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 clich├ęd 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.