Tag Archives: Team India

Good horses in unfamiliar courses

In an earlier post, Sanjay Subrahmanyan writes about how Team India’s middle-order hopefuls have performed in recent years in the glories, chaos, catastrophes, and convulsions of Indian cricket.

One of these “hopefuls” is Yuvraj Singh. He is once again a Test middle-order “hopeful”. Fourteen years after making his First Class debut and some 8 yeas since making his international debut, Yuvraj Singh is still a “hopeful”. That is a story in itself and is cause for him to be the protagonist in this essay. But the larger plot is the rationale behind his selection in a Test side. The more important inquisition is about how T20 and ODI performance continues to influence selectors when they sit down to select a Test side.

India is, ironically, in a good situation. This moment in time represents a compelling opportunity to build for the future. It should be an opportunity to be clear and strategic in thought and action. Instead, what we are left with is an impression of a selection group that is chaotic, disorganized and muddled in its thinking.

India has been thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated in England in a tour in which nothing went right for the team. In a year from now, the team might have one or perhaps even two or three departures through retirement. For example, I cannot see VVS Laxman’s body last beyond mid-2012. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid cannot be too far from hanging up their bats. Zaheer Khan is not going to be around for ever. This was, therefore, an opportunity to commence a definite freeing of the many strong Atlases that held the team aloft in an impressive journey. The time was ripe for strategic thinking.

Ironically, the situation that the team faces now has parallels with 2007.

The tour of Australia in 2007 was an important one for India. The team had had a captaincy change after the triumph in England, which wiped out a disastrous World Cup performance. The team had also unexpectedly lifted the inaugural World T20 Championship under the captaincy of MS Dhoni. India would play a series against Pakistan prior to embarking on a defining tour of Australia. Here was a team on the ascendancy; but she had to win in Australia.

Prior to this tour, Yuvraj Singh was selected in the India Test team. After all, how could you drop a player who had smashed Stuart Broad for 6 sixes in an over? Yuvraj Singh proceeded to hit a brilliant century in Bangalore against Pakistan. The selectors had no other choice. Yuvraj Singh’s name was etched in the team sheet for Australia in December 2007. In order to accommodate him in the middle-order, Rahul Dravid had to open the batting along with Wasim Jaffer in the first Test at the MCG. Yuvraj and India had a miserable Test match. The same mistake was repeated in that infamous Test in Sydney. Once again, Rahul Dravid was sacrificed in order to accommodate Yuvraj Singh in the middle-order. Yuvraj made an embarrassing 12 in the first innings and did not trouble the scorers in the 2nd innings. Good sense prevailed in the 3rd Test in Perth when Wasim Jaffer opened with Virender Sehwag.

Now I am not saying that Yuvraj Singh is a poor player. Not at all. He is one of the sweetest timers of the ball in world cricket. He has a lazy elegance about his stroke play that whispers “Brian Lara”. He burst onto the scene by hitting some of the best bowlers out of the park. He had the swagger, power, timing, hunger, attitude and charisma. At one stage, he was even talked of as a future captain of India. He looked like he wanted to belong. He belonged. He played a wonderful hand in India’s 2011 World Cup win. He seemed to be fit and hungry in the 2011 World Cup. After sulking and moping his way through the previous year — including, famously, in the IPL Edition 3 — it appeared as though Yuvraj Singh had arrived once again. He played like a team man. After a spate of sorry injuries, he was even throwing himself around on the cricket field once again.

But that was in the ODI arena. His exploits in 2007 were in the T20 arena. The question must be asked. Is Yuvraj Singh a Test batsman?

Since 2003, Yuvraj has played 35 Test matches, scoring 1709 runs at 35.60 with 3 centuries and a highest of 169! All of Yuvraj’s centuries have been made on the subcontinent. Indeed his average in ‘Home Tests’ is 45.31 against an average of 29.24 in Tests away from the ‘Home’.

Contrast this with a “contemporary” of his. Since his debut in 2000, Wasim Jaffer played 31 Test matches, scoring 1944 runs at 34.10 with 5 centuries and a highest score of 212. Three of Jaffers’ five Test centuries have been made overseas: how can we forget that brilliant 212 at St Johns’ in the West Indies and his fighting 116 in South Africa.

Alas! Jaffer only played 2 ODI games (in South Africa) and never played a T20 for India. So he wasn’t able to showcase his latent flamboyance and ability to “thump” the ball hard and far. We like that. We like opposition to be pummeled into submission. We like our batsmen to be in a Colosseum battling the opposition with a mace instead of a bat. So flair and flamboyance wins.

Mind you, I am not pushing for Jaffer’s inclusion in the Indian Test team. All I am saying is that Yuvraj Singh has a record that is on par with Wasim Jaffer as a player. I agree that such comparison fail at various levels. I am not advocating a StatsGuru based analysis of player worth. And as a person who is not heavily pro-StatsGuru, the last thing I would advocate is a StatsGuru compliant iPad for all members of the Team India selection committee!

My point here is that Yuvraj Singh’s massively significant ODI and T20 performances continually propel him into our peripheral vision when it comes to selecting Test teams. He is always there in our faces, asking to be selected in Test matches too; because he thumped 4 boundaries in an over in an ODI or pummeled India to victory in a T20 or took Kevin Pietersen’s wicket… Again! We do select him in Tests. He fails. We fail. We do not learn. Another IPL comes around. Another ODI series comes around. He performs well in these. We select him again.

I have shone the spotlight on Yuvraj Singh because we make the same mistake with other players too.

In the team that has been chosen to play West Indies in the forthcoming Test series (if we rule out quota-based selections as a plausible reason), we have Rahul Sharma and Varun Aaron who have got in on the basis of their T20 and ODI performances. The First Class records of the above two players makes shabby reading.

Rahul Sharma has played 10 First Class games and has taken 18 wickets at an average of 44.66 a piece! I am not joking. This is true! And the only good thing about Rahul Sharma’s selection is that he makes Varun Aaron’s selection look inspired! Varun Aaron has played just 12 First Class games and taken 26 wickets at 41.50 a piece!

Both of these players may well be the future of Indian cricket. I have nothing against them and hope that they have a brilliant career in whites as well as in the blue of the Team India ODI/T20 teams. That is not my point. My point is that they have found a place in the Indian Test Team through IPL/T20 and/or ODI routes. This is a selection process that has lost direction.

Another curious selection is that of Ajinka Rahane. And to explain why, our protagonist must make a reappearance!

Rahane is a fine player, mind you. I was always confident that he would play for India one day. That is not my issue. My concern is (a) the route the selectors have chosen for him and (b) the person he has displaced in the team.

Rahane has replaced Abhinav Mukund in the Test team mainly because of his domestic record but also because he played reasonably well in one ODI in England. He also had a reasonably good T20 gig.

Rahane is a class act. He was always marked for a Team India spot at some point of time in his career. In four Ranji seasons since 2007, he has played 49 First Class matches and scored 4838 runs at an average of 69.11 including 18 centuries. After opening in his first two seasons, he has been coming in at #3 in subsequent seasons, for reasons best known to him and the Mumbai team management. This a record to be proud of. Once a player accumulates as many runs as Rahane has in first class games, the real issue is one of “when” rather than “whether” — unless of course, Rahane also responds to the name “Badrinath”!

Abhinav Mukund was in Virat Kohli’s U19 Team that won the World Cup, although he played only one game in that particular journey. Since then he has had an impressive run in domestic cricket — Ranji and the Irani Trophy. Since his debut in 2007, he has played 47 First Class matches and scores 3880 runs at an average of 54.64 with 14 centuries and a high-score of 300*.

Clearly, players like Ajinkya Rahane, Abhinav Mukund and Cheteshwar Pujara are the future of Indian cricket. They are young. They have made plenty of runs in first class cricket and have also made big hundreds. I have always felt that more then hundreds, what matters most when you look at domestic records of players is the number of big hundreds a player has made. All three have made many big scores.

Now, let us look at Yuvraj Singh! In all the time since he made his debut (in the late 90s) Yuvraj has played a mere 97 first class games, scoring 6114 at an average of 44.62 and with just 18 centuries to his name.

So, essentially what has happened is that, on the back of a good World Cup ODI and a good IPL season, Yuvraj Singh has squeezed himself back into the India Test Team! The result of this is that the selectors may have wanted a player who could play in the middle-order in the event of a Yuvraj Singh failure or injury — both of which are equally likely — who would also double as an opener in an injury situation to one of Gambhir or Sehwag — also likely given trends in recent series.

Enter Ajinkya Rahane who edges out Abhinav Mukund, the incumbent in the openers’ slot! So one T20/IPL/ODI based shoehorning has resulted in the forced eviction of the future. It is clear that IPL/T20 performances have influenced Test selection. Surely, Varun Aaron and Rahul Sharma have been selected on that basis. Yuvraj Singh’s selection is reward for a stellar World Cup. These selections may pay off for Team India. But I do not see either clarity or consistency. There is much muddled thinking.

Part of the problem here is with communications. The selectors do not communicate with players. Younger players do not know what plans the committee has for them. Would it not be good (or indeed necessary), for the selectors to talk to Suresh Raina and set targets/goals for him? Would it not be necessary for them to talk to Abhinav Mukund to explain why he was dropped? But that does not happen, for it appears that the selectors job in India is to merely select; not to nurture talent. Even in selection, their job seems to me to be to select good horses for somewhat unfamiliar and uncomfortable courses.

A significant part of the problem here is that selectors are barred from communicating their decisions to you and me. It may not be necessary. But it would help identify how these decisions are thought through. The result, therefore, is an extremely unclear, hazy and murky environment in which no one is really sure what is going on.

Meanwhile, we have several other distractions like a dog on a race track and broken barricades in a rock concert and an array of similar goof ups to distract us from transparent and cogent decision making!

— Mohan (@mohank)

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Pity the man cannot bowl…

I have never understood it until recently. And I am not sure I have understood it fully either.

But, there has always been something about the Indian cricket fan that used to irritate me. And in saying this, I am not excluding myself from this set of fans. Previously, I couldn’t quite understand what it was. But recently, after having moved back to India, I am beginning to understand what it is to be an India cricket fan!

There is so much imperfection around us in India.

Our buildings are mostly decaying. Even new buildings decay right before our eyes. We build airports but two years later, there are spit stains on the walls. We build, forget to maintain, neglect and forget everything we construct — unless someone hits us on the head over it! There is chaos and anarchy everywhere you look. Planes should not land amidst such chaos. Surely, not.

But planes do land. Our buildings, however old and decayed, stay upright… Mostly. We cope with the imperfections around us.

Governance in public life is almost non-existent; people in public life make a mockery of the people they govern. The construction of a metro line, about 20 years overdue, will take 10 years to complete and will bring the city to a grinding halt while it happens. Corruption is so endemic that there is more cynicism than trust. Government offices have masses of paper and masses of people that sip tea and coffee and (it would seem) do nothing.

But laws do get passed. The income tax department collects taxes. The banks function. Under the weight of tonnes of paper, people do sign masses of forms — in triplicate, no less! Things get done… Mostly. We cope with the imperfections around us.

Few roads are ever complete. Most of them have open and stinking drains, random blocks of stone or concrete are left behind — post-construction — in the middle of the road. There is always a pile of rubble to navigate around. If not that, there is a pile of garbage or multi-coloured optic fibre sticking out of unfinished pavement works. The pavements are mostly incomplete. So walkers spill on to the streets, causing more traffic chaos. Most roads are not sealed end-to-end, causing more dust to swirl around. And roads around us are decorated with pot holes rather than bitumen. Roads have little or no drainage. A minimal downpour leaves us yearning for a yacht instead of a car or a bike. And for those of us that walk, the spokes of our umbrellas point more to the skies than to the ground when it rains! Even our umbrellas are imperfect.

But we do get from A to B. We do use the roads. We do get to work and back… Mostly. We cope with the imperfections around us.

Our buses, which seem to be permanently on their last wheels and defy fundamental laws of physics! They should not be allowed to move. But they do. They too cope with the imperfections around us.

Our people defy time! None of us are on time for anything. Our watches show different times! Even the clocks on two adjacent government buildings show different times! But we cope. Time is also imperfect and we cope with it.

Our phones always ring. Even in a classical music concert in which the performer is striving for that perfect pitch. But we answer our phones. Talk loudly. The performers continue… And learn to cope with the imperfections around them!

We talk loudly and can barely hear each other amidst the cacophony of noises around us. We have a need to be heard over the blaring loudspeakers and the car honks. But we listen to each other… Mostly. We cope with the imperfections around us.

Our queues do not work although there is a queue for everything! Our queues are so haphazard that statisticians and mathematicians who study queuing theory need better models to understand how queues work in India! A professor I know at a famous Indian institute is studying “Non-standard Tirupati queues with chaotic service”. But we do “queue” for everything from tomatoes, to bread, to railway tickets to airline tickets to withdrawing cash. We expect that, by joining our body to the body of the person in front of us, we will somehow, magically, reduce the queue-size by one!

But, even through these imperfections, our queues seem to work. We cope with the person behind us that has stuck their smelly body to us so that they may live their hope that they will reach their destination quicker through their irrational coping mechanism! We have learned to cope with the imperfection in our queues!

Everywhere you look, there is trust deficit, cynicism, unnaturally unhealthy competition, a growing chasm between the haves and have-nots and a growing hunger for the haves to have more.

There are imperfections around us. Everywhere you look there are imperfections.

So much, that we expect our heroes to make up for the gaps.

We expect our heroes to be what we cannot be. We want them to help us fill the gaps that we cannot fill. They help us cope with the ill-placed fibre-optic cable that almost always trips us as we run to jump onto that bus that always seems to be full and almost always doesn’t want me on it!

We expect our heroes to straighten our umbrellas. We expect them to help us cope with our queues, in which we thrust ourselves and our bad body odour onto the person in front of us!

That is why it is hard to be a cricketer in India.

Not only do they have to score runs or take wickets, they have to straighten our umbrellas before their contributions are recognised. They help us cope with not only the imperfections around us; they help us cope with the imperfections within us too.

If they cannot be everything that is not, they just cannot be our heroes.

Our heroes cannot be imperfect.

It is a pity Rahul Dravid cannot bowl. If he could, perhaps he would have been a hero in his own country!

— Mohan

StatsGuru and ‘The Vibe’

Arguments and cricket seem to go hand in hand. Even if you support the same team — or maybe, especially if you support the same team — there are always arguments when it comes to cricket.

Of all fans though, fans of Indian cricket are probably the most rabid when it comes to expressing their views on everything cricket. More often than not, debates commence with, “Player-X got into the team because he knows Y”, “Player-X is useless”. Most of these arguments end with “There is too much money in the game. If they got less money, they would play more responsibly”. Unfortunately, some conversations end with “Player-X must be publicly whipped”!

Previously, these arguments used to be supported by nothing other than hand-waves or hand-flaps. These were nice because such arguments soon turned into shouting matches. And such matches were invariably decided on the basis of who could shout the longest or hardest. One could stand by the sidelines and, from time to time, egg one of the participants on, and watch the resulting fun! Often these arguments were decided on the basis of some positional authority! For example, I have heard an argument end with, “I do not wish to say anything more out of respect for your age and because you are my mother’s brother!” [exit stage left]

There was a certain lack of structure, logic, science or method to these arguments. One could argue for days on topics of no real significance: Vishwanath was any day a better player than Gavaskar! Manoj Prabhakar should never have played the number of Tests he played! Tamil Nadu Ranji players like TE Srinivasan, V. Sivaramakrishnan and VV Kumar were constantly discriminated by the Bombay mafia! Ramnarayan was a better off-spinner than Venkatraghavan! Sadanand Vishwanath was the best ‘keeper in India ever!

Invariably, such arguments would constitute a series of assertions and nothing much more than that. There was a certain romance to these. “Aaaa! What raaa. You should have seen Sadanand move down leg side to take that ball that LS bowled raaa. Kirmani would never have been able to do it raaa. I am telling you wonly!”

Now how can one have a comeback to an assertion like that? We just cannot.

However, things have changed. Data is available today. Plenty of it.

Today, we immediately jump onto Cricinfo and pull out the stats! How many byes has Sadanand Vishwanath conceded? How many stumpings per session has Kirmani affected? How does ‘the number of leg-side catches that Kirmani has against his name’ stack up against ‘Alan Knott’s leg-side catches’, particularly when the former has an infected little finger on his right hand?”

Enter Statsguru!

Yes, today, most arguments involve the production of seemingly random extracts from Cricinfo’s Stats Guru.

In that sense, I do believe that StatsGuru is to Cricinfo what the Y2K was to the IT industry! The scaremongering around Y2K created a slew of IT jobs, where there were really none! Similarly StatsGuru generates site visits when there really ought to be few!

Don’t get me wrong! I am a great fan of StatsGuru and it is a terrific product. However, I must say that I am getting a bit tired of seeing these frequent delves into StatsGuru by arguing Indian cricket fans that produce a set of numbers about a players’ worth without the presence of an established and agreed hypothesis or methodology!

One of the best movies I have seen in recent times is an Australian movie called “The Castle”. It is a hilariously innocent story about a typically-Australian “battler” family — The Kerrigan family — that protests the compulsory acquisition of their home by Melbourne’s airport authority. In one of the many hilarious court scenes, the Kerrigan lawyer says that the acquisition is against the Constitution of Australia! That was a huge call by the struggling lawyer who has no real “angle” on the case and is there merely because he is a friend Kerrigan family! The judge presses on, despite her utter dismay, feigns interest, adopts a tolerant cloak, and asks which section of ‘The Constitution’ it violates. The lawyer says, “It is the vibe of the thing!”

Watch this utterly hilarious scene here!

Now that is the way to conduct an argument… Hand-flap and say it is “the vibe” and elicit a response from a Kerrigan somewhere who departs, saying, “Good on ya mate. That shut em up!”

There is a certain innocence and romance to such arguments.

Instead, StatsGuru has ruined arguments of this sort by Indian cricket fans who dive in to the (no doubt, wonderful) database on the mere assumption that a set of numbers can suddenly back any argument! The numbers are produced with neither a hypothesis or an agreed methodology. Arguments can, therefore, be easily carried on whether “Harbhajan Singh is completely useless” or “Harbhajan Singh is just as useful as Graeme Swann who, by virtue of his world ranking, is not useless, so Harbhajan Singh is not useless” or “R. Ashwin is the next best alternative to Harbhajan Singh and his performance after the first 25 Ranji games in his career is just as bad as Harbhajan Singh’s performance as a Test player in the last year and so Harbhajan Singh is very capable after all”.

StatsGuru has killed assertions. While that is somewhat sad, what has really happened is that StatsGuru has given most proponents a somewhat unnatural belief that their arguments are somehow based on science and logic!

A young lads mother’s older brother, who does not have access to the Internet, can no longer argue with his young nephew! The nephew has all the numbers from StatsGuru on his mobile device that is 3G-connected to the Internet, even though he may not have the model formalism or the hypothesis or the logic, or, more importantly, “the vibe”!

Sigh! Bring back the hand flaps! Bring back “the vibe” into arguments!

— Mohan

Clutch Redux

A few months ago, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan (@sidvee) wrote an excellent article titled “Tendulkar and the ‘clutch’ question”. This was an exquisite essay, which recognized Tendulkar’s many virtues: his incredible longevity, passion for the game, hunger for the fight, impact beyond cricket, and his poise even when burdening a billion expectations. However, @sidvee’s article also states that Tendulkar’s performance in the “clutch debate remains partially unresolved”. Apart from this expression of thrust/hypothesis, one very minor gripe that I had with the article was that it was a somewhat convenient fence-sit, for most part.

A “clutch moment” is defined as one where an athlete senses the moment, pounces on it and imposes his greatness on the occasion. The end result is normally a victory.

This article was @sidvee at his very best. The arguments were excellently and passionately constructed. It even had a typo (“goosbumps” instead of “goosebumps”) to show us all that @sidvee was human after all. There were many comments from readers of this article. If the quality of an article is measured by the debate it generates, then this one certainly belonged in the top-drawer. There were also a few ripostes to @sidvee’s article; the best of these was one by Mahesh (@cornerd).

At first I thought I would not buy into the debate, for a variety of reasons. For a long time now, I have employed a wicket-keeper for any arguments on Sachin Tendulkar’s greatness. Occasionally, I would find myself in the thick of a virulent debate on Tendulkar’s greatness. The main reason for staying away from the “clutch” debate, however, was that the Sachin-clutch argument was old-hat to me. It had done many a spin around my block!

But then, I am not a great fan of a fence-sit either: a fence-sit gives the fence sitter nothing more than a sore bottom! So, I have decided that, after nearly three months, I will weigh in to the debate after all.

In a subsequent piece, @sidvee quoted from Stephen J Gould’s brilliant piece on Joe DiMaggio’s phenomenal 56-game hitting streak, in which the author comments on the nature of legend.

“A man may labor for a professional lifetime, especially in sport or in battle, but posterity needs a single transcendent event to fix him in permanent memory. Every hero must be a Wellington on the right side of his personal Waterloo; generality of excellence is too diffuse. The unambiguous factuality of a single achievement is adamantine. Detractors can argue forever about the general tenor of your life and works, but they can never erase a great event.”

The argument is that Tendulkar’s peers — Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara, Adam Gilchrist, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Aravinda De Silva, et al — have faced and seized clutch moments. These moments have been recorded and recognized in their respective CVs. Meanwhile, the argument is that Tendulkar let his clutch-moments slip through his fingers.

Indian cricket fans will point to the fact that if India had won the Chennai Test against Pakistan in 1999, we may not have felt the need to have this argument. Tendulkar would have had his clutch moment on his CV. That moment would have been further augmented, ornamented and romanticized by virtue of the fact that Tendulkar battled through an injury to get India to within spitting distance of victory in that Test. We like blood. We like our sporting heroes to be gladiators that vanquish evil. The clutch is a much better clutch if the sportsman has morphine in his body or his jaw strapped by a bandage.

We willed Tendulkar to win that match for us. But he let us down! Tendulkar got out within sight of victory. India lost. The Indian cricket fan has not forgotten!

When we turn our focus on that heroic-tragic Chennai Test against Pakistan that India lost, few fans seem to remember that it was a low scoring match; that no team had crossed 300 in that match; that apart from Afridi, who had scored a second-innings century as opener, no other player stamped his authority on the game; that Saqlain Mushtaq bowled as brilliantly as anyone has seen him bowl; that the pitch was crumbling; that at 82 for 5 chasing 271, India was cooked already! It was against this backdrop that we must see Tendulkar’s epic effort. I do not wish to be a Tendulkar apologist. That is not his point. His record speaks much more than I can.

However, the point I wish to make is that the scorecard does not record the above details. The scorecard does not record the fact that Tendulkar first shielded and then battled Nayan Mongia through an epic contribution; often chiding him for taking undue risks; always encouraging him. Worse! The scorecard does not record the fact that, with 53 runs to get, Mongia departed to an ugly pull off Wasim Akram! By getting out, Mongia had said (like almost all Team India players of Tendulkar’s era had), “You do it on your own from here. I am out of here!” The scorecard does not record the fact that Tendulkar was in severe pain at that point in time. His back had given way by then. The scorecard does not record that, despite that pain, he chose to change gears and belted a few boundaries once Mongia got out (needlessly). The scorecard also does not record the fact that all it took was one single fatal miscalculation; one small error of judgment is all it took for Indian fans to label him permanently as a clutch failure! The scorecard does not record the fact that, when Tendulkar departed at 254, with 17 runs still to get, the Karnataka quartet of SB Joshi, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad could only get 4 between themselves! The fact that the Karnataka quartet disgraced themselves is forgotten. The fact that they collectively devalued Tandulkar’s efforts to get India to that point is also forgotten.

The point is that “clutch” is a difficult concept in cricket. It ignores the team. It ignores Nayan Mongia and the Karnataka quartet. It is agnostic to contributions (or lack thereof) from a team. It is a uni-dimensional and harsh measure. As @sidvee himself points out, it is impossible to compare greatness across different sport or indeed, different players in the same sport who play for different teams and in different eras. It is precisely because of this that I value Tendulkar’s centuries more than I value Ponting’s centuries; Ponting did not have to face McGrath, Warne and Gillespie! Clutch applies perfectly only to tennis players and golfers! They chart their destiny themselves.

Almost exactly a decade later — one month shy of a decade later — Tendulkar chose the same venue (Chepauk, Chennai) to “atone” for his earlier inability to close out a win. He stayed not out till the end, scored an unbeaten century and ensured that India won against England. This was an important win for the country’s pride, leave alone the team! This win emerged from the shadows of the 26/11 tragedy that had shocked a nation. I am told that there was not a dry eye in Chepauk. This could have counted as a clutch. But even this was contribution was not enough.

I suspect that most Indian fans are still not able to forgive Tendulkar for that 1999 game. As one reader said on @sidvee’s blog, Tendulkar constantly gets the short-shrift. We are quick to make Gods out of mere mortals, but we have a constant need for our legends to be nothing short of Gods — all the time.

I am not a big fan of “clutch” in team sport. It is all too individualistic. Even Roberto Baggio does not qualify as a clutch failure in my books. Yes, he fluffed that penalty shoot in 1994. But that ignores his teammates’ many misses during the game. I am not in favor of tagging transient acts of excellence as “clutch” in a team sport. If we did, we run the risk of calling Ajit Agarkar or David Warner as cricket geniuses (the logic here is that clutch suggests genius)! By the same argument, I am not in favor of tagging transient acts of lack-of-excellence as “clutch failure” in a team sport.

As Mahesh (@cornerd) says in his riposte, Tendulkar’s preparation for the 1998 series against Australia constitutes “clutch” to me. To me, clutch in a team-sport is not a specific instance in time. It must be demonstrated through sustained acts of (heroic) excellence for it to be a clutch.

And Tendulkar certainly has these sustained acts of excellence in his CV.

— Mohan

The tipping point…

After Team India won the World Cup, I was waiting for the “real” cricket season to commence before I re-commenced blogging! Senior players took a break from the game through lung infections and shoulder niggles. I could point to a digit that was unnaturally, yet temporarily, bent beyond the allowed 15 degrees! So, I took a break from blogging.

More seriously though…

Team India had ticked the “won the World Cup again” box. Everything else after that was mere preparation for the tipping point in what I have termed the Year of Consolidation for Team India.

And that year commences now.

The IPL came and went and ruined any celebration plans that either Team India or BCCI might have had subsequent to India’s World Cup victory! Some, like me, will say that this was a blessing in disguise! Thankfully, the chest-beats lasted just one week. Thanks to the onslaught of IPL-4, post-win celebrations were substantially and significantly minimal in India; this at a time when the English are still celebrating the Ashes victory some 6 months later!

After an ODI series against the Windies, Team India is now in the midst of a low-key Test series against West Indies. The last Test commences today.

But these ODIs and Test matches have been good preparation for the home run in the year of consolidation for Team India. We are at an interesting tipping point.

History will perhaps see 2001 as the year it all started for Team India. The team, through its inspirational leader, Saurav Ganguly, developed self-belief. The team knew that it had to win — and win overseas. It did. Slowly at first, like a child learning to walk. Winning overseas soon became a habit! Along the way, the team recorded a few good victories: 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) and Mohali 2010 (v Australia), being some of the more memorable and important victories.

The doubters said Indians could not cope with the short ball. At the start of every series, we hear the same strategies being mapped: chin music. It is almost as if there are no other strategies to combat the strong Indian batting line-up! When India toured Australia in 2003 and we heard of “chin music” for the first time, a friend’s 10-year old said, “Let them talk about chin music, we can talk about Sa-chin music”. Today, every team is still focuses on chin music. Get over it, already!

Other doubters said that India could not win overseas. India has. Consistently.

Many other doubters said that India did not have the bench strength to overcome the departure of the backbone of the team: Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, Ganguly. Today, the last two have departed. Through a mixture of chance, design and the incredible longevity of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, India appears to be managing the transition.

These doubts are being answered. Slowly. Today, the team has bench strength that is the envy of the world. Unlike Australia, who lost her best players inside a year, India’s retirements have been managed well so far.

Australia assumed that her tough local competition would continue to routinely throw up talent that is good enough to take on the world. Australia did not blood her future torch-bearers and replacements in a phased manner. Australia waited for the legends to retire and was then found out. Through a combination of good fortune and design, India has taken an alternative route. Today, Anil Kumble and Saurav Ganguly have departed. But their loss is not yet being felt in a manner that is acutely hurtful. Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman and other contemporary senior members are still there to ensure that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water.

Now, we have reached an important point in the journey. Team India has had an exciting 10-year journey up until now. The team now stands on the cusp of a watershed moment. The team has self-belief now. It has the talent. It has the personnel. Through injury management and rest management, the team has ensured that even after the feverish and intense IPL, the team is fit and able to take on a strong England in England in Tests. Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Sreesanth were rested to ensure that the team has fresh legs available to take on a significant challenge.

And that really is the key to building bench-strength. Young players need to be provided opportunities to face the heat in tough/alien conditions.

That has happened. While Abhinav Mukund, Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli and Abhimanyu Mithun have not yet set the world alight with their performances, they will have benefited hugely from this outing in West Indies.

Rahul Dravid said recently that the conditions the team encountered in the West Indies have been the toughest he has experienced in a long time. Of the batsmen, only Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Suresh Raina (to a lesser extent) have emerged with their reputations enhanced.

But we cannot be arrogant like the Australians were when they were preparing for their future. In my view, much like the cricket that the team played at that time, Australia went about her preparation for her senior players’ eventual departure in an arrogant manner. Australia used and discarded players like Matthew Elliot, Brad Hodge, Jason Krejza, Stuart McGill, Chris Rogers, et al. These players were put through a revolving door and spun in and out of the team. It was all good while the team was successful. The theory was that the Sheffeld Shield was so strong that it would always throw up the right player when the right moment came along. This was a principle built on a foundation of arrogance. Even if we think that the Ranji Trophy is good at identifying and testing talent in tough conditions (and let us admit, it is not!) India cannot afford to take on the attitudes that Australia adopted.

We cannot adopt a use-once-and-discard policy. If players like Abhinav Mukund, M. Vijay, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Abhimanyu Mithun, et al, are players that we identify for a strong future, we need to be patient with their failures in order that we reap the benefits of their potential future success.

Team India, as I said before, is at a tipping point. Winning, which has now become possible, must become a habit. The ingredients for this phase change are self-belief, talent-nurturing and ruthlessness on the field.

The availability of talent must be a given in this journey. This needs to be nurtured. And this necessarily means that we — the fans — must learn to be patient. As I keep saying, if you want to see a collection of sacks, visit a mill or a godown! If we cannot learn to be patient when the team is winning, we have Buckley’s chance in Hell of being patient when we start to lose! Talent-nurturing cannot turn to talent-nutering!

Finally, the team must learn to win clutch situations.

The journey in this, the year of consolidation, commences with India meeting England in England and Australia in Australia. Yes! India did beat England the last time she visited that country. But she did not play like a champion team would. India did not press for a win at The Oval. India did not have that ruthless edge that Steve Waugh’s Australia had. India did not overcome a clutch situation. Indeed, India avoided the clutch situation totally!

And India is yet to win a series in Australia.

So, a decade after Team India discovered self-belief, it is time for a phase-change; it is time to endure and cut through an important tipping point…

— Mohan

Team India for the World Cup

So, Team India has been announced. The team contains only one deviation to the team that we had predicted, with Piyush Chawla coming in for Sreesanth. I am not sure that is a great decision since there is very little “cover” for our over-fragile pace attack of Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Praveen Kumar (currently injured) and Munaf Patel. These days, a strong gust of wind tends to wreck the backs or sides of Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar. So, some “cover” for them might have been a good idea.

With that in mind, Sreesanth might have been an adequate cover for the above physically “fragile” players, especially since it is likely — nay, almost certain — that India will always take the field with three pace-men.

To that end, I would be surprised if Piyush Chawla is anything other than a Dinesh Karthik (drinks, towel and message carrier) in the World Cup.

Given that India play 7 batsmen and 4-bowlers, I do not expect two spinners to play. If that were to happen, one (or both) of the spinners may be forced to operate in the first Power-Play and will be forced to operate in the second Power-Play. No captain will want to be forced into that situation, although they might choose to throw the ball to a spinner within the first 15 overs! So, I really do not expect Piyush Chawla to get a game in the World Cup.

I do expect the World Cup XI to be: Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli (Yusuf Pathan), Harbhajan Singh (R Ashwin), Zaheer Khan, Praveen Kumar, Ashish Nehra (Munaf Patel). Drinks: Piyush Chawla

For the remaining games in South Africa, I do hope India (a) rests MS Dhoni, (b) plays Yusuf Pathan, (c) rests Harbhajan Singh, (d) plays Piyush Chawla.

Provided Parthiv Patel has already reached South Africa, I’d like the team for the remaining 3 ODIs in South Africa to be:

M Vijay, Parthiv Patel (wk), Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina (capt), Rohit Sharma, Yusuf Pathan, Piyush Chawla, Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra… Substitutes: Zaheer Khan, MS Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh.

Although M. Vijay, Sreesanth and Rohit Sharma have not been picked for the World Cup, I believe it will be a good idea for them to show what they are made of — like Virat Kohli has, over the last year! The example of Virat Kohli is what Rohit Sharma needs to follow. Kohli’s journey epitomizes what the young Rohit Sharma needs to do. The Delhi player was a self-centered and self-obsessed, arrogant lad who transformed himself into a focussed young man. The result of this was a string of stirring performances that made every one sit up and take notice. He had arrived. He could not be ignored any longer.

Rohit Sharma needs to do a Virat Kohli now. He needs to get his game together. But more importantly, he needs to channel his undeniable talent. He also needs to do it in a hurry.

— Mohan

ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 — Team India Selects itself?

The selectors are due to announce India’s team of 15 for the World Cup on Monday 17 Jan 2011. I suspect the selection meeting is going to be quite short. In other words, I expect there will be few surprises and questions in a team that selects itself.

I expect the 15 to be (in batting order):

Sachin Tendulkar
Virender Sehwag
Gautam Gambhir
Yuvraj Singh
MS Dhoni
Suresh Raina
Virat Kohli / Yusuf Pathan
Harbhajan Singh / R. Ashwin
Zaheer Khan
Praveen Kumar / Munaf Patel / Sreesanth
Ashish Nehra

I expect Virat Kohli to play in the XI for the first game ahead of Yusuf Pathan and if he does, he will bat ahead of Suresh Raina.

I have little doubt that R. Ashwin will be the second spinner. I don’t think Piyush Chawla and Pragyan Ojha will get a look in. Ashwin will be a like-for-like replacement for Harbhajan Singh in case of an injury to the first-team off-spinner!

The fact is that, whatever the composition of the final XI, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina are going to have to bowl a few overs. Given that the tournament is going to be held in India, I expect this “constraint” to work in India’s advantage.

The only debate is likely to be around the last seamer’s spot. I have given this spot to Sreesanth and must admit to gulping as I did that! This is the only selection which is not clear in my books. This spot could be occupied by either Sreesanth or Vinay Kumar or Ishant Sharma, in my view.

The above selection assumes that Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Praveen Kumar are all fit.

India is a strong favourite by dint of her strong batting line-up. The bowling is not as strong and a lot will depend on the 5th bowler’s overs which will be shared by Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli (and perhaps also by Virender Sehwag, his shoulder allowing).

The major weak-link, however is the fielding. With Ashish Nehra, Praveen Kumar, Munaf Patel and Zaheer Khan (and with a dodgy-shoulder-Sehwag) the team starts with a 25-run deficit already!

But, if the above team does not deliver the Cup to India, in my view, no one else will, outside this fifteen.

— Mohan