Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Don't cry for Dravid

This blog has been remarkably prescient, as it turns out, on Rahul Dravid's fortunes. Chuck de Dravid, I urged after the England series, and was pleasantly surprised to see him handing over the reins a couple of weeks later. Drop the trio, I urged after another series loss, this time at home against an Aussie side not playing at its best. And another pleasant surprise followed - no Dravid in the ODI team to take on the visiting Pakistanis.
Since then, however, I've been watching with bemusement the outpouring of sympathy for Dravid, mostly from former players who dominate the media scene. I don't understand this - here's a guy who hasn't been performing for a couple of years now, both as captain and player, and yet the sports pages and TV channels are going after the selectors who for once did the right thing.
Out of curiosity I went back and checked what Dravid had been doing as a batsman and sure enough the slump extends way back to the tournament in Kuala Lumpur at the start of last year. India made an early exit in that tournament, made an early exit in the Champions Trophy at home, got thrashed 5-0 by the South Africans in the ODI series there, got knocked out in the first round of the World Cup with the added ignominy of a loss to Bangladesh, lost the series in England to a side playing with a half-fit Flintoff, and lost a home series to the Aussies. In between all that carnage, India managed to win preparatory series at home before the World Cup against the Windies and Lankans who rested most of their top players. India also beat the South Africans 2-1 in Ireland, but again they were without their main players. And yes, India also beat Bangladesh.
Obviously, there's no point continuing with the same old players if this is what the team is producing, and of the senior players Dravid has contributed the least during this time. In fact, he has had only three knocks of over 50 in a match-winning cause in 40 matches in nearly two years - the 92 not out in the England series, a 66 against the Lankans before the World Cup, and a 54 against the Windies again in that preparatory series before the World Cup where nobody was stretching too hard. I did not have the patience to work out his strike rate in this period, but I'm sure it's worse than his none too impressive career strike rate of 71. That would be less than four runs an over, and everyone knows that with one-day scores tending toward 300 these days, a strike rate of four will ensure a defeat.
Instead of shedding tears for Dravid, we should shed a few for all the one-day matches that India has been losing in the last couple of years by refusing to drop the plodding Dravid, while players like Gambhir, Uthappa, Rohit, Badrinath, and Tewary have been waiting in the wings. Yes, I admire Dravid for his exploits in Test cricket, and the two or three years when his one-day batting sparkled with a high strike rate. But I have no sympathy for a guy who is losing matches for India, and keeping out talented youngsters who deserve opportunities to grow in international cricket just like Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar did in their time.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Odious ODIs v Terrific T20s

The ICC has stolen a march over the BCCI. How quick it was to see the popularity of Twenty20 cricket and conjure up a World Cup out of thin air. How slow the BCCI has been in comparison! India had played only one Twenty20 international before the World Cup, clearly showing how little importance the Indian board gave this format, which makes it amusing to see board officials now basking in the glory of India's T20 triumphs. And now, I think a more proactive board might have capitalised on the T20 fervour by altering some of the schedules against the Aussies and now the Pakistanis by reducing the number of ODIs and including T20 matches instead. But the BCCI slumbers while the world of cricket goes gaga over its new avatar. There are critics of the format too, but most of their criticism centres on a T20 versus Test debate which is pointless. The comparison should really be between ODIs and T20s, which I attempted in an article in DNA Sunday on September 23, that is a day before the inaugural T20 World Cup final. Here I've reproduced that article...

Fifty50 is dead. Long live Twenty20.

T20 takes the boring middle overs out of limited overs cricket, and that's good riddance, says Sumit Chakraberty

Fifty50 has a fatal flaw: the middle overs. Those come after the powerplay overs, when the field spreads out to block boundaries even if that means conceding easy singles. The problem is the batting side too is content at that stage to pick up the singles on offer, minimising risk to keep wickets in hand for the slog at the end. So there you have a situation where both teams are in defensive mode: a perfect recipe to put you to sleep.
The ICC recognises this and has tried to jog the one-day game out of its soporific middle overs by introducing floating powerplay overs, but almost invariably captains choose to finish those off at a stretch in the beginning. So nothing has changed: we have a beginning and end where the batsmen take risks, and a boring middle where nobody is in attack mode, neither batsmen nor bowlers.

Twenty20 is lean and trim, with no bulging middle, just a beginning and end. Is that any less of a game than a Fifty50 match where nothing happens in the middle overs except boring singles? Critics of T20 usually compare it unfavourably with Test cricket, but all those arguments would apply almost equally to Fifty50: that it is batsman-oriented, designed to produce fours and sixes, bowlers are reduced to a defensive role, there's no fair contest between bat and ball…
Twenty20 is a lottery, they said before the World Cup. And yet, it turns out that the batsmen who have done well are the usual suspects who have also dominated one-day cricket. Two of the semi-finalists were the same as those in the last Fifty50 World Cup. The other two were India and Pakistan, who brought young, talented teams and deserved their success. In fact, the T20 World Cup has had fewer major upsets than the F50 where two minnows, Bangladesh and Ireland, got into the Super 8.

It's probably true there's less time to turn a match around after one team gets off to a flyer, as India did against England, or takes a bunch of early wickets, as Zimbabwe did against Australia. But the better teams will still dominate the game, as this T20 World Cup has shown. It only means the result is a little less predictable than in Fifty50, and what's wrong with that? After all, to use an old cliche, "the glorious uncertainty of cricket" is one of its enduring charms.
One of my real concerns was whether the importance of taking wickets would be devalued with ten wickets in hand for just 20 overs of batting. But the World Cup has shown how rapidly wickets can fall when you have to score at 9 or 10 an over, or even 7 or 8 on a sticky wicket. In fact, the regular clatter of wickets falling has made the game more exciting than to watch a pair of batsmen keeping their wickets intact as they push the score along in singles and twos in the middle overs of a one-day match.

The demise of spinners in the T20 format has been highly exaggerated too, as Daniel Vettori, Harbhajan Singh and Shahid Afridi have shown. In fact, it has been easier to use the pace of a bowler to clear the fence, as Yuvraj did six times in a row to Stuart Broad, than to put away a wily slow bowler who makes the batsman generate all the power for a shot.
It does get a little numbing to see batsmen trying to thump ball after ball. But that's also what keeps a spectator riveted because every ball is a contest, with bowlers trying to outsmart batsmen and vice versa. You could as well call it 120-120, because each one of the 120 balls in an innings is filled with drama. Add to that the cheerleaders, and an easily digestible three-hour duration, the same as a movie, and you have compelling entertainment. Who needs the ho-hum middle overs of a Fifty50?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Drop the trio

How refreshing it was to see the young Indian team play fearless cricket after a month of one-day matches dominated by the self-preserving instincts of the senior pros Sachin, Sourav and Dravid who never scored at above a run a ball. I suspect Dhoni would not be sorry to see the back of the trio either, going by the number of references he makes to the fearless and risk-taking nature of his young batsmen. But the best quote of all came from Aussie captain Ricky Ponting after losing the Twenty20 match in Mumbai: "We would like to play more matches against the new generation Indian players."
Forget the fab four I wrote in this blog before the start of the Twenty20 World Cup, and forget the trio I say before the ODI series against the Pakistanis. I would much rather watch the younger batsmen, win or lose. The problem with the senior batsmen is that they don't just flop, it's worse when they hang around and lose matches by scoring at a below par run rate. As far as the bowlers go, Harbhajan Singh and Irfan Pathan have surprised me with their performances because I preferred Ramesh Powar and Zaheer Khan before the T20 World Cup. Now I don't know, but more options the better for Dhoni.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Too many sheet anchors

Throughout this series, the Australians have consistently scored at around six runs an over, which on Indian pitches is only par for the course. We've had matches in the past, such as the last series against Pakistan, where scores tended to be higher. India's openers Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, however, have been content in this series to score at four runs an over - 257 in 366 balls by Tendulkar, and 127 in 174 balls by Ganguly. What is worse is that the duo have also consumed most of the powerplay overs, with field restrictions, where the Aussies have scored at around 6.5 runs an over on average. It is this, more than any other reason, that has been responsible for India's drubbing in the series.
The effects of this were most apparent in the last game, where India had plenty of wickets in hand but didn't even come close. That's because it's almost impossible for a new batsman to cope with an asking rate of 7.5. If he takes a couple of overs to settle in, the asking rate at that late stage zooms very quickly to double figures. On the other hand, if he has a go immediately, he's likely to get out. The exception was in Chandigarh, where Dhoni and Uthappa, both new at the crease, managed to score an amazing 12 runs an over at the end to take India to a fighting total, which their bowlers managed to defend. Ganguly and Tendulkar were hailed for laying the platform for that victory, but I think India won in spite of them, not because of them.
Consider this - Australia has been losing early wickets in every game in the series, except the one-sided affair in Vadodara, and yet that has never deterred them from what has become the tried-and-tested approach to the one-day game: take advantage of the powerplay overs, play for singles and twos in the middle overs, and time the charge at the end according to the number of wickets in hand. A team would change that gameplan only if it is confronted with a very difficult wicket against the new ball, which is apparently not the case because India have won the toss and opted to bat first in all the matches except the first one. So this conservatism at the top can have no justification.
There are of course other reasons for India's abject state, like playing five specialist bowlers when the Australians use only four. This is another example of giving up a time-tested formula with no evidence to show that the new system is better. The simple thing for the Indians to do would be take their cues from the world champs in this form of the game, who always try to go at over a run a ball in the powerplay overs. And why not leave the sheet anchor's role to a junior for a change? Let them also get a chance to make it into the top ten of the ICC's stupid rankings, which give too little weightage to the scoring rate and impact on the game.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hello Aussies

History of cricket,Cricket with balls,Stump cam - Those are the latest additions to my blogroll. Good reads, even if they're Aussie. Just joking. Worth checking out.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Five bowler format sucks

So that's why most teams play only four specialist bowlers, and get a couple of batsmen who can turn their arms over to complete the fifth bowler's quota. Australia managed to recover in the first two ODIs in spite of losing four wickets early on both occasions because they had more depth in batting. Once India lose a few early wickets, that's game, set and match. India switched back to a four-bowler format in England after going 3-1 down in the series, levelled the series, and eventually lost 4-3. They might do the switcheroo again, but it shows confusion in their approach. Tell me, why would Australia with such a formidable batting line-up, where the wicket-keeper Gilchrist gives them such depth by also being one of the world's most dangerous batsmen, choose to let Hopes and Symonds be the fifth bowler, when they have bowlers like Stuart Clarke and Shaun Tait cooling their heels? Because they've worked out one-day cricket and know it's better to have a long batting line-up than a long tail, even if that means a weaker bowling attack. How much of a difference would it make for India to leave out Zaheer Khan, who's been going at more than seven an over without many wickets to show for it? On the other hand, it might make some difference to include the stylish new batsman Rohit Sharma in his place. Of course, the rout in Vadodara was so complete that nothing might have mattered there - but at least we might have got a contest. What was also interesting to me was how everyone could've misread the pitch so much. The curator's pre-match interview, the commentators' expectations of 300-plus scores and Dhoni's broad smile on winning the toss were all belied by the swing and seam movement in the morning, coupled with the bounce Johnson could extract by digging the ball in short of a length. It wasn't extravagant batting that did India in, because all the batsmen fell to defensive shots, and I don't think India's batting is so bad, or Australia's bowling so good, that India should get bowled out for 148 on an easy track. The fact is the Vadodara pitch has always assisted pace bowlers in the morning, and that's one reason why Vadodara can boast of producing three of India's premier pace bowlers in the current circuit - Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel - even if a couple of them no longer play for Vadodara. So how come India seemed to have no clue about how the pitch would behave in Irfan Pathan's hometown?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Captain courageous

So, suddenly Australia don't look all that unbeatable, do they? In fact, if India had done the obvious thing in Kochi, which was to bat first after winning the toss, they would've been 2-1 up in the series now. This Aussie team, without McGrath and Warne, and with Ponting and Gilchrist past their best, is not as strong as it used to be.
The pitch helped too. The usual, flat tracks India rolls out for one-day matches suit the Aussies more, because they have taller and stronger bowlers. When there's a little bit in it for the bowlers, as the ones in South Africa had during the T20 World Cup, and this one in Chandigarh had for pace bowlers in the morning and spinners later, India's bowlers get into the game.
Dhoni is coming along nicely as a captain, even if he did make the wrong choice after winning the toss in Kochi, and I'm still not convinced about playing five specialist bowlers instead of using Yuvraj, Sachin and Sourav to chip in with 10 overs between them, enabling Rohit Sharma to come in for a bowler. In today's game, India lost only two wickets in 40 overs, and it still required a fantastic partnership of 47 runs in 4 overs between Dhoni and Uthappa at the end to push India to a competitive score. One more wicket would've exposed India's weakness. Only one Indian batsman, Dravid, failed in this game and that's rare in limited overs cricket. Let's see what happens in the next three games. Dhoni obviously feels using Yuvraj and Sachin lets the pressure off in the middle overs, so he wants two specialist spinners. At the same time, he wants three pace bowlers to handle most of the powerplay and slog overs. For that, he's willing to sacrifice a specialist batsman.
It's a tough call, and like I said my view is that by the law of averages you will lose more games than you win with this strategy. But I like Dhoni's guts, anyway. He switched back to the five-bowler format because he did not like his lack of options on the field in the previous game in Hyderabad. He decided he needed an experienced spinner who would take the ball away from the Aussie right-handers, and pulled Murali Karthick out of the commentary box for the job. As it turned out though, Karthick got the left-hander Hayden out - but that with an economy rate of 4.8 was a match-winning effort.
As for Sachin Tendulkar's run rate, let's leave that for the end of the series.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Vengsarkar's doublespeak

I wish somebody would track the statements of our chairman of selectors. Anyway, let me paraphrase a few which come readily to mind...
Soon after our World Cup debacle he said the country has no talent and so what choice did the selectors have except to choose the same bunch that had been losing most of their one-day games against the major teams for two years. Of course, he's been singing a different tune ever since the T20 triumph, and now after the drubbing by the Aussies, says the seniors cannot take their places for granted because there are many youngsters knocking on the door. This isn't his first caution to the seniors since becoming chairman, but the youngsters are still knocking and knocking and knocking...
He says Ramesh Powar had only himself to blame for being left out of the team. He should slim down and improve his fielding. So, was Powar slim and agile when he was picked for the teams for the England series and now the first part of the Aussie series? He's been dropped after one bad performance in the first game in Bangalore which was washed out anyway. In the second game, he got only five overs which went at the same run rate as the ten Bhajji bowled, and a lower rate than the ones Yuvi and Sachin bowled from Powar's quota. In the last two years, he has consistently done better than Bhajji who has come back stronger but still fails to provide the much-needed breakthroughs in the middle overs, and that's where India has lost to the Aussies...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A sledge is a sledge is a sledge

We have a bowling coach and a fielding coach. What we really need is a sledging coach, preferably an Aussie.

Look at the irony: the Aussies are the acknowledged masters of sledging and it is Sreesanth who has to rein himself in. Dhoni said before this series that the Indians would more than match the Aussies in “chit-chat”, which according to him does not even require much talent. But his team has already come out a poor second not just in the game but gamesmanship too.

Sreesanth is accused of taking things too far. But if you look at how it affected the Kochi game, his taunt, however crude, came after Symonds' dismissal. Compare that with Mathew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist initiating a verbal exchange with Harbhajan Singh, who jumped out and got himself stumped off the very next ball. A wicket, no penalties, and Gilchrist's post-match homilies on behaviour to Sreesanth on top of everything. So who's winning this contest?

The issue is why the ICC lets a fielding side disturb the concentration of a batsman, through abuse, provocation or even banter. It should not be a matter of degree – all forms of it should be labelled for what it really is: cheating. And the umpires are aware of all that is said or done on the field, not just the instances picked up on camera or mike.

Can you imagine in a game of golf whispering obscenities into an opponent’s ear when it’s his turn to tee off? Or take tennis, where the calculated tantrums of McEnroe and Nastase have become history because of zero tolerance.