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.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Lankan Rabbit outruns English Trottoise

Angelo Mathews may yet turn out to be a good captain for Sri Lanka. He pulled a rabbit out of his hat in the game with England. When bowling all-rounder Nuwan Kulasekara walked out to bat at the fall of Mahela Jayewardene just before the batting powerplay, expert commentator Sunil Gavaskar was apoplectic - he would swing and miss, Sangakkara at the other end would be denied the strike, another wicket would encourage the English... All of those happened initially, except for the dismissal of Kulasekara. Instead, once he started connecting with his robust swings at the ball, Sangakkara was quite happy to be off strike. Kulasekara is not an everyday pinch-hitter - he is a smart cricketer, with a lot of experience in ODIs. His presence of mind was evident when he turned and ran back towards the danger end when Sangakkara stumbled while going for a second run. Kulasekara picked his shots and the bowlers to target. His consecutive sixes off Swann completely deflated the fielding side. In the end, the English looked shell-shocked as Sangakkara and Kulasekara romped home to victory with three overs to spare. It's easy to praise a move that's worked, and Angelo would probably have got fried if the Kulasekara promotion had backfired. But the thinking behind it was pretty sound, actually, regardless of the outcome. Sri Lanka needed to score at nearly eight an over ahead of the powerplay when Jayewardene got out. This was a tricky situation because a new batsman would take a few balls to get set and Sri Lanka could not afford to be conservative in the powerplay. Sangakkara would have felt compelled to up the ante and might have thrown his wicket away. So the advent of a nothing-to-lose risk-taker Kulasekara also meant that Sangakkara could stick to his role of anchoring the chase till the end. The gambit was therefore perfectly timed and well worth it. And to Kulasekara's credit, he made it work and how! The Lankan victory also exposed the weakness in the English strategy of going along at 4.5 an over to keep wickets in hand for a dash in the last 15 overs. Jonathan Trott's anchor role is reminiscent of Rahul Dravid. India too lost many an ODI by playing a bit too conservatively on easy tracks. If England had played a more risk-taking game from the outset, they would likely have crossed 300 on that good Cardiff wicket as MS Dhoni's merry band had done earlier. On this track, the English tortoise Jonathan Trott was no match for the Lankan rabbit Nuwan Kulasekara. On another day and another pitch, it may well be the other way round. It shows that you can't be too rigid with your tactics.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Better than Tendulkar and Ganguly

I can't recollect seeing a more dominant top order batting performance by India in England. Tendulkar and Ganguly had a few good knocks but nothing like the total dominance shown by Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma. Against South Africa at Cardiff, the pitch was good for batting, so I was watching to see how the Indian openers would fare on a slightly more challenging pitch at the Oval against a decent West Indian pace attack. They were near perfect, finding the right balance between aggression and self-preservation. Perhaps Shikhar Dhawan is taking a few chances too many - the kind of form he is in, somebody should tell him to cut the airy fairy ones past gully and the hooks to square leg. Just not worth it. More importantly, he has to learn to weave out of the way of the bouncer at the body. Right now, he's either getting into a tangle or pulling out of compulsion. As for Rohit, he is just oozing with talent as always. Can he keep going, or will he start giving it away again after a couple of successes?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sub-continental blues

The Sri Lankan and Pakistani batsmen haven't come close to 200 in three matches. The spongy bounce and unfamiliar conditions have contributed to it, no doubt. But these two batting lineups look rather weak for any surface that has a bit in it for the bowlers. The only sub-continental team to have made a decent score is India, but then they had a pretty good batting surface at Cardiff. We will know at the Oval on Tuesday if the Indians are any different from their neighbours.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Where Angelo feared to tread

The Lankans and their captain are getting plaudits for coming to within a wicket of beating New Zealand, when they had only 138 runs to defend. But really, the Lankans should have won this game when they had the Kiwis in a flutter at 80 for 6. It was a miscalculation by Angelo Mathews at that point that allowed New Zealand to pip the Lankans at the post. Lasith Malinga had just taken the sixth wicket, but he was taken off after one over. Angelo wanted to keep Malinga's last four overs for the end game, to polish off the tail once the seventh wicket fell. The spinners Dilshan and Herath, and then the seamers, Eranga and Thissara Perera, failed to break through, however, and the McCullum brothers settled down to a partnership. It was only when Malinga was brought back that the brothers were separated. But it was too late. Instead, if Malinga had continued after getting the sixth wicket, and removed one of the McCullum brothers earlier, the spinners and other seamers could have bowled with more success at the tail instead of to the McCullums. Angelo Mathews wasn't too hot as a captain in the IPL and his inexperience may cost a talented Lankan team a place in the Champions Trophy semi-finals.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Australia Bailey's Out

It's been a long time since we have seen a player who is primarily in the team as a captain. There was Mike Brearley for England and now there's George Bailey leading Australia. The experienced and high impact all-rounder Shane Watson should have been captain in the absence of Michael Clark, but the Oz team management has had problems with Watto ever since he complained about being overbowled. Then on the India tour they suspended him for not doing his homework. But it's the team leaders who failed in their homework for the Champions Trophy, playing only a part-time spinner Paul Voges in their opening encounter with England at Edgebaston. As it turned out, the spinners were the hardest to get away on a dry surface, especially England's James Treadwell. So now, whom will the Oz leadership suspend - themselves? Everyone took it for granted that they would be playing on seaming wickets in the early English summer, but they forgot how fickle is the English weather. There hasn't been any rain around for a couple of weeks, and we hardly saw any lateral movement at Edgebaston and earlier at Cardiff where India won a high-scoring game. If these conditions persist, it will be advantage India.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Stick with Rohit as opener

The good thing about Dhoni is that he is willing to experiment, and does not always go by conventional wisdom. Many an argument could have been made against sending Rohit Sharma out to open for India in their first match of the Champions Trophy in Cardiff. Primarily, the concern would have been about his loose technique in English conditions. With two new balls, two bouncers per over and field restrictions in the middle overs too, under the new ODI rules, the game will return to its traditional mode of seeing off the new balls, keeping wickets in hand and stepping up the run rate in the latter half of the innings. Dhoni and Rohit were lucky that the Cardiff wicket produced little lateral movement, and the new Indian opener came good with a stylish and solid half century in a high-scoring game. There was steep bounce, but Rohit is quite adept with the pull shot, even if he perished by it in the end. The real challenge will be on pitches like the one at the Oval, where the West Indies got past Pakistan's 170 all out with only two wickets standing. It would be good to persist with Rohit, however, even if he struggles on seaming pitches initially. He has the gift of timing and will get value for his shots when the new ball comes on to the bat, as it will do on most ODI pitches. Besides, the Indian middle order is packed, and it would be a shame to have such a talented strokemaker as Rohit sit out, as he has done for most of his career so far. Just give him a long rope. After all, even Sachin Tendulkar only became a master blaster on the sub-continent and Sharjah. He struggled as an ODI opener in England.