Tag Archives: South Africa

More positives from India’s loss to RSA…

At the risk of getting my nose out of joint, let me state at the outset that I am quite glad India lost to South Africa. South Africa played exceedingly well over 60-overs of the match. However, they were aided commendably by India’s Bollywood-style “glamour” batting. The result was that Group-B becomes quite interesting — if it wasn’t enticingly poised already!

For the first 40 overs of the game, it appeared as though the only question worth considering was the margin of India’s victory. Then the wheels started falling off the India innings. India lost 9 wickets in 29 runs. After being 267 for 1 wicket after 39.3 overs, in the end, India did not even bat out the full quota of 50 overs! Moreover, India captain Dhoni — probably one of the best finishers in the World ODI scene — was left not out on 12 off 21 balls! It was more than mayhem. It was daylight thuggery. India had fallen some 40 runs short of what would have been a competitive total. More importantly, India fell about 70 runs short of what I thought the team would make — at the 30-over mark, India was 197 for 1!

South Africa needed 297 to win. Although India bowled and fielded well, the total was never going to be enough.

Much of the post-match commentary and analysis in India has focussed on whether Yusuf Pathan ought to have been promoted; whether Gautam Gambhir ought to be in the team; whether Harbhajan Singh ought to have bowled the last over instead of Ashish Nehra; why Ashwin is not in the team… yada yada yada.

Some unkind reports have said that South Africa did not win the game — that India lost it. That is not only blind, but rude at the same time! The South African’s played really well. They pulled it back from over-40 and then batted sensibly.

In general though, the papers have got stuck into MS Dhoni.

As for me, I am very happy India lost the game. For me, there are more positives than negatives from India’s loss last night.

Three reasons really:

  • Final Group Standings: If India had won, India would have, in all likelihood, topped Group-B (barring a disaster against West Indies). If India had topped Group-B, the team would have, in all likelihood, faced Pakistan. Australia and Pakistan (despite recent results and despite the baffling and continued presence of Kamran Akmal in the team) are the only two teams that I believe Team India fears in Group-A. My sense and prediction is that Australia will top Group-A and Pakistan will come in at #4 in Group-A. So, as long as India finish either 2 or 3 in Group-B India will be fine. India will do well against New Zealand or Sri Lanka, in my view.
  • Team Balance: I think India team management — what is a “think tank” anyway? I just abhor that phrase and refuse to use it — needed a kick up its stubborn backside. The team balance is wrong and the current “imbalance” compromises and exposes her bowling terribly.
  • Batting approach: The team’s approach to batting — especially in the batting Power Play — is totally wrong and that exposes the rest of the batting. India does not play the power overs well — not because India cannot. The approach needs a re-think that is not really too hard. Especially from a team that wants to “win it for Sachin”, a more considered approach was required in a game in which the Master had scored 111! This was no way to “win it” for anyone! So, I was happy with this kick being delivered in a match that India could afford to lose.

Each of the above factors deserve a bit more of an analysis and that is precisely what I shall attempt below…

Final Group Standings:

At the time of writing this, New Zealand has beaten Canada. In Group-A, the remaining games (along with my prediction of the winner of the game in parenthesis) are:

  • Australia v Kenya (Australia)
  • Pakistan v Zimbabwe (Pakistan)
  • Australia v Canada (Australia)
  • New Zealand v Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka)
  • Australia v Pakistan (Australia)
  • Kenya v Zimbabwe (care factor?)

So I expect the final Group-A standings to be: Australia (11), Sri Lanka (9), New Zealand (8), Pakistan (8) since I expect New Zealand to have a better NRR than Pakistan. The two “tricky” games to predict are Australia Vs Pakistan and NZ Vs SL. But I have gone with Australia and Sri Lanka winning these games, respectively.

In Group-B, the “Group of Death“, the remaining games and my predicted results for these are:

  • Bangladesh v Netherlands (Bangladesh)
  • Ireland v South Africa (South Africa)
  • England v West Indies (England)
  • Ireland v Netherlands (Ireland)
  • Bangladesh v South Africa (South Africa)
  • India v West Indies (India)

The results for this group are a bit harder to predict. For example, the England Vs Windies and the India Vs Windies results are hard to call. But I expect the results to be as above.

Either way, I do not expect Bangladesh to beat South Africa. So, I do not see a danger of India not qualifying even if she loses the game against West Indies next weekend. If India loses to West Indies (and Bangladesh loses to South Africa, as expected), it is likely that India might end 4th in the points table and meet Australia. Oh well. Them’s the breaks.

However, I expect the final Group-A standings to be: South Africa (10), India (9), England (7), West Indies (6) and Bangladesh (6), with West Indies qualifying because of superior run rate. Of course, any number of apple carts will be turned if West Indies beat England and if Bangladesh beat South Africa.

Let us assume that the final standings are as per my simulation above. In that case, India will play New Zealand. I reckon that this is an easier game than either Australia, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. So, in a strange way, I am glad India lost to South Africa last night!

I am not saying that India cannot beat Pakistan or that India needs to “fear” Pakistan. The problem is that one can never be sure which Pakistan team turns up on the day! I would, therefore, much rather prefer India meeting Pakistan in the Finals, if both teams get that far!

Team Balance:

I am even happier India lost because the team’s balance and batting approach are horrible, in my view.

I just do not accept that a powerful batting line-up should (or can) mask poor bowling resources. This is an utter fallacy. If we take that proposition to its logical conclusion, why then would we not stack the team up with 11 batsmen or with 5 batsmen, a wicket-keeper and 5 “bits and pieces” players?

Any team has to be balanced and at the moment it is just not balaced. The closest the team got to achieving that bowling balance was in yesterdays’ game against South Africa! If only the Indians had scored 20-50 runs more (easily possible, in my view) the bowlers would have defended it. Of course, that is a speculative assertion and in this space, any assertion that you make to the contrary is as good as the assertion above! But the fact is that, with a more considered batting approach, India could have scored 330 runs. The fact is that a lopsided bowling attack was not able to defend 330 in Bangalore (and the Bangalore and Nagpur conditions/pitches were similar). Hence my hypothesis that with the additional bowler that India had in yesterdays’ game, with an additional cushion of 30 runs, the bowlers may/would have been able to defend such a total. The South Africa batsmen would have had to take far more risks and may have folded!

But really. All of these are speculative still. I would like to be a bit more considered and firm in my analysis and conclusion.

The team just cannot afford to go in with 2 pace bowlers, 2 spinners and leave that 5th bowling resource to Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kohli (or Suresh Raina) and Yusuf Pathan. The Indian spin bowlers do not bowl well in the bowling powerplay — although they did do the job in yesterdays’ game. If Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel get taken to the cleaners by Chris Gayle or Brendon McCullum, you have to have another pace bowler to fall back on. Moreover, I have generally observed that Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh bowl a more attacking line — even when they are attacked — if they know that the team has additional bowlers to depend on.

So I would like India to go in boldly with 3 pace bowlers and 2 spinners.

This inevitably means that one of Yusuf Pathan or Virat Kohli or Gautam Gambhir have to make way for a bowler.

I would rest Yusuf Pathan for the next game and bring in a spinner for the game against West Indies.

So in my view, the team for next Sunday’s game against West Indies (and for all other games after that) should be: Tendulkar, Sehwag, Gambhir, Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Dhoni, Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel

That certainly weakens the batting. But with all the top batsmen in good form — everyone in that top 6 has scored well recently — if we cannot do it with those 6, the 7th bat will be useless too, in my view.

So India has to bite the bullet and go with the above, more well-balanced team. I have only been saying this for the last 2 months or so! And I will continue to say it till someone listens to me!

And for my money Ashwin is a better bowler than Chawla because, apart from being very good at his craft, he is apparently mentally stronger too!

Batting approach:

There is no point in blaming Ashish Nehra for the last over debacle. There is no evidence to suggest that Harbhajan Singh would have done a better job. One has to trust the instincts of the leader in the middle. However, with just 14 runs to get in the last over, that becomes a 50-50 situation whoever the bowler is. So discussion on who ought to have bowled the last over is simply quite futile. The captain made a decision based on his knowledge of the game, the opposition players out in the middle, his knowledge of his bowlers’ strengths and the game situation. He made a decision. It did not work. If it had worked, we would have hailed him as a genius! Chances are that it might have worked!

Nehra might learn from this that the yorker has not yet been banned from the game, yet! Generally, it is a good ball to bowl in the last over. Bowling it “just slightly back of a length” is not a smart idea when there are only 14 runs to get; when the batsmen are looking to smash it to mid-wicket! If his confusion persists all he needs to do is see that ball Dale Steyn bowled to Harbhajan Singh!

Ditto, Dhoni’s decision to promote Yusuf Pathan. He made a call. It did not work. What Pathan might learn from his sad outing is that he does not have to go for “glamour shots” off each ball. As far as I know, the “defensive stroke for a single” has not been banned from the game, yet!

But (I feel a Sidhu moment descending on me) one cannot drive forward by looking continually at the rear-view mirror! We do need to move on, really…

The main learning for the Indian batsmen is that they continued to go for “glamour shots” (in the words of Sunil Gavaskar). After being 267-1 in the 40th over, it was nothing short of professional negligence to fold from that point on for a mere 29 runs! In Dhoni’s words, the batsmen “don’t need to play for the spectators – they love sixes and fours in India but at the end of the day….,”.

In my book, a spot-on assessment by a smart captain. Was he right to call it that way? I think so. Tendulkar, Gambhir, Pathan, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan all went for “Bollywood” shots to please the crowd and the assembled Bollywood stars! Sometimes, it is useful to be boring. Dhoni was being boring. The game had changed in front of his eyes. He had to set aside his ego and machismo to pull things back. Sadly, several other Indian batsmen could not see past the end of their noses to realize that there was a world out there (Oh dear! Have I been listening to Sidhu far too much?).

Conclusion:

So in conclusion, I think there are silver linings all around. India will not top Group-B, and that is good. The team management will look hard at team balance and the inclusion of an extra bowler, and that is good. The batsmen will have learned from the game and will, I believe, try less to be “winners on their own”, and that can only be good.

– Mohan (@mohank on Twitter)

Unacceptable ways of two captains…

In an article on the Umpire Decision Review System, the UDRS, I alluded to the umpires assistance system drawing two distinct and different responses from captains in two countries separated by the Indian Ocean. The Boxing Day Test matches at the MCG and Kingsmead, Durban, saw Ricky Ponting and Greame Smith pull their hair out at the UDRS — the former because it was there and, in his view, implemented wrongly and the latter, because it just wasn’t there! In South Africa and in Australia, we had two captains acting in somewhat strange ways.

Fast forward to the eve of the New Years’ Test matches in Australia and South Africa and we again have two mystifying cases of captains doing things in strange ways.

On the eve of the RSA-India Test match, the hot-headed, ill-tempered, motormouth, Sreesanth received a public rebuke and a dressing down from his captain, MS Dhoni.

On the eve of the Australia-England Test match, it was Ricky Ponting and not Michael Clarke who responded to the Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard’s speech.

Both of these were examples of bad leadership, in my view.

Mind you, Sreesanth should have his head kicked in (repeatedly). He just does not seem to learn from his past transgressions. He started off as a bit of a maverick when he twirled his bat — lasso-style — at serial-foul-mouth Andre Nel, after he had hit the South African bowler for a six! That was somewhat cute! Most of us tolerated it and put that down to a fiery personality who gave it back as good as he got; a joker who did not take a backward step in coming forward. His track record of offensive behavior since that incident, makes for sorry reading. Make no mistake of that. He sledged an Australian player as a drinks-carrier after which Ian Chappell called for his banning from the game for a period of time! Sreesanth’s own response to all of the brouhaha surrounding him was that he wanted to “find that exact limit between really bad and really good. See how far I can go.”

Right!

One thought he had learned his lessons. But no, a few months later, he got slapped by Harbhajan Singh and immediately broke down and cried on the field.

Subsequent to that the BCCI warned him that he was on a suspended sentence for bad behavior for using foul language against Dhawal Kulkarni in an Irani Cup match. A contrite Sreesanth said we would all see a new-and-improved man on the ground henceforth. A few months later, he was fined for dissent during the IPL.

His is a case of a talented bowler doing more with his eyes and mouth than with his excellent wrists, when bowling. His is an example of an errant boy who just refuses to grow up. His over-the-top antics, which were once “cute” are now becoming an acute embarrassment to a fan of Team India.

At the top of his run up, prior to bowling every ball, Sreesanth pumps his hands two or three times in a motion that seems to suggest “Stay calm and focus”. Somewhere between that motion and when he actually delivers the ball, his brain appears to either get fried or tired. What usually happens then is a stare or a glare or some foul words delivered in the direction of the batsman. The day is not far away when an opposition batsman will hit him with a bat. The BCCI and the Team India captain needs to ensure that their motormouth is adequately insured from such an eventuality.

Story is that in Durban, Sreesanth invoked Greame Smith’s mother in a colorful sledge delivered at the South African captain. An irate Smith waved his bat at the foul-mouthed Indian bowler, lost his head and immediately lost his wicket too!

Dreadfully sad? No. Not really.

My own view is that those who throw stones in an open and filthy drain should not be allowed to dictate the chemistry of the liquid that splashes back at them. However, that said, there is apparently a “line” that cricketers do not cross. Don’t ask me why that line exists. I’d be all for an all-or-nothing approach where one can bring in anything and anyone into a sledge! I am yet to see the Mafia’s published rule book on honorable and dignified methods of killing, for example!

However, the fact is that Graeme Smith was extremely upset that the cricket field was a place where Sreesanth wanted to conduct a discussion on his mother! Smith complained to Dhoni.

Dhoni washed dirty linen in a press conference and reprimanded his player through the media!

I thought that that was a strange case study in bad leadership; strange because Dhoni always comes across as a man who is correct and yet clear in everything he utters. This was certainly very strange. Mind you, Sreesanth, as I said before, does repeatedly cry out to have his head kicked in. But to do that through the media either indicates a bad hair-day for Dhoni or that the India captain is at the end of his tether! Either way this is practice of bad leadership.

Across the Indian Ocean, we witnessed another stark example of bad leadership. Ricky Ponting had just vacated his post as captain of the Australian cricket team. Micheal Clarke was appointed caretaker captain for the last Test against the visiting (and already triumphant) England. Instead of leaving the controls in Clarke’s hands and disappearing from the scene, Ponting indicated that he would hover around the team in the dressing room! This was remote-control leadership. It just does not work. The bus was being driven by Michael Clarke, but Ponting’s hand was firmly on the wheel!

For example, at an official reception to the teams it was Ponting that responded to a welcome by Australian Prime Minister, Julia Guillard.

In my view, these are two examples of questionable leadership on the same day!

— Mohan

Team India are poor travelers?

In the last few days, two very interesting victories have made cricket interesting once again. India won at Kingsmead, Durban and England clinched The Ashes with a famous victory at the MCG.

For sometime now, I have been maintaining a list of some of the most thrilling Indian Test Cricket victories in recent times. I have added to this list, India’s victory on 29 December 2010 at Kingsmead, Durban, South Africa. The addition of “Durban 2010 v South Africa” to this impressive list is because it was once again a come-from-behind victory after a terrible loss in the 1st Test of the series (at Super Sport Park). The Durban victory is an important victory for Team India because it goes a long way towards debunking a myth — yet again! — that India plays badly overseas.

Is it important for India to debunk myths about her ability to play overseas?

No. Not really.

I think it is enough if India plays well every time she takes the field — regardless of where it is. And that is exactly what Team India has been doing in the last decade.

There are trash-talkers who wish to talk with their mouths and then play, sometimes simultaneously and almost always, to their own detriment — as Graeme Smith found out quite rudely in the Durban Test match! Greame Smith can believe the myths he creates to make himself happy about his lot in life. These myths have a strange way of enveloping the myth-creators. When that happens, the inevitable outcome is a simple pin-prick that results in a painful deflation of the balloon of arrogance. The myth-creators are often blind-sided by the myths that they create!

In the last decade, India has won 22 and lost 20 of her 61 overseas Tests for a win/loss ratio of 1.1 and a draw/loss ratio of 0.95. In the same period, when compared with the performance of South Africa, Australia, England and Sri Lanka, the corresponding figures for Australia (for Wins, Losses, Total Overseas Tests, W/L and D/L) are clearly the best at 34, 16, 59, 2.12, 0.56. The figures for South Africa are: 21, 18, 56, 1.16, 0.95. The figures for England are 19, 23, 62, 0.82, 0.86 and those for Sri Lanka are 11, 19, 39, 0.57, 0.47.

Clearly, Australia has the best win-loss ratio, thanks to Australia’s stunning performances when Steve Waugh (and then Ricky Ponting) captained an excellent team with Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Waugh, Martyn, Waugh, Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, Gillespie et al. India’s win-loss ratio in the same period compares favorably with that of South Africa and puts into shade, the win-loss performances of Sri Lanka and England.

The draw/loss ratio is not a metric that is often used in comparative analyses of this sort. It is, in my view, as important as the more obvious win-loss ratio that is used almost always. It is a pointer to a teams’ grit and resolve — especially when it plays in unfamiliar conditions. A draw might not be a pretty sight. But it is a pointer to a teams’ grit in tough situations. The above figures might show Australia in poor light as a team that has an inability to grit it out. But this might be more due to the rather refreshing “win at all costs” attitude Australia used to employ in the early part of this decade. But India has drawn almost as many Tests as she has lost in overseas Tests!

Team India has an impressive draw-loss ratio and an acceptable win-loss ratio that is constantly improving.

For example, if we take just the last 5 years, the win-loss and draw-loss ratios are 1.44 and 1.33 for India, 1.66 and 0.89 for Australia, 1.62 and 0.875 for South Africa, 0.6 and 0.86 for England, and, 0.7 and 0.6 for Sri Lanka.

Overall, apart from the impressive Australia team — and that too, in the first half of this decade gone by — India stacks up really well with other top teams in terms of her “overseas” performances. So, in my view, it is time we start debunking these myths about Team India being poor travelers.

To me, with the addition of the latest victory at Kingsmead, this big-list list of recent Indian Test victories reads: Kolkata 2001 (v Australia), Leeds 2002 (v England), Adelaide 2003 (v Australia), Multan 2004 (v Pakistan), Sabina Park 2006 (v West Indies), Johannesburg 2006 (v South Africa), Perth 2008 (v Australia), Mohali 2008 (v Australia), Chennai 2008 (v England), Colombo, P. Sara 2010 (v Sri Lanka), Kingsmead Durban 2010 (v South Africa).

It is fair to say that, with a few days to go to the end of the current decade, the period from 2001 to 2010 has represented an exciting decade for Indian cricket. We have seen some exciting talent explode onto the scene — MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, to name a few. We are seeing a few young turks itching to have a crack on the big stage — Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, M. Vijay, Pragyan Ojha and Ishant Sharma, to name a few. And this entire march has been presided over by the “Famous Five” or the “Fab Five”; five of the best gentlemen to grace Indian cricket together in the same team.

One of this quintet — The Famous Five — was responsible for this sensational victory in Durban. The smiling assassin, V. V. S. Laxman, carefully scripted this impressive victory. And with this victory, the world might start accepting that a green-top is as useful to India as it is to the host.

As Dileep Premachandran says, “If one picture could tell you the story of how Indian cricket’s fortunes have changed in three years, it would be that taken at Kingsmead at 9.58am on Wednesday. Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, who had tested his captain’s patience in the last game by taking an age to bowl his overs, pitched one just short of a length to Jacques Kallis. The ball spat up like an angry cobra and it said much about Kallis’s skill that he jackknifed and managed to get a glove to it before it rearranged his features. The ball lobbed up gently to Virender Sehwag at gully and four wickets down with another 180 to get, South Africa were out for the count. And, after years of their batsmen copping punishment from opposition quicks, an Indian pace bowler was dishing it out.”

That ball will become part of Indian cricket folklore. As Ayaz Memon said on his Twitter time-line (@cricketwallah), “Sreesanth’s snorter to dismiss Kallis will become as famous in cricket lore as Sandhu’s banana delivery that got Greenidge in 1983 World Cup.”

In conclusion, let us debunk two myths: One, that India are poor travelers. Two, that a lively pitch only assists the home team when Team India visits!

Ps:

While we are on the topic of green-tops, how is it ok for Graeme Smith or Dale Steyn to “request” for green-tops against India while a “request” for a spin-friendly wicket in India by an Indian captain or player is frowned upon when Australia or South Africa visit Indian shores?

I have never heard a visiting Indian captain whine about the state of pitches in Melbourne, Leeds or Durban? Isn’t it time that captains that visit the sub-continent lock their whine-vocal-chords at home before they board the plane?

PPs:

While I exist in this paranoid state, am I the only one to believe that if Ricky’s surname was not Ponting, but either Singh or Kumar or Khan, he would have been suspended for his totally over-the-top antics at the MCG? Had I been the umpire and had an on-field captain carried on like a pork chop the way Ricky Ponting did, I would have searched for a red card and thrown the man out of the park! The fact that Aleem Dar tolerated the Ponting “carry on” was a testament to the umpires’ patience. The fact that the match referee slapped a mere fine on Ponting means that, to me, the Match Referee’s office is, once again, shown up for the disgrace it is. The fact that Cricket Australia did not suspend Ricky Ponting immediately means that the “Spirt of Cricket” document that all Australian cricketers sign up when they get the Baggy Green needs to be torn up immediately and re-written in an environment of grace and humility.

— 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 series commences

After the drama of the Kolkata Test, the ODI series between India and South Africa commences in Jaipur on Sunday 21 Feb.

If India lose to RSA, the SAffers will displace India as the 2nd Ranked ODI team in the ICC ODI ranking table.

India is once again hit by injuries and absences ahead of this three-match series. Gautam Gambhir (injury), Zaheer Khan (injury) and Harbhajan Singh (sisters’ wedding) are not available. For South Africa, Graeme Smith is on the injury list. I’d like to imagine that India’s injuries are far more telling on the teams’ chances than Smih’s absence.

As a result I expect that, despite their recent poor form, South Africa might in this series.

I expect India to field the following team tomorrow:

– Virender Sehwag
– Sachin Tendulkar
– Virat Kohli
– Suresh Raina
– M. S Dhoni (c/w)
– Ravindra Jadeja
– Yusuf Pathan
– Abhishek Nayar / R. Ashwin / Amit Mishra
– Praveen Kumar
– Sreesanth / Sudeep Thyagi
– Ashish Nehra

12th Man: Dinesh Karthik

I would like to see Abhishek Nayar given an extended run at this level and hence he would get in ahead of Mishra or Ashwin. Furthermore, after Yusuf Pathan’s recent Duleep Trophy performances I think it would be hard to ignore Yusuf Pathan’s claims.

— Mohan

Questions remain as India retain #1

After a tense finish in the Kolkata Test match against South Africa, Team India retained their #1 Rank in the ICC Test rankings. This means that the players and the BCCI will collect some small change on 1st April when the ICC hands out the Test Championship and a few dollars of baksheesh.

But some key questions remain for Team India.

Let us not take anything away from the Indian victory. To put things in perspective, India was without Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and V. V. S. Laxman (for the 1st Test only) and Sreesanth. India lost the toss in both Tests and ceded charge of easy day-1 and day-2 pitches to South Africa. India was without her key strike bowler (Zaheer Khan) on the last day. And India played against a full-strength South Africa team. Moreover, after a debilitating loss in the 1st Test (in Nagpur), most teams will have buckled to another demoralising defeat. This Indian team, however, showed that it can come back at oppositions in a tough manner and pass stern tests of resolve with rare (and hitherto unknown) resolve. India were down and out at Tea time on day-1 of the Kolkata Test. But India did come back strongly and compellingly.

But some key questions do remain.

I have said it before and will do so again. Unless India can beat Australia in Australia and South Africa in South Africa, even though I am as one-eyed as they come, I am not quite willing to accept the #1 ranking as easily as I might or should. This is more so because Australia has beaten India in India and RSA in RSA and RSA has beaten India in India and Australia in Australia.

I would like to see India achieve series victories in Australia and RSA. Her chance of a win in RSA will come later this year when India travels to South Africa. India will have to wait longer to see if she can win a series in Australia.

And for these to happen, India will need to ask some serious questions of her personnel.

From what I have seen in these last two Tests, India had better start “preparing” replacements for Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar from now. While we may claim a strong bench strength in M. Vijay, S. Badrinath, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, et al, these are mostly untested. Questions remain to be asked of Vijay and I am really not to sure that Badrinath belongs. Given that Yuvraj Singh himself hasn’t quite cemented his Test-team place in a compelling manner, I do believe that the “what happens next after the departure of Dravid-Tendulkar-Laxman” question needs a really strong answer.

The difference in batsmen’s approach between the 1st Test and the 2nd Test was obvious. Even if we remove the superb spell of fast bowling by Dale Steyn in Nagpur, the difference in the approach of Sehwag and Tendulkar was clear to see in Kolkata because they were — it is quite likely — comforted by the knowledge that Laxman was there at #5 in case one of them were to depart. The absence of that middle-order solidity led to a mind-freeze in Nagpur, in my view.

India needs a match-ready pair of batsmen and she needs them now. VIjay did have that swagger and that approach that inspired confidence. He has that “I belong here” body language. I am not convinced that Badrinath has it. While I am willing to discount his performance in Nagpur, where the ball was talking and the team was really under the pump, there can be no excuse for his approach and performance in Kolkata. He could have played calmly and with a clear head on a placid pitch. The team was in a solid position and the pitch was really doing nothing much. Badrinath did not inspire confidence in me at all and questions must be asked of his place at this level. Perhaps a great opportunity was missed.

The other concern is the bowling. Without a fit and in-form Zaheer Khan, the attack looks pale. Harbhajan Singh has his days when he can be menacing, but with him it is a bit of a lottery, in my view. For India to win consistently overseas, the team needs an all-weather bowler in the Anil Kumble mould. For that to happen, Harbhajan Singh needs to accept that he is the teams’ lead bowler. He needs to ensure that he wakes up on the right side of the bed every day. I feel that it is all in his preparation and nothing else. Someone needs to sit him down and convey to him the responsibilities that come with being the lead striker. On off days and on pitches that do not offer assistance, he needs to bowl maidens and keep things tight. An off-form Ishant Sharma and a low-key Amit Mishra are other concerns for India.

The team does boast of strong reserves in Sreesanth, Sudeep Tyagi, Praveen Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun, Dhawal Kulkarni, Ashok Dinda, Munaf Patel, Pankaj Singh and others, but these bowlers need to be tested in situations that are far tougher than the the various domestic competitions.

Another concern is team balance. Unless India finds a good/strong all-rounder, the team is stuck with a 4-bowler policy. If any one of these bowlers is off injured — or has an off day — the pressure on the other resources becomes enormous (as we saw in Nagpur).

There are some all-rounder contenders around who are either not given enough opportunities — or appear and disappear with alarming consistency. Players like Abhishek Nayar, Yusuf Pathan and Ravindra Jadeja have to be given longer ropes to work with.

I feel that unless India plans plenty of A-Tours to Australia, South Africa, West Indies, England and Sri Lanka in the next year, I am afraid these questions will continue to be asked.

South Africa does have some deep questions of their own to answer. At the start of the series I did say that my main concerns with them were (a) the form of Duminy and Ashwell Prince, (b) the ability of Paul Harris, (c) their ability to play quality spin.

Questions (a) and (b) remain, while the team has thrown up a few players (Amla, in the main) that have the technique and temperament to handle quality spin!

I do believe that Paul Harris is an ordinary bowler. Any bowler who constantly bowls 2 feet outside leg-stump is essentially telling the world that he is an ordinary bowler! If I were a good bowler and my captain asks me to bowl a negative line, I would either tell my captain to find another bowler to do that or tell my captain that I am good enough to bowl to take wickets! I can’t remember who it was who said it, but it was said that “Paul Harris could not turn a door handle if he had to.” But having watched him bowl in this series, I am convinced that unless South Africa find a real spinner who can turn the ball and bowl attacking lines, the team is going to continue to choke when it matters most. And after the tremendous display of Alviro Petersen at the top, either Duminy or Ashwell Prince will, I believe, have to make way. I do believe Ashwell Prince will make way in what will be a strong team that will emerge from this series. I like South Africa’s team balance with Duminy as a good off-spin bowler and Kallis as a terrific, though under-rated, all-rounder. I will not be surprised if South Africa claim the #1 Rank from India in the near future.

Yes, India did emerge out of the South Africa series as #1 but I believe the home team has more questions and fewer immediate answers.

— Mohan

The Kolkata Test

Postscript as Introduction:

Perhaps Kris Srikkanth knew something that we all did not know! Perhaps Goddess Durga appeared in his dreams one night and informed him that a Saha would be a champion player this week. He woke up and sent Wriddhiman Saha to Nagpur and when he realized that that was a dud, sent him packing to his home town in Kolkata. But then, in so doing, he cost India a Test match and possibly the #1 Test Rank. Should he resign? I think so. Meanwhile, Goddess Durga was right. A Saha did become a champion player this week. Unfortunately for Kris Srikkanth, that Saha was Louis Saha, who scored two goals for Everton against Chelsea! — [Thanks to Sam Kumar for that nugget]

Team India suffered the ignominy of an innings defeat in Nagpur and move now to Kolkata to salvage more than pride. India needs to play a sensational brand of cricket to stop the South Africans from claiming the series and with it, the #1 spot in the ICC Test Rankings. While Indian cricketers may not yearn for it perhaps as much as others, there is also the small matter of a prize purse, come the 1st of April when the ICC will dole out some loose change to the team that is #1 at that time.

More than anything else, the manner of the loss in Nagpur will sting Team India and the manner in which the team has made recent strides.

I have always believed that Team India did not really deserve to be #1, given that it has not beaten Australia and South Africa in their home dens. That said, the team has been making steady progress in its journey towards becoming a team that is radically different from Indian teams from the 90s that had plenty of class but little substance; teams that had fragility that would make a toy made from match sticks feel good about its lot in life. The present Team India has demonstrated that it is made of sterner stuff.

Yes, one can point to the absence of Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman, Yuvraj Singh and Sreesanth from the team — all of whom would perhaps be automatic picks in the Test team perhaps. However, a great team (and even a good team) has to rise above these losses and has to depend on the reserves to dig it out of situations like the one faced in the lead up Nagpur.

The selectors have to take the blame for the sordid mess that left the team with little option other than play Wriddhiman Saha as a batsman! Like other wicketkeepers from that part of India (Deep Dasgupta and Saba Karim) Saha has to now make a separate trek back to Kolkata, wondering what wrongs he had committed. Saha was picked as a ‘keeper and played as a batsman and now makes way for a ‘keeper? Or has he made way for a batsman? Or indeed, has he made way for a zonal selection? I have lost confidence in this selection committee and hence these questions.

If Wriddhiman Saha was the second best ‘keeper in the land, should he not have stayed on for Kolkata as a reserve ‘keeper? Or was he picked for Nagpur as the next best batsman in the land? Even if the selectors were on drugs, I am confident (despite my lack of faith in their ability to even distinguish their backsides from their elbows) that they did not pick Saha as the next best batsman in India. So let us assume that they picked Saha as the next best ‘keeper in the land. So, what has happened in 7 days for the selectors to think that Karthik was suddenly a better reserve ‘keeper? This is the same question that Sanjay Subrahmanyan asked earlier too.

These are questions need to be asked.

At the end of the Bangladesh series, it is likely that Dinesh Karthik was a zonal selection sacrificial lamb who had to make way for Badrinath’s entry into the team. Who knows what transpired in the sleazy dungeon that represents the Indian team selection committee rooms. However, what is palpably obvious is that the team selection was wrong. The selectors went with too many bowlers and too few batsmen at a time when 2 key batsmen were definitely injured and one other batsman was living on one working playing hand, with the other one injured badly. The logic of that selection imbalance defies belief and for that reason, I do believe that, although Kris Srikkanth has taken personal responsibility for the mess, he must hand in his resignation papers. Srikkanth has demonstrated that his committee is unable to rise above zonal politics. Any person with integrity and substance would have handed their papers in by now already. It is not enough to just take personal responsibility. He is either a weak chair who is unable to get his committee to rise above zonal politics or he is in charge of a committee that cannot arrive at good decisions. How else can one explain a situation where the team had more bowlers than batsmen when there were 3 injured batsmen in the first team list?

In his interview, Srikkanth says, “In hindsight, we didn’t have Rahul (Dravid), who is a fantastic player of fast bowling. Laxman was injured… we were hopeful of his recovery but unfortunately that didn’t happen and then Rohit got injured. So, I would say it was fate,” he added.

And therein lies the problem. This committee relies on hindsight when what is needed is foresight!

Moreover, any decision that is based on a hope and a prayer is made by people who ought not to make these decisions! Decisions have to be made not on a hope, but on medical assessments on a players’ availability. The selectors should have taken tough decisions instead of reaching for their prayer beads! Rohit Sharma himself was a last minute addition and with his addition, there was no batsman to cover in case of a freak injury or a stiff neck or a headache or a sprained calf muscle to any of the other batsmen.

The selectors have to be requested to go home with their prayer beads! I am not braying baying for blood. I am seeking accountability as a Team India fan.

And so, where to from here for Team India?

Despite the alleged lamentable statements by the Kolkata curator, I do believe that Indis’ best chance is spin on a “turner” or a “dust bowl”.

I am not sure why a “turner” is held in such contempt or disrespect (mainly by people that can’t play spin). If a batsman is good enough, they ought to say “give me a pitch… any pitch”.

Terms like “turner” and “dust bowl” have become pejoratives in current cricket lingo because they have been turned into pejoratives by people who make and set these views; by people who cannot play spin!

Just as Durban, Melbourne, Lords’ and Sabina Park offer bounce and carry, Indian pitches ought to offer spin. I say “ought to” because that’s what the natural conditions provide. “Dust bowls” has become a derogatory term these days. I love dust bowls. They offer a difference in a world that craves for a sameness — a sameness that is imperialistic in its notion and connotation.

Give me a dust bowl any day. I like to see batsmen charge a spinner. I grew up on that diet and love it just as I love to see batsmen hopping around in Durban or Sabina Park.

For years, Indian curators have been doctoring pitches in response to idiotic clarion calls from administrators in South Africa, England and Australia that have wanted the “sameness” of bounce and carry and grass with the one-eyed notion that that’s what a cricket pitch ought to look like. These clarion calls have been based on the very imperialistic notion that suggests that despite local conditions, the only brand of toothpaste that is valid is Colgate! I detest this craving for “sameness” just as I detest the response from Indian curators who bend over backwards to prepare the kind of pitch that we saw in Nagpur against the Australians in 2004.

As I have said before, I will accept a seaming, bouncy pitch in Nagpur when I see a dust bowl in Durban. Surely, if it is possible to create a dust bowl in Kolkata it should be possible to create one in Durban?

No?

Why? Because the soil conditions and environment there make it impossible to create a dust bowl in Durban?

Then why is there the expectation that Kolkata should unnaturally offer seam, bounce and carry?

I do hope the Indian curators stop doctoring pitches and prepare spinning tracks, for that is what the natural soil condition provides. I am tired of seeing a oneness and sameness in everything in the world that suggests that the only pitch that is worth offering is one that offers seam, bounce and carry.

Despite the above arguments, I do think South Africa will win. This is a full-strength team that has depth and dimension. The batsmen are in form. The bowling is terrific and the teams’ mental toughness is remarkable. I loved the way the South Africans played the Nagpur Test. It has a India-at-Leeds feel to it. Apart from the first half hour or so, they were in utter control of the match and seemed to know exactly what they were doing. Even when Paul Harris was bowling just that brand of cricket that I detest, the South Africans gave the impression that they were in control.

India can bounce back, but in order for that to happen, the team needs to play out-of-their-skins cricket.

I can’t see Mishra and Ishant Sharma playing in the Kolkata Test. Ojha and Sreesanth will perhaps play and Laxman will play instead of Saha in the XI, with Laxman coming in at #3.

Bring it on.

— Mohan