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Friday, October 29, 2010

Ashes 2010/11- Having a look at the Australian batting line-up


With less than one month left for the the Ashes to start, there is a considerable hype surrounding the series. Australia are no more the invincibles and England are on the up, so it promises to be a cracker of a series  between what seems like two evenly matched sides. Australia though, at home are still a formidable force to reckon with and it would be a monumental achievement if England are able to defend the Ashes and win a series in Australia for the first time in 23 years.

The major talking point before any touring party travels to Australia would be, how can the team cope with the different conditions that they are going to get in Australia. It is especially applicable to the bowlers, as it isn't just the conditions that they have to get accustomed to, but over the years, Australian batsmen have ruthlessly dismantled opposition bowling attacks to dust. So, can England's attack succeed in Australia, or would it be the familiar old story of Australian batsmen making a mincemeat of opposition bowling attacks?

My views on the Australian batting line-up

Top-order

Watson- If anyone had said to me before 2009 that Watson would one-day open the batting for Australia, I would have had a belly laugh, but to be fair to Watson, he has consistently got runs at top of the order. In-fact, if not for Watson and Katich, Australia may have lost more matches as the middle-order has been prone to collapses in recent times.

So, what has transformed Watson from being one of the also-rans to a fine top-order batsman? Watson has surely fine-tuned his technique which has helped him to improve as a batsman. He is said to have worked with batting guru Greg Chappell and the one significant change in his technique is, nowadays he tries to get a good stride forward. It is a method that most modern day batsmen seem to be following and with pitches being generally good for batting, it is perhaps a good strategy.

Strengths

Watson is at his best when he goes after the bowling, especially the new ball bowlers. He likes the ball to come onto the bat and the best time for him to attack would be against the new ball. If the bowlers bowl slightly short or full, Watson doesn't mind going after it.

Strategies against Watson

Watson sometimes goes for a premeditated forward press which doesn't help him against swing bowlers. He really got into a tangle in England as Pakistan's bowlers bowled a full length and repeatedly dismissed Watson for low scores. Thankfully for Watson, Australian conditions won't offer too much encouragement for the swing bowlers.

Watson also doesn't seem to have much of a clue against the spinners  as his tendency to  thrust his front-foot forward would always land him in trouble  against the spinners. Yes, he got  a century in India, but in my opinion, it was mainly due to him opening the innings. In India, generally top-order batsmen do well as they would spend some time in the middle and would get accustomed to the conditions before facing the spinners.  Another key point to consider is, since he has changed his technique, he struggles to keep it down while playing the pull shot against the seamers as he tries to pull more on the front-foot.

Key bowlers

Broad- I have no doubt that Broad should test Watson with a few bouncers. Now, let me make it crystal clear that I am not advocating for any bowler to get into a trap of bowling short on Australian wickets as that can be suicidal, but I do believe that Broad and maybe Finn can think of bowling the odd short delivery at Watson. In-fact, even recently against the Kiwis, Tim Southee bowling at around 80mph got Watson out by not even bowling short, but by bowling  more around the good length spot.

From cricinfo commentary,

"Southee to Watson, OUT, the miscued pull! Sudden rush of blood there, Southee pitched it on a good length outside off and Watson tried to pull it over midwicket on the front-foot, hit the bottom of the bat and the ball looped towards Arnel at mid-on who fell forward to take the catch" 

Swann- If the series was played in England, I would have thought of Anderson being a key bowler against Watson, but I don't think Watson would be troubled by swing in Australian conditions. So, I would go for Swann as my other trump card against Watson. Strauss should be on his toes, as if the new ball bowlers don't strike early, he shouldn't hesitate in bringing Swann into the thick of things as he has a great record of getting wickets in his very first over. I have also said it before that once Watson spends some time in the middle, just like any other opening batsman, he plays the spinners better which points to the importance of attacking Watson with Swann early in the innings. The close-in fielders would have to be sharp as Watson doesn't play late but gropes at the ball.

Katich

The  sponsors of any series won't like it if Katich bats for long as he can drive away the crowds from the stadium with his batting nevertheless, he has turned out to be a very effective batsman for Australia in the last few years.

When I first saw him or even in the 2005 Ashes, I remembered what Aussies themselves said about the former Saffer batsman Kirsten. Gary Kirsten when he first played against Australia in 93/94 was called a gully sucker, especially by the Aussie quick McDermott as he kept playing at most deliveries just outside the off-stump and repeatedly got caught in the gully region. When Katich first played test cricket, he seemed to have similar problems as he would follow most deliveries which were bowled just wide of off-stump without getting to the pitch of the ball and kept getting out. In-fact, after his failure in the epic series in England in 05, he even took the help of Bob Simpson. Since he has comeback into the side though, he has improved as a batsman and  has been doing well for Australia.

Strengths

Katich's prowess of concentration and his judgment of what to leave and what to play at is no doubt one of his chief strengths. He is nowadays so good that even if it is slightly wide of off-stump, he would leave it. Here is a batsman, who in-spite of his exaggerated shuffle knows his off-stump. He is also very strong on the on-side and anything that is slightly off-line would be flicked for runs.

Strategies against Katich

Sometimes a player's strengths can turn out to be his weakness and the same can be said about Katich. Very early in his innings,  Katich can be trapped in front of his stumps. The new ball would do a bit  and however good he maybe in being able to play shots through the on-side, there is always a chance of him missing even a straight delivery and him being trapped in front before he gets set.

Nowadays, Katich plays spin a lot better than he used to do which can be seen by the success he got in India in 08/09, but sometimes because of his exaggerated shuffle, he can get into trouble as he looks to turn the ball onto the on-side which in turn can lead to an outside edge. He also rarely ever leaves the crease which would always help a spinner to settle into a nice rhythm as he would realise that here is a batsman, who won't venture out of his crease and take the attack to the bowlers.

Key bowlers


Anderson- I know that Anderson likes to angle it across a lefthander and if that tactic doesn't succeed, he  goes around the wicket to change the angle. Under Flower's regime 47.5% of his victims have been lefthanders which points to the fact that he should continue to angle it across a lefthander. However, when bowling to Katich, I do hope that he stays over the wicket and looks for the inswinger as he can  trap him in front of the stumps.  He can surely remember the way he trapped Katich in front by bowling the inswinger at Cardiff in the 09 Ashes. Katich had already got a hundred with all the quicker bowlers trying to tempt him to chase a delivery outside the off-stump, but finally Anderson tried an inswinger and trapped him in front. The last option for any seamer against Katich would be, to go around the wicket and look to target his leg-stump. I am not joking, but I have often seen Katich shuffling across his stumps so much that his leg-stump can be visible for a seamer to target.

Swann- I have always thought that if a lefthander is playing, Swann would come into play. 54% of Swann's wickets are lefthanders and of course, he has got lots of players out in his very first over. The fact is, unlike other modern day off spinners Swann seems to enjoy bowling from around the wicket and with umpires now more inclined to give lefthanders out lbw to off-spinners bowling from around the wicket, he would be a threat against any lefthander. As I also said that Katich's tendency to play across the line means that an off-spinner can trouble him as he would take the ball away from a LHB, when bowling from around the wicket.

Ponting

If he ends his career now, he would no doubt go into the history books as one of the greats of the game, but the burning desire of regaining the Ashes has kept him going.  In the last couple of years Punter's batting prowess though, has been on the wane which is expected as he isn't getting any younger. If Punter wants to play for another couple of years, he may have to follow in the footsteps of the other modern day great batsman SRT. Tendulkar has become an great accumulator of runs, but for that he sacrificed his flair as nowadays, he doesn't often play the pull or the back-foot punch. I think it is high time that Punter too doesn't  look to play that pull shot, but Punter's temperament is different from SRT, so I am not sure that he would change his game.

Strengths

Punter has all the shots in the book, though at his best, his ability to shift his weight quickly onto the back-foot and play the cut, or the pull shot makes him a treat to watch. At his best, no bowler would even think of bowling short as it would mean fielders being sent on a leather hunt and bowlers ending up with figures of 0 for 100.

Strategies against Ponting

In the past, Punter had the tendency to fall across his stumps and get out lbw early in his innings, but in an attempt to correct it, just like other modern day batsmen, he started to take a decent stride forward which helped him to counter that strategy.

In my opinion, on Australian pitches, the best strategy against Punter is to bowl the traditional Australian back of a length as he does tend to go hard at the ball. He is also an attacking batsman and chases most deliveries that are outside the off-stump. So, there is a good chance of him being caught in the slip cordon, or him dragging it onto the stumps. Gully can also be a key fielding position when bowling to Punter.

After watching Punter notch up yet another hundred at Brisbane in 05/06, Holding advised the WI bowlers to change their strategy by looking to drag their length back and to bowl it a touch wide of off-stump. It did help the modest bowlers from WI as even they were able to keep him quiet. His scores against WI since that timely advice have been 17, 56, 3, 158, 5, 65, 38, 18, 39, 55, 36, 20, 23 not out and 2. More than a few bowlers have been able to get him out by bowling it just wide of off-stump during that period which includes even bowlers who normally bowler a fuller length like Collymore and Rampaul, but by dragging their length back, they were able to dismiss Punter. It just shows that sometimes it is worth listening to wisemen like Holding.
Key bowlers

Broad/ Finn- I would look at using both tall bowlers in the side and ask them to bowl a disciplined line outside the off-stump with the odd bouncer to test him on the pull shot. I do hope that England's bowlers don't fall into a trap of trying too many bouncers at Punter as even in recent times, he has fallen to a pull shot very early in his innings, but once he gets settled at the crease, he looks a lot more assured against short pitched stuff. Of course if it swings, use Anderson.

(In the second part of this article I would look at the middle order in the Australian batting line-up) 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My tribute to Tendulkar

Conversation between a teacher and students in a classroom somewhere in India.

Teacher- Students, today I am going to teach you about history. The teacher would start by saying that the centuries old history include many great names and events, but there is nothing in this world that remains constant. Before proceeding further, he would encourage the students to talk about whatever they know about history.

A student immediately stands up and answers,

Teacher, I don't know much about history,  nor for that matter whether the world my end in 2012, but one fact would remain constant and that is, our God scoring a century and no bowler being able to find a way to get him out. The whole class agrees in unison and the teacher is left speechless and is struggling for words.

Yes, it is an imaginary situation and likely won't happen even in India, but I just wanted to picturise the kind of passion that a country like India has for cricket and more so, the love for the genius at work. Yes, I am thinking about Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, the player who holds the nation of more than a billion together with his exploits on a cricket field. A country which is made up of people with different faiths all come to a standstill when SRT walks to the crease. He isn't just a great cricketer, but also someone who doesn't have a single blot against his name. It can be seen by the fact that even when he gets a bad decision on a cricket field, he occasionally shrugs his shoulders to show his disappointment and without making any fuss quietly walks away from the batting crease.

The little man, who isn't any taller than a school ruler has gone onto rule the cricketing world over the last couple of decades and has been a scourge for every bowler who has bowled to him. I am not sure that even Neville Cardus or Dileep Premachandran would do justice to a player, who has a career spanning over two decades and with so many glittering achievements to his name. As a cricket aficionado though, I would try my best to have a look at a cricketer, who seems to have been created by god just to play cricket.

Early years of Tendulkar

If a cricket fan tries to trace the early years of Tendulkar's career, he would find innumerable interesting stories about the great man. I have seen a few saying that to curb Tendulkar's mischief at home,  his elder brother forced him to spend sometime at the academy of the visionary coach Achrekar. He was also said to be a huge fan of John McEnroe and  wanted to be a tennis player, but as this is a cricket article let us just stick to cricket. Actually, after watching the Windies quickies consistently destroy the Indian batting line-ups, he also wanted to be a quick bowler, who can bounce the batsmen. Thankfully, the MRF pace academy coaches said to him that he can't bowl quick and should concentrate on his batting, otherwise he may have become a military medium pacer, who may not even have played fc cricket.

Tendulkar and one rupee coin 

The one story that I really found interesting was about Tendulkar and one rupee coin. At the academy of Achrekar, there were times when SRT is said to have got bored with toying the bowlers around and would give up his wicket. The coach didn't like it and decided to use the one rupee coin trick. So, as soon as he would see SRT lose his concentration, he would keep a one rupee coin on top of his stumps and would tempt every bowler to bowl as fast as he can  and whoever would smash SRT's stumps in that session would get that one rupee coin. At the same-time, if SRT was able to bat through the session without losing his stumps, he would get that one rupee coin, no wonder SRT has such amazing concentration prowess as a batsman. SRT even now thinks that 13 one rupee coins he won during his duel with the net bowlers are his most prized possessions.

Tendulkar and Kambli 


If anyone thinks about Tendulkar's childhood days, one more name that is frequently discussed is Kambli. Both SRT and Kambli were under the tutelage of  Achrekar and both were tipped to be the linchpins of Indian batting line-up in the future, though it is another story altogether that Kambli didn't show the discipline that SRT has shown throughout his career and flopped as a batsman. In-fact, Kambli and SRT shared a record partnership of 664 runs in a inter-school match and the story is, it could have been more, but both were cajoled and finally were forced to end that partnership as the coach wanted to declare the innings! I have even seen comments like their coach Achrekar tipped Kambli to do better than SRT,  but it wasn't to be.

Tendulkar makes his test debut

At the age of 13, when everyone would still be playing at school, Tendulkar was already said to be dominating bowling attacks in India's premier first class competition, the Ranji trophy which is hard to believe. Actually, the selectors were said to be thinking of introducing him to test cricket against the mighty West Indies team in 88, but thankfully, they decided against it, as after facing them many players of that era were left with a mental scar from which they never recovered and however good SRT may have been at that age, it was always a risk to introduce a callow boy into the test arena against the Calypso kings. It would have been like someone, who specialises in boxing in the bantamweight category and hasn't yet made his debut being forced to play against an experienced campaigner in the heavyweight division.

SRT finally made his debut against the formidable Pakistanis in 89.They had the likes of Akram, Imran and Qadir, though to be frank, both Khan and Qadir were perhaps coming to an end of their respective careers. Another fact to consider is, just like India, Pakistan would also introduce a very talented cricketer called Waqar Younis. As far as Tendulkar's selection is concerned, there is an interesting story about Indian selectors being not sure about him facing the formidable Pakistan team, but the senior selector and former Indian stumper Tamhane said " Gentlemen Tendulkar  never fails" and thanks to him SRT got picked.

In his first test itself, there was a battle royale as at one end, there was Younis bowling at the pace of wind and at the other end there was this 16 year old boy playing in his first test. Unfortunately, SRT was hit on his nose by  a scorcher from Younis and it is said that blood was seen everywhere near him, but the courageous boy endured the pain of a broken nose like a Trojan  and continued to play. I think this incident shows that he was destined for greatness and it also says he has always worn nationalism on his sleeve. I vaguely remember the former Indian opener Sidhu, who was batting at the other end saying that he was shocked to see him get up and continue to bat and after browsing the net I got this quote.

Sidhu  on Tendulkar,

“I saw the ball hit him on the nose and my immediate reaction was he has to be rushed to hospital. It was the end of it. I was about to rush to the other end when I saw Sachin raise his hand telling me to wait. In his squeaky voice, he said, Mein Khelega. He had blood all over his face but never once did he think of leaving the field"


Fans who saw that series perhaps would also remember him smashing Qadir all over the park in a one-day international. Yes, Qadir wasn't at his peak at that time yet, to smash a bowler of the calibre of Qadir showed glimpses of what he could do to bowlers in the years to come.

Tendulkar's first hundred

 Next up on the cards for SRT was a tour to the Kiwiland. Even experienced batsmen from the subcontinent tend to struggle in the Land of long white cloud, but not SRT as the tender age of 16, he got 88 at Napier which is no mean feat. In-fact, if he had scored a century at Napier, he would have become the youngest batsman to score a century. The much awaited century finally came when India toured England later that year. Yes, the pitches during that series was flat and in-fact it, looked  like the ECB had employed those who usually build roads to prepare pitches, as during that season, let it be in CC or in test cricket, every tom, dick and harry seemed to have enjoyed batting. The key point though was Tendulkar scored that hundred with India in trouble and at the age of just 17, he shepherd India to safety. For the next ten or so years, it would  become a hallmark of Tendulkar's batting as the Indian batsmen would flatter to deceive when playing away from home and only SRT would stand alone amidst the ruins.

Tendulkar's lightning knock on a lightning fast track

In the 90's, the Indian team were rightly given the tag of being home bullies as away from home, they weren't much better than Zimbabwe. The one shinning light in all those defeats away from home was Tendulkar as in-spite of his teammates not supporting him, he would keep coming up with great knocks.  One such knock was on that lightning fast track Perth. It looked like the familiar old story of yet another collapse on a bouncy track as India were tottering at 159 for 8, but SRT met fire with fire and scored 114 to take India to 272. No one else even scored a fifty  for India in that match. For those who say he doesn't have flair should watch  the highlights package of that knock as a player without flair won't be able to punch of the back-foot against quickies like McDermott or Hughes. He even lofted McDermott couple of times on the up through the covers and only a genius at work can do that. In that knock, he scored 114 of just 161 balls and he wasn't even 19 at that time. Yes, on expected lines, India lost that match and the series 4-0 as they neither had the bowlers and leaving SRT  the batsmen to bat on those bouncy tracks, but it was a warning signal to the men from down under that a batsman not taller than a school ruler would become a thorn in Australia's flesh in the years to come.

Tendulkar in the 96 world cup

For the next few years, Tendulkar would consistently score runs for India, but another modern great Lara would take all the plaudits for his record breaking effort at Antigua against England. Enter the 96 world cup played in the subcontinent and in front of home crowds SRT would play some magical knocks which would make even the great Don say that SRT bats like him. The innings that would be likely remembered will be his 90 at Mumbai as he played some glorious shots including lofting Glenn over the in-field. Pigeon could just shrug his shoulders as they were all perfectly pitched good length deliveries. It was the knock which made the great Don sit up and take notice of SRT. The tournament though, would end in disappointment for SRT as on a rank bad turner at Calcutta, SRT would get stumped after getting to a half century. Srilanka who had already made a score of over 250 knew that it was all about getting SRT out as once he would get out, there was no one in the Indian line-up who could score runs on a turning wicket and as soon as he got out, others fell like nine pins and India lost. I am sure it still hurts SRT that he couldn't finish the job on hand and couldn't take India to a WC victory, maybe he would be able to take India to a WC victory in the upcoming 2011 WC at home.

Tendulkar and captaincy

With India's loss in the semifinal of the 96 WC and the disappointing performance in England meant that it would be the right time for SRT  to take over the mantle of being the captain of the side. Naturally, a cricket mad nation would have expected him to do wonders by taking the team to greater heights, but if a captain has to lead a modest side, he can't do much and unfortunately, he didn't taste much success as the captain of the team.

Magic at Edgbaston and Capetown

a) Edgbaston

Amidst the ruins surrounding SRT as the captain of the side, he played couple of magical knocks at Edgbaston and Capetown. Both knocks came under pressure with not much support at the other end. If the knock at Perth was all about flair, this knock was about technical perfection under cloudy conditions. After gifting England a nice first innings lead, it looked like the familiar old story being repeated again as every Indian batsman looked at sixes and sevens on a pitch which was offering enough sideways movement for the bowlers to be interested. Enter SRT and it all changed as at his end, it seemed like a good batting track and at the other end, batsmen continued to struggle. I can't remember him playing many false shots in that innings and even when Lewis induced an edge of a lifter, SRT was able to guide it past the vacant third slip. Even if it was slightly wide of off stump, he would leave it and would play a cover drive only when he would get to the pitch of the ball. He rarely ever played across the line as well. SRT was the eighth man out and the next highest score in that innings was just 18! Finally, in-spite of it being a track which offered enough encouragement for the swing bowlers, he scored at S/R of over 60. In simple words,  he showed that one can score quickly without taking risks.

b) Capetown

Going into the second test at Capetown, there were huge question marks regarding India's batting line-up as the Indian batsmen flopped at Durban and even in the second test at Capetown, India found themselves yet again in all sorts of trouble as they were tottering at 59 for 5. SRT though, was still there and just like in the past, he came good when India found themselves in trouble. It suddenly seemed like Tendulkar's bat was saying- "hi Capies, we can also pull and cut, hi Capies, we can also play a cover-drive" It was no doubt a glorious exhibition of eye-catching stroke-play on a beautiful sunny afternoon. SRT didn't look like getting out on that day and only a stunner of a catch at deep mid-wicket by Bacher finally ended his innings.

Tendulkar's failure at Barbados

The one defeat which perhaps would perhaps hurt him the most was his failure at Barbados. India were chasing a lowish target of around 120, but were bowled out for just 80 runs. SRT failed and with his failure, rest of the batsmen capsized and India lost. The lesson to be learnt for the Indian team was, they can't depend on one man and others have to pull their weight as well. Anyway, it was a bitter pill for SRT to swallow as he was the captain of the side.

In-spite of his failure at Barbados, SRT was able to play a memorable knock on a dicey track in a onedayer at Trinidad. Yes, he scored only 44 runs in that match, but that was some of the best 44 runs I have seen and I am not drunk! The pitch had so many cracks that it seemed like earthquake had happened at Trinidad. I am sure if it was played now, it would have been called off as the match referee would have declared it as unplayable. West Indies had tall quickies like Amby, Walsh and Bishop and every Indian batsmen leaving SRT, were at sea against them. Tendulkar though, was able to judge the length and play his shots. Only a genius like SRT could have played a pull shot on that pitch. His knock was cruelly ended by a umpire, who seemed to be blind as the ball that he got out clearly came out of the batsman's shoulder. I tried to browse the net to find something that was related to that match, but other than five sentences about SRT's run a ball knock on Wisden, I couldn't find anything. Unfortunately, those were the days when the internet hadn't yet taken the world by storm.

Tendulkar resigns as the captain of the side

As the time went by,  India started to lose match after match under the captaincy of SRT and as expected, the pressure started mounting on SRT as he was the captain of the side. Now, it is hard to expect a captain to deliver the results if the strike bowler of the side Srinath is injured and the main spinner Kumble doesn't have a clue about bowling to left-handers. Yes, youngsers like Dravid and Ganguly had started to support Tendulkar as they were coming up with useful knocks, but the batting still depended too much on SRT. Of course, it can also be said that great players don't make great captains. He was said to be even booed by the Indian fans, when he captained for the last time in a tournament in Sarjah.

Tendlkar mauls Warne


With the burden of captaining the side no more affecting the great man, he was ready to take up the challenge of facing one of worlds best bowlers of all time Warne. It promised to be a fascinating duel between the blond leg spinner and a batsman with great concentration prowess and having all the shots in the book. Moreover, both were at their peak as Warne had just destroyed the Saffer batting line-up and even when he was the captain of the side, SRT was scoring tons of runs.

What made the duel more interesting was SRT in a bid to get ready for the challenge made former Indian leggie Sivramkrishnan to bowl from around the wicket on rough patches in the nets. It shows that here is a player, who was just born to play the game of cricket. In the first innings of the first test, Warne won the battle as in the first innings, the astute captain Taylor played the old trick of leaving the gap at cover open and himself standing at slips which in turn tempted SRT to go for the cover-drive, but could only get an edge which was easily taken by Taylor. Unfortunately for Warne though, it was a one-way traffic since that first innings success as SRT pummeled him into submission. Tendulkar's counter attacking of Warne on a wearing pitch in the second innings of that match with India behind was a treat watch. I haven't seen any batsman, who has been able to hit Warne out of the rough on a spinning track with him turning it miles, sometimes SRT didn't even come to the pitch of the ball, but he kept smashing him for fours and sixes. India won the test, but that didn't stop SRT from treating Warne like a club bowler in the few one-day tournaments that were played at that time. Smashing Warne all over the park seemed like his favourite past-time and after that series, Warne even said that he was getting nightmares of SRT belting him all over the park.

Tendulkar's second stint as the captain and the disastrous tour of Australia

In 99, the selectors decided to give SRT a second chance as the captain of the side. It was a mistake which the selectors would regret later. SRT never seemed comfortable as the captain of the side and the selectors should have looked at appointing someone else as the captain. It must be a co-incidence, but the key point to notice was, when Azhar captained the side, India used to play mainly at home, but poor SRT, as when he was the captain, India would be touring Australia or the Safferland.

So, under the captaincy of SRT, India embarked on a tough tour to Australia in 99/00. Australia were starting to look like the invincibles and India had an inexperienced side. On expected lines, it was a disastrous tour for the Indian team as India were whitewashed 3-0. SRT played a fine knock at Melbourne, when for the umpteenth time, he got zero support from the other end and Laxman at Sydney showed that he was a very very special player, but India didn't had much to cheer about during that tour. Even the great wall of India Dravid, struggled against the likes of McGrath. No wonder, Dravid rates McGrath as the best bowler he has faced. The only person who may have smiled was the board member Lele as he famously said that India would lose 3-0 before the tour!

The new age of  Indian cricket

As the world entered the new millennium, cricket was ravaged by match fixing controversies or more famously known as Cronje-gate. The match-fixing controversy didn't spare Indian cricket either as Azhar and Jadeja were banned by the Indian board. What made it worse was, for the second time around SRT resigned as the captain of the side. So, Indian cricket seemed to be at the crossroads, but as the time went by, there seemed to be a ray of hope for Indian cricket as under the able leadership of Ganguly, India looked like were becoming a tougher unit. A few players like Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag began to emerge out of the shadows of SRT and finally India were more than a one man army when playing away from home. In 2001, against the invincibles Australia, Laxman and Dravid showed to the cricketing world that India was no more a one army by coming up with an epic partnership to end Steve Waugh's dream of conquering the final frontier.

Tendulkar shines at the 2003 world cup 

After tasting success in England in 02, the next big assignment for the Indian team. Yes, India had a bad tour of the Kiwiland, when on pitches that seemed to be of the same colour as the ground, India struggled. One may have even thought that it was a place for the cattle to graze. The fact though was, even with those losses India were expected to do well at the WC as the conditions were different in South Africa.

India started the tournament on a bad note by losing to the all conquering Aussies, so the match against England became vital for both teams as the winner of that match looked certain of progressing to the next round. Going into the match, a lot was expected from the little master and just like a true champion, he delivered by scoring a quickfire fifty. Before the match, England's speedster Caddick made comments about SRT  having chinks against the short ball and the little master didn't take it lightly as the first bouncer Caddick bowled was dispatched for a six. It was a stunning hook shot as he picked the length so quickly and it looked like it was a shot in anger. SRT continued to be a scourge for all teams during that WC which included his marvellous knock against Pakistan, when he played some cheeky upper-cuts of Akthar. SRT though, would have been hurt by the loss in the final against Australia. India were chasing a mammoth total and in an attempt to look for quick runs SRT succumbed nevertheless, it was still a tournament in which SRT showed that he was still a force to reckon with.

Tendulkar and injuries

At the end of the 2003 WC, SRT had played cricket for over fourteen years and as expected, playing constant cricket was taking its toll on his body and for a period of time he was let down by injuries. None was worse than that tennis elbow which looked like would end SRT's glorious career. He seemed to be a pale shadow of the player he once was and recently in interviews even SRT said that he feared his career may have come to an end. One after another, critics joined the bandwagon of asking SRT to quit the game. Some of his harshest critics included his former teammate Manjrekar and former Australian captain Ian Chappell. The outgoing Greg Chappell too indicated that Tendulkar should retire from the game. When SRT scored a duck in the vital game against Lanka in the 07 WC, it even looked like the critics may have been right about Tendulkar's career coming to an premature end.

Tendulkar hits a purple patch


Now, Tendulkar isn't a champion for nothing and I am sure he would have taken all those criticisms to his heart and must have worked very hard to get back to from. He surely came-back with a bang as since the 2007 WC, he has been ultra consistent. In 2008/09, he was able to break Lara's world record as the highest run-getter in test cricket and this year, he has been in phenomenal touch as he has already got  couple of double hundreds. Yes, he may no more be the cavalier player that we saw in the 90's, but has become an great accumulator of runs. He doesn't play the pull shot too many times and I don't see him playing his signature shot, the  back-foot punch yet, continues to score runs for fun and the Aussies even now don't know how to get him out!  I surely think SRT is still hurt by that defeat in the semifinal in the 96 WC at home and would like to end his career with a world cup medal to his name. In simple words, I would just say  that no one, but it is up-to SRT to decide when he would end his career.

Tendulkar's technique

Mere mortals like me perhaps shouldn't talk about the technique of a genius, but I would like to say a few words about his technique.

Tendulkar's technique depends on economy of movement and great balance. His technique is sometimes described as a floating technique as he tends make that little shuffle just when the bowler is about to bowl and he responds intuitively.  He sometimes takes a leg-stump guard to force the bowler to bowl at his stumps and if they get their line wrong, he can easily flick it. It is a huge gamble and only a genius like SRT can make it work. The biggest factor to consider is, how still his head is and till the nth moment he watches the ball. I sometimes feel that he has the eyes of a hawk as if it is slightly short he easily sways away from the line. As he keeps his head still and his great balance means that he can be orthodox or unorthodox and if he wants to, can score runs front or even behind the wicket., in short 360 degrees.

Is there any weakness?

Since he started playing cricket, bowlers have tried every trick in the book, but even after playing 21 years of international cricket, he continues to score runs for fun. So, does that mean he has no weakness at all?

In my humble opinion, if there is any weakness in his game, it is when he plays a straight drive. It is one of his favourite shots, but occasionally, he can play that shot from the crease which can leave him vulnerable against a swing bowler early in his innings. Jimmy Anderson has got him out five times by bowling a fuller length and Hoggy too has dismissed him. Couple of examples I can remember include Anderson bowling full at Oval and SRT getting bowled as he didn't move his feet. Hoggy too got him out at Lord's by bowling a similar delivery. The fact though is, both those dismissals came early in his innings and once he gets in, more often than not he doesn't miss out when playing the straight drive.

Seam bowlers have looked to get him out by bowling a bouncer which tends to leave SRT.  McGrath got him out at Edgbaston in the 99 WC by bowling a superb bouncer, Flintoff did the same at Mohali in 05/06, I have seen Lewis troubling him with some decent bouncers and even Olonga is said to have got him out in a tournament in Sarjah.  SRT is no more than a school ruler, so however good he maybe, sometimes it can become difficult to play a lifter. The fact though is,  as Gavaskar once said, no one likes facing bouncers and every batsman has to look at ways to counter it. So, if a batsman gets out to a very good delivery once in a blue-moon it can't be called as a weakness.

Tendulkar's critics

In any field, one would see a plethora of people, who just seem to sit on a sofa and criticise people for the sake of  it. The same can be said about cricket, as I have seen so called experts criticising SRT which to me looks funny.

The first criticism is that he doesn't win games. Now, let us understand that it is a team game and one can't win a match without the support of others. The only way SRT could have won matches like at Perth, Capetown, Edgbaston, Wellington, Melbourne and many more was, if he had played at both ends. I seriously ask a question regarding what more can a batsman do then scoring runs and playing till the end of the innings like he did at Edgbaston, Perth, Capetown and Melbourne? He surely can't play at both ends and when he got support like at Headingley in 02 or at Madras in 08/09, India was able to win the match..

The counter argument that critics would say is, India had batsmen like Sidhu, Azhar and Manjrekar in the early and mid 90's. Now, Sidhu was a classic case of someone, who was a bully at home and was like a rabbit caught in headlights away from home. Even now, if someone takes up the name of Fraser, I am sure Sidhu would go underground! Azhar's record away from home too isn't anything to write home about. He scored heavily in England in 90, but as I said that was the year, when pitches in England were more like roads. Manjrekar was technically well equipped, but most of his success came before SRT made his debut. He had a wretched tour of Australia in 92 and was never the same again, especially after he was said to be paralysed by a deadly slower delivery by Hughes in that series in Australia lol.

It also helps to have a good bowling attack as in the end, bowlers win matches. In the 90's though, the Indian attack was modest and when bowlers can't take wickets, a batsman can't do more than just looking at  drawing the game like SRT did at Old Trafford in 90.

The critics of course would refer to matches like the WC final in 03, the match at Madras against Pakistan in 99 and the game against the Windies at Barbados in 97. Now, if they don't agree to facts like he was affected by back spasms against Pakistan and he had no other option, but to go for that pull shot of McGrath in the WC as India were chasing down a mammoth target,  I would just say that we are thinking of few matches in a career spanning 170 odd tests and God knows,  how many onedayers. So, can't he fail in any game?

Even if someone looks at the facts, it shows that SRT averages over 65 when India have won test matches and most of his one-day hundreds have resulted in victories. Yes, a small blemish can be, in the fourth innings he doesn't have a great average, but even that is improving as he scored a masterful hundred at Madras against England and scored couple of vital half centurions in recent times.

Finally, I would say that he isn't just a great cricketer, but a great ambassador for the game of cricket. As a cricket aficionado, I just hope that he ends his career on a real high.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Future tense for West Indies


Yesterday was a red letter day for Bangladesh's cricket as they Banglawashed the Kiwis four nil. Bangladesh have made a giant leap in cricket world as with yesterday's victory, they have snatched the number eighth spot in the rankings from the once great Caribbean side. In the euphoria of Bangladesh thrashing the Black caps four nil, lest we forget the sorry state of affairs the side that Bangladesh replaced as the number eighth ranked team in the world find themselves in. Yes, I am thinking about the once great Caribbean side which ruled the cricketing world, but now have the ignominy of seeing Bangladesh leapfrog ahead of them in the rankings. Cricket in the Caribbean has been on a slow decline for more than 15 years now, but the sad fact is, it is getting worse and probably it has reached its nadir.

So, in this article let us focus on the sad decline of West Indies cricket and the future of cricket in West Indies

 The seeds of decline

It was in the early 90's when it looked like everything wasn't hunky-dory in the West Indies camp. Yes, they still had players like Ambrose,Walsh, Richardson, Bichop and a player called Lara showing a lot of promise. The fact though is, few of the great players like  Malcolm Marshall, Richards and co.  who  were about to retire seemed to be a bit pessimistic about the future of West Indies cricket.  Actually, I do remember senior players like Marshall and Dujon  at the time of their retirement in 91/92 saying that everything isn’t rosy as far as cricket in the Caribbean is concerned.

It was in 95, when the Aussies finally tamed the lion in its own den by defeating West Indies 2-1 and with that the reign of West Indies as the undisputed champions of test cricket was over. It seemed like the king of the jungle had suddenly lost all its long canine teeth and the jaws had become weak yet even in 95, not many envisaged that one-day even a newbie like Bangladesh would be ranked ahead of the Calypso kings.

 Infighting in the West Indies team

As far as I can remember, it was back in 1995 when for the first time, one could see that there was a lack of unity in the team. The then captain Richie Richardson had problems with their star batsman Lara and Lara didn’t even tour Australia in 95/96. Finally, Richardson retired after the 96 world cup as Walsh became the captain. I have heard that disunity in the team existed even during the time of Walsh captaining the side.

Lara becomes the captain

One always felt that Lara had the ambition of captaining the team and after a string of poor results during Walsh's time including a whitewash by Pakistan meant that Lara was finally given the chance to captain the side in 98. The tragedy though is, even under the captaincy of Lara, there were more than a few problems. For instance in  98, there were problems between the board and the players association before a tour to SA, though it was resolved just in time, but it did affect the performance of the side as they lost 5-0 in SA. 

Yes, the very next year Lara played couple of magical knocks to almost single-handedly help the Caribbean side to draw a series against the formidable Aussies, but trouble was brewing underneath as after that encouraging show against the Aussies, West Indies didn't taste much success during that year. In-fact, after yet another whitewash and this time around by the lightweights of test cricket the Kiwis meant that for a brief period Lara got disillusioned with cricket and took a break from cricket. So, Adams took over the mantle of captaining the side, but the Caribbean team lost most of their matches which included a five zero thumping by the all conquering side from down under. Finally, Adams too resigned from the job of captaining the side. I was never a fan of Adams as a batsman, but that was the time as a fan of West Indies cricket, I had a sinking feeling that West Indies can go just one way and that is down. The reason behind that was, if a cricketer like Adams, who seemed to come across as a lovable guy and with good leadership qualities couldn't turn the fortunes of West Indies's cricket around, then who could do it?

Anyway, Hooper, who had retired from the game came-back to take up the mantle of captaining the side. He and the coach Logie did a decent job, but the stop-gap arrangement didn’t last long and it ended after a disappointing world cup campaign in 03.

Players strike rock West Indies cricket

In 2005, just before the Windies were about to embark on a tough tour to  the Emerald isle, players strike  haunted West Indies cricket. So, Chanders took up the mantle of captaining a second string side.  After  negotiations between  players and the board, the striking players returned back to play cricket, though   in-spite of senior players coming back into the side, Chanders continued to be the captain of the team. The team under Chanders though, lost match after match as he also resigned from the job of captaining the side with  Lara again becoming the captain.

The players also didn't seem to get along well with the coach of the side King and he was heavily criticised  for his methods. The coach King eventually resigned from his job after a disappointing 2007 world cup. It was also the last time we saw the great man Lara playing international cricket as he announced his retirement from the game at the end of the 2007 WC. Yes, he was a great batsman, but was embroiled in lots of controversies which in turn didn't help West Indies's cricket.

Temporary coaches like Moore came and went as finally Dyson took over the role of coaching the side. It looked like Gayle and Dyson were doing a decent job as the team defeated England at home in a test series which was a good achievement, though it can be said that after Moores KP fiasco, England seemed to be a disjointed side during that series.

A case of Siamese twins

I have a feeling that West Indies's cricket and controversies are like Siamese twins which can never be separated as last year, they again got embroiled in controversies. The board and the players association again were at loggerheads over the issue of contracts as the players for the umpteenth time went on a strike. As a result, the board fielded a second string side against Bangladesh and that side promptly got Banglawashed. The board had to find some scape-goat and it was of course the coach Dyson, who was sacked. On the other hand, the association led by Ramnaraine and the board were still at each other’s throats with the board again selecting a second string side for the champions trophy. The man who was mainly responsible for the disarray, Hunte is still the president of the board. It can be better said as Hunte hunted Westindies cricket. The striking players made a comeback, but West Indies cricket went from bad to worse as they lost most of their matches down under and results weren't any better against the Saffers at home. In between, they even lost a match or two to Zimbabwe!

So, who is to be blamed for the mess???

The Caribbean team haven’t utilised whatever talent that was available as most of the players, who looked like have the talent either were dropped too soon, or have stagnated. The selectors surely have to take some of the blame for it, as they rarely ever gave anyone a decent run in the side.  I don't have a count of every player, who has played for the West Indies team in the last ten years, but can anyone remember names like Stuart, Maclean, Rose, Washington, Samuels, Marshall and Nurse? All of them were talented, but were rarely given a decent run in the side. It doesn't mean that the board and the selectors have to take the entire blame for the mess, as  even the youngsters perhaps haven't been focused enough. For instance, Taylor has had disciplinary issues and Samuels has been involved in match-fixing. In a way, the failure of the board has manifested itself not just in the palpable decline of West Indies cricket, but the overall discipline and development of West Indies cricket.

Future of  cricket in West Indies

Today, I saw that Sammy has been appointed as the new captain of the side with Nash as the vice captain. Actually, I am happy with those appointments as Sammy is a hardworking cricketer and has a never say die attitude and  Nash seems to have a calming influence in the field which would help Sammy. The big worry is, this can be yet another stop-gap arrangement and the brainless selectors may again revert back to Gayle. West Indies also face problems of players opting for lucrative T/20 contracts in IPL instead of playing for  West Indies. We have already seen Gayle, Bravo and Pollard refusing contracts. So what is the future for players like Darren Bravo, Barath, Roach, Rusell  and others? Can they make a living out of a sport which is in such a mess?



I have also seen a few  former cricketers saying that to ameliorate the standard of Westindies's cricket, domestic cricket has to  improve. Yes, it is a factor to consider, but at present, the main problem is the never ending fights between the board and the players. 

Players disunity, strikes, bad selection, the seeming veracity of rampant corruption by board and many more factors have rocked cricket in West Indies during the last fifteen years. The situation for a team which produced some of the greatest cricketers like Ambrose, Walsh, Lara, Marshall, Hall, Richards, Lloyd, 3 W’S, Headley, Holding  and many more can’t get worse. One has to wait and see whether  there would be any light at the end of the tunnel or just like titanic, the great ship of West Indies would sink.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

No Wasim Akram in Chappell's thrill-a-minute side???

Yesterday, a few fans on twitter were debating on Ian Chappell's all time entertainers team, but as I am not  keen on picking all time teams I gave it a miss. Today though, I just had a glance at the team and straightaway I almost fell from my chair as I didn't see Wasim Akram's name. Old timers may have their views and the general feeling  I get is, the older generation always think that cricketers during their time were better, but that is natural as they all grew up seeing those great players in action. The non inclusion of Akram is bewildering though, as I can't believe there was a cricketer who had more natural talent than the great man from Pakistan. Swing or seam, bowling from around the wicket and vicious bouncers, he was a master at everything. When Akram bowled, it was pure magic and in the 90's, he was one of the few players, who I would pay to watch. I am sure at least those fans who grew up watching Akram bowl would share my views.

 Maybe IM Chappell should go back in time and watch the you tube video of  Lamb and Lewis being dismissed in the 92 world cup, the dismissal of Healy in a WSC game in 96/97, when both Healy and Akram didn't realise that Healy was bowled by a beauty from Akram, or even better, the ball he bowled to Robert Croft in a test match in England in 96.

I think most fans have watched those two magical deliveries he bowled to Lamb and Lewis in the 92 world cup, but what about the delivery he bowled to Robert Croft in a test match in England? Let us just have a look at it.

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Unfortunately, I didn't see the above mentioned ball live, so I would like to quote what Mike Selvey says about that incredible delivery,

"Halfway down the pitch towards the right-hander, the delivery seemed innocuous. Delivered left-arm from round the wicket by Wasim Akram, it had the usual slithery speed, and was up there in length - an attempted yorker probably, but too full. It began to angle down the leg side, a low full-toss just ripe for Robert Croft, the England offspinner, to flick away to fine leg for an easy boundary. Croft planted his front foot and began the process of turning the ball away. He missed, the ball thudded into his pad, and Wasim roared his appeal. Negative, said the umpire, and we in the press box nodded knowingly: missing leg by miles.

Then came the replay, in super slow motion, and it was so astounding it left mouths gaping. For in the last 10 feet or so, the ball ceased angling down the leg side and instead swung back the other way, eluding Croft's bat by six inches. Unquestionably it would have hit middle stump, but it all happened so fast and late that it deceived the eye of everyone, not least the umpire. The single most astonishing delivery that I have witnessed failed to produce a wicket" - Mike Selvey in the magazine Wisden Asia Cricket March 2003

I don't think Mike Selvey is exaggerating either as after seeing the ball, I felt the same as it was a jaw-dropping delivery. In my humble opinion, Akram  could swing both the new and the old ball, he swung them both ways and with a barely perceptible change in action. Even on wickets with which gave him no assistance, he could be given the ball at any moment of the game and be expected to take a wicket. At his best, he could make even a classy batsmen look bad and it is no surprise that he ran through the the tail time and again.So, dear Ian Chappell, it would be better if you brush up your memory and remember there was a bowler called Akram.
 
Anyway, I am not a great believer in picking all time teams as I have only watched cricket for the last eighteen years, but if I have to pick one among the players I have watched, it would be as follows

Sehwag- He may play silly shots and his second innings record, when the pitch  deteriorates and batting becomes more difficult is nothing to write home about, but in full flow he is a pleasure to watch for any cricket fan, though the bowlers may not agree. It is almost like the bowlers have to wear a helmet to protect themselves from the butcher called Sehwag.

Gilchrist- He may have technical flaws against the new ball, but wait this is an entertainers X1, so I won't mind seeing him opening the batting. I haven't seen Colin Miburn bat, but among the players I have watched, he is the cleanest striker I have seen. Let it be Gilly facing a fast bowler or a spinner,  it rained sixes from his bat. One has to also remember that he played some great knocks under pressure like at Hobart against Pakistan in 99/00.

Lara- Lara  was perhaps the last of the calypso kings and when in mood, no bowler would have liked to bowl to the great man from the Caribbean islands. His timing and placement through the off-side can't be described in just words as it was that good. His knock at Barbados against Australia would be etched in every cricket fan's memory and let us not forget his exceptional knocks in the Emerald Islands either. In simple words, Brian Charles Lara was the prince of Trinidad.

Tendulkar- I am sure about billion pages have been written about the little master from India as India is a cricket mad nation.  I don't think I need to say much about this all time great player, but if I have to say anything, I would just  say that at his peak, he was a complete batsman as he could thrill a cricket connoisseur with superbly timed shots and at the same-time, he has a rock solid technique. Yes nowadays, he may not exhibit the flair that we used to see in the 90's yet, at the age of 37 he is making runs for fun and continues to be a scourge for the men from down under.

Mark Waugh- He was the king of lazy elegance. Let it be his batting, fielding in the slips or backward point( early in his career) he was pure class. The only time he looked ugly was when he tried to reverse sweep  Tufnell and got bowled. It is said that even now his teammates joke about that shot. Sorry Mark, reverse sweeps aren't for you! If that was an ugly shot what about Mark Waugh's six of Vettori at Perth in 97? I can't remember a shot which was more graceful to watch and if not the biggest, it would surely go down as one of the biggest sixes ever hit in a game.

Laxman- Now if Afghan was the king of lazy elegance what about Laxman? In simple words, he is known as Very Very Special Laxman and that is an apt description of Laxman. His wrists are like a magic wand as he can flick deliveries which are wide of off stump through the on-side and play shots through the off-side when there doesn't seem to be any room to play a shot. One team that would like to see him retire soon is Australia as it seems like even if he fails in ten consecutive innings against say Bangladesh, he would still score a hundred if the next series is against Australia.

Cairns- I know that there would be many fans who would clamour for the inclusion of Freddie Flintoff, but in my humble opinion, whatever Freddie did in his career, Cairns did it better, but as he played for a lightweight team, he doesn't get the recognition he deserves.

Akram- I think I have said enough of this great man from Pakistan lol.

Warne(c)- He is another cricketer on whom about billion pages have been written. The Sheik of tweak could turn the ball on a glass and was a purists delight. He entered cricket folklore when he ripped a leg-break, the width of a Gatting and bamboozled Gatting by getting him clean bowled. In a unreal world, I would make him the captain of the team as he always looks for wickets and even makes a cricket fan  think of what maybe his next move.

Donald- Among the bowlers I have seen, he had the smoothest action for a fast bowler. At his peak, it was like watching a Rolls-Royce bowl. The white lightning could bowl as fast as anyone and not a single batsman liked to face the fearsome pace bowler from the Safferland.

Schultz- The final player I would pick is the most controversial one and his name is Brett Nolan Schultz. Yes, he played just nine tests, but at his best, the wild man, who actually wanted to play rugby as he thought that cricket was boring got my pulse racing. With his catapult like action, the left armer could bowl at the pace of wind and no batsmen liked to face him. I do remember the story of how the Lankan  batsmen were said to be frightened to death in their own backyard on those barren tracks by the pace of not Donald but Schultz!  Most of them were said to have given up their wickets instead of being hit on their helmet. It is very unfortunate that the amount of strain he put on his body resulted in horrific knee injuries which ended his career. The fact is, even at the end of his career, he blasted a formidable Aussie batting line-up in 97 on a flat deck like Capetown by taking eight wickets. In the 90's, Donald and Schultz could have been the re-incarnation of Lillee and Thomson, but it wasn't to be.

The one player I would liked to have gone for is the Rawalpindi express Akthar, but somehow I can't leave out the wild man from the Safferland. Maybe I have a soft corner for him as a player as talented as Schultz only played nine tests.

Finally, it is just a team that I have picked from the players I have seen, so many great names are missing from the line-up, but I would no doubt pay to watch that line-up play in Mars.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The madness of a boot camp


Today, when I woke up I saw the bizarre news of Jimmy Anderson being injured in a boot camp which was held by England's management. It looked even more crazy, when I saw that he hurt his rib in a boxing match. Boxing match? Oh! god why would anyone play a violent sport like boxing? Were they all looking to compete in CWG against the Northern Ireland and Indian boxers? I also can't believe that news of his injury is coming out now, though the boot camp was held a few weeks back.

Poor Jimmy Anderson, as on his last tour to Australia, he was forced to play, though he had just comeback from a serious injury and had hardly bowled any overs going into that series. What made worse was  Anderson bowled as a first change bowler with a spread field. A young swing bowler bowling with a spread field and the older ball? absurd. If Anderson thought that he could do well this time around as he has improved  as a bowler he was wrong, as the madness of the boot camp has made sure that he may not play in the first test and even if he plays, he won't be match fit.

If Anderson doesn't play in most of the matches, it is no doubt a big blow for England as he is now an experienced swing bowler and new ball is the key in Australia. If a swing bowler even takes a few early wickets it can help as no spinner however good he maybe would like to bowl to well set top order batsmen. Always remember even the great Warne suffered at the hands of Indian batsmen in 98 as the quicker bowlers couldn't make early inroads into the Indian batting line-up. In absence of Anderson, Shahzad now may have to take up the mantle of being England's main swing bowler. A greenhorn like Shahzad would likely bowl too full or short and as a result won't succeed in Australia. Even if Flower and co. go for all three tall bowlers,  the attack would look similar and Australian batsmen are generally good at playing horizontal bat shots.  In 08/09, everyone expected the tall Morkel to do the damage, but Australian batsmen put him to the sword by playing horizontal bats shots. The above points just shows that why England may miss a genuine swing bowler in Australia.

Andy Flower and co. have to be surely blamed for calling Buchanan and following in his footsteps. During the 06 boot camp organised by the super coach with a magic wand Buchanan, Macgill hurt his knee and was never the same yet, England organised a boot camp. Leave alone Macgill, as Anderson himself got injured while playing squash in Srilanka in 03.  The fact is, with almost half of the OZ team including Warne, Junior and Martyn weren't sure about Buchanan's methods, others should have listened to them, but KKR made him the coach and burnt their fingers and now he is the consultant for the England team! Leave alone this boot-camp faisco, but he had no rights to question KP's commitment before an important tour. I know that there are fans who think KP is selfish, but how can someone, who was supposedly helping the team say that before the Ashes series?  A few months ago, Warne had warned about conducting such  boot camps and even made a comment that with Buchanan in England's camp, Australia's chances of winning the series has improved.

I just hope that Flower, Buchanan and co. won't continue with this nonsense of boot camp next year. Who knows, they may think of new ways to get players injured like introducing bungee jumping, lion taming and bull riding?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Williamson's century and another defeat for the Black Caps


Since the time I started following cricket, I have always tried to keep an keen eye on the upcoming players, as the game needs stars and without them, there would be no one to look up-to  for the next generation. So, I was thrilled to see that Pujara did well against the Aussies and today, Williamson showed his class albeit against a weaker opponent like Bangladesh by scoring his maiden hundred.Actually, it isn't just Williamson, but I also have a soft corner for the Kiwis as even with a small pool of talent to choose from, the rugby mad nation has been able to punch above their weight and perform reasonably well in international cricket.

I have said it before that from whatever little I have seen of Williamson's batting, he seems to be a fine back-foot player which is a bit of surprise as New Zealand's pitches don't have the pace and bounce that one would find in Australia or South Africa. It would be great if Williamson does well as in recent times good back-foot players have become an endangered species and it is always a pleasure to watch back-foot players cut and pull the fast bowlers.

Today, Williamson showed why a few rate him so highly  by getting  a century on those slow wickets in Bangladesh which is never easy, though he seemed to be struggling with cramps and that was perhaps the reason why he couldn't go after the bowling in the end overs.

As far as the Kiwis were concerned, it was yet another disappointing performance from them. Most of their batsmen don't seem to know how to play the slower bowlers as they just can't rotate the strike. The bowling department doesn't seem to be much better either and it is unfathomable that Vettori continues to under-bowl Tuffey. I have never been a fan of  Vettori's captaincy and today too I couldn't understand the logic behind Vettori winning the toss and electing to field first. It is a known fact that pitches in Bangladesh gets slower as the game progresses and it becomes difficult to force the pace against the slower bowlers.

Yes, the Kiwis have been below par in this series, but the credit has to go to the Tigers for using the home conditions well and winning the one-day series. The so called experts like Boycott though, would likely continue to question their test status. In simple words, I would say that Bangladesh are showing signs of improvement and it makes no sense revoking the test status of a team, who are on their way up.

Anyway, it is great to see Williamson making a mark at the international level after he had a wretched start to his career in Lanka. It didn't seem like he would even get a run in Lanka and may have even made Chris Martin proud with his exploits in the Emerald Islands, but thankfully, he has shown good temperament by getting a hundred in Bangladesh.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The magic man comes to the party


In recent times, a few doomsayers have been questioning the future of test cricket. The general feeling is, no one would like to watch a match that takes five days to complete and  even after five days, there is no guarantee of a result, but even the doomsayers who watched yesterday's game between India and Australia, would have to agree that it was a great advertisement for cricket and test cricket is alive and kicking.

A fiercely contested cricket match with two teams going hammer and tongs at each other. Ten runs to get, the umpire gives a wrong decision, the last  man walks in and with six runs to get escapes a huge appeal and an overthrow helps India to get four runs before they win the match. In between, even the iceman Laxman loses his cool at the non striker Ojha for watching the ball. What more can cricket fans ask for? as until the end, it was a see-saw battle with both teams having an equal chance of winning the match.

What made yesterday's game even better was the Very Very Special cricketer Laxman played yet another stylish knock to help India win the match. At  his sublime best, VVS is no doubt a sight for gods. Unlike most modern day players, Laxman just caresses the ball to the boundary and every shot he plays is a connoisseur's delight. He is also a iceman as he rarely ever loses his cool and that is the reason behind his success in adverse circumstances. His batting is hard to explain, as there would be many occasions, when it seems like he doesn't have good footwork against the quicker bowlers, but those magical wrists and the ability to see the ball early and play it late, allows him to play those silken shots and makes the bowler look very ordinary. He is so wristy that I feel like he can play four, or five shots to every ball he faces.

Now, let us rewind back in years to 99/00 at Sydney.  India have just lost the wicket of the little master Tendulkar and are about million runs behind. The invincibles from Australia are as hungry as wolves and are making a mincemeat of the opposition. Cricket fans like me thought oh! this is the same old story of India depending too much on Tendulkar when playing away from home and as soon as he gets out, others would follow him back to the pavilion.

As the Indian batsmen kept falling like nine pins, a cricketer with an obscure name called Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman was still battling it out at the crease. VVS at that time had hardly made an impact and even in the second innings, McGrath was beating him for fun as he looked all at sea.  Suddenly, it all changed as the great man McGrath bowled a snorter of a bouncer and Laxman fell on the ground. I don't know what happened as it seemed to have woken up a sleeping lion as after he faced that ball, it rained fours from Laxman's bat. When he pulled Lee's 90mph thunderbolts through front of square for successive boundaries my jaws-dropped as he didn't even swiddle on-to the back-foot, but pulled him more on the front-foot.

After playing that great knock at Sydney, he has gone onto play many more great knocks against the best side in the world Australia, but that knock at Sydney made the cricketing world sit up and take notice of this stylish player from India. If Punter is feeling down and out after yesterday's match, it is high time he vents his frustration by abusing Glenda for bowling that bouncer as if he hadn't bowled that bouncer, he may have been known as a Very Very Ordinary batsman  instead of being known as Very Very Special Laxman. One has to always remember that before the test in Sydney, he didn't even have a century to his name, was averaging in the 20's and knowing selectors, he may have been dropped forever after that series. So, Indian fans thank McGrath for bowling that bouncer as since he bowled that bouncer, he has been a thorn in Australia's flesh. 

Anyway coming back to yesterdays' knock, it was even more special because Laxman was suffering from a back problem and he came to the crease with India in a bit of strife as they were 74 for 5. It soon became worse when the little master Tendulkar got out and Dhoni soon followed him back to the pavilion. Laxman, who was looking comfortable at the crease suddenly seemed to be running out of partners, but the beanpole Sharma provided him with good support as India edged closer to the target. One could see a few tense faces among the players as well as in the crowd, but the iceman Laxman was as cool as ever and took India to a famous victory. The one shot that would be etched in  my memory would be the cover drive he played of Watson. Punter had spread his field, but the magic man somehow found a gap as he caressed the ball to the boundary. Does he have a picture of the field in his brain? In simple words, when he is playing well he uses his wrists like a magic wand and the bowler has to just tear his hair in frustration. I have a feeling that instead of calling him as very very special Laxman, Australian players would call him as very very sick Laxman

I would also like to say a few words on the umpiring decisions we saw in the match and Punter's captaincy. It has to be said that the standard of umpiring in the match was poor as both Billy and Gould seemed to have forgotten the very basics of the game and gave some atrocious decisions. Now, we have to consider the fact that it is a high profile series and in a fiercely contested match, umpires can come under real pressure and can give some bad decisions. The fact though, I can't understand is why not use the technology  when it is available? I would never understand the logic behind not using the UDRS for this series.

As far as Punter's captaincy is concerned, I have said it before that I am not a great fan of his captaincy and  Australia won lots of matches thanks to them having a great side. Now though, Australia aren't the same force they once were and Punter's captaincy is being tested all the time. I don't think he came out with flying colours on the last day at Mohali as he made a couple of mistakes which may have cost Australia the match.

The first mistake was, he started the final day's play with Haurtiz. On a pitch with a bit of variable bounce, the quicker bowlers were doing well by bowling the odd short delivery on the fourth day, but by giving the ball to Hauritz on the final day, it allowed Tendulkar to settle down  and get some useful runs. Secondly, when VVS  first came to crease, he could have attacked more. As soon as VVS got a couple of fours, Punter set defensive fields and as expected, VVS got a thick edge of a fine bouncer from Bollinger and it went through the vacant slip region for a boundary. Finally, when Dhoni got out, he allowed VVS to take easy singles by spreading the field, so that he can attack Sharma at the other end. Yes, VVS was in good touch, but the best way to get a stroke-maker out is to lure him to play a shot by bringing one of the fielders up in the circle.  Punter though, instead of concentrating on the big fish, took the option of removing the tail-ender at the other end which is a defensive option.

Finally, it was a privilege to watch an fiercely contested match played between two good sides. Cricket is no doubt a game full of glorious uncertainties and it is high time, the doomsayers find some other job and stop ranting about death of test cricket!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cricket in Zimbabwe


Now, we all know that cricket is primarily played by a few commonwealth countries. Yes, ICC do keep boasting about expanding the game to newer countries, but for someone like me, who is deeply in love with the game, it is a matter of grave concern that even among the few cricket playing countries, the administrators seem to be hell bent on ruining our beautiful game of cricket. Just think of the way cricket is being run particularly in countries like Zimbabwe, Pakistan, or the West Indies. Over the years, I especially followed the progress of Zimbabwe's cricket with a keen interest, so it was sad to see the calamitous disintegration of Zimbabwe's cricket in recent times.

So in this article, I would look at cricket in Zimbabwe 

History of Zimbabwe's cricket 

I am not a cricket historian to know everything about cricket in Zimbabwe, but from whatever little bit I know of Zimbabwe's cricket history,  I can confidently say that the first forays of cricket in Zimbabwe can be traced back to 1890's, when a few first-class matches were played between Bulawayo and Salisbury  in Rhodesia( old name of Zimbabwe) In 1904/ 05, they entered the Currie cup competition of South Africa and leaving a few years between the two world wars, Zimbabwe was a regular member of the Currie cup. A tournament called Logan cup was also introduced which consisted of teams like Harare, Bulawayo and co. Rhodesia also produced a few test cricketers, who went onto play for South Africa like Tomlinson and the last one being John Traicos. In 79/80, they played  as Zimbabwe- Rhodesia in the Currie cup, but once they attained independence,  Zimbabwe left the competition.

Zimbabwe as an associate member of ICC

With Zimbabwe gaining independence, they also became an associate member of the ICC in 1981.  In 1983, Zimbabwe for the first time played in the World cup and oh god! didn't they jolt the cricketing world by defeating the formidable Aussies?  Zimbabwe's clever captain Fletcher was said to be the brainchild behind that victory. Of course, in the years to come as the coach of England, he would mastermind an Ashes victory against Australia. Zimbabwe didn't just beat the team from down under, but also reduced the eventual champions India to 17 for 5 before Kapil dev came to India's rescue. If Kapil hadn't played that knock, Zimb's seamers Rawson and Curran could have been the heroes of the match. In the 87 world cup too Zimbabwe showed that they weren't there to just make up the numbers as they gave  Kiwis a run for their money before losing by just one run. Houghton is said to have played an magnificent knock of 142, though his effort went in vain.

Zimbabwe gain test status

Consistent performances in the ICC trophies as well as the fighting spirit they showed in the few world cups they played helped Zimbabwe to finally gain test status in 92. Straightway, they made an impression as their opponents India were in a spot of bother in the very first test Zimbabwe played,  though in the end, the Indian team was able to escape from what seemed like would be an embarrassing defeat for India. Zimbabwe's captain Houghton again showed his class by getting a hundred. In that match a certain player, who would one-day become the mainstay of Zimbabwe's batting called Andy Flower also made an impression  by getting a half century.


 Arnott and Grant Flower walking onto bat in the very first test Zimbabwe played

Anyway, coming back to Zimbabwe's cricket, it was in the early 90's that I got interested in their cricket. Here was a team, who didn't have a huge base to choose players from, but always came across as a bunch of battle hardened cricketers. Actually, I don't think anyone described the Zimbabwe team of the 90's better than Steve Waugh as after playing them in 99,  he showered praises about their fighting spirit and said that they deserve to play test cricket. In the 90's, I would always keep an close eye on the progress of the Zimbabwe team. Those were the days, when the internet hadn't yet taken the world by storm still my interest in their cricket forced me to search for every bit of information that I could get about Zimb's cricket.

The rise of Zimbabwe


                                             Flower Power

With Zimbabwe getting the chance to play top flight cricket they got better. The African nation made use of the exposure they got and as the years went by gave all the teams a run for their money. In 1995, they registered their first test victory thanks to Flower power as both made huge scores. It was also the time when they finally unearthed a top class seamer called Streak. Streak seemed to have the stamina of a bull as he could bowl long spells and get prodigious swing. Streak also played a major part in their first test victory by getting a nine wicket haul!  Yes, the chicken farmer Brandes was a useful swing bowler for the Zimbabwe team in the 90's, but he was injury prone and missed lots of matches, so it was refreshing to see Streak bowling with decent pace and troubling most of the batsmen in the 90's.

In 96/97, Zimbabwe caused ripples in the cricketing world by thrashing England 3-0 in a one-day series and gave England a scare in the test series too. The test series would be famous for Lloyd's comment "we murdered them and they know it". The first test ended in a draw with England not being able to score the one extra run which would have helped England to win that match. Lloyd was no doubt exasperated by Zimbabwe's defensive fields and made that infamous comment. Zimbabwe's players didn't seem to take it lightly and thrashed England 3-0 in the one-day series. The chicken farmer Brandes again became  England's bogeyman as he got a hat-trick in one of the matches to help Zimbabwe humiliate England.  Ted Corbett in his column talked about how even the black majority, who weren't really interested in cricket, suddenly taking up interest into the sport and even when he and few others visited a petrol bunk, the workers were said to be discussing  about Lloyd's comment!

 To be frank, in the mid 90's England weren't much better than Zimbabwe and if anything, Zimbabwe's players seemed to be mentally tougher. During that time at least in one-day cricket, Zimbabwe held the upper-hand  which could be seen by their shock victory in the 92 world cup, the 3-0 whitewash of England by Zimbabwe at home and the odd victory against England like in the quadrangular series in Australia in 94/95. I think the then captain of Zimbabwe, Alistair Campbell made a valid point, when he said that Zimbabwe's players got mentally tougher by consistently touring the subcontinent and playing in tough conditions and England too should tour the subcontinent more. In the years to come, Campbell was proved right as I think England became a tougher unit by going on tours to Pakistan, Lanka and India in 2000 and 2001.

I surely think Zimbabwe's cricket was at its peak between the 96 and the 99 world cup. Zimbabwe didn't just drub England at home 3-0, but under their astute captain Campbell, Zimbabwe for the first time won a test series and that too away from home against the enigmatic Pakistan side in 98/99. Zimbabwe also won a one off test against the Indian team in 98 and reached the final of a tournament in Sarjah and en-route to that final  they were able to defeat the formidable Lankan team. At that time, Zimbabwe no doubt had a good side as they didn't just have Flower brothers in their ranks, but the likes of Olonga, Streak, G.Whittall, P.Strang and even Campbell made Zimbabwe a force to reckon with in cricket. I can't forget the contributions of both Johnson, or Goodwin either. Yes, both learnt their cricket outside Zimbabwe, but with both being included in the Zimbabwe side, they looked capable of beating any team in world cricket.

Dave Houghton, who had retired by that time and had taken up the role of coaching the side, in a few interviews even said that Zimbabwe didn't fear anyone and have a great chance of progressing beyond the group stage in the 99 world cup. At that time, a few may have dismissed it as someone making tall claims, but his prophetic words came true as Zimbabwe indeed did well in the 99 world cup.

The 99 world cup was no doubt a dream run for the Zimbabwe team as they reached the super six stage and en-route to the super six stage they defeated formidable opponents like South Africa and India. Even now, I vividly remember the match against India. The Indian side minus Tendulkar for that match were in doldrums as they lost a few early wickets, but if I am not mistaken Robin Singh and Jadeja seemed to be taking India to a famous victory, but the one and only Olonga took three wickets in a single over to send India crashing to a shocking defeat. Olonga born in Kenya was like a breath of fresh air  for the Zimbabwe team as every-time he bowled, he gave his all. I just loved his athletic run up as well as even those agricultural hoicks he would play with a bat in hand. Here was a cricketer, who always had a smile on his face and enjoyed his cricket.  Olonga wasn't just a joy to watch on the field, but a slew of young cricketers got inspired by his exploits and followed in his footsteps. Let it be Hondo, Muperiwa and few others seem to have copied the hairstyle, or the action of either Olonga and the other prominent black cricketer of that time Pommie Mbangwa.  

I haven't forgotten their victory against the Saffers in that 99 world cup either. Saffers were in great form and were tipped as the favourites to win the tournament, but Zimbabwe were able to upset the apple-cart and defeat them. Most experts  expected India and England to go through, but Zimbabwe's shock victory meant that hosts England were dumped out of the tournament as India won their match against England. To be frank, England didn't deserve any better as the selectors went for bits and pieces players instead of specialists. There was also no logic behind the batsmen not looking to accelerate against Zimbabwe, though England were  behind in the NRR, or for the matter electing to field first against India, though rain and overcast conditions were expected later on in the match. Zimbabwe didn't progress beyond the super six stage, but by reaching the super six stage, they showed to the rest of the cricketing world that Zimbabwe can't be taken lightly.

So, as the world entered the new millennium, Zimbabwe's cricket seemed to be in a healthy state as under the guidance of their visionary coach Houghton,  they had a team that could beat anyone. Houghton wasn't just the coach of the team, but helped them to set up an academy which at that time was said to be as good as any other academy. It surely helped Zimbabwe to produce some fine cricketers among the black majority. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe though, trouble was brewing underneath as the political situation in Zimbabwe was getting worse which forced more than a few players to think about their future.

Zimbabwe's cricket in crisis

As the whole world celebrated the new millennium, Zimbabwe's cricket too had something to celebrate and feel proud of as at last they could proudly say that even Zimbabwe have a great cricketer in their ranks called Andy Flower. Let it be against England in 97, Lanka in 97 and 99, the enigmatic Pakistanis in 98/99,  West Indies in 2000,  Kiwis in 2000, India in 2000 and 2001 as well as against the Saffers in 2001, he was in phenomenal touch. He once scored centuries in both innings against South Africa, but only to see his team still lose by an innings. It happened to Zimbabwe so many times during that time as Flower would play exceptionally well, but rarely would get the support from the other end. Finally, in India in 2000/01, he decided enough is enough and played for two days to help Zimbabwe escape from a certain defeat. Flower was a phenomenal player as he averaged over 50 in test cricket, had the stamina to keep wickets for more than a day or two as opposition teams would usually get more than 500 runs against Zimbabwe and even captained the side for a while. No wonder, as soon as Zimbabwe found a decent keeper like Taibu, Flower left the job of being the wicketkeeper as he had too much on his plate. I have no doubt that Flower was an all time great player and doesn't get the recognition he deserves.

 Actually, one can also remember Flower in an interview talking about how hurt he was after getting out stumped in a test match against India in 92/93 ,which led to Zimbabwe's collapse and in the end India won. It just shows his level of commitment as even after so many years, he was thinking about that one bad shot.

Now, I have no doubt about Flower being a great player, but any team can't depend on just one player and sadly for Zimbabwe that is what exactly happened as both Goodwin and Johnson decided to quit international cricket and looked at playing in county cricket in England.  I don't blame either of them as the situation in Zimbabwe wasn't getting any better, though I do feel that Goodwin still wanted to play cricket for Zimbabwe, but with him having a family, it was perhaps too much of a risk to take. In a way, I do agree that Zimbabwe's cricket board can't be blamed entirely for the mess as the sad state of affairs of Zimbabwe's cricket can be attributed to Mugabe's bad policies.  The country no doubt  plunged into darkness with US and  the European union leading the way by imposing sanctions against Zimbabwe and as far as I know, the inflation rate rose to 231 million % in July 2008! Now, the economic crisis in Zimbabwe can always be an interesting subject to talk about, but this is a cricket blog, so I would leave it there. The simple fact is, just like any other field, cricket was affected by Mugabe's policies.

Yes, Mugabe should take a lot of blame for the sad state of affairs, but even the cricket board should  take some blame for the disintegration of Zimbabwe's cricket. I felt really sad seeing the seeming veracity of Chingoka and co. indulging in rampant corruption. In 2004, because of mass exodus of players, the ICC took the step of taking away the test status from Zimbabwe. Yes, the standard of Zimbabwe's cricket wasn't good enough to compete at the test level, but instead of dissolving the board and  taking full control of cricket in Zimbabwe, ICC tried to sweep everything under the carpet. Numerous committees were set up, but in the end, they were just a waste of space.When it comes to taking decisions,  ICC have always been good at procrastinating it. Malcolm Speed had his critics as a CEO of the ICC, but he was the only one who looked serious about taking action on the cricket board in Zimbabwe. There has also been  a feeling that Asian bloc supported Zimbabwe to get their vote.

On expected lines, a lot of players left Zimbabwe. Andy Flower and Olonga showed their displeasure by wearing black arm bands in the 2003 world cup, Heath Streak and co. decided to not play for Zimbabwe and a few more players followed in their footsteps. So, in no time Zimbabwe weren't just devoid of seniors like Streak, Flower brothers, Goodwin, Price and co. but even Blignaut, Ervine, Rinke, Friend, Williams, Rogers, Mariller, Ebrahim, Ireland  and Zimbabwe's bright young star Taibu decided not to play for Zimbabwe. I don't know how Houghton must have been feeling when he saw the academy in a very sorry state of affairs on cricinfo.

The future of cricket in Zimbabwe

I don't think much has changed with regards to the political situation in Zimbabwe, but when it comes to cricket in Zimbabwe, there seems to be a ray of hope as players like Taibu, Williams, Price, Blignaut and co. have returned back to play cricket for Zimbabwe, Mazakadza has finished his studies, Sibanda seems to be finally maturing, Rainsford has comeback from a threatening back injury and is taking wickets, S.Ervine's younger brother seems to bat like his elder brother and Zimbabwe suddenly have a decent spin attack as they have bowlers like Utseya, Price, Cremer and Maruma in their ranks. I don't see either S.Ervine, or Ireland leaving lucrative contracts in county cricket and playing for Zimbabwe, though Ireland is said to have played fc cricket in Zimbabwe this year. Anyway, it is also good to see that Houghton has returned as the consultant of the team, Streak is now the bowling coach, Campbell is the selector and chairman of cricket committee, Alan Butcher has been appointed as the coach of Zimbabwe's cricket team and I even see that Grant Flower has announced he would return back to play for Zimbabwe!  It would be even better if one-day Andy Flower comes back to help Zimbabwe's cricket. I have also heard that to ameliorate the standard of Zimbabwe's domestic cricket, they have reduced the number of teams playing in first-class cricket.

Yes, it is great that a lot of former players have returned back to Zimbabwe to help Zimbabwe's cricket, but their chances of playing test cricket still seems to be a pipe dream as just recently, Scotland refused to play cricket in Zimbabwe and even last year Zimbabwe was not allowed to play the t/20 WC as it was played in England. I just hope that one-day Zimbabwe can again play test cricket as it was always a pleasure to watch the battle hardened cricketers from Southern Africa  fight it out in test cricket