Monday, June 29, 2009

The meaningless series

While the shoot-out stands at 1-1 before resuming next weekend, what exactly are the takeouts for Team India.

Gautam Gambhir needs a break and soon

It is not as though he has become a bad player of short-pitched bowling overnight, although, successive dismissals in the same mode will do two things. One, put some doubt in his mind and two, encourage even average quicks to pitch it short since the word has gone around. Nothing to worry about though. He did not have an outstanding run in Tests and ODIs with glaring weaknessess in his technique against the short ball. All he needs is a break, since, after Dhoni and Ishant he has been the most overworked Indian cricketer on view. The remaining 2 ODIs, even if he gets decent score will not matter much in the long run. It may be a better idea to give Murali Vijay a couple of outings whilst the series is alive. He did not look out of place in the Nagpur Test and also in the (very) limited opportunities he had in the IPL.

Rohit Sharma needs a wake-up call

Since his matchwinning 80 odd in the T20 Warm Up against Pakistan, this guy has been sleep-walking, first throught the T20WC and now, the first two matches of the meaningless series. Forget the two inconsequential wickets during the Windies chase. He should have been counted with the bat, more so in the second encounter and he failed. Some people do not revel in competition and would like a free range. Rohit had fared well in Australia, but since the arrival of Raina, his opportunities at 3 and 4 have been few and far between and he did not seem to enjoy batting at 6 (if at all in the playing XI). With no Raina aroundand hence no 'peer-pressure', and the team management seemingly inclined to give him an unbroken run as opposed to giving Badri a look-in, Rohit had the right platform. He then proceeded to shoot himself in the foot but mis-hooking once and flailing outside off in yesterday's game. As in Gambhir's case, these two failures do not put him in the 'bad batsman' category. However, serious questions need to be asked on his temperament and focus. For someone spoken of as the next big thing in the test middle-order, T20 cameos are not good enough.

Yuvraj is the key in LOIs

If this point was ever missed, these two games have only served to reinforce that. True that Sehwag found some consistency in ODIs. True that GG had been in unprecedented form. True that MSD's output in ODI's were Dravid-esque. True that the bowling as a unit has worked, but the undoubted star was Yuvraj. When not blasting hundreds , he has been crucial in injecting momentum at other times with timely big hitting. Counting those innings he has made 25 or above, he has scored 828 from 714 balls faced (pounding 30 x 6 and 93 x 4 for good measure, exactly 66.66 % of those 828 runs). In retrospect, it is such brilliance that has reduced pressure on GG and MSD and I would say, allowed them to prosper. (Latest bit of evidence of extra-ordinary ability - that half-flick, half swat off Rampaul that went miles over square leg for six, bowler looking bemused).

Ishant needs a breather

If playing under Bookha Naan for the Whipping Boys II of the IPL dint wear him down, the cumulative effect of the last 18-20 months certainly did. It showed in the T20WC and here too. He will learn to vary his length depending on the surfaces and be a better bowler. It is too early to compare his apparent decline with Irfan Pathan's. For one thing, Pathan had another suit to his game while Ishant has none. He seems focussed enough to recover his bowling mojo. His strength was to keep running in over after over tirelessly. Now, 18 months after Perth, it is natural that he is jaded.

Harbhajan plays true to form

Enough has been said about his bowling and attitude. Bottomline is that he is a passenger and doing just enough to keep the axe away. His admittedly brave efforts while batting should not hide the fact that he is in the team for taking wickets and 18.1-0-101-1 are poor returns for this wicket taker. His apologists in the 'expert' commentary panel, wax eloquently about how the 'compulsions' of limited overs cricket has caused him to cut down the flight, drift and fire it on the pads of the batsmen. Point taken. So where is the flight, drift and loop in the test matches? Shane Warne was Australia's premier bowler in WC '99. He had more than 300 test wickets already and was primarily an attacking bowler. Yet he displayed commendable control and accuracy and took two 4-32 and 4-33 in the SF and Final and handed Australia the cup. In such times of need, Harbhajan invariably goes AWOL and that is my case against him. How can we, therefore, expect any earth-shattering deeds from the turbanator, that too in the 'meaningless' series?

As I see it, the BCCI missed a trick. They could have compulsorily 'rested' some of the players who have been on the road for quite some time. It was in one such 'meaningless' 3 match ODI (initially scheduled to be 5 match) series in Canada against the Windies that Ganguly led India for the first time in Sachin's absence and came back with a 2-1 win. It was notable for the way he staggered himself, Sadagopan Ramesh and Dravid (the only international experience) at 1,3,5 in a weak batting order and optimised it. Such 'meaningless' series are just right for identifying such signs of leadership and ability.

While the board will continue to milk their cash cow to the last ounce, it is also upto the captain and coach to see who are really the motivated individuals and play them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

ICC World T20 - A review

They did it again, only this time, after a gap of several years . Right throught the 80s and early 90s ,if a there was a team that can raise themselves and their level of performance exponentially on the big stage it was Pakistan. Innumerable Champions Trophies, Sharjah Cups etc not to forget big ones like WC 92 attest to that. But over the years, retirement of stalwarts combined with their inherent inconsistency had led to a decline. From consistently challenging the Windies and Australia in the '80s and beating England, India, SL and NZ at will, anywhere, they have slipped to become a middle runger - capable of beating anyone on their day, but their 'days' were few and far between (much like the various Indian teams till the beginning of this decade) and occasionally capable of the ludicrous (losing to Bangladesh in WC '99 and Ireland in '07). But there would be no shortage of theatre.

This time around, they were playing true to form, customary lousy start, backs to the wall, draw favouring them etc. All said and done, after the defeat to SL in the super 8s, they needed to win 4/4 to lift the cup, backs to the wall again. Enter Popeye Razzak.

NZ 2/17 & 5(8)

Ireland 15(9) & 0/18

SF1 - S.Af 12(15) & 0/19

Final SL - 3/20

Granted. Nothing to shout about from rooftops, save the final. But what it did, was to free up the enormous burden on Shahid Afridi and let the team bat him and no 3 in the semis and final. And boy, din't Afridi turn up - match turning/ match winning performances in each of the four occasions. When Ganguly had progressed as an ODI matchwinner, the pressure on Sachin (sole matchwinner in absence of Sidhu and off/on form of Azharuddin) reduced and as a consequence India's overall performance improved steadily. We can see a distant parallel here. With Razzak back in the fold and Imran Nazir to come, and the bowling firepower they already possess, Pakistan's stock in the limited overs versions can be expected to soar. What was difference this time around in the climactic stages, was the absence of histrionics. (Q called it an un-Pakistani win). What the win has done is revive interest in Pakistan cricket and that is necessarily a good development.

Sri Lanka, the romantic's favourite failed only once and that when it mattered most. With WC 2007, they have fallen at the last hurdle in two of the three big occasions. Dilshan replaced Jayasuriya as the talisman player, but weakness in the lower middle order persists. After Ranatunga and Tillekeratne, they had Russel Arnold, who though not a big hitter, could be relied to see them home in tight chases with smart play and excellent running. Chamara Silva and Mubarak do not seem to have it in them. Angelo Mathews is their find of the tournament and seems to be a confidence player. They would do well to give him more opportunities, since he has age on his side to become a real star. Jayasuriya and Murali will not be around for ever. They would have to develop Malinga Bandara and also coax consistency out of Dilhara Fernando when he returns (the good Fernando, that is). For all his ICC rankings, Kulasekara, I think is a journeyman, the thoroughbreds are Malinga and Fernando.

There was some talk about South Africa being title favourites. I was sceptical all along. In SF1, with Pakistan to bat first, it was all uphill for South Africa from there. Q's prediction here was spot on. South Africa have been a consistently strong team, usually in the top 3 in all versions. They achieve such high ratings over a period of time with strong home and away records in bilateral ODI tournaments. They (like NZ) flop and flounder in the crunch in big (multilateral) tournaments. They are good at reading opposition tactics and consistently exploiting them over a period of time (recall Fannie DeVillers getting Sachin out with the slower ball, circa '96), but will not break the mould and dare to try something different, even in the biggest of crunch matches. The T20 SF1 was one such. They are faced with the most versatile bowling unit and chasing 150 and off to a decent start. Would they use Albie Morkel at No 3 or 4 to scatter the bowling and give him a chance to play game breaker. No way! They will play it safe , in the pretext of staying in the hunt and follow the primary school head-master schedule of Gibbs, DeVilliers and Duminy who collectively score 50 runs of 48 balls. Result, Morkel sitting and chafing in the dugout and momentum lost. This is not a case for Albie Morkel as a player and a matchwinner, it is a case for a team in a must win situation, overcoming the fear of failure and making a daring move to win. The end margin - 7 runs. If Morkel had faced half, no a fourth of those 48 deliveries, South Africa would have been in the final. (I made a similar case for using Yusuf Pathan well, earlier). So one can safely say, that till they will continue to be ranked in the top 3, win all home series againt all opposition (till Dhoni takes an Indian team there for a bilateral series ;-)) but still fail in crunch matches in big tournaments.
And what about the Windies. They will continue to entertain and exasperate in turn. But to be fair to them, they ran into SL who came up with their best performance in the entire tournament. Dilshan did not play his scoop perfectly even once, but got to within a hit of his century and after Mathews' bizzare first over, it was game, set and match. But Windies have that most important component for LOIs these days. The genuine, matchwinning, allrounder Dwayne Bravo (not the Ajit Agarkar type). A couple of years ago, Bravo seemed to have only one shot as a batsman - the hoick over midwicket. He has developed an all round game. But Chris Gayle continues to be the main man.
New Zealand did nothing of note, saw their key batsmen get injured, whined after being thrashed and sulked out of the tournament. New Zealand is one of those teams which will always have a minnow or two in all their league games (South Africa being another). They will promptly bash the minnows, get into the next stage and run into versatile opposition like Pak or SL and be shown the door. Eternal Bridesmaid. But somehow they manage to beat India in T20s.
England, like India will be a much talked about and much written about team. In KP and Bopara they have the class and dash for the 50 over and 20 over games. What they lack is the willingness to play Panesar and a high class keeper who can bat well. Their seamers and steady without being spectacular and they are good in the field. Like NZ, they will form the middle rung without ever punching above their weight and unlike NZ they will be true gentlemen. Read - they will not bully the minnows.
Australia - they have received scathing comments and deservedly so for their two performances. What was unnoticed in the melee, is that despite being 3 down for little in the WI match, they posted 170 plus. But for the good Chris Gayle turning up, who knows what would have happened. Similarly, in the next game Dilshan caught them with a punch to the solar-plexus, even before the bowlers had settled and that allowed his captain to manage the chase well. They key to beating Australia in all forms of the game is simple - early and sustained aggression, but not everyone can do this. NZ, Eng and SA certainly cannot. Recall WC 2007 SF2. South Africa talking big about aggression and the match getting over in the first half an hour!Beware a wounded Australia, the next world cup but 10 months away.
And finally what of India. The typical Indian narrow viewed jingoist in me lost interest in the tournament after the teams exit, and hence such a long time for this post. However, in many ways this defeat was a blessing in disguise. For one, it showed Rohit and Raina, there is a long, long way to go, before they can aspire to get into the Test side. Hopefully, this defeat will cause the selectors to introspect about having separate personnel for different versions and not bunch them under "good test player is a good LOI player" mantra. For instance, should the next slot be available in the middle order (temporarily or permanently), it would have to be Badri and Pujara in that order and not Raina and Rohit. Similarly, it will also hopefully stop Ishant being bowled into the ground. If he is a Test match bowler and not found his groove in LOIs, so be it. Steve Harmison retires from ODIs, spends two years thinking about the Ashes, lands up in Brisbane and bowls the first ball at second slip and yet he is England's number one bowler. Just let Ishant be, India's talent pool is wide enough to go well and this tournament is not the be-all end-all of cricket. The seeds sown in the Ganguly-Dravid-Wright era are bearing fruit now in the form of significant overseas Test victories and that is the bigger picture. This is not a case of 'sour-grapes' but an attempt to put things in perspective, seeing the usual media reaction back home.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tactical errors or head in the sand?

Toughness is on the inside; its what you are made of, not what you display; Anyone can walk with a swagger or turn their collar up. John Wright on Rahul Dravid, in his book 'Indian Summers'.
For the second time within three days the 'defending champions' found out that just turning up and swaggering out to the field would not do. They would have had to turn up, swagger AND actually score a run more than the opposition did (or as on Friday, restrict the opposition). While they could not defend 153 on Friday they failed to chase the same number of runs.
There is a tendency (in Indian media and elsewhere) to talk mockingly of the English cricket team - about how the English 'invented' the game and getting beaten by people who learned it from them - and while doing this, people seem to forget that England, for all their obsession with Ashes have been a middle rung team for all these years. While they have not exactly threatened top teams, it is not that they are at the bottom of the pile either (where one finds WI routinely these days). They are a bit like the Indian teams in the Azhar -Sachin reigns. Good on their day. Yesterday was such a day and they had a point to prove to the expats and PIOs who had apparently booed the home team in their own HQ. Is a bigger motivation needed?
England had given considerable thought to yesterday's encounter while it appeared that India were still thinking about Yuvraj's six sixes.
Harsha Bhogle said something about favourites tags and fearlessless. Nasser Hussain cut him short - India were exposed. Period. How that stung! Because it was true.
The tactical errors which have been highlighted by other bloggers have shown where all India went wrong - chasing (when NRR is not yet in the picture), keeping Ojha out, underbowling RP, overbowling Yuvraj & Ishant, glaringly sending up Jadeja (which was the most damning) and so on. The bottomline, most people seem to agree is that the Indian thinking was way too muddled. They seemed to be experimenting after finding themselves between a rock and hard place.
In some ways, the thinking was reactionary. Dropping the best bowler on view (after being hit for a few bby an exceptional Bravo) was not on. Was not Ojha an attacking, wicket taking option. If he does go for a few, it is not fair that he should be jettisoned.
While I had earlier called for the exclusion of Irfan, Ishant has also not lived up to his ability. The fatigue factor, perhaps. In the West Indies encounter and also against Englad, there were too many hit-me balls from Ishant.
The overall line adopted by bowlers also seemed to be too leg-sidish. They pitched too short, which sat up and bowled defensive lines. Doing nothing special, England managed 150 plus. It was their game to lose after that.
David Lloyd called him 'main man' and the 'thoroughbred' and indeed Bhajji turned in a mature spell when it mattered and reined in the score. He cracked, though - 17.6 and 19.6, two wide ones, fired down the leg side, in an attempt to finish the overs well - 10 runs gifted and India never recovered. Granted Yuvraj muffed a simple stop, but after 12 years on the circuit, Bhajji should not have bowled them in the first place down the leg. Toughness is in the inside.
MSD is tough, if he is anything. But today, he missed a chance to become a hero. Even his run-a-ball 20-full-of-bottom-handed-shovelling-dismissed-when-going -for-a-big-hit would have come in handy today from number 4. Instead, watching young Jadeja painfully struggle sapped the morale of the team. Even in the IPL, Jadeja could not quite clear the ropes, although he remained not-out and finished with reasonable strike rates, those were Nayan Mongia type losing cause efforts. Let us not be too critical of the youngster,because forgetting his bowling contributions which pulled back a 170 plus score to 150 plus.
Some points that reflect the team management's thinking.
A) When quizzed about the Jadeja move, MSD gave his reason and added someting like 'even if the run rate touches 8 or 9, myself and Yuvi can do the job'.
Let's get two things straight here.
1.Yuvraj is 10 times the batsman Dhoni is. Dhoni has this tendency to spin out this "myself and Yuvraj" stuff for quite some time. Who is he kidding?
2.Even in the IPL, MSD could not consistently manage those run-rates he is talking about.
B) MSD goes on to say 'we have people like Yusuf and Harbhajan, who can hit the ball' . Yusuf and Harbhajan, in the same bracket. Give me a break. We know Bhajji is a combative cricketer, who usually punches well above his weight when batting. Yusuf is the cleanest hitter in this squad after Yuvraj. Pushing himself ahead of YP, MSD reduced YP to an Afridi like swishing, between wind and water. That India got within to a boundary hit of winning is thanks to Yuvraj, YP and those two outside edged fours from MSD.
Earlier, while talking about Rohit in the opening slot, it appears they considered YP for the role. Wrong on both counts - opening and no 7. The right role to Yusuf could define cose contests, I had said earlier and despite all the tactical errors, short-pitched bowling it boiled down to just that. One or two more deliveries to face for Yusuf Pathan and India would have been in the competition.

It is no fun being proved right in this fashion.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Vexing Question

It beats me. I cannot figure out why this is happening.

Raja B calls him the Fake One Down Player. Sam had earlier written an impassioned defence here and here. The best Indian cricket writer of our times finally gives his take on the subject here.

The popular feeling as well as the informed opinion seems to be that if India are to put up a strong show in the upcoming round(s) of the competition, MS Dhoni would be better off at No 5 or 6 and vacate the number three spot he has occupied 'by force' as it were.

This is a smart player and tactically agile captain - does he fail to see the point? Having led a middling Indian team to triumph in 2007, surely he knows that T20 is all about seizing moments quickly. While 20 overs is a long enough time, the model cannot be consolidate-build-explode. There is no time to have 'a look' at the bowling. (Do it from the dugout if possible). I am convinced that Dhoni knows his strengths and weaknesses as a batsman.

In fact I would venture to say that knowing his weaknesses only led him to what Harsha Bhogle calls "Dhoni Mark II". MSD, somewhere in September-October 2007 realised that the bowlers have figured him out and adopted this mode of play. Why, during the home ODI series defeat against Australia, MSD was outscored by Robin Uthappa in the sense that RU was able to get boundaries at will, with his Hayden like walk down the track, while Dhoni was not quite as effective slogging.

In the CB series, we saw him go into the accumulator mode for keeps. He has figured that works best for him. It also has helped that this team is full of more capable batsmen who are better equipped to get quick runs.

So it is not as if the captain who is so good at assessing, pitch, opposition, bowling attacks and passages of play has failed to get his own batting order optimised.

As I said before, it beats me...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Viru to return

Saying "I told you so" is no fun, when it follows an injury to Viru Sehwag. Naturally, he has been replaced with Dinesh Karthik about whom I had written here.

Form or no form, Viru is India's biggest matchwinner and he will be sorely missed. Not to mention the entertainment he would have provided.

However, this could be a good opportunity to persist with Rohit at the top and give him the guarantee of a few matches on the trot, rather than a JIT basis.

It would make more sense at this point of time rather that blindly swapping Viru with DK at the top. DK could keep and bat in the lower middle (along with Dhoni) where he did so well in the IPL.

Only hope MSD doesn't persist with his misadventure at no 3, in the garb of "providing experience at the top".

Super Monday

Two results with a similar margin.
Two results which cannot be termed as upsets.
Two results which left the super eights in a vastly different shape than what was widely expected.

The beast has been killed. All hail Mendis, Dilshan and Sanga.

But first the eastern neighbours. Batting first, they had to tell themselves not to lose more than two wickets in the first 10. Aim for 150 and get 160. Instead they overreached. Ashraful and co went for 200 and got 140. But let's cheer the Irish and their supporters.

Trent Johnston took my mind back to John Traicos (remember him, Greek lawyer, offspinner, captain). Dissimilar style but similar in that they both were ageless, large hearted cricketers and played for minnows of their time. The lasting image, though will be the cheerful smile of Niall O'Brien hobbling on an injured foot and taking Mortaza apart in over no 5. Different game after that. He has class, recall the 70 odd that knocked Pakistan out of WC 2007?

So the accountants, lawyers, clerks would have informed their offices for extended leave.

Sanjay Manjrekar is usually a thoughtful man. Mostly speaks and writes sense. Yesterday, though he came across as a frustrated loser. Niall O'Brien had twistedhis ankle trying to save a single and needed a runner. After watching him hit those sixes Sanjay said, it is unfair for injured batsmen to have runners. They save energy when someone runs for them. It is inconvenient for fielders, umpires, non striker. Sanjay says, let's do away with the runner. If you are injured, bad luck. What kind of thinking is this? Does he forget that it is the batsman who is inconvenienced most. Does he forget that the batsman can be run out if either the batsman or runner is found outside the crease? Athar Ali Khan wisely kept quiet. I could see at least one instance where O'Brien by force of habit started running soon after playing a shot and then hobbled back.

Later on Sanjay interviewing Ashraful was hell-bent on painting a picture as though Bangladesh had thrown the match that was theirs. He kept harping on batting and bowling mistakes, while Ashraful (credit to him) said at least thrice that Ireland played well. Hell, can't Sanjay recognise that fact? While talking to MOM, O'Brien at one point Sanjay said in a tone that was both patronising and accusatory "So you are enjoying yourselves?" . The unsaid words were "You guys have no business staying on. Now get hammered by the big boys". Niall's response was awesome - we all do that don't we? That's why we play cricket!!

That's the essence Sanjay. Not everyone is schooled in Shivaji Park. Wicket to be preserved, bowlers ground to dust. Batting more a sacred duty than joie de vivre. There are other ways to play this beautiful game - the O'Brien way, the Rohit way, the Gayle way enjoying what they do. And we enjoy watching them enjoy themselves.

Harsha Bhogle in the post match was all mournful. He said "sad day" thrice in five minutes as though we were watching a political leader's funeral. Give us a break Harsha! We thought you are among the best. Its not as if Bangladesh were overwhelming favourites for the cup. I like watching Shakib too, but they played lousy cricket. Why not accept and celebrate the fact that the Irish have punched above their weight twice in two world cups. Way to go Ireland!!!

An aside while on Bangladesh, realised that Tagore is perhaps the only poet to have composed what would be National Anthems of two different countries.

What a fall for Australia. True that they are not particularly fond of thie format, true that they had one eye on the Ashes, true that the Symonds episode had shaken them, but for precisely the last reason, I expected them to come all guns blazing in this match and the tournament. But hell, who cares. Super 8s is more pleasant place without Ponting and Co. There was some mention about India being relieved that Australia is knocked out. I am not too sure of that. What I am sure of though is, that the format is kind to South Africa and NZ. Already in the Super 8s, first real match only coming up today and their nemesis knocked out even before that. Joy!!!

All credit to SL. First big match after Lahore. New captain. I thought he had got it wrong and overbowled the youngster Udana. Perhaps he did. But he used the 3 Ms well. 12 Overs for 85 runs and 6 wickets. Round 1 to SL. Thanks to Johnson's (served notice against India at Perth, no one recalls. Everyone is talking about his century against SA more recently) confident striking, they would not have touched 140. Ponting, Hussey, Watson and Clark were all wrong footed by Mendis. He might as well have been bowling a grenade. Such was the batsmen's expression. It will be interesting how the other teams tackle 12 overs of high quality bowing from the 3 Ms now on.

In the 50 over format, a sizable score to chase meant Jayasuriya had to get a decent start. Not any more. Dilshan stepped up today. Opening has helped him express himself best. He has the necessary aggro, all round shots (something Upul Tharanga never had despite 6 ODI centuries in one year or something like that. Tharanga was a two shot batsmen - flick of the hip and slash/drive at width outside off) and the mindset to play them, whether or not Jayasuriya is around. Where SL will falter (and in the past they have is the middle/ lower order firepower). Despite the obvious class and the top and middle, Chamara Silva, Maharoof and Mubarak will almost always be outgunned by Raina, Yuvraj, YP and IP. But all that can wait. For now, they are the dragon slayers. Go well Lanka!!!

Another aside - Kumble seems to have the making of a good commentator, in that he does NOT state the obvious. Wasim Akram and SMG fall into this trap.

Yet another aside - Good to see crusty, old Ian Chappell - as opinionated and prickly as ever. He mentioned 'Johnny Gleeson' (whoever that was) more times than 'Mendis ' (and Mendis was the one bowling). But he is sharp and insightful as always and remains one of my favourites.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Upsets galore

The result reminded me of the opening encounter in Italia 90, when unknown Cameroon shocked mighty Argentina (the last time we saw them as defending champions). The scale of the upset was not quite so much when England went down. We know for a fact that England do not enjoy the shorter versions of the game, but the result has thrown up interesting possiblities (as most upsets do) going into the tournament. For instance, a strong Dutch performance against Pakistan and given Younis Khan's apparent indifference to the format itself, could mean Pakistan's early exit. And if SL runs Australia close or even win ( I doubt it happening) and then go on to beat WI, then Australia will precede them on the way out. How is that for an upset?

Some random thoughts on this weekend's match-glut. Shakib Al Hasan is a gem. To find motivation to do your best day after day, when your team is beaten is not easy. A reference (in Q's blog, I think) calls him 'another Vettori'. Yes, Vettori and Andy Flower rolled in one.
South Africa will generally crush the minnows in the first round. Kirsten, Hudson, Cullinan and Kallis have filled their boots in the past and so has Herschelle Gibbs with 6/6. Proteas, like all strong teams will put things in place, send the right message, find the motivation etc and make all the right noises, but I look forward to see how they end the tournament. That is where they have not been quite a 'strong team'.

Pakistan floundering continued into the tournament itself. They had their best chance yesterday to bat first, bat big and ease themselves into the tournament, but no. Bowling first in a must-win match for your opponents is not agreeable, though understandable. Younis said something about D/L, but went on to say he had two spinners in the side and wanted to make use of the pitch. Well, best use of the pitch is done by spinners when bowling second, one would think. One can question the tactics, team selection, batting order, bowling line up, Younis Khan's indifferent attitude etc, but still feel that all it takes for them to find form is to beat Netherlands by the required margin and get into the Super8s. Once they beat a 'major' team, they could be a different side.

West Indies beating Australia is not an 'upset' in the sense of the word, but a shellacking in this fashion was surely not expected. More so after Australia put up 170 on the board. There were guests at home for dinner and before I could send them off and return to the TV, the match, as a contest was over. Watching the re-runs gave an idea of that Lee over and what it must have done to the Aussie team as a whole. The black bandanna sits nicely with the Caribbean pirate imagery. The sheer arrogance, the splendid camera work and the crunching sound the bat made every time Gayle connected - heady mixture for sure. The bad press he has been getting in recent times could have galvanised Gayle. He was even seen pushing hard for a single at one stage!!! Must reserve a special round of applause for young Fletcher who matched the Cool Dude in stroke-play. In fact it was he who started the carnage and gave Gayle a bit of time and space. The Sri Lankans (last team to enter the fray) would be supported by the rest of the cricket community for today's clash. If they slay the beast tonight, it would be a Semi Final line up sans Australia for the first time in a World Cup since '92.

And what of India? Just as South Africa continue crush minnows, India make heavy weather of them (recall Netherlands in 2003 S. Africa). One might argue Bangladesh are not minnows, but this Indian team is a strong contender and expected to put up big wins against such opposition. Though the 25 run margin looked convincing, Bangladesh had a vice like grip on things in the middle 10 overs of Indian innings, or, let's say about 25% of the match.

Few complaints about the win. Bright spots:

1. Rohit continues to impress in the new role. 2.Ojha is ready, I mean for Tests and the wise men need to look at him closely.

3. Going into the business end of the tournament, Yuvraj will once again be the main man. He seems to have found his groove, thankfully.

Some things continue to baffle:

1. Harsha Bhogle said before the toss that India are going in with 5 bowlers. I counted Zak, Ishanth, Ojha and Harbhajan. Who was the fifth?

2. Dhoni taking his batting too seriously, at the team's expense. In this space, I had questioned this tactic of Dhoni's in the IPL, which effectively scuttled his team's chances.

3. So far no one seems to have told Rohit Sharma that his strike rate is fine (compared to the damage Dhoni is doing these days). He can play normally and still strike at 150. He need not belt every ball while opening.

4. Tactical error - in form Raina at 5. At the risk of sounding repetitive - the batting should read VS& GG, Rohit, Raina, Yuvraj , YP and MSD. If Dhoni continues in this fashion, better teams will tie him down all too easily.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sufficiently warmed up

Watching a game starting at GMT 1630 hrs from a zone +8.00 hours is no fun. When there is a meeting to attend at 10 am, the following morning, it is downright foolhardy. But what of it. I had stifled the yawns well enough. This was no ordinary warm up match, you see.

While I believe Australia Vs India is the marquee contest these days, the intensity of an Indo-Pak clash has not diminished one bit. The atmosphere was magical. Admittedly India have lesser headaches coming out of this encounter but here are a few thoughts.

Praveen and Irfan seemed like just looking to pitch the ball with the result that the ball sat up nicely in the early overs at the right pace to hit. The length & pace of Ishant, and the inexperience of the Pakistani top order allowed India to get the toe in the door. And good teams will tear that door down, as India did.

Dhoni and Irfan kept their heads while Afridi lost his, but fact of the matter is Irfan is nowhere close to his bowling best. Facing tougher opposition in the super 8s (assuming they get there), he could get plastered (as in the past). More worrying is the lack of swing and thereby penetration from RP in English conditions.

The spinners did the job once again. While Harbhajan was adequate, Ojha seems to have progressed. One moment stood out for me. After getting Shoib Malik, there were no celebrations from Ojha this time. He just walked up to his captain and mates with a straight face, almost as if expecting the dismissal. No smile. No surprise. He was just pointing out (to Rohit, I think) as to how he got his man. Such confidence is desirable.

In the field Raina, was exceptional as ever. His celebrations after the direct hit and the catch (taken Aussie style) showed how keen he is to make a mark in his first WC of any sort. Tiredness be damned. Boys like to play. Apart from one early fluff by Harbhajan (nerves perhaps) Indians were largely safe in the field

Dhoni did not bowl out Ishant but kept Praveen and RP for overs 19 and 20. Good move again (like keeping Pathan on for Afridi, whom he riles to no end) .Both bowlers obliged like good neighbours with 15 and 14 runs allowing Pakistan to post a challenging total.

It is tempting to think of Rohit as an opening option. But it is a stop-gap solution and needs to be that way whenever Viru returns to partner GG. Rohit and Raina ahead of Yuvraj, YP and Dhoni would be my line up, though I suspect the last two would be swapped.

That said, let us give credit where it is due. Rohit, it appears had jumped at the offer when the team asked him to step in for Viru. For long he has languished at 6 and 7 and being dropped from the 11 in ODIs for accomodation. He relished the opportunity to play a decent knock and dismantled the Pakistan bowlers in such a way that you were left wondering who was the senior partner and who was the stop-gap man. In earlier posts I have written about his abilities and also his lapses of concentration, both of which we witnessed, but happily more of the first. The disdain with which he batted against Umar Gul, Afridi and Tanvir (a cause of concern for Younis, as these are three of the most effective bowlers in the circuit in this format) shows that he needs to bat in the top 4. Commentators were waxing lyrical about the extra time he has to play his shots. Hope for his sake and India's that he plays to potential. Perhaps, a case for Yuvraj and Dhoni to play Miandad-like (or Dravid like, can’t offend anyone here) roles and take the team home and empowering RS and SR with the responsibility of setting the tone.

As for Pakistan, Younis has more worries.

- - Extras ( Nothing new here)

- - Afridi ( Nothing new here, either)

- - Trigger happy young batsmen at the top, who need to realise 20 overs are a long enough time to bat.

- - When to bowl Umar Gul and Tanvir

- - Fielding under pressure

What has Younis got going for him

+ + The calming presence of Shoib Malik and Misbah, the latter looking in good touch. Let us not underestimate their value while admiring flashy 'teenaged' openers.

+ + Mohammed Amer holding his own against Rohit and GG is a good sign

+ + Favourable pool

+ + Possible Super 8 Group without the Big Three

++ No Shoaib !!!

Cannot underestimate the last named factor.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Warm up matches

An Air France plane missing over the Atlantic, Indian students being attacked in Australia, a 100 year old titan of corporate America finally keeling over and swine flu spreading slowly but surely - a T20 cricket world cup seems trivial in this background and warm up matches even more so. Despite that, here goes...

Warm up games are like pre-poll jousting between candidates. No one knows what to make of them or how they will count in the final tally.

South Africa have started well (yet again) in a World Cup. They would take a weak start and a strong finish everytime. England 1999, India-Pak-SL 1996, more recently SA 2007, where they won 4 out of 4 before running into India.

Australia is in business. Remember Champions Trophy 2006 (the Sharad Pawar one). They went after it in all cold blooded seriousness and got what they wanted. Teams like India and South Africa that are said to be title contenders must look out. Expect Australia (and a wounded Symonds) to come very hard.

Pakistan's poor outing means nothing. Expect them to lose the non-consequential games and close ranks when they are pushed to the wall. Once they do that, no team is a bigger threat. Plus, no other team has a 100% record against Australia in any format of the game (though they have played all of two matches)

New Zealand cannot lose to India in a T20. Q has summed them up superbly here.

They way India bowled their death overs and the way Ashraful and co laid into Aussie bowling points to an interesting first round. Shakib Al Hassan is a successful all rounder in ODI's and has come up with stellar performances, which have not been noticed, perhaps because Bangladesh have been soundly beaten, all the time.
Indians need to quickly decide on what to do with Irfan Pathan, having brought him to England. Make no mistake, he is a match-winning batsman in T20's, one of the better fielders but is unable to string a decent spell in any form of cricket for quite some time now. If the composition is 6 batsmen + 2 fast bowlers + 1 spinner + Yusuf + Irfan, then India is spreading itself very thin on bowling. In case one of the 3 main bowlers get collared, then stopping the runs would be a problem.
Yusuf's position is also something they need to think about. Dhoni's batting requires a post by itself, but he too must decide where he adds value to this line up and how best would he do that. The media and commentators are fair weather friends. Those who praise him for 'responsible batting' and 'curbing risks' would turn around and question his strike rate (quite justifiably at that) if he falters.