Friday, August 31, 2007

Sack Dravid, anoint Yuvraj

Australia plays ODIs with only four fulltime bowlers in spite of having a wicketkeeper like Adam Gilchrist who is a full-fledged batsman. Every team in the world would love to use five specialist bowlers but they don't, simply because experience has shown that it's a strategy that loses more matches than it wins. India has lost two out of the last three matches with the five-bowler format, and if Dravid remains adamant we will lose at least two out of the remaining three. That would mean a 5-2 series win for England when most people had predicted India would win the series by that margin, going by the relative strengths of the two sides. Dravid alternately blames the batting and fielding for India's losses, but it's the thinking that is wrong. What great advantage did India derive out of playing five bowlers? Only the new ball bowlers Zaheer and Agarkar made inroads into the batting. By the time RP Singh got the ball there was little he could do with it. Would it have made a huge difference if Yuvraj and Sachin had got more overs instead? Or if Sourav had got a chance too? In fact, that might have worked to India's advantage, seeing the way Yuvraj spun the ball and troubled Bopara. In fact, having so many bowling options appeared to confuse Dravid who made too many bowling changes after having England on the ropes at 114 for 7. RP Singh was beating Chris Broad time and again outside offstump when he was taken off the attack, for instance. But more important was the absence of a sixth specialist batsman. India felt it was all over with three early wickets down and no other specialist batsman to come, which is possibly the reason why we went at less than three runs an over in the powerplay overs. That's a poor scoring rate even in Test matches. The thing about a long batting lineup is that it works to the team's advantage even if the sixth or seventh batsman contributes little, and that's because the top order is not so conservative, knowing there's more to come, and does not shut shop so early. That's what worked for us in the 2003 World Cup when Ganguly forced Dravid to keep wickets. It allowed the top order to bat without fetters. Dravid has gone in the opposite direction and India is paying for it. To my mind, Dravid has been a failure as a one-day captain and a more aggressive character like Yuvraj Singh would be a better choice. He has really matured as a one-day player, building an innings when there's an early collapse, as in Manchester, or hitting the deck running as he did in Bristol. The two matches in which he took India home to victory against the South Africans earlier in Ireland are among a number of such occasions where he has shown a great ability to handle the pressure of a chase. And being our best fielder, he could rejuvenate that aspect of our game, leading by example. But then, our cricket board in its infinite wisdom has gone for MS Dhoni as ODI vice-captain and 2020 captain. Best of luck to Dhoni, whose attitude I like, but Yuvraj was certainly the more experienced and more deserving candidate, because of the number of match-winning performances he has turned in.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

When will Dravid learn?

So Dravid's sticking to the five-bowler gamble. A gamble it is because it can only come off if no more than one batsman fails (or somebody gets a big century). By my reckoning, the odds favour another Indian loss. Agarkar for Munaf is hardly a strengthening of the side, going by recent performances - but Dravid obviously feels the need for three pacers to handle the 20 powerplay overs, so let's not belabour the point. On the positive side, I'm glad he's retained the two spinners, which was an obvious thing to do, but you never know with the Indian think tank. Also, Dravid is probably carrying that coin with two heads from Sholay - how else can he win seven tosses in a row?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Are we missing a coach?

It's clear, or should be clear, that India has to go back to the tried and tested combination of six batsmen, keeper and four bowlers for the remaining matches to give itself an even chance of winning the series. With the English weakness against spin exposed, it's clear, or should be obvious, that Munaf's the guy to axe. In his place either Rohit Sharma or Robin Uthappa or both should come in. I wish they would pick Rohit Sharma, whose batting I haven't seen. What's the point of taking a promising youngster on a tour and refusing to pick him even when the team is losing anyway? Whoever is picked, Rohit or Robin, I would like to see him at number four. It would be unrealistic to expect a newcomer to capitalise on the powerplay overs. That's why I think the big three should bat one, two, three. Karthick, if he is retained, should come in after Dhoni because he has shown he can improvise, which is what is required at that stage. Dhoni likes to build his innings before going for the big shots, which means at least one batsman should come after him. Dhoni at three has been suggested, but I think he will do well up the order only on flat sub-continental tracks. I suppose Dravid will again resort to batting first if he wins the toss, after the loss at Edgbaston. A better reason for batting first is the experience of the first day-nighter in Scotland where the ball zipped and darted about at night, contributing to our 180 all out. It was certainly much easier to bat first which is why Collingwood was bemused when Dravid opted to field. Dravid of course was going by his sub-continental experience where the dew gets heavy in the winter and certainly favours the side batting second. He should have checked with the locals how it is in the English summer before making his decision. At Edgbaston too, I think Dravid went by his Irish experience where he put the Proteas in to bat and beat them in two one-dayers with the early morning conditions helping the seamers. Edgbaston was different because the pitch tends to slow down there, which is the reason why big scores have hardly ever been chased down. Again Dravid failed to tap local knowledge. Are we missing a coach, folks?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Can't have your cake and eat it too

Every time Dravid loses a match, he blames it on the batting or bowling or fielding - never the leadership. So it was on Tuesday when he said the big difference between the sides was the fielding. Now, that's not going to change overnight. So are we to take it that India is conceding the rest of the matches? Yes, the fielding was one aspect of the loss in the third ODI at Edgbaston, but that's a given with this Indian one-day side. The point is to look at things that were more in our control, such as the decision to play five bowlers. It clicked in the second ODI at Bristol because all the batsmen thrived and with reason: we were batting first, without much pressure, in the sunny afternoon of a day-nighter on a belter of an outfield with short boundaries - it doesn't get much easier than that. More often than not, however, a couple of the batsmen will flop, as on Tuesday, and that's why the composition of an ODI team has evolved over 30 years into a standard one that most teams follow: six batsmen, a keeper and four bowlers, getting 10 overs out of a couple of batsmen who can turn their arm over, as Collingwood did for England. If there's a great all-rounder in the side, like a Flintoff or a Kapil Dev, that's a bonus. But you can't go into a match with five full-time bowlers, lamenting the lack of an all-rounder. And we do have batsmen in the team who can match Collingwood's bowling - Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar were not used at all. We were on course to chase down England's 281 until Yuvraj ran out of batting partners and had to play with the likes of Powar and Chawla who could not even rotate the strike, and finally Zaheer Khan who did him in by not running. Dravid's dilemma is that he wants to play two spinners but doesn't want to leave out a seamer. It is this lack of decisiveness that cost us the Edgbaston match more than anything else. It would've been a bold decision to go in with two spinners if it had been accompanied by a decision to leave out one of the three seamers. To leave out a batsman is a stupid move that will lose us two matches out of three on average, and win us the odd match like Bristol where the absence of a batsman is not felt. As it turned out, Munaf Patel bowled only five overs at Edgbaston, and Yuvraj bowled seven. So if we have correctly identified the English weakness against spin, we should've played another batsman, giving somebody like young Rohit Sharma a chance in Munaf's place. The trade-off for playing the extra spinner is the problem of managing the power play overs - but surely Ganguly can be trusted to chip in with five overs on an English pitch. In fact, he might have given away fewer than the seven runs an over that Munaf conceded. We might still have lost the match but at least Dravid would've given the team every chance of winning instead of hobbling it from the outset. Will Dravid please put up his hand and own up that it was his decision that cost India the Edgbaston match, more than the fielding?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

How to turn an Oval into an egg

How quickly Indian cricket goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Not since the Pakistan series, when we won the Tests 2-1 and one-days 3-2, have Indian cricket fans had an opportunity to appreciate our team's performance for as long a period as this - the fightback at Lord's, the turn-around at Trent Bridge, and the total dominance for the first three days of the Oval Test. Then a spineless declaration, and some specious arguments in its support, that it was better to play it safe with the series being in the bag even with a draw, that there was no need to expose the team to the risk of a collapse on a fifth day wicket. What was the risk? That in the 170 overs left in the game, England would score at an unlikely four an over for 120 overs, and then dismiss India for 150 in the remaining 50 overs? This was at the Oval where the chances of the pitch becoming unplayable on the fifth day were infinitesimal. In fact, the risk of getting bowled out for 150 was greater in the overcast conditions on the fourth day when India decided to bat instead of enforcing the follow-on, collapsed to 11 for 3, and then trudged through 60 overs with Dravid maintaining a scoring rate of one run per over. That England barely managed to hang on for a draw with Prior and Sidebottom at the crease after losing the six main batsmen on the last day was proof that India would have easily won the Test if it had made England follow on. In fact, we might have got more wickets if Dravid had employed more attacking fields. Kumble bowled without a second slip or short gully and the pacers did not have a third slip most of the time in spite of the unassailable 500-run lead, which allowed catches to slip through unmanned positions. But why go for a 2-0 when 1-0 suffices to win the series? Many good reasons. Indian cricket would have ended the series on a high, instead of coming across as a self-doubting team that considers itself lucky to have squeaked through to a series win thanks to the rain at Lord's. India would have been joint second on the ICC Test rankings, instead of at third position behind England. It negated all the good work of the team over the first three days - the determination of Tendulkar and Lakshman who battled through on the first day after Ganguly and Karthick fell to umpiring blunders, the exploits of Kumble with bat and ball, the smashing 92 by Dhoni, and another sterling show by Zaheer Khan should have been rewarded with a victory instead of having to settle for a draw because of one cowardly decision. What makes it harder to swallow is that the same bunch of senior players let Australia off the hook by not enforcing the follow-on on the fourth day of the Sydney Test, and lost the opportunity to post a historic first-ever Indian series win in Australia. I would have thought the pain of that would have been so deep that such a mistake would never be repeated. In fact, at the end of the third day, I was joking with a colleague that Ganguly's blunder in Sydney would now save the otherwise over-cautious Dravid from committing the mistake. But I underestimated Rahul, the wall, Dravid.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Round one to India

Sunny day, even bounce, batting first... and India off to a bright start of 117 for 1 in 28 overs. Dinesh Karthick is the find of the tour as an opener. He was confident to begin with, and has been growing into the job rapidly. He began cautiously and is now taking the attack to the bowlers. Let's hope he has it in him to get to three figures this time.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

How bouncy is the Oval?

I think Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthick are both more suspect against bounce than most openers. And we know the middle order, despite its experience, has looked vulnerable whenever we haven't got a decent start. So the key question for me before the Oval test is how bouncy will be the track?

How cool are the Indians?

I think the Oval test can be lost in the mind before a ball is bowled if the prospect of a series victory gets the Indians keyed up and striving for too much. It's not only the batting and bowling that can suffer from tension, the thinking can get clouded too. The first indicator of that would be if Sree Santh is dropped. Even if he has performed below par so far, and behaved erratically, he got important wickets at crucial times: those of Collingwood and Pietersen come to mind. I also think, going by reports that the Oval track will be drier and bouncier than the others, he might become more effective too. Don't tinker with a winning combo, if it ain't broke - don't fix it, these adages were never more applicable than on the eve of the third test.

Welcome back, Pietersen

Whew! Good to hear Pietersen is back in training after spending a few days nursing a flu. Otherwise with their best batsman missing too, along with the Ashes winning trio of Flintoff, Harmison and Hoggard, a series win against England would hardly be meaningful.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Wink, wink, SLAM, BANG

A beamer is the worst form of offence, because it's dangerous and you can never prove it's deliberate. So it would seem Mike Atherton is justified in calling for a one-match suspension of Sree Santh for bowling one at Kevin Pieterson in the second test at Trent Bridge. What's wrong with the remedy, however, is its ad-hocism. What is the punishment that the English players should get for leaving jelly beans on the pitch, or ostensibly using them to tamper with the ball? How do you deal with Matt Prior's 'deliberate' distraction of Indian batsmen? You can't wink at 'cheating' of that sort, and then cry hoarse over a beamer. What's missing is a clear ICC code that lists all the familiar offences: sledging and abuse, blocking the path of a batsman, picking up a ball on the follow-through and hurling it back towards the batsman when there's no chance of a runout, jostling a batsman while changing ends or shuffling the field, chucking or bowling a beamer, running on the pitch, tampering with the ball in any way... As soon as an offence like this is recorded on camera or caught on microphone or seen by an umpire, it should automatically draw a warning, suspension or ban. If they can do it in football, which is more fast-paced and physical, why not cricket? And if they won't have a strict code, then let there be a free-for-all. Why crib?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Let's not get psyched out

Everyone seems to be expecting the English bowlers to come hard at us at the Oval. That means bouncers. Tremlett and Anderson unleashed a barrage of those on the final day at Trent Bridge, perhaps at the behest of their South African bowling coach Alan Donald, who often used the tactic against the Indians to soften them up. It also paid dividends. Sachin Tendulkar, after getting grilled in the first innings, turned one dug into his ribs into the hands of short leg with only a few runs left to get for victory. Dinesh Karthick pushed at a rising ball to be caught behind, and Wasim Jaffer has been dismissed more than once to the short stuff already in the series. Sourav Ganguly's discomfort against it is well known, even if he is more determined after his comeback to get out of the way or even take a blow but not hole out or fend it off. So, perhaps it's understandable that Sachin and Sourav are spending hours at a bowling machine practising to deal with short pitch bowling. But chief selector Dilip Vengsarkar's comment that the Indians know what to expect seems an over-reaction. Anderson and Tremlett should hardly be the sort to get an experienced batting line-up such as ours into such a tizzy over bouncers. Besides, the bouncer barrage on the final day may have been designed by Donald precisely to throw the Indians off-track. My own feeling is that it is good old English seam and swing bowling that will again do the trick for both teams in the third test, and we should really be practising for that instead of getting all psyched out.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The secret man of the match

The fact that India got to 481 for a match-winning 283-run lead in the first innings of the Trent Bridge Test without a single century shows the application of all the batsmen. Only Dravid failed to get to a 50. The way the batsmen put their heads down to ensure that India derived maximum advantage from dismissing England for 198 after winning the toss on a sticky wicket is to be appreciated without qualification. But now, after savouring the victory, it's worth considering how much the presence of Yuvraj Singh in the balcony concentrated the minds of the Indian batsmen out in the middle. He's a strapping young fellow, in the prime of his batting form, fresh from two match-winning one-day knocks, and an inspiring fielder and close-in catcher to boot. To have such a presence on the bench is surely a great motivator for each of the batsmen whose contributions have come under close scrutiny because of the poor performance of the team over the past three years. So, after 'Zak and the bean struck' (Hindustan Times headline), I think Yuvraj Singh was the man of the match.