Monday, April 4, 2011

Captain Cool

About 1.2 billion fans are celebrating on the streets of Mumbai, Kolkota, Bangalore and rest of the country. Rest of the world may or may not care, but that won't bother the Indian cricket fans as Dhoni and his boys have done what Indian fans have been waiting for 28 long years. The agonizing wait for the fans to see another Indian captain lift the coveted Word Cup trophy was over  on April 2nd of 2011 as the golden boy of Indian cricket MS Dhoni showed once for all that he is Captain cool by playing one of the best knocks ever seen in World Cup history. Let it be toss fiasco at start of the match, Mahela's silken strokes, Parera's lusty hitting at end of the innings, Malinga's booming  yorkers, Murali's doosra didn't bother captain cool and his teammates.

I have never been known to use the word great easily, but I just take my hat off and salute Dhoni as he has proved beyond doubt that he is a great captain. In a short span of time Dhoni has been able to lift the World  T/20, CL, IPL, helped India to be the number one team in test cricket and now has led India to a 50 over WC victory. Yes, it was in the end a team effort that helped the Indian side to win the trophy, but his knock under immense pressure in the final showed that here is a captain, who can lead the team from front and that too at the biggest stage which is the World Cup.

It was about 5 years ago that I first saw Dhoni on a cricket field. Here was a man with  long hairs and played weird shots. I thought of him as a powerful, wristy, but a flashy batsman who lacks the technique to succeed for a long-time. When he played a few of those weird wristy shots, it even looked like he wasn't playing a cricketing shot but was piloting a helicopter. How wrong  was I as within no time he became an integral part of the side and now has helped India to win the World Cup!

If I look back at Dhoni's career, his first big test perhaps came in England in 2007. India had already bowed out of the 2007 WC in a embarrassing fashion by losing to Bangladesh in the first round itself and question marks were raised over the places of senior players like SRT, Dravid and Ganguly. There were even question marks over whether flashy players like Dhoni, Yuvraj and co. would mature and of course one could even say that critics were keeping an keen eye on how would Dhoni perform as a keeper as well as a batsman in tough conditions in that upcoming tour of  England.

To be honest, I thought that Dhoni would be found out in English conditions both as a keeper and as a batsman. Yes, during the tour of England in 07, he may not have come out of that stern test with flying colours, but he did score a vital half century in the first test at Lord's. It can be surely said that rain came to the rescue of the Indian team during that match as the final session on the final day was washed out yet, some credit has to go to Dhoni as his aggressive half century meant that India could keep England's bowlers at bay until the rain came to their rescue. The knock at Lord's showed that Dhoni has got a very good temperament. Since then, Dhoni has gone from strength to strength both as a batsman and as a captain. In 07 itself, he led an young side to a great victory at T/20 championship, under his captaincy, India were able to defeat Australia, England even draw a series away from home in South Africa. Of course, who can forget him leading CSK to victories in IPL and CL and now the biggest prize in one-day cricket, the World Cup.

What makes Dhoni tick?

I have always firmly believed that any captain should have the ability to lead from front. There have been captains who were great tacticians, but in my opinion, a captain can be rated as a good captain not only if he is a good tactician, but he should also lead from the front by doing well as a cricketer. In his career, Dhoni has shown on numerous occasions that he can come good under pressure with a bat in hand or even as a wicket-keeper. His knock in the World Cup final gave ample proof of what a good player Dhoni is under pressure. Early in his innings, Dhoni didn't look at his best against Murali's doosra, but Dhoni wasn't flustered by it as he kept rotating the strike and when the time came, he played the big shots to help India to a famous win. Dhoni's batting technique may look awkward, but there is no doubt that he has the technique to survive, he has got a wide range of shots and more importantly, he has got a very cool head on his shoulders. It can't get better when  the wall of India Dravid showers praises on  a player by saying that when Dhoni bats, there is always calmness in the dressing room!

There are critics who may point out that in test cricket sometimes Dhoni can get defensive. We saw that in Srilanka last year when there were times Dhoni's captaincy looked negative, but with so many flat wickets being prepared, it can be argued that nowadays hands of a captain are tied and as a result they have to be defensive. India's bowling attack isn't very good either.

What I really like about Dhoni's captaincy is, he backs his instincts. The way he backed a newbie like Joginder Sharma in the final of the T/20 tournament in South Africa was just amazing to watch and of course Sharma won the match for India by taking the last wicket of Misbah. Yes, there have been times when it didn't work like in the match against South Africa in the WC. With Robin Peterson eying to slog it over the mid-wicket region and Nehra mainly looking to bowl into Peterson, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Peterson would smash a six of Nehra. Yes that move backfired yet Dhoni continues to back his instincts which is great to see. His move of selecting Sreesanth for the final didn't work either, though the pitch did suit Sreesanth's style of bowling, but unfortunately for Dhoni, Sree thought that he is the next Jeff Thomson and bowled short.

 I really liked it when he moved up the order in the final against Lanka. With Lanka having three off-spinners in the side they would loved to have bowled to Yuvraj and Ghambir as off-spinners  prefer to bowl to lefthanders at both ends.  The reason being when an off-spinner bowls from around the wicket, the ball will leave a lefthander which makes it difficult for a lefthander to score runs as the opposition captain can block the off-side and force the lefthander to play across the line through the on-side. Yes, unlike Randiv or Dilshan, Murali is unorthodox and has struggled against lefties like Lara, Flower and co. in the past, but both Dilshan and Randiv would loved to have bowled to lefthanders at both ends. By coming in at 5, Dhoni also showed that in a big final he was ready to lead from the front and won't hide behind Yuvraj or Raina. Here is a captain, who has the self belief in his ability and backs his players to the hilt, who in turn  respond to it by coming up with match winning performances.

So what next for Dhoni? if not anything else, he would surely like to win more matches away from home, especially couple of tough tours coming up in the Old Blighty and one in Australia. I am sure Dhoni isn't a man, who will like to rest on his laurels, but would look at winning more matches for India with his batting, keeping and of course his captaincy.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Can Srilanka upset the apple-cart?

For the last two  months, I haven't been able to follow cricket as much as I would have liked to as I have been extremely busy.With passions running high what with about 1.2 billion Indian fans cheering Indian team as well as about 20 million Lankan fans cheering the Lankan Lions I surely can't miss out on action. So, just in time before the final, I decided to write an article on the match.

If I have to think of the big final between India and Srilanka, it is obvious to any cricket fan that India are the favourites going into the match as they have a balanced team and they are playing in their own den. Srilanka are a tough unit to beat in subcontinent, but thankfully for India, the match isn't played in Srilanka as for me with the demise of Australian team, there is nothing tougher than beating Srilanka in Srilanka.

So what are the chances of Srilanka upsetting the applecart and holding the World Cup trophy for the second time around? There is no denying the fact that Lankan Lions have a good side, but somehow if I look at the side I get the feeling that they lack the depth, especially in their batting to challenge the might of the  Indian team.

On the basis of whatever little action I have been able to catch, it is crystal clear that Srilanka have depended heavily on Tharanga and Dilshan at top of the order. Sanga has been on expected lines  consistent throughout this World Cup, but the stylish batsman from Emerald Isle Jayawerdena has been short of runs. The injury to Mathews is obviously a big blow to the Lankan side as under pressure he is as cool as a cucumber. I just love the way he plays cricket, especially when he bats as he is a  effortless striker of the ball.

If I think about Lanka's opening pair of Tharanga and Dilshan from Srilanka's point of view I do hope that Tharanga would be a bit more cautious and not look at throwing his bat at anything that is outside the off-stump against Zaheer. Zaheer is easily one of the best in the business against lefties as unlike say Nehra,  he can swing it both ways  and can bowl clever changes of pace. It is applicable to Dilshan as well as he too loves to just have a crack at anything that is slightly outside the off-stump. Here I firmly believe that it isn't just Nehra, but even Munaf is the man that Lanka should look to target. Yes, I realise that Munaf has bowled reasonably well in this WC and the slower delivery he bowled to Razzaq showed that he isn't an one trick pony, but I still feel that he is a bit predictable and if Lanka can go after him, it can put pressure on the spinners. Of course, there is a good chance of Dhoni going for the extra spinner and open the bowling with the off-spinner Ashwin. The option of opening the bowling with Ashwin though may backfire on Dhoni, as both Tharanga and Dilshan are very good against spinners.

Lanka's biggest worry has obviously been Mahela's lack of form. A cricket connoiseur would love to watch a graceful player like Mahela bat for a long-time. The key point to consider here though is, the track at Bombay tends to help spinners and Mahela is extremely good against spin bowling. Of course, Sanga is always key to Lanka's chances in the middle-order, but on spinning tracks I also rate Mahela very highly. Samaraweera can be another vital cog in Lanka's middle order as he bats very low and plays late which helps S'weera to counter spin effectively. Thilan is also good under pressure as we saw in the match against the Kiwis, when he was able to help Lanka overhaul the target set by the Kiwis by playing well under pressure.

With Mathews out of the side, Lanka would likely select the reserve batsman Kapugudera. Sorry, I have never been a fan of Kapu because even after playing for more than five years, he hasn't been able to kick on in his career and seems to have a frail temperament.

If I am the captain, I would likely go for Parera. Yes, it is a gamble as it can weaken the batting, but the counter argument can be Kapugudera isn't a good enough batsman. The reason I feel Parera can do well is because from little bit of knowledge I have about the wicket at Wankhade Mumbai, it tends to stop on the batsmen. Parera is a skiddy bowler who can surpise the batsmen for a bit of pace and has got clever changes of pace up his sleeve. My gut feeling is, he is the right sort of bowler for a wicket like Wankhade Mumbai. As a batsman Parera has limited range of shots, but if it is in his zone Parera can tonk the ball over the mid-wicket for huge sixes. Just think of the huge six he hit at Perth last year in a T/20 game against Australia. Sanga shouldn't even mind using Parera as a floater and send him up the order, especially if Lanka are chasing a sizeable total.

Srilanka's bowling is suited to a track like Mumbai as they have plenty of slow bowlers, but Sanga perhaps would have liked a bounce bowler in his team. The fact is, when the pitch tends to be a bit up and down and stops on the batsmen a bounce bowler can get more unpredictable bounce. Now, it doesn't mean that Lanka should pick a bounce bowler like say Fernando as he is just not good enough to play at this level. Sanga can even look at opening the bowling with Mendis as that can surprise the Indian openers. Having said that in recent times Indian batsmen have dominated Mendis and because of that fact he may not even play in the match.  It would also be the last game the legend Murali will play and hopefully a champion bowler like him can do well, though his injury would surely hamper him.

A team like Srilanka is expected to field well as they are a good fielding side. If not anything else, I am sure that Lankan Lions won't field as bad as they did against England in the Quarter Final.

Pitch Conditions

As I have already said that I haven't been able to catch much of the World Cup action, but from past experience of watching games at Bombay, I can definitely say that pitch will have something in it for all types of bowlers. Due to humidity factor, swing  bowlers can get some help. Here one can remember Damien Fleming's match winning spell in the 96 WC or Anderson's six wicket haul in a test match in 06. As the wicket can be a bit up and down, the seamers who hit the deck can get more uneven bounce.The spinners will definitely come into play as the wicket has never come across as a hard wicket and the colour of soil is usually red. So, spinners can get grip on the ball and uneven bounce. Any team that bats first would feel that they have the advantage as later on in the match it would likely help the spinners.

Final Words

Being a cricket connoisseur, I do hope that the great man SRT can get his 100th hundred in international cricket, but somehow I just love it when the favourites before the match lose and the underdogs cause an upset. Now, Lankan Lions aren't exactly  underdogs a they have a fine team, but going into the match they are definitely not the favourites.

For inspiration Sanga can look no further than the amazing victory Lanka achieved under the astute leadership of Ranatunga  at home of Indian cricket Kolkota and for struggling Mahela, he can think of his great knock in the World Cup Semifinal against the Kiwis in the 07 WC.

 I just hope that it would be a edge of the seat nail biting contest and may the best team win!!!