Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Batting first is no longer a plus in India

England were lucky. They lost the toss in both Mumbai and Kolkata, and won both those Tests. Australia won all their tosses and lost the Test series 4-0 to India. And now, the West Indies are discovering that the conventional wisdom of batting first on winning the toss no longer works on many Indian pitches.

In the old days, pitches would start cracking up in the latter half of the Test, so to bat first and pile up a big score was a fail-safe formula. But most of these pitches have been relaid and they are no longer so brittle. Maybe on the fifth day, it can occasionally crumble like it did at the Wankhede when the West Indies last toured India. But, by and large, the pitches just get drier and slower as the match wears on. Whatever life there is in it can be seen at the outset of the match. The moisture in the wicket helps the pacers get some deviation off the seam, and the spinners can get the ball to hurry through, instead of allowing the batsman to easily play anything that's not a half-volley off the backfoot.

Let's see if this pattern is repeated in Kolkata. If the pitch gets easier on the second day, the West Indies might have already done Sachin Tendulkar a big favour in his penultimate Test by opting to bat first.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What took Michael Clarke so long to bring on Steve Smith?

The Australian captain and his team had a great start and an even better ending to the first day of the second Test at Lord's. In between, they dawdled and faltered, which probably let England off the hook again in this seesawing series.

To begin with, Michael Clarke came up with a masterstroke to send his English counterpart back to the pavilion. James Pattinson was wayward in his first couple of overs, but it was evident there was enough swing and seam movement on offer with the new ball to trouble the English openers if only the bowlers could hit the right line and length. Instead of waiting for Pattinson to settle down, and possibly losing the opportunity to strike with the new ball, Clarke took him off and brought on Shane Watson.

Hampered by injury, Watson no longer has the pace to be a real force as a bowler, but in these conditions the movement he got was dangerous. Alastair Cook soon fell victim to it as he was trapped in front by one that Watson bent back into him.

Ryan Harris, the replacement for the off-colour Mitchell Starc, followed it up with a double strike at the other end, showing again the virtues of having a proactive coach. All of Lehmann's moves in this series have worked like a dream, and with a little luck, his team would have had the upper hand by now instead of being one down and on even terms in the second Test.

At 28-3, England were tottering, but Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell got together in a restorative partnership. This is where the Aussie captain possibly allowed the game to start slipping away. It was strange to see Peter Siddle, the most successful bowler for Australia in the first Test, kept out of the attack for so long, while Clarke repeatedly turned to James Pattinson.

It's easier to make this call on hindsight, you might say, because Clarke may have been justified in thinking Pattinson was more the sort of bowler who could exploit the hard pitch at Lord's, which had more bounce than the wicket at Trent Bridge. But Pattinson was clearly out of sorts and unable to maintain pressure on the batsmen, dishing up too many loose deliveries for easy boundaries.

It was Ryan Harris again who broke the partnership after lunch, but Johnny Bairstow joined Bell in continuing to resurrect the English innings. Siddle then produced the ball that has proved to be Bairstow's undoing time and again. A fast inswinger, following an away-going ball, bowled Bairstow neck and crop as he closed the face of the bat in playing across the line. England got a huge reprieve, however, because it was a no ball and Siddle's boot only had to be a millimetre further back for it to be legitimate. Australia had only themselves to blame, of course. Even earlier, Ryan Harris' front foot was perilously close to going over the line on the ball that dismissed Joe Root. And in the first Test, had they kept a referral in hand instead of using them up in injudicious challenges, they would have had Chris Broad's wicket and probably the match.

Siddle tried hard to reproduce the ball that got Bairstow, but the English batsman was wise to it by then. The ball steadily lost its sting too, enabling Bell and Bairstow to put England back on top.

It was here that Michael Clarke again missed a trick. He forgot he had the leg-spinner Steve Smith in the side, and that England tend to freeze when confronted with one. Another leg-spinner was in the commentary box, Shane Warne, and he was eager to see Smith bowl about halfway through the second session, but it took Michael Clarke about three hours of the Bell-Bairstow partnership to finally throw the ball to Smith with a few overs to go before the new ball became due.

Smith is no Warne, of course, and dishes out at least two hit-me balls every over, but he does give it a rip and can produce the wicket-taking delivery when it comes out right. This he did on Thursday not once or twice, but thrice. The way Bairstow gave a return catch off an in-dipping full toss underlined how late the Aussie captain had been in turning to the leg-spinner. Bairstow looked vulnerable against Ashton Agar too, but the youngster was handicapped by a cut on his index finger and wasn't able to tweak the ball as much as he did in the first Test. Whatever the reason, Clarke erred in carrying on with Agar for so long, and also giving Pattinson as many as 18 overs on a day when he looked the least likely among the bowlers to take a wicket. Not trying out Smith at all for five hours, through one long partnership after another, was a mistake.

Fortunately for Australia, the penny did drop in the last hour of play, and Smith's three wickets in six overs restored parity in the match. Now, if Harris can gobble up the English tail with the new ball on the second morning, this series will get even more interesting.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lehmann proves he's no lemon as a coach

Darren Lehmann's selections for the first Test at Trent Bridge were brave and successful without exception. Now we will see if the changes he has made for the second Test starting Thursday prove equally effective.

He pulled 19-year-old left arm spinner Ashton Agar out of the hat and threw him in, something that none of the pundits of Australian cricket had seen coming, as far as I know. And Agar looked more than ready for the big league, with both bat and ball. When he scored an astonishing 98 at number eleven, there were cheers but also murmurs that he was really in the side as a bowler. When he scalped the England captain Alastair Cook, all doubts were dismissed.

The selection of Steve Smith, as well as his slotting at number five, were criticised because many find his technique awkward. Smith's tendency to be squared up, rather than side-on, to the away-going ball may yet prove his undoing. But in the first Test, he also showed his value to the team as a clean striker of the ball who can take the battle to the opposition, especially off-spinner Graeme Swann.

Middle-aged Chris Rogers, who had only played a solitary Test without success nearly six years back, was the most inspired selection of all. His classic style of batting with soft hands is just what Australia needed at the top of the order, even more so in England where the openers play such a vital role in minimising the damage from a swinging new ball. Rogers, in fact, looked the most secure of Australia's batsmen in the first innings, until he was undone by James Anderson when he cleverly took the pace off the ball.

Brad Haddin, the replacement wicket-keeper for Mathew Wade, almost won the match for Australia in the end, falling just 15 runs short after a 65-run last wicket stand with James Pattinson. His glove work admittedly is far from perfect, but neither was Wade's.

Lehmann is obviously not one to die wondering what he might have tried next. Ed Cowan's dismissal in both innings of the first Test driving at balls pitched wide outside off-stump was enough for the coach to turn to Usman Khawaja for the number three slot in the second Test starting on Thursday at Lord's. Khawaja, like Cowan, is a defender, and so it's a straight swap between them. I would have given Cowan one more chance, because he has proved in India that he can be hard to prise out once he is in, but I look forward to seeing how the Pakistan-born Khawaja will fare.

The other change is Ryan Harris for Mitchell Starc. This too is justified by Starc's poor showing with the new ball in the first Test. Harris, though, hasn't been the same bowler after picking up one injury after another. On the other hand, the conditions at Lord's should suit his outswingers, and so it was a punt well worth taking.

Whatever happens, there seems to be both logic and courage in the way Lehmann is going about his business. This is a far cry from the bumbling of Mickey Arthur, who appeared clueless with both selection and strategy on the India tour as well as the Champions Trophy. That he is no longer the coach of Australia augurs well for them, and who do they have to thank for that? None other than David Warner, whose misguided punch thrown at England's Joe Root in a bar, was apparently the last straw that sent Mickey packing. The glorious uncertainties of cricket, as they say.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

DRS problem can't be solved by leaving it to the umpires, we need more referrals

Ian Chappell's suggestion to leave the DRS to the umpires has a fundamental flaw, even if at first it seems like a reasonable solution to the problem of running out of referrals. The Chris Broad situation in the first Test of the Mega Ashes arose because Australia had used up the two unsuccessful reviews allowed per innings. So when Broad was caught at slip and given not out by Aleem Dar, the decision could not be challenged and it changed the course of the match.

Ian Chappell suggests that instead of limiting the number of referrals, the use of the DRS can be left to the discretion of the umpires - just like in a runout call. That is, whenever the umpire is in doubt, he can take the help of technology and the third umpire. So, if Dar wasn't sure the ball had come off Broad's bat, he could have accessed the replays, stump mike and Hotspot before giving his decision.

No doubt, we will get more decisions right this way, and that's the objective of using the DRS anyway. Too many matches have been spoilt by umpiring mistakes for us to let romantic notions like 'preserving the human element' stand in the way of using technology. But to let the umpires decide when they will use it opens a Pandora's box.

Way back in the nineties, when runout referrals were first introduced, India's nemesis Steve Bucknor refused to go upstairs to the third umpire on a Jonty Rhodes runout despite vociferous appeals. Rhodes went on to prevent a batting collapse and India missed the chance of a rare Test victory in South Africa.

Leaving it to the umpires to decide when they will use replays will thus open the door to fresh controversies. Some umpires may fail to consult the third umpire when they should, while others will refer even the most unlikely appeals to the box, as we have seen with runouts. DRS is a work in progress; why complicate the system further?

The solution is quite simple - just increase the number of referrals. In a tennis match, each player is allowed three challenges per set which lasts about half an hour on average, and nobody feels there are too many interruptions. The limit of just two unsuccessful reviews per innings in a five-day Test match doesn't make any sense.

There can be a number of ways of arriving at a more reasonable limit on referrals. There are ten wickets to take in an innings; so let there be ten referrals. Even if both sides use all their referrals, and they take up half an hour in a day's play, it would still be worth it, because nothing is so off-putting as a badly adjudicated game.

Instead of limiting so severely the number of referrals allowed, other ways can be found to speed up the flow of the game. England and Australia were ambling along at 12 or 13 overs an hour in the Trent Bridge Test. Chris Broad even took off his boot in the middle of his over to waste time in an attempt to prevent Australia from facing another over before lunch on the final day. Even otherwise, routinely, the day's play is extended by half an hour, and even then the day's quota of overs is often incomplete. Why is nothing being done about this? Fines and suspensions have obviously proved ineffective. The only thing that will work is a penalty that has an impact on the game - such as giving 10 runs to the batting side for every over short, after allowing for stoppage. That should stop the dawdling, and leave more time for what matters - more referrals and more correct decisions.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A tale of two wickies - Dhoni and Haddin

Last week I saw two heroic wicket-keepers. One of them pulled off an astonishing win with 15 to get off the last over of an ODI, and the other one brought his team to within 15 runs of what would have been a fantastic victory on the fifth day of a Test match. Both had only Number 11 for company.

MS Dhoni does it time and again, almost on cue, and yet it never ceases to amaze you. India and Sri Lanka can't quite match an Ashes rivalry, but they have been the dominant ODI sides on slow wickets for some time now. They met in the World Cup final and this time it was the final of the triseries in the West Indies on a Port of Spain pitch more sluggish than the one at the Wankhede.

India had a very modest 202 to chase but the target kept receding as the ball got older and softer. When the ninth wicket fell in the 47th over with 20 more to get, you wondered if Dhoni could do his Houdini act yet again. The odds kept getting longer as last man Ishant Sharma could barely survive, let alone rotate the strike, and Dhoni was literally hamstrung too, as his muscle strain had not recovered fully when he decided to play the final.

Only five runs came in 16 balls after the fall of the ninth wicket, as Dhoni played out Lasith Malinga's last over to protect Ishant Sharma, who then poked and prodded his way through the Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews' last over. That left Dhoni with 15 to score in the final over by newcomer Eranga, who could bowl at a fair clip but had never been in such a situation.

The Eranga over was always going to be the make or break one for Dhoni, and he called for his tree-trunks of bats to be brought out. He went through his ominous routine of taking a few swings with two bats in hand, then flexed his muscles and settled at the crease for the final over.

The wise heads in the Sri Lankan camp meanwhile counselled the anxious Eranga. He was probably advised to keep it full and wide, in order to stay out of range of Dhoni's helicopter. The first ball was perfect, just inside the guide line for a wide, and Dhoni's arms nearly came off their sockets as he took an almighty swipe and missed. The next ball was a little straighter and a tad shorter, which was enough for it to go sailing over long off for a six and a half. The third ball was short and wide for variety, and it got smashed to the point boundary. The fourth one was on a length and Dhoni connected with a slash through extra cover for a flat six. QED.

Brad Haddin of Australia had a far more intricate problem on the final day of the first Test of the Mega Ashes. Jimmy Anderson was unstoppable in the morning as he picked up the seventh, eighth and ninth Aussie wickets with balls that pitched in line and jagged away. The England captain had taken the new ball and it nearly did the job of finishing the match off quickly.

But then, Australia have had this thing with eleventh men in this Test match. It was 19-year-old debutante Ashton Agar who turned the match around in the first innings. This time it was the turn of James Pattinson to prove he was no number 11, after Ashton had been promoted in the batting order.

Batting got easier too as the ball got older and Anderson hobbled off with what looked like a groin strain, but was in fact a cramp, if the English camp is to be believed. In any case, Haddin and Pattinson had no trouble handling Finn and Broad and even the off-spinner Graeme Swann, who had been projected as the Aussies' nemesis. They were sensible in their approach, leaving or defending the good balls, and having a go whenever the bowler strayed into their zone of hitting. Slowly but surely, they whittled the target down from 80 when the ninth wicket fell, to just 20 at lunch.

Anderson took the ball after lunch, England's last throw of the dice. He was steady and did get a hint of reverse swing, but hardly looked the threat he was in the morning. But this is where the game starts getting played in the mind more than in real terms. Until now, Haddin and Pattinson had had nothing to lose, because the Aussies had virtually no hope when they were nine down. With only 20 to get, and a lunch break to ponder over it, the game took on a different avatar.

The plan should have been to keep going as they had done before lunch, happy to stay at the wicket and wait for the bowlers to come into their zone. Anderson especially, England's main weapon, had to be left alone; the runs could be got from the other end.

Admittedly, it's an unfair comparison between an ODI and a Test, but you couldn't help thinking how Haddin wasn't quite a Dhoni once the finishing line was in sight. The Indian keeper was ice cool in sticking to his gameplan, refusing to take any liberties with Malinga, even as the asking rate climbed almost out of reach. Haddin, on the other hand, could not resist poking at an Anderson ball wide outside off-stump, from which he could have got a single at best. His strength is on the on side, not playing away from the body on the off. The price he paid for a wrong choice of a ball to score off was heavy. The inside edge was picked up by both stump microphone and Hotspot and it was all over.

In the end, they were both heroes, Dhoni and Haddin. And all forms of cricket are alive and well, thank you.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Umpires turn Test to Ashes, DRS needs to be reviewed

Even before Stuart Broad was ruled not out after being caught at slip off Ashton Agar, he should have been out LBW to Agar when he padded up to a ball spinning into the wickets without offering a stroke. The old way of thinking is that the umpire gave him the benefit of the doubt, and so it was okay even if Hawkeye later showed the ball was hitting the inside of off-stump. Why should the batsman get any benefit when he has the option to challenge the decision? In fact, the DRS should free up the onfield umpire to raise his finger even if it is a 60-40 call, especially on a deliberate padding.

You could argue that it was Australia's own fault that they had used up their reviews, and therefore could not appeal against the two wrong verdicts that went in Broad's favour. But here again the system is faulty. What's the logic of allowing only two unsuccessful reviews per innings? Agreed, we don't want repeated interruptions, so there must be a limit. But a Test innings lasts eight or nine hours, and there are umpteen stoppages for inane stuff like checking if the fielder has touched the rope or ridding a spectator from the batsman's line of sight. To get a decision right on whether a batsman is out is of far greater importance to the game. Why can't we have more reviews? The time spent on say one unsuccessful review per hour would hardly be noticeable. Rather than limit reviews to a ridiculously low number, the game can be speeded up if teams are made to concede a certain number of runs for every over they bowl short of the requirement for the day.

The third area of improvement for the DRS is to make adequate information available to the third umpire. English commentators were going on and on about Marius Erasmus, but on the evidence from the replay, he couldn't be sure that a bit of Agar's boot wasn't behind the crease when he was stumped. Can't we have a more zoomed in image to help the third umpire on these line calls? Better still, the computer could make this call, because that would remove any controversy. It doesn't matter if the technology is not 100% foolproof, as long as it is more accurate than the human eye and there is no judgement to be made.

Finally, the protocols for the camera views should be set out when DRS is in operation. The hotspot wasn't available to Erasmus on the Jonathan Trott LBW, and so the third umpire missed the inside edge. Apparently, Hotspot had been queued up to show a replay of the Joe Root snick, and missed the action. This is plain unacceptable for a marquee event like the first Test of the Ashes.

These bloopers have marred what was developing into a fascinating Test match with multiple twists and turns. The English batting failure on the first day, after the Aussies had been written off; the Aussie fightback with the bat as a teenage debutante made a breathtaking 98 at No. 11; and then the battle of attrition in England's second innings - nobody could have asked for more. Unfortunately, instead of the drama of the game, it's the umpiring that will make the headlines yet again, despite the use of DRS. Cricket needs to be managed better than this.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Day one of the Ashes was an indictment of today's Test batting standards

It was a great ball from James Andersen no doubt, pitching at a full length on middle and off to hit Michael Clarke's off stump and leave him looking bemused. That would have probably got most current right-handed batsmen out too. But why was Clarke playing that from the crease instead of out on the front foot to cover the swing and movement off the seam? He was completely squared up too, instead of holding his side-on position in helpful conditions for seamers. And Clarke is considered one of the most technically adept batsmen of this era. This just goes to show how far batting standards have fallen since pitches began to get easier around the world.

It was a gloomy and overcast first day of the Ashes in Nottingham, no doubt. But the Trent Bridge wicket was slow and dry, with not a patch of grass or moisture on it. This was no Headingley of old, or one of those unplayable wickets that New Zealand liked to produce for visitors from the sub-continent. There was movement off the seam, for sure, but the pace and bounce were such that a ball had to be almost over-pitched to pose any danger. Only the much derided Phil Rogers, the middle-aged bat recalled to the side after playing a solitary Test for Australia nearly six years ago, showed how to leave the away-going ball and get forward to the ones pitched up on the stumps. But he too tended to fall across, which proved his undoing in the end, although he was a trifle unlucky to be given out LBW to Andersen bowling round the wicket into his pads.

The conditions were certainly not as easy as we have got used to seeing, but imagine a Bob Simpson or Geoff Boycott on that wicket. Wouldn't they have settled down to bat through the day? At any rate, the mode of dismissal of virtually every batsman from either side had less to do with the conditions and was more a question of technique. Alistair Cook chased a wide half-volley, Joe Root was rooted to his crease, Jonathan Trott's bat was a mile away from his body, Johnny Bairstow played across the line and Matt Prior hit a wide ball in the air. Only Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell got out to good balls. On the Aussie side, Shane Watson was too expansive too early on that wicket, Ed Cowan chased a wide half-volley a la Cook, Michael Clarke got squared up by a good ball to which he should have been forward in defence, and Phil Rogers was trapped moving across the stumps.

It was good to have a bowler-friendly atmosphere for the first day of the Ashes, rather than a bat-fest. But really, to see 14 wickets go down with not even a fifty was an indictment of today's Test batting standards. Some commentators put it down to first day nerves after the big Ashes buildup, but faulty technique was evident too in almost all the dismissals.

Let's see how it goes from here. If the sun comes out, and the ball stops swinging, the batsmen may well come into their own. As a game, it's poised nicely. But as a showcase of Test cricket, it has been a false start.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

An Indian triumvirate emerges from the Caribbean triseries

We will never know if Rohit Sharma would have curbed his tendency to throw it away with a loose shot after doing all the hard work, as he has done in earlier games of the triseries as well as the Champions Trophy in England. He did play one airy square cut off Lasith Malinga which should have ended his innings at 11. But apart from that, he again showed he had both the technique and temperament to buckle down in tough batting conditions for an opener.

There were tufts of green on the Queen's Park Oval pitch in Port of Spain, and dark clouds in the sky, when India came out to bat in a must-win game against Sri Lanka to enter the triseries final. Perhaps the ball swung and seamed too much to find the edge of Rohit's bat, as he was squared up and beaten more than once. What was good to see, however, was that he fought through it. He was 48 not out when the rain came pouring down to curtail the Indian innings at 119 for 3. That was a pity because Rohit had just begun to open out with the conditions easing up. His slog sweep into the stands off Rangana Herath was a reminder that he is no grafter by nature. The real point of interest was whether he would have gone on to make a big one in the latter half of the innings. Now we will have to wait for the next time to see if the reformation of Rohit Sharma is complete. Few had given him much of a chance of coming good as an opener with his laid-back strokeplay, especially outside the sub-continent. But he has consistently got India off to good starts in the company of Shikhar Dhawan, both in England and the Caribbean, and that can be a really important factor in this team's success going forward.

The other vital cog in the wheel is the opening bowler, and in Bhuvneshwar Kumar India have found a wicket-taker with the new ball. He had shown promise at the very outset in his debut series against Pakistan in India, but to carry on in the same vein abroad is a happy portent. Surprisingly, he was dropped after just one below par performance in the first match of the triseries. India's substitute captain Virat Kohli soon realised his folly and brought him back. Since then, Bhuvi has been the match-winner for India in both games. His four wickets for eight runs in six overs against Lanka on Tuesday came in treacherous conditions after a downpour on a grassy wicket, but even otherwise he has consistently moved the new ball both ways and batsmen have found it hard to pick him. The challenge for him now is to find a method to be effective with the old ball too and on batting wickets.

And that brings us to the last of the Indian triumvirate to add a new dimension to their game in this triseries. Virat Kohli has been India's best batsman for a while now, but captaincy is still a work in progress for him even if he tasted success at the under-19 level. He got off to a poor start in the triseries, thrust into the role in the middle of the first game after MS Dhoni pulled a hamstring while taking a quick single. No captain is going to be perfect, and mistakes will be made. Cricket is a tactical contest and a captain has several options to choose from at different stages. The thing to look for is whether a captain is learning from the wrong moves he makes, or repeating them. Kohli has already shown that he belongs in the former category.

Rohit Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Virat Kohli - that's quite a triumvirate to emerge from this triseries in the Caribbean.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Et tu, Wimbledon? Then rise, cricket!

Once upon a time, we used to look forward to the French Open for a baseline slugfest. After the quickfire serve-volley game at Wimbledon, and almost similar fare at the US Open, we would finally get some rallies on the slower AstroTurf of the Australian Open. But it was only the French Open where you would have two guys go on and on from the back of the court with loopy shots. On the largely English-speaking tennis circuit, the French were the odd ones out. Only at Roland Garros could you hear a quarante-zero from the chair umpire when the score was 40-love. And you looked forward to this different accent in tennis.

Now it's the other way round. The French have taken over the world of tennis. Long rallies are what every tournament wants, and the extra TV time and ad revenue that come with it.

The Australian Open was the first to become almost indistinguishable from the French Open, except for the colour of the court. The US Open surface too turned more sluggish by the year. It was only Wimbledon that held out for a while.

But commerce had to have its way in the end. The grass was changed as well as the soil underneath. The balls became heavier. Now they sit up to be hit back, instead of skidding off the surface. It means every drop shot or chip shot is suicidal, and each venture to the net is fraught with peril.

What you get is a baseline slugfest, just like in every other Grand Slam event. And all that a TV commentator can gush over is the number of strokes, and who's who in the royal box.

Murray made history on Sunday by becoming the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936. But on court he was almost a clone of his Serbian opponent Novak Djokovic. This is now one big homogenous bunch of players and tournaments.

Our only hope is that cricket doesn't go the same way. That we will have spinners doing their stuff in India and seamers in England. That we can have our T20 and enjoy Test cricket too.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bravo Kohli

This was a battle between two new captains - Virat Kohli for India and Dwayne Bravo for the West Indies. Everything had gone right for the Windies in the triseries so far, and it had all gone wrong for the Indians after their Champions Trophy triumph.

The West Indies had won both their games and were as good as being in the finals already. India had contrived to lose to the Windies from a winning position, then got thumped by a margin of 161 runs to hand Sri Lanka a bonus point.

A change of venue - from Kingston, Jamaica to Port of Spain, Trinidad - brought a reversal of fortunes. It was India's turn to win with a bonus point, and the competition is wide open again. If the Windies lose their next game too to Sri Lanka, who also have a bonus point like India, and India then beat Lanka, it will be an India-Lanka final. And if the Windies win on Sunday, the last match between India and Sri Lanka will be a knockout. Nice.

Port of Spain has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for the Indians because the wickets there are slower and helpful to spinners. But that wasn't how India came good this time. They just played great cricket and were perhaps fortunate to lose the toss.

We can't be sure what Virat Kohli would have done had he won the toss, but Dwayne Bravo had no hesitation in putting the Indians in on a wicket with a thick coat of grass, presumably prepared to give the West Indies home advantage. This backfired when the Indian openers Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma put on a century partnership, giving the team the sort of start they consistently got in the Champions Trophy on English wickets. The stage was thus set for Virat Kohli to play a captain's knock, hammering a century in eighty odd balls after taking his time to get set at the wicket.

The West Indies didn't help their cause by overdoing the short stuff, which this new Indian side is quite adept at pulling and slicing for runs. Their captain was guilty of this himself, and compounded matters by coming back to bowl at the death when Darren Sammy, who had bowled economically, might have been a better option. From 221 for 6, India ended up with 311.

Then the skies became overcast and it started drizzling when it was the West Indies' turn to bat. This was perfect for Bhuvneshwar Kumar who gobbled up the dangerous Chris Gayle and anchorman Darren Bravo with balls that kicked and seamed away. A rain break only made things worse for the Windies as the Indian seamers had a field day.

Unlike Bravo, who came a cropper after stand-in skipper Kieron Pollard had put it across the Indians in the previous game, Virat Kohli came into his own with both bat and thinking cap. Dropping Bhuvneshwar Kumar and dropping himself one slot lower in the batting order were mistakes that Kohli corrected after a chastising loss to Sri Lanka. If you can learn from your mistakes, and have the humility to rectify them quickly, you are going to succeed as a captain. Ask Dhoni.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Battle of the Poles was vintage Wimbledon

Just when we thought this Wimbledon was going to be a damp squib after the exit of so many of the top stars, we were treated to a rare contest. The lucky few who witnessed the quarter-final between Lukasz Kubot and Jerzy Janowicz - friends, Poles and Davis Cup team-mates - had a taste of everything that's good about Wimbledon, and I don't mean strawberries and cream. It had emotion, a display of great skills and most of all, a hark back to an earlier era of grass court tennis. Most of Britain was naturally glued to the action on another court where Andy Murray was making a comeback from two sets down to Fernando Verdasco, and news feeds were otherwise caught up with the twisted knee of the Sanjay Dutt lookalike from Argentina, Juan Martin del Potro. But the quarter-final that was truly unique and refreshing was the one between the two Poles, standing six feet eight inches and six feet three inches tall.

The taller one, Janowicz, had a booming 140 mph first serve reminiscent of Goran Ivanisevic and a second serve hit equally hard but with a bit of top spin. Not surprisingly, he had eight double faults but the many aces more than compensated for them. He even had a frown like Ivanisevic, and an equally disarming smile.

In the eighties or nineties, when the tennis balls were lighter and grass courts skiddier, that service itself would have guaranteed him a Wimbledon title. Now he needs ground strokes to back it up, and Janowicz does look far more reliable in that aspect of the game than Ivanisevic ever did. In fact, he mostly preferred to play from the back court, not even following his first serve to the net.

It was his compatriot Kubot on the other side of the court - only a few inches shorter and serving only a few miles per hour slower than Janowicz - who was playing the classic serve-volley game that has vanished from the tennis circuit. Kubot used to be a good doubles player and is very skillful at the net. Some of the low volleys he made and the half-volleys he scooped up were no less impressive than anything we saw from Stefan Edberg or Pat Cash in the Wimbledon of yore.

Unfortunately, in the interest of longer rallies which are presumably more effective for generating ad revenue on TV, the soil base and grass has been changed at Wimbledon, and the balls made heavier, to slow down the game. This is mainly the reason why the serve-volley and one-handed backhand have disappeared. Anybody coming to the net in these conditions is pretty much a sitting duck.

It wasn't hard to predict the winner of the battle of the Poles, therefore. But it was remarkable how hard and well Kubot fought. He lost in straight sets, but there was just one service break separating the Poles in each of those sets. Even the Janowicz service games were not all walkovers. At least thrice he came back from 15-40 down. The way Kubot returned some of those whiplash serves and charged the net was something to behold. Many of the points may have lasted just two minutes, but it was breathtaking tennis, not the boring robotic baseline slugfest that tennis has been reduced to in the modern era.

At the end of the game, the two Poles had a long hug and exchanged shirts. The younger one had won and become the first player from Poland to ever enter the last four stage in a Grand Slam event. He was overcome with emotion and wasn't afraid to show it either. I'm sure there were many other moist eyes on that court in Wimbledon, and by the end of that quarter-final they wouldn't have minded missing the Murray-Verdasco five-setter.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A team is only as good as its captain

A captain is only as good as his team, goes the old adage. But, in cricket especially, the reverse is often the case.

Of course, no captain can win with a really weak team. We are talking here of teams with potential, which have proven players, who have already excelled individually. A good captain can bring out the best from such a team, get it to play as a cohesive unit with a purpose.

Cricket is a highly tactical game, and how you play at key moments can make a big difference. This is applicable to all departments of the game in varying degrees, but its complexity obviously increases in the field, where you have many options in field placements, lines of attack and choice of bowlers.

It may be too early to pass judgement on Virat Kohli as captain after two failures. And it isn't as if MS Dhoni does not suffer reverses, even in ODIs, despite all his experience by now. Only six months back, India lost an ODI series at home to Pakistan.

It's just the manner of India's two losses so far in the Caribbean triseries that suggests to me that Virat Kohli may not be the best candidate in the Indian team to deputise for Dhoni. India lost the first game after getting into a winning position against the West Indies, and then totally capitulated to Sri Lanka despite having the advantage of winning the toss and bowling first on a sticky wicket.

You have to give credit to Mahela Jayewardene and Upul Taranga for the way they batted India out of the game. But it was equally evident that the Indian bowlers and fielders were mostly going through the motions rather than working to some plan. A clueless captain tends to have that effect, as bowlers and fielders are not quite sure of the plan of action.

In Tuesday's game, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav got almost their full quota of overs despite going at 7.5 and 8 runs an over. Sir Ravindra Jadeja did not get to bowl his 10 overs, and Suresh Raina bowled only two overs for 10 runs. In the previous game too, Raina bowled two overs in which he gave four runs and picked up the ninth West Indian wicket, before being taken out of the attack. These were tactical blunders. Besides, Kohli is so expressive with his disgust over fielding and bowling lapses that it tends to pull even a world champion side down.

Make no mistake. I think Kohli is an intelligent cricketer with a terrific attitude, who has been a key part of India's successes in recent years. He has both solidity and flair as a batsman, and is second to none as a fielder. But captaincy is another matter. To be firm and purposive as a leader, and at the same time encouraging and supportive to help the team enjoy the game and play with enthusiasm is not something everyone can achieve. Sachin Tendulkar, for example, was relentless in the pursuit of his goals as a player, but invariably came a cropper as a captain. Kohli is very different from Tendulkar, and may yet come good as a captain, like he did at the Under-19 level. After all, he did struggle initially as a Test batsman too, before finding his feet. But how long a rope will he get before Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina are considered better options, at least as ODI captains?

One thing is for sure. The way the Indian team's performance has plummeted after the Champions Trophy does go to show just how much of a difference MSD's captaincy makes to this young side.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Rohit Sharma would make a better captain than Virat Kohli when Dhoni is absent

Dhoni would never have allowed the West Indies to win from 211 for 8. For numbers nine, ten and jack - Kemar Roach, Sunil Narine and Tino Best - to knock off the 19 runs required for victory was just not on. It was a sluggish Kingston Jamaica wicket where regular batsmen have struggled to get going in both the matches of the ODI triseries so far. There was appreciable turn on offer too, so the West Indies can count themselves lucky that their tailenders were not put under more pressure.

The mistake India made was the under-utilisation of Suresh Raina. He has always been hard to get away on a wicket where his off spin grips and turns. He is an intelligent bowler and played a key role in the final of the Champions Trophy in England just the other day. For stand-in skipper Virat Kohli to have used him for just two overs made no sense at all. He brought him on only in the 42nd over. Raina struck in his second over with the wicket of Sunil Narine. Then, inexplicably, Raina was taken off, even though he had given only four runs and taken a wicket in his two overs. Kohli turned instead to Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar to get the last West Indian wicket. But Roach and Best had no problems knocking the pace bowlers about for the ten remaining runs to their target.

It's spin the West Indies tail would have found harder to negotiate - pace is something they get enough exposure to on their domestic circuit. It was a mistake firstly not to have introduced Raina into the attack earlier on that wicket, and kept a few overs in reserve from the main spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja for the death - that's what Dhoni had done in the Champions Trophy final. But even at the end, after Ashwin and Jadeja had been bowled out, if Kohli had let Raina continue, following his dismissal of Sunil Narine, India might still have pulled it off.

Kohli looks a bit too agitated as a captain, quite the opposite of Dhoni. Nothing wrong with a little aggro, provided it's effective. But Kohli seems to put his own team members on edge instead of helping them relax under pressure. Long-winded confabulations too did not help in the end game. He has had a similar showing in the IPL too, where he failed to take a strong Bangalore team into the playoffs.

The person who could emulate Captain Cool is Rohit Sharma. He was a revelation as captain of Mumbai Indians in the IPL after a canny Ricky Ponting handed over the reins to him. He was both tactically sound and calm under pressure, and even got the better of Dhoni in the IPL final. If only he would learn from Kohli not to throw his wicket away after getting well set, he would make a terrific vice-captain.

Kohli admitted after the match that Dhoni was missed when the game got tense. Next time, perhaps he should turn to another cool, wise head he does have on the field for guidance - Rohit Sharma, of course.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Can the flair of a resurgent Brazil unlock the tiki-taka midfield of a tired Spain?

This is not the Brazilian side of 1970 which had more stars than you could count in a desert sky. But it's young and energetic, offering glimpses of the natural Brazilian flair with the ball and boasting a striker with a messianic left foot in Neymar. If any team could try and beat the Spanish at their own game, or force the world champions out of their comfort zone, it is this Brazilian side coached by the wily old fox Luiz Felipe Scolari, who guided them to their last World Cup triumph in 2002 and has now been reappointed to prepare for Brazil's World Cup campaign at home next year.

Even if Brazil come up short in Sunday night's Confederations Cup final, it will be an opportunity for Scolari to test some tactics to unsettle the Spanish Armada of Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and the like in midfield. Everyone knows by now what the Spaniards do, but just haven't found a key to unlock their midfield, nor the training system to replicate their game, yet.

After all, it took many years and some fortuitous circumstances for Spain to come up with this tiki-taka brand of football that has made them concurrent winners of the World Cup and the European Cup. The system originated in Holland where young wards in clubs like Ajax were taught to play one-touch football, the idea being to get rid of the ball before you can be dispossessed of it, while maintaining ball possession with short passes between four, five or even six midfielders who form myriad patterns. The less time the opponents have with the ball, that much lower their opportunity to score.

The Dutch star Frank Rijkaard, who left Holland in a huff, introduced the system in the Spanish club Barcelona which he coached, and subsequently the Spanish national side which had a host of players from Barca. Rijkaard figured this system suited the Spaniards the best, as they are relatively short in stature compared to other Europeans, and therefore better equipped to play tiki-taka rather than the heavy tackling that used to characterise European football. How true this has proved, as Spain has remained unbeaten in competitive matches for three years now!

For Brazil to do any better than Spain's 29 previous opponents, their coach Scolari will have to work out how to leverage the speed and ball skill at his disposal to break up Spain's midfield formations. Others have tried this before and failed, but perhaps they did not quite have the youthfulness and flair of this Brazilian side. Besides, with the many lucrative exhibition matches the much-sought-after Spanish side has had to endure ever since their World Cup triumph, on top of the rigours of the Spanish league, it's just possible that the world champions will be vulnerable. That Brazil had an extra day of rest before this final, because they played their semi-final before Spain, may thus prove to be the tipping point. In any case, it will be nice to get a preview of the dream match-up of next year's World Cup in Brazil.

Oh, and there's a cricket match for a warm-up too, between world champions India, who are proving almost as hard to beat these days as Spain, and the hosts West Indies, who would love to recapture some of their old magic, just like the Brazilians. What a sporting Sunday!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Arthur took the Mickey out of Australia

On the India tour earlier this year, Australia went into the first Test at Chennai with a three-man pace attack and a solitary spinner, when everyone knew the bone dry pitch had nothing for seamers and everything for spinners. The Aussie think tank said they knew that all along, but preferred to play to their strengths. The daftness of that position soon became apparent because off-spinner Nathan Lyon did trouble the Indian batsmen - even the experienced Sachin Tendulkar.

You have to play horses for courses. England got it wrong too at the outset of their India tour, but then paired up Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. And how potent that proved!

Australia, on the other hand, kept messing up their team selections right through the India tour. In the second Test at Hyderabad, they did include their second specialist spinner Xavier Doherty, but left out Lyon who had looked threatening in Chennai. Then, the all-rounder Glen Maxwell, who picked up four wickets in Hyderabad with his off-spin against a strong Indian batting lineup for those conditions, was left out for the subsequent Tests.

Team selection wasn't all. The Aussie strategy too was way off the mark. In the first Test, James Pattinson was taken off the attack after three overs even though he had rattled the Indians with two quick wickets. He was brought back to bowl only in the next session. It's true Pattinson had made a comeback from injury, but if the captain Michael Clarke wasn't going to use him after he had just taken out both the Indian openers, why play him at all? And it wasn't as if Pattinson went off the field. Not to see him bowl any more with the new ball, despite being available, was a great relief for the Indian middle order batsmen as they went about resurrecting the innings.

Australia's show in the Champions Trophy was equally pathetic, not just in the results but in the way they played the game. George Bailey has looked a most uninspiring substitute captain, and his ultra conservative batting in the middle order was partly responsible for their failure to at least create winning opportunities. Their margin of defeat might have been bigger, but they would have looked more purposive. In their final game, when they had to reach their target in 29 overs to boost their run rate and qualify, they gave up the ghost after losing four wickets. They reverted to playing normal cricket and lost the game anyway. What was the point?

Australia's 4-0 drubbing in India, and elimination from the Champions Trophy at the preliminary stage, has been attributed mainly to the team being in transition, the lack of quality batsmen, and disciplinary issues. While all those are true to an extent, I believe they are also fig leaves behind which the team leadership has been hiding. The coach Mickey Arthur and captain Michael Clarke have been the ones calling the wrong shots. Cricket Australia has done well to take action before more water had flown under the London bridge. The Ashes promise to be more interesting now.

Monday, June 24, 2013

By luck or by pluck, Dhoni does it again

England needed 28 runs off the last three overs, with six wickets in hand, to overtake India's 129 in a rain-curtailed 20 overs and win their first Champions Trophy. There was spin in the Edgbaston wicket, and England were almost out of it at 46-4 at one time, but a few good blows from Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara had brought the game within their grasp. Two powerplay overs to go should have made it a cinch for them.

All the Indian bowlers had kept it tight until then, except Ishant Sharma who had gone at nine an over in his first three overs. The Indian captain MS Dhoni had reserved an over each from R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to bowl the last two powerplay overs. He had to choose between one of the seamers and part-time spinner Suresh Raina to bowl that 18th over before the powerplay.

Raina was the one who had given Dhoni so many options, having chipped in with three overs for 19 runs. Of the seamers, Bhuvneshwar Kumar too had given 19 runs off his three overs with the new ball, and Umesh Yadav had conceded only 10 in two overs and picked the wicket of the England captain Alastair Cook to boot. But Dhoni ignored them all and picked Ishant Sharma to bowl the 18th over regardless of the fact that he had been the only profligate bowler until then.

This is where Dhoni is strong-minded as a captain. To him it did not matter that Ishant had been more expensive than Bhuvneshwar and Umesh. What mattered was the current situation, and with one over to go before the powerplay, India needed a wicket. To Dhoni, Ishant was the more likely candidate to break the Bopara-Morgan partnership than Bhuvneshwar or Umesh. The tall bowler with the flowing locks had been fast and loose right through the tournament, leaking runs but also taking wickets.

To me, Suresh Raina, given the turn in the wicket and the way he had bowled thus far, would have been the man for the occasion. But Dhoni had seen how Bopara had slog-swept Jadeja against the spin for a six, and did not want to risk a part-time spinner in that vital over. He would rather gamble with Ishant.

Had he picked any other bowler for the 18th over, Dhoni would have faced no criticism. Had the Ishant move not come off, he would have got brickbats. All that was immaterial to Dhoni, and that's why he is Captain Cool.

Ishant began with two short balls to Morgan, who missed one and hit the other for a six. The next two balls were wides as Ishant tried switching to bowling full outside off-stump, the fail-safe formula for containing Morgan. Then, almost in desperation, Ishant bowled a slower one which Morgan mishit for a catch. The very next ball, he had Bopara hooking a short ball straight into the hands of square leg. Game, set and match for India.

It worked for Dhoni. But did he really need the Ishant gambit? Couldn't he have made do with Umesh, who was less likely than Ishant to completely lose it? Well, Dhoni must have thought Jadeja and Ashwin wouldn't really have been able to hold back Morgan and Bopara in the powerplay. The English batsmen, on the other hand, thought they had to go hard at Ishant because Jaddu and Ash would be harder to hit, and got out in trying for too much.

Who would have imagined the championship would be decided in one Ishant Sharma over?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Don't make ODIs so odious

Two identical semi-finals in the Champions Trophy, both won by teams bowling first on damp, overcast mornings in England, prove my contention in the previous post - that it's an unequal contest in these circumstances, and the administrators should have done something to level the playing field. Maybe a start at high noon instead of 10:30 a.m. would have done it. England and India were the stronger sides, and deserved to go through to the finals. But South Africa and Sri Lanka were not so weak that they could be thrashed with more than ten overs to spare. Fans were denied the pleasure of watching two good match-ups. Top level cricket needs to be managed better than this. As it is, both Test cricket and ODIs are on the back foot, as the T20 leagues capture our interest. Critics have lots of bad things to say about T20 cricket, but at least the playing conditions don't change so much in the course of a three-hour match. The one-day game is obviously harder to manage because it is more than twice as long. The administrators have livened it up too with the new field restrictions, allowing no more than four fielders outside the inner ring at any time in the innings. This has forced captains and bowlers to apply their minds in the middle overs too, while creating more options for batsmen. Now the administrators need to figure out how to ensure the contest doesn't fizzle out with the toss itself. Sri Lanka stood no chance at all in the semi-final with India. The new ball was doing so much that even batsmen of the class of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayewardene could at best try to survive. But Test cricket style batting will only get a score below 200 and that's never going to be enough if batting becomes easier later in the day. Once the Indian openers got going, it was clear there could be only one winner. It was time to switch channels.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A zero for the Oval

Four out of five games played at the Oval in the Champions Trophy were won by the team batting second. The only time the side batting first won the game was when Australia fell 20 runs short of Sri Lanka's total - but that was only because they were initially trying to get to the target in 29 overs to get their net run rate up, and lost four top order batsmen in the process. Had that been a normal game, it would have probably been a five out of five result for teams batting second at the Oval. Critics are quick to pick on pitches in the sub-continent that crack up, where it becomes almost a matter of winning the toss and batting first to win the game. But there hasn't been a word of criticism for starting a game in overcast conditions in the morning in London, where the team bowling first has too much of an advantage. At least a knockout game like the South Africa v England semi-final should have been a day-nighter, where the toss would have been less of a factor. AB de Villiers and South Africa are easy targets for lampooning as chokers, but they hardly had a chance in that semi-final at the Oval once they lost the toss. Anderson got the ball to swing prodigiously both ways, and James Treadwell too made the ball turn sharply in those moist conditions. It's true the South African top order might have done better if they had been more conservative in their approach in the first half of the innings, but I don't think that would have made a difference to the result. We saw with the ninth wicket stand of nearly a hundred at a run a ball between Miller and Kleinveldt how easy batting became once the sun came out and the ball stopped swinging and turning. Anything below 275 would have been easy to chase under the sun, and South Africa would only have delayed the inevitable even if they had kept wickets in hand. Watching a seven-hour-game is no fun if the result is a foregone conclusion, and administrators should think outside the box to prevent the toss becoming too big a factor. We did have an example of that in India recently during the winter. In an ODI series with England, the day-night games were advanced by a couple of hours to start at noon. That prevented an unfair advantage to the team batting second on account of the dew factor. Evidently, the England & Wales cricket board has a thing or two to learn from the sub-continent. Had the start of the day games at the Oval been delayed, they might have turned out to be fairer contests. In Wednesday's semi-final, therefore, the real loser was the Oval as a venue for one of the big games on the cricket calendar.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How about a World Champions Trophy?

It's a pity they're doing away with the Champions Trophy, because it is the ICC's best tournament. The World Cup is too long drawn out, and its league phase features too many mismatches between the minnows and the top eight teams. So here's a proposal to combine the best of both tournaments. Have a qualifying round for the minnows, and let only the top two play in the marquee event. There would be two groups of five each and the top two from each would qualify for the semis. Right now, with four minnows among the 12 teams in the World Cup, there are too many games that are a turn-off and it spoils the rhythm of the tournament. This year's Champions Trophy has been severely affected by the English weather, but even then most of the matches were keenly contested and interesting. That's something the World Cup needs to imbibe.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Misbah's blah average

Coming down the order and plodding along at a low strike rate are what helped Misbah ul Haq end up with the best batting average in the Pakistan team. And now he is pointing a finger at his top order for Pakistan's abject batting in the Champions Trophy. This just doesn't wash. Pakistan's most experienced batsman should have taken on more responsibility, instead of passing the buck. He had to either come up the order to deal with the two new balls and English conditions, or provide an impetus lower down to help the team catch up with the required run rate. He did neither. He was happy to play the martyr, appearing to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, as he went about 'resurrecting' an innings in shambles time after time. What point is such resurrection if the team will anyway end up with a total below 200 that cannot be defended? How does Misbah remaining unbeaten matter if the required run rate is allowed to climb out of reach? It would've been better for Pakistan if Misbah had gone for his shots. They might have still lost all three games, and by an even wider margin, but at least they would have had a crack at winning. The way Misbah batted, they had no chance at all. It's not the Pakistan top order that should be dropped, but Misbah himself for shoring up his average at the cost of the team. Former Pakistan captain Inzamam ul Haq also batted at number five, but he played to win. India's MS Dhoni prefers to come out in the latter half of the innings, but he bats according to the situation in the game and the team's requirement. Misbah should shape up or ship out. The non-performers in the lower middle order, namely Shoaib Malik and Umar Amin, also should be the first to make way for better batting talent.