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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ashes-My views on England


I still can't believe that after all the speculation and the excitement about the start of yet another Ashes series, the first test is already over. The biggest surprise of the first test was Australia didn't win at their fortress Gabba! In a way Australia's worst  fears have come true as the bowling attack wasn't penetrative enough and the fielding was worse. After the match got over, for sometime I felt blank as I grew up watching Aussies ruthlessly dismantle every opponent they came across, but this Australian side is different as their body language is of a defeatist team and they have forgotten how to win a match. It was a pleasure to watch Cook and co. making a mincemeat of the toothless Australian bowling attack, but England's batsmen dominating Australia at Gabba was something that I wouldn't have envisaged even in my wildest dreams as Gabba after all is rightly known as the fortress of Australian cricket.

Why a draw at Brisbane is a significant achievement?


More than a few fans may argue that in the end it was just a draw and England didn't gain much from the draw. The simple fact is, leave alone losing a game, Australia don't even allow opponents to draw a game at Brisbane. Since their loss to the mighty Windies side in 88/89, Aussies have won 16 games and before this match had drawn just five games.  The amazing part is, they won all their six games between 2004/05 to 09/10. In-fact, before this match, they allowed only couple of teams to escape with draws in the last ten years. The first one came against the Kiwis in 01/02 and the second one was against India in 03/04. Both came in rain hit matches and it has to be said that Australia fielded a depleted attack against India in 03/04.

In that context, a drawn game at Gabba is a significant achievement for a touring side. I have said it many times that even if England are able to draw the first game at Brisbane, there is a very good chance of England beating Australia in the Ashes. In the past, Australian batsmen have thrived at Gabba by playing horizontal bat shots and the quicker bowlers almost perfected the art of bowling the traditional Australian three quarter length, but again the present Australian side is different.

Pitch conditions


As England were able to make a stunning recovery by scoring 517 runs for the loss of just one wicket in the second innings, the pitch has come in for severe criticism. Yes, after helping the bowlers on the first two days, the pitch flattened out considerably and it became a very good track for batting. Having said that, I would like to point out that in the last ten years or so, the track at Gabba has been similar to what we saw during the last five days.

When England came to the shores of Australia in 02/03, Australia made almost 500 runs in the first innings  and cruised to a total of 300 runs in the second innings before they declared. In the 2006/07 Ashes, Australia made a mammoth total of 602 runs in the first innings and slaughtered the bowlers in the second innings before they declared at 202 runs for the loss of just one wicket. In both those game though, they had couple of great bowlers like McGrath and Warne which helped them to crush the opposition by a huge margin. It wasn't like England had a bad attack either as the likes of Caddick,Freddie,Hoggy and co. played in those tests, but they were up against a very confident batting line-up and more so a flat pitch.

In-fact, leaving a couple of tests recently, especially the one in 2008 when Southee and the Aussie quicks took advantage of bowling friendly  conditions to take wickets, the track at Gabba has been a very good track for batting. I would even say that the track for the first test offered a bit of seam movement on the first couple of days unlike what we saw in 02/03 and 06/07.So, it is a indicator to the Australian management that they perhaps should prepare tracks that have a bit of life in it, otherwise they may have to be content with just draws, or even losing the series as when the pitch got flat, Australian attack looked worse than England's attack.

Batting line-up


I can only think of showering praises on the top-order for the rearguard action on the last couple of days. Cynics may say that pitch was flat, but is it is a herculean task for any team, when they are 200 runs behind and have to bat for two days. In such situations, the team which is behind can crumble under pressure. When Cook and Strauss started the second innings on the third day, I was a bit wary about what may happen as most teams tend to lose a few wickets as the team would be demoralised after being sent on a leather hunt by the opposition batsmen. So, the top-order deserves all the accolades they are getting as they showed great determination and discipline to help England draw the match.

The star of the show for England was of course Cook. Many have questioned his technique just outside the off-stump, but in the first test the discipline he showed just outside the off stump was exemplary. He was on the field for almost five days yet, he didn't lose his concentration and made a great double hundred. He seems to have worked on his batting as his back-lift looked better and he was just looking to time the ball through the covers and not force it through the covers. In the end, it is more of a mental issue as when a batsman isn't confident, he would worry about factors like his off-stump, or whether his technique is good enough. I just take my hats off to him as getting a double hundred with the team about million runs behind is one helluva task.

Now, it doesn't mean that one can forget the efforts of Strauss, or Trott either as both of them played extremely well. Strauss hasn't been in good form and he was on a  pair as he scored a duck in the first innings, but in the second innings he too showed great concentration prowess and notched up a fine century. Strauss is surely underrated as a batsman as even after doing well in South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, on turning tracks in India and now in Australia, I have seen fans reckoning that even Atherton was better than Strauss. Michael Atherton better than Strauss??? no way. Trott may not have a wide range of shots, but he brings a calmness to the team. It is good to see that England have finally found a batsman, who can bat at the crucial number three position.

In the second innings,I was also impressed by the way they left deliveries purely on length. Most visiting teams including England struggle to do well in Australia as they play at deliveries which should be left alone. In Australia, because of the extra bounce, a batsman can leave deliveries on length and the top-order batsmen did that very well in the second innings. It just shows that here is a team which is ready to learn from its mistakes as in the first innings few of the batsmen chased deliveries which could have been left alone. It also shows that by playing three warm-up games, England have got acclimatised to the conditions in Australia.

The middle-order consisting of KP, Colly and Bell didn't get the chance to bat on a featherbed in the second innings, but I was impressed by what I saw of Bell and KP in the first innings. KP has come under pressure for not doing well in the last 18-20 months, but his knock of 43 runs in the first innings was promising. Having watched him bat for a longtime, the feeling I got was, KP was playing on the move which didn't help him to get into a good position. KP has a exaggerated shuffle and when he isn't in form, he tends to play on the move and gets into a tangle. During his knock of 43 in the first innings, he was getting into a good position which is a positive sign for him and England. KP was also getting a decent stride forward. At his best, KP gets a decent forward  and if it is on the shorter side, he has shown that he can just about rock back onto the back-foot to pull. It isn't just about him looking good at the crease though, as it is high time that he gets a century to silence his critics.

Ian Bell was the best batsman on show for England in the first innings.  Bell finally seems to believe that he can succeed at the highest level and I also liked it when I saw that Bell was just caressing it and not trying to over-hit the ball. Bell has never been a power-hitter, but in the past he had a habit of trying to smash the cover off the ball instead of relying on his forte, which is timing. Colly flopped in the first innings as Australia exploited the weakness of Colly closing the face and edging it to the slips, or the keeper. The problem isn't as huge as what many make it out to be as at his best, he tends to leave lots of deliveries just outside the off-stump and waits for the bowler to bowl on his pads. The plan has worked perfectly for Colly, but against some teams like Australia, he has tended to poke at deliveries just outside the off-stump and get out. If he plays within his limitations and doesn't chase at deliveries outside the off-stump, he can comeback to form.

Wicket-keeper


I have never been a fan of Prior as a keeper, but I have to admit that his keeping was top-class in the first test at Brisbane. He has no doubt improved as a wicket-keeper and has silenced most of his critics. Prior  made a duck with the bat in hand, but to be fair to him he got a good delivery from Siddle which swung late.

The bowlers


Leaving the luckless Anderson, none of the bowlers were good, but they didn't get the chance to bowl when there was a bit more help in the pitch on the first day. Of course, Anderson was the best bowler on show as he rarely strayed in line and made the batsmen play more often than not. Luck though deserted him as even after beating the bat about 25 times, he couldn't get more than a couple of wickets. Even a plumb lbw was turned down by Dar. Actually, I don't know what more should he do to take wickets in Australia. The only reason behind his lack of success in the first test can be, Anderson swings it late and as a result he keeps beating the bat. Hopefully he will get some luck at Adelaide as that pitch doesn't have much bounce which in turn may help Anderson to get few batsmen lbw, or bowled.

As far as rest of the attack is concerned, Broad continues to test middle of the pitch and wasn't penetrative enough, Finn was ok, when he bowled a fuller length, but he has to work on his bouncer. Hussey took full advantage of all those half-trackers that Finn bowled and made 195. In the past, bowlers like Powell, Nel, Ntini, Morkel and co. have got Huss out on the pull as he mainly pulls on the front-foot, but all of them bowled their bouncers head high which made it difficult for Huss to play the pull shot. Finn is said to be a quick learner, so hopefully he can improve on his bouncer. There was a lot of hype surrounding England's lone spinner Swann, but Swann was disappointing as he bowled short. To be frank though, it isn't easy for a spinner to take wickets on Australian tracks.

England in the field


England's fielding and tactics were passable. Yes, when Australia were on top, the wheels seemed to have come off as Anderson made a complete mess of what should have been an easy catch, but the slip catching as well as Strauss's captaincy wasn't bad. In the recent past, I have been critical of Strauss as a captain, but unlike Punter, Strauss seems to be growing in his role as a captain. For instance, I liked it when he tried to block Katich's leg glance by bringing a leg slip. Katich is very strong on the on-side and may not get out, but by placing a fielder at leg slip, Strauss would force Katich to be a bit more cautious of playing the leg glance in the upcoming tests. It also encourages the bowler to attack his stumps. A few may criticise him for declaring England's innings on the last day as both Trott and Cook were sending the Australian fielders on a leather hunt, but with England about 300 runs ahead and only a few overs left, there wasn't anything wrong  in declaring the innings.

The next test would be played at Adelaide and usually it is a bowlers graveyard on the first two days. The pitch may turn on the fifth day, but both teams need to look at ways to get twenty wickets. England shouldn't get carried away as even though they have escaped from what looked like a certain defeat at fortress Gabba, the fact remains that series is still 0-0. Australia on the other hand, still don't seem to be  sure about what their best side is. It is very difficult to predict the outcome of the series as both are evenly matched sides, but I would stick to my earlier prediction that England may win a closely contested series as the bowling attack of Anderson, Broad, Finn and Swann looks slightly better.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What is wrong with Sami?


If we look back at the history of cricket, it can be seen that talent alone isn't enough to succeed at the highest level which is test cricket, but a cricketer needs a good temperament as well. Over the years, we have seen numerous cricketers, who have shown enormous potential, but just couldn't make it big in international cricket. One such immensely talented cricketer, who hasn't been able to succeed at the highest level is Sami.  A few cricket fans may say that he has been a victim of the revolving door policy that Pakistan cricket is famous for, but  if a bowler averages over 50 after playing in 35 tests, then he too has to take some of the blame for not performing up-to his potential.

If I think about Sami, I would ask to myself what he doesn't have as a bowler? He has a bustling run-up and a whippy action, can be deceptively quick and can get late swing with both the new and the old ball. Sami  is more of a hustler, who can surprise the batsman for a bit of pace. Unfortunately though, in-spite of having the required skills to succeed as a quick bowler, he has flopped miserably in test cricket.

Sami's career


If I have to track Sami's early career, I would have to go as far back as 2000/01, when a wiry 20 year old burst onto the scene with a eight wicket haul in his debut test in the land of long white cloud and helped Pakistan to win that test. In-fact, when Pakistan toured England in 01, there was a lot of hype surrounding Sami and the feeling was Pakistan have unearthed another top quality fast bowler. Akram though, couldn't pronounce his name correctly as he talked about how much potential a young bowler called Mohammad Salim  has. Jokes apart, he didn't play in that series yet, everyone believed that a star was born.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, he has rarely ever performed for them since that debut test in New Zealand. Yes, against his favourite opponents the Kiwis, he once more got a five wicket haul in 03, but other than that he hasn't got any other five wicket haul to his name in test cricket! Recently in Australia, he produced one decent spell in the first innings at Sydney albeit in helpful conditions, but was back to his old ways in the second innings. I may defend him by saying that Sami was excellent when he played CC for Sussex in 03, but if I do that I must be scraping the barrel!  Pakistan's selectors though, haven't learnt their lesson as they have recalled him back for the series against South Africa. I realise that with Asif and Ameer suspended, they are struggling to find decent bowlers, but there should be someone, who has a bit of talent and can play for Pakistan. Pakistan's selectors  are just wasting their time by selecting a bowler who averages over 50.

It is hard to explain why would a bowler as talented as Sami averages over 50, but I would give it a try. 


1) Discipline- The greatest bowlers in the history of the game always have great control as they rarely lose their line or length.  Sami though, struggles to keep it tight and even maintain a modicum of pressure. Nowadays, I don't have to watch Sami bowl as I know that a particular over that Sami bowls would contain couple of good deliveries followed up by a few leg stump half volleys and a short and wide delivery. Sami always comes across as a bowler, who tries to bowl a jaffa. Every bowler loves it, when a ball pitches on the leg-stump and hits top of off-stump, but such deliveries can be produced once in a blue-moon. The lack of discipline in his bowling has meant that even in bowler friendly conditions like in England, he has struggled to take wickets. In-fact, modern day bowlers seem to lack the discipline to take wickets as most of them get frustrated as soon as they beat the bat a few times.

2)Trying to match Shoaib for pace- I also have a gut feeling that whenever Akthar plays, Sami tries his best to match him for pace and as a result lose his line and length. I can remember Sami trying to consistently hit over 90mph in Australia in 04/05 as Akthar was bowling at the pace of wind and even in a few series against England and India around that time Sami tried to bowl quicker and lost the plot. I have never thought of Sami as a out and out quick bowler. In my opinion, he is more of a hustler, who can surprise the batsman for a bit of pace. Sami is perhaps at his best, when he bowls around 87-88 mph as when he tries to bowl quicker, he loses his control, tends to bowl with a scrambled seam and can't get the late swing for which he is famous for.

Fans and experts may give about million more reasons for his failures yet, it would remain a mystery that a bowler of Sami's skills averages over 50 in test cricket. Finally, it again shows that to succeed at the highest level, just talent isn't enough, but it also requires temperament and sadly from Pakistan's point of view,  Sami doesn't have it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ashes 2010/11- Sydney cricket ground


A few months ago, I did promise that I would look at the various cricket grounds in Australia. So today, I would like to share my views about  the Sydney cricket ground, or more famously known as SCG. The Sydney cricket ground situated in the Moore park in the city's east has a rich history and tradition as cricket has been played on that ground for more than 150 years now. Every year, the match at Sydney is known as the new year's test as it is played at the start of every year on either Jan. 2nd or 3rd. The ground has  been graced by many great players and  it is a witness to some of the classic tests ever played.

History of cricket at Sydney


To encapsulate the history of Sydney cricket ground in a few lines is a near impossible task yet, I would like to write in brief about the beautiful Sydney cricket ground. It is amazing and may even sound untrue to cricket fans, but the fact is, once upon a time, the SCG was a rubbish dump before it got transformed into one of cricket's major centres. The interesting part is, it was known as garrison ground.  It was only in 1924, did it came to be known as Sydney cricket ground.

As the years went by, the ground was developed by the administrators and by the time the first test was played in 1882,  already two grandstands could be seen. Two spectators mounds were also built  in 1886.  If we think about the developments that have taken place, one of the key point to notice is, the relationship between the trust and the New South Wales cricket board has always been strained which in turn has affected the development of Sydney cricket ground.

Nowadays, the hill, or more famously known as the Yabba Hill is sadly not there at the Sydney ground  instead we can see O'Reilly, Noble and the Walters stands.  The ladies pavilion is still there, but the disappearance of the Yabba hill and the outfield not looking as lush as it used to be, would perhaps make a cricket fan think that Sydney cricket ground has lost some of its sheen .

Conditions at the Sydney cricket ground


Historically, the Sydney cricket ground has been a good track for batting and more than a few huge scores have been made. Bradman's magnificent knock of 452 not out came on this very ground. The pitch has tended to help spinners on the fourth and fifth day yet, spinners have had to work hard for their wickets. With so many tests being played at SCG,  there have been a few exceptions, but the track is generally good for batting with the spinners coming into play on the final two days of the match. For instance, in a bid to stop the rampaging West Indies from winning every test, the Aussies prepared a  rank bad turner in 88/89. It surely helped a part-timer like Border to take a 10 wicket haul as Australia achieved their objective of winning the test. It is another matter altogether that Aussies still couldn't stop the great Malcolm Marshall from taking yet another five wicket haul on what was said to be a spinners paradise! In 02/03, the pitch became a minefield on the fifth day and it helped all sorts of bowlers.  Both in 99/00 and in 09/10, there was too much sideways movement on the first two days mainly thanks to incessant rain.

As expected, Shane Warne has enjoyed the conditions at Sydney by taking 64 wickets, but his bowling average of 28 shows that it isn't a piece of cake to take wickets on that pitch. In-fact, Stuart Macgill has a better strike rate and even a better average than Warne. In the recent past, few subcontinental spinners have occasionally found success like Mushie in 95/96, or Kumble in 03/04 and again in 07/08.

Now, it doesn't mean that faster men won't get any encouragement from the surface at Sydney. I have always felt that Sydney is one ground in Australia, where the new ball can swing albeit just for a few overs. Hoggy got the new ball to swing at Sydney in 02/03 and even at his lowest ebb Anderson found some swing in 06/07 and got three wickets. A few cracks can also open up which in turn can help the taller bowlers to hit those cracks and get variable bounce. The Windies bowlers of the past like Wambrose  (Ambrose and Walsh) were very good at hitting the cracks that would open up. The canny Fannie De Villiers did the same on a great day for the Saffers as they were able to defeat Australia at Sydney in 93/94 by just five runs.  I am not too keen on including the heroics of Caddick in 02/03 as that became a minefield on the last day.

A few keen observers of Sheffield Shield may argue that track at Sydney has flattened out, but I don't think that is the case when it comes to test cricket. Yes, when I look at the 2009/10 Sheffield Shield season, I can at least think of five scores of over 400 at Sydney, but I have always thought the wickets prepared for test matches have a bit of life in it. This year there have been more than a few low scores all over Australia  because of overcast conditions. Just yesterday, Tasmania won a low scoring game in which neither Tasmania nor New South Wales were able to get even 200 runs. No one can predict though, whether the conditions will remain the same when the test match would be played at Sydney.

England at Sydney 


First the good news, unlike some of the other grounds in Australia, England have managed to win a test  at Sydney in the last twenty years. The victory came in 02/03, but unfortunately it was a dead rubber. The pitch at Sydney in 02/03 was a bit strange as it became unplayable on the last day with huge cracks being visible. I still remember a young Harmison getting Martin Love with a delivery that didn't even reach the height of the batsman's knees which was followed up by Caddick getting a delivery to bounce awkwardly and Gilly could only feather a edge to the keeper. Caddick enjoyed bowling on that surface as he took a ten wicket haul.

In 94/95, England held the upper-hand thanks to the wholehearted efforts of Gough. First with the bat, he slogged a fifty and followed it up with a five wicket haul in helpful conditions. Australia though, were able to draw that match as the spin twins Warne and May came to their rescue not with the ball, but interestingly by batting for more than 20 overs on the last day. In 98/99, Australia were in a spot of bother in the first innings before the younger Waugh played another of his special knocks and it was followed up by Slater butchering the bowling in the second innings as England crashed to another defeat in Australia. I don't think I have to say much about what happened during England's ill fated Ashes campaign in 06/07!

If I think about England's strategy at Sydney, first and foremost, I do hope that team management won't fall into the trap of going with two spinners. Only if a team has two decent spinners, both spinners should play. Yes, someone may point out to me that Hemmings and Tufnell were successful at the same venue back in 90/91 as they took eight wickets between them in the second innings, but generally it isn't a good strategy. A few may even point to the fact that Monty is a decent spinner, but batsmen nowadays play him better as they have realised that he doesn't have an arm ball and doesn't really flight the ball. Of course, Swann would be a key bowler, especially in the second innings. I won't like to bore everyone again by saying that how effective he can be against all those lefthanders Australia have.

When it come to the quickies, the taller bowlers like Broad, Finn, or Tremlett may come in handy in the second innings as the pitch may deteriorate and there maybe a few cracks to aim at. Jimmy Anderson would likely get a bit of swing with the new ball and may get the older ball to reverse as the surface at Sydney isn't as lush as it used to be.

For the bowlers to succeed, the batsmen though have to do well on a track that is usually good for batting. Even if England don't win the toss, I don't think Strauss would be too perturbed as there is no Macgill, or Warne in the opposition ranks. The batsmen surely won't lose their sleep by thinking about the likes of Hauritz, Doherty, Smith, or Keefe. If the conditions are overcast, it would be a different ball game altogether and in that case Strauss may elect to bowl first.

Australia at Sydney


It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, if I say that Australia have been almost invincible at Sydney in the last decade. During that period they have won ten matches, lost one and drew one game. In-fact, Australia have won all their last seven matches including the recently concluded controversial tests against India in 07/08 and Pakistan in 09/10 respectively. Yes, Pakistan had a chance to defeat a slightly weaker Australian team this year, but Pakistan's captain Yousuf set some strange fields and gifted the match to Australia.

One has to go back to the early 90's, when Australia found it difficult to win matches and were able to only draw them. Between 89/90 to 95/96, they drew five games and lost couple of games, but didn't win anything. A few of those games were played, when Warne wasn't yet playing for Australia. Warne made his debut at Sydney in 91/92, but the Indian batsmen made a inexperienced spinner look ordinary. The couple of losses can be attributed to outstanding spells bowled by De Villiers in 93/94 and Mushie in 95/96 respectively. The games played by Australia in the early 90's is perhaps a better indicator about how Australia may do this time around as once the likes of Warne and Macgill began to weave their magic, Aussies almost became invincible at Sydney.

From Australia's point of view, it is imperative that if not as a wicket-taker, their spinner would at least do the holding job by drying up the runs. Among the seamers, Bollinger can do well as he is good at reversing the older ball. Hilfenhaus may swing the new ball and cause some problems. More than their bowling, the batting seems to be a bigger problem as most of their batsmen aren't in good form.

Finally, looking at both the squads, one can predict that unlike the recent past, the series would be alive when both teams travel to Sydney for the final test. As a cricket aficionado, I do hope that is the case as dead rubbers can get boring to watch.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Having a look at Tremlett and Shahzad


Today, when England met Australia A at Hobart, there was action packed cricket with wickets going down at regular intervals, counter attack by Steve Smith and of course, the day's play would be remembered for Monty taking a fine catch. I would just like to share my views on the day's play.

Pitch conditions


The pitch at Hobart is usually slow and as the game progresses, it can help the spinners to get a bit of turn, but today I was shell shocked, when I saw exaggerated sideways movement. From the few matches I have seen at Hobart, I do understand that there would be times when the conditions can get overcast, but I was surprised by the amount of grass on the wicket and there seemed to be too much moisture underneath the surface.

Seamers


1) Shahzad- Every-time I see the young seamer from the White Rose county bowl, I feel that he has improved. Today, he bowled a great spell with the new ball and should have ended with a five wicket haul. Unfortunately, I didn't watch the entire first session, but from whatever I saw of his bowling, I was really impressed, as he used the helpful conditions well and bowled some jaffas which were too good for the batsmen. His ability to regularly hit the top of off-stump and make the batsmen play was a refreshing change from what most modern day bowlers do. Shahzad also has a fine bouncer and a decent leg-cutter in his armour. Yes, he lost his way a bit in his second spell, but he was no doubt the stand-out bowler of the day.

What impresses me most is that he is a quick learner. In the very first test he played against Bangladesh, just like any other debutant, he looked nervous at the start of his spell, but with the older ball, I was impressed by the fact that he was bowling it very full to utilise the abrasive nature of the pitch at Old Trafford to his advantage and get reverse swing.

2)Tremlett-The tall seamer has made a comeback into the team on the back of some consistent performances for his new county Surrey. Tremlett has been criticised for not being tough and his fitness record is poor, but he seems to have worked hard on his fitness as he did play most of the county matches for Surrey. Tremlett's  record of 48 wickets at just about 20 on those belters at Brit Oval also proves the fact that he is perhaps mentally tougher now. Any pace bowler needs a big heart as it isn't easy to run up-to the bowling crease and watch being smashed all over the park by a batsman.

Anyway, coming back to today's match, Tremlett started the day well and used the helpful conditions to his advantage. Tremlett's ability to get awkward bounce helped him to induce Hughes into edging the delivery to slips. He also bowled a fine delivery to White as it was fuller in length which in turn helped him to get a bit of swing and find the gap between bat and pad to uproot White's stumps.

In the second session though, I wasn't impressed by what I saw of Tremlett, as he banged it short and the batsmen made merry. I can't fathom why would a tall bowler like Tremlett who gets a nice shape into the righthander bowls short. It isn't rocket science that if a tall bowler consistently hits the good length spot, he won't need to bowl either quick, or bang it into pitch as the bounce he would get will be enough to catch the edge of a batsman's bat. A few may argue that by bowling short, he got rid of both Paine and the tailender Cameroon, but the delivery he bowled to Paine was down the leg-side and the tailender Cameroon played a typical agricultural slog and got out.

Tremlett is not Fred to bang it short as unlike Fred, he doesn't bowl a heavy ball. Whenever he bowls short, Tremlett rarely ever makes the batsman play. I think someone needs to remind him about what happened in the last test he played against India as Tremlett bowled short and got zero wickets for about million runs. It seems to be a sort of virus as every tall bowler, who has played for England in the recent past has got into the habit of bowling short. It includes the likes of Caddick, Harmison, Tremlett, Broad and even Freddie, though Freddie could bowl the heavy ball.

The third seamer in the attack Bresnan bowled a few good deliveries in his first spell including a peach to dismiss Ferguson, but other than that he wasn't very impressive. In the second session, when the moisture dried out a bit, he tended to bowl short and bowled at the pads of batsmen. If Bresnan  wants to become the stock bowler or more so, the all-rounder that England are looking for, he should stay away from a batsman's pads. The lone spinner in the attack, Panesar didn't had much to do on a pitch which was offering sideways movement, but he used the breeze to good effect by getting a bit of drift. He would be more remembered for the fine catch he took to dismiss Cowan. I don't know what Sussex have done with Monty, but he seems to be enjoying his fielding!

Smith's knock- The one player, who was able to show a bit of fight, though the conditions were against the batsmen and even played a few shots was Steve Smith. Smith certainly seems to have a good temperament as he played late and made a fine half century. He has a unusual stance and has a relatively high back-lift, but it seems to work for him, especially when he plays the pull shot. The bowlers though, helped him a bit by bowling short to him. It was crystal clear that with his bottom handed grip, he may struggle to play through the covers. The old trick of leaving the gap at cover open and tempting Smith to drive could have come in handy. Finally, Shahzad bowled a full delivery and got him out.

After an entertaining first day's play on a surprisingly green top, (at least going by modern standards) I am looking forward to watch how the batsmen would play on that wicket. Actually, I won't mind more such wickets being prepared as cricket fans can see a good contest between bat and ball!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Has the last wicket become achilles heel?


In cricket, a captain or the back-room staff would primarily think about plotting the downfall of batsmen in the opposition line-up,  but in modern times, it seems like lower-order batsmen are becoming a hazard for bowlers and the captain. A few may point to the fact that nowadays coaches insist that lower-order batsmen should contribute with the bat and as a result, look at ways to improve their batting, bats have become better, bowlers aren't of the same class, or the pitches have become flat yet, is it so difficult to get the last wicket?

Today, I have to give the credit to Harbhajan for his stunning counter attack on the plucky Kiwi bowlers, but at the same-time, I couldn't fathom some of the tactics that Vettori employed. Yes, when the last man Sreesanth joined Harbhajan at crease, Harby played a few stunning shots of Vettori, but I was dumbfounded by how soon the Kiwi captain panicked and fielders went scurrying to the boundary.

To be frank, I realise that it is easy to say a captain is too defensive by sitting on a chair in front of a laptop, but  some of the tactics that modern day captains employ is unfathomable. Cricket is sometimes known as a game of chess and that can be true as the captain on the field has to anticipate what a batsman would do next. Today, I felt that Vettori didn't use what is known as the brain. In-fact, it seemed like his brain became dead for the last hour of the day's play.

Strategy


If I look at the way the last pair played, I wouldn't have pushed the long-off back to Vettori as it could have tempted Harbie to play against the spin. Another reason why I wouldn't have pushed the long-off back is, I want the last man to play a rash shot and get out.  As Harby was playing some audacious shots it made Sreesanth to play defensively, but a captain should look to tempt  the last man to play a slog or two. If they had kept an attacking field for Harby, maybe Sreesanth would have played a rash shot or two. As soon as the captain sets a defensive field with just one wicket to fall, the better batsman would look to just take the odd risk and the last man would look to defend everything and a wicket won't fall. The Kiwi bowlers could have tried a few more short deliveries and the odd yorker to dismiss Sreesanth. I would also have a silly point for Harby as I would like to get under the skin of Harby and force him to play an audacious shot which is beyond even his range of stroke-play. Unfortunately, there isn't anyone like Mark Taylor around and such tactics would never be tried.

Sydney fiasco and the blunder at Oval


It isn't the first time either when captains have got defensive with the team needing just a few wickets to wrap up the innings. Recently at Sydney, Hussey scored a century with the tailenders supporting him. Hussey did play a fine knock under pressure, but the opposition captain Yousuf seemed to be intent on gifting him a birthday present. Yousuf spread the field and as expected, Huss started taking easy singles and in between was hitting the odd boundary. The tailenders at the other end, just defended everything. It happened at Oval too, when Azhar Ali added crucial runs with the last man. In the end, Pakistan won a close match, but if Strauss was a bit more attacking, it could have been a different story altogether as both Ali and the last man Asif added crucial 30-40 runs. The virus of setting defensive fields didn't end there as in the last test at Lord's, Strauss set defensive fields for Umar Akmal, though England were million runs ahead and just needed one wicket for victory! Why would anyone do that especially with Umar Akmal being known for playing reckless shots? Any captain should tempt Umar to play more reckless shots and what makes it more interesting is the fact  that England were coasting to an easy victory.

Finally, I do agree that Harbhajan played a stunning knock. His timing was impeccable, he played late and played some audacious shots, but Vettori seemed to be treating him as  the re-incarnation of Gilbret Jessop.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Celebration of West Indies cricket-Cricket classics


When I was first introduced to the game of cricket, I felt it was a boring game which is played over five days and it looked  silly, when I realised that even after five days a result may not be possible. So, what made me fall in love with the game? I have to thank the Calypso kings for that as their game just captivated my imagination and made me a cricket aficionado. The cricketers, who played for the Caribbean team in that era didn't seem like they were coached to bowl with mechanical bowling actions, or were the batsmen seemed to have gone through the MCC coaching manuel day and night to improve their technique, but they played a instinctive brand of cricket. The bowlers would bowl fast and if the ball was there to be hit, the batsmen would smash the cover off the ball. I still remember the days when commentators would be dumbfounded by Richards playing across the line on a pitch with sideways movement, or who can forget all those glares by fast bowlers which seemed to suggest that if the batsman wouldn't get out, he may have to soon find a place in the hospital.

So for the next few days, I would  look at  the  glory days of West Indies cricket and certain issues which are affecting the game of cricket in West Indies. Today, I would look at the glory days of West Indies cricket by writing an article on the very first match played between West Indies and South Africa at Bridgetown Barbados in 1992.


Backdrop

It was a historic day for cricket as for the first time, the Saffers were playing  the West Indies. After finding themselves isolated due to apartheid, the Saffers had just made a comeback into the test arena . Yes, they did play the World cup in 92 and a one-day series against India, but it was the first test match they were playing since the ban was lifted. It was funny to see 10 of the 11 players in a team making their test debut! The only player, who had previous experience of playing test cricket was Kepler Wessels  as he had already played for the men from down under.

Just before the test match, there was an interesting development of Barbados cricket fans deciding to boycott the game. Now, you may think that it was because of West Indies playing a side made up of white players from South Africa, but that wasn't the reason for the boycott. The real reason was, the fans were upset that there weren't too many players from Barbados and the selectors made them more angry by dropping Anderson Cummins of Barbados.

Selection issues
West Indies

The main issue was of course the dropping of Cummins. In his place, Walsh made a comeback into the side after being dropped from the West Indian side for the World cup in 91/92. The reason for Walsh being dropped for the WC  was he couldn't field! It wasn't like Cummins was  Jonty, Junior, or Colly to be selected for his fielding alone and when it comes to bowling, he won't be able to hold even a candle in front of Walsh. In an interview, the modern day great batsman SRT even said that sometimes he found Walsh more difficult to face than Amby as his action was such that he struggled to pick the length. No wonder, Walsh went onto take 77 wickets at just 20 on the barren tracks of the subcontinent. The Windies selectors had other ideas as they picked Cummins for the WC as he could field!! Thankfully, the selectors dropped Cummins and gave Walsh a chance against South Africa. The people of Barbados though, didn't take the non-selection of Cummins lightly and boycotted the match.

Adams made his debut in the match for West Indies. I hated Adams as a batsman, as his batting was ugly to watch, but early in his career, he played more than a few vital knocks and even in this test, he played a crucial knock in the second innings. A few even touted him as the next Larry Gomes, but unfortunately after tasting success early in his career, Adams lost his way.


South Africa


For the Saffers, test cricket was a new experience as leaving Kepler Wessels, none of them had test match experience. Cricketers like Kuiper, Peter Kirsten, Donald and co. had already played lots of fc cricket yet, because of apartheid, they missed out on playing test cricket.

The South African line-up was on expected lines, though a few eyebrows may have been raised when Meyrick Pringle's name was seen on the team sheet. He could occasionally swing the ball like a banana,  but also had the tendency to bowl rubbish. Snell was another inconsistent bowler who got picked in the side, but he could occasionally be a wicket-taker. The Saffers could have gone for the present coach Corrie Zyl as he was said to be a bit more consistent than Pringle or if available, the tearaway quick Schultz, but instead they went with Pringle.


West Indies's first innings


South Africa won the toss and surprisingly chose to field. In the 90's, the pitch at Barbados was still quick, but what made the strip for this match more interesting was its unevenness. Most would have expected the team that would win the toss to bat first as it was never going to be easy to face Amby and Walsh on a crumbling pitch on the last day, but perhaps Wessels wasn't sure about batting first as he had a team which lacked test match experience.

West Indies made a good start in their first innings with Haynes, Simmons, Arthurton and Richardson getting useful scores, but the Windies lost six wickets for just 20 odd runs and were bundled out for just 262 runs. The West Indies line-up also included a certain player by the name Brian Charles Lara. He played couple of glorious shots through the off-side, but those were the days, when he was too flashy and as expected threw his wicket away. Snell showed that he maybe inconsistent, but can take wickets as he took a four wicket haul. The White lightning supported him well by taking couple of wickets.

South Africa's first innings


South Africa's reply was led by the gutsy Hudson as he made a magnificent century against the fury of Walsh and Amby on a wearing pitch. Hudson was said to be a religious man, but on a cricket field, he had unflappable temperament which in turn helped him to tackle menacing fast bowlers like Walsh and Ambrose in his debut test. Kepler Wessels gave him good support, but other batsmen found it diffcult to handle the uneven bounce in the pitch. The key point though is, they got a vital first innings lead of more than 80 runs. On a pitch that was deteriorating quickly, it was a very handy lead.


West Indies's second innings


Lara showed his class by getting a vital half century, but the rest couldn't support him and soon the Windies looked dead and buried as they were eight wickets down, but had a lead of just over 100 runs. It needed someone to play out of his skin against the likes of Donald and co. It was the perfect opportunity for a gutsy player like  Adams to come to the party. Adams played really well as he added crucial runs with the tailenders and finally, the Windies set a target of just over 200 runs.  Watching Adams bore everyone with a bat in hand would make me think of how on earth did the selectors pick Adams? The side was made up of Bajans, who could play attractive cricket, but here was a man, who was a scrapper and would drive away the spectators. It doesn't mean that I didn't rate him as a player, but  in a team made up of players with flair, he was the odd man out.


South Africa's second innings

Nowadays, a target of 201 may look rather easy, but those were the days when Amby and Walsh or more famously known as Wambrose were still around and the pitch was getting more and more uneven.  The Saffers lost couple of early wickets including that of Hudson,  but the two veterans in the side Wessels and Peter Kirsten took the Saffers closer to a famous victory as at the end of the fourth day, they were well placed at 122 for the loss of just two wickets. Both batsmen had to work very hard to get their runs and it can be seen by the fact that they scored their runs at a snail's pace against some incisive bowling by Wambrose.

The last day

The interesting story before the final day's play was, the Saffer bowler Pringle got so over-confident that he said to Lara, tomorrow after winning the match, there would be a huge party. Lara replied to him by saying that I do hope you won't have to bat to hit the winning runs, but yet again Pringle showed his over-confidence by saying that he wouldn't be needed to hit the winning runs. Now, he must be in hibernation as at that time everyone knew that with Amby and Walsh around, any score could be defended. Moreover, there was no need to wake up couple of sleeping lions from deep slumber.

Wicket-keeper Richardson on Pringle's over-confidence,

"Meyrck Pringle even bought a few bottles of champagne in anticipation of the win. When we fond this out, he was admonished for his over-confidence and the bottles were banished from the view, we ended up giving them to the West Indies team in the end" Cricinfo

Pringle's comments seemed to have woken up both Walsh and Amby as they stepped up a gear and that was the end of South Africa! Not a single loose delivery was bowled as they kept hitting the top of off-stump. The pitch was playing tricks on batsmen too, as more than a few deliveries were keeping low. The Saffer batsmen had no answer to it as they fell like a pack of cards. Finally, poor Pringle came to the crease and I am sure the Windies would have said a few words to him. I am also sure that batsmen who faced the Wambrose combination must have had nightmares of both bowling to them for a long time. Amby picked up six wickets and Walsh four as the Saffers were bundled out for the just 148 runs. Astonishingly, eight wickets fell for just 26 runs. Among the bowlers, Amby picked up couple more wickets than Walsh, but I would like to point out that it was Walsh, who started it all by removing both the overnight batsmen Wessels and Kirsten. Whenever I think of Walsh, I always feel that he was a touch underrated as unlike so many fast bowlers which includes Amby, he constantly played on barren tracks of the subcontinent and got lots of wickets. Of course, Amby was more deadly, but he could be moody.

It was no doubt a great test match, though unfortunately the match was played in front of empty stands as the fans boycotted the match. The Saffers were shell shocked by the defeat and that was perhaps the reason behind them getting slaughtered 3-0 in the one-day series. The one off test also showed that West Indies still have a good team and in that test they also played with the kind of flair that was usually associated with the men from the Caribbean. The match also showed a sporting wicket would help in producing edge of the seat matches. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dementieva's shock retirement


In the past few weeks, I have been concentrating on writing articles on cricket. Today though, I would like to write an article on Dementieva's retirement. Since the time I saw the sad news of Dementieva's retirement, I have been thinking about writing an article on her, and  finally I got the time to write the article.

First glimpses of Dementieva 

Dementieva made her debut around 95/96, but she made a impact for the first time only in 2000, when she won a few matches in all the grand slams she entered. Yes, a few tennis fans may say that her breakthrough year was  in 99 itself, as if I remember correctly, she made a comeback from behind to beat Venus Williams in a Fed cup match. In 2000 though, she didn't just win more matches than what she did in 99, but she was able to break into the top 20 in the rankings. I vaguely even remember the young lass getting a silver medal in the 2000 Olympics at Athens. Dementieva lost the final to Venus Williams in the Olympics, but her court coverage was exemplary, though it was very much evident that her serve was a weak link in her game as sometimes she wasn't even finishing her service action. In the years to come, every player would target her weak serve and that would stop her from winning majors.

Rise of Dementieva

It was in 2004, when it looked like Dementieva would finally be able to fulfill the promise that she showed during the early years of her career. At the 2004 French open, she played sparkling tennis and  reached the final of the French open, but lost out to the unheralded Myskinia. During the final, it became crystal clear that her service would stop her from winning majors. At the US open in 04, she yet again reached the final, but only to lose against her good friend Kuznetsova.

Golden opportunity missed

As the years went by, she started to slide in the rankings, but she had a good year in 2008 which helped her to get back into the top 10 in the rankings. What impressed me most during that year was Dementieva seemed to have worked day and night to improve her serve and as a result she was serving better. It just shows that she was a thorough  professional and always demonstrated the commitment and work ethic required to succeed in tennis.

The improvements in her game helped her to reach a career high ranking of three in 09. It was in 09 itself that she had a golden opportunity to upset the apple-cart against Serena Williams at the Wimbledon championships. I would even say that match between Serena and Dementieva was as good as any match I have watched at Wimbledon. I would have no hesitation in rating that match  on par with the match between Graf and Sanchez at Wimbledon in 95. In that epic match played at Wimbledon, Dementieva took the first set and it even looked like she may win it in straight sets, but Williams battled hard to win the second set to take the match to the decider. In the final set, both played like their lives were depended on it and hit winner after winner. In-fact, Dementieva came close to winning the match a few times and was even able to get  a match point or two, but Serena is a one tough competitor, who has a never say die attitude which in the end, helped her to win the match. In-fact, I haven't seen too many players, who have been mentally tougher then Serena in the women's game. It was also the only time I backed Dementieva to win the elusive slam that was missing from her trophy cabinet, but my prediction bombed lol.

Actually, during that time she played a few great matches against Serena which includes the Australian open semifinal in 09. Yes, Serena won that match in straight sets, but for most part of that match, Dementieva matched Serena shot for shot and even led the second set by a break, but Serena again proved to be too powerful for our poor Dementieva.

Dementieva's retirement

2010 was a up and down year for our Dementieva. This year can be best described by her game against the serve and volleyer Stosur in the US open. Dementieva in that match played some brilliant shots, but also made lots of un-forced errors and in the end, lost the match. Throughout this year she was inconsistent and in the WTA tour finals held in Doha, her game went to pieces. She was troubled by an ankle injury throughout the tournament and looked a pale shadow of her former self as she won only one match. Immediately after the WTA tour championships, she announced her retirement and that ended the career of one of the game's most consistent players.

Dementieva's signature shot

Dementieva's main strength was her court coverage and in my opinion, her signature shot was the forehand winner she would hit on the run. Most players knew that with her excellent court coverage Elena could hit a forehand winner even when she was on the defensive.

Dementieva won't go down into the history books as one of the greats of the game, as she never won a major, but by winning six WTA tour titles and by consistently  reaching the later stages of majors, she would be surely remembered as one of the most consistent players on the tour. Just like any other tennis fan, I would wish her all the best for her post retirement life.

Finally, her good friend Kuznetsova on twitter,

" I  will stay in touch with her! Best wishes to Elena! hope to see her kids soon!!! Lol"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Malinga is special


Nowadays, I feel like I am not enjoying the game of cricket anymore. When I watched champions league, I felt like Leonardo da Vinci was applying whitewash to my house as  batsmen with those big bats were playing agricultural slogs and the bowlers seemed to be clones, who have mechanical bowling actions. Of course, the media is there to glorify every slog, or even a decent spell. Just a couple of days ago, I saw comments like Martin's spell was one of the best ever on subcontinental pitches. Thankfully though, there are still few cricketers, who have great skills and a cricket aficionado would pay to watch them play. In my opinion, one such special cricketer is Srilanka's Slinga Malinga.

If I think about bowlers, I would say that unlike Donald or Warne, Malinga isn't a purists delight, he doesn't get the pulse racing like the Rawalpindi express would do and he is neither going to find a place among the pantheon of great bowlers as with the amount of stress he puts on his body would mean that he may not last long yet, for the unique brand of cricket he plays and his refreshing attitude makes him a special cricketer.

Malinga's action

If not for anything else, his action itself makes him a special cricketer.  I saw him bowl for the first time about five years ago and I almost fell off my chair as he had a very slingy side arm action. In the recent past, there have been bowlers with slingy actions, but none as slingy as Malinga.

 Just like most kids would do in the serene and beautiful emerald Isle of Srilanka, he took up the game of cricket. He grew up playing cricket with a tennis ball on the sand beaches and coconut grooves of a river in his village. I think the key point to consider is, Malinga playing with a tennis ball. In subcontinent, playing cricket with a tennis ball is popular and quite a few fast bowlers including the great Younis grew up playing cricket with a tennis ball. Playing with a tennis ball would mean that a bowler has to bowl quick, otherwise he would disappear into the orbit. Playing with a tennis ball perhaps forced Malinga to bowl fast and develop a slingy action.

Over the years, I have found it very difficult to explain Malinga's action still I would give it a try! When he hits the crease, his hips would be side-on, but is able to straighten it. He almost releases the ball in front of a umpire's chest. I have sympathy for the batsmen who face him as it must be very hard to pick a bowler bowling at 140mph and with a side arm action like Malinga. In-fact, in a series in New Zealand, Fleming even told the umpires to change their  uniform as they couldn't pick him! What  makes Malinga really special is his ability to consistently bowl those toe-crushing yorkers. A bowler with his action  would likely struggle for consistency,  but the reality is at present there is none better than Malinga, when it comes to bowling yorkers.

Malinga at his best


Now, let us look at some of Malinga's devastating spells.


Srilanka v South Africa- The 2007 WC was the most boring of all the world cups I have watched, but our man Malinga was able to liven up the proceedings in the match against the Saffers. Malinga produced a great spell as he took four wickets in four deliveries with toe-crushing yorkers and well disguised slower deliveries. If not for our man, the match wouldn't have had its fair share of hitchcockian twists as the Saffers were cruising to a victory with plenty of wickets in hand, but suddenly they were shell shocked by Malinga's devastating spell and found themselves nine down. Yes, in the end, the Saffers won the match by just one wicket, but Malinga's toe-crushing yorker to Ntini would be etched in my memory.

India v Srilanka - Due to injury problems Malinga didn't play test cricket for sometime, but thankfully made a comeback to play in the test match against India at Galle. Malinga immediately made an impact by taking a five wicket haul and helped Lanka to win the test. He is said to have bowled just three deliveries and they were the yorker, the bouncer and the slower delivery but his pace, his unique action and his great control over all those three deliveries was too hot to handle for the Indian batsmen. I have always felt that experts think too much about his yorker and underrate the other weapon in his armour, the bouncer. A batsman may get away with a few bouncers against a normal bowler as few of  them would be too high and the batsman can also sway from the line, but with Malinga having a very slingy action and him being hard to pick would make a batsman feel like he is living  in hell.

Of course, one can also think of his devastating spells against England at home in 07/08, his match winning spell at Wellington in New Zealand in 06 and all those match winning spells in T/20 cricket.

Malinga's batting


Yes, Malinga is a tailender, but I really enjoyed the carefree spirit with which he played against the Ozzies a few days back at Melbourne. The Lankans were staring down the barrel, but Malinga used the long handle very well to help Lanka snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. What impressed me most was, even though the bowlers kept beating him and he almost got bowled on numerous occasions, Malinga still kept leaving all his three stumps and continued to play those agricultural hoicks.

 I would like to say that Malinga isn't a special cricketer just for his skills as a bowler, but I have never seen him sledge. If a batsman gets beaten, he just gives a wry smile and goes back to his mark. It has made me call him the smiling assassin. I would also like to give credit to the Lankan system for not looking to tinker the game of unorthodox cricketers like Malinga. I am sure, if Malinga was born  in Australia, England, or in the Safferland, he wouldn't have even played fc cricket. Yes, Malinga may not last long as the amount of stress he puts on his body may result in  injuries which would shorten his career, but he is one of the few cricketers that I am willing to pay to watch on a cricket field.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Williamson shows his class


When I wrote an article for the first time in  July, or for that matter a few days back about Williamson's maiden one-day hundred in Bangladesh, I didn't envisage that in a few days time, I would be compelled to write another article in praise of Williamson. Yes, since the time I saw him bat in the under 19 world cup in Malaysia,  I have been eagerly awaiting for him to make his debut as he came across as a batsman, who has the potential to succeed at the highest level yet, I don't think anyone could have envisaged him getting his first one-day hundred as well as playing out more than couple of sessions on the slow wickets in India at the age of just 20.

Today, Williamson and Ryder showed exemplary technique and also great temperament to play out more than two sessions on a slow track at Ahmadabad. The feature of Williamson's knock was his ability to play late, the way he used the depth of the crease and his shot selection on a slow track. All three factors are needed to succeed in the subcontinent, as  on the slow tracks of the subcontinent, it isn't easy to hit on the up. The fact though is, most batsmen who play for the first time in the subcontinent struggle, but Williamson played like he has already 50 tests under his belt. From whatever little I have seen of him, he is also a stroke-maker, but today on a slow wicket, he showed great application by waiting for the loose ball. In-fact, his shot selection resembled that of a 50 test veteran. Yes, he had a slice of luck, when he wasn't given caught behind of Zaheer's bowling, but it is India's fault that they didn't take the UDRS for the series.

Now, I won't forget Ryder's knock either as he too showed great application to play for more than two sessions and score a hundred, though I don't understand him getting a runner for just a cramp! In my opinion, the innings of the day though was by Williamson, as I have rarely seen a debutant play with such composure on a slow wicket in the subcontinent.

As far as the wicket is concerned, it is very slow and once a batsman gets in, it is hard to dislodge him. The Indian bowlers, especially the spin twins were disappointing as when they were bowling, it seemed like they were robots manufactured in a factory. Ojha has good control, but doesn't have the subtle variations that Vettori has and doesn't use the crease.  

Anyway, it is great to see a young batsman step up-to the plate and do well for the Kiwis and the Kiwis desperately needed a talented young batsman. Actually, a batting line-up of Taylor, Ryder, McCullum and Williamson looks very promising.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ashes 2010/11- The Baggy Green Cap


From the time I started following cricket, I have constantly heard about how tough it is to wear the Baggy Green cap. Anyone who was lucky enough to wear the cap really earned it. Players like Martyn, Haydos, Lehmann and co. had to score tons of runs to get into the side.  In recent times though, the Australian selection policy  has been riddled with confusion. A few younger players have got the chance to represent Australia, but  they have been discarded without being given a decent run in the side. At the same-time, players like North and Huss continue to struggle, but haven't been dropped.

Let us have a look at the number of debutants for the top teams

Since Jan 1 2008

England (37 debuts)
Tests - 12
ODIs - 11
20/20s - 14

Australia (58 debuts)
Tests - 17
ODIs - 22
20/20s - 19

South Africa (34 debuts)
Tests - 8
ODIs - 11
20/20s - 15

India( 39 debuts)
Tests- 8
ODI's -19
20/20's- 12

Srilanka( 36 debuts)
Tests- 6
ODI's-12
20/20's-18

First of all, 58 is a ridiculous number. Yes, nowadays most teams are experimenting with younger players  in the shorter versions of the game yet, when I scratch the surface and look in-depth into the Australian selection policies, there seems to be confusion.

For instance, Phil Hughes made his debut in South Africa and was successful, but as soon as he failed in a few games in the Ashes, he was dropped. Yes, he looked vulnerable against the short stuff and I do feel that he is weak against spinners too, but would it be better to invest in a young guy, who has got a very good FC record and had a good start to his test career in the Safferland, or is it better to persist with the out of form North, who is over 30 years of age? The same can be said about Khawaja, as he was picked in the squad to play against Pakistan, but wasn't even in the squad that toured India. On the other hand, Henriques got his chance to play in the shorter formats of the game last year, but unlike Hughes, Moises hadn't backed his inclusion with good performances in domestic cricket. The same can be said about Steve Smith as even now, he looks like a batsman who bowls a bit. I do agree that sometimes it is fine to pick players, who may not have a good fc record, but on the basis of their potential. The key point though is,  once they are picked, they should be given a decent run in the side.

So, are the Aussie selectors going back to the dark days of 80's? I do remember that Bob Simpson, the coach who rejuvenated the Australian side in the 80's saying that when he took over as the coach of Australian team almost 90% of the state players had played  a match for Australia. It made Simpson and  the  group of selectors at that time to pick certain players, who they thought would succeed and they were backed to the hilt.

Debutants for Australia in test cricket during the tenure of Bob Simpson as the coach( between 86 to 95/96)

Just 32 players made their debut during the time of Simpson as the coach of the side and leaving a few players like Zoerher, Dyer, Veletta, Angel, Law, Campbell, Emery and Phillips most of them got a decent run in the side.  Among the players mentioned,  I can only think of Angel, Law and maybe Zoerher who deserved a better run in the side.I always got the feeling that both Angel and Law were dropped for reasons other than their ability. One can think of Martyn and Hayden not getting a decent run, but I do believe the selectors at that time rightly dropped them as they were perhaps not mentally up-to playing test cricket. The fact though is, thanks to Simpson, selectors of that time and Border, Australia became  a superpower in cricket. The selection panel continued to take good decisions including the tough ones like axing senior players of the calibre of Waugh twins, or for that matter introducing Clarke into the test set up with a career path in mind for him.

Actually nowadays, England seem to be following the policy of what Australia used to do in the late 80's and 90's. The side has a settled look to it, but at the same-time tough decisions have been taken. For instance,  KP was axed from the one-day team. Younger players like Shahzad and Morgan may not have good fc records, but I get the feeling that the selectors have a career path in mind for Morgan and even Shahzad. Yes, it was a huge surprise to see Pattinson making his debut and the same can be said about a journeyman like Tredwell, but leaving the odd selection which have raised the eyebrows of fans and experts, most decisions seem to have a logic behind it. In-fact, even fringe players like Denly and Bopara were given a decent run in the side before they were discarded.

 During the dark days of 90's it was different, as a batsman who scored zero in his first international match would be dropped and  some journeyman will replace him. A trundler, who picked a five wicket haul on a green top would suddenly be playing test cricket. Players like Ramps, Crawley, Hick and to a lesser extant Cork, Hussain, Gough, Knight, Caddick and co. were affected by it. It got so bad that in the 89 Ashes, 29 players played for England and  in the 93 Ashes, 24 players represented England. No wonder, Australia won nine of the eleven tests played in those two series in England.

Finally, as a cricket aficionado my views on selection

1) The first point is, don't continue to have deadwood in the side. Let it be Waugh twins or Hussey,  if they don't perform, drop them. It surely hinders the progress of younger players like Hughes and Khawaja.

2) Sometimes on the basis of personal judgment, selectors can surely pick players, who may not have a great fc record like Simon Jones, Steve Smith, Trescothick, Vaughan or Morgan, but once they are picked, back them to the hilt by giving them a decent run in the side.

(For some of the stats, I would like to thank 1000 Yardstare)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ashes 2010/11- Having a look at the Australian batting line-up (part-2)


In the part 2 of the article about my views on the Australian batting line-up,  I would look at the middle-order of Australia. In the past, the Australian middle-order has been very strong and it can be even said that middle order batsmen were the backbone of the Australian batting line-up. Nowadays though, the Australian middle-order looks vulnerable and under pressure is prone to collapses.

Let us have a look at the middle-order batsmen

Clarke

When he came into the side, he was full of boyish enthusiasm and would never miss out on a opportunity to attack the bowler. As the years have gone by, Clarke has become a mature batsman, who still looks to attack, but if I compare him to how he used to bat during his early days, his shot selection has improved.

Strategies against Clarke

Just like most other attacking batsmen, he likes to free his arms. At his best, he can be a carbon copy of Slater as he looks to come forward at every opportunity to take on the quicker bowlers. The way he takes on the quicker bowlers by coming forward  is a clear indication of a batsman, who grew up playing on good wickets in Australia. Clarke is also a fine player of spin, as unlike his teammates, he uses his feet well against the spinners. The main reason for his recent success is, nowadays Clarke tries to play late and it surely helped him to succeed when he played in England.

I have already talked about similarities between Clarke and Slater, but one key difference between the two is, Slater was one of the best pullers I have ever seen. He was ready to take up the challenge against even bowlers of the calibre of Ambrose and more often than not would succeed. Clarke though, doesn't shift his weight onto the back-foot and doesn't like facing bowlers, who can hit the pitch hard and specialise in bowling back of a length stuff.

So, if I am the captain of the side, I would look at asking my main seamer to consistently bowl back of a length at Clarke. It would be better, if the seamer is good at angling it into Clarke as he doesn't like it when a bowler relentlessly targets his body. The odd bouncer can come in handy too. Just recently in India, when from nowhere Sharma suddenly found a spurt of energy, he relentlessly targeted Clarke by bringing it sharply back into the righthander and soon he got his reward by taking Clarke's wicket.

I do believe Clarke is Australia's best player of spin as he is one batsman, who is prepared to use his feet. I still feel though, he is a tad overrated against spin. Yes, just like few other fine players of spin from Australia like Martyn, or Mark Waugh, he is light on his feet, but unlike Martyn or Junior, he tends to leave his crease a fraction too early. Once a batsman does that, a bowler can change his length and trouble him. Another key point to notice is, Clarke likes to cut against the spinners which in turn would help a spinner to be in the game as if he is consistent, he can produce the edge.

Key bowlers 

Swann

One of the key contests in the Ashes would be between Clarke and Swann. Once the ball goes soft, Swann would bowl most of the overs and Clarke being a middle-order batsman, who is prepared to take on the spinners would mean that both would be up against each other more than a few times.

Last year in England, it was Clarke who won the battle hands down as Swann got him out only once. Swann  though, should remember the way he dismissed Clarke in the second innings at Lord's forever! If he wants to remember it, he can even recite it 100 times daily, but he should never forget it . It was a classic case of a batsman leaving his crease too early and Swann beating him with a bit of flight. Swann also has a under-cutter which he can use it as a weapon against Clarke. Actually, I can again see similarities with the way Slater used to play spinners as he tended to leave his crease a fraction too early.

Blogitforsix on his blog also made a excellent point about Clarke in the one-day match in India using his feet well to come to the pitch of the ball and flicking most of his shots through the on-side. Swann to counter it can  look to beat him in flight, or change the angle by going around the wicket. Clarke though, may not try that option in a test match with close-in fielders around and with Australian tracks having more bounce, it doesn't look like a percentage shot.

Clarke is someone, who is good at playing the cut shot, but it also means that Swann has another option of getting him out. The key point to note is, traditionally Australian finger spinners tend to bowl outside the off-stump and their length would be slightly shorter when compared to England's spinners. I think Swann should try to follow in the footsteps of Australian finger spinners by changing both his line and length  at least when bowling to Clarke as he can utilise the bounce on offer to produce the edge of Clarke's bat. Until now, Swann has shown that he is a clever bowler as he did change both his line and length when bowling on the bouncier tracks of South Africa. It is perhaps not related to this article, but I found it interesting that a decent  bowler like Hauritz  was made to look pathetic in India. It shows that a bowler maybe great or average, but if he continues to bowl in a similar fashion to how he would bowl at home and doesn't get accustomed to the conditions that particular bowler would flop miserably.

Broad

Broad would be my second trump card against Clarke. If he can relentlessly bowl back of a length and angle it into Clarke he can find some success. If Clarke wants to pull on the front-foot, God bless him and even if he succeeds on a few occasions, the bowler should say to him, try it again mate! The one worry is that Broad can get overexcited and bowl short all the time.

Hussey

Since he made his debut for Australia in 05, he has been a great servant of Australian cricket. Hussey's uncanny ability to come good under pressure has helped Australia to wriggle out of difficult situations more than a few times. At his best, his greatest strength is again great prowess of concentration and has a good selection of shots.

Strategies against Hussey

Huss comes across as a batsman, who likes to drive on the up. Huss just like most other batsmen shuffles across his stumps, but has a tendency to come half forward and  drives on the up. Any bowler, who consistently slants  it across him would come into play as Huss doesn't just play from the crease, but early in his innings has the habit of playing with an angled bat. Any captain should have three slips and a gully against Huss .I am not sure though, of Strauss attacking Huss early in his innings as just like most modern day captains, he is as a defensive captain.

Anyway here is a classic Huss dismissal against a delivery that slants across him,

"Steyn to Hussey, OUT, Hussey's gone for a duck! He pushes half forward at one that slants across him and gets a thick outside edge which flies low towards third slip, de Villiers dives forward and grabs it inches from the ground, terrific catch, what a fielder he is, Steyn's celebration is intense"

Hussey is yet another Australian batsman, who can be vulnerable to short pitched stuff, only if it is used as a surprise element. In-fact, in his first test itself  Daren Powell got him out by bowling a bouncer, but these days WI think-tank can be strange as they didn't use it as a weapon during the rest of that series. Saffers though, picked it up and got him out a few times with that tactic in 05/06. In-fact, when they again came to the shores of Australia in 08/09, they repeated the tactic and got his wicket three times with short pitched stuff.  His tendency to come slightly forward and not shifting his weight means that on Australian conditions, it is a good tactic to employ.

Key bowlers

Jimmy Anderson

Jimmy Anderson would be a key bowler against Huss, as he likes to angle it across a left-handed batsman. I would prefer him to bowl slightly fuller to Huss, as batsmen who tend to come half forward would keep missing it, if it is shorter in length. Actually, one of the key reasons why Huss scored about million runs in the 06/07 Ashes was because England tried around the wicket tactic and with couple of bowlers like Harmison and Freddie mainly looking to bring it back into a lefthander from around the wicket meant that line of attack became an easy meat for Huss. In the last Ashes though, the quicker bowlers bowled better and repeatedly got Huss out by angling it across him.

Another key point to consider is, Anderson likes to bowl outswingers to a right-handed batsman, but curiously bowls the away swinger to a lefthander as well. He has the stats to back it up as I have shown it in my last article that 47.5% of his wickets under Flower's regime  have been lefthanders. I tend to support Anderson here, as unlike other swing bowlers of the past like Alderman, Botham, Dev, Hoggy and Hadlee, Anderson doesn't come very close to the stumps, so when he tries the inswinger, he generally drifts into the lefthanders pads and lefthanders don't need a second invitation to flick it through the on-side. A good example can be at Johannesburg, when it seemed like due to constant pressure from Sky commentators and other journalists, he decided to bowl the inswinger to the lefthander Smith and returned back with figures of zero wickets for about hundred runs. If Anderson has to listen to someone, it is the fast bowling guru Holding and he is the only one among the sky commentators, who keeps saying that Anderson should continue to angle it across a lefthander.

Among other bowlers, Broad can look to bowl the odd short delivery to tempt Huss to play the pull shot, though he has to bend his back as Huss can make a mincemeat of half-trackers. Of course, as he is a lefthander, Swann would be a threat and I don't want to bore everyone regarding Swann being better against lefthanders! Actually, if Swann is joined by a left arm spinner in the attack, it would look even better as a left arm spinner by going around the wicket can create a nice angle across Huss. Yes, Ojha who troubled Huss in India with his left arm spin bowls with a higher trajectory to Monty, but against Huss, a left arm spinner can be a useful weapon. The key point is, even on a wicket like at Adelaide or for that matter Sydney,  I don't think England should play with two spinners.

North

One of the frequently debated topics in recent times has been the form of North. He gets about eight, or nine low scores and when he is ready for the chop, he scores a hundred. I think the selectors should realise that a player like North should be dropped as he is over 30 and is maddeningly inconsistent.

Strategies against North

When North first comes to the crease, any swing bowler, or a spinner can get him out as he doesn't look much better than a rabbit with a bat in hand. He seems to blindly get a decent stride  forward, but that front-foot just gets struck and he can play all around a straight ball. He also struggles against a swing bowler, who slants it across him as he doesn't know his off-stump. He can look worse against the spinners as he rarely ever plays late against a spinner and mainly looks to sweep them. Yes once he gets in, he looks a lot more assured, but if a batsman gets so many low scores before he comes up with a good score, then he should be history. I do get the feeling that just like what happened to Greg Ritchie after the 86/87 Ashes, this would be the last time North would play for Australia!

Key bowlers

As Anderson is a swing bowler, he can be a threat against North. He should just continue to angle it across him with the odd inswinger to get him out lbw. North got some big scores in the last Ashes, but that was due to England's bowlers trying the short stuff against him. He can look awkward against the short stuff, but handles it better than most other batsmen in the line-up. England would repent, if the bowlers continue to pursue with that tactic in this series.

Anyway, a classic North dismissal against a swing bowler,

"Southee to North, OUT, North is referring this, the ball lands on middle and goes through with the line, North plays all around it and is hit flush on the pad bang in front of middle, looked obvious to us and Asad Rauf, North challenges it but in the end it's a referral used up by Australia"


Jimmy Anderson himself getting North's wicket by slanting it across him,

"Anderson to North, OUT, wonderful catch! Prior makes a super take diving to his left across first slip. Fullish ball swinging away from North, who got a thick edge to one that he might have left alone"

As North rarely ever plays late and him being a lefthander would mean that Swann would be a huge threat. I would be surprised, if Swann doesn't get him out at least a couple of times in the series.

Haddin

Haddin would be likely Australia's first choice wicketkeeper, though Paine has been doing very well in recent times. Haddin likes to take the attack to the bowlers. He doesn't mind throwing his bat at anything that is slightly wide of off-stump and likes to drive on the up. In short, he is a fine batsman.

Key bowlers

I would look at both Broad and Anderson as my main weapons against Haddin. Haddin's tendency to drive at anything that is slightly fuller would mean a swing bowler can look for a well disguised slower delivery that is full in length. In-fact, Anderson almost deceived him at Oval with a slower delivery, but the 12th man Onions made a complete mess of what should have been a sitter. If the captain doesn't believe that Anderson has a good slower delivery, he can look at Broad as he has decent variations up his sleeve.

Paine

Paine may not play in the Ashes as Haddin seems to have the backing of the selectors, but in Haddin's absence, Paine has done a wonderful job. Paine is the better keeper and his batting has come up by leaps and bounds. In my opinion, the selectors should pick him as he is the future of Australian cricket.

As far as Paine's batting is concerned, every-time I see him bat, he seems to have improved as a batsman. When I first saw him bat, he was tentative, but nowadays looks to play late and unlike some of his teammates can play well of the back-foot. If anything,  he can square up against a swing bowler and Anderson can be used against him. Swann too can look to use the crease and tempt Paine to play through the on-side, but in simple words, during the tour of India, or in England, he looked like a competent batsman.

Finally, I would say that it is up-to young seamers like Finn and especially Broad that they don't get into the trap of bowling short, but use the short ball as a surprise weapon. As far as Swann is concerned, he can be a key bowler, but it would be better, if he tries to bowl like a traditional finger spinner from Australia as he can utilise the bounce on offer.