Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Support cast

Two fringe-men have made it count.
I had referred to Kulasekara as a 'journey-man' in an earlier post. 59.4 overs, 12 wickets out of a total 40 to have fallen, at a cost of 12.83 per wicket later, I am not sure these are the stats of a journeyman.
If Sri Lanka keep their cool, the series will be over today and Kulasekara would have had no mean part, whatever be the outcome. From being a prop in a line-up with names such as Murali, Vaas, Mendis and Fernando, Kulasekara has had his moment in the sun.
The other fringe-man has always made it count. Paul Collingwood stepped into the breach, yet again. Collingwood suffers the same fate as VVS Laxman did for the most of his career. He, for some reason was considered the most expendable of the middle-order batsmen, playing perennially for survival. A middle order prop, to bat somewhere between the glamour boys KP and Flintoff. Nothing more.
To me, he is the quintessential team-man. Be it, dragging England by the bootstraps to some respectable total, hard running and smart play in ODIs, or sheer doggedness as shown in this rearguard action - Collingwood is the man. He was never in the limelight (He never will be, with his nudges and shovels) in a team with KP and Flintoff, but he is one person Strauss can rely on to give his best everytime, unnoticed.
I have seen three of his innings which typefies the player he is. None of them remarkable for any great batting quality, but the timeliness of the effort.
1. The maiden hundred at Nagpur in 2006 to put up a total of 400 in a match they were expected to turn up and lose.
2. The double hundred which was strangely a support innings to KP's 150 plus at Adelaide.
3. The second innings hundred to support Strauss' hundred in Chennai in that test match - while Cook, Bell, KP and Flintoff all made single digit scores.
Typically, 1 was a draw and 2 and 3 were remarkable wins - for England's opponents. That has been the theme of Collingwood's career, although 9 hundreds and 15 fifties in 49 Tests suggests a 'maximiser'.
Go well Colly. You deserve your place in the sun.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Finally underway

If Nathan Hauritz were to play domestic cricket in India, they would not smash him out of the attack. They are clever chaps, our batsmen - they can't run two laps during training but they can bat for two days. Hitting him out of the attack is only closing an option. Instead, the Jaffer and others will re-check their guards, take a deep breath and proceed to tuck him off their legs all day. They will kep the valve open - 3 an over - Aaram se. Hauritz would end the day with something like 20-0-70-1 with someone or the other getting out due to sheer boredom.
His effort on Day 1 of Ashes 2009 was something similar. But the single digit in the last column was the difference between a commanding England total/a possibly winning start and an adequate looking one. As it stands, the game is poised evenly with England slightly in front due to the fact that their attack looks more balanced and they will likely be bowling last. However if I were the Goblin (© JRod), I would be thinking three more wickets before they get 350 and game on here.
25 minutes before KP's inspired moment, when he and Collingwood were comfortable in the middle, Australia were staring at 450 minimum. Collingwood edged one he could have left alone, but that was nothing compared to the madness to follow. KP like Virender Sehwag is spoken of as a maverick and a true gift to the game, supremely talented and unique. But while Viru gets out to 'needless' shots at times, he plays the percentages well. I mean, assuming KP connected that shot well, what would he have got, a brace round the corner? Is it worth a wicket in a test match?
Two new men in, Goblin on the attack, Lucifer joins him in the slips and the Aussies are back in the game. Here's where Matt Prior impressed (despite his average of 48, I honestly thought Aus were into the tail) and Flintoff found his spark. Aussies are good at choking off the runs, but Prior played intelligently, tucking it in the legside and running hard, never keeping Flintoff away from the strike. One pull and a brutal straight drive suggested all is well with him. Bowling has been Freddie's stronger suit and his batting in recent times has a sometimes distracted, sometimes laboured look to it. On this occasion he made a visible effort to dominate and strangely Australia withdrew. Deep point on the boundary when the offspinner is bowling (your sole specialist, remember) is not a great sign.
That said, bowling is not the Aussies stronger suit. If Stuart Broad and world record holding batsman Anderson can hand around and push the score close to 375, then the Aussies would worry. Either way the first hour would be fascinating.
PS: I have always thought that the Ashes are England's biggest ego massage - telling themselves more than anyone else that they matter in world cricket. However, with the glut of T20 in recent times, I am delighted to watch Test cricket, no matter who is playing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Rahul Dravid is my favourite cricketer of all time - ( it was him and Sachin, but when Rahul was bowled going for a reverse sweep on 270, in Rawalpindi when India were going for a declaration, in my opinion, he dwarfed everyone else)- one of the modern day greats of the One Day game and an all time legend in Tests. No two ways about it. Even these days, when he does not make the first cut ODI XI or XVI, the wise men have deemed him good enough to be in the mix.

It is a long way off to the CT (as fellow bloggers refer it), but then, such is the nature of Indian cricket that a debate will be ignited even before the team has returned from the ongoing series. So while the team takes a break, this debate will go on and intensify when the current 30 is cut down to 15 or 16 (with or without Dravid) as per the tournament's dictates - 'pruning' they call this process. One of the sports channels has already started the show and irate fans are calling from all over to voice their opinions.

For me, the move baffles on two counts:

1. Having more or less picked a core group keeping in mind the WC 2011, the selectors should stick to that group and certainly Rahul Dravid is not part of that group. Hence if Raina/ Rohit are inadequate at No3, either by technique or temperament, then try out the other players in your core group. For instance Badrinath, who has done just about everything but get even a sporadic look-in into the playing XI or Murali Vijay (who was deemed good enough to open in a Test match against Australia). By going to Dravid, the wise men are signalling that they lack confidence in the group that they picked and groomed all along and the same group who has given them a string of victories in T20 and ODIs (which are too well known to be repeated). If the youngsters (like Suresh Raina) were not equipped in 2007, there was no evidence in the interim to suggest that they were better equipped to fast, short-pitched bowling now. And if you think that this lot is not the best, then dropping Dravid for the CB (Australia ODI) series was a mistake in the first place. (And now don't tell me it is the other selection committee, we all know that MSD got the team he wanted). Hence the move does not look good.

2. Is this move intended to give a 'message' to the Rainas and Rohits, that " You guys have to hone your technique/temperament, or we will not hesitate to drop you. Youngistan-2011 be damned." If so it fails, because the other (wrong) message goes to unintended parties - like Badri for instance - that "We will pick you in the 15, but will not insist on you being played. We do not notice your presence. And hence we will go back to the grand master, whom we avoided all along". The right thing to do is straight forward: Having identified R and R as the future, send them on India A Tours/ Emerging Player Tours , where their technique and temperament will be tested. Have a wise man go with them full time to see how they are faring, if need be. As for Badri/Vijay/Ojha/Nayar - see how they fare against international opposition over an extended period of time. Having them as passengers on a tour is helping neither the team nor them. if you just want to make up the numbers, you could take Sreesanth along. He is more fun than any of Badri/Vijay/Ojha/Nayar. He will keep you entertained for sure.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mohammad Yousuf - The prodigal son

Mohammad Yousuf is a class act. One does not score close to two thousand runs in a year otherwise.
I can recall his batting from three instances. WC 99 was a sucessful campaign for Pakistan bar the final. While Shoaib Akhtar and the bowlers get lot of credit (fairly) and also Razzak for his stodgy batting at no 3 to hold the innings together, to me the key man was Yousuf (Youhana those days). Allright Razzak blocked and kept the wickets intact, but someone had to pace the innings and explode at the end and also give strike to other hitters (Azhar Mehmood and co). That someone in WC 99 was always Yousuf. The absolute mastery in 2006 and partnership with Younis against India. Admittedly, home wickets were favourable, but this man was remorseless. Flawless. The 4th innings 88 he made against Murali in a losing cause. Surprising everyone with how late he could play Murali and remain in control.
Among his contemporaries if one were to describe batting in a word, Younis is bold, Inzamam was classy and Yousuf is all poise.
While I did not see the century on return, I am sure he must have shown plenty of that poise against Mendis and co. 80/4 is a tricky situation to be chasing 290 plus. From there on to get a small but substantial lead of 50 runs is very good going indeed. The match is intriguingly poised and Yousuf has done the job once again. On a difficult track, coming in after a long layoff to score a a hundred at 60 runs per 100 balls confirms that he is a special batsman. Critics could point out that the rest of this team has not played much cricket anyway, but to make a comeback of sorts is always tough. (Ask anyone from Mohinder Amarnath to Dinesh Karthik) Twenty-five test hundreds is a mark of greatness and he is just one short.
On an aside, it is great to have Test cricket up and running after a surfeit of T20.

Friday, July 3, 2009

What If?

This is case has been dead and buried for all purposes. VVS Laxman's ODI record. The idea is to put things in perspective, question the perils of stereotyping cricketers and seeing them through blinkers.

VVS Laxman is one of the greatest batsman India has produced. With close to 7000 test runs, he is arguably the best cricketer in the world to have never played a single World Cup match. The two reasons cited for which he was kept out or missed out (depending on which way one looks at it) were 'Running between the wickets' and 'not the best fielder'.

Let us consider his two contemporaries, great batsmen, who were not great runners and not the best fielders (ground fielding and run saving ability, NOT catching) either and use them as a benchmark for various comparisons. Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly.

Career Stats as of date

Player/Matches/Innings/NO/Runs/Average /Strike Rates/HS/100s/50s Dravid/333/308/40/10585/39.49/71.22/153/12/81


Laxman/ 86/ 83/ 7/ 2338/ 30.76/71.23/131*/6/10

At first sight, Laxman's record suggests an inconsistent underacheiver. One has to note that the played his 86 matches staggered over 1998 to 2004 as opposed to the other two who were sure starters in this period. Confidence and assurance of a place plays no small part in performance as you will see.

The fact is that both Ganguly and Dravid were notoriously slow starters in ODIs and grew with experience and responsibility. Ganguly matured soon, and benefited from opening the batting which did his average and SR a lot of good. After 2002, Dravid found his niche at No5 and became perhaps the best middle order batsman in the game, till the time he was dropped. The high NOs and 81 fifty plus scores attest to that fact.

One interesting column is the strike rate. Notice that, even with the staggered 86 matches and even with Dravid and Ganguly improving their ODI play in the middle and later stages of their careers, Laxman has the same SR as Dravid and only 2.5 runs per 100 balls less than Ganguly. So much for Ganguly's big hitting and fast scoring abilities.

So how did Dravid and Ganguly fare in their first 86 matches?

Overall Records in the same number of matches

Same number of innings would have been a better indicator, but since I could not find such a filter in cricinfo (maybe I did not look hard enough) hence this. Even so, being top order batsmen all, it would be a fairly accurate reflection of performance.

Player /Matches/Inns/NO/ Runs/ Average/SR/HS/ Hundreds/ Fifties/ Period

Dravid/86/79/6/2738/37.50/68.70/145/5/18/1996- 5 Jun 1999

Ganguly/86/81/7/2998/40.51/68.87/124/5/20/ 1992(1996)-10 Jan 1999

(Forget the 'on-paper' debut in 1992)

Laxman/ 86/ 83/ 7/ 2338/ 30.76/71.23/131*/6/10/ 1998-2006

Here Laxman's runs and average are low compared to the other two giants. One obvious reason is in the last column. While the other two played out those 86 matches within 3 years, VVS had them staggered over a 12 year period, being in and out of the ODI side. That is not a recipe if one is looking for consistent run of scores. Had he been given a consistent run at No 3, who knows what might have been possible. Plus one must consider he did not make many runs against the minnows of those days. Although it is not clear from this bit of statistic, there were innumerable matches with likes of Bangladesh, Kenya, Zimbabwe and weak bowling sides ( in the subcontinent) like NZ against which Ganguly especially scored a lot of runs. Bringing them into the equation is beyond the scope of the subject.

One measure of how good a player is would be how you fare against the best in the business. It is known that Laxman enjoyed playing against Australia. However, the other point is that Australia were(are) the pre-eminent ODI side in the world, winning ALL the ODI World Cups in question, in this period of later half of 1996 to 2007. To score runs against them in ODIs, one would have to be exceptionally talented to find the gaps, or clear the field, and/or be fleet of foot to beat their super-strong fielding side. None of this three were exceptional runners, although Dravid was/is a great judge of the single. So how have this three gentlemen fared against the Aussies?

Record against Aus in 86 matches

For Laxman, these are the only ODIs played. For Dravid and Ganguly, these were the first 86 Matches they played.

Player /Matches/Inns/NO/ Runs/ Average/SR/HS/ Hundreds/ Fifties/ Period

Dravid/5/5/0/125/25.00/65.44/56/0/1/ 1996 - 5 Jun 1999

Ganguly/8/8/0/213/26.62/64.74/72/0/2/ 1996 - 10 Jan 1999

Laxman/21/19/3/ 739/46.18/77.05/106*/4/2/ Till Date

VVS strike rate against Australia 77.05 is considerably better than his career average. Nothing surprising here. This is more than the career strike rates of all three.

The stats also show that for an Australia series VVS was more likely to be selected. Hence he high proportion, almost 25% against Australia.

Obviously in their first 86 matches Dravid and Ganguly were not very 'seasoned' and pitted against Australia in that period, their records are fairly ordinary. Comparitively VVS's most productive matches against Australia came on the back of his most productive test series against them (2001 India and 2003-04 Australia - confidence and assurance of a place). As for Dravid and Ganguly , undoubtedly, as they grew in class and stature, their career records improved vastly.

Hence a better measure would be to compare how each of them has fared in similar number of outings against the best. This is by no means conclusive, since each batsman tends to have his 'favourite' opposition. Ganguly's in this stage was Pakistan who was still India's bogey and that spoke for temperament. But Austalia were top dog any day.

Record against Australia in same number of matches played

Player /Matches/Inns/NO/ Runs/ Average/SR/HS/ Hundreds/ Fifties/ Period

Dravid/19/19/0/543/28.57/64.56/80/0/5/ Upto 14 Oct 2003

Ganguly/20/20/0/466/23.30/64.36/100/1/3/ Upto 10 Jan 2003

Laxman/21/19/3/ 739/46.18/77.05/106*/4/2/ Till Date

Considering similar number of innings/matches against Australia, Laxman is head and shoulders above the other two while Ganguly's is the poorest in terms of average. Strike Rate wise too Laxman is streets ahead. The Aussies really had Ganguly sorted out on the offside, while Dravid's 6 fifties (seen here and few more 40s not seen here) are proof of his growing assertiveness in the middle overs. Finally, let us see how Dravid and Ganguly fared against Australia till date. Laxman's stats, as expected, remain unchanged. Surely Dravid and Ganguly cannot beat that average of 46 plus by Laxman against Australia.

Career Stats against Australia as of date

Player /Matches/Inns/NO/ Runs/ Average/SR/HS/ Hundreds/ Fifties
(includes all innings played for India and ICC World XI)
Ganguly /35/33/0/774/23.45/67.71/100/1/5
Laxman/21/19/3/ 739/46.18/77.05/106*/4/2

As expected, Dravid and Ganguly are nowhere near that average. Although had Laxman played another 14-15 matches against his favourite opponents, his average might have come down, but that again is arguable. Curiously, Dravid has regressed in terms of average but has got one fifty plus score in every 5 outings. Ganguly has not improved by much. Possibly an older Laxman in ODI's may have deteriorated performance wise.

Comments and Conclusion

The reason for choosing Australia has been mentioned - that they are the premier one day side and it is a fair indicator of the ability of the man in question and he has played most matches against them. It would not have helped to track Laxman's record against, say, Pakistan (against whom, perhaps Ganguly played some of his best knocks) since Laxman played only 10 matches against them (including a matchwinning 107(104) in a ODI Final in Lahore)

It must be noted that this is THE BEST form of Laxman in ODIs. Dravid and Ganguly had similar runs against different opposition in different times. This is a question - 'What if?'

This is not meant to be a critical assessment of Dravid and Ganguly, but it is notable for two things. One - Dravid and Ganguly were far from their usual best against Australia in their ODI game and Laxman raised his ODI game against Australia. Two - how much perception influences reality. Given 330 odd ODIs what could have Laxman done?

Laxman's best place was No 3, but due to the Saurav/Sachin/Sehwag opening conondrum in the later years, the No 3 spot was not available for him.

Call it Laxman'sbad luck or whatever, but the earlier half of his career ODI specialists JAdeja and Robin Singh were around and later half, Yuvraj Singh and company had made it, hence the theory that there were 'better' players for the ODI game. (BTW Ajay Jadeja's career SR was 69.80 - another statistical quirk? or perception becoming reality? Truth was , Jadeja was an established matchwinner in ODIs when Laxman came along)

One final statistic. Please consider the following list.

Ajay Jadeja 196

Ajit Agarkar 191

Harbhajan Singh 185

Venkatesh Prasad 161

Nayan Mongia 140

Robin Singh 136

MS Dhoni 134

Manoj Prabhakar 130

Mohd Kaif 125

Vinod Kambli 104

Kiran More 94

VVS Laxman 86

Dinesh Mongia 57

Hemang Badani 40

The above list shows names of certain players and their ODI caps for India. Now ask yourself - What if?

All stats from Cricinfo

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Deputy

What would happen if Mahendra Singh Dhoni were to sit out for a match? I know, the current designated vice captain in Yuvraj. When Sehwag returns, it would be him. But after the break till September/Champions Trophy, India have a fairly long season ahead. So they would have to be prepared for eventualities and cannot allow their form to vary with their skipper's presence. It happened in NZ, in the second test match, and the Indians, going by match reports, were listless on the field. What got them out of jail was the ability of Dravid and Laxman to bat time and Gautam Gambhir's discovery of another dimension to his game. There may come a time when MSD has to sit out an entire series. I also know that it is still early days int MSD's stint as captain, but there is no harm in thinking of a long term deputy and an alternative, when the need arises.

The vice captain in Indian cricket is an interesting animal. It surfaces in overseas tours and multi-lateral tournaments. It is generally unseen in home series. For tours it has been either the most experienced player besides the captain, or the next best player and someone who is sure of his place always in the starting XI.

Dhoni is the captain for the foreseeable future but who should be the deputy for a long term? If the selectors were to look for a succession plan, the next generation of cricketers are to be considered. Run through the following names of cricketers who are the gen next to the Dhoni/Yuvraj crop - Irfan Pathan, Dinesh Karthik, RP Singh, Rohit Sharma, Raina enough already. None of them is a shoo-in for all three versions of the game and each of them has his own problem(s) to worry about. Gilchrist was gushing about Rohit's leadership in the IPL, but the Indian team is a very different beast. While Irfan P and DK strike as future possibilities, they too are not sure starters and hence in the present scheme of things just cannot be.

So much for succession planning. So the VC has to be an experienced guy, from the Dhoni/ Yuvraj crop, possibly senior even and perform the kind of role Dravid did and what Sangakkara used to do until recently - Contemporary of the captain, may not have a similar long tenure, but experienced leader and will slot in without trouble.

Sehwag and Yuvraj obviously fit in here and Sehwag is the first among equals. He is as street smart as anyone else and there is not much against him except an apparent laidbackness. Yuvraj did not seem too inspirational in both the IPLs. In fact in the first version Jayawardene and Sangakkara were running the ship in tense situations. When Dhoni was chosen over him, there was the impression that he was irked, but now he seems to have made peace with the reality. He must be allowed freely to do what he does best - that is singlehandedly win matches for India.

As for the rest, there is Zaheer, Harbhajan and Gautam Gambhir. Appointing Harbhajan in any kind of leadership role would be the biggest practical joke the selectors can play on the team, its supporters and Harbhajan himself. Gambhir is young enough to serve for another 7-8 years. He is a sure starter for all versions of the game, looked in control in his IPL stint (unlike Bhajji and Yuvraj) and has grown in stature by virtue of his performances and will hence command the respect of his peers and juniors.

For me though, Zaheer is the most impressive canditate. He took the leadership role in the field during power-plays in ODIs, mentored Ishant, set fields with great effect, importantly looked in control. Lastly, he has the respect and trust of the main man in charge. He would command respect by being a sure starter, a match-winner and a man who has fought his way back to the top by hard work and performance. In his comeback avatar, he has made himself counted with the bat more often than not showing the willingness to hand in there. In close test matches in the recent past, the resoluteness of the Indian tail has tilted things their way. Zaheer has contributed to this in a big way.

So all things being equal, Zaheer it has to be for me as VC, till the next generation stands up to be counted.