Sunday, December 25, 2011

India's chances down under Part 2

In the second part of the article as promised, I would look at few other key factors that can play a major role in India winning the series down under.

India's much vaunted batting line-up

In the last decade or so, India's success away from home at places like Headingley, Trent Bridge, WACA, Adelaide has been due to its fantastic batting line-up finally fulfilling the promise it showed over the years. The big scores that India have been able to get away from home in the last decade has in turn helped their slightly weaker bowling attack to take 20 wickets.

Recently in England though, the ageing batting line-up came unstuck against a brilliant pace attack operating in home conditions. Was it just an aberration or was it a warning signal that the ageing batting line-up just doesn't have it in them anymore to do well away from home? In my humble opinion, the Indian batsmen failed as they didn't play enough warm up games to acclimatise to the alien conditions.

Even arguably the greatest batsman of his generation SRT, needs to play warm up games to succeed in England, as the pitches in England offer seam/swing bowlers more assistance than what is found in most other cricket playing countries. I see that India have learnt their lesson the hard way, as they have played few warm up games in Australia. It can also be said that Indian batsmen will enjoy the Australian conditions more as there won't be too much movement on offer for the bowlers.

The key to India's success in Australia will be Sehwag, as if he gets going on couple of batting friendly tracks, the inexperienced Australian attack may just panic. Pattinson may have looked great against the Kiwis, but up against a quality batting line-up, he may have to work a bit harder as Indian batsmen won't likely edge every outswinger he bowls. Another bowler who will be tested is Lyon. The Kiwis rarely used their feet against him, but the likes of S'wag, VVS and SRT will certainly look to take on the young spinner.

Of course, when we talk about the Indian batting line-up, one has to always think of  the grand old man of world cricket SRT, who even at the ripe age of 38 looks like he  has it in him to get more hundreds. The weight of getting his 100th international hundred seems to have affected even the great man  yet, I expect him to do well in Australia.

Yes, Australia will look at finding chinks in master's armour which to be honest is very difficult to find as SRT has a watertight technique. SRT though, has to be a bit cautious against the full swinging delivery bowled on a off-stump line. Since the canny Fannie De Villiers found at least a way to dismiss SRT, it has always been an option against the master blaster, as he tends to play the straight drive without moving his feet early in his innings. Even the disgraced Saffer captain Cronje found success with that plan. In recent times, Anderson has repeatedly got him out by bowling full on a off-stump line. Having said that SRT's balance is so good that once he gets going, he rarely will miss playing a straight drive against the full swinging delivery.

A classic example of SRT looking to drive without moving his feet and being bowled by a superb delivery from the swing king Damien Fleming.

Now, how can I leave out Very Very Special Laxman as here is a batsman, who seems to do well every-time he plays Ozzies. In-fact, I am sure Clarke, Punter and co. must be calling him as Very Very Sick Laxman. The reason for his success in Australia basically stems from the fact that he is very strong on the back-foot. I reckon on the back-foot, he is slightly better than even SRT.

Finally, after discussing about VVS, Sehwag, SRT, I can't leave out the great wall of India, Dravid. A few years ago, Dravid looked completely out of sorts, but everyone knows that he is a gutsy batsman  and this year, he has returned with a bang by getting about zillion runs in England. In tough conditions in England, it seemed like a contest between Dravid and England, rather than India and England.

As far as playing in Australia is concerned, Dravid did struggle in his first series against the metronomic McGrath, but since then, he has made his mark down under by showing his class especially, at Adelaide in 03/04, when he played a match winning knock to take India to a historic test victory.

From the above points, it is clear that for India to succeed in Australia, they need their strong batting line-up to again come to the party which in turn can give the slightly weaker bowling attack a chance to take 20 wickets.

How to tackle the Australian batsmen?

In the past, it would have been a herculean task for the opposition to  come up with strategies against the Australian batsmen, as they had world class players.The present line-up though, looks vulnerable and prone to collapses. Yes, they still have the likes of Clarke, Punter and Huss, but someone like Punter looks a pale shadow of the player he was. In my opinion, Punter always had a couple of flaws, but his brilliant strokeplay and his mental toughness helped him to cover it up. With him being 37 now, those flaws are getting exposed.

I see the Indian think-tank employing the same tactic that others have employed against Punter, which is to bowl full early in his innings and get him out lbw with Punter falling across his off-stump. Once he gets set though, bowlers should look to bowl back of a length on a off-stump channel as Punter these days struggles to score runs bowled on a off-stump channel. Even Ashwin can come into play with his carom ball as Punter does push hard at the ball.

Among the senior batsmen, Clarke has been in better form, but he is another player, who can struggle against consistent back of a length bowling with the odd full delivery to tempt him to drive. England used that tactic well in the Ashes.

Clarke has a reputation of playing spin very well, but I am not fully convinced. Last year in the Ashes, when Clarke tried to come down the wicket there was too much premeditation involved. In-fact,  Swann constantly troubled him by going around the wicket and cutting off his run scoring areas through the on-side. It is something that Ashwin can have a look at.

Australia also have a very inexperienced top-order with Cowan making his debut and their wicket-keeper batsman Haddin just doesn't seem to learn from his mistakes, as he keeps chasing everything that is just outside the off-stump. Basically, the present set of Australian batsmen just don't seem to have the toughness that was associated with past Australian sides. Every-time I see Australian batsmen play, they seem to be chasing deliveries outside the off-stump and getting out. It is again a clue to the Indian seamers like Sharma that they should pitch it up!

Series prediction

This is one of the toughest series to predict, as we are thinking of two flawed equally matched sides. On occasions, I have thought maybe Australia are slight favourites. Just before the series though, I am leaning more towards India, as I have a gut feeling that India may have a slight edge provided, their batsmen click and they get a bit of luck with the toss at places like MCG and WACA. Yes, cricket fans can argue that famed Indian batting line-up came a cropper in English conditions, but England have a very good pace attack and Australia don't. It can also be argued that playing in Australia should be easier for subcontinental batsmen as it won't swing/seam around that much in Australia.

I predict a 2-1 result in favour of India, though 1-1 will always be a safe bet, as we are thinking about two evenly matched sides.

India's chances Down Under

It has been a longtime since India gained independence from its erstwhile masters Britain. In those 60 odd years, India has had its fair share of problems, but one fact that unites the entire nation from rich to poor and all religions is the game invented by British empire called cricket. Let it be on the streets of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and all other places, Indian fans danced with joy, when the great hope of the entire nation, Indian cricket team won the WC in 2011. Now, at the end of the year, the question on every Indian cricket fan's lips is can the Indian team under Dhoni's able leadership do what has looked improbable for the last 65 years, which is to win a test series down under in Australia. If the Indian team is able to achieve the goal of beating Australia in their own backyard, about 1.2 billion cricket crazy fans will again dance with joy on the streets of India.

The Indian team is embarking on a trip to Australia, when on paper the opposition has an unsettled side. Compared to the great Aussie sides of the past, the present line-up has a callow bowling line-up,  the top order batsmen too are inexperienced, the middle-order consisting of Punter, Clarke, Huss and Haddn have the experience, but it can be said that the likes of Punter and Huss are coming to the end of their illustrious careers. So from outside, it looks like it is India's best chance of winning in OZ, since coming close to a test series win against a Packer less Australian side in 77/78 and against a weak Australian team in 85/86. In 85/86, India were a bit unlucky not to win at MCG, as rain reportedly robbed them of a certain victory.

The signs of a side in decline was very much evident last year in the Ashes, as even after gaining a vital first innings lead at Gabba,we saw England raking up 517 for 1  which was followed by three innings defeats. In-fact, after the match got over at Gabba, even as a England fan 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 seems to be of a defeatist team. If anything, the Australian team has got weaker since the thrashing they got at the hands of England last year and worse, they have been ravaged by injuries to key bowlers. Yes, they showed a bit of fighting spirit in the Safferland, when a Cummins inspired Australia beat Saffers at Wanderers, but a shock loss to the Kiwis at Hobart is something that I wouldn't have envisaged even in my wildest dreams.

So can India finally win a series in OZ after nine failed attempts? The problem for India is, just like Australia, they too have their own share of problems, especially in the bowling department. Last year, England won on the back of a very good pace attack, but if I look at the Indian team, I won't feel confident that a pace attack consisting of Zaheer, Ishant and Yadav will help them to win a test series down under. The batting line-up looks strong on paper, but even though veterans like SRT, Sehwag, VVS and Dravid have toured Australia innumerable times, it will always take a bit of time to adjust to the conditions in Australia. They all have the pedigree to do very well in Australia, but they have to acclimatise to the conditions quickly. The biggest worry for India though is, do they have the attack to take 20 wickets.

Without wasting anymore time, let us look at certain key factors like conditions in Australia, Indian pace attack, India's much vaunted batting line-up and what can be the strategies India can look at to defeat the Australian team

A bit of luck at MCG and WACA

I reckon India definitely need a bit of luck with the toss at MCG and WACA, as their pace attack just may lack the firepower to take 20 wickets. On the first day, MCG can assist the seam bowlers with a bit of movement off the pitch. If the cloud cover is there, it will be even better. The wicket does flatten out as the game progresses and helps bowlers to get reverse swing. First day though is the key for India, so bowling first can help. Last year, England led brilliantly by Anderson ripped through Australian batting line-up with incisive bowling in helpful conditions.

WACA too tends to help the seamers on the first couple of days, so toss can again help India massively at Perth. One key factor which is in India's favour is, there is no WACA specialist to bowl at them! Mitch can bowl rubbish at most places, but at WACA, he is a different kettle of fish as along with awkward bounce, he gets late swing. Last year against England, he was unplayable as he swung it so late that most of the batsmen couldn't even touch the ball!

India's bowling line-up

If I look at the pace attack it is crystal clear that India depend massively on their spearhead Zaheer. Zaheer has all the skills to trouble the inexperienced top-order and top of it, he has a terrific record against left-handed batsmen.

The question mark over Zaheer is, whether at the age of 34, will he be able to play all four tests on hard wickets of Australia. Australian wickets always test the fitness of any pace bowler which can be seen by the fact that even one of the fittest bowlers going around, Anderson looked dead tired after bowling on Aussie wickets last year. Even if he stays fit, it will be interesting to see whether Zaheer can bowl long spells with the older ball.

Zaheer's pace partner in crime will likely be Sharma. He is yet another bowler who is struggling with ankle problems. The tall lanky seamer showed a lot of promise, the last time India visited the shores of Australia. Having said that Sharma has regressed in recent times as he hasn't learnt from his mistakes. Even after playing in more than 40 tests, Sharma continues to bang it short. Yes, Sharma is well over 6 feet, but he is a bit skiddy through the air, so the length he should perhaps aim at is to bowl a touch fuller. In-fact, the more I see of Sharma, the more I remember Dizzy, who too tended to bowl short early in his career, but once he started bowling a fuller length, he got the rewards. Sharma just doesn't get the steepling bounce of Tremlett to bang it short.

Indian fans would be hoping that he bowls a fuller length. but as a neutral, I am still not sure whether Sharma will do it. There is always hope though, as if after 30 odd tests, Broad decided to pitch it up, maybe Sharma too will realize that he has to bowl fuller!

Among others, Yadav looks like a decent prospect, but he is still a greenhorn. Dhoni will be grateful, if he can do something similar like Bracewell did against the Ozzies recently. After his first spell at Gabba,  Bracewell's consistency was phenomenal as he just kept hammering around the good length spot, got just enough movement either way and made the batsmen play most of the time. It was said that last year, Anderson bowled about 70% of his deliveries on a good length and I think Bracewell did something similar.

I'm not convinced that Yadav will be as good as DB, because he tends to waste the new ball by bowling it far too across the left-hander.  Dhoni though will be happy even if he is half as good as Bracewell.

I understand almost every Indian cricket fan don't rate Kumar, but to me, he doesn't look as bad as what everyone makes him out to be. He has a repeatable action, bowls decent outswing and his success on barren tracks of India shows that he knows when to hold his length back. The problem with him is, he lacks an effective inswinger and his lack of pace may mean that when the wicket gets flat, Kumar can become predictable.

Yes, Kumar likely won't play in the test series, as he is well down in the pecking order, but if India again suffer injuries and they have to play Kumar, I back him to do a decent job. Yes, some may think, I am out of my mind, but I stand by what I have said that he just doesn't look like a bad bowler. The only caveat is, he has to be given the new ball as swing bowlers and that too someone who lacks pace will struggle as a first change bowler in OZ.

Among the spinners, I will opt for Ashwin as he has the variations and I see him troubling Punter with his carom ball. Even if either Ojha or Ashwin do what Swann did last year in the Ashes,  Dhoni should be delighted. On Australian wickets, only wrist spinners can succeed as they impart more spin than a finger  spinner and along with that they can use the extra bounce on offer to their advantage. As a finger spinner, either Ojha or Ashwin should offer Dhoni the control that is required with the old ball and take couple of wickets on the way.

In the second part of the article, I will look at India's much vaunted batting line-up, a few strategies against OZ batsmen and series prediction.