Thursday, September 27, 2007

To eat or not to eat crow

After having a go at Dhoni's captaincy in Dhoni
steals the whimper
, I should now eat crow. Or should I?
My initial reaction to Dhoni as captain, based on our first two matches at the T20 World Cup against Pakistan and New Zealand, a tie and a loss, pointed out we were light in specialist batting. Dhoni like Dravid had left out the promising young Rohit Sharma, who had warmed the bench for the entire England one-day series despite our poor show there. Dhoni unlike Dravid, however, rectified this in the following matches and was rewarded as Rohit won us the game against South Africa and was our second-highest scorer in the final against Pakistan.
I pointed out how Dravid-like Dhoni was to give Yuvraj the 18th over in the game against the Kiwis and that was the last over Yuvraj bowled in the competition.
I felt Dhoni was wrong to promote himself in the batting order ahead of the in-form Yuvraj, and wow, from the very next match Dhoni never went at number four, not even when Yuvraj missed the match against South Africa.
I slammed Dhoni for continuing with the expensive Agarkar and well, we never saw him again, did we? Joginder was equally expensive, but at least you could play to a plan, knowing what he would dish out. My own preference would've been Sehwag's offspin, which did go for 20 runs in the only over he bowled, but he was hobbling on a bad leg by then.
I criticised Dhoni for including Karthick in the first two games, despite his poor run in the one-dayers in England, and I was happy to see Dhoni not only left out Karthick, but was not even tempted to bring him back in place of the injured Sehwag in the final, preferring to go with the untried Yusuf Pathan, who might have scored only 15 but got the innings off to a flyer, and the one over he bowled for just 5 runs was impressive, especially the last ball which he held back when the batsman made a charge. I was disappointed Yusuf did not get one or two more overs, which might've made the tension of using Joginder for the last over unnecessary.
Another point I made in that critique was that it was an unnecessary risk to finish off Irfan Pathan in the middle and keep Harbhajan for the end because he was likely to go for a flurry of sixes. That finally did happen when Misbah-ul_Haq lifted Bhajji for three sixes in the 17th over. Luckily, Misbah-ul-Haq more than compensated for that in the last over by going for an unnecessary scoop to fine leg, when he could've easily got the six runs needed off four balls with straight hits to the slow medium pace of the predictable Joginder Sharma.
Dhoni did prove my gut feel about his captaincy wrong, nevertheless, because if he's going to be so quick to learn from mistakes, and so fearless in acting upon them, then he's going to be a much better captain than Dravid or Tendulkar, and perhaps even Ganguly. To let Yusuf Pathan make his international debut in the cup final, that too as an opener, was fearless, and the decision to keep the pressure going with the main bowlers in both the semi and final even if it meant using Joginder in the last over showed his cricket acumen.
I don't know if Yuvraj would've made an equally good or even a better captain. Now it does not matter. I'm looking forward to seeing Indian cricket develop and flourish under Dhoni and Yuvraj working together, after two years of uninspiring leadership from Dravid and Chappell, and one year of nonsense between Ganguly and Chappell before that.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Kangaroo by the tail

The guts to take the expensive Joginder and then Sehwag off the attack, keep the pressure on at the end by giving Bhajji the 18th over (3 runs, 1 wicket), RP Singh the 19th (5 runs) and going back to the medium pace of Joginder for the last over (6 runs, 2 wickets). The calming smile even in the face of the fearsome onslaught by old foes Hayden and Symonds. Not being tempted to put the Aussies in, as Ganguly did in the 2003 World Cup final, although the two games the Aussies had lost to Zimbabawe and Paksitan were while batting first. Sticking to India's strength which has been to bat first and win in this tournament, only losing in the chase against the Kiwis. Dhoni got the kangaroo by the tail and never let go. Has India found its captain, then? Sorry, Yuvraj, I think captain cool is here to stay. Now for the administrators and selectors to support and empower him. Give him the Test captaincy too. Let him have a say in picking his team. How refreshing this youthful, young side looks. It's time for the fab four to take the back seat, and let the Dhoni-Yuvraj combo lead the way.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dhoni scores many points

Nothing succeeds like success and after the last two thoroughly enjoyable Indian wins, I'm in a revisionist mode on Dhoni as captain. I liked his relaxed demeanour in spite of losing the services of his six-shooter Yuvraj, whom he also praised to the skies to deflect the insinuations of the commentary trio of Shastri, Gavaskar and Bhogle. Then he was quick to hand the gloves to Karthick when he felt a twinge in his back, and he went back down the order to let batsmen like Rohit Sharma come ahead of him. He chose to bat first, which I felt was dicey seeing the amount of dew in the England match, but you can't argue against three wins in these conditions. He did well to keep RP Singh and Sreesanth on for three overs each, although that was the obvious thing to do with wickets falling, and his arm around Sreesanth when he was spraying a few wides was a calming gesture.
I thought Dhoni erred in using up Irfan Pathan in the middle and holding Harbhajan for the end. So when Harbhajan's first over went for 15, I thought here goes again. But Bhajji held his nerve, mixed things up and did the South Africans in with his doosras. The safer option, I still think, is to keep a couple of Pathan's overs for the end, rather than Harbhajan, who will not be unfamiliar to the Aussies. I also cannot fathom why Sehwag hasn't got an over yet, especially when Joginder looks so vulnerable. Maybe he's saving him for the Aussies, just like we saved up the obviously talented Rohit Sharma for two-and-a-half series before unleashing him on the South Africans! The main thing against the Aussies tomorrow will be to keep things simple. Half the time, teams psyche themselves out against the world champs by going for too much, as we did in the 2003 final. But whatever happens, this young team under its smiling, young leader has already won our hearts.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why isn't he the captain?

That bout of hitting outdid anything that such iconic strikers as Adam Gilchrist, Sanath Jayasuriya, Sachin Tendulkar and Shahid Afridi have produced over the years. It was the fastest fifty in the history of international cricket. And nobody's surprised because that's the sort of world beating talent that is Yuvraj Singh. And yet, he does not become a regular in our Test team, he is overtaken by MS Dhoni for T20 and ODI captaincy, and his position in the batting order is taken over by the wicketkeeper. What gives?
You may argue he has weaknesses, mainly a tendency to poke at balls leaving him outside offstump, and a lack of ease against good spinners. But who doesn't have weaknesses? The fact is he has produced more match-winning knocks in limited overs cricket than anyone else in the past few years, and is easily the best finisher we have.
Take the one we've just witnessed. He got a boundary off the second ball he faced, overtook his partner Dhoni in four balls, and went on to hit three fours and seven sixes. Dhoni who came in to bat ahead of him at number four did not get a single boundary till the end, leave alone the sixes. What gall to promote himself in the batting order ahead of a talent like Yuvraj Singh.
I don't know why Yuvraj has been treated in this manner. Is it because the selectors can't see the talent, attitude, street-smartness and temperament in him? Or is he paying the price for once speaking out in support of Sourav Ganguly?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

After Agarkar

After conceding 76 runs in two games, the most by an Indian bowler at the T20 World Cup so far, it seems inevitable that Agarkar will finally be replaced, especially now that the green signal has come from Mumbai in the form of his sacking from the ODI team. He's been an enigma with his ability to produce wicket-taking deliveries undone by his inability to maintain control in his quest for pace and variety. In the end, he was the principal contributor in too many Indian losses, and did not play enough match-winning roles to compensate for that, although his six-fer in Adelaide will always be cherished. Now let's look at the possible replacements. My choice would be Rohit Sharma. I have no idea if this youngster can bat anywhere near what has been written about him, but to be picked in the team as a limited overs bat right from the Ireland series and not to get a game yet despite India's poor run since then is ridiculous. It's even more ridiculous that he now finds himself out of the ODI team! This now raises questions whether he was picked on merit or as a passenger to make a little pocket money. I hope he at least gets a chance to show it's the former in the next two games. Picking Piyush Chawla for Agarkar will be a temptation that I hope the team resists, because the first two games have shown we are light in batting resources. So Chawla should get in only if Bhajji fails. Another replacement that is again overdue (on the pattern of the series in England) is that of Dinesh Karthick. He gave that ball from Vettori an almighty heave and still failed to clear the square leg boundary. Maybe he needs to go to the gym and bulk up for the hitting required in limited overs cricket. Until then, let's save him for the Tests where he has done well to come good as an opener and put Dhoni's position under a scanner. (If Dhoni's poor form with the bat continues, he can be replaced in Tests by the many middle order batsmen knocking on the door.) Karthick's position should go to Yusuf Pathan, another player I have not seen in action. He's reputed to be a hard-hitter and can scarcely do worse than Karthick. Besides, he can chip in with his off-spin for the fifth bowler's quota or that of one of the main bowlers who starts going for too many. As for Joginder Sharma, I wasn't impressed with this bits-and-pieces player when I saw him last and his selection wasted an opportunity to identify a new bowler or batsman. Perhaps he's a passenger too. Devious are the ways of our board.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Dhoni steals the whimper

One tie and one loss. Maybe it's too early to give the thumbs down to Dhoni, but what I've seen so far has done little to dispel the gut feeling I had about his potential as captain. But first the positives. He looked calm and determined, batted well under pressure against Pakistan and gave India a chance to win. He chose to field after winning the toss, which gave India an advantage against the Kiwis although it was frittered away. That brings us to the negatives. Dhoni said in an interview in England after his appointment as India's T20 captain that he had been paying attention to the captain's moves as Dravid's deputy and therefore felt prepared. Perhaps if he had paid more attention to the results of those moves, he might have avoided repeating them. India is again playing with five fulltime bowlers, two wicketkeepers, and four batsmen, just like at the start of the England series. Dravid was forced to abandon this composition midway through that series, and I hope Dhoni follows suit soon in South Africa. India just doesn't seem to get it. In general, the standard lineup of six batsmen, a wicketkeeper, and four fulltime bowlers, with two part-time bowlers from among the batsmen completing the fifth bowler's quota, works best whether it is Test cricket, or 50-50, or T20. There may be a case for flexibility in this but that would be rare. One of the reasons the Australians have been the most successful team for so long is that they keep things simple. India underutilised its bowling resources, by not giving Sehwag a single over so far, and ran out of batting resources in both the games. Surely Sehwag is as accomplished a bowler as a Jayasuriya or a Symonds. It seems tempting to play five fulltime bowlers because you feel four or five batsmen should be enough to see through just 20 overs. That's not how it works, because the need to get going from the word go and take more risks means wickets will fall more rapidly than in 50-50. The point is to maximise one's batting and bowling resources, and the 6-1-4 format works best for that, which is why you'll hardly ever see an Aussie team deviating from that tried and tested formula. This means the best batsman on the bench, presumably Rohit Sharma, should replace the worst of the fulltime bowlers, predictably Ajit Agarkar. How could Dhoni have entrusted in him the penultimate over against Pakistan after seeing his performance in England? He gave away 17 runs in that over and almost gave away that match. When Dhoni repeated that mistake in the next match, where Agarkar gave 21 runs in the penultimate over to the Kiwis, I could only surmise that here was somebody who was just going through the motions as captain, looking calm and confident, but basically doing everything that his predecessor had done, including handing the ball to Yuvraj in the death overs. Yuvraj we have seen simply does not have an escape route when a batsman throws caution to the winds and goes after him. In fact he just makes it worse by bowling faster and faster, instead of perhaps slowing it down, aiming for the blockhold or an armer. But then he's a part-timer who should only be bowling in the middle overs, not the 50th over in one-day cricket or the 18th over of a T20. Those are captaincy blunders, and I haven't even come to Dhoni's biggest blunder, which was also strangely enough one of Dravid's old failings in limited overs cricket. I think what really lost the game against the Kiwis was Dhoni's 24 runs in 20 balls. That was 7 runs an over, when the asking rate was 9.5 an over, and it came after India had already got off to a fantastic start, had lost only two wickets and was well on track. In fact, under his influence Gambhir too started playing for singles and lost his momentum. It also made little sense to me to disturb the in-form Yuvraj's batting position. On the evidence so far, I have even more doubts now whether Dhoni will make even a half-decent captain. Would Yuvraj have been better? Who knows? It's not as if we need a brilliant tactician as captain, we just need somebody who will get the simple things right, such as the decision to bat or bowl after winning the toss, the team composition, the batting order and the rotation of bowlers. If we have no such person in India, then we should at least hurry up and find an astute coach with a good track record. India has the richest cricket board and yet is the only country to field a team in the competition without a coach. Even the Zimbabwe and Bangladesh players are better served in this respect than ours.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A conspiracy theory

Here's a wild thought - given the political antipathy that England and Australia both have for Zimbabwe, is it possible that England was not trying hard enough in its T20 match with Australia? Obviously, an easy win for Australia takes both England and Australia into the next round, and knocks out Zimbabwe. What else can one make of Collingwood's decision to bat first, given his general preference for chasing, the accepted wisdom of chasing in T20 cricket, and the likelihood of Aussie tentativeness if they had batted first after their collapse agaisnt Zim?

Let's hope it's for real

Don't know if Rahul Dravid's resignation is for real - remember he also offered to quit after the World Cup flop? Anyway, I appreciate his tacit admission of his failings as a captain. The trouble is that the replacement may be worse, because the board has shown poor judgement so far in selection of coaches and captains. MS Dhoni I can't really comment about, because I have yet to see his captaincy, but my gut feeling is that he won't make a good captain. I would be only too happy to be proved wrong, because I really like him as a player. Yuvraj does not seem to have the board's backing, although in attitude and street-smartness I feel he's the best of the young brigade. Tendulkar will be a disaster. Ganguly has shown tremendous application and determination to make a comeback, and he did have success as a captain until his own game fell apart, but to go back to him would perhaps be too controversial and therefore divisive. Zaheer, don't know, but his tantrums are a little childish. My own preference would be for young blood, and that means Yuvraj if Dhoni seems unable to cope during the T20. It seems beyond doubt that India will advance to the next round, so that should give us enough opportunity to see Dhoni's captaincy. I kind of like the idea of an Indian cricket team led by either Dhoni or Yuvraj. They have an in-your-face attitude which I liked about Ganguly, and which is totally lacking in Dravid.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Forget the fab four

It's not the fab four - Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman - that I miss as India start their T20 campaign. It's the bowlers Zaheer and Powar. I think Agarkar is cannon fodder, and I can only fathom that a Maharashtra clique of Pawar and Vengsarkar, Gavaskar and Tendulkar, facilitate his many inexplicable comebacks into the Indian team in spite of driving captains to distraction with his profligate bowling. Dravid caught the flak for giving that last over to Yuvraj in England which went for five sixes. But it was Agarkar's earlier spell of three overs for around 40 runs that prompted him to do so. I don't know how Harbhajan can be picked ahead of Powar, who has consistently bowled far more economically and taken more wickets over the last two years. It was Powar who won us the one-day series against England at home, and his reward for that was to be left out of the one-day World Cup. Now he's the guy who kept us competitive in the Natwest series by being the most economical bowler, and his reward is to sit out the T20 World Cup and watch Harbhajan get tonked. I don't know what Irfan Pathan has done to get back into the team, but the last I saw him he had lost his pace and movement and just couldn't bowl with any confidence. We should've rested Zaheer in a few one-day games in England and brought him to South Africa. Piyush Chawla is coming along very nicely as a bowler but he was not as economical as Powar in the Natwest series. In this form of the game, on these South African pitches, his loopy leg spin is liable to go for too many sixes. RP Singh is the best of the lot, but unfortunately Dravid did not give him sufficient exposure to international limited overs cricket in England, and he is still too inexperienced. He needs time to master the yorker and develop a slower ball. So it's the bowling that seems really too weak in this side that is supposed to represent India. In the batting, I'm not missing the fab four much because we have good hitters, especially on tracks with little sideways movement. Yuvraj is in good form, and Dhoni might rediscover on South African pitches the touch that he lost in England. Uthappa, you beauty! And Gambhir, whatever his other shortcomings, is no plodder. Rohit Sharma holds the record for the fastest century in domestic T20, and I'm looking forward to seeing him finally (and figure out why Dravid did not give him a single game in a seven-match series that we lost!) Irfan Pathan can certainly wield the willow even if his bowling has become club standard, and his brother is reputed to be a hard-hitting bat too. The only worry is whether they can handle the short stuff, because from the few matches we've seen it's clear a good pull shot is important, and only Yuvraj plays that with any authority in our team. But there's hope in the batting. The trouble is what happens to these blokes if they do well. Will they retain their places in the Indian team, or will they have to make way when the fab four (or terrific trio) choose to return in the one-days to come?

I spoke too soon!

So the Aussies are human: they lost a few early wickets and panicked. Then they came out and bowled fast and furious in the early overs, rather than intelligently. They set that right quickly though, shortening their length and immediately putting the Zims in trouble. Ponting also played without a third slip when the best way to win was to take wickets. I also wonder, with hindsight I admit, if he got it wrong after the break. Should he have risked using a slow bowler like Hodge or let Symonds bowl his full quota? Should he have continued the short-of-length barrage at least from one end to try and pick up one or two more wickets before the batsmen could get back into their groove? It underlines the role of the captain, which seems even more vital in this form of cricket, because one wrong move can make the difference with so little time to recover. Anyway, Zimbabwe pulled off a fantastic victory over the world champs, although they almost messed it up at the end. I thought the Zimbabwe coach, who told his batsmen that all they should aim for is one boundary per over and four or five singles, was a little too cool. Taylor followed that advice to the T, but with Lee and Bracken bowling a few too many dot ball yorkers, it meant an asking rate of 12 in the last over. That was uncalled for because with five wickets in hand, they could have improvised and taken more risks in the earlier three overs which yielded just 5, 6 and 6. Luckily, Ponting made a final error - he pushed fine leg back, but placed him too square to cut off the four leg-byes off the penultimate ball. Good stuff. Am I glad I disregarded my own advice (in the previous post) to not bother watching one-sided encounters involving the minnows because I thought they would have even less of a chance in T20s than in one-day cricket! But I get the reason now why T20s can cause more upsets. There's just too little scope to recover if a bunch of wickets fall, and it's very difficult to bowl even a relatively weak side out in 20 overs. This however bolsters my other argument, also made in a previous post, that T20 might be better to watch than 50-50. I mean it was getting boring to see the Aussies winning everything. T20 brings a little more uncertainty into the result, and that is one of cricket's enduring charms. So, while Test cricket will remain the only true form of the game for me, because there's a fair contest between bat and ball and more parameters at play, I think T20 is just as good as one-day cricket. Both are oriented towards attacking batsmen and defensive bowling, but T20 does away with the boring middle overs and has the potential to spring more surprises. Having said that, I still feel having so many minnows in the fray spoil the World Cup. The Kenya match was drab, and Scotland allowed Pakistan to get away with an easy victory in spite of making early inroads into the Pak batting. If the likes of Zimbabwe knock out a couple of the top teams, the next stage of the championship will be diminished by one-sided matches, just like in the one-day World Cup. The trouble is a team like Zimbabwe can cause the odd upset but cannot sustain that performance in the next round of matches. Or have I spoken too soon again?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Look who's come to the T20 party

Gayle and Gibbs were the stars of the first T20 World Cup match. Why am I not surprised? I felt all along that the best performers will not be young dashers but the usual suspects. That makes the Aussies the firm favourites again, and underlines India's folly at going into the tournament without a single experienced campaigner. I'm also sceptical of the argument that there will be more upsets in this form of the game. There aren't that many guys around who can maintain the kind of sustained hitting that Gayle and Gibbs exhibited. So I feel the weaker teams have less of a chance than in 50-over cricket where they can become competitive if they manage to bowl the opposition out for a modest score on a helpful pitch. That's why I'm disappointed that the minnows will again deflate the excitement over the inaugural World Cup after its grand opening match. Without some sort of contest, any form of cricket becomes boring, and I'm switching off from today's matches featuring Kenya, Zimbabwe and Scotland.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

T20 is not just for 20-somethings

It's a measure of the BCCI's ineptitude that India is the only country to send a second-string side to a showcase event like the inaugural T20 World Cup. It's a fallacy to think of this as a slam-bam form of cricket only appropriate for youngsters. In an ODI, you have 20 powerplay overs plus about 10 slog overs at the end plus the overs in between. That would take more of a toll on the body of both a batsman and fielder than a 20-over innings. In fact the likes of Tendulkar and Ganguly may find it less physically taxing to play T20. If Tendulkar has indeed opted out, he's making the same mistake that Gavaskar made at the inaugural one-day World Cup in 1975 when he cussedly played out 60 overs against England and remained not out at 36. He thought then that limited overs cricket was a passing fad and how wrong he was. T20 similarly is here to stay because it's going to be great for spectators. What people will enjoy is the improvisation that will come into both the batting and bowling. And that brings us to the second fallacy - that T20 is a crude slam-bang affair. One of the best number seven batsmen in one-day cricket was Michael Bevan, and that's because of his clever chips which gave him two runs when other batsmen would get singles. He relied more on improvisation and placement than on sheer power. That's where the experience of Tendulkar, who can move across the stumps and put the ball anywhere between long on and fine leg, would have come into play, especially when there's a licence to take risks. Ganguly too would have excelled at charging the fast bowlers for his slashes over the covers. We needed them at the inaugural World Cup. If they needed rest, we should have let them sit out in the one-day series against England, which was surely less important than a World Cup. And that would also have opened up opportunities for a few new faces who could then have come into the reckoning for inclusion in the T20 squad. The same applies to our most successful bowlers, Zaheer Khan and Ramesh Powar, who have been left out after being made to play a long series against England. If roly poly Powar is good enough for one-day cricket, he should not be left out of T20 either. In fact I think his bowling would've been just as effective as it was in the ODIs. We left him out of the one-day World Cup, paid the price for it, and have not learnt from it. Instead we have gone back to has-beens like Harbhajan who have done nothing in the interim to make a comeback into the Indian team. BCCI sucks. The selectors suck. They have let India down again. Look at Australia, who have approached this World Cup just as seriously as the other one, with their best players in the fray. Ricky Ponting's wife is ill, but even that could not keep him away. It just shows the difference in attitude and management of Aussie and Indian cricket.

Chuck de Dravid

On hindsight, India could have won the Natwest series 7-0, but should have lost it 7-0. Let's take them one by one.
1. At the Rose Bowl, teams batting first in day-night matches have usually won, because the pitch freshens up at night and makes the ball zip. Dravid chose to field first, probably going by his experiences in India where the dew gets so heavy in winter day-nighters that the ball gets wet and loses all movement. This decision cost India the match.
2. At the next day-nighter in Bristol, Dravid chose to bat first, thus acknowledging his regret at choosing to field first in similar circumstances in the previous match. India was lucky none of the batsmen failed, except Karthick, because it went in with a batsman short as Dravid wanted to play two spinners and also retain all his three seamers. The fifth bowler made little difference as England came within nine runs of India's mammoth 330.
3. At Edgbaston, Dravid went back to fielding first because it was a day game, and he remembered the early help his bowlers got in the matches against South Africa in Ireland before the Test series. But he failed to take into account the record at Edgbaston where teams batting second have lost because the pitch slows down, making shot-making difficult. To compound matters, India was still one batsman short, which meant Yuvraj ran out of partners even though the asking rate was well within grasp.
4. In Manchester, Dravid switched back to batting first, but this time encountered typical English conditions and got bowled out for 212, the batting lineup paying a heavy price for carrying five specialist bowlers. England got into trouble too, losing seven wickets for 114, but India could not finish the job, underlining the futility of playing the fifth specialist bowler.
5. At Headingley, Collingwood chose to bowl first, going by Headingley's record of favouring bowlers early on. It was a sunny day, however, and India piled up 324 in balmy batting conditions, with Dravid having finally switched back to playing six batsmen plus keeper. It started drizzling when England batted, and when Duckworth-Lewis entered the equation it put the final nail in England's coffin.
6. At the Oval, Collingwood switched back to batting first, and piled up 316 thanks to Dravid's largesse of handing Yuvraj the ball for the last over in spite of his most economic bowler Ramesh Powar not having completed his quota. Finally, the sixth batsman Robin Uthappa's heroics in the last two overs saved Dravid the blushes.
7. At Lord's in the World Cup final of 1999 Wasim Akram discovered why you should field first when in doubt. Dravid probably stung by all the flak he caught for choosing to field first at Edgbaston, went against his inclination and chose to bat first. The pace, bounce and movement sorted out the Indian batsmen who were all at sea. The margin of loss was so huge that I don't think Aleem Dar's error in giving Tendulkar out was the decisive factor, even though that's what Dravid was happy to draw attemtion to after losing a series with bad captaincy.
In sum, Dravid lost the first and last ODIs after taking wrong decisions after winning the toss, and lost the third and fourth ODIs by playing five specialist bowlers. For India's sake, he should chuck the captaincy. We can no longer keep finding excuses for India's flop show in one-day cricket before, during and after the World Cup. We need an astute captain and coach, better selection and competent administration.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Uthappa for breakfast, anyone?

Let's leave the rants aside for now, and just savour the moment. That was one of the best finishes by India in a one-day game. It reminded me of a match in Bangladesh where India chased 316 against Pakistan, with Hrishikesh Kanitkar hitting a winning boundary off the penultimate ball. Kanitkar never replicated that kind of achievement, however, and faded away quietly. Let's hope Uthappa is made of more durable stuff. There's reason for optimism because he's been around for a while and has been maintaining a high scoring rate. His show at the Oval was even more impressive than that of Kanitkar. Almost single-handed he managed the 23 runs India needed from the last two overs. Refusing that second run for which Agarkar bolted at the end of the 49th over was vital. Uthappa was confident that by retaining strike he could get the 10 runs required in the last over. I remember the single that Ravi Shastri took to level the scores in the last over of the tied Test in Chennai against the Aussies. It exposed Maninder Singh to Steve Waugh who trapped him LBW. Shastri I believe should have backed himself instead to hit a brace in the remaining three balls, the way in which Uthappa took it upon himself to get all the remaining runs instead of leaving it to the lower order batsmen who were new to the crease and liable to miss a couple of balls or even get out. Zaheer Khan should also be complimented for taking the initiative to come back to the non-striker's end for a second run off the first ball of the last over to allow the strike to remain with Uthappa. I think Collingwood was the first to blink. He brought in long off and pushed fine leg back to the fence after Uthappa scooped a yorker over his head to the legside boundary. But bringing long-off to mid-off just made the task easier for Uthappa - he again took the intended yorker on the full, but this time hit it straight past mid-off for four. Instead Collingwood should have forced Uthappa to try and repeat the scoop over fine-leg which is a far more iffy shot. So it's not only Dravid goofing off out there.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Twice bitten, once shy

So that wasn't so difficult, was it? For the first time in the series, India got more than four runs an over in the first ten overs, as a full batting lineup allowed the batsmen to play without fetters, and a pleasure it was to see the old Sachin-Sourav jugalbandi - getting their eye in, and then turning the match on a dime in that over where Sachin got to Lewis with his on-the-up drives. India reverting to the traditional one-day team composition of six batsmen, keeper and four bowlers is an admission of the faulty thinking in the previous matches, where the losses were attributed by the captain to bad batting or fielding and good opposition. But the question remains why it took Dravid two losses to realise that the five bowler format sucks. And this isn't the first time, either. Earlier, he and Chappell tried using five fulltime bowlers in a Test match and flopped badly. The beneficiary then too was England who levelled a series in India that they should have lost. Here too, India should have dominated the one-day series, with Flintoff still not in peak fitness or form, and Hoggard and Sidebottom missing too. Dravid's wrong choices after winning the toss, five-bowler format, and faulty batting line-up are mainly responsible for India being 3-2 down. Now the question is whether, with the main problem fixed, India will tighten up a few other loose ends to come back from behind and win the series by beating England at both the Oval and Lord's. I believe India can, given the batting-friendly pitches and England's continuing difficulties against the spinners, especially Powar.
The joker in the pack is Dravid. Will another of his blunders cost India the series? And what could that blunder be? India has done well to play both spinners, and that's not going to change, barring injury. India has finally dropped the fifth specialist bowler, and we can safely assume that's the composition they will go with in the remaining matches. This allowed Ganguly to get a bowl eventually, and how well he did. He has always thrived in these conditions and not using him in previous matches was stupid. Anyway, one can expect more from Ganguly. The batting lineup too looked much better with the full complement of batsmen, and Karthick pushed down to number seven which is where he belongs, although his attempts at improvisation by moving towards the offstump were premeditated and thoughtless because the bowlers were aiming at full-length outside offstump. Maybe he should consult Zaheer Khan, who figured it out eventually, waited for that last ball from Chris Broad, took it on the full and put it past point for four. Coming back to the batting lineup, I would have preferred Dravid at three, as I've said earlier, given his adaptability and the rich vein of one-day form he seems to have struck, and either Rohit Sharma or Robin Uthappa at five. But given the flatness of the tracks, and his aggressive style of batting, it may not be all that bad sticking with Gambhir at three either.
It's in the handling of the bowling and field placements that Dravid's poor captaincy was on display again, and it is this factor that can cost India the series now. Agarkar went for 40 runs in three overs and Dravid should have brought in Ganguly in his place earlier. Our main strike bowler Zaheer Khan should always be supported with two slips when he is bowling with the new ball, and too many opportunities were allowed to slip through vacant positions. You can't control dropped catches, but field positions are simply a matter of good planning. The other chink was Sachin Tendulkar's bowling. He always makes me wince when he chooses to bowl inane off-spin or slow medium pace when the bulk of his wickets in both ODIs and Tests have come from legspin. I remember that fabulous googly with which he bamboozled Moin Khan for a vital breakthrough in a Test match in Pakistan. Maybe Sachin is influenced by the awe with which commentators keep reminding us how he's such a genius because he can do everything. More than Sachin's choice of bowling, however, I was disappointed with Dravid keeping him on even after Collingwood had clearly got on top of him, and Sachin continuing with the same kind of bowling and continuing to get hammered, when there were so many better options. It did not matter in Headingley where Duckworth-Lewis on top of our strong batting put the match beyond England. But this is the sort of thing that could lose the series at the Oval or Lord's.