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.