Monthly Archives: October 2010

India vs. New Zealand: Test Series Preview

New Zealand tours to India have always posed an interesting quandary. The Kiwis fly down approximately once in 4 years, usually on the cusp of a World Cup, or on the heels of one. They get short shrift as the precursor to a tough overseas challenge for Team India. It’s funny how their 3 previous visits have been around the same time as the Irani Trophy; no different this time either. It is also noteworthy that, revelling in their underdog status as they do, they perform better than most tourists in India. They have lost just 2 of their previous 8 Tests in India, albeit having won none. The last time India won 2 Tests against them in a series (home or away) was before Sachin Tendulkar had made his international debut. Admittedly, the current outfit lacks the pedigree of the earlier teams brought over by Stephen Fleming & Lee Germon. To add to their inexperience, Daniel Vettori’s men are also up against the No. 1 ranked Test team in full strength, rich vein of form and unbeaten for more than 2 years.

For the first time this year, India will go into a Test series with their first choice XV fully fit. Every member of the side selects himself, with just a rumour of debate regarding one of the reserve batsmen slots. Gautam Gambhir & V.V.S. Laxman’s return to fitness, and a combination of brave batting & fine fielding brought to the table by the young trio of Suresh Raina, Murali Vijay & Cheteshwar Pujara ensured that the contest was anything but, Yuvraj Singh’s double century in the Irani Trophy notwithstanding.

Tendulkar & Zaheer Khan were truly sensational against Australia. The only concern will be to ensure that they do not pick up injuries. Virender Sehwag, who had a relatively quiet series, should find the Kiwi attack to his liking. If he manages to overcome boredom & his tendency to underestimate weak spinners, all the tourists can do is pack the leg-side field and pray. One hopes that Rahul Dravid will strike it big, for his form remains imperative to our fortunes in South Africa later this winter. New Zealand, of course, would have talked in great detail about his recent vulnerability outside the off stump. Vijay & Pujara will make way for Gambhir & Laxman; unfair, but that is the way of international cricket. Gambhir though, is well aware that Vijay is breathing down his neck. It will, however, take much more to replace the stylist from Hyderabad, who must be looking forward to playing a Test in his hometown.

India looks settled on the bowling front as well. Pragyan Ojha was mighty impressive in the Australia series with his flight & control. Harbhajan Singh & Ishant Sharma seem to be feeling their way back to form convincingly enough to keep Sreesanth & Amit Mishra on the bench. Skipper M.S. Dhoni was perhaps the only real failure in the previous series. His batting may not have been missed as much as his keeping, errors that he and his side can ill afford. It would help as well if he wins a toss for a change.

On the face of it, New Zealand appears to be a motley crew, but a discerning eye will recognise the potential of their batting line-up. In Martin Guptill, they have one of their stars of the future. Attractive, free-flowing and importantly, a good player of spin bowling, he will look to set the tone for a dangerous middle order comprising Ross Taylor, Jesse Ryder and Brendon McCullum. Each one of the triumvirate providing muscle in the middle knows what it’s like to score a Test century against India, as does the man bringing up the rear – skipper Vettori himself, easily the most consistent of the lot. It is hard to see the much hyped Kane Williamson fitting in, unless McCullum dons the gauntlets ahead of specialist wicket-keeper Gareth Hopkins.

It is in the inexperience of the bowling attack that New Zealand will bleed. Chris Martin and Vettori (that man again!) will spearhead the pace & spin departments. Jeetan Patel will surely play on pitches responsive to his craft, but must know that this may be the toughest assignment of his career so far. Between them, Tim Southee, the nippy Brent Arnel, the left-am quick Andy McKay & the young Hamish Bennett have bowled not a single ball in India. Take away Southee & add Martin to the mix, and you have an uncharacteristically weak tail. They will look to the first test of the 1999 tour for inspiration, when Dion Nash & Shayne O’Connor blew India away for 83 on a seaming pitch at Mohali.

India batted superbly, bowled competently and caught woefully against the Aussies and yet blanked them. That combination may well be enough to shut out New Zealand as well, but they would want to improve. Also, as the No. 1 ranked side, they must win by a margin of at least 2-0. Indian complacency apart, it is hard to see New Zealand winning a Test match on this tour.

SQUADS

INDIA: MS Dhoni (capt), Virender Sehwag (vice-capt), Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Cheteshwar Pujara, M Vijay, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Sreesanth, Pragyan Ojha, Amit Mishra

NEW ZEALAND: Daniel Vettori (capt), Brent Arnel, Hamish Bennett, Martin Guptill, Gareth Hopkins, Chris Martin, Brendon McCullum, Tim McIntosh, Andy McKay, Jeetan Patel, Jesse Ryder, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, BJ Watling, Kane Williamson

ITINERARY

1st Test: India v New Zealand at Ahmedabad
Nov 4-8, 2010 (09:30 local, 04:00 GMT)

2nd Test: India v New Zealand at Hyderabad (Deccan)
Nov 12-16, 2010 (09:30 local, 04:00 GMT)

3rd Test: India v New Zealand at Nagpur
Nov 20-24, 2010 (09:30 local, 04:00 GMT)

– Kartik

Conflicts of Interest…

I congratulated the BCCI in a blog post I wrote a few days back.

It was perhaps a bit too premature. The BCCI, meanwhile, has begun an exercise that it has developed a reputation for being extremely good at: Dithering.

We do not yet know if the cricketers know whether they are going to South Africa early. The cricketers involved have not been intimated. The BCCI, meanwhile, has said that Team India Test players who also play in the ODI team will have to honour their ODI commitments in the New Zealand series. I guess the BCCI is engaging in that famous dance made more famous in these parts — “1 step forward 3 steps back”!

The BCCI has made a habit of dithering. It dithers on UDRS. It dithers on the relative importance it places on Tests and ODIs. It dithers on pre-tour practice games. It dithers on allocation of matches to grounds. It dithers on its stand on anti-doping. It dithers on almost everything that does not involve money. In fact, the BCCI appears to dither on almost all aspect of the game except conflicts of interest of its officials!

That is one aspect of governance that the BCCI appears to have mastered and is quite unambiguous about! If, as owner of the Chennai Super Kings IPL franchise, N Srinivasan, the BCCI President-in-waiting, does not have a conflict of interest, then I am a banana! If Ravi Shastri — no doubt an excellent former Team India Test/ODI player — does not have a conflict of interest in his role as broadcaster and IPL Governing Council Member (and formerly NCA Director) then I am a ripe old banana!

But today’s newspapers provide another pearl as an example in the long list of BCCI officials that have (had) conflicts of interest. Mind you. Conflicts of interest are not bad, as a rule. They exist just as night follows day! These conflicts have to be (a) declared, (b) effectively managed, (c) seen to be managed. It appears that Sunil Gavaskar might have a conflict of interest with respect to the Kochi IPL franchise.

Witness this: Gavaskar was on the IPL Governing Council that approved/accepted Kochi’s bid as an IPL franchise. Today, we hear the announcement that Gavaskar has provided in-principle acceptance to Kochi to be their “cricketing director”.

What is stunning and brazen is that the same article in the Times of India quotes the Kochi IPL CEO, Gaikwad, as saying “Sunil Gavaskar had unconditionally supported Rendezvous Sports, which won the franchise rights for the team for $333.33 million (Rs.1,533 crore).”

Notwithstanding the fact that Gavaskar is no longer a member of the IPL Governing Council, what we do not know is whether Sunil Gavaskar said to the Kochi IPL franchise, “I will support you unconditionally on the condition that you appoint me cricket director once the bid is successful.”

It is very likely that Gavaskar is an honourable man. It is very likely that Gavaskar has declared and managed the conflict of interest that follows his decision to join the Kochi IPL. However, we do know that the BCCI is replete with individuals who are terribly conflicted in their interests. So the emergence of a new instance of an individual with what seems to be the taint of a potential conflict of interest comes neither as a surprise nor as a shock!

Today, Gavaskar has said, “They have asked me, individually and collectively, to come in for the cricketing part of the team. I will take a call once the internal issues are resolved.”

The BCCI, on its part, claims that it is not aware of Gavaskar’s links with the Kochi IPL franchise. Sunil Gavaskar, one remembers, had turned down a seat on the IPL Governing Council over a pay-dispute with the BCCI. It is likely that I am launching into the zone normally reserved for conspiracy theories. However, this GC-seat-turn-down by Gavaskar and the subsequent and perhaps convenient appointment to Kochi’s cricket directorship — just 2 weeks later — does beg a few questions around Gavaskar’s conflict of interest.

With Rajasthan Royals filing an appeal against their ban in the High Court, the IPL mess has just gotten bigger. My sense is that the mess will certainly get bigger before it gets even bigger. After all, with the BCCI, one cannot rule out anything!

— Mohan

BCCI: Some signs of progress and intent

Yes. I am doing the unthinkable! I am actually praising the BCCI in todays’ piece! I promise to wash my mouth and hands with soap after this exercise to rid myself of the unthinkable “crime”. But yes. I am just about the praise the BCCI! This is, however, only my first sin for the day!

My second sin for the day is far worse! I am just about to heap praise on the BCCI for precisely something that the venerable Harsha Bhogle has castigated them for. So, in part, I am just about to openly disagree with the institution that is Harsha Bhogle. And that, as we all know, is a serious misdemeanour in Indian sport. “How dare you?”, I hear you thunder.

But hear me out patiently. I do need to declare, however, that I am not “under the influence”.

I woke up late this morning and switched the TV on to catch the start of the India-Australia ODI game. Yes, I got up very late! The delayed start to the game meant that I watched a lady in tight-fitting clothes interview former Australian cricketer, Brad Hogg, who seemed more intent on exploring glaring gaps in her clothing — of which there were quite a few — than glaring gaps in the on-field arrangements that may have led to the delayed start to the game. The gap-lady asked Brad Hogg if Australia would be able to salvage a win from the “thus far win-less” Australian tour of India! As she asked the question, the dress got even tighter as her chest filled with nationalistic pride! Brad Hogg, having now identified more gaps than he was able to previously cope with — much of which he was now suddenly able to spot, thanks to the pride-swell and the resulting swell thereof — had to compose himself and then cope with his hurt pride. He asked the gap-lady to stop getting stuck into him for Australia’s win-less tour thus far! I was amazed that a player who was a part of Australian crickets’ “win generation” would so openly seek mercy (even if it was only mock-tragic plea), and that too from our gap-lady.

What an amazing turnaround in such a short period of time, I thought to myself as the gap-lady demonstrated that she had had enough of cricket and cut to her shopping expeditions in Goa!

Yes. What a remarkable turnaround in mind-set in such a short period of time? Even a year ago, the Australian press would have routinely got stuck into the Indian team for winning nothing on tours of Australia — as was the practice as well as the custom of India teams in the past. The Aussie method has always been unrelenting and unforgiving. The approach always is to never lift the foot off the pedal; when your opponent is down, keep them there. Suddenly, the shoe seems to have shifted to the other foot. And it appears that the Australian media has openly accepted that the shoe is on the other foot. While I do admit that there has been a ‘changing of the guard’ in International cricket, I did not expect that the change would be as swift and as palpable.

Not to lose an opportunity — having been on the receiving end on numerous occasions himself — Ravi Shastri said that this match represented the last opportunity for the Australians to salvage a “so far win-less tour of India”.

I am sure we will hear the phrase “win-less tour” played out several times today! Sigh!

But that is not the intent of this post. I do want to praise the BCCI.

Last week, the BCCI decided to send some of its senior players early to South Africa, ahead of the forthcoming Test Series there between South Africa and India.

I applaud this move.

This decision may have come at Gary Kirsten’s insistence. This may have been the decision to right an earlier scheduling wrong of completing the NZ ODI series just five days prior to the commencement of the 1st Test against South Africa at the Centurion in South Africa on 16 December — and this is Harsha Bhogle’s point. Harsha Bhogle does not like this righting of the earlier wrong. I disagree with him. Shock horror!

Regardless of the reasons for the BCCI decision, taken in isolation, the decision to send players early (and while the NZ ODIs are on) needs to be applauded.

If we cast our minds to India’s tour of New Zealand last year (2009), the BCCI organised for senior players to play in New Zealand counties prior to to India’s visit to that country. Coach Gary Kirten indicated that warm-up games were not necesssary for an experienced cricketer.

Yet, two things stood out for me with respect to that tour. Firstly, the ODI games were held prior to the Test matches. Second, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, L Balaji, Amit Mishra, M Vijay and Dhawal Kulkarni (players who only played the Test games) turned out for New Zealand domestic teams for a few games.

A cramped schedule is a feature of todays’ cricket world. Players and officials accept it. Fans and reporters need to accept it too. Tackling the reality of a cramped schedule requires creative, out-of-the box solutions. While I would generally like a less cramped schedule, I have accepted that as a modern-day reality. There is no space in the schedule any more for the luxury of a long list of practice games. Even those that are actually arranged sometimes turn out to be mere “eye washes”. In such an environment, we have to look for creative solutions. I am personally in favour of having ODIs precede Test matches. I believe India’s approach to the NZ series was indeed creative. Rahul Dravid even made many runs for Canterbury when he turned up for that team.

Similarly, prior to the South Africa series, BCCI has decided to send several Team India players early to South Africa to play a few practice games there.
It is expected that immediately after the 3rd Test match against New Zealand concludes on 24 November, a few senior players will depart for South Africa and play a few games there.

I would like to believe that, regardless of the selection constraints imposed by the World Cup, the India ODI team could do without the services of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh for the five ODIs against New Zealand.

Further, I would like to see the following 15-member Team India leave for South Africa immediately after the last Test match against New Zealand concludes: Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Suresh Raina, MS Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Sreesanth, Pragyan Ojha, Cheteshwar Pujara, M. Vijay and Jaidev Unnadkat. This is really the likely Test team! So, in other words, I’d like this collection of 15 players should be able to play at least 2 practice matches in South Africa against top RSA provincial teams.

I would then like to see Yuvraj Singh captain a young side aginst New Zealand in the the 5 ODIs that will be played between 26 November and 11 December.

We could then have the following 15-member team for the ODIs against New Zealand: Abhinav Mukund, Shikar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Rohit Sharma, Saurabh Tiwary, Wriddhiman Saha, R. Ashwin, Praveen Kumar, Ashish Nehra, Vinay Kumar, Abhishek Nayyar, Manish Pandey, Yusuf Pathan, Umesh Yadav.

It is quite likely that Ravindra Jadeja will, instead, be included in the above team. It is also likely that Irfan Pathan will continue to be out in the cold. It is also likely that the usual suspects will scream, “Why is S. Badrinath not a part of the above team!”

However, my point is less about the teams and more about the fact that we should use the opportunity to tease out the last remaining spots in India’s World Cup squad while, at the same time, send a Test team in advance to South Africa.

Todays’ cricket schedule requires out-of-the-box thinking. I applaud the BCCI for having accepted the problems posed by a mad schedule as a pragmatic reality. I am hopeful of a win-win solution.

Time to wash my mouth and hands with soap now…

— Mohan

The ODI spots that Team India needs to fill

In recent times, given that rain washed out the 1st ODI between India in Australia, MS Dhoni has captured some of the print- and air-space with his comments on team composition, come the World Cup. Ever since the completion of the exciting 2-Test series between India and Australia, after the accolades and paeans, after investigating Shane Warne’s tweets, and after dissecting the Australian media’s castigation of Ricky Ponting, there has not been much to write about!

Even the strange news of Manoj Prabhakar’s appointment as coach of the Delhi Ranji team does not make big news. I must say that I found it a very strange appointment. There is enough there from the man’s past for everyone to progress with appointments such as this with extreme caution. Perhaps only the DDCA could have dared pull off something as brazen as this! We will have to wait and see how the players react to this appointment. However, as I said, this appointment hasn’t really made the news. That is how slow things have been!

It has been a slow-news week in India cricket circles. The next ODI game cannot come fast enough.

Strangely, the same Indian media that was crying foul (earlier on in the year) at the low/small number of Test matches India plays is now spitting chips because there are only 12 ODI matches to go before the World Cup is on us! What does the Indian sport media want? More ODIs? More Tests? India needs to make up her mind! For my money, I think India has got the Tests-ODI balance right.

I think MS Dhoni is right when he says that, barring injury, only a few ODI spots remain for Team India as it marches towards its goal of delivering to Sachin Tendulkar, the one medal that he so covets — victory in the ODI World Cup!

Barring unforeseen injuries (and drastic dips in form), we must assume that the team will read:

Sachin Tendulkar
Virender Sehwag
Gautam Gambhir
Yuvraj Singh
Suresh Raina
MS Dhoni
B1 / B2
Harbhajan Singh / S1
Zaheer Khan
Praveen Kumar / P1
Ashish Nehra / P2

The balance of the above team and the fact that India has no real all-rounders to talk about, will mean that India has to go with 4 front-line bowlers and have Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, B1/B2 and Virender Sehwag share 10 overs between them. This is just how it is.

This also then means that S1 cannot be a bits-and-pieces player like Ravindra Jadeja. S1 has to be a spin-for-spin replacement for Harbhajan Singh in case of an injury (or dip in form) for India’s frontline spinner. The choice for me for S1, therefore, is between R. Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. I would back Ashwin because of the variety he offers.

The P1/P2 choice is simple. There are any number of people to chose from such as Ishant Sharma, Irfan Pathan, Sree Santh, Joginder Sharma (remember him?), Manpreet Gony, Umesh Yadav, Siddharth Trivedi, Dhawal Kulkarni, Abhimanyu Mithun and Jaidev Unnadkat. But my money will be on Vinay Kumar and Munaf Patel to grab those two spots. It is a sad reflection of the nature of the cup-board.

This leaves B1/B2.

Dhoni is in search of an all-rounder and a hard-hitting batsman (B1, B2). I would be very surprised if Virat Kohli is not B1. Dhoni has backed Sourabh Tiwary in recent interviews, and it might well be the hard-hitting lad from Jharkhand that gets the final nod. So we could have Sourabh Tiwary, M. Vijay, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Yusuf Pathan contesting for one final spot (B2).

Given that M. Vijay is essentially seen as an opener and given the Yusuf Pathan has not troubled the selection meeting much in recent times, the choice is between Sourabh Tiwary, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja. At least this explains why we continue to see Jadeja in the team! I thought we had seen the last of him after the ODIs against Sri Lanka. If Dhoni wants a hard-hitting batsman, then the shoulder-tap must belong to Sourabh Tiwary or Rohit Sharma.

India must, on the day, go with either a batsman or R. Ashwin at that vital #7 spot.

So, for me, the ODI Team India for the World Cup (barring injuries and dips in form) is likely to be:

Sachin Tendulkar
Virender Sehwag
Gautam Gambhir
Yuvraj Singh
Suresh Raina
MS Dhoni
Virat Kohli / Sourabh Tiwary (or R. Jadeja or Rohit Sharma)
Harbhajan Singh / R. Ashwin
Zaheer Khan
Praveen Kumar / Vinay Kumar
Ashish Nehra / Munaf Patel

So to my mind, there is really one spot up for grabs, really.

The 12 matches between now and the World Cup (2 against Australia, 5 against New Zealand at home and 5 against South Africa in South Africa) should be enough to sort out the extra spots. India needs a few questions answered:
– Is Ravindra Jadeja really good?
– Is Ashwin the next best spinner in the land?
– Can Munaf Patel play a string of matches together?
– Has Vinay Kumar arrived?

A few questions to be answered. If 12 matches cannot answer these questions, 25 matches will not!

— Mohan

India-Australia ODI Series: A Preview

At the height of the Chennai (South Indian Classical Music) Margazhi Festival, I attended an exhilarating Remember Shakti concert at The Music Academy. It featured a deluge of musical excellence, an amalgamation of the bewitching talents of U. Srinivas, Ustad Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan and Sivamani. I think my hair stood on end for 2 hours after I left the auditorium. The next morning, I found it hard to motivate myself to go watch the performance of a young, talented, upcoming musician. It was my intention to capture Shakti’s exquisite rendition of girirajasudha as my final memory of that ‘music season’, and not have it usurped by a freshman.

Going into the India-Australia ODI series, perhaps I can sniff that same feeling. But hypocrite that I am, apart from a hopeless cricket anorak, I just know that as the clock strikes 00:00 on Sunday, I will be in front of my laptop tuned in to the live streaming video of the first match at Kochi.

Both teams have rested several first choice players, to recharge batteries and allow battle wounds to heal. Shikhar Dhawan of Delhi & the Mumbai Indians has been rewarded with a maiden call-up for a string of consistent performances in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. In all probability, he will open the batting alongside Murali Vijay. Yuvraj Singh is back in his favourite format, and will be expected to don his familiar No. 4 role. He will know that the knives are out for him & his fitness and will be keen to counter criticism. He remains a critical component of India’s World Cup plans. M.S. Dhoni & Suresh Raina selecting themselves leaves Virat Kohli, Saurabh Tiwary and Rohit Sharma to fight it out for 2 batting slots. Tiwary has been in the mix for the last couple of tournaments without quite getting an opportunity. Rohit may find that this is his last chance, with S. Badrinath, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane & Abhinav Mukund breathing down his neck. The pace attack is not completely innocent of experience. Praveen Kumar will join forces with the enigmatic Munaf Patel and the moody Ashish Nehra. India could still bleed at the death though, and this is where R. Ashwin comes in. He is the lone specialist spinner in the squad, and judging by his performances during the Powerplay in the Champions League, he could steal the show. On comatose Indian pitches, it is highly unlikely that Vinay Kumar will make an impression, and the slot could have been better justified by including either Jaydev Unadkat, Umesh Yadav or Abhimanyu Mithun. The biggest mind-boggler, and it has been so for quite a while now, is the unwarranted presence of Ravindra Jadeja. What the selectors see in him, only they know.

Australia will be without Ricky Ponting, Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson. The balance that the all round talents of Watson brings to the table, along with his experience of Indian conditions, could be sorely missed. The batting still wears a healthy look. The explosive David Warner, the serene Shaun Marsh and the dangerous Cameron White – all household IPL names – will join forces with the old hands of skipper Michael Clarke & Mike Hussey. Neither Clarke nor Hussey have enjoyed the best of tours, and will look to make amends. Callum Ferguson, a relatively unknown commodity, is an exciting talent. Some of the Indians will have come across him in the Champions League. Doug Bollinger, the hustler, will spearhead an inexperienced attack. His ability to make things happen was sorely missed in the Test series. He will be assisted by the tall rookie Mitchell Starc. Clint McKay & Nathan Hauritz were part of Australia’s setup in the ODI series played in India last year. Both have more than satisfactory records in this format. Hauritz definitely wouldn’t miss Tendulkar, Sehwag & Laxman. Shane Warne’s Tweets might help him more than a coaching manual right now! It will be interesting to watch how the Aussies fit in an all-rounder in the XI. They aren’t short of options though, in the steady James Hopes, the highly reputed Steven Smith (I hope he plays!) and John Hastings, called in as a replacement for the injured James Pattinson. Tim Paine, one of Australia’s success stories from the Tests, has a great opportunity to narrow the gap between him and Brad Haddin.

The venues for the ODI series are Kochi, Visakhapatnam & Goa. One only hopes the attendance mirrors Bangalore and not Mohali. Visakhapatnam will hold special memories for Dhoni, having made his first big splash in international cricket there. In spite of a weakened side, India will start favourites. Dhoni has prior experience of working wonders with young inexperienced cricketers. The leveller will be the greater athleticism of the Aussies, although India, with sprightly personnel in their squad, will be better served than they were in the Test series. Rains across South India will have slowed down outfields, placing greater emphasis on fielding and running between the wickets.

With India riding a Test cricket high, and Australia gearing up for the Ashes, this series will be no more than a filler. Unlike the Test series, its brevity makes it more palatable. I predict India coming up trumps 2-1.

SQUADS

India:
MS Dhoni (Captain & wk), M Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Saurabh Tiwary, R Ashwin, Praveen Kumar, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Vinay Kumar, Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma

Australia:
Michael Clarke (Captain), Cameron White, David Warner, Shaun Marsh, Callum Ferguson, Michael Hussey, James Hopes, Tim Paine (wk),Clint McKay, John Hastings, Nathan Hauritz, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Doug Bollinger

SCHEDULE

1st ODI: India v Australia at Kochi
Oct 17, 2010 (09:00 local, 03:30 GMT)
2nd ODI: India v Australia at Visakhapatnam
Oct 20, 2010 (14:30 local, 09:00 GMT)
3rd ODI: India v Australia at Margao
Oct 24, 2010 (09:00 local, 03:30 GMT)

— TS Kartik (Guest Contributor)

Sleeper Hit

Two closely fought Tests, one of them a nail-biting humdinger. India blanks Australia. Sachin Tendulkar is Player of the Series. There’s little more an Indian fan might ask of a Border-Gavaskar Trophy Test series. Squeezed in to fortify India’s hold on the pole position in the ICC Test Rankings, it transcended the script of a potboiler in its journey from sleeper hit to blockbuster. Oscillating, as it did, between the subdued and the sublime, it rode the grind to showcase the grand. Blue collar in effort and yet blue chip in dividend.

Tendulkar has hardly ever given in to boisterous celebration of personal milestones, quite a few of which punctuated the latest duel with the Antipodeans. The roar of exultation that escaped him on completing the winning run though, betrayed the special regard he holds for the collective. The rare vulnerability to emotion provided a fascinating insight into what the latest achievement meant to the team. The legitimacy of India’s ranking is still sub-judice, but their A-game, as and when they unleash it, befits their top billing. For the first time since they reached the top of the totem pole, they played like they belonged there. Although stiffer challenges lie ahead, Dhoni’s men deserve to be proud of the last fortnight. A textbook Test series, gritty, intense and keenly contested, has also helped clear some of the murkiness brought on by the sleaze of spot-fixing.

The biggest peeve with 50-over cricket is its rote formula. And yet how fascinating was it to watch two Tests follow identical plots; screenplays whose singular idioms were the slow-burner and status quo. Except for days 3 & 5 in Bengaluru, neither team bossed a full day’s play across both matches. The said two days of Indian domination perhaps separated both the sides, by a margin that seems heavily exaggerated. Both stories unravelled slowly, proceeded in flux, seemed destined for stalemate until the cusps of climax, when a potluck of skill, fate, nous, gut and spirit contrived to produce a result. The much lamented absence of a third helping may have been rendered moot by the 2-0 result, but one cannot help but wonder if some of the tactics deployed by Australia may have been different in a longer rubber.

India will take a lot of heart from the fact that almost every individual did his two bit for the larger cause. Sachin lorded over the entire series and Laxman’s masterpiece in minutiae stole the thunder at Mohali, but an unfit Gambhir apart, not one member of the side can be accused of not making his presence felt. Dhoni himself didn’t have the best of times or tosses, but rang in an assortment of inspired moves to seize initiative. He enjoys the 90% luck that Richie Benaud deems crucial for captaincy, but also possesses the critical 10% skill without which the grey eminence of commentary doesn’t recommend taking up the job. When it mattered, both skipper and team always found an enforcer. It was a major triumph for Test cricket as the world’s leading T20 star played ombudsman to the grievance against awarding Tests to venues which don’t cherish them enough. BCCI’s deign off their high horse to scrutinise UDRS is also a significant step forward.

Watching Vijay & Pujara bat together on the final day made me rack my memory for the previous instance of 2 top order Indian batsmen in concert, neither of whom answered to the names of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman or Ganguly. The best I could come up with was Jaffer-Karthik in 2007, and before that, Das-Ramesh in 2001. For a middle order pairing, we may have to go back to 1995. The duo also manned silly positions on either side, in a throwback to 1998, when 2 of India’s current slippers – Dravid & Laxman – cut their teeth at short leg & silly point. It isn’t quite end-of-an-era, but a reality check has never appeared as emphatic. Already, Raina has woken Yuvraj up to the rude fact that an injury might cost you more than just one game. Vijay, with Abhinav Mukund not far behind, must certainly have Gambhir sweating. Pujara, earmarked to step into Dravid’s shoes, tried them on for size, and found that he quite liked them. Amidst a flurry of piercing drives & rousing pulls was a nifty back foot punch, as he persuaded a grubber through extra cover to exorcise the ghosts of his first innings dismissal. A pinch of salt is not out of place, for the young guard, with a combined experience of a dozen Tests, is yet to be stretched beyond our shores by the rigorous investigations of swing, bounce & the end of honeymoon.

Let’s spare a thought for Ricky Ponting, who has surely played his last Test in India. Like England, it hasn’t been favourite destination for Punter the captain, and unlike the Old Blighty, for Punter the batsman too. It is a pity since he is one of the most captivating batsmen to watch. While he only managed about half the runs that the alpha male in the opposite camp scored, I hope his abbreviated masterclass in his final innings on our soil leaves a lasting impression in our hearts. May that rasping pull shot live on.

When Pujara walked out at the fall of the first wicket, a friend dropped me a line. He said, “Pujara in Dravid’s place is the sign of things to come. If you remember, something similar happened in Kolkata in 2001. My hunch is that this is going to help the team win with confidence and also set the ball rolling for the future.” One half of his hunch did come true. Now for the second!

An aside:

Isn’t it curious how a succession of promising Tamil Nadu middle order batsmen starting from S. Sharath (anyone remember him?), across Robin Singh & Hemang Badani and now S. Badrinath, have been passed over for white flannelled honours, in spite of solid first-class records? Curiouser, that the same fate has evaded openers from the land, going back from M. Vijay to S. Ramesh, W.V. Raman and Kris Srikkanth.

– TS Kartik

Series a lot closer than result suggests

A 2-0 whitewash of Australia may seem to indicate that India dominated the two test series – far from it, it was a closely fought series and India happened to win the key moments of both games.

In the first test, an LBW decision against Ojha or the Steve Smith run out in the last few minutes of the game would have meant an Indian loss. And even though one team held a slight advantage over the other at the end of each of the five days, the result could have gone either way.

The second test was no different – Even when Australia went in on the fifth day morning with a lead of close to 200 and 2 wickets in hand, the game could have gone either way. Full credit to the Aussies for providing a wonderful contest. One couldn’t help but wonder why they played a 2-Test series – this just doesn’t do India-Australia tests any justice.

Indian positives

  • The batting line up showed a glimpse of the future. There were 3 relative new comers in the batting line up in the last test – Vijay, Pujara and Raina.
  • At the beginning of the series, I mentioned how important it was for Vijay to score a century if he has to establish himself in the team and he did just that. It couldn’t have come at a better time with India chasing 478 in the first innings.
  • Over 3 and half years ago, we pimped Pujara as a prospect for India, and yesterday he finally arrived on the scene with a confident fourth innings 72 on debut. It is a pity that both Vijay and Pujara will have to vacate their places when Gambhir and Laxman make their way back in to the team.
  • Zaheer Khan was India’s best bowler on display and he also ended up taking the most wickets in the series. Ishant bowled one good spell in the second innings (which as it turned out was vital in the scheme of things), and Sreesant showed why he should he part of the South African tour later this year. If all three are fit and bowling to their potential, the Proteas better watch out Smile
  • The biggest positive for India was of course Sachin Tendulkar. Laxman may have won us the match in Mohali, but it was Sachin who won us the series with his 400+ runs in a two match series. Sachin also regained the ICC #1 ranking during the course of the second test.
  • Attitude – Under Dhoni’s leadership, there is a kind of mental toughness in this team. This was clearly evident on the last day of both matches.

Scope for improvement

  • I thought Harbhajan Singh could have performed better (although he was #2 on the wickets list in this series). Ojha, IMO bowled better than Harbhajan Singh in this series.
  • The number of no balls bowled by some of the Indian bowlers is a concern – particularly when 3 of these no balls resulted in wickets in the series!
  • Dravid succumbed to a left arm seamer three times in this series edging the ball on all three occasions (in fact Ponting missed a trick, when Dravid came out to bat – I was surprised to see Hilfenhaus replace Johnson even before Dravid had a faced a single ball of him!) – I am sure he will work on it (TV footage showed him practicing just that in the nets).
  • The short ball is another worry. I think the likes of Raina haven’t done enough to prove that they are comfortable against the shorter ball (and the Proteas are taking note)
  • Barring Ishant Sharma, the rest of the tail succumbed way too quickly to offer any comfort.
  • Gambir’s injuries. Although Vijay has stepped in for him, we need a fit Gambhir at the top of the order.

The Aussie view

  • Somehow the Aussies see this tour more of an opening act and that the main act is the Ashes this year.  They had hoped they would have found the answers they were looking for, but there are more unanswered questions than there were before they started the tour
  • Ponting came to India as a captain who hasn’t won a single test match here and he went back with that dubious record intact. Some of his moves were brilliant and some of them were pretty ordinary. In the end, when it it mattered the most, his captaincy was just not up to scratch.
  • The batting is heavily reliant on the top 3 in the batting order – Katich, Watson and Ponting. The middle order has just not fired. North may have saved his place in the team with a hundred in the 2nd test, but I am not convinced he is the best choice for the spot he is occupying. Hussey and Clarke are another worry – they just didn’t fire.
  • Indians play spin well, but that is no excuse for Hauritz. His bowling just looked ordinary. England may be a different kettle of fish.
  • Paine was just brilliant – it is a pity, he will have to sit out when Haddin comes back in to the team.
  • George may not be amongst the wickets, but I think he is definitely a good find and someone for the future.

-Mahesh-