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.