Friday 17 October, 2008

Of Milestones and Missed Chances....

On any other day, Mohali should have been a perfect venue for any speedster, if at all it came to making his debut in India. For Peter Siddle, the first delivery he bowled in test cricket – a perfect length bouncer to Gambhir – was also his best of the day, until the one that got Sachin out towards the fag end.

It has been a season of debutantes for Australia and it is going to stay so for some more time. Peter Siddle became the fifth player to make his debut for Australia in as many months, and the third one after Cameroon White and Shane Watson in last two tests. Therein lies a lesson or two, for both Indian selectors and the senior players alike, to plan and work their retirements in a phased mannered. By all accounts, India will be much more severely affected by the en masse retirements of 'Fab Four', if not five.

The other debutante of this test – Amit Mishra – must be thanking his luck and Ricky Ponting for calling it wrong at the toss of the coin. The first day has already proved how difficult it was for the fellow members of his ilk to bowl in perfect batting conditions. How hard it was, can also be gauged by the fact that Ponting employed a deep backward point and a deep square leg as early as the 11th over.

The Sehwag - Gambhir pair has been India's best since the other Delhi combo of Sehwag and Akash Chopra split in 2004. Which is why I was happy the selectors did not fiddle around with this pair under the guise of playing an extra fast bowler/ all rounder.

It is worrying that Gambhir has not been able to convert his starts into big ones. A case in point being his healthy average of over 50 in the recent series agaginst Sri Lanka, with a top score of just 74 runs. His dismissal along with that of Dravid and VVS almost put paid to India's hopes of a healthy day one score after a good start.

After that, it was a day of personal milestones, with Ganguly getting to the 7000 runs mark and Sachin scaling the summit of highest test runs. Under normal circumstances Sachin's landmark should have been a cause for celebration or even a separate post on the blog! For me, though, it was more a sigh of relief. It took a long time coming and his last few knocks were somewhat remniscent of the time when Kapil was desperately fishing for his record 432d wicket.

Personal landmarks tend to fog the distant team goals and it was good that these two records were done with on the very first day. Sometimes pressure can be very inhibiting as was evident in Sachin's last few innings. We saw a very different and liberated Sachin once he got past Brian Lara, sometimes displaying the same flamboyance that Lara did when he broke Alan Border's record.

Having also reached his 50th fifty, Sachin has taken India to some semblence of safety at the end of day one. But 311/5 still does not look like a good score considering that Australia will bat on a pitch that will play a perfect host on day two and three. India would have loved to see Sachin stay unbeaten. But all that is past now. Ganguly needs to pick the baton from here on. While Sachin will have many more opportunities to make amends for the missed century, Ganguly's countdown has already begun. He has to make each of his innings to count big from here on.

So far he has looked good to score a half century in this innings and his form has been decent in last couple of matches.

As the sun sets on his long, eventful and somewhat controversial career, tomorrow will present yet another battle for this combative player - perhaps the most important one - as he leads India's quest to score a defendable first innings total.

Thursday 16 October, 2008

Importance of a Drawn Test

Last year, on the eve of India's series against England, I wrote a post titled Q & A, which highlighted the importance of not losing the opening test of an away tour. The gist of the post was:

a) India has never ever managed to win a series abroad, after losing the opening test and b) Has managed to draw the scores level on only two occasions after losing the series opener.

(Fortunately MS Dhoni, Steve Bucknor and weather gods collaborated to save the opening test at Lords for India, and true to these statistics, India went on to win the series)

I wanted to check the corresponding figures for home series, but kept postponing it for one reason or the other. What drove me to revisit this issue again was the surprisingly strong tirade against the Indian team in general, and Anil Kumble in particular, after they drew the Bangalore test. There were very few words of appreciation on how the batsmen hung on to a comfortable draw on a difficult fifth day pitch.

So consider this:

Up until the current one against Australia, India has played 59 test series in last 75 years.

Of these, India has won 28, lost 15, and drew 16.

In 59 series played so far, India has lost the opening test 16 times, losing 11 of those series. Of the remaining five times when the team lost the first test, it managed to comeback and level the series thrice (1964/65 against Australia, 1987/88 against West Indies and 1998/99 against Pakistan) and also win it twice (1972/73 against England and the 200/01 'VVS special' against Australia)

As for the wins in the opening test, India has won the opener in 20 series so far. 17 of these have ended in series victories for them. Twice have the opponents come back to level the series (New Zealand in 1969/70 and West Indies in 1994/95). The only time India has lost a series after winning the opening test was in 1984/85, when Gavaskar and Kapil's famous spat clearly overshadowed even Azhar's dream debut.

There have been 23 series in which the opening test has ended without a result (including the 1986/87 tied test versus Australia). India has won 9 out of these series and drew 11.

Only thrice has India lost the series after managing to draw the opening test - twice against West Indies (1948/49 & 1958/59) and once against Pakistan (1987), which means that India's chances of winning or leveling the series shoots dramatically after drawing the opening test.

Bangalore test was indeed tricky for India. I have mentioned in my previous post that Indians had not won a test here in last 13 years. Moreover a defeat in first test would have most certainly meant curtains for the entire series. The Bangalore test has provided team India a strong foothold from where they can possibly dictate this series.
I, for one, would never underestimate the importance of a drawn test, especially the opening one!

Tuesday 14 October, 2008

Test Cricket Lovely Test Cricket

For the uninitiated, a game played over five days and thirty long hours, without producing any tangible result would amount to colossal waste of time. For the aficionados though, the Bangalore match showcased the essence of what the Test cricket is all about…..the charm of a long and hard fought draw! That India came out largely unscathed from the series opener was a surprise bonus to many, but this Test would still have retained every bit of its charm, even if the home team had succumbed to its first test blues. Afterall, it had lived up to Lord Beginner's immortal calypso, 'Cricket Lovely Cricket'.

It was not just about five days of 'absorbing cricket', as the cliché goes, it was also about verbal joust started by Zaheer Khan which will keep things simmering troughout the entire series. Have Indians finally learnt the subtle art of sledging? I would be mighty pleased if they have. More so, because it was straight out of Kumar Sangakkara's books,something I would prefer any day, over the on-field rubbish sprouted by the likes of Matt Prior, Symmonds, Harbhajan and co.

Zaheer Khan does have a point though. It is not often that Australia bats for two full days (and 150 overs) to score mere 430 runs. A scoring rate of less than three, gave India a good chance to wriggle itself out of a tight (again clichéd) situation. It is interesting to note that Australia has won the last two tests played at Bangalore, in 2004 and 1998, and their run rate has been well over 3.5 on both occasions. A sure sign that they are badly missing Symmonds and someone like Gilchrist, late in the order.

On the other hand, Bangalore hasn't been a happy ground for India. They have not won a test here in last thirteen years, losing to Australia (twice, 1998 and 2004), Pakistan (2005) and South Africa (2000) in the process. From that standpoint, it was a best possible start to a long series. More importantly, the 'Fab Four' have finally managed to avert defeat by batting a whole day, after a spate of unsuccessful attempts over the last twelve years.

The caravan now moves to India's Perth – Mohali. A day after the Mohali test ends, on October 22nd, whole of India would be glued to the space centre at Sriharikota, from where Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch its first ever unmanned lunar mission, Chandrayaan. A win at Mohali, therefore, would not only give Spaceman Spiff and his crew an almost unbeatable lead, but also add 'Chaar Chaand' to Diwali festivities that follow.

Tuesday 7 October, 2008

The Australian Sub-Prime

It was in Bangalore, just over a year ago, that Australia began their seven match ODI series, which they eventually won with consummate ease. As they resume their intriguing battle with India in test matches, at Bangalore again, it is also time to wonder when was the last time Australia started the test series as firm underdogs. And when was the last time you heard rookie names like Peter Siddle, Jason Krejza, Doug Bollinger, Bryce McGain, Beau Casson or Cameroon White in a frontline Australian team?

The 1979/80 series would probably answer both the questions. A team comprising of Hilditch, Whatmore, Darling, Wright, Higgs, Hurst, Dymock and Sleep was never expected to do well against a strong batting line up as India's. Scoreline - India 2, Australia 0.

But irrespective of the pre-series standing or the eventual outcome, Australia, along with West Indies, has always remained the most popular team to visit India. It is not difficult to understand why. Not just because of the attractive and aggressive brand of cricket they play, but also largely due to the willingness of top players of the time to travel India, something the established ones from England, and later on New Zealand, never did.

So, while the West Indies' first tour to India in 1948/49 included the likes of Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott (the other W – Frank Worrell - could not travel to India, but visited two years later as a part of Commonwealth team), George Headley and captain John Goddard, the next one in 1958 saw a galaxy of stars like Sobers, Kanhai, Hunte, Ramadin, Hall and Gilchrist to name just few. The late 70s and early 80s (except for 1978/79, when WI team was crippled by the Packer Series), gave Indians an opportunity to watch Clive Lloyd's champions at their very best.

Ditto with the Australians.

Their first ever series in India in 1956/57 had Benaud, Johnson, Lindwall (his fast bowling partner, Keith Miller, had visited India way back in 1945 with the Australian Services team that was led by Lindsay Hassett, to play 3 unofficial tests) and 'Slasher' Mackay amongst others. The 1959/60 series (with Alan Davidson, Neil Harvey, O'Neill, Benaud and wicket keeper Wally Grout) was a sweet memory for Indian spectators, not only because of the home team's first ever test win against Australia at Kanpur, but also due to the sporting manner in which it was played. Not surprising, for, the teams were led by the redoubtable Richie Benaud and the uncharacteristic Gulab Ramchand. And as Bill Lawry, Keith Stackpole, Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and Ian Redpath made it to the Indian shores in the late sixties, the only big four to miss out in the seventies were Lillee, Marsh, (Greg) Chappell and Jeff Thomson, the former three because of the World Series Cricket.

Coming back to the current series, I am also tempted to find an equivalence in the 1986/87 series, when India was widely expected to win against a team that was rebuilding under Alan Border's leadership. The similarities with the present Australian team are too uncanny to ignore. Border's team was regrouping after the mass retirements of Lillee, Marsh and Chappell, the current one is going through a similar phase too; post McGrath, Warne, Langer and Gilchrist. Only that Indians are much stronger this time around.

While Australia still remains THE TEAM to beat, it has lost much of the hegemonic aura that had been its hallmark for a decade and much the same way that American financial institutions have lost theirs, following the Sub Prime crisis and the global meltdown thereof.

Friday 18 April, 2008

Don't blame the IPL....

Flashback to the 1950s when India was undertaking her fourth tour to England. Vinoo Mankad, India's star all rounder, was signed by the Lancashire cricket club Haslingden for a princely sum of 1000 Sterling Pounds. Not wanting to lose this money, he did the unthinkable. He asked Indian cricket board to compensate for his loss of revenue in case he was selected to represent India in the test matches! This incident would pass off as rather insignificant, today, but remember we are talking about the 1950s, when cricket was played for fun, pride and everthing else, but certainly not money! It was ok to live in extreme poverty like Vasant Ranjane - India's fast bowler of 1950s - did, or even die in obsurity like JG Navale - India's first ever test keeper. But making money from cricket? Blasphemeous!

Fast forward to the 70s. If there is one cricketer who can be called as the Harbinger of commercialisation of cricket in India, then it is Sunil Gavaskar. Here is what former Indian captain, MAK Pataudi, had to say about him. (Excerpts from Mihir Bose's book - Maidan view) :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.

Over to the 1990s when Mark Mascarenhas bid for the 1996 WC. He promised an astonomical USD 10 Mn for that event. Back then, that kind of money was unheard of in Indian cricket. It was the beginning of the quest of cricket finding it's market value.

Well into the first decade of the new millenium, Sachin Tendulkar bagged a Rs 200 Crore contract from Iconix.

Last year ESPN Star network bagged the ICC television rights for USD 1.15 Bn.

So friends, don't blame the IPL, the ICL or the Stanford League for commercialisation of this wonderful game. The process of commercialisation is as old as the game itself. These are just the pit stops in the game's long and eventful journey.

Let us allow the market to determine cricket's true value. If the IPL or any of the players flop, be rest assured, market will take its own corrective action. And if they succeed, then fifteen years down the line, Dhoni's Rs 60 Mn or Ishant Sharma's Rs 40 Mn contract for the IPL could well look like peanuts, much in the same way that Vinoo Mankad's 1000 Sterling Pounds contract of 1952, looks now.

Monday 14 April, 2008

Well Played South Africa, Welcome IPL

“Wait till you come to the West Indies maan. Our pitches will be too hot to handle.”

That was the gist of what, a justifiably furious Viv Richards said to the Indian team, as India leveled the 4 test series, one all, at Madras in 1988. West Indies were already one up in the series, by the virtue of their win in Delhi, where they skittled out the Indian team for paltry 75 runs. To compound the woes for India, the captain and easily their best batsman, Dilip Vengsarkar, was ruled out of the final test due to an injury.

If the plot bears an uncanny similarity to the one played at Kanpur, then India’s response was even more identical. Throw an under prepared track, make the ball turn from day one, finish the match in three days and level the series one all!

I have no inkling if the South African skipper Graeme Smith has issued any veiled threat to the Indians on the type of pitches they would encounter on their next tour, but he must be ruing his team’s failure, for, chasing a series win in India is a bit like chasing mirage in Thar desert. Ask the West Indies who are still looking for one, twenty years on.

Having played great cricket all through the series, as also in the lead up to it, I thought the South African camp should have seen it coming. Sometimes it helps to have a better sense of history, a lesson they will not forget in hurry.

No such worries for the India captain though. He intelligently opened the bowling with Harbhajan in SA’s second innings. Again, I am not aware if Dhoni is a keen follower of Indian cricket’s history, but if he were to be one, he would find another instance when an off-break bowler opened the bowling for India. The year was 1967 and Gary Sobers was leading the West Indian team that included the likes of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. Making a complete mockery of fast bowling was the Indian opening pair of Ajit Wadekar and ML Jaisimha who bowled all of three overs between them at Bombay, only to let the more celebrated spinners in Chandra, Venkat, Durrani and Bapu Nadkarni to take over.

To conclude, India has leveled the series despite South Africa playing better cricket. For me, more than the fact that India has retained its number two ranking in the ICC test championship, it is the reinforcement of MS Dhoni as a future test captain and the sight of Ishant Sharma consistently rattling the opposition timber that holds so much promise for the future.

This series was played in the afterglow of India’s successful tour in Australia and also under the shadow of forthcoming Indian Premier League. A combination of other factors like injuries to key players, quality of pitches, an empty stadium and absence of live telecast in many parts of India added to the general lack of enthusiasm.

Cometh 18th April and all that will be a thing of past…..

Thursday 10 April, 2008

The Brown Park, Kanpur

Is the logical deduction, therefore, that English grounds men must prepare wickets which will suit the Australian hostility in attack and not expose the limitations of their batting? In this Welfare State age of all things on a platter and made easy, is a turning wicket a dishonour and no longer a challenge to personal skill?

So went the report in the ‘Manchester Guardian’ after the second day of the fourth test between England and Australia at Old Trafford, 1956. This was in the aftermath of Jim Laker taking 9 wickets, sending Aussies crashing from 62/2 at tea, to 84 all out, in their first innings. Laker went on to capture all 10 wickets in Australia’s second innings to win the match for England by an innings and 170 runs.

Close on the heels of this astonishing feat, two Indian bowlers, both spinners, had flirted with the ‘Perfect Ten’, Green Park stadium at Kanpur being witness to both these instances.

West Indies captain, Gerry Alexander had won the toss in the second test at Kanpur and elected to bat. Not surprising, for, that West Indian team of 1958 boasted of batsmen like Conrad Hunte, Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Collie Smith and the skipper himself. At 55/0, it looked like yet another leather hunt for the Indian fielders. Only Subhash Gupte, whom Gary Sobers later described as the best leg spinner of his time, had different ideas. He took the next seven WI wickets on trot and looked well set to emulate Jim Laker, only to be ‘thwarted’ by debutante Indian fast bowler Vasant Ranjane, who clean bowled Lance Gibbs, the eight wicket to fall. Subhash Gupte eventually finished the innings with 9/102.

If Ranjane denied Subhash Gupte a place in record books, it was Chandu Borde who ‘spoiled’ off spinner Jasu Patel’s figures at Kanpur, a year later. It was an identical Australian batting line up that faced Jim Laker in the 1956 test, O’Neill and Alan Davidson being the only two changes. Jasu Patel’s 9 wicket haul in the first innings (to go with another 5 in the second innings) not only gave India their first ever test victory against Australia, but also earned him a Padmashri (Indian Civilian award) the following year.

As the Indo-African caravan moves to Kanpur for the final test, the name ‘Green Park’ looks at best, a misnomer. Spinners have always ruled the roost here. The last time it smiled on fast bowlers was about 25 years ago, when a certain Malcolm Marshall, at his menacing best, knocked the bat out of Sunil Gavaskar’s hand and hurled India to a humiliating defeat.

In last fifty years, India has lost only twice at Kanpur, to West Indies on both occasions. When Subhash Gupte’s dream spell was overshadowed by Wes Hall’s 10 wicket haul in 1958 and later when India’s 1983 world cup euphoria was cut short by Marshall’s fearsome bowling.

Dale Steyn, Ntini and co could well find a place in the annals alongside Halls and Marshall, if they make the brown track at ‘Green Park’ redundant with their pace.

Otherwise, India could well be on her way to level the series, one all.

Thursday 3 April, 2008

Demons of the Mind

Vijaysingh Madhavji Thackersey a.k.a. Vijay Merchant, was considered as India’s best ‘all weather’, ‘all wicket’ batsman in the 30s and 40s. No wonder, when he led the Indian side to England in 1946, he scored an incredible 2385 runs at an astonishing average of 74, in what was considered as one of the wettest summer in England.

It is interesting to know how one of the most technically accomplished batsmen approached his game. Says Merchant, “When I played cricket I never had a plan of action when going out to bat. As a matter of fact I never gave any thought to the match itself and went in to bat with a clear mind and perhaps an empty mind. And because there was no plan in my mind I concentrated 100% - not 99%.”

If one has to find a fault with Indian batsmen for their pathetic performance on day one at Motera, then it has to be the way in which they approached this match. The image of a verdant green pitch played in their minds over and over again. They allowed themselves to get so overawed by the incessant talk pertaining to the nature of pitch that they ended up fighting the demons, more in their minds than on the twenty two yards strip.

After scoring over 600 runs in the previous test, one would have expected India to shut out any discussion concerning the wicket and concentrate solely on the job at hand. Instead, as a result of this needless ambiguity, it was the Indian team that looked more ruffled, going into the match, than the visitors.

Having said that, it would be unfair to go hammer and tongs at the players for one bad day (read session) on the field. After all, the same team had performed admirably well in Australia and before that, in England.

But the same cannot be said about the authorities in charge of preparing wickets. This series was played on the back of a hugely successful one in Australia and the public interest in the game was at an all time high. Instead of encashing on this golden opportunity and making test cricket more popular, they have managed to wean the common man further away from test matches.

If Chennai track was disastrously docile, the one at Motera threatened to go the Wankhede way, albeit briefly, when India was batting.

Already the South Africans have a vice like grip on this test. If Indian team is harbouring any hopes to make a match of it from this position, some one needs to play the role of Vijay Merchant, who, while returning to pavilion after scoring 250 runs in a first class match said, “My concentration slackened just a bit, else I could have easily carried on.”

Arise, Sir Rahul!

Wednesday 2 April, 2008

Triple Hundreds and all that....

What is the relation between a triple century and a drawn test? What do triple centurions have in common? Is triple century harmful to health of test cricket?

Don't blame me if you find these lines ripped straight from the Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner authored bestseller 'Freakonomics'. Because they actually are.

As the cricketing world debates the significance of Sehwag triple hundred at Chennai, here are few interesting points, I thought, I should share with you. It is like a rogue cricket fan exploring the hidden side of everything!

  • Out of the 22 triple hundreds scored so far, only one has been scored it in the second innings. That honour goes to the original little master, Hanif Mohammad, when he scored 337 runs in his marathon stay of 970 minutes at crease against the West Indies in Bridgetown Barbados. All others have come batting first.

  • 14 out of the 22 tests, which recorded a triple hundred, have meandered to a meaningless draw.

  • Out of the remaining eight wins, three have been recorded against the lowly ranked nations – Australia winning against Zimbabwe in 2003 (Hayden scored 387), West Indies against Pakistan in 1958 (Sobers making 365 n.o.) and England crushing the hapless New Zealand in 1965 (John Eldrich's 310 n.o.)

  • In the 14 drawn tests, almost 50% of the matches (6 to be precise) have barely managed to complete the first innings. The only drawn match to generate any kind of interest was WI Vs Pakistan, which Hanif Mohammad single handedly saved for his team.

  • The more telling fact is that no triple centuries were scored between 1975 to 1990, when the WI pace attack, not to mention their contemporaries like Lillee, Thomson, Imran, Botham, Kapil, Hadlee and co, were at their peak.

  • Almost a third of the total triple centuries have been scored in last 5 years alone, indicating:
    a) Overall decline in bowling standards and b) Lack of Sporting wickets

  • Wisden's top 10 all time great innings includes just one triple ton, Lara's 375, that too ranked at number 10. And I am inclined to believe that Lara's innings was included more for its timing (it took 36 years to break Gary Sobers' highest individual test score) than for the sheer quality or its impact on that particular match.

It is not Sehwag's fault (or for that matter, any other triple centurion's) that they encountered flattest of tracks. Scoring a triple hundred is the ultimate test of batsman's endurance, patience and perseverance.

But it is often the 'lesser' innings played under trying circumstances, which remain etched in the memory forever.

Monday 31 March, 2008

Test cricket at its boring best

There was a time in the 1970s when the Chepauk was considered as the bounciest wicket in India. So when the West Indies team led by Clive Lloyd reached Madras to play the fourth test of the 1974/75 series, they were pretty confident of wrapping up the series. They had a potent pace attack of Andy Roberts, Brendon Julien and Keith Boyce to take advantage of a lively track. Soon enough, they had India struggling at 117/8. It was from here that the eternal stylist of Indian cricket, Gundappa Vishwanath, took charge of Indian batting. Employing his fierce square cuts to deadly effect, he helped India to a respectable first innings score, from where they could level the five test series, two all! That innings of 97 n.o. was described by Bishen Singh Bedi as one of sheer artistry, belligerence and technical finesse. It was also an innings that Wisden Asia ranked as third best amongst all time great Indian innings, behind only VVS Laxman’s epic 281 at Kolkata and Rahul Dravid’s monumental 231 at Adelaide.

The just concluded Chennai test may have seen Virendra Sehwag score more than thrice the runs that Vishy did in that test against WI; Hashim Amla, Neil McKenzie and Rahul Dravid may have helped themselves to easy centuries, the runs scored in the first innings of this test may far exceed those scored in the entire match in 1975, but it has certainly left an unsavory taste in most cricket fans.

Chepauk, in past, has been witness to some remarkable test matches, beginning with the third and final test match of the 1933 home series against England. India’s first ever victory in a test match (1952) and the near victory against the WI in 1966/67, Vishy’s superb batting (1974/75), the tied test against Australia (1986), Hirwani’s dream debut against the West Indies (1988), Sachin’s memorable knock against Mark Taylor’s Australia (1998) and the standing ovation to the visiting Pakistan team (1999) bear testimony to it.

So isn’t it sad that a test in which Sehwag became only the third player in test history to score two triple centuries, in which Dravid became only the third player ever to cross 10000 run mark in both ODIs and Test cricket, the sole talking point should be the Twenty Yards - truly the graveyard for bowlers? Isn’t it a matter of shame that Sehwag’s innings, in spite of being the highest ever by an Indian, would rank nowhere close to the all time great knocks played by his fellow countrymen?

At a time when test matches all over the world are becoming increasingly result oriented (the recent Aus Vs India, England Vs NZ and Sri Lanka Vs West Indies series), India has been of late, dishing out tame and dull ‘draws’ with alarming regularity – last year’s India Vs Pakistan test series just being another case in point.

In the preface to his book, ‘Playing for India’, Sujit Mukherjee has this to say:

The English lexicon and the game of cricket became permanently wedded when the word ‘Test’ came to mean the highest form of elevation known to cricketers all over the world. Much as touchstone tests gold, so does Test cricket reveal the essential substance of cricketer.

Unfortunately, the latest Chennai Test miserably fails this ‘test’.

Thursday 7 February, 2008

Cricket and Music : A Great Fusion

Ever heard of all eleven players making their ODI debut on a same day?

On 13th July 1974, eleven Indians led by Ajit Wadekar did exactly that. It was India's first ever One Day International.

Since that game at Leeds, a lot of water has flown under the proverbial bridge. Wadekar never played test or ODI cricket after the drubbing in that series. Mike Denness, his English counterpart, played for exactly a year more. Eknath Solkar, India's best close-in fielder, died relatively young at 57. So did Robert Andrew Woolmer. In the meantime, India won the world cup and even hosted couple of them. And the cricketing world almost turned topsy-turvy.

Why am I even raking this up? The reason is, India's next match against SL at Melbourne on 10th February, will see them overtake Pakistan (and all other nations) in maximum number of ODIs played by a team. (India is currently level with Pakistan at 674 games.) Given India's busy season and their increasing thrust on one-day games, they are likely to stay well clear of the competition hereon, very much like Murali's wickets in test cricket.

I am not saying this is a cause for celebration. But it is remarkable that almost half of these matches (332, to be precise) have been played in last decade alone. India may not have the same winning ratio as Pakistan (1.23 in 674 games) or Australia (1.79 in 670 games) , but in between it's first ODI in 1974 and the one they will play on 10th February 2008, India has changed the dynamics of limited overs game so much, that it will force even Kerry Packer to take a backseat.

Before India lock horn with their southern neighbours, Australia will have a first go at them in Sydney, tomorrow. It is a repeat of WC final. Australians have 'handled' Murali pretty well in their last three outings, including the WC final, Murali's figures reading 193/1 in 27 overs! To me this is a contest between top two batting sides in the tournament. It will also provide the much needed spark, that has failed the tri series so far.

As for the fusion, it comes in the form of 'Vasantotsav' (translated as 'Festival of Spring' and also named after famous classical singer Vasantrao Deshpande) starting in Pune, tomorrow. It is an exquisite treat for music aficionados. This year's edition features Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and drummist Shivamani in a jugalbandi, Violinist L Subramaniam, Sufi singer Abida Parveen, Gazhal king Ghulam Ali and the vintage vocalist Kishori Amonkar.

It is like watching your favourite cricketers play on your favourite cricket ground. Truly a 'Taare Zameen Par' (Stars on the Ground) stuff.

Exciting cricket contests and celestial music, a heady mix, this weekend brings!

Tuesday 5 February, 2008

Rain Match

There aren’t many things in India, that would relegate cricket off the newspaper headlines. Sania Mirza’a dramatic withdrawal from the Bangalore open almost threatened to do that. Sania’s announcement may be a culmination of number of factors, but it had a huge lesson embedded in it - be prepared to be damned, doesn’t matter how successful you are.

The young Indian team selected for the Commonwealth Bank Tri series may not have been subjected to the same moral and cultural policing as Sania was, as yet, but make no mistake, it was a team under enormous pressure. It took all of one Twenty20 tie and half a limited overs match for the critics to draw their daggers out. Suddenly, the ‘men’ who won us the T20 world cup were ‘boys’ who could never stand the rigours of a tough Australian tour.

Incongruous as it may sound, the youngsters must have welcomed a shift in focus, whether in form of Sania, or the disturbing happenings on the streets of India’s cricket capital, Mumbai, or the scheduling of match itself - on a busy Tuesday, unlike the opening one on Sunday when whole of India seemed focused on Brisbane.

Brisbane has been a low scoring pitch in recent times. The average score for a side batting first in past 5 ODIs was 233 runs. Even that looked imposing when first four wickets fell for fewer than hundred runs.

But what a good performance Gambhir and Dhoni came up with thereafter!

I must confess I was never a big fan of Gautam ‘flashy’ Gambhir. He is that sort of batsman against whom the slip cordon will always fancy their chances. While Hussey and Ponting forgot the cardinal rule to stay awake yesterday, it was Sangakkara’s turn to doze off today. To Gambhir’s credit, he hung on and importantly, made it count. If this innings has cemented his place in the team, he knows whom to thank for.

But I am most impressed with MS Dhoni. He may not possess the best batting technique, but has a temperament of gold, in that he is inert to most pressure situations. As a captain, he has adamantly preferred a young team to the experienced one, which puts the onus of team’s success squarely on him. How remarkably well did he shepherd the Indian innings today!

At lunch break, 267 looked like an eminently winning total.

And then, it rained…

Monday 4 February, 2008

Early Bird...

Last time rain had interrupted an ODI match between India and Australia, at Bangalore, Adam Gilchrist had accused India, and specifically MS Dhoni, of chickening out of the run chase. Australia had scored a huge 307 runs and Gilly was referring to the fact that Indian batting was top heavy with Ganguly, Dravid and Yuvraj making up its middle order.

Given its weak batting this time around, India could not have asked for a better start to the ODI series. One could well argue that having lost three wickets Australia was in real danger of losing the match. But with frontline batsmen like Clarke, Symmonds, Hussey and Haddin and non-so challenging total to chase, India will thank rain gods for their mercy.

A split verdict has enabled India to open their point’s account. I am expecting a close finish to this triangular contest and these points in the early stages will stand them in good stead.

Having made an opening, India will have their best chance to build upon it against Sri Lanka tomorrow. On paper, Sri Lanka looks the most balanced team of the three, but they also head into this match with just two practice games under their belt and we all know how difficult it is for touring teams to find their feat straightaway, especially in Australia.

India’s middle order faces the same difficulty – of acclimatization - as their opponents. Gambhir, Sharma, Uthapa and Tiwary aren’t exactly the names that would strike terror in the opposing camps, atleast yet. Which is why Sachin Tendulkar’s yet another attempt to ‘please’ Sir Don would not have gone too well with them. It was on this very ground sixty years ago that Sir Don got out hit-wicket for the first (and also the last) time in his test career. Lala Amarnath had unwittingly found his name in the record books then. Indians will hope that like Lala, Brett Lee is the only bowler to find a mention in the score sheet, thus.

If this Indian team is overtly dependent on Sachin Tendulkar, then Sri Lanka’s ace in the pack is undoubtedly that old warhorse Sanath Jayasuriya. I say this inspite of the presence of class players like Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. He has often taken a huge liking to Indian ‘medium pace’ bowling in the past. Ask Venkatesh Prasad, who won’t wink before vouching for it.

Murali, the other great player in this SL team, may live another day to play in Australia once again. For Sanath, this definitely is his last. And like Tendulkar, he will be keen to stamp his authority on this series. India would have won half the battle if they prevent him from doing so.

With India’s bowlers finding the right form, this is also India’s best chance to take an early lead in the point’s table.

Saturday 2 February, 2008

Let The ODIs Begin

“We are having such a good time. We are. We are. We’re having a wonderful time.”

“Yes, absolutely.”

It is hard to believe that these two had refused to even acknowledge each other, only few days ago. But then politics makes for strange bedfellows.

Ditto for cricket, which, of late has seen an intriguing mix of muscle flexing and subtle art of back room diplomacy, in equal measure. Imagine what a fascinating duel it would have been had Symmonds or Ricky Ponting batted against Harbhajan Singh at Melbourne yesterday and then faced the cameras together for the mandatory post match conference! They would have no doubt put up the same 'friendly' facade that Hillary and Obama displayed in Los Angeles, the other day.

But Indian team had different plans. They were in a tearing hurry to finish the match. Perhaps they took their captain’s word, of treating the lone Twenty20 match as a practice game, bit too seriously.

Has this win shifted the momentum Australia’s way? It is too simplistic to assume that, its resounding nature notwithstanding. I believe it has only served as a good wake up call to the Indians. One day series will be a different cup of tea altogether.

Australia admittedly will enjoy an upper hand on account of their strong batting line. Where India will fancy their chances is Australia’s surprisingly weak bowling line up, save Brett Lee.

It would be clichéd to state that the opening pair will define India’s course in most matches, but one needs to remember that in absence of Saurav Ganguly and the injury plagued Yuvraj Singh, India’s batting is the weakest amongst the three teams, something the team is not used to. Sehwag needs to carry his test form into the shorter version and others, especially Suresh Raina, needs to fulfill his potential as the most talented young bat, for, this tournament in most likelihood showcase India’s middle order, once the big four hang their shoes.

What gives me hope, though, is the bowling. Again a situation, which both the fans and the players won’t be too familiar with. Irfan Pathan lends a critical balance to this team and he will be the pivot around which M/s Ishant Sharma, Shreesanth and Harbhajan will cast their spell.

Tri series tournaments in Australia have given some abiding memories to most Indian cricket fans who began watching the game in early 80s, a point beautifully put across by Soumya Bhattacharya in his recent article in CricInfo magazine.

A joint conference featuring Symmo and Harbhajan will certainly be one such memory to carry from this year.

Even without it, the last tri series in Australia promises much more.

Wednesday 30 January, 2008

Experiments with Truth

It is indeed ironical that a day before Mahatma Gandhi’s 60th death anniversary, the racism case against Harbhajan Singh was veered towards it's most convenient conclusion, with Truth being the biggest casualty.

The Sardar is a free man now. In a well orchestrated hearing, Justice John Hansen has cleared Harbhajan Singh of the ‘Racism’ charge, not because of his presumed innocence, but because of extraneous factors that included BCCI’s money power; the pull out threat and ambiguity on the part of ICC to call a spade a spade.

Even accounting for the fact that modern sports is loath to the virtues that the ‘Mahatma’ stood for, I am all for reducing racism and abuse - that goes around in the name of mental disintegration - to a level as practical as possible. I am also of the opinion that Australian players, more than anyone, have gotten away with their abusive language, more times than one. That is why I believed, Harbhajan case provided a perfect opportunity, both for the ICC and the BCCI, to act tough, weed out these unsavory elements, and claim a high moral ground, something Anil Kumble did after the second test.

But the writing was clearly on the wall once BCCI asked its players to stay put in Sydney. Even the Australians could not challenge the Indian board’s might, let alone the pusillanimous ICC.

So Bhajji is no more a racist - officially that is. Instead, he is someone who abuses downright in the name of else's mother, if reports of India’s flimsy defence are to be believed. Who would you like to be? Take your pick. Better don’t, because neither has anything to with cricket.

But it makes Harbhajan’s mother happy. I wonder why?

It takes a lot of courage and even more conviction to stand up to, and own your remarks, howsoever wrong they might have been. Harbhajan has failed miserably in that. Much like Michael Clarke, whose image stands tarnished in the eyes of cricket fans, Harbhajan will be looked upon as one whose integrity will remain forever suspect.

BCCI on the other hand is gaining a notorious reputation as a board that throws its weight around to maneuver things in its favour. Be it the ‘Denness’gate, the ‘Bucknor’gate or the ‘Bhajji’gate, they are overlooking the fact that each of their ‘victory’ is more pyrrhic than the one before. I am not even mentioning the vulgar display of ‘so called national pride’ that they put up in this case.

The game meanwhile goes on. ACB is happy that their coffers will be soaring full after the ODI tournament, Sri Lankans are now more willing participants in the tri series, and BCCI is reveling in it’s false victory.

The Truth, sadly, remains hidden firmly behind the closet.

Thursday 24 January, 2008

Touch the Sky

Does it really matter how a batsman chooses to reach the coveted three figure mark, whether with a whacky six or an elegant boundary or a simple nudge for a single? Ideally, it should not. But when the batsman in question answers by the name Sachin Tendulkar, it certainly does, for, his nervous nineties - even if he succeeded in converting a few of them into hundreds - have been a topic of national debate for some time now.

It also provides an insight into the mind of this great batsman. When was the last time before Adelaide that Sachin reached his century with a boundary?

Rewind, as I often do, to the third test of the 2002 series against England. Venue: Headingley. Conditions: Hostile for batting. Dravid and Bangar had weathered the early seam and swing conditions to steady the Indian ship. The stage was ideally set for Tendulkar to score a big hundred. He eventually did and in style too. When he flicked the first ball of an Ashley Giles’ 23rd over through mid wicket for a boundary, he also passed Sir Don’s record of 29 hundreds.

But between that innings at Leeds and the one in home town of Sir Don, today, Sachin treated bowlers with same respect that Sunil Gavaskar accorded to the likes of M/s Marshall, Roberts, Imran, Lillee and co. Nothing wrong, except that those bowling to Sachin in his nervous nineties included Shakib Al Hasan, Shabbir Ahmad, Simon Katich, Tapash Baisya amongst others!

They say, batsmen are at the peak of their prowess, between the age 28 and 32. By this time the youthful exuberance has given way to maturity and renunciation of a seemingly tempting delivery is stronger than before. The legs are still young enough to hold out more than an entire day on the field.

Brian Lara, Mathew Hayden and to an extent Inzamam have however shown a definite upward swing in the form in their mid thirties, and even past it. Hopefully Sachin Tendulkar is entering a similar phase in his career. He has already blasted away the cobwebs that seemed to clutter both his mind and his batting. Now is the ideal time for a ‘liberated’ Sachin to fly and touch the sky.

It would be great if he does it tomorrow, the second day at Adelaide. Despite winning the crucial toss and putting 300 runs on the board, I believe, India is in a spot of bother. Past records have shown that no total is big enough to defend on this ground. Pathan’s promotion as an opener and his subsequent failure has only complicated the matters. I pray they do not put up a different opening combination in the second innings.

Sachin needs to play a Dravidesque innings, not in intent, but in the number of runs scored and one of the bowlers need to bowl an Agarkarish spell if India has to overcome its less than satisfying performance on day one.

The second day could well decide the fate of India’s march towards leveling this series.

Wednesday 23 January, 2008

A New Order?

“Indian captain and his team will always be able to derive comfort and satisfaction in the knowledge that they played cricket in a manner and spirit envisaged by our forbears and they will retain a warm and cherished place in the hearts and minds of Australians.”

Sir Don Bradman was speaking about the Indian cricket team that traveled to Australia in 1977/78. In many ways that tour came as a welcome relief to the Australian Cricket Board, beleaguered by desertions from the frontline Australian players. Such was the popularity of the Indian team that more people watched the test against India than the ‘WSC Super Test’ at the Melbourne Waverley Football Park.

I have no idea if the current Indian team has captured the imagination of Australian fans. Even if they haven’t, they have certainly played the game that would have made the ‘Big B’ proud.

As Indians approach the final test at Adelaide, there is one uncanny similarity with the series played three decades ago. Back then, Indian team came back from a two match deficit to level the scores at the end of fourth test at Sydney. They have reached half way stage this time around. Adelaide could well see them attain ‘Moksha’ once again!

There are hurdles in this path, none bigger than the hosts themselves. It has been ages since the time Australia last lost two consecutive tests at home. And we don’t need a Andrew Flintoff or a Duncan Fletcher to vouch for their tenacity in face of defeat.

An even larger stumbling block for the Indians would be manifested in their team selection. Conventional wisdom would suggest a 7/4 combination. But India is playing to level the series. Going by the pitch report so far, Jaffer is sure to make way for Harbhajan Singh. That leaves a big question mark over the opening slot. These are times to let convention go for a toss. I would suggest dropping MS Dhoni and letting Dinesh Karthick keep the wickets and open the innings too. Not sure if that will happen, because it takes either a brave heart or an Aussie mindset to effect such decisions. And Indian team is not ready for it, as yet. To me, it is better to lose the series 3-1 in quest of a victory at Adelaide, than take an oft trodden path. After all, a 2-1 scoreline will tell the same story as a 3-1, won’t it?

If Sir Don spoke of Indian team’s sporting spirit, here is what Keith Miller, his teammate and one of my favourite Australian cricketers, wrote of the Indian team in 1971:

“After their win over the West Indies earlier this year, India are also conquerors of England, who trounced my own Australians. So India, once looked upon as in the ‘little league of cricket’ are in the big league. And strong contenders for the best in the world.”

Irrespective of the result at Adelaide, India is guaranteed a second place in the ICC test rankings. But they would badly want to win the final test of this series, not only to stay clear of the third ranked test team, Sri Lanka, but also take the first few steps in what could be a long drawn battle for the best team in the world.

Over to you, Team India.

Monday 21 January, 2008

'Stupendous' Win

Cricketers are we, intrepid and bold
Out in the field, amongst the wonders untold
Equipped with our talent, a spirit and a knack
Searching for a win on the Perth track

The world gasps in horror as Spaceman Spiff's crew is immobilized at Sydney. A thousand miles away from their home, they must fix it themselves. Spiff clings tightly to his spaceship. One more loss will send them hurling into the horrors of the infinite beyond.

The heroes captured by the vicious Aussie knights are about to be transported to the labour camp at Perth. The Aussie knights are charged up as usual, daring the fools to come after them.

Spaceman Spiff's mind races furiously. The situation is desperate. This could be the end! What can we do?

He sees two aliens approaching, but in the blinding light he can hardly make it out. Are they friendly or hostile?

Our heroes hatch a bold plan, led by spaceman Spiff himself.

Impossible say some. Impossible? Nothing is impossible for the Spiff and his stupendous men.

With stupendous powers of team spirit, gaining stupendous momentum, stupendous men strike the ground with stupendous force. The Aussie knights are shaken.

Spiff and his stupendous men now have the strength of a billion mortal men. With muscles of magnitude, they fight with heroic resolve.

A blinding bolt of blazing crimson careens across the sky. Seconds later the amazing marvel alights upon and with stupendous strength, stupendous men target the Aussie knights with stupendous ease.

The knights are finally fried to a crunchy crisp. Their armour fused into a solid piece.

It's another daring escape for the intrepid Spaceman Spiff and his stupendous crew. No walls can hold our stupendous men.

The knights have been foiled again. Ha ha ha!

Secure in their fortress, Spiff and his stupendous men now plan their strategy for another day and another mind boggling adventure, at Adelaide.........

(Very much like the 'Ishaan Awasthi' of Taare Zameen Par, there is a bit of 'Calvin' inside each one of us. Indian team too found its own at Perth.)

Friday 18 January, 2008

348 to go, again!

The heat at Madras was as energy sapping as it was on the first two days at Perth. If umpires were forced to call for drinks break after every 40 minutes at Perth, it was no different at Madras, the coastal humidity probably making it even worse. Indians were on a winning streak, having handed England a resounding defeat just two months ago. Against this background, Dean Jones battled bouts of cramps, dehydration and Indian spinners to score a courageous double century in the first test of 1986 series. When Kapil Dev’s scored a scintillating century, the match was headed to only one conclusion – a draw. But Alan Border’s sporting declaration in the second innings ensured that the match went into the record books as only the second ‘Tie’ in history of cricket. The target – 348 runs.

More than a decade later, Chennai was once again the stage for another outstanding match. It was India versus Australia again. Coincidentally, the first test of that series too! Sachin Tendulkar was caught Mark Taylor bowled Shane Warne after making just 4 runs in the first innings. Prior to the series, he had taken extra care to handle Warne’s leg spinners, even summoning leggie L Sivaramakrishnan to bowl at him in the nets. He wasn’t willing to let that effort go waste. What followed in the second innings was a brilliant counter attack, seldom seen on Indian soil. When Azharuddin declared the Indian innings close, there was only one result possible, unlike the 1986 test on the same ground. The target for Australians, once again 348 runs!

If the 1998 test at Chennai set the tone for long and hard fought battles between India and Australia, the Perth test has certainly lived up to that reputation, weaving its way through the numerous twists and turns. If the first day saw India demolishing the Australian top order, it also saw a terrific fight back from Symmonds and Gilchrist. If the second day belonged to Indian bowlers, then the Australian pace attack threatened briefly to make the third day their own, only to be thwarted by gutsy batting from VVS Laxman.

I am simply amazed by the number of times VVS Laxman has rescued India from a precarious position. We know how good a batsman he is, but often, some of his valuable innings like the one today, get eclipsed by his more dazzling ones. His cameo in the second innings of Adelaide test in 2003/04 series, his strokeful 69 in the farcical Mumbai test against Australia, when everyone else, save Sachin Tendulkar were struggling even to put bat on to the ball, the vital 73 runs against South Africa at Johannesburg have all been match winning efforts without quite grabbing the attention that they deserve. Even though he can rightfully claim a number 3 spot in Indian batting, to me he is more a joker in the pack. Shuffle him the way you want. He won’t disappoint.

As Ponting and Hussey resume their battle on day four, both teams know that history is in making, whatever the outcome. But having chopped 65 runs off their target, isn’t it another twist of fate that Australia needs exactly the same number of runs, 348, that made previous two contests so memorable?

Thursday 17 January, 2008

Perth swinging India's way

To appreciate RP Singh’s efforts on a seam friendly Perth wicket, one needs to look back at his debut in Faisalabad, couple of years ago. That test was played on the back of one of the dullest games in recent times, where only 8 wickets fell against over 1100 runs scored, over 5 days. In keeping with the legacy of most Indo-Pak encounters, the Faisalabad test too ended in a dreary draw, but what stood in a contest that saw six hundreds being scored on either side, was the Man of the Match awarded to RP Singh for his 4/89! If it was a damning indictment of the docile Faisalabad pitch, it was also a tribute to the effort that the debutante put in. His comeback effort today, against a rampaging Adam Gilchrist, was never a surprise, although to the Aussie keeper, the ball that got him was indeed one.

For Anil Kumble, last three years have been incredible. For him to reach the 600 wicket mark at Perth was most ironical of it all. As Mukul Kesavan has rightly put in his blog, we carry an enduring image of what the player has achieved in his final years at the crease. By that account, Anil Kumble has managed to dispel many misgivings on his overseas record. But more than his bowling, I was mighty impressed with some of the decisions that he has taken, whether it was sending a strong message to the Aussie camp on how to (and how not to) play the game, withdrawing charges against Brad Hogg, dropping Harbhajan Singh at Perth or electing to bat first upon winning the toss. Take a bow, Anil. Sometimes I wonder if captaincy arrived a tad late for you.

It is interesting (and also a lesson in itself) that every Indian player on a comeback trail has performed exceedingly well in last two years. Be it Saurav Ganguly or Zaheer Khan. We can safely add Irfan Pathan’s name to that list now. There are couple of ‘out of form’ players like Yuvraj Singh and Wasim Jaffer in the team and it would do no harm to have more players pushing them for a place in this side.

When was the last time Indian bowlers put up that kind of bowling display, over three successive tests, second innings at Sydney notwithstanding? The only instance I can remember is the 1986 series against England, which India won 2-0, with consummate ease. If India is staring at a 2-0 deficit in Australia inspite the bowling performance, the blame squarely lies with their batsmen.

Fortunately, Sehwag has ensured that the team got off to a great start, maintaining a run rate in excess of 4/over, in both innings. It is an ideal platform for the ‘Big Four’ to build their innings upon. A true paced Perth wicket, a healthy first innings lead, Sehwag looking good and an inform Sachin, Rahul, Sourav and VVS to follow. It can’t get more ominous for the Australians.

India has not lost a test at Perth in last 16 years. They are now perfectly placed to keep their slate clean for a few more!

Wednesday 9 January, 2008

Tomorrow is another day

10th January 2008 could well prove to be a Red Letter Day for India in more ways than one.

Mr Ratan Tata, a businessman par excellence, would have his long cherished dream fulfilled, when Tata Motors unveils the most eagerly awaited and hotly debated car in recent times, at the Auto Expo 2008 in Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. Now if you consider the Indian captain Anil Kumble, as someone who can talk about the spirit of the game with full conviction, look no further than Mr Ratan Tata when it comes to playing the corporate game, both in letter and the spirit of it. One Lakh Rupees (USD 2600) car was his brainchild and if successful, could change the face of auto industry for ever. The world is watching you with bated breath, Mr Tata.

Some few thousand miles to the west of Delhi, the birthplace of cricket brings more good news for the Tatas. The iconic brands of Jaguar and Land Rover, put on the block by Ford Motors, would have a new owner. And as with cricket, their new home will be India. For years, the Indian automobile industry has been accused of playing well on the home turf alone. Come tomorrow, this perception is all set to undergo a major change.

Down under, India also begins the tour match against ACT Invitational XI. Perhaps no other practice match in recent times has attracted so much attention. For cricket fans though, it would be something of a welcome change. After days of 'courtroom drama' and backroom lobbying, the spotlight returns where it should have always been in first place. The Indian team gets a chance to redeem themselves, for, inspite of all the jingoism that the players, the board and the fans have displayed so far, the fact remains that Indian batsmen were unable to defend the fort, even for couple of sessions on the final day at SCG. I hope while gloating in their false sense of victory, this fact is not lost upon them.

The team also need to address some concerns, which are primarily a result of their own making. There are more than couple of spots in the team, up for grabs. If the umpires, who are normally the more 'protected of species' when it comes to appraisals, have been booted out, there is no reason why Jaffer and Yuvraj should continue to be in the team. Although I am no fan of having a makeshift opener, time has come for Dinesh Karthik to open the innings along with Sehwag. Considering the bouncy nature of Perth wicket, it won't do any harm to have a look in at Pankaj Singh and Irfan Pathan in the two day match.

These are difficult times for team India. They have arm twisted BCCI and eventually the ICC in having their way. They need to back it with some serious performance on the field now, more than ever before.

For inspiration, they have one person to look up to - Ratan Tata, who was ridiculed and scoffed at, when he first spoke of the 'One Lakh' car few years ago.

Tomorrow, he will be in a different league of his own!

Monday 7 January, 2008

Audacity of Hope

The last day of Sydney test saw two moments of sheer brilliance that got eclipsed in face of unfortunate events of Sunday.

The first one was a purely cricketing one -Tendulkar's dismissal - result of a plan brilliantly conceived and equally well executed by the duo of Adam Gilchrist and Stuart Clark.

The second one may sound trivial to many, but was hugely significant in the context of acrimonious events that had marred the test that far. Anil Kumble flicked the fourth ball of a Clark over, only to hit the forward shortleg fielder, Phil Jaques, where it hurts the most. Given the match situation, Kumble could have been excused had he turned a blind eye to the man in pain. Instead, the Indian captain walked across and with a friendly tap on Jaques' shoulders confirmed if he was indeed ok. It was a gesture, perhaps alien to most Australian cricketers, but it found an echo in Anil Kumble's post match remark on only one team playing in the true spirit of the game.

On a day when Kangaroos erased the already thin line between playing tough cricket, as is their wont, and showing gross contempt for the spirit of the game, I was also reminded of a Colin Cowdrey lecture delivered at the MCC by Sunil Gavaskar, four years ago. Said Sunny:

The MCC is the custodian of the Laws of the game, and thanks to the initiative of men like Colin Cowdrey, Ted Dexter and Tony Lewis, to name just three, they have now put down in writing the Spirit of Cricket, which for more than a hundred years was only spoken about and observed, too, until the late 1980s, and now has been put down in print so that not only Test and international cricketers know what it means, but also youngsters who are taking up the game.

But what does it tell us to have to put the Spirit of Cricket in black and white? It tells us that the old adage: "It's not cricket", which applied to just about everything in life, is no longer valid - and that's a real pity. In the modern world of commercialization of the game and the advent of satellite television and the motto of winning at all costs, sportsmanship has gone for a six.
At Sydney, the Aussies indeed tossed it for a huge six!

Amongst the many reasons that made the Australian team my favourite over the years was that they played a 'give no inch' brand of cricket. They also brought fresh ideas to the game, whether playing on the field or coaching off it. So when Ricky Ponting used a carbon graphite reinforced bat or when Adam Gilchrist stuffed a squash ball beneath his glove during the recent 2007 WC final, I thought, it was cricketing innovation at its very best. No wonder they dominated the game for well over a decade.

But being a champion team for this long also made them forget to deal with situations when chips are down. While the Australians intimidate the opposing teams with their aggressive brand of cricket, it is when the opposing team refuses to get intimidated that the Australians show their true colours, Sydney test just being the case in point. It is cricket's misfortune that not many teams have succeeded in doing so in recent past.

I won't be surprised if this Australian team under Ricky Ponting extends the current winning streak to few more matches. Even less surprising would be if they plumb lower depths in this quest.

Unlike the Democrat's Presidential nominations race, that lost its 'sense of inevitability' following Barack Obama's victory in Iowa, this series retains very much of it, going into the third test at Perth. And for the first time, I wish, this Australian team under Ricky Ponting is cut down to size in next two tests. For the sake of good of cricket, if not for India.

A tall order? Yes. Wishful thinking? Very much.

But what's hope, if not audacious?

Friday 4 January, 2008

Sublime Genius and the Master Class

There was a time in late eighties, when Boris Becker likened the centre court at Wimbledon to his own backyard. Anyone would, given his fantastic record there. Dilip Vengsarkar spoke of rolling the Lords pitch and carrying it back to his hometown, Mumbai, after notching his third consecutive century in the Mecca of cricket. Sunil Gavaskar was so enamored of Port of Spain, that he dedicated a whole chapter – Trinidad, I Love You – in his autobiographical account, Sunny Days.

Sydney Cricket Ground would certainly hold a similar place in the hearts of VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar.

Sublime genius
There have been very few 'Stylists' in Indian cricket over the past 75 years like ML Jaisimha, GR Vishwanath, Mohammad Azharuddin, to name a few. Outside India, I can think of only handful of players in last three decades or so, who could be called thus. David Gower, Roy Dias (Sri Lanka) and Mark Waugh spring to the mind immediately. All these players batted with such grace and finesse that they transcended the clichés used to describe their stay on the batting crease.

Even by their majestic standards, VVS Laxman stands tall, a cut above the rest and in a class of his own.

On the second day at SCG, he showed why he is the most elegant player and an impeccable timer of cricket ball. Every ball that he caressed with his magical willow, seem to suggest that there is much more to batting than just proper technique and diligence. How else could one play a ball, wide outside the offstump, to the mid wicket fence with a simple flick of wrist? Or the one pitched up, anywhere behind the bowler to the cover region? He makes batting look so ridiculously easy that lesser mortals could be excused for thinking it as all about padding up and walking to the crease, with a bat in hand.

To talk about the match situation and analyse his innings in this post would be doing a disservice to his genius. We will leave it for some other time.

But I would like to quote the Moghul Emperor Jahangir, who when so enchanted by the beauty of Kashmir valley, exclaimed:

Gar firdaus, Ruhe zamin ast, Hamin asto, Hamin asto, Hamin asto.
(If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here).

In cricketing parlance, if there was a great exhibition of batsmanship; it was on the second day at SCG.

Then again, one can say that for most of 'VVS Laxman special' innings!

The Master Class
Welcome back, Sachin Tendulkar. You could not have chosen a more appropriate venue to signal the return of the 'original' little master.

It was the same venue, where you hit a patient double century, four years ago. (Such woeful was your form prior to the 'Steve Waugh farewell' test, that captain Saurav Ganguly took an unprecedented step of batting at number 4 in the second innings of Melbourne test, ostensibly to shield you!) That double ton certainly helped in ending the unusually long drought of runs you were going through, but it also left behind a trail of defensive mindset, which you carried over for next four long years.

The sight of Sachin Tendulkar playing a Dravidesque innings was something, many of your fans, including yours truly, could never digest.

Whether it was your injury, or the larger team plan, or something else, we would never know, but you were stubborn in refusing to let your old avtaar take over. Although we had an occassional glimpse of aggression, like in the second test against South Africa at Durban, it was never quite same as in the series opener against same oponents, six years ago.

Still, much against our hopes, we were hoping that you would come good in Australia, the ultimate place for a cricketer to succeed. It was also to be your last hurrah in the land of World Champions. Your form in England was a good indicator to that. Even more heartening was the intent you showed in the practice match, preceeding the Boxing Day test. MCG kept the hope flickering. And Sidney Cricket Ground finally saw your reincarnation.

Gone was the tentative plodding and poking, replaced instead, with a full authoritative face of the bat, both in attack and defence. The lofted shot, which you so effectively used against the great Shane Warne in 1998, was back and so was the upper cut, way over the third man. More importantly, out went the paddle sweep, which had forced you into holding back those glorious drives and square cuts, under the false pretext of safety.

This is the Sachin Tendulkar we know, we love and have grown watching with.

Thank you for these memorable moments, Sachin. It has been a previledge watching you bat at the SCG.