30 November 2007

Pakistan in India, Eden Gardens

Eden Gardens, Day 5: Pakistan live to fight another day

There is much to be said of living to fight another day. No one knows that better than Pakistan. Their most celbrated victories have come when all but the craziest had written them off. On days one and two, nobody seemed to doubt that this was the worst Pakistan squad to have ever toured India. But now, Pakistan are moral victors having drawn at Kolkata with a severely depleted bowling line-up. Much credit to Younis Khan, who not only delayed his arrival at the crease to let Kamran have a go and to shore up the lower order, but also attacked with purpose after Butt concentrated hard to leave almost every ball on the rough alone.

India did threaten until the two Ys were settled but once that happened, only spectacular fielding and lapses in concentration could have brought them back into the match.

Apart from the Kamran-Misbah partnership, Sami's barnacle act that ate up so much time was a definite match-turner. Perhaps India could have batted a tad faster. Ganguly could have run better once Khan had spread the field to save the boundary. Eventually, declaration was a decision taken out of Kumble's hands on Day 4, and there is no point discussing it.

Another interesting facet in this match has been watching Shoaib's bowling. After a horrid Day 1, he showed definite improvement. Even though no wickets came his way in that mammoth first innings, he did bowl 16% of Pakistans overs. In the second innings, he bowled more than Sami or Tanvir, and also did a good job of stopping Ganguly and Dhoni from going for an early decaration.

Eden Gardens, Days 3 and 4: It's alive!!!
India could have done much better at the end of the fourth day's play. Pakistan should have folded much earlier, and Dhoni and Gulguly could've done better towards the end.

Kamran was brilliant after lunch on Day 3, making it the third time he has bailed his time out with brilliant counterattack against India. When we see such stunning strokeplay, it is difficult to reason why he is not among the top wicketkeeper batsmen in the world today. Yes, the pitch was flat but the score was 150 for 5, and only the Aussies can claim to have consistently regrouped from such a situation. Hopefully he can carry this confidence into his keeping as weel. The opportunity again brought the the best out of Misbah who always seems so collected in a pressure cooker until his mode of dismissal would betray the storm within. Misbah and Kamran ran well and built their stand and Pakistan had the opportunity to walk away with a draw. Misbah did not relent on the morning of Day 4 and Sami did the barnacle act again. The follow-on was averted and then some. Once Sami was dismissed, the rest perished in a flurry.

Kamran should have been out earlier, and Sami as well. It was shocking that the scoreline did not reflect how badly the Indians fielded in England, and probably it won't in this series as well. One hopes the batting and bowling can hide the fielding troubles in Australia as well.

Karthik was scratchy in trying to regain some form but Jaffer was as confident as I have ever seen anyone and capitalised on several Tanvir deliveries on his pads. Karthik got out trying to be too sexy. The next boundary came four overs later, and the one after that came after six. Jaffer went trying to slog after his fifty and Ganguly came. Dhoni had been sent in to accelerate the scoring rate. But some awesome turn that Kaneria got from the rough outside leg, as well as Shoaib's controlled aggression, and Ganguly's weak running meant India did not declare by end of the day's play. On a difficult wicket, Dhoni (28 from 53) might not necessarily be the guy who can score quick.

In 2001, seven Aussie wickets fell after tea on the last day. India have given themselves a chance to win, and they just need to keep going at Pakistan. Harbhajan already has five wickets in this match. He will be very confident. But Pakistan will be too, as anyone who came back from the dead would be.

Pakistan in India, Eden Gardens, Day 2: Ganguly, Laxman, Dhoni pile on
Ganguly, Laxman and Dhoni coninued to pile on the misery. The strokes sparkled in the first session and continued till Ganguly's dismissal. Both men made their first hundred against Pakistan. For Dada, it might even have been emotional.

Shoaib was a touch better today. He bowled more and tried to keep it in the 140s, though the slower deliveries were coming with predictable regularity. Sohail Tanvir though, found the situation too hot to handle and continued to leak runs. Sami eventually ended up bowling just five overs more than Shoaib. The batsmen were in such good control that Danish Kaneria was punished for almost every single bad ball that he bowled. Kumble's declaration left him stranded on 194.

For a brief period prior to the tea break, both Laxman and Dhoni went circumspect, and I was wondering whether there would even be a declaration today. But all those doubts were put to rest when Dhoni reeled off some strokes to bring up his fifty and the declaration with it.

Whether it was merely a matter of an unequal contest between bat and ball on a placid pitch will be revealed tomorrow. The third day is supposed to be the best for batting at Eden Gardens, and Pakistan have an opportunity to get as close to the follow-on target as possible. It is still not clear what is wrong with Zaheer Khan, but Kumble did the right thing in taking him out of the attack at the first sign of trouble. India need Zaheer to be fit for the long haul ahead.

Even without Zaheer in the attack, Pakistan will at least need until lunch on the fourth day to overhaul the target. India will not lose this series. To win this test, the Indian captain will look no further than himself. However, Kumble will need to work in tandem with Bhajji, and a few injections of confidence will do him no harm. This is Eden and it won't be the first time he has performed magic here.

Eden Gardens, Day 1: Jaffer bullies clueless Pakistan
Pakistan were asking for it, going into the match with an unfit Shoaib. A shadow of his second-innings avtar in Delhi, Pakistan were a bowler short throughout and India made the most of it. Of course it could have been much better had Dravid not been given out, but Dravid should have been run out a few overs earlier.

Dravid's partnership with Jaffer laid the foundations for the assault that Jaffer and Tendulkar launched. Pakistan's brightest moment was when Tendulkar fell to a Kaneria googly after a sparkling knock. Post the second innings at Kotla, he seems to have shifted a few gears in his head and his style. I was getting quite irritated with his grinding game in England, but this was fun to watch. Even when Kaneria tried to do what Warne once attempted, packing the leg side field and bowling into the rough outside legstump, Sachin was looking very much at ease.

Jaffer throughout, was magestic and dominated everyone, pulling and cutting and driving easily. On three different occasions, he reeled off a hat-trick of boundaries. In Australia he may not get away with driving in the air so much, but man, his backfoot play is spectacular. Sohail Tanvir seemed to be at the recieving end quite a bit. With Shoaib certainly undercooked and Sami bowling like he did not care, Kaneria's good bowling at the other end went unrewarded. Kamran dropping Tendulkar did not help. At the end of the day, it had to be said that these two teams were not evenly matched. Even on placid pitches, Pakistani bowling ususally threatens more.

I do not know the logic of playing three pacers at Eden Gardens. But even if we agree with that policy, Pakistan would have been much better off choosing the repalcement Arafat. I do not know whether the management was pandering to Shoaib's whims, but from the morning it was clear that Shoaib would be dead weight. Tanvir, Arafat, Kaneria and Rehman it should have been.

What of Dinesh Kathik? Despite his failure in three consecutive innings' he is still in the Top 10 runscorers in Tests in 2007. But how much longer can he keep out Gautam Gambhir or Yuvraj Singh? Things somehow look rosy for Indian Test cricket. There is competition for the openers spot, in the middle order, to be the chosen fast bowling options, and to be Kumble's suppport spinner. Mahendra Singh Dhoni seems to have cornered the wicket keeper batsman's position, though.

27 November 2007

Regional bias

Read this 2002 Ram Guha article on Kerala cricket here. It needs to be updated to include a para on Sree.

26 November 2007

Bent elbow blah

During the television coverage, we all saw Shoaib - and Bhajji too, let it be said - bend and unbend his elbow at the time of delivery. Superslomo had revealed it, and Rameez could not hide his mirth trying to deadpan.

I think this fixation with the bent elbow is frustrating, and frankly unfair to the bowler. I have not seen any scientific inquiry to what precisely a bowler gains from bending his arm. More spin for the spinner, more speed for the pacer, but in terms of an increment on the speed/spin he would have recieved anyway, we know nothing. Also, the cameras see everyone chuck, some perceptible to the naked eye, all perceptible to cameras if you could just slow them down enough. Even Zaheer and Kumble extend their arms at the point of delivery, just that we don't see it. This easy identification of 'unbent elbow' with a 'beautiful action' is somewhat simplistic. Bedi, he of the most beautiful action the game has known, unbeknownst to us, was also, what you may call, ahem, a 'chucker'.

When everything else in the game is going the batsman's way, I don't see why the bowler should not be allowed a little leeway - if research proves that it is indeed, little. Fifteen percent extension is what is aloowed now. Shoaib is well within the rules, and snide remarks will not bring back any un-bent utopia.

22 November 2007

Pakistan in India, FSK

India clawed back to a point of ascendancy every time they looked like being put under pressure, and that is why they won the match. Laxman and Dhoni were under pressure in the first innings, but the way they batted, you'd never have known. Zaheer proved he was a world-class bowler. Very very few easy balls came from him. Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman came up with adequate performances with the bat. Adequate that is, to keep Yuvraj out. Adeqaute also, for an Indian win.

Pakistan will take heart from the continued good form and effort from Shoaib "Jesus" Akthar. Salman Butt continued, like Jaffer, to look dangerous without inflicting any irreparable damage. And what can I say about Misbah that has not already been said? Good bat, though.

Days 4 and 5: India win, Ganguly swings it, Yuvraj'll have to wait

Throughout this match, Pakistan have lost wickets exactly when they should not have. Ganguly swung the match decisively India's way, taking advantage of some across-the-line indiscretion on the second new ball. If Misbah and Sami had reproduced half their first innings exploits, India would have found the going much tougher.

KDK's second failure in the match should not bother him or the managment this early. He should play the whole series, and if he still does not find his form, the selectors might think of taking an additional opener to Australia. But I somehow have faith in that plucky little man. Jaffer proved why he is the man who could have been King. On song, there aren't too many batsmen who look better flicking and cover-driving. Over the last few matches has shown why exactly he is not King, giving it away when it was just beginning to look easier. He averages 35 after 23 matches.

Shoaib bowled brilliant. I did not believe he was capable of the long spell, but he has been a revelation. If the three ever bowl together Shoaib, Asif and Gul promise some compelling viewing.

Just when India began to look a little vulnerable chasing, Ganguly was quick to seize initiative. His strokes took the pressure off Sachin who eventually took the team home.

Day 3: The one where both teams should have done better
It wasn't great. We should have batted longer. The lead India got was just the bare minimum. Zaheer and Bhajji did not pull their weight and in the 'larger' scheme of things, another thirty runs may prove crucial. Also, after India batted to see the new ball off, Laxman was in a position to take India to a much bigger lead.

I think Munaf bowled shite. To abuse a cliche, he should have made the batsman (Salman Butt in particular) play a little more. Zaheer was good, but did not live up to the billing. Not to take anything away from him, but Butt had it a little easy, and it is my first minor problem with Kumble's captaincy. This time around, Ganguly's little spell took some pressure off.

But Kumble and Bhajji bowled well, and Younus and Mohammed Yousuf were dismissed without too muh trouble. Yousuf though, was looking well in dispatching the bad Munaf and Bhajji deliveries. Credit to Kumble for keeping the pressure up, but Pakistan should have done much better given the bowling on offer.

And then, Jaffer let Misbah go. It was a fairly simple catch and Misbah can make India pay more. Some lusty blows took Pakistan to the ascendancy, but India still has a chance to get Pakistan out for a score that can render this match one-sided.

Day 2: Misbah's brain explosion (part II), Tanvir's chamillionaire debut and India nosing ahead - just about.

Misbah should be cast as Borat's 'retard brother Bilo' in the next movie. It was the funniest dismissal in a long time, one that ended a long vigil that at the end of the second day's play looks critical in the larger scheme. Pakistan bowled well and checked the Indian ascendancy, but like India yesterday, were blunted in the third session.

India look good to score at least another fifty runs. Anil Kumble's last Test innings was a hundred and VVS Laxman was stroking the ball well. Also, Bhajji and Zaheer are not complete mugs with the bat, even though they have been known to behave like that on occasion.

Laxman ran very well with Dhoni who walked in and where some (including me) expected him to bat painstankingly like he did at Lords, he changed the complexion of the innings. Fielders were under pressure and strokes were played with some freedom. The partnership (115) was built at above four. India will get a first innings lead but only after they frittered away the opportunity to put the game in the bag.

Dinesh Karthik played at an Akthar delivery he did not have to. He will need a better performance in the second innings and in the coming Tests to justify why Sehwag/Gambhir are not even in the squad. Jaffer gave it away too. He had a solid start and was beginning to look good when he played a lazy shot, but the ball from Akthar was mean too. Throughout all this, Tanvir was putting out on his debut, giving away easy runs to Jaffer and Dravid. If he was not doing that, he was pitching it too wide to bother. But some overs after luch, I suspect he decided to pitch it better, and also to bring the ball back in occasionally. Tendulkar got himself run-out, and then Ganguly left a huge gap between bat and pad to Tanvir, and Dravid fell to a scorcher.

Day 1: Sessions one and two to India, and Sami the barnacle.
The second new ball has been taken and Mohammed Sami has continued his staunch resistance. Misbah stayed put at the beginning of the innings and took ages to get going. Now he shields Sami. In between he has scored 69, and the smog never really lifted.

In the first skirmish of the Salman Butt versus Zaheer Khan battle, Zaheer won comfortably with a ball that jagged back in to take the off-stump. It was a lovely period of bowling. This series will feature many more of these skirmishes.

Though Younus Khan has only himself to blame for that top edge that went to Munaf, Zaheer did keep it tight and full, and when it came, the bouncer surprised the Plunderer-in-Chief of Indian Bowling.

Ganguly kept it tight and the ball moved both ways off the seam. His twelve overs went for 24, and what is more, he got the most important wicket of Mohammed Yousuf. Much as I am irritated with Yuvraj being left out, Ganguly did well. It is easy to forget Ganguly's contributions with the ball, but not too long ago he was getting crucial wickets in England. Now it is up to Laxman to come up with a performance that will keep Yuvraj out. Pressure on.

Munaf, Munaf, the comeback boy, he made the most of it, though clearly bowling quite within himself, the kind of thing Unc J Rod so hates. He mostly kept it on a good line and length after some time into his first spell but the pace rarely went over 132 or so. The question is, is that good enough to keep Arpy/Sree out of the side?

Anyway, the umpires have offered light and the barnacles walk off after defying a hungry Indian attack for more than 30 overs. It really perplexes me why Sami came below Shoaib and Tanvir, for he has always been someone who can hold the bat and it is not the first time that an Indian captain has been frustrated by Sami. Kumble seemed okay for the most part, did not overbowl himself and rorated the bowling frequently - basically, got the basics right. Now, how to uproot a barnacle is an education he had to go through, and it is good that he got a lesson on Day 1 itself. Any more analysis of Kumble's captaincy is too early. He bowled well, making the most as only he can, of a pitch with some uneven bounce.

A good day's play. Pakistan will be much happier than they ought to be, and India will be much more frustrated than they ought to be. On the balance, India did get eight wickets on the first day, and Pakistan ought to have scored a few more runs.

20 November 2007

One man's injury...

If you had watched half an hour of the Oz-Lanka series, some commentator was bound to have talked about Shane Watson and Michael Clarke. The former's injury was the latter's foot in the door. Clarke has never looked back, and Watson has not been heard of, since. Of course, this is not unique by any means.

Dhoni has injured his ankle in the final ODI. It is still unconfirmed whether he will be fit to play the first Test. If he were to sit out, it would give Yuvraj the opportunity everyone wants him to get, but did not know how. Ganguly had batted better than most in England, and Laxman has been consistent, but within himself. Most importantly, it is a line-up that just won a series away. One of three would have had to sit out the Kotla Test, but Dhoni's injury opens up a few new possibilities.

If Karthik is to keep, will Kumble want him to open the innings as well? If not, then who? Assuming Yuvraj walks into the squad, one of Yuvraj, Dravid or Laxman may need to step up and open the innings. All three have done it before and Dravid has been the most succesful.

My line-up, assuming Dhoni's injury keeps him out:

Jaffer, Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Yuvraj, Karthik (wk), Kumble (c!), Bhajji, Zaheer, Sreesanth

Actually, I'm not too sure who too pick among Sree and Arpy.

What will be even more interesting to see is what happens when Dhoni comes back from injury. If Kartik, Laxman, Yuvraj and Ganguly all perform creditably, then there may be the absurd scenario of the vice-captain not having a place in the squad.

16 November 2007

Zaheer versus

Zaheer Khan's recent record of early eickets against left-arm opening batsmen in Test cricket is heartening.

Grame Smith fell in the third over of the first innings at Durban.
Shahriar Nafees fell in the third over of the first innings at Chittagong.
Andrew Strauss kept falling. Third over of the first innings' at Lords as well as Trentbridge, the eleventh over of the second innings at Lords and in the fifth over of the first innings at the Oval.
Alastair Cook fell in the thirteenth over of the second innings at Lords.

And lining up to face Zaheer over the coming weeks are Salman Butt, Mathew Hayden and Phil Jacques. Having seen the Aussie openers handle Vaas with ease, and Hayden's continued domination over Zaheer, this battle will make for interesting viewing.

14 November 2007

Your best openers or your best batsmen

Question is, do you pick the two best openers in your XI, or do you pick your best batsmen and demand that two of them open the innings?

Jaffer and Karthik are certain for the XI for the first Test against Pakistan. But are they both good enough to be in a side that could potentially leave Laxman, Yuvraj or Ganguly or any combination of them, on the bench?

06 November 2007

Captain confused

India is in the unenviable position of not being able to pick a captain for the future. Sachin has just announced that he is reluctant to captain the side and that leaves Dhoni as the most likely candidate. However, the selectors would be mindful of the fact that Dhoni's glovework was not much better than that of the severely criticized Matt Prior, in England. Even though he helped India cling on to a draw at Lords, it is not yet clear whether he can hold on to his spot in the Test side by virtue of batting alone. Moreover, Parthiv Patel must soon start wondering what more he could possibly do to win back his spot in the team. Not to forget Dinesh Karthik, part of the squad to England as specialist opener.

So even if the selectors would like to see Dhoni captain India, giving it to him now could be a serious gamble. On the one hand, we might see Dhoni bloom into a marvellous Test batsman, and everyone salivates at the possibilities that he brings to facing the second new ball. Or he might end up exposed by Akthar, Asif, Gul, Lee, Tait, Clarke and Mitchell. And there is nothing worse than landing up in Australia with a captain who can't seem to score many runs. Best thing might be to wait on it, and appoint a stopgap someone.

Laxman, Kumble and Zaheer seem likely to be the other prospects. Laxman does not have a settled spot in the team. Yuvraj Singh's awesome form over the last year, the improved performances from Gambhir and Uthappa, and the tons made by Raina and Tiwary at the domestic level mean that Laxman hangs on to the middle order by a thread. Dravid and Ganguly, in comparison, are a little more secure. Laxman needs sustained performances if he needs to reach the 100 Test mark, and so his case is quite similar to that of MSD. And thus, we exhaust our batting captaincy options

Both Kumble and Zaheer look set to play a few more years, and are both aggressive cricketers who don't lack for effort. But the last thing India need is an overbowled Zaheer Khan. India need him to stay fit and fresh, at least until Arpy/Sree/Munaf/Ishant is able to lead the attack. And that right now, looks like it may take forever.

Appoint Dhoni now and cut him some slack. Or Kumble it should be, until he retires.

01 November 2007

Number 3

I doubt the Ganguly-Sachin opening combine would be broken just yet. The plan, for all to see, is to drag it on a little longer. So we move on to the number three position.

The number three position though, is far from settled. Even though conventional wisdom points to a batsman settled at this spot, India, over a period stretching even prior to the Chappell years, have approached the spot with some amount of flexibility. Of course, on some occasions such fluidity has been forced on the managment. On others, Dravid and Chappell pursued it aggressively as strategy. Quite surprisingly, it is VVS Laxman who has walked in at the fall of the first wicket, the most number of times since 2003, having done it 28 times. Ever since he was dropped from the squad to South Africa for the '03 World Cup, it was clear that Laxman would never cement his spot in the ODI team. Nevertheless, India kept going back to him. This is just one more instance of muddled Indian selection. Not only has this held up the development of another ODI batsman, it probably affected Laxman's Test batting as well.

Pathan has batted at number three sixteen times, and is second only to Laxman. Surprisingly,
of the 142 matches he has played since 2003, Dravid has batted at this position only thirteen times. Dhoni has done it eleven times, Kaif ten, Sehwag nine, Yuvraj eight, Gambhir seven, Tendulkar five and Uthappa and Raina have each batted there four times. and surely there are a few more.

Contrast this to Australia. Of the 134 ODIs Ricky Ponting has played since 2003, he has batted at number three in 126 of them. I don't want to use this statistic to extol the virtues of a settled number three position. In the 2003 World Cup, Saurav Ganguly batted at number three for all but two matches of the tournament. Even that does not settle the obvious superiority of this approach. Especially for the Indian captain. After all, is he not a product of the flexible approach that allowed him a platform for creative expression?

Now, assuming that the managment stays predictable and opts for Sachin-Saurav Inc to open, we have the following candidates for the spot.

- Gautam Gambhir
- Virender Sehwag
- Robin Uthappa
- Yuvraj Singh
- S Badrinath
- M S Dhoni
- Irfan Pathan
- Rohit Sharma
- Pravin Kumar

And if Dravid is back after two ODIs, then of course, him too.

It would be surprising to see any of the last five at the position. Such a ploy may work, but it won't sustain itself over a series or more. Of the rest, one has to say that all of Sehwag, Gambhir, Uthappa and Yuvraj have a claim on the spot. Yuvraj is used to coming in a little later, but there is no point in worshipping the dharma of youth if the ultra-experienced and uber-talented Yuvraj still does not or is not allowed to take responsibility for the batting. Gambhir is the man riding a purple patch. Sehwag should be given a chance to storm back, and Uthappa has proven just as destructive at the bottom of the lineup. Since this is such a tough choice, one is likely to see more shuffling. A couple of failures could see Sehwag either sit out or move to the lower middle order to make space for Gambhir or Uthappa.