Much has been written about India not going that extra mile to win the last Test in New Zealand in the last few days. I wrote about India missing a “Tipping Point” moment. Mahesh also wrote about Good Enough not being Enough anymore!
These thoughts were summed up pretty accurately by Samir Chopra, in his CricInfo Blog.
In a two-part article, Samir Chopra says, “Why did Dhoni need 600 plus runs on the board? To set attacking fields? Why were 500 runs not enough? Because New Zealand had scored 600 runs in the first innings of the last Test? And if he wanted to set attacking fields then why didn’t he set them? I didn’t see fields that were consistently the hyper-aggressive fields that a captain with 600 runs on the board could set. (If you want to see aggressive fields for spinners and pacers alike, go find a video of Imran Khan’s field settings during the 1982 series against England, his first as captain). If the idea was to get 600 runs on the board and go on all-out attack, then why was the Indian team’s demeanour in the post-tea session on the fourth day that of giggling schoolboys? They didn’t look like meanies that had put 600 runs on the board and were in your face thereafter. This slackness affected their catching as well; three catches went down on the fifth day itself. (Dileep Premchandran notes that had those been held, India would have won anyway; perhaps; but perhaps the reason they weren’t held was that the team’s mind wasn’t fully set on winning the game as opposed to the series).”
I couldn’t have put it any better!
Some of us Team India fans could not digest the go-slow approach at The Oval against England and still got over that disappointment to savour India doing well subsequent to that in the T20 Championship and against Australia. Some of us could not digest the last Test draw against England in December, but still got over that to savour India’s success against Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Similarly, I am sure we will get over the disappointment of a mere 1-0 win against New Zealand!
Setting the expectation bar higher is not necessarily a bad thing!
However, I am confident that the disappointment of a mere 1-0 result in New Zealand will soon be forgotten as we see the dancing ladies, pom-poms and skin-tight lycras of cheer-squads in a variety of T20 and ODI tournaments that India has lined up over the next few months. As we look back on Team India’s tour of New Zealand, we look forward to a year filled with T20 and ODI tournaments.
India does not play a Test match for a while now!
So who were the heroes and the zeroes of the NZ tour?
India’s support cast of M. Vijay, Amit Mishra, L. Balaji and Dhawal Kulkarni did not get a gig. That speaks as much to India’s consistency as well as it does to the faith that the team management reposes in its players. In my view, this is how the rest of the tour party fared in the Tests.
9.5: Gautam Gambhir — The biggest hero to emerge from the tour. He was the biggest find of the tour. He convinced everyone he could bat outside India. He saved the Test match in Napier for India and scored heavily in every Test. Although he had a marginal ODI tournament, he played well enough to emerge as an A-lister! In my view, it is because of him that India has risen to #3 position in the Test rankings. When asked some time back whether he preferred Aakash Chopra or Gautam Gambhir as his opening partner, Sehwag said, “I prefer Chopra because he gives me more of the strike!”, and therein lies the value of Gautam Gambhir. He is a diminutive opener, built in the Justin Langer mould. He has the fighting qualities that Langer brought to his game. But he mixes those fighting qualities with the aggressive mindset of a Matthew Hayden. In my mind, there was a question mark over his stomach for a back-to-the-wall fight. There was also a doubt over how he would perform in seaming conditions. Gambhir has ticked both boxes emphatically and emerged from the tour as India’s biggest asset despite a somewhat lacklustre showing in the ODIs. His poor ODI showing makes his Test performance even better! He shrugged off indifferent form in the ODIs to score heavily in the Tests. Full marks to this impressive lad.
9.0: Harbhajan Singh — He won the Test match for India in Hamilton by taking 6 wickets in the second innings. He bowled well as India’s lead spinner. He also topped the bowling charts in terms of # of wickets. India needs Harbhajan Singh to step up to the plate. Right from his debut series, it is when he has been labelled the “lead spinner” that Harbhajan Singh has emerged strongest. So also on this tour. He emerged as the highest wicket taker in the series. But more than that, he bowled with zip, rip and flight and rarely speared balls in as his wont! Apart from his performance in the Tests, more often than not, it was Harbhajan Singh that turned the screws on in the ODIs too. Apart from his bowling, Harbhajan Singh continues to develop as a bat. A solid #8 is vital to India’s hopes of ascending the Test ladder and Harbhajan Singh has constantly been part of major rearguard fights — Sydney 2008 and Bangalore 2008 spring to mind immediately.
8.5: Zaheer Khan — He had a wonderful tour. He bowled more overs than either Ishant Sharma or Munaf Patel. He shouldered the ace pace bowler responsibility and performed solidly. He made initial breakthroughs almost always and shone with the bat too. A recent analysis of his overseas performances underscored Zaheer importance to this team. He has taken 149 of his 210 wickets away from ‘home’. “His percentage of 70.95 is the highest among all bowlers who’ve taken at least 200 wickets. In fact he is well clear of second-placed Michael Holding, who has a percentage of 65.46.” Impressive indeed. Zaheer Khan had a very good ODI series too. Like Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan too has impressed with the bat lately. It is always comical when Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh bat together — not quite in the Javagal-Kumble mould, but comical nevertheless! Both of them seem to relish making contributions to the team cause with both bat and ball and so get close to full marks.
8.0: Sachin Tendulkar — He also had a wonderful tour. It seems that Tendulkar has found second wind in his career after beating Brian Lara’s record. He seems almost unstoppable these days. I will not say that his fluency reminded us of the “Tendulkar of the old”. I am convinced that the Tendulkar of today is the Tendulkar we see today! The Tendulkar of old is exactly that — Tendulkar of old! His 160 in Hamilton was a gem, but for me, his 62 in Wellington was the score I’ll store on my favourites. It is a pity that India is not playing too any more Test matches in the next 8-9 months. His 160* score in the ODI series has many people still drooling. He would have gone on to make a 200 (perhaps) but for a stomach muscle tear.
7.5: V. V. S. Laxman — Laxman proved his detractors wrog — again! The man has always been fighting off his detractors. But it looks like he is finally comfortable in both his own shoes as well as the role he has in the team. With Sourav Ganguly’s departure, he has moved one slot higher in the batting order. He also seems to draw comfort from the knowledge that he has the dependable and rock-solid Dhoni coming in after him! This has enabled him to play his own game lately. And whether it is defence or attack, he has looked assured, while looking attractive. His second innings century at Napier was fluent, artistic and solid — all at once!He scored 295 runs at 73.75 in the series! A good series which is only blotted by the knowledge that we will have to wait a while to see him in India colours again!
7.0: Rahul Dravid — Although he had hit a century in the previous series, a sword continued to hang over this mans’ head! With the recent retirement of Sourav Ganguly, the clarion calls were growing for Dravid’s imminent departure or announcement. Dravid did make an announcement! It was that he was not in a tearing hurry to leave the scene! The chapter is still incomplete! He will be disappointed that he did not convert his starts of 66, 8*, 83, 62, 35 and 60 to much more. However, he will take the 314 runs he made @ 62.8 any day although he will rue the poor umpiring decisions he received! But these were strong returns for this Gentleman of Indian Cricket. He also signalled that he will be around for a while longer. And judging by the way he played, who would begrudge him his opportunities? It would do him and Team India good, however, if the selectors sat him down and worked out his plans for the future. Again, his good series is only blotted by the knowledge that we will have to wait a while to see him in India colours again!
6.0: Virender Sehwag — Virender Sehwag puts fear into the opposition when he walks in. He showed how dangerous he could be in the ODIs. His amazing ODI century was breathtaking in its audacity as well as its brutality and skill. And that is purely why Sehwag is higher in the rankings than Dhoni. In the Tests, Sehwag missed out after making some explosive starts. He had a terrific start at Hamilton and missed out. He received a lot of flack for the shots he played against Daniel Vettori and Jeetan Patel in Napier. But we have to perhaps learn to accept that that is how he plays his game. He lives for today and it perhaps does not hurt to have a player like him in the midst, especially since India has, in Gautam Gambhir, one of the more dependable openers in recent memory.
5.0: M. S. Dhoni — He had a funny tour, in my opinion. He still hasn’t lost a Test match as captain. He brings that X-factor to his captaincy and his team. He is positive and fearless and his energy seems to rub off on his team — even the “seniors” in it. His absence was noticeable in the Napier Test. Virender Sehwag, the next best leader-option in the team — assuming that Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman will not take up that responsibility — was shown up quite badly. Sehwag seems to lack a strategic bone in his body and, to his credit, does not seem to really want one or need one! But Dhoni was missed in Napier. His wicketkeeping was missed in Napier. His batting was also missed at #7 and I personally missed his almost non-stop Hindi commentary from behind the stumps! I seriously think that the TV station should run a separate “Dhoni Channel” when the cricket is on! But that’s another matter for another day… He keeps it simple and uncomplicated. When asked about why the team arrived “late” into Napier (only the afternoon before the Test match), he said, “The mind doesn’t know if it’s Napier or not. You come and say this is Napier it believes it’s Napier, you say it is day it believes it is day because it’s about how you treat the mind… We think more about the small steps rather than have a look at what we want to achieve in the longer run. We know that if we achieve the small milestones what we want to achieve in the longer run will take care of itself. We think about a series, and we break the series into games. And every game is a different game in which we start from scratch.” By the way, this is exactly what Greg Chappell was saying too! But he made himself out to be a pontificating Guru. He was constantly challenged, continually ridiculed and then shown the door! Dhoni brings that earthy matter-of-fact approach to leadership. But despite his X-factor captaincy and despite his solid showing in both ODIs and Tests, he scores low in my books because of his wrong decision on the 4th morning of the 3rd Test — my view on this was recorded at the end of day-4 of the Test match itself (well before rains turned the 2-0 party in Wellington into a mere 1-0 party!).
4.0: Ishant Sharma — Ishant Sharma promised more than he delivered. He is still a work-in-progress. He will improve. He will get better and stronger. India needs to invest more on him. He had a good match at Hamilton but struggled to bowl into the wind at Wellington. Of course, all bowlers struggled at Napier! He bowled well in patches and it is fair to say that he will have learned from this outing.
3.0: Munaf Patel — I really do not know when players like Munaf Patel will realise that it is not enough to just rock up on the park and assume that “she’ll be right, mate”! The fact that the entire team applauded a dive that Munaf Patel put in on the boundary rope is symptomatic of his problems. A dive must be de rigueur. If your team mates are surprised that you can actually dive, that is cause for concern! He blows hot one day and cold the next. He lacks consistency and I suspect that it is because he either does not “put in” enough to his game and his preparations. Or maybe he just leaves his thinking cap behind in the Hotel room every morning! He had a terrific match in Hamilton. He played the 3rd bowler card perfectly and performed his role to perfection. He kept it tight and took wickets too. However, when the batsmen got stuck into him at Napier, he dropped his bundle and his tour went South from there on! He looked completely disconnected from proceedings subsequent to that point. He dropped catches, could not bend down to field regular shots and just missed the point of being part of a team! He needs a wake up call or a kick up his backside. He needs to work on his fitness, period. You are not going to teach him to be a better fielder and dive around the park. Not now. He has missed that bus many years ago! However, what he has to learn is complete commitment to his fellow bowlers — if not the entire team. A good, mentally strong, fit and committed Munaf Patel is important for India if she is to challenge the #2 and #1 spots.
2.0: Yuvraj Singh — What I wrote about Munaf Patel could be said about Yuvraj Singh too. He had several opportunities to not only cement the #6 spot, but make it his own. Instead, he used the tour to default on his loan repayments. His line of credit has been extended. But only just! He had a poor tour. For me, it was less his ability with the seaming ball and his low returns that made me give him such a low score. It was due to his overall lethargy in the field. He just did not seem to belong in this company. A few years ago, he was the touted as the great hope of the Indian infield. He was! He was seen as the messiah that would inspire a generation of Indian cricketers to throw themselves around on the park like a Jonty Rhodes or a Ricky Ponting. Today he is already a pale shadow of what he was even yesterday! Unfortunately, this means that he might need to start all over again! I think he can do it. He has to sharpen his fitness and lose those needless excess kilos. He also has to fix that ‘dodgy knee’. He seems to me to be a man pre-occupied by that weakness. We may then see a better, fitter and a more free Yuvraj Singh.
1.0: Dinesh Karthik — The only positive contribution from Dinesh Karthik on this tour is that he has ensured that Yuvraj Singh does not get lined up at the rear of the class! I would not be surprised if Dinesh Karthik played his last Test at Napier. The only good thing about his ‘keeping in the 1st Innings of that Test was that he made the Kiwis wonder if he had been selected for his batting! Once they saw him batting, they were left scratching their heads! I strongly believe that it is time the team and the selectors invested in Wriddhiman Saha, Naman Ojha and Srivats Goswami.
Overall, this was a steady tour for Team India. I’d have preferred a 2-0 result, but will take this in the hope of better things in the future.
In conclusion, I must say that the pitches as well as the schedule worked in India’s favour. Gautam Gambhir was “allowed to fail” in the ODIs without allowing it to form a ‘mental block’ for him. The bowlers — particularly Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh — got used to the conditions. So a big tick to the BCCI for drawing up a schedule. A big tick too to the BCCI for also organising for Dravid, Laxman, Kulkarni and Laxman to play a few provincial games in New Zealand. It can’t have hurt India’s preparations.