Sunday, March 15, 2015

CWC 2015.. the business end begins.. !

Just over a month has passed in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, and now we are down to the last, and most important seven games. Many, including me, have mentioned in the past that this is the real phase of the World Cup and the month gone had nothing more than glorified warm-up games. I am not sure if the English cricket team thought that way. If so, there were in for a rude shock and now are on their way back to London. So now we are in the knockout stage. The stage that can convert dreams into reality and, the other way around, into nightmares as well. A blistering century from the opposition, a dream spell (or over) or worse still, a dropped catch or missed run-out can mean four more years of waiting. It is the stage where the boys are separated from the men, where temperament and attitiude will mean the same, if not more, than skill with the bat or ball. Over the next 12 days, one of the eight teams will overcome the test of nerves and expectations and will lay their hands on the biggest prize in international cricket and the right to be called World Champions. While Pakistan are coasting towards victory against Ireland at Adelaide (had thought the game would be much closer), let us look at the four quarter finals in store and what can we expect:

South Africa v Sri Lanka (SCG, March 18):

The first is probably the best match-up from amongst the four. I say this because South Africa have not looked the favorites that one thought before the tournament began. They have faltered twice while chasing, and when it comes to knock-out games, we know right ? Conversely, Sri Lanka have always been in contention in any world event. And if I was an Angelo Mathews, I would firstly hope the pitch is a dry end-of-season surface at the SCG, Herath is fit and I win the toss and bat first. Another chase for ABD and his men under lights on a turning pitch and in front of a packed house (with a solid Sri Lanka support) might be tricky. On the other hand, ABD would be hoping that his fast men fire upfront and rip apart the powerful Lankan top order (ideally 40-3 after 10 overs or so). Verdict: It will be a very close game and maybe, just maybe, Sri Lanka have the edge.

India v Bangladesh (MCG, March 19):

On paper, surely a no-contest. Defending champions, a team that has won six games on the trot, a team that knows on how to play on the big stage, with a majority of the 80000 crowd backing them, playing against a team with few superstars, who have qualified with one good win against England and a shared point against Australia. But it is this precise mismatch that can make this contest interesting. The Bangla tigers have got absolutely nothing to lose and can play with unbridled freedom. India, on the other, would have all the pressure on their head. And if India find themselves 30-3 in a tricky chase, well, who knows ? It is all India's game to lose. The drop-in is expected to be a batting beauty so Bangladesh's best chance is in batting first and putting up the runs on the board. 
Verdict: India all the way. It will be a catastrophe of epic proportions in the cricketing (and commercial) world should there be any other result.

Australia v Pakistan (Adelaide, March 20):

Should be another good game. Australia have looked most impressive during the league stage, including during their close loss against the Kiwis where they defended 150-odd with great determination. But Pakistan have bounced back very well after their initial losses against India and West Indies. Their win over South Africa has injected fresh momentum in their campaign, and they have been impressive against Ireland today (in a game which many thought would be a banana-skin for them). It would seem, though, that Australia are much better in all aspects of the game, including the big-match temperament. But you never know, one inspired performance by a gentleman in green colours can turn this contest on his head. Adelaide is also expected to be a high-scoring encounter and Pakistan would not want to chase more than 300 (and conversely, score that same number atleast if batting first).
Verdict: Australia have too much of fire-power but am not willing to count Pakistan out.

New Zealand v West Indies (Wellington, March 21):

The Kiwis have been the form team in the tournament, rattling off six out of six victories at home. Now they meet the West Indies, who have been up and down in this World Cup, impressive against Pakistan but terrible in the very next game against the Proteas. But they have the Gayle-factor, and it can be a very big factor if he gets his eye in on the smaller grounds there. But in Boult and Southee, New Zealand have the best new-ball pair in the competition, and the game may well be decided in the first 10 overs of the West Indies batting. On the other hand, New Zealand also rely heavily on McCullum and Williamson and if Jerome Taylor can knock them over quickly, the men in the Caribbean would be in business. The home crowd (and the resultant pressure) will be another factor, and the Kiwis would be wanting to put the ghosts of Eden Park (incidentally, exactly 23 years ago on 21 March itself) behind them.
Verdict: New Zealand should sail through

Let the (real) games begin !!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

CWC 15.. Where does India fit in ?

The next edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup is almost upon us, just about three weeks away. This time, it is down under, in those two beautiful countries of Australia and New Zealand. This itself should make the World Cup a great viewing experience, since the TV production quality out there is easily the best in the world. I remember the last World Cup there in 1992, which was great to watch (though India did not perform that well). Hopefully this World Cup would be as good as that (if not better).

It could certainly have been better had the ICC stuck to the same format as in 1992. Then, 9 teams played a round robin stage, followed by the semi finals and finals. So each team had to play eight tough games (since only 4 of them could qualify). In contrast, the last WC and this consists of 2 groups of 7 teams each with 4 qualifying. This effectively means that the first month of the tournament will essentially be one big warm up phase for the quarter finals. You can easily predict 7 out of the 8 quarter finalists. Sadly, the format has taken the sting out of this World Cup. Thankfully, the ICC has, better late than never, realized it and in 2019, it is back to only 8 teams of the World Cup with a round robin stage. 

But coming back to this WC, all talk is now of who the contenders are. And in this context, I believe India have selected the best possible squad. Maybe Robin Utthapa might have some genuine grouse at being left out, but apart from that, I honestly do not see any others who would have made the cut. There have been some voices arguing for the inclusion of Yuvraj, but it is more of sentiment than cricketing reason. More than any time earlier, the top six have to carry India's expectations on their shoulders. Between them Messrs Dhawan, Rohit, Kohli, Rahane, Raina, Rayudu and Dhoni hold the key to India's fortunes. They have to back themselves to chase any total or, if they are batting first, to set a total that is beyond the opposition's reach. Unfortunately, they will not be helped much by their bowling unit, which I believe is probably the weakest amongst the top six teams. Bhuvneshwar has been off colour recently (including the test match where he was bowling at times at 110-115 kph) and the lack of swing on the pitches there will not help his cause. Shami and Yadav were ordinary in the tests, and Ishant would need to step up and perform a bigger role as the lead bowler. The bowling woes also mean that India have no choice but to play 5 bowlers with Dhoni batting at six. I suspect this is not Dhoni's ideal combination, Which is why I believe the inclusion of Stuart Binny at No. 7 is a good choice. Especially in the couple of games in New Zealand (and if we end up playing the QF there), he should play a decent role. Assuming everyone is fit the XI would be: Dhawan, Rohit, Kohli, Rahane, Raina, Dhoni, Jadeja, Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar, Ishant, Shami.

So is this good enough to go all the way ? As I said, the real tournament starts in the quarter finals. There should not be any problem getting there. I read somewhere that India face a potential quarter final against Sri Lanka at the SCG. It will be a tricky encounter, especially with the SCG's slow surface and Sri Lanka's spinning army. But I would still put them as semi-final contenders.

Let the games begin !!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

An English summer.. and honours even ?

We are more than halfway through The Big Test (as Star Sports dubs it) and it would seem that the honours are even at this stage. Certainly a scoreline of 1-1 would reflect that. This series was always going to be between two inexperienced teams, in transition but led by experienced players, facing off against each other. But that great fightback at Southampton has meant that England have all the momentum as the teams head to Old Trafford. And talking of momentum, it is not just on the field. England seem to have had the better of the off-field courtroom drama as well. The verdict in the Jadeja-Anderson affair has left the Indian team, and especially MS Dhoni red-faced and fuming (especially since he made a rare and a very public defence of his team-mate). Thus, it is MSD who has all the questions to answer before the last 2 tests. Just over a week back, he and his team-mates were celebrating one of the most famous abroad wins by an Indian team in recent memory and the headquarters of cricket. How things change in a week !!

The Indian team currently faces issues on two fronts : a) wrong team selection and b) having too many off colour players at the same time. The first issue, especially the non-selection of Ravichandran Ashwin has been written about in plenty. But still, it boggles the mind as to how Ashwin (with 104 wickets in 19 Tests) can be left out of this side. Dhoni's defence of the six-batsman theory at Southampton was laughable ('we did not use the fifth bowler anyways'). Dear MS, you did not use the fifth bowler (Binny) at Lords because you yourself did not think he was good enough at this level (and plus, the conditions there were good enough for four bowlers, the pitch at Southampton cried out for five bowlers). It is a truism as old as the game itself: to win test matches, you need to take 20 wickets. And for that, you need 5 bowlers on a regular basis (on most pitches anyways). With Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar showing good ability with the bat it was a great opportunity to slot Ashwin at No. 7 and play five genuine bowlers and not damage the batting (Ashwin has a batting average of 39.4 !). Hopefully, MSD sees the light of day before Thursday and we field our best playing XI and Old Trafford. The other issue is that too many players in the XI are off-colour. Dhawan, Pujara and Kohli together have played 18 innings and scored a grand total of 413 runs only (average of 22.94). Surely, no team can afford to have 3 out of its top 5 batsman with such statistics against a team with good bowling attack. As far as India's bowling is concerned, Mohammed Shami is a concern (5 wickets at an average of 73.2). To exacerbate the issue, Ishant will not be available for the 4th test, leaving too much for Bhuvneshwar and Jadeja to do. Again, crying out for the 5th bowler. My XI for Manchester:  Vijay, Gambhir, Pujara, Rahane, Kohli, MSD, Ashwin, Jadeja. Bhuvi, Pankaj, Aaron.

An added spice to the Old Trafford test would be to see how these teams see each other in the aftermath of the Jadeja-Anderson incident. One can be rest assured that they will come hard and sparks will fly. Hopefully, nothing untoward will happen and cricket lovers will see two very exciting tests ahead.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

IPL Auctions: battle of wits

The coming week will see the IPL auctions unfolding once again. For me, the auctions are almost as exciting as the actual six week carnival. To see a marquee player's name go under the hammer, and then to see multiple teams bidding furiously to win him over is fun to watch. For the team owners, coaches and the staff, it is almost a game of chess, in which they try to outmaneuver each other, either by raising the bidding so that it becomes too expensive for the other team to get that player or to artificially raise the bidding and then opt out, so that others make a big dent in their pockets. On top of that is the bigger job of trying to make a team that is well balanced, will gel together and finally be strong contenders for the coveted IPL title. And this is the year when almost all teams will be again built from scratch, so that makes the auction even more intriguing.
The top three teams last year have all, predictably, have retained the maximum possible players in an effort to keep the nucleus of their squad the same. For them, the auctions will be all about filling the gaps. If I were in any of the three camps, I would look to retain 3 more players in the auction without spending more than 40-50% of the balance kitty (around Rs 8 - 10 crore). Thus for Mumbai Indians, they should look to get back Dwayne Smith (whose contribution last year remains underrated), Dinesh Karthik (quality keeper and T20 batsman) and possibly Rishi Dhawan or Glenn Maxwell. And for CSK, it would possibly be Murali Vijay, Mike Hussey and Mohit Sharma. The Royals, as usual, would be interesting to watch. With 5 players retained, at first glance, it seems that they do not have many others to choose from (save a Brad Hodge). Will they continue to keep faith in a Kevin Cooper, Siddarth Trivedi and the 43 year old Pravin Tambe ? Or will they unearth some fresh domestic talent ? Or will they break with tradition and bid strongly for a couple of superstars ? Time will tell.
For the other sides, it will be about making the shrewd choices. There is a galaxy of proven T20 performers on offer and it will be great to see which side chooses which strategy. Another wild card this time is that the venue of the tournament is possibly unknown at the time of auction, which makes it all more the difficult for the franchises to make up their squads, knowing that they may not get those 7-8 games at home. Especially for a team like KKR, used to playing on the slow wickets at the Eden Gardens, it will be difficult to make a strategy without knowing where there are going to play this time around. And finally, Delhi Daredevils is the joker in the pack. Starting with a completely blank slate, with the full amount to play for and with a think-tank comprising of Gary Kirsten and Viv Richards in their tent, it may turn to be the squad to look forward to come Thursday, when the auction closes.
And there are always some players who would be keenly watching the auction. The two that stand out are Corey Anderson and Kevin Petersien. Anderson is the new kid on the block, and good performances against India always help (as they will for Kane Williamson). But the man of the auction has to be KP, especially after the events of the past week (which means he will available for the full two months). Given the less than transparent circumstances surrounding his exit from the England squad, it will be a nerve-wracking experience for any franchise when it comes to the bidding war that is likely to follow when his name is announced. Where will KP be this year ? My feeling will be it will be between SunRisers and Kings XI. And finally, for some great legends of the game, it might just be the end of their IPL careers. Sangakkara and Kallis might be the ones that end up missing out, but then, who can argue against Father Time ? It will be sad nonetheless.
So, let the auctions begin ! :)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

World Cup defence looking shaky..

With just over a year to go before the ICC Cricket World Cup kicks off Down Under, the defending champions are appearing to be in deep disarray. Their last 8 ODIs away from home have resulted in 6 defeats, 1 tie and 1 abandoned match. Conceding 300+ runs while bowling first has almost become a given for their bowlers and while chasing, the opening combination has not exactly given them a blazing start, leaving too much for the middle order to do. The captain MS Dhoni strangely, has preferred to chase 4 out of the 5 times he won the toss in New Zealand, putting further pressure on his bowlers and batsman both ! And while the team looks settled now, one does not get the feeling that these would be the eleven men that will step on the Adelaide Oval on February 15 next year to take on arch-rivals Pakistan in their title defence.
An added problem for team India is that time is running now. For the next year or so, India (for a change) have a very test-match heavy schedule. Apart from the upcoming ODIs at the Asia Cup, India will get about 5 ODIs each in England and Australia in order to fine-tune their game before the World Cup. And clearly, 10 games seems too less, especially when you not won any of your last 8 matches !
So where does team India start ! The opening combination needs to be looked at. Dhawan and Rohit were looking great in England last year and in those run-feasts at home against Australia, but both of them are strokemakers and are not able to rotate the strike, especially in the early overs. And when the asking rate creeps up, the mistake occurs. Maybe there is still more than a ray of hope for Gautam Gambhir, who is pretty good at those taps and nudges for the singles. Numbers 3 and 4 in my opinion, have to be Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni. The two best batsmen have to occupy those 2 positions, simple. The next 2 positions are the big problems for India. Yuvraj, Raina, Rahane, Rayadu have all staked claims for these spots, but none of them appears a certainty at this time. There is a general consensus that Pujara has to now be part of the XI now, but I do not see a role for him at No. 5 and 6. Maybe he can be tried out at the openers slot (with Rohit possibly at No. 5). If the net is cast further, one can think of Kedar Jadhav from Maharashtra ( 1223 runs this Ranji season at the strike rate of 80 !). Next come the all-rounders. Very important to have a couple of them, especially in Australia. Jadeja looks a certainty, but Stuart Binny got only one game, sorry, only one over in which to impress !! Maybe the selectors could have also tried out Rishi Dhawan after his fantastic season with bat and ball in the Ranji Trophy. It is essential that Nos. 6 and 7 be able to bowl 12 decent overs between them on any day and also contribute meaningfully with the bat. That will add an extra edge to any team in the World Cup.
And finally the bowling. Ashwin has been lackluster of late, and he might just see Harbhajan Singh making a comeback at his expense. His experience might be essential in a big tournament, and if he figures the selector's scheme of things, then he needs to be in the squad for the Asia Cup. And then are the pacers, another vital element on the tracks down under, and where India find themselves severely short. Bhuvneshwar will not be half as effective if there is no swing, which is likely the case at the World Cup. Varun Aaron has shown some pace, but needs to be given more chances to establish himself. And wonder what happened to Umesh Yadav ? There is also some talk of Zaheer coming back in the one day setup, but with his dodgy fitness and lack of fielding ability, he remains a risky proposition. 

All in all, there is a lot of work in front of Dhoni, the team and the selectors in the next 12 months if we are to be seen as one of the top contenders at the World Cup. Till then, here is my squad for the Asia Cup:

Dhawan, Gambhir, Kohli, Rohit, Pujara, Dhoni, Rahane, Jadeja, Binny, Harbhajan, Mishra, Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar, Aaron.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Mumbai cricket.. where art thou ??

40 odd Ranji titles, 16 in a row from 1958 to 1973, a team who could jolly well make up an Indian side and give any world side a run for its money, a team whose mere presence on the field intimidated the opponents (called 'dadas' of the domestic circuit).. that used to be how Mumbai was defined !!.. Yes, the operative word is 'used to'... though Mumbai has still won the Ranji Trophy 4 out of the last 7 seasons, the aura about it is long gone.. and today, as Karnataka beat Mumbai outright for the first time in history (and that to me, is an awesome statistic, given how strong the Karnataka team has been over the years - Vishy, Brijesh Patel, Prasanna etc to name a few), it is time to introspect and ask, Mumbai cricket - where art thou ?
Now before one says that today's Mumbai side was hardly their first choice side (Abhishek Nayar and Dhawal Kulkarni are injured) and that after a long time, Mumbai boasts of three members in the Indian side (Rohit, Rahane and Zaheer), the fact remains that the assembly line on which young Mumbai cricketers burst on the Ranji scene, has been running dry for long. Sample this: in the last game, Mumbai gave a debut to 42-year old Pravin Tambe. While this was celebrated in the media mainly because of Tambe's IPL exploits, no one looked at hard reality: what message does it send to the world when you give a debut to a 42- year old, no matter how good he might be ? Similarly, in the game against Karnataka, near 30-year old D Subramaniam made his debut. All this does not bode well for the future of Mumbai cricket. While the junior cricket in Mumbai continues to make news (Arman Jaffer and Sarfraz Khan are already well-known names, and of course, someone by the name of Arjun Tendulkar is beginning his long journey), the graduation from school cricket to Ranji cricket is not happening.
In my opinion, the sudden retirement of Ajit Agarkar at the start of this season was the biggest blow. Sachin was expected to retire anyways, and Rohit, Rahane and Zaheer were expected to be part of the Indian team. In their absence, Agarkar was to be the guiding light of the team, along with the warhorse Wasim Jaffer. Now, in Ajit's absence, Jaffer has to burden the responsibility as the senior-most member of the team. And his getting out cheaply, as today, can mean a batting order collapse. And now, Mumbai find themselves at 3rd position in the table, and fighting for a quarter-final birth with one game (against second-placed Gujarat) to go. Missing the knockouts is going to be a very bitter pill to swallow.
But there is cause for hope. Last year, Mumbai won (if memory serves me right) 3 out of 4 domestic title across various age groups. So the junior cricket itself is doing pretty well. And the senior side hopefully is a squad in transit. Guys like Siddhesh Lad (21), Suryakumar Yadav (23), Javed Khan (23), Iqbal Abdullah (24) and Kaustubh Pawar (23) still have a long way to go and should hopefully have long careers with Mumbai. And once Nayar and Dhawal return (and Rahane available while India plays ODIs), this will be a stronger side. And if Arman Jaffer, Sarfraz Khan and Prithvi Shaw (he of the 546-run innings in the Harris shield) can make a successful transition to the senior side, there is no doubt that Mumbai can look to regain their lost glory. But till that time, Mumbaikars like me will have to contend with many days and games of pain and eminent people like Ramchandra Guha expressing unbridled joy on twitter over his (Karnataka) team's defeat of the erstwhile domestic 'dadas'.
Picture abhi baaki hai mere doston !!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

What the IPL means to me...

It is a sense of deja vu all over again. Another IPL season, another rotten scandal to have hit the carnival. But this time though, the spot fixing crisis threatens to strike at the very existence of the IPL itself. One team's future is now in question, and there is no way of knowing who else will get engulfed in this tide (which hopefully, will wash away much of the muck associated with IPL and Indian cricket). But if a section of the media and some former players are to be believed, then the best solution is to scrap the IPL together. This view, of course, is not new. The IPL has for long been the one-stop punching bag for everything that is wrong with Indian cricket. India lose 0-4 in England and Australia ? Blame the IPL. Youngsters looking to take the easy way to success and compromising their values ? Of course, the IPL is responsible. So I thought I would just pen down some thoughts as to what the IPL means for me.
Firstly, I think I ought to clarify something about 'me'. I love my cricket and am aware (more than the average fan, I would like to think)  and proud of its history and heritage. I love five-day test cricket and unquestionably regard that as the purest form of the game and the ultimate test for any cricketer, with bat or ball. Now, to me, what is the IPL ? It is a form of the game (T20) that is, without a shadow of a doubt, overly commercialized for its own good. But still a part of the game of cricket at the end of the day.  Do I have a favorite team ? Yes, of course, I back the Mumbai Indians. But for the most part, that is because the name of that team has the name of my city in it (and I back whatever goes by my city's name). Besides that, there is nothing for me (except 2-3 guys who are part of the playing XI), as a Mumbaikar, to identify with Mukesh Ambani's team. I am sure the same would be the rationale for many of the supporters of other franchises as well. I have been to 3 IPL games at the ground now, and each time, it has been a wonderful experience, to match the experience that I have had of all the Tests and ODIs at the Wankhede over the years. The highlight for me, was the way the North stand and Tendulkar stand got behind Mitchell Johnson as he steamed in to deliver the hat-trick ball against CSK earlier this month. To see a stadium in Mumbai pumping up an Aussie paceman bowling to two Indians was something out of this world. And thanks to the melting pot that is IPL, this has become possible. The world-cup winning T20 captain from West Indies is now taking instructions from an Australian who is not even a regular in his own national squad (and a Sri Lankan before that !!), while two of the very best T20 batsmen in the world (Gayle and ABD) are playing under a young, and often brash, Indian star. And of course, two fine players that were part of the Sydney drama a few years back now share a dressing room together. We would do well to acknowledge this spectacle that leagues like the IPL give us.
But more importantly, I watch cricket (and by extension, the IPL) for... errr... the cricket ! That is to say, a contest between the bat and ball. And from the time Brett Lee bowled that lovely outswinger at pace to castle young Unmukt Chand on April 3rd, the cricket has been undeniably of a high order (except a few instances where towels have been used for signal something fishy to the outside world). And it is the skill on display that makes me happy watching the IPL. Remember, it takes skill for a Kieron Pollard to exactly time his jump at long-on and hold on to the catch off Shaun Marsh. It takes even greater skill (and courage) for a Dishant Yagnik to stand virtually besides the stump and convert a Malinga toe-crusher into a half-volley (imagine how silly he would have looked had he been bowled !!). There have been several other moments that have made your jaw drop in awe just thinking 'how does this guy manage to do this ?'. And as to what the players think about the IPL, one can only look at the example of a 41-year old who turned down financially lucrative commentary assignments to train hard and prepare his team for this season (and look at the rewards he has reaped !!). It is the commitment that players like Rahul Dravid show to this tournament that makes me happy watching the IPL. There is, of course, that odd moment of apprehension when you suddenly sense that the goings-on are just not right (as when Pollard drops three in a row). But for me, the joys of watching the top players in the world parade their skills have far outweighed these negative moments. And that is good enough for me as a lover of the game of cricket. If a few money-minded individuals have disgraced the game of cricket by their sorry acts, I say bring them to book as soon as possible and get on with the game.
The issue with the IPL is not with the game itself, it is with the way it is run. Far from perfect.  For starters, it is about a couple of weeks too long. The blatantly opaque rules have ensured that a group of haves and have-nots has been created amongst the franchises. And the famous conflict-of-interest position that one of the franchise owners occupies was always going to be exposed one day (especially since his franchise happens to be the most successful). It is surely time to clean up the way IPL is conducted, and freeing it from the clutches of the BCCI is probably the right way to go about it. Maybe the Government should step in and hand over the management of the IPL to a new listed corporate entity, complete with a player-CEO and a governing Board of Directors drawn from the very best of Indian industry. This will ensure accountability of the people running the show. It will not, of course, stop betting and spot-fixing. These will remain as long as greed remains a part of the human psyche, but, as fans, if I am assured from within that what I am seeing is devoid of any large-scale wrong-doing and the people in charge are of near-impeccable integrity, then the actions of a Sreesanth or a Meiyappan would hardly bother me. It is time that the millions of cricket fans all over the world are given that assurance. Hopefully, the current crises takes us some what closer to that nirvana.
To try and sum up a long post in one sentence: If the IPL were to die, as some people want it to be, I would not grieve its demise, but would certainly miss it and remember it as a good product gone horribly wrong.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Over to the selectors..

As I write this, Ojha has been bowled by Anderson and India have folded for 247, giving England the third test on a platter and a 2-1 lead in the series. It was, quite ridiculously, called the badla series by the media (the ESPNStar ads with the 'pungi bajao' chant were shocking to say the least - they were also giving 'pungis' at the Wankhede, causing quite a racket) and it has all crashed down in a heap. All India can hope now is to draw the series 2-2, but given the record at Nagpur (generally a flat track) it is difficult to see that happening, since on a flat track, it is the bowling that wins you the match (on most tracks actually !) and England are streets ahead as far as bowling is concerned. But before the teams get to the Orange city, there is the small matter of Sandeep Patil and co. meeting to decide the squad for that game. And it is he, along with his four colleagues, who would be watched most closely in Kolkata today. It is to him that the Indian cricket fan will look at, looking for signs of a fresh direction to Indian test cricket. Will he deliver ?
Patil and co. have many issues to start off with. Firstly, I believe, they should start with the captain. Since the World Cup victory, Mahendra Singh Dhoni now has a record of 1-10 against England and Australia and in most cases, the captain would have been shown the door. But in India, the TINA option is now possibly keeping Dhoni's case alive. But I feel that Nagpur should be Dhoni's last test match in charge. He is still a fantastic ODI and T20 player and should be kept fresh for those formats, possibly leading up to the World Cup defence in 2015. His test match record as a batsman is not the best recently. An average of 29 in 19 test since the start of 2011 is less than what is expected from a wicket-keeper in this day and age. Dhoni himself had earlier talked about quitting one format of the game in 2013, and maybe this is time for him to walk the talk. Australia come here only in February, and Patil should identify the next captain immediately. But who are the choices ? Gambhir was earlier marked out as a leader, but his performances (and his running) have clearly not advanced his case. From the younger lot, Kohli is the front runner. He has had a quiet series, but his record this year and the age on his side means he can be looked as a long-term option. The question is whether Kohli has the temperament and diplomacy that an Indian captain needs to have. But if he is the man for India, then makes sense to give him three months to prepare for that role. I am not a fan of a stop-gap captain because India has important test series coming up starting late 2013 (tours to South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia in the space of 15 months). So who-ever is the next Indian test captain, he should be given an extended run.
The next question pertains to the bowling. Zaheer Khan has been the leader of the pack for few years now, but at 34 years 2 months, he needs to take a call on his future. His last 11 tests has given him 28 wickets at 37 apiece (overall average: 32). In India, he averages 56 in his last 5 tests. England have shown how the reverse swinging ball (at pace) can cause damage, and maybe the reverse swing is not working for Zak now. Ishant's always has been a stop-start-stop career. In fact, it is surprising to note that he has actually played 46 tests, since it feels like that spell to Ponting at Perth was day before yesterday. Unfortunately, his career has hardly progressed since then. He might still make it to South Africa and onwards next year, but he needs to be put on notice. Umesh Yadav's injuries is a big cause for concern, since he is by far our brightest prospect. His injury management needs to be put on highest priority by the team management, since he is probably the only one amongst the current lot who can consistently clock 145 kph. He would be critical come 2013-14. Coming to the spinners, Ojha has been good throughout the England series and is now the frontline spinner. Ashwin will make the side (his batting surely helps !) and we need a third tweaker.
I spoke about the bowling first since the batting, to me, is lesser of a worry since India have always had young batsmen waiting in the wings. Rahane should find himself in the playing XI soon (maybe at Nagpur itself) and you still have Manoj Tiwary and Murali Vijay in the wings. And do not forget that for all the brouhaha about his batting, Rohit Sharma is yet to make his test debut. Maybe the responsibility of five days of tough cricket reins in his obvious talent. It would be a shame if he is not given opportunities in test match cricket. Finally, no discussion on the team is complete without a reference to that 39 year old ! That is a tricky situation with Patil and co. One thing is dead sure (and even his harshest critics would agree), the man deserves a farewell like no other ! It would be a tragedy if he announces his retirement after the Nagpur test. So if that discussion has happened, Indian cricket fans deserve to know it today. Else, he is better off preparing for the Australian series by playing for Mumbai in the Ranji trophy.
Finally, here are my squads for Nagpur and against Australia:
Nagpur playing XI: Sehwag, Gambhir, Pujara, SRT, Kohli, Rahane, MS Dhoni (C), Ashwin, Ojha, Zaheer, Ishant/Bhuvneshwar Kumar
pool for the Australian series: Sehwag, Gambhir, Murali Vijay, Rahane, Pujara, Kohli (C), Rohit Sharma, Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel, Umesh Yadav, Parwinder Awana, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Irfan Pathan, Ojha, Ashwin, <a leg spinner???>
over to you Mr. Patil !!!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Of selections and tactics...

The soups have been served and gulped down, the starters have been devoured.. and now, it is the time for the main course, the real thing. India's off-color showing in the World T20 was, to me, on more or less expected lines (and it was so wonderful to see everyone's second favourite team, the West Indies, win the trophy !). After the victory in 2007, we have not really performed in the World T20. Why that should be so is something of a mystery, and looks unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Thereafter, the IPL teams failed to deceive in the Champions League T20. It was a pretty forgettable last few weeks for Indian cricket. But now, the real action begins. The Englishmen are here, and our friends from across the border and the men from Down Under are scheduled to come in the next four months in what promises to be one of the most anticipated seasons in Indian cricket in many years. Eight Test matches, 8 ODIs and 4 T20Is. It could not get any bigger than this.
In the build up to the first Test against England (starting November 15 at Ahmedabad), two things in particular have caught my attention. And both have to do with selection issues. The first one was the tactic of not playing a specialist spinner in the warm up game against England. It was slammed, expectedly so, by the English media and, unexpectedly so, by even some former Indian cricketers. I, for one, have no problems with it. It makes perfect sense not to give the visiting side match practice against quality spin, if indeed we have identified spin as the weapon to go in the Tests. In a way, it is similar to what England and Australia do in their home tests. English counties routinely rest their best players in their matches against touring international sides. And a tour of Australia, till recently, used to consist of a warm-up game in Perth on a flyer of a track and against a second-string bowling attack, which was normally good enough to get the better of sub-continental sides. And by the time these sides used to come to the Gabba for the first Test (on an equally fast pitch), they were well and truly cooked. So, I do not understand the logic of calling this move by Patil and co. a 'defensive' move. What should, of course, worry the Englishmen is that the part-timer (Yuvraj) got five wickets !. As I said, I have no problems with that tactic.
But I do have a problem with the selection of the squad for the first 2 Tests. Not per se with the personnel selected (as 9 of the starting 11 almost pick themselves), but with the no. of people selected. I simply cannot imagine why one needs to select 15 for a home series. In all probability, Rahane, Ishant, Murali Vijay and Ojha will spend the next three weeks warming the benches nicely when, instead, they were better served playing for their sides in the Ranji Trophy. It would be a criminal waste of talent if this were to happen. It is high time that the new selection committee stopped this practice. Announce only a squad of 12 or maximum 13 (for each test match seperately - one bowler and batsman as back-up) and stick with it. Even if there are multiple first-morning injuries, a back-up can fly in by the end of the day. And when the test match starts, the two balance players should be released immediately so that they can fly to their respective Ranji teams if the match is beginning the next day. Hope Mr. Patil and co. takes the cue from this !
Also, it was so nice to see so much media coverage to the first round of the Ranji Trophy. Hope this continues for the remainder of the season as well. Cannot wait for the action to begin !

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

New season beckons..

It is finally time to dust off the whites, for a new season in Indian cricket is about to get underway. It is almost two months since the IPL final, and a two-month break must be like a god-send to both players and fans alike. Sure, the men in blue had a short trip, like they seem to have almost every year, to Sri Lanka, but that series can go down as one of the most low-key events of recent times. It was certainly for me personally, since the Ind-SL series will be remembered by me as probably the first series wherein I did not watch even a single ball live !!

Anyways, it is time to switch from blues to whites and from ODIs to Test matches. The New Zealand team is here and we are ready for what is the earliest start to a test match season in India. I reckon it is the first time that a test match is being played in India in August ! That itself will be interesting in the context of how the pitch and weather conditions are. But this two-test series (ohh, how I hate 2-test series !) is a precursor to the main bonanza awaiting Indian fans at home - a full eight tests against two formidable opponents (England and Australia) and a chance to compensate the 0-8 drubbing they received last year, albiet at home. Simply cannot wait for November onwards !! And what's even better, finally the rights to cover cricket in India are with ESPN Star. Hopefully, we will have much more professional standards, not to mention better commentators, of cricket coverage going forward.

Coming specificallly to this series, most people would be looking forward to how India copes with the new guard in the middle-order. Following the retirement of Rahul Dravid in March was the rather more surprising retirement move of VVS Laxman. The surprising thing was more in the 'immediate' part of the retirement, since he was widely expected to play at his home ground against New Zealand before signing off. For me, the whole episode carries an undercurrent of tension between VVS and the selectors. It is now widely speculated that his hand was forced by the selectors or the BCCI. But following the retirement, what was even more surprising, was the inclusion of Badrinath in the team. It is high time that BCCI realizes that for home tests, 15 players are not needed. The inclusion of Badrinath sends all the wrong reasons. If he makes his way to the playing XI, then it means that a person who was not in the first two in the list of replacements for the middle-order suddenly jumpstarts everyone and finds a place in the XI. Surely, one of Rahane and Pujara will not be happy, and rightly so. And if Badrinath warms the benches, surely the whole selection was completely useless and avoidable. With quite a few home tests scheduled this year, one hopes that the selectors pick a fixed 12 people for every game while the rest gain valuable match practice playing in the Ranji Trophy.

But for Rahane and Pujara, it is time fo start afresh. One hopes that these two, amongst the front runners to replace Dravid and Laxman as the next gen of Indian batting, get an extended run not just against the Kiwis but also against England. Atleast 4-5 tests are required for them to show their worth. The performance of these two itself will be reason enough to watch the games against New Zealand.

Let the season begin !!


Friday, May 25, 2012

IPL bashing continues..

The IPL 5 counts down to its final days, with a possibility of a third successive victory for the Men in Yellow from down South. But over the past few days, it is the action off the field that has garnered most of the headlines. First, it was the spot-fixing allegations, then the infamous altercation between SRK and the MCA officials, a molestation scandal involving an international player and a couple of players found at a rave party in suburban Mumbai. Unfortunately, these have taken the colour off what has been, in my opinion, a very good edition of the IPL. The crowds have supported it to the hilt (witness the packed Chinnaswamy stadium for the neutral Eliminator match the other day), the cricket has been of a high standard, teams have been more equally balanced and much more competitive (which is the main reason why I support DD or KKR – CSK have simply not been the best side in the tournament) and the many last-over finishes have been kept everyone engrossed. But predictably, the off-field action has triggered a volley of articles and comments in the media by many lambasting the IPL and many of the ills that come bundled with it. Kirti Azad has also gone on a ‘token 3-hr fast’ against the IPL, maybe feeling bad deep down why IPL was not around during his time !. To the list of such articles, Ramchandra Guha’s article in the Hindu today provides one addition.

Before I move onto the article, let me say that I am a keen reader and admirer of Mr. Guha’s writings. His books are well-researched and a pleasure to read. ‘India after Gandhi’ was excellent and I am waiting to read his essays on the ‘Makers of Modern India’. But, while partly agreeing with the core of what Mr. Guha has to say regarding the IPL, I found some of his arguments too far-fetched and a bit odd too. Some of my comments regarding his points are as follows:

a. He talks about how the state has control of key resources like land, minerals and the airwaves and, because of this, how this has prompted all sorts of nepotism and corruption in our country. Thus, he says, creative capitalism and given way to crony capitalism and the IPL is just another example. My take: Fair enough, so how is the IPL bad for Indian capitalism ? The degradation had set in before 2008, and IPL is just the off-shoot of that. I do agree with the point he brings in regarding the obvious conflict of interest involved when one IPL team is owned by the Board president. This will always remain an albatross around the IPL’s neck and the sooner the BCCI addresses it, the better.

b. He then talks about how the IPL has created a divide between the affluent, big cities and the rest of India, representative of the fact is that UP, MP etc. do not have a single franchisee based therein. My reply is that : why blame IPL ? Ask this question to the franchisee owners who put in the money and who decided (in my knowledge) where their teams would be based at, presumably on commercial interests (even the Sahara group selected Pune over Lucknow). And talking about UP, while their Ranji team has performed extremely well on the field, where is the infrastructure and facilities off it ? Kanpur used to be a test venue till the 1980s, now, even One-day internationals are not held there.

c. It seems odd to me that the presence of titles like ‘Royal’ and ‘Kings’ now strike Mr. Guha as elitist after 5 years now. This is a fantastic insight, one that never struck me all these years. I doubt if anyone else thought that way. Anyways, with all the airline woes, I doubt if Mr. Mallya is feeling like a royal anymore !! J
d. He says that people go to watch IPL more to be in the same space with Nita Ambani and SRK than for the cricket. I have now gone for 2 IPL games and have never cared which celebrity is present there. Anyways, sitting in the Tendulkar stand at Wankhede doesn’t exactly mean you are rubbing shoulders with Mukesh Ambani !!

e. He feels that only the upper strata of society follows IPL games. I travel in Mumbai locals to work and the other day, I could overhear conversations on how Bhajji tactically failed in the game against Chennai and the general despondency that Mumbai Indians were out of the competition. Surely, it will never match the euphoria (or sadness) of an Indian victory (or loss) but to think that people below the elite do not care for the IPL is again far-fetched. As far as the villages are concerned, it’s a different matter but then would be interesting to know how many of them follow Test cricket as well. Also how does one explain the full houses for IPL games at centers like Dharamsala and Cuttack ?
f. Then, there is the done-to-death argument on how the IPL 2011 was the chief culprit in the 0-4 thrashings thereafter. I have spoken about this earlier and stand by it. The real problem was in our refusal to initiate a proper transition between the batting stalwarts of the 90s to Gen-Next rather than having the IPL immediately after the World Cup. And while IPL-related injuries can be used as an excuse for the England tour, but to say that ‘the weariness and exhaustion carried over to the Australian series’ sounds a bit silly to me. Anyways, this will get answered this year as the Indian team gets more than a month off after the IPL and with return series scheduled against the same opponents.
This has been a long post, and I will just summarize it thus: The IPL is far from perfect. It has flaws (and some very serious) that cannot be ignored and need to be fixed urgently if it has to gain wider acceptance. But to blame all the ills of the cricketing world (and beyond) on the IPL does not address the core issue either. Specially coming as it does from an eminent personality like Ramchandra Guha, this piece is quite off the mark in some respects.


PS: Note that his piece was written before the start of DD vs CSK game. The way the game is turning out (and the fishy air surrounding it) might negate some of what I have to say, but still I go ahead and post this anyways..

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tentativeness causing Mumbai Indians dearly ..!

We are now nearly two-thirds into in the league stage of IPL 5 and the battle for play-off places is hotting up in right earnest. Delhi Daredevils are head and shoulders above other teams and will walk into the play-offs with their next win. Kolkata Knight Riders are finally getting their act together and, if they win their 'away' game against Pune Warriors later today, should be nicely poised for a play-off spot. But the final two spots in the play-offs can be anybody's game. And of the remaining 7 sides, none has looked convincing enough to lay a solid claim on a play-off spot. Two-time champions CSK are looking a shadow of their former self (though only a foolish man will write them off just yet). RCB have two serious issues viz. Kohli's slump and weak links in their bowling. Royals and Pune Warriors started off by promising a lot but are in danger, Pune Warriors especially, of losing steam mid-way. Deccan Chargers have lived to their reputation as one of the weakest sides and are almost out of contention. Their only job now, it seems, will be to spoil someone else's party !!. Kings XI Punjab have made giant strides in the past couple of weeks (beating CSK, RCB and Mumbai Indians all in their own backyard) and in Mandeep Singh and Parwinder Awana, they seem to have unearthed decent talents. They are now serious contenders for a play-off spot. And finally, the team that had probably the best XI on paper have disappointed. And, in my opinion, there are good reasons why Mumbai Indians have performed the way they have.

Of course, this is not to say that they are out of the IPL. In fact, they are sitting well in third place today. But the way their victories have come about hardly inspires any confidence. Rohit Sharma took them home in their earlier game against Deccan, while Peterson and Rayadu got them out of jail by getting 32 in 2 overs against KXIP. Apart from the first game against Chennai, they have had close victories (admittedly, this tournament has had more than its share of close finishes :). And like most other teams, there are serious chinks in the supposedly strong Mumbai order. And the problem starts with the top. MI have made a reputation for starting off in a test match format. The rotation of openers has not helped either. Franklin and Tendulkar are a stable opening combination now but neither of them seems inclined to take the attack to the bowler in the first 3-4 overs. Other teams have a Gayle, a Sehwag, a Rahane or a Du Plessis that hit the ground running, but not Mumbai Indians. It is this tentativeness at the start of their innings that is a big cause of concern. One can understand the tentativeness if this was a top-heavy batting order. But with proven performers like Rohit, Pollard, Rayudu and Karthik to follow, one really cannot figure out why Mumbai Indians almost prefer to be 30-0 after 6 overs. Or is it because of that ? On the other hand, look at the Daredevils. With Sehwag, Mahela, KP (now Warner) and Taylor as their top 4, their strategy is simply to intimidate and take the game away from the bowlers in the first 6 overs. I am sure they are mindful of the fact that Nos 5 onwards, they have a slight problem but that has not detered them from being aggressive at the top. It is time Mumbai Indians batsmen start dictate terms at the start of their innings. Another interesting option could be to try Karthik at the top. Most opposing teams now open with a spinner and Karthik is a good player of spin and could upset some plans especially with the fielding restrictions in place. It is surprising how Bhajji and the team management have not tried this out. Another issue is with the team composition. It seems that they prefer to go with a better bowling attack, often at the cost of slightly weakening the batting. It makes sense, of course, since, as we have seen with RCB, a weak link in the bowling can cost you a game or two. But with Malinga, Munaf, Ojha, Harbhajan as four main bowlers and Perera, Peterson and Franklin as back-up (as was the case in the Pune game) it is obvious that couple of the bowlers would be under-utilized. What Mumbai Indians need is another aggressive and specialist batsman, as they seem to have too many all-rounders in their side (Franklin, Perera, Peterson, Harbhajan). Which is why I have been crying out from the first game that Suryakumar Yadav needs to be given a chance. He is aggressive and scores at a fast clip in domestic cricket. It is high team that he is given a chance. My ideal XI would be:

Sachin, Karthik, Rohit, Rayudu, Pollard, Suryakumar Yadav, Franklin / Perera, Bhajji, Malinga, Munaf, Ojha/RP Singh.

Of course, all is not lost. For once, Mumbai Indians have been unlucky with injuries. Their three main players have hardly played together. Sachin was out for two weeks after the first game, then Malinga went back to Sri Lanka with back spasms and now Pollard is out with a shoulder injury. They would dearly hope to seem all three play atleast the last four league games. But, injury concerns not withstanding, they need to get their combination right and show aggression in their batting. Tommorow's game against CSK would be big. I predict that whoever wins tommorow would gain crucial momentum and will march on to the play-offs while the other team will have more days of struggle ahead.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

IPL Status Check - Part 1

So we are one-third into the league stage of the IPL (27 out of 72 matches done with to be precise), and it looks like it is going to be a photo-finish as far as the play-offs are considered or, to put in Ravi's words, 'going right down to the wire' :) Pune Warrior's comfortable victory over the Daredevils yesterday confirmed one thing: no team can be assured off a play-off spot at this stage and, unless Deccan lose today as well, no team is out of the race. Match attendances seem to be good (and I will contribute towards that today in the MI vs KXIP match), though, for some reason, the TV audiences seem to be falling. But, so far, it has been a great tournament. Here is a quick check on what the teams have been doing so far:

Delhi Daredevils (Played - 6, Won - 4, Lost - 2):  Relatively looking the strongest team in the tournament, though yesterday, when they were out-batted by Pune, would have hurt. Batting order is probably the strongest in the competition (with Warner still to join - but will Morne Morkel - their best bowler- make way for him ?). Bowling has done quite well, especially in that demolition of Mumbai Indians. And Pietersen finally running into form must be a very omininous sign for the opposition. Still tip them to be the first to get to the play-offs stage.

Chennai Super Kings: (7-4-3): Have been inconsistent so far, which is not befitting a two-time champion and a side who has had the same core for 5 years now. Things would have been worse had it not been for Albie Morkel's stunning hiest against RCB. Key batsman are not firing: Vijay and Raina. Du Plessis has been a revelation (and would be interesting to see what happens when Hussey returns). As regards the bowling, they have been pretty decent with Bollinger and Ashwin doing well. However, their 5th bowler (Bravo, Jadeja and Jakati) can leak the runs. They now have 2 wins on the trot and should capitalize on the momentum to see them through to the play-offs.

Kings XI Punjab: (6-2-4) Have generally struggled, and will do so more now that Gilchirst is injured. Azhar Mahmood's return would be welcome, and he immediately felt his presence felt in the first game. But with his visa not permitting him to travel beyond Mohali and Delhi, KXIP would find themselves handicapped. Still, Shaun Marsh and David Hussey are good T20 batsman and should bat in the top 4. But their bowling is not something which will concern the opposition, especially with Praveen Kumar struggling. Parwinder Awana was also a welcome addition in the last game.

Mumbai Indians (5-3-2). Have had a long time off since their forgetable night against Delhi, and the lop-sided schedule means that they have 2 games in hand as compared to some of the other sides. Still. the two losses have exposed the chinks in the armour (and they should have lost against Deccan as well). And with Malinga out, it is a serious blow, with the bowling suddenly not looking as formadible as it once was. Still RP, Munaf, Bhajji and Ojha form a good unit. They also have struggled to get their combination right. With Sachin scheduled to be back today, MI would be hoping to get their campaign back on track with a couple of wins against KXIP in their next two games. Still favour them for a play-off spot.

Rajasthan Royals (7-4-3). The team of the IPL so far. I had mentioned in my IPL preview that they would struggle to make the play-offs, and they are proving me wrong so far. And, for the sake of their 39-yr old captain, I do not mind. Ajinkya Rahane has shown that you can wear the orange cap by playing cultured cricketing shots in T20 and Owais Shah has probably made the most impression from amongst the overseas players. And with Shane Watson set to return, they would be even stronger. Though they need to step it up against the big boys, having lost to MI, CSK and KKR so far.

Pune Warriors (7-4-3). Another vastly improved side. And yesterday, it was Dada's day at the Kotla. Interesting to note that they have beaten both MI and CSK so far and, had it not been for that last over, would have beaten RCB as well. They still need to play out of their skins to reach the play-offs. Also would be interesting to see the influence Micheal Clarke has on the team once he joins in. Their bowling unit of Thomas, Nehra, M Karthik and Rahul Sharma looks decent bit not threatening.

Royal Challengers Bangalore (6-3-3). They would be disappointed to find themselves at 7th place in the table and they have blown hot and cold so far. Have been even-stevens as far as shock results are concerned, Kohli's horror over against CSK was compensated by Nehra's. But their fifth bowler has been the problem area with Apanna, Arvind etc not proving to the task. In batting, they seem to be over-reliant on Gayle, Kohli and DeVilliers. Need to find a way to pull themselves up or would struggle to stay in contention for a semi-final spot.

Kolkata Knight Riders (6-3-3). Have been going about their business relatively quietly this time around, which is a bit unusual. Have a very good side on paper, though Yusuf Pathan has yet to fire. Their skipper seems to be in fine form, and alongwith Kallis, adds a look of solidity to the batting. Still, their tendency of slipping up when seemingly in control would need to be watched. Would need to watch their back very closely

Deccan Chargers (4-0-4). Clearly seem to be a level below the rest, though they have only themselves to blame. They really should not have allowed MI to win that game and dropping Kevin Pietersen thrice in an innings is not very smart cricket !. Today is going to be huge for them, a loss today and they can virtually kiss the play-offs good bye. A pity for a team that has Sangakkara, Steyn and Duminy in their ranks.

Thats all,  got to run to the Wankhede now !!!. Will come up with another status check after the next third of matches are done.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Who has the best Indian contingent ? (IPL Preview - Part 3)

And here is a quick take on the final three sides:

Pune Warriors:

Had an up and down time last season, and this time around, they have to do without the services of their captain and best player, Yuvraj Singh. Still relatively new in the IPL, they would be keen to put up a much better show this time around.

Key Indian players: Sourav Ganguly, Dinda, Dheeraj Jadhav (though relatively unknown, the man averages 56 in first class cricket but his T20 strike rate of 91 is a concern), Murali Karthik, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mithun Manhas, Manish Pandey (remember he scored a IPL hundred for RCB couple of years back), Rahul Sharma and of course, Robin Utthapa.

Have a couple of very good players in Utthapa, Manish Pandey and of course, Dada. But then overall, their Indian contingent is not in the league of CSK, MI etc. Overseas support would be provided by Graeme Smith, Ryder, Marlon Samuels, N McCullum and their latest signing, Micheal Clarke. Expect them to remain in contention for a play-off spot for much of the league stage. Whether they can get there might just depend on a couple of crucial games.

Rajasthan Royals:

The romance of their victory in IPL 2008 has fizzled out a long time. Since then, they have struggled to remain in contention for a play-off spot. And this year, they will have to do it without their captain, Shane Warne. In his place is the recently-retired Rahul Dravid who, for sentimental reasons alone, would get a lot of support wherever he goes.

Key Indian players: Dravid, Stuart Binny, Deepak Chahar, Akash Chopra, Pankaj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane and Sreesanth.

With Dravid, Akash Chopra and Rahane (all known for occupying the crease), the tag of a Test side might be difficult to shake off. In the overseas department, Botha, Chandimal, Collingwood, the Brads (Hodge and Hogg) and Shane Watson would be key.

Would again be reliant on a few key players. That, in itself, is not a good place to be in a 16-game league stage. Would struggle to make the play-offs, unless Dravid can do a Warne and make heroes out a couple of local players.

Royal Challengers Bangalore:

They have done the reverse of the Royals. After a forgettable first season, they have steadily climbed the ladder, reaching the final in IPL-2 and 4, only to lose out both times. Last year was memorable for the Gayle-force and an encore this year would be expected. Plus they have the hottest property in Indian cricket right now in Virat Kohli.

Key Indian contingent: Mayank Agarwal, Kaif, Zaheer Khan, Virat Kohli, Abhimanyu Mithun, C Pujara (whom I would be watching closely), Saurabh Tiwary and Vinay Kumar.

Very good Indian representation and supported by Gayle, Vettori, Dilshan and AB DeVilliers (with Murali, Dirk Nannes as backup), it makes for a very good side. Should make the play-offs.

Final thought: Should be a good season. CSK, MI, RCB and DD look to be the better of the lot with KKR and Pune Warriors to stay close on their heels.

Let the games begin !!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Who has the best Indian contingent (IPL Preview - Part 2)

The next three teams:

Kings XI Punjab:

Have been a consistent disappointment in the IPL, and do not seem to have done much in terms of rejigging their squad for this edition. And quite how did they trade Dinesh Karthik to Mumbai Indians in return for R Satish is beyond me.

Key Indian contingent: Piyush Chawla, Praveen Kumar,Abhishek Nayar, Romesh Powar, Paul Valthaty

Again, not many amongst the Indian names that inspire confidence. The batting looks especially vulnerable and will depend strongly on their 41-year old skipper Adam Gilchrist in addition to his fellow Aussies David Hussey and Shaun Marsh. Getting to play offs seems a road too long.

Kolkata Knight Riders:

Finally achieved the play-offs last year (avoiding the ignomony of being the only team not to have made the play-offs/semi-finals in the 4 years). Have not made many changes to their Indian contingent in the recent auction, hence the core of their team will be the same.

Key Indians: Gambhir, Balaji, Rajat Bhatia, Iqbal Adullah, Yusuf Pathan, Laxmi Shukla and Manoj Tiwary

Their foreign contingent is probably the strongest in the IPL, but only 4 out of Kallis, Brett Lee, McCullum, Eoin Morgan, Sunil Narine, Pattinson, Shakib Al Hasan and Ten Deoschate would be able to play. A lot will then depend on the local talent that they have, which is quite a decent bunch. Should be closely fighting for a spot in the play-offs.

Mumbai Indians:

Clearly seemed to have the best of the auction. They lost only Ali Murtaza, Sarul Kanwar and R Satish but they have added Dinesh karthik, RP Singh, Pragyan Ojha, Gibbs, Mitchell Johnson, Thisara Perera, Richard Levi etc.

Key Indians: Tendulkar, Harbhajan, Dinesh Karthik, Dhaval Kulkarni, Pragyan Ojha, Munaf, Ambati Rayadu, Rohit Sharma, RP Singh, T Suman

Extremely strong Indian line up. Can almost make a XI out of their own. Add to that Malinga, Pollard, Levi, Thisara Perera, Gibbs etc. Also seem to have fixed the wicket-keeper problem with Karthik added. Would be a real shock if they failed to make the play-offs.

Next post will have the final three teams.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Who has the best Indian contingent (IPL Preview - Part 1)

In just over a week from now, the action starts all over. For nearly 2 months, much of India will spend their late afternoons and evening glued to the television set following the fortunes of their teams in yet another season of the IPL. And it seems this time, the BCCI is pulling out all stops to ensure a grand season, starting off with a star-studded lineup (Amitabh, Kareena, Salman, Priyanka etc) in the opening night in Chennai on the 3rd, a day before the action kicks off at the same venue. I admit wholeheartedly that I am a big fan of the IPL and am also an equally keen supporter of Test cricket, and I also firmly believe that loving both formats of the game is not mutually exclusive. I also disagree (and I have been saying this through Facebook and Twitter) with those who blame the IPL for all the ills that currently afflict Indian cricket. It is quite strange to see the IPL being blamed for our eight successive test losses when, in fact, most of the Indian batting line-up in those games made their names much before the IPL started. People also conveniently overlook the role a tournament like IPL has played in kickstarting India's one-day performance. I do believe that had it not been for the IPL, we would have struggled to see the kind of run-chases India displayed in Hobart and Mirpur recently. As Harsha Bhogle put it very nicely 'T20 and IPL has made batsman irreverent towards targets'. So no score is really safe anymore, and that itself makes the ODI game more interesting. I can also see in the near future a 450-500 score being chased down in the fourth innings in a test match, and T20 and IPL would have a part to play in that.

But back to IPL-5. The teams have been slightly rejigged this year, the Kochi Tuskers are no longer there and their players have gone off with different teams. But amidst all this, one constant remains. The fortunes of a team would still be decided by the 7 Indian players that would feature in the starting line-up. You might have all the foreign stars in the squad, but it is the local talent that will decide how far you will go in the tournament. This has been demonstrated by Rajasthan Royals and CSK in the past. So here is a quick rundown of the squads this year (in alphabetical order) and an assessment of the Indian contingent that each franchisee has:

Chennai Super Kings:

Clearly the most successful side over the past 4 seasons that there is a good reason for that. Good leadership supported by a stable core of both local and foriegn sides that has largely remain unchanged. 
Key Indian contingent: MS Dhoni, Ashwin, Badrinath, Jadeja, Raina, Murali Vijay, Wriddhiman Saha and Abhinav Mukund

As usual, very strong Indian flavour. All Indian internationals. Expect CSK to be one of the favourites again.

Deccan Chargers:

Parthiv Patel and Darren Bravo are good additions to the Chargers squad, but the loss of Ojha to Mumbai Indians will hurt, as also will Ishant Sharma's un-availability due to injury.

Key Indian contingent: Shikhar Dhawan, Manpreet Gony, Abhishek Jhunjhunwala, Amit Mishra, Parthiv,Tanmay Shrivastava, TP Sudhindra

Distinctly lackluster lineup. Hardly anyone who can be betted on to set the stadium alight. A lot of will depend on Messrs Sangakarra, Steyn, Dan Christian, JP Duminy. Would be a real surprise if they make the play-offs.

Delhi Daredevils:

Lot of work seems to have happened in the interim. Middle order is suddenly power-packed with Pietersen and Mahela both coming in. Sehwag should be fresh, injury-free and hungry as well.

Key Indian contingent: Sehwag, Varun Aaron, Agarkar, Robin Bist (leading runscorer this Ranji), Irfan Pathan, Naman Ojha, Venugopal Rao, Umesh Yadav

Solid Indian contingent with a good bowling attack (hopefully the Kotla wicket would be to their liking). Add to this a top and middle order of Warner (though he will miss half the season), KP, Jaywardene and Ross Taylor and you have a team that should go far. After a lackluster couple of seasons, I expect the Daredevils to get their act together this time around. Expect a play-off spot.

The other teams will follow in the next couple of posts...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mission beyond 2014..

In a post last month after the disastrous test series Down Under had ended, I had written about some of the issues that needed to be addressed in order to first arrest the decline, and then improve the stock of Indian test cricket. That post was named as Mission 2014 for the reason that India's next overseas tours come about in 2014 (and there are plenty - South Africa, NZ, England, Australia in 15 months followed by the World Cup), and the post talked about the more immediate and short-term measures that can be taken over the next 18 months or so. A lot has happened since that post, none bigger and more relevant than the retirement of one of India's greatest, Rahul Dravid (more about that in a seperate post). So India will need to have a new No. 3 in their next test (thankfully, it is six months away !) and maybe a new No. 5 as well (Laxman has yet to take a call). Thus, it is all the more relevant that those in charge of Indian cricket plan long term and look beyond 2014. These are some of the issues that they need to address:

a. Making domestic cricket relevant: This, of course, is a very generic statement and one that has been debated for many years. Lots of theories and suggestions have been thrown by various people on how the domestic cricket calendar needs to be revamped, the pitches need to be made more sporting etc etc. While most of it is true and makes sense, there are some other aspects of domestic cricket that I feel also needs addressing, some of them being:

  - Get the international players to participate: This is one aspect where English and Australian cricket differs vastly from us. In England for example, only a squad of 12 is picked for home tests and on the day before the game, the 12th man is discharged from the squad and sent back to play for his domestic side while the test match is going on (substitute duties are done by a local player). Here on the other hand, we pick a squad of 14 for Tests in India and the remaining three do not have much to do apart from warming the benches. Its time we made it mandatory, to the extent possible, for the test match squad to play a couple of Ranji games every year. Imagine the effect it would have on a, say, Suryakumar Yadav from Mumbai to have a long parternship with Sachin in a Ranji game. If there are some ODI games in India going on along with a round of Ranji games, then I am even willing to have a couple of the regulars miss those ODIs and play a domestic game instead. (This is also the reason why I am a bit disappointed that Dravid will not be playing Ranji. The wisdom that he can impart to young batsmen from Karnataka from across 22 yards would have been priceless).

   - Have a proper schedule: Currently, there is a tournament called the Deodhar Trophy going on. It involves the 5 zonal sides playing one semi-final qualifier, 2 semi-finals and the final over the space of 5 days. Quite what purpose this tournament serves is beyond me (and that too, just days after the regional 50 over tournament i.e. the Vijay Hazare trophy was completed !!). Also, the Irani Trophy at the start of the season does not make sense, ideally it should be at the end with the newly-crowned Ranji champs against the persons having the best records that season. And the Duleep Trophy needs to be in a round-robin, and not a knock-out format. Thus, I would have only the following tournaments in the domestic cricket calendar:

                          NKP Salve Challenger Trophy (round-robin) : October 1 - 15
                          Duleep Trophy (round-robin) : October 15 - November 20 (hopefully on fresher wickets)
                          Ranji Trophy group stage - December 1 to January 15
                          Ranji Trophy knock out stage - January 15 to February 10
                          Irani Trophy - February 15-20
                          Vijay Hazare trophy -  February 25 - March 15
                          Indian Premier League - April - May

  And surely, the BCCI with it clout can look to ensuring that international committments are in sync with these dates.

b. Where is the Indian U-23 side ? In his biography of Mohammed Azharuddin, Harsha Bhogle talks about the India Under-25 side that toured Zimbabwe in 1984. It was captained by Ravi Shastri (already an established Test cricketer then) and current and future test players like Sidhu, Srikkanth, Azhar and Maninder Singh. Also in those days, every touring side used to play against the U-25 side before the test matches. Sadly, that tradition has been dispensed with. Except for the Emerging Players tournament in Australia, there is hardly any platform for the future Indian test cricketer to perform. This needs to change. An Under-25 or Under-23 side needs to play on a regular basis, either against touring sides or taking seperate tours to England, Australia and the like. Another interesting experiment worth doing is to have an India Under-19 squad play in the Duleep Trophy.

These are just some suggestions that, I think, would help great a strong base for Indian cricket to be succesful, not just in 2014 but also in the years ahead. They only need to look at Australia for inspiration in how to have a sound domestic structure that allows them to bounce back when their greats bow out of the game.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Stop being so defensive about Mankading..

As the CB series hurtles towards the end of the league stage, the action on the field has been quite rivetting. Of the 9 games so far, one has already ended in a tie while another couple have gone to the final over in the second innings. In addition to all this, there has also been no dearth of supplementary action on the field, none more major than the attempt by Ravi Ashwin to run out the non-striker Lahiru Thirimanne for leaving his crease during the bowling action. This, of course, is more commonly known as 'Mankading' after the Indian all-rounder Vinoo Mankad who ran out Aussie Bill Brown way back in 1947-48. I do believe that we should stop using that term and just call it a run-out. Expectedly, the incident generated a lot of controversy off the field, with strong opinions on both sides of the debate i.e. were the Indians right in appealing (apparently without a prior warning) and then were they right in withdrawing the appeal later on. Here I present some thoughts regarding the incident.

First the laws. Law 42.15 on the MCC website says that 'the bowler is permitted, before entering his delivery stride, to run-out the non-striker'.  It then goes on to define the delivery stride. The laws also regard as unfair any attempt by the non-striker to gain additional time by leaving his crease before the bowler has delivered the ball. Here is where the confusion starts. I was watching the game then and Tom Moody, on air at the time, was clear that the law stated that the bowler could run-out the non-striker any time 'before delivering the ball'. I have seen this view on some other forums as well but could not find mention of this on the web-site. So is it 'before entering his delivery stride' or 'before delivering the ball' ?? Either the MCC site has not been updated correctly, or most of us are still ignorant about the laws. Nevertheless, this does not detract from my main point.

Now coming to the point about warning the batsman and the so-called 'spirit of the game'. Again the laws do not mandate that the fielding side should warn the non-striker before running him out. Hence, Ashwin was well within the rules to appeal for the run-out even if he (as Jaywardene said later) had not warned Thirimanne earlier. Now were the Indians playing the game in the right 'spirit' by asking for that run-out, ostensibly without a warning ? This brings me to the spirit of the game. Firstly, let me make it clear that I am all for the spirit of the game. I believe it is neccessary for the smooth conduct of the game, which is increasingly getting more and more competitive. We have heard the phrase quite frequently over the past couple of years whether it be Randiv's no-ball to deny Sehwag a century or in the Ian Bell incident in England last summer. But we have to be judicious as regards the situations wherein the spirit of the game should be invoked. And I am very clear that in the case of a bowler running out the non-striker for backing up too much, the spirit of the game has no place. In my opinion, it is a very clear case of a legitimate dismissal, just like a run-out or handling the ball. Let me explain why. The 'spirit of the game' should be called upon only in cases where the law is not clear on how to handle the situation that has occured or, even if the law is clear, there is enough scope of subjectivity in the opinion of the umpires (I will come to their role later). I will give an example of the second instance. A batsman has set off for a tight single and dives to get in his crease. In the process, his momentum takes the bat off the ground such that, at the instant when the bails are whipped off, the bat is within the crease but in the air (rest of his body is outside the crease). The laws clearly state that the batsman has to leave. But maybe, in such a case, there might be scope for invoking the spirit of the game. After all, the batsman had logically made his ground. Now coming to the mode of dismissal in question. I find it hard to believe that the non-striker unknowingly wanders outside the crease when the bowler is delivering the ball. After all, batsmen are taught right from the school level to watch the bowler and his hand when he is running in to bowl. Surely, it should not be too difficult for them to keep their ground till the ball has left the bowlers hand. All the batsman is trying to do by leaving his crease is to gain those couple of feet which could make all the difference between a run-out and a not-out at the other end (especially in today's  TV era where even an inch short means you take the walk back to the pavilion). In fact, I would argue that with this intention in mind, if the non-striker is leaving his ground during the delivery action, it is actually HE (and not the bowler) who is not playing it fair (as made clear by the laws). To sum it up, I do feel we have to stop being so negative about this mode of dismissal and stop treating the batsman so leniently, especially since the laws are very clear on the subject. None of the warning business should apply and keep the spirit of the game for use somewhere else. Also this warning business does not make logical sense. Should it be one warning per game ? What if, in the next game, batsman again commits the same offence. Will there be a warning then too ? Or will it be one warning every series ? or once in a career ? Who keeps track of all this ?

Finally, a word on the conduct of the on-field umpires. They did their reputation no good with the way they referred the appeal to Sehwag and co. The law states that the umpires are the sole judges of fair or unfair play. Thus, when the appeal was mde by Ashwin, they should have taken it on themselves to give the batsman out or not-out. If Ashwin had not warned Thirimanne earlier, and if they felt that the spirit of the game needed to be upheld, then they should straightaway given the batsman not-out and noted that as a warning . Or else immediately given him out, provided Ashwin was yet to complete his delivery stride while removing the bails (which could have been verified by the third umpire). By referring the matter to the fielding side, they very conveniently passed the hot iron rod to Sehwag to handle. Now imagine if the day was the 2nd of April 2011 in Mumbai (the World Cup final). And for good measure, instead of Thirimanne, it was Sangakarra or Jaywardene in the crease with Sri Lanka needing 50 off 40 balls to win. Imagine Sehwag's dilemma if the decision was his to take. He would have been crucified for being too lenient had he allowed the batsman to stay (and if SL went to win the game). He would also have been crucified if he upheld the appeal, for not playing within the 'spirit of the game'. The umpires are supposed to be neutral, it is for them to take a decision and not to shy away from taking one.

To sum up this long post in one sentence: I do not think this mode of dismissal has scope for any warning to be given and the situation is too clear for the spirit of the game to be called upon.  Finally, would like to make it clear that my view is not because the bowling team was Indian and that we lost the game. It would have remained the same irrespective of which game it is.

Thanks for sitting through a long one..