Sania Mirza, Leander Paes could afford to be erratic - they played an individual sport and largely controlled their own destiny – Sachin could not, for he not only played a team game but was also responsible for India’s fluctuating fortunes.

It seems remarkable therefore that, despite his recent failures, Sachin has managed to bag Rs two billion contract from Iconix, earlier this year. Harsha Bhogle dismisses questions on Tendulkar’s worth as typical ‘middle class’ ish. According to him Sachin still earns only a fraction of what the top international sportsmen and sportswomen do!

Two great cricketers, one huge legacy. Whether it bodes well or otherwise for Indian cricket, only time will tell. You can take your pick too.

Wednesday 23 May 2007

Did Vengsarkar and co miss a trick?

Indian team is only one test away from the all-important England tour, yet we are no where close to finding answers to the problems that besieged Indian cricket after the World Cup debacle.

Bangladesh tour has gone horribly wrong so far, both in the timing and manner of cricket. While we can reluctantly give BCCI some benefit of doubt on the timing of the series, the same can't be said of the selectors. Indian cricket stands exactly on the same ground where it began before the Bangladesh series, perhaps with few more questions.

Vengsarkar and co should have treaded the unknown waters with some bold and imaginative selections. World cup debacle presented them a perfect opportunity to do so. After all, it was only a series against Bangladesh, where few more risks would not have been out of order.

But as Ian Chappell said, "You can intimidate teams that allow themselves to be intimidated". India allowed themselves to be intimidated by a world cup defeat against Bangladesh and it reflected in the team selections.

One of the major worries for India is its opening pair. Sehwag has been a good performer in tests – infact, he has been one of the best players in tests for India in last two years, save the recent SA series - but his pathetic ODI form has completely overshadowed the test performances. Not surprising at all, considering the obscenely high number of ODIs that India has played during this period. But it was expected that the ‘wise men’ looked through the maze of ODI figures and retain him for tests. Instead, we find Sehwag playing the ODIs and flying home when the tests began. With Jaffer getting a pair in first test, we are left with a situation where the opening configuration in England is a secret, which selectors themselves may not know. Gambhir and Jaffer have shown themselves to be too ‘flashy’ to succeed in English conditions. A player like Akash Chopra, with all the right ingredients for an opener, would have made a better choice.

The middle order though has a fairly settled look, at least for the moment. It is here that I feel selectors should have looked for the unknowns. It was a given fact that the big three – Sachin, Saurav and VVS would be back in the team for England tour, no matter what. Why not try the likes of Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara to go along with Dravid and Yuvraj for lesser series against Bangladesh? But sometimes, the fear of losing can be worse than losing itself and I suspect it played heavily in the minds of selectors.

One of the myths that is being perpetuated along the cricketing corridors is about the strength of Indian bowling. The ambling Munaf Patel is an Indian equivalent of Michael Vaughn, the inconsistent Zaheer Khan, an Indian Harmison. VRV Singh and RP Singh are yet to make any meaningful impact in their short careers. Only exceptions are Shreesanth and the old workhorse Anil Kumble, both of whom are currently injured. Admittedly, conditions in England favour the fast bowling and some of them could still make an impact. But I would have expected selectors to be proactive and rope in Bengal's Ranadeb Bose, Hyderabad’s Absolem or Delhi’s Ishant Sharma (who is now likely to make debut in the second test), only to give them a feel of what test class is all about.

Vengsarkar and co may have lost a golden opportunity to blood in youngsters at the very start of a busy season for Indian cricket. But then, planning for long term was never an Indian selector’s forte, was it?