Sunday, December 25, 2011

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.

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