Sunday, December 30, 2007

Of drop-in pitches, honeymoon periods and attitude problems

Australia won the Boxing Day Test by 337 runs following the Indian no-show with both bat and ball on a Melbourne wicket which left much to be desired. Ricky Ponting hopes that he will never have to play on a wicket as poor as the one at Melbourne. It was a shocking wicket. The ball rarely carried to the wicket keeper, let alone to slip, and Stuart Clark's (who's word carries a lot of weight following his magnificient exhibition with the ball) fears about there being lots of short covers and just one slip after 10 overs on that pitch seem to have been well founded. Has the Indian press taken issue with the wicket?

If the popular sentiment about India's cricketers is to be believed, then the wicket should have suited them. I don't subscribe to this myth - i think the Indian batsmen in particular favor the truer slightly bouncier wickets where batsmen can rely on the pace and bounce off the wicket over the lower, slower, softer, more unpredictable wicket like the one on offer in the Boxing Day Test. For the players, a "bad" wicket is merely one which is not as "good" as a "true" wicket - one which has good even bounce and carry, where the ball comes on to the bat. If Kumble has shown anything in the last 8-10 years of his career, it is that he hates nothing more than slow, dead wickets which have excruciatingly slow turn and no real bounce. Pakistan played 3 tests in India. Do you recall a single bat pad appeal of Kumble's bowling? The same is the case with Harbhajan Singh. Nobody likes a slow wicket. But, all the same, a slow, soft wicket is a professional challenge, one which requires technical and tactical adjustment. That is the essence of playing Test cricket and of touring different venues. The qualitative judgement about pitches then is invariably a measure of how much adjustment is needed, how the contest between bat and ball is affected, and in who's favor the balance is tipped.

It is interesting though, that there has been absolutely zero criticism of the Melbourne pitch in the Indian press, which was so persistent in its criticism of wickets on offer for the Pakistan series. I can just hear them think - "How can that wicket possibly be bad? It wasn't prepared by BCCI! In any case, if the Australian captain wants to criticize the Melbourne pitch, its his business, why should we write about it?". Of course, the same press then spends inch after inch of column space expounding on "mental disintegration" and how the Australians host touring sides as a team on and off the pitch. On how the Australian press does the captain's dirty work for him by going after the visiting captain in press conferences. As far as this pitch goes, how's this for a masterly defense of what was at the end of the day a poor Test match pitch? "Glitch in pitch not a big hitch" says Greg Baum and proceeds to defend a dropped in, custom made pitch which he would have demolished with equal felicity had it been found at Eden Gardens or Ferozshah Kotla. Nothing illustrates the Indian press's view of wickets better than the beginning of this story in the Hindustan Times -

"India came here on the back of winning the Test series at home against Pakistan. They played on slow, low and flat wickets against a substandard Test side. It wasn't the ideal preparation for fast and bouncy pitches Down Under, or, as they discovered, even the thought of fast and bouncy wickets, for the MCG was nothing like that."

This stunning bit of psychoanalysis goes deep into the minds of the Indian batsmen and finds tangled wiring which even medical science probably didn't think could exist. The complexity of the argument truly boggles the mind! Let me try and break it down as best as i can. India came to Australia "under-prepared and underdone". Why? Because they played a full Test series against Pakistan before this. This happened to be on slow and low pitches. Why did this intense bit of cricket (three Tests in three weeks) leave them under prepared and underdone? Because they expected fast and bouncy wickets in Australia, starting at Melbourne.

So, it obviously must follow, that they were flummoxed by the slow and low wicket at Melbourne because their preperation left them vulnerable and unprepared for the fast the bouncy wickets which are prevalent in Australia!

The article goes on to say that "they had reportedly suggested they play five ODIs against Australia instead of seven at home earlier this year and three against Pakistan, but that was not accepted by the BCCI" - "they" being India! So India's request was not accepted by BCCI.

This is the next nugget: BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah, asked a while ago about the lack of match practice before a big tour said: “These are professional cricketers and must learn to adapt quickly.” How long ago was "a while a go"? This is important, because given that India have played 3 Test matches since the beginning of December, "lack of match practice" could hardly be a valid reason, and it would hardly ellicit that particular response from Mr. Shah. Unless Mr. Shah doesn't give a damn as to what the press writes (which is entirely likely if this particular HT article is about par for course as far as their writing goes).

And so it goes on and on....

The simple explanation for India's defeat is that the Indian batsmen never got the runs of the board, and the Indian bowlers never managed to control the scoring. The discipline of the Aussies in terms of line and length was awesome, their running between the wickets was flawless, and the disparity between the two fielding units was almost embarassing. Of these problems, apart from the fielding, all other issues can be tackled to a reasonable extent which will enable India to compete.

Already, the Australians have claimed all sorts of victories. Bradley Hogg supposedly "won" his first battle with the Indian batsmen. Now, he has all the weapons that a wrist spinner needs. He dismissed Sourav Ganguly in both innings, in addition to dismissed Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh. He seems to possess a mean flipper and the ability to bowl all day. However, here at Melbourne, he was bowling at an Indian line up that had been decimated by the pacemen, and most of his wickets came after the game was up. He was much easier to score off than his teammates. The best way to put his performance into perspective, would be to compare it with Andrew Symonds's bowling figures in the second innings. Symonds bowled 13 overs for 25 runs and took the important wicket of Rahul Dravid. Further, the fact the Symonds was preferred by Ponting ahead of Hogg tells its own story. Hogg played his part in the Australian win, but to say he'd won his battle with the Indian batsmen is quite absurd.

What is the Indian press talking about? A couple of stories caught my eye. An "attitude problem" has cropped up for Yuvraj Singh, as reported by Lalchand Rajput. Figure this out for yourself. Yuvraj Singh has been playing cricket for India for 7 years now. He is the vice captain of the ODI side. He supposedly has an "attitude problem". Did this come about overnight? Had it been observed before by the team management? It may well be true - but the question here is not whether or not he has a problem, it is what is it exactly that is involved in an "attitude problem"? Given the tremendous amount of speculation which takes place about most subjects, im amazed that one line reports about "attitude problems" are take unquestioningly and offered as news! I wonder whether anyone tried to ask Lalchand Rajput about what he means by "attitude problem". For all you know, Rajput was talking about the dissent charge that Yuvraj recieved from the referee (its unlikely, but given the non-story that was put out, is it not possible?) What we got effectively was a one line story which said something that was quite unclear, and whats worse, planted the seeds of the usual "dissent in the ranks" stories which accompany defeats. Im amazed that given the fact that this story is quote from the Melbourne Age, there has been no report of an attempted crosscheck/elaboration for any of this with the Indian team management.

The Calcutta Telegraph (i suppose you've guessed where this is going) has this most amazing article about two completely unrelated "issues" - the end of Kumble's "honeymoon period" as captain, and Sourav Ganguly being the second highest run scorer in Tests in 2007. Except, that the article says nothing about any "honeymoon period" except for 1 line which goes "if the job had a honeymoon period, it ended all too abruptly". The story is essentially a post mortem of sorts (a fairly typical sort) of the Test match.

This "honeymoon period", like "attitude problem" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the press refers to Kumble's honeymoon period with the job, they are actually referring to his honeymoon period with the press's assessment of his job. I wonder how Lokendra Pratap Sahi views captaining a side trying to win a Test, getting the top 5 wickets for under 150, and then struggling over the next 300 runs for the next two wickets. That is what Kumble went through against Pakistan thanks to Misbah Ul Haq and Kamran Akmal in the first innings at Kolkata. At Bangalore, it was similarly difficult trying to take 20 Pakistan wickets. Hows that for a honeymoon?

The juxtaposition is transparently obvious - a former captain (Ganguly) riding high with the bat, while the current captain facing an adrupt end to a supposed honeymoon period. If India happen to win a Test on this tour, will there be a renewed honeymoon (i realize that this is stretching the metaphor past breaking point) with the job? The pro-Ganguly (read anti-any-other-Indian-captain) agenda is being vigorously forwarded here, all though the press is always telling us of there being such agenda's within BCCI and amongst the players.

Between these agendas, "fast and bouncy" stereotypes and an Indian press which is in awe of all things Australian, this is well and truly an "Away" series. Kumble and co. have their hands full, cricket wise as well as "attitude problem" wise. If India win though, you know where the press will be....

Friday, December 28, 2007

Melbourne Test - Review

Australia beat India by 337 runs to take a 1-0 lead in the Border Gavaskar Trophy on Day 4 at Melbourne. The story of Day 4 of the Boxing Day Test was much like that on Days 1, 2 and 3 - Australia dominated. India were outclassed with both bat and ball in this game.

Reports will suggest that the Indian bowlers did well. But on a suspect wicket, Australia managed 40.82 runs per wicket (694/17 in the match) against the Indian bowlers at almost 4 runs per over. How many sides have won Test matches after conceding those many runs? When India batted they encountered a bowling and fielding unit that was relentlessly top class. The Indian batsmen never mastered Stuart Clark and Brett Lee, and Mitchell Johnson was able to bowl well enough to keep the batsmen quiet. The slow outfield further accentuated the difference in fielding level between the two sides. The current Australian side is possibly the greatest all round fielding side in Test history. Symonds, Clarke, Hussey and Ponting are all world class fieldsmen in the Jonty Rhodes class. Bradley Hogg is not far behind. Brett Lee is probably the finest fieldsman amongst the fast bowlers of the world. Mitchell Johnson is probably a better fielder than any Indian barring Yuvraj Singh and Sachin Tendulkar. It's easy for Australia to hide Stuart Clark in the field. Only Tendulkar and Yuvraj amongst the Indian top order have an eye for the quick run comparable to any of the Aussies.

These are just all the generic realities which were in evidence in this Test. In addition to all these shortcomings, India's most dependable batsman overseas finds himself in a terrible bind form wise. He can get the ball off the square. What's more, India have asked him to open the batting! This gets him stuck, and also gets the other batsman stuck. Whats more, with his tenacious desire to not throw his hand away, he prolongs the agony for himself and his side, and allows the opposition to get on top. Any bowler will tell you that the best possible thing to do is to bowl at a batsman who is out of form and can't get the ball off the square. Further, they are uncertain of their bowling combination. Harbhajan Singh is not quite the bowler he once was. RP Singh has looked ineffective. Further, they lost an important toss on an iffy wicket (more about the wicket later).

This series is looks like it will go exactly as every other home series under Ricky Ponting's captaincy has gone for Australia - an easy triumph. Ponting has not lost a single Test match as captain in Australia. This is now his 4th home season at the helm. What do the visitors do from here?

The Indian strategy was always going to be to try and stay with the Aussies, especially in the first innings and to wait for a moment to sneak into a potentially winning position somewhere. They have failed to do so at Melbourne. The turning point was Tendulkar's wicket at 3/120 in the first innings. He was batting like a bomb and had managed to overcome the early advantage which the Aussies had achieved thanks to Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer's inability to rotate the strike (the quality of the Aussie fielding had something to do with this). Had he gone on to make a hundred, India might have accomplished their task of competing on the first innings. The key advantage of competing on the first innings, is that it puts the Aussies under pressure at the business end of the game. They would not put in the same clinical world beating flawless show that they did today if they had the pressure of the scoreboard and a realistic threat of defeat. India have to find a way to compete on the first innings.

Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman all look in reasonably good form. Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Dhoni never got going, so no real conclusion can be drawn as to their position. Rahul Dravid is obviously struggling and his cause has not been helped by him being asked to open the batting. Wasim Jaffer has had one of his characteristically ordinary Test matches. Going by his track record since his comeback against England in 2006, he ought to make runs in atleast one innings at Sydney. Sourav Ganguly is batting too low in the batting order given his terrific form. VVS Laxman is not quite the batsman he was in 2003-04, and may not be suited to number 3. In fact, even in 2003-04, Laxman's success came at number 5.

As i see it, India have only 2 realistic options going into the Sydney Test, given their squad and the current form of their players. In batting order, these would be

Jaffer, Karthik, Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Yuvraj, Irfan, Kumble, Zaheer, Harbhajan


Jaffer, Karthik, Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Irfan, Kumble, Zaheer, Harbhajan, Ishant

The latter option would be a bold move - playing 5 bowlers, giving India a chance to compete with the ball, because let's face it, India are not going to win too many Test matches conceding 41 runs/wicket. There are those who will argue however, that playing 5th bowler who is not exactly Wasim Akram won't be much use from the wicket taking point of view. They would be making a good point.

RP Singh has not looked threatening and doesn't quite possess the required variety of arrows in his quiver to make him a truly threatening bowler in conditions where the ball doesn't seam all day. Besides, there is a sameness to the Indian attack with Zaheer and RP playing in the same eleven.

Harbhajan Singh's form has been patchy, but India will just have to hope he comes good. It can't do his confidence any good that the Australian left handed opening pair were able to sweep him against the break without once lobbing the ball up in the air. That he was bowling without a short fine leg, suggests that he didn't expect the traditional miscue either. If the Sydney wicket is like it is reputed to be (Melbourne did not behave like it was supposed to), he might get an opportunity to come good. Speaking of wickets, if a Melbourne like wicket had been offered in India, one can imagine the furore that would have ensued against BCCI.

Using Ganguly at number 3 would break up the string of right handers which the Australians are able to bowl at in the current line up. Besides, he's in form and has hinted more than once that he would prefer to bat higher up the batting order.

It would however be a mistake in my view to persist with Rahul Dravid opening the batting, especially given his current form. I suspect though, that India will persist with him. There is no pressure to leave him out of the playing eleven, not when the available option is Virender Sehwag, whose form if anything has been even more woeful. If Sehwag has to be played, he will be played at the expense of Wasim Jaffer. Sehwag brings his off breaks to the side in addition to the possibility of a swashbuckling, aggressive century.

The magnitude of this defeat dictates significant changes for Sydney. It may be too late from the point of view of the series by the time the Perth Test comes around. It remains to be seen how the Indian team management reacts. Will they gamble with Sehwag? Or will they go back to the tried and tested combination of Jaffer-Karthik and leave Dhoni out? Do they consider leaving Dhoni out to be an option at all?

Whatever the answer to those questions may be, the great lesson of the Boxing Day Test is that Australia are as world class as ever. Their batting is as strong as ever, as is their bowling depth. Their Test match fielding is unparalleled. All in all, they are the best team in the world by a long margin.

Well played Australia.....

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Melbourne Test - Day 3

India's only hope of ending Day 3 on even remotely even terms with the hosts was to bowl them out cheaply in their second innings. At 4/161, India seemed to have made some progress in this direction. Andrew Symonds came along and produced a quick fire 42 which reduced India to waiting for the declaration. India could not find their Stuart Clark - someone who could run through the lower middle order. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh toiled manfully as India hoped to delay the Australian declaration. It was all in all a difficult day. When bowlers toil manfully, it usually means they're fighting a losing battle. The bowling attack has been bested. India showed in the first innings of the match that they had the ability to keep the Australian batting in check. However, the manner of the Australian dismissals indicated that the Aussie batsmen contributed to the dismissals as much as India's bowlers. When India batted, their batsmen were bested by the quality of Clark and Lee. Tendulkar and Ganguly apart, all the other Indian batsmen were beaten and dismissed. At the end of Day 3 of the boxing day test, it is fair to say that India have been outclassed with both bat and ball.

Australia added to the "aggression" myth by declaring with 8 overs to spare on the third day - a useless declaration in my view, with two full days remaining. These decisions seem to be mainly for public consumption. They reinforce the perception of a relentless juggernaut, not willing to concede an inch. If it was simply a case of wanting to win the Test match, they could have batted tomorrow until they got bowled out and still won it. After all, is anybody arguing that they may bowl India out in 188 overs but not in 150? If the declaration was supposed to have surprised the Indian batsmen, im almost certain that it didn't. India knew at tea or even earlier that such a declaration was a possibility. Further, given Rahul Dravid's terrible form, would it not have been better to declare overnight and let Dravid walk out tomorrow with the prospect of having to survive an entire day, without giving him the benefit of an easier target - that of having to bat out 8 overs? As it happened, he walked out, took first strike and played out the day.

Whatever happens tomorrow, what one hopes for is that India are able to make the Australians sweat for their wickets. Test matches are rarely won in 4th innings run chases which are the result of declarations. In fact, the only time in recent years when this has been accomplished successfully was when Graeme Smith made a quixotic declaration on the last day in desperate quest of a series leveling victory. Ricky Ponting on that occasion played a brilliant innings (in his 100th Test match) to win the game for Australia. So chances of an Indian victory are slim.

My hopes, strangely enough, are pinned on Rahul Dravid. He's out of form, low on confidence and has looked quite ordinary at the crease. He is a great batsman however, and i want him to do well very badly. It would be a shame if he lost his place in the side if India lost tomorrow itself. He has shown a lot of character in resigning from the captaincy, accepting that he was not enjoying the job and that it had had an adverse effect on his batting. This is of course in sharp contrast to his predecessor who was clearly in denial when he was dropped in 2005. To this day, Ganguly maintains that "the manner of his dismissal" was not right. This of course begs the question - how would he have liked to have been brought face to face with reality? It would be a shame if Rahul Dravid were unable to find second wind from somewhere and come back from the brink. He is not given to such dramatic streaks. His has been a steady, relentless ascent to the pinnacle of batsmanship. He deserves a break.

It is with this naive hope that events will break in India's and Dravid's favor, that i look forward to Day 4 of the Melbourne Test. On Dravid's accomplished shoulders lie the hopes of India in this series opener. They may be out of rythm right now, but they are also best suited to guide an Indian revival. There is on other suggestion. The in-form left handed Ganguly at number 3 would test the Australian bowlers and given them the challenge of bowling to a left hand right hand bowling combination. Promoting in form batsmen to number three has traditionally worked for India in the past as Ganguly will know.

India have been well and truly beaten so far in this game. With the weather set fair for days four and five, an inconclusive result is out of the question. Australias batsmen looked untroubled against the Indian bowling today, and India will take heart from that.

Melbourne Test Day 2

Day 2 began promisingly for India, with Zaheer Khan dismissing the last Aussie batsman for the addition of only six runs to the overnight score. Still, 343 was a good total. The moment of truth arrived when Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer walked out to bat for India to face Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark.

This was the first of India's gambles for this Test, with a scratch opening combination. They had discontinued the Karthik-Jaffer combination. Karthik had struggled against Pakistan and a fifty in the middle order on the last day at Bangalore did not help him. This shift to Jaffer and Dravid as i wrote before was a risk compared to the tried and tested Jaffer-Karthik combination. If it worked, the reward would be significant too. Australia tend to be at the best when the ball is new, and one school of thought would say that this should be tackled by making the batting order deeper, rather than by propping it up at the top. Another would say that India should play the strongest possible opening pair to tackle them head on.

As it turned out, a woefully out of form Rahul Dravid was faced with an Australian opening bowling pair in crackling form. An inform Dravid might have taken to Mitchell Johnson, who bowled an impeccable line (to his field), but in his current form, with his judgement and confidence outside off stump in tatters, he was reduced to leaving everything he could. When he did try to attack, he played an missed many times, was dropped at third slip once, was caught at second slip off a no ball once, and had one successful stroke for two, and that too only when Johnson came round the wicket. It was as good as batting blind for Dravid. Sadly, he seemed to set the tone for the rest of the innings. There is much criticism about the tactics - that he wasn't looking to push singles, but i don't think it was a matter of him not trying, it was basically a matter of him not being able to. What we saw was a perfect storm created by the big occasion, a pumped up attack of not inconsiderable quality and an out of form batsman of great class being pushed into an unfamiliar role.

I looked back at the 2006-07 Ashes series for pointers. India are playing a side which has won 14 straight Test matches, and 5 of those came in the Ashes. McGrath and Warne were playing then, and so it was all presumably different. It doubtless was. But Lee and Clark formed the Australian attack in that series along with Warne and McGrath. I expected to find Warne and McGrath dominating the Australian bowling averages in that series. Clark and Lee together took 46 wickets at 24.06 in that series. Warne and McGrath took 43 wickets a 27.9. Clark led the Australian bowling averages, by a long way. He took 26 wickets at 17! Whats more, and this i always find to be the most telling statistic for a top pace bowler - he conceded 2.27 runs per over, to McGrath's 2.4. Since that Ashes series, Brett Lee has now had 5 consecutive innings in which he's taken 4 wickets in an innings. McGrath and Warne are clearly irreplaceable. They retired as all time greats and batting line ups around the world were happy to see them go. I just wonder, and this may be premature, whether in a few years time we will be waiting for the era of Lee and Clark to end.

Clark came on and decimated India's middle order. He accounted for Dravid, Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni. While Lee accounted for Jaffer, Ganguly, Kumble and Zaheer Khan. The brief period of Indian ascendancy was during the Tendulkar - Ganguly partnership. Both these players have spent most of this year either turning back the clock, or being engaged in a titanic struggle to find the ability and confidence to turn it back. Tendulkar's battles (there is no other way of describing those innings) at Cape Town, Trent Bridge and the Oval gave way to his sumptuous ODI form against England and Australia and to his feast against Pakistan. Ganguly's battling half centuries in South Africa and England lead to his run glut against the visiting Pakistan side.Until Tendulkar fell to one which misbehaved ever so slightly off the wicket from Clark, it looked as though we could sit back and enjoy yet another vintage stand. Both players looked in touch (in contrast to Dravid, who didn't), and both players benefited from not having to bat with Dravid, something which Wasim Jaffer and VVS Laxman did. Neither VVS nor Jaffer were ever settled enough to be able to take some pressure off Dravid by taking on the bowling. Tendulkar might have been able to help him.

196 all out is a disappointing first innings score. India ought to have matched the Australians, or at least gotten within 50 runs of their total. As it happens, Australia end day two having taken 10 of the 20 wickets that they need to take, with a lead of 179. Australia lost 10/208 in their first innings. India can hope for a better effort in the second innings. A 4th innings chase of under 400, would be something to dream about for India. The bowlers will have to rescue India again for that to happen.

I don't think Indian fans should throw in the towel yet. There is still cricket to be played in this game, and there is too much quality there for the result to be a foregone conclusion.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Melbourne Test - Day 1

Ricky Ponting won the toss and elected to bat against India in the first Test at Melbourne today. There was much speculation about the pitch, but India's decision to play 2 spinners, Australia's decision to play Bradley Hogg and Ponting's decision to bat first, tell us what Ponting and Kumble thought about the wicket. It was not the lightning quick fast bowler's paradise that Glenn McGrath had hoped for a few weeks ago.

Yet, in the first half an hour, the Australian openers survived on a prayer. They played and missed, edged a few, but were still there at the first drinks break. They kept going for their shots and went to lunch undefeated with a stand of 111. It was a typical Australian morning at a ground where they've won their last 8 Test matches. With the expectation that the wicket would ease in the aftenoon, there was much much speculation that Australia had pretty much set the tone for the series. They had a century opening stand at better than 4 an over.

The first hour after lunch changed all that. With aggressive intent came an air of casualness. Phil Jaques tried to push a seemingly harmless Kumble delivery out to mid off without getting to the pitch of the ball, only to find that the ball had sneaked past his outside edge for Dhoni to effect an expert stumping. Ricky Ponting came in and with 60 Test hundreds between the two players at the wicket for Australia on a flat wicket, things seemed to have gotten better, not worse for Australia. Zaheer Khan had other ideas however, for he produced the ball of the day to dismiss Ricky Ponting. It was a beauty from round the wicket, pitched on a perfect length which drew Ponting into the on drive only to seam away towards off stump. Ponting was squared up and bowled. Michael Hussey came in, and now India were faced with two left handers again. But the Australians continued to convey an casual air and Michael Hussey missed straight one from Kumble and was hit on the back pad. It was one of those split second decisions from the umpire. It was a 50-50 call, but luckily for Kumble, Umpire Benson seems to be the kind of Umpire who will invariably find in the bowlers favor if the batsman is hit on the back leg and everything else seems to be reasonably acceptable. Hussey may be forgiven for feeling undone since the ball appeared to be sliding past off stump, but he will know that once he was hit on the back leg, it was more than likely that he would be sent on his way. Michael Clarke came in and began circumspectly against some tight bowling. At the other end, Mathew Hayden was nearing his hundred and raced through the 90's undeterred by the 3 wickets which fell at the other end.

The tight bowling however took its toll. Hayden had reach his hundred in 126 balls. With Clarke he shared a partnership of 60 in 20 overs, in which Clarke made 20(60). Eventually, the right hander's patience ran out and he chased a wide one from the persevering RP Singh and was on his way once VVS took a smart catch low down to his right at second slip. RP Singh didn't have his best day, but if he erred it tended to be towards a wide offside line, and not down the leg side. The stand with Clarke had spoilt Mathew Hayden's rythm, and after scoring 24(58) after his century, he offered a tame catch to Sourav Ganguly at mid on off Zaheer Khan. There was a continual threat about Zaheer Khan's bowling and he bowled better than he 3/93 off 22 overs suggest.

Once Hayden went, Kumble took charge. Symonds and Gilchrist threatened a typically aggressive stand before Symonds failed to control a pull shot of Kumble to be caught at mid wicket. It was the sort of dismissal you would see from a batsman who was being belligerent without really getting a measure of the wicket. One felt for a while during the Symonds-Gilchrist stand (they added 40 in less than 10 overs), that Kumble had missed a trick by keeping the 2 left arm pacemen on and not bringing on the off spinner while Gilchrist was new at the wicket, given the southpaw wicketkeeper's troubles against India's spinners in the past (Anil Kumble has dismissed him 7 times while Harbhajan Singh has done so 6 times). But Kumble's plan worked and both Gilchrist and Symonds well trying to force the pace. This was one occasion when Australias trademark belligerence did not work.

Hogg and Lee, who are not traditional tail enders by any means (Hogg has a first class average of nearly 35, while Lee averages 21 with the bat in Tests) should have been exactly the type of tailenders to produce the kind of stand which has driven Indian captains to distraction in the past. This time however, the new ball accounted for Hogg and a Kumble special accounted for Lee.

Hogg was dismissed in the 87th over of the day. It would have been the perfect day for India had they bowled the Australians out in the 88th over. It would have meant that they would have been able to start their innings tomorrow. The Aussie last wicket pair had other ideas and their 25 run last wicket stand spoilt what would have been the perfect end to a fine first day for the visitors.

Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan were the stand out bowlers for India. At the beginning of the day, India would have been happy to restrict the Australians to a first innings of less than 350. They nearly managed it with a rousing post-lunch come back . If the Aussie last wicket manages a further 25 runs tomorrow, then these last wicket runs could prove crucial in the context of this Test match.

The bowlers have delivered for India on Day 1. It's over to the batsmen...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Two Centuries....

The Melbourne Cricket Ground celebrates it's 100th Test Match. Like a batsman who's century is in doubt because one of his "runs" may have actually been a leg bye, the MCG reaching three figures has been a matter of some dispute. The most consequential Test Match after the Second World War was rained off at Melbourne during the 1970-71 Ashes and different statisticians view this differently - a few think it was a Test which was rained off, a few others think it (more accurately) was never a Test.
The latter view is more accurate for the simple reason that Ray Illingworth and Bill Lawry never went out to toss for the Test Match. They did Toss for what became the first One Day International. Consequently, the 2007 Boxing day Test is the 100th Test to be played at the MCG. It is quite fitting that it should be an India v Australia contest and not the Ashes contest (which it would have been had Lawry and Illingworth tossed in 1970) of 2006. That was a dead rubber in the what was the most anticlimactic Test series in living memory.

This Melbourne Test features the two most successful Test teams of the year. Both sides are studded with enormously accomplished cricketers. India go in with three players having played 100 Tests. Sourav Ganguly will join the club at the MCG as he takes the field for the 100th time in Tests for India.

How much does India's standing as a Test team of significant merit have to do with the influence of Sourav Ganguly? This Test team was formed during his tenure as captain and has been built around the accomplishment of the 4 hundred test men, VVS, Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh. It emerged from the debacle of match-fixing and Sourav Ganguly built this team in his image. Young players were encouraged to express themselves and along with Wright, Ganguly set about rebuilding the team in his own image. Ironically, his own game deteriorated alarmingly in the process. Ganguly's team was at its peak between July 2002 and May 2004. This was the period when all the quality was translated into results consistently. India didn't have a poor series in this period barring the misadventure on the under prepared wickets in New Zealand on the eve of the 2003 World Cup. Ganguly's decline began after May 2004 and the 2004-05 season was a disaster. By then he had almost completely lost his fluent assertive capacity with the bat. His innings were usually attritional bouts consisting of large periods of shaky defense interspersed with staccato bursts of pre-meditated hitting. In Test cricket he was struggling, while in ODI cricket he got away with opening the batting. Even there, his results were fine against the minnows, but he struggled against good opposition.

The result was that he lost the captaincy as well as his place in the side. It was probably the best thing that happened to him. Rahul Dravid took over and carried on Ganguly's good work. It was a difficult act to follow. Ganguly had been a popular captain and his shadow is still writ large on this side over two years after he was dismissed.

It would be fair to say that Sourav Ganguly has been the most inconsistent, unpredictable Indian middle order batsman in this decade. In this decade, Ganguly has averaged 39.93 in Tests compared to Tendulkar's 53.41, Laxman's 49.93, Dravid's 58.69. He has played some of the most memorable innings by an Indian batsman in Test cricket. The numbers do not support the argument that he has struggled in fast bowler friendly conditions. He has made plenty of runs in England and Australia. His struggle has largely been in India, where his batting average drops to 36.50, and these numbers include his recent mammoth series at home against Pakistan. He has reached fifty 7 times in 45 innings and if you exclude the Pakistan series, he reached fifty 4 times in 39 outings in India in this decade. By comparison Dravid and Tendulkar make 50 or more once in 3 innings on average.

As he prepares to take the field in his 100th Test, in the 100th Test at one of the world's great cricket grounds, as the in form batsman for his side, he will walk on to a stage that is tailor made that is ready made for yet another Ganguly special. He defined the 2003-04 tour for India with a brilliant 144 at Brisbane after Dravid, Sehwag and Tendulkar had fallen within 5 runs of each other.

It will be a great occasion. I suspect the Prince of Calcutta will make it his own.......

Friday, December 21, 2007

Melbourne Test - Where will Rahul Dravid bat?

Rahul Dravid opened the batting for India in the game against Victoria. The Indian team management is clearly toying with the idea of rethinking the batting order to accommodate Yuvraj Singh after his tremendous century at Bangalore. Given the composition of the Indian squad, they have a number of options available to them, assuming that they will play 4 specialist bowlers.

They could retain the opening pair of Dinesh Karthik and Wasim Jaffer. This would allow them to play 5 more specialist batsmen, assuming that Dinesh Karthik keeps wicket. The line up would then read Karthik, Jaffer, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman, Yuvraj. This will mean that Mahendra Dhoni misses out. Alternatively, they could drop Dinesh Karthik, and ask Rahul Dravid to open the batting. This disrupts the rest of the batting order, but gives India the opportunity to play Dhoni at number 7. Further, it gives India the opportunity to play either VVS Laxman or the in form Sourav Ganguly at number 3.

The first choice would be the conservative, safe option. It is tried and tested, and has worked well in South Africa and England. The second option would involve greater risk, and also possibly greater reward. The real question for India is where they want the wicket keeper to bat - Dinesh Karthik opening the batting, or Mahendra Dhoni at number 7. The Dinesh Karthik option would give them a deeper batting line up, but a weaker opening pair, while the Mahendra Dhoni will give a stronger opening pair, but a batting line up which is less deep. The first option would be considered "defensive" or "defeatist" and further fuel a growing perception amongst watchers the Kumble's India are a conservative cricket team. The second option, where Dravid opens the batting, would be viewed as more aggressive and also fuel the legend of Dravid the "team-man". It will be interesting to see what choices Kumble will make.

The wicket, which at this point is the great unknown may influence Kumble's decision more than anything else. If Kumble and Harbhajan Singh both play, then India may well go with Rahul Dravid. Wickets on which Kumble and Harbhajan prove to be effective are likely to offer less help to fast bowling, there by making Dhoni more effective in the late order. If the wicket allows India to play 3 pace bowlers, then Dinesh Karthik may well play, as India will be well served with a deeper batting order. Dinesh Karthik in any case, has shown a peculiar tendency to favor overseas conditions when opening the batting. Hence, a fast bowler friendly wicket may engender a deeper line up, while a drier wicket will probably see India playing Dhoni.

There is of course the Sehwag option, which would be a big risk, given Sehwag's lack of form and given the fact that he didn't play against Victoria. That the tour match was rained off has not helped India. I would be very surprised if Sehwag played at the MCG.

The question at the end of the day will be dictated by the wicket. Dravid at number 3 would be the best possible option in my view. Most importantly it would be a vote of confidence in him. Sourav Ganguly though, is a man with a sense of occasion, and i wouldn't be surprised at all if he bats at number 3 in his 100th Test match and makes a century in front of a full house at the MCG!

That would be some story....

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

India arrive in Australia

As tours go, this is not what Fred Trueman would have called a "cream and jelly tour" for India. Runs, wickets and victories will have to be earned the hard way, while the hosts expect to win as a matter of course. I suspect that public expectation and public opinion in India about this tour ranges somewhere between "we're going to get hammered" and "we're going to be very competitive". This is of course amongst those who are actually interested in the cricket.

"Australia" is not the sparsely populated island continent in the Southern Hemisphere, it is gold in terms of all things cricketing for most cricket fans. The bouncy pitches of "OstraliaandSauthafrica" test our batsmen, as though playing on wickets in India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka is some how a lesser challenge than playing in these Southern cricketing paradises (i know it sounds funny in plural, but it seems especially appropriate that way). India have already shot themselves in both feet by producing flat, slow and low pitches in Kolkata and Bangalore. How could they not have thought about the MCG and Perth?

Then there is speculation about a drop-in pitch. This dropping, unlike the bird variety, can be controlled to a fine degree - or so everybody thinks. Drop-In pitches are prepared in what might be considered pitch laboratories, in controlled conditions, with the result that well-prepared pitches can be ensured, and more importantly, the behaviour of pitches can be effectively predicted. Since nobody really knows how this yet to be concieved pitch will behave, and since Australian Cricket people are not of the shy variety, there is plenty of un-shyness flying around. Glenn McGrath offered the ultimate McGrathesque opinion that Australia should abandon the idea of playing a spinner, and simply play four quick bowlers. Even he doesn't know how many birds he killed with that one stone. Im certain he intended it to be a prolific effort. Andrew Hilditch (he who lost his Test place in the Australian side of the mid-eighties because he couldn't resist playing the hook shot straight down fine-leg's throat), now one of the three wise men for Australia, is worried about whether or not the pitch will yield reverse swing for Tait and co.! Stuart Clark, who actually played at the MCG (im not sure if it was drop in; im not even sure if drop-in is optional) a few days ago couldn't hide his disappointment. He said the pitch was the kind where "after 10 overs of the new ball there was 1 slip and short covers everywhere". One assumes this was due to the lack of lateral movement, and not because of an endless barrage of half volleys. Currently, its all up in the air.

Bradley Hogg is likely to play and Harbhajan Singh thinks he isn't good enough to be bowling in a Test Match. I suspect that many of the Indian batsmen can't pick Bradley Hogg from the hand. Stuart MacGill has opined that they don't actually care what a spinner is bowling from the hand, but i think this time around they will have to be watchful. The difference between Test and ODI cricket though, is that in ODI cricket, with the field spread, if a spinner bowls 3 half volleys and 3 good deliveries, it is entirely likely that the three half volleys will be tapped to the deep-set straight field for singles and the three goodish length balls will go to cover or mid-wicket and be "dot-balls". In Test Cricket, thats a bad over, for at least one of the three half volleys is bound to be hit for four, and the six balls are likely to convey absolute dominance of bat over ball. Hogg will have to overcome this, and i suspect this is what Anil Kumble was referring to when he said "Test Cricket of course is a completely different ball game".

The Indian pace attack is nondescript as usual. I wonder when we in India will find our Stuart MacGill who will finally admit that the Australian batsmen don't really seem to care what the Indian pace attack delivers. This time around though, the Australians may be in for a surprise. Zaheer Khan was brilliant in England and was reliably accurate against Pakistan until he broke down. Irfan Pathan worked up a surprising amount of pace against Pakistan at Bangalore, if the admittedly erratic speed gun at the Chinnaswamy is to be believed, and RP Singh will hopefully be fighting fit come boxing day. Whats more, even if one of them is not fit, Ishant Sharma looked quite good and for once, i hope that the wishes of our "OstraliaandSauthAfrica" crowd vis a vis the bounce in the wickets is true. Of course, he might bowl short and wide and get hammered by the "cut and the pull" or the "horizontal bat shots" which the Australian school of batting seems to thrive on. For once though, India will travel to Australia with a pace attack which has actually won a series for India in overseas conditions. It must bring higher expectations, though if Australia make 500 in each of their 4 first innings, do you know who will be blamed for India not winning? It is to them that i now turn.

India's middle order is on its 3rd tour of Australia. Tendulkar apart, the other three have improved with each tour. Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman struggled in 2000 (apart from 1 innings by VVS), but made 5 Test centuries between them in 2003-04. In addition to these four stalwarts, India have also selected that other marauder from 2003-04 - Virender Sehwag. He may feel slightly anemic right now, but if he strikes form against Victoria, it will leave Anil Kumble with a pleasant headache (apart from confirming Dilip Vengsarkar as one of the greatest hunch selectors in the history of India's selection). Ideally, only one out of Dinesh Karthik and Mahendra Dhoni should play. With Yuvraj Singh and Virendra Sehwag (and his off spin) in India's ranks, it would be silly to play both wicketkeepers in the eleven. Yuvraj is a better Test batsman than Dhoni. If Dinesh Karthik opens the batting, it might be possible to play Yuvraj Singh at number 7.

India will have to watch out for the left handers in the Aussie line up. Left Handers have done well against India in recent times. It is ironic that the greatest left hander of them all did not quite take advantage of this weakness. Mathew Hayden, Phil Jaques, Michael Hussey and Adam Gilchrist will test them. Then there is Ponting. Michael Clarke, if i could put it this way, is the weak link in this Australian batting line up. He of course made 155 against India at Bangalore on Test debut three years ago.

Realistically, one expects India to be competitive - to stay in the game and hope for a chance to break through the Aussie line up like they did on that amazing 4th day at Adelaide 4 years ago almost to the day (On 15th December 2003, Ajit Agarkar took 6/42 to bowl Australia out for 196 and set up a famous Indian victory).

Having conceded the Border-Gavaskar Trophy to Australia at Nagpur in 2004, this will be a formidable challenge - one worthy of India's greatest cricketing generation.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Discussing Declarations....

The third Test match at Bangalore ended in a draw giving India a 1-0 series win. India won against Pakistan for the first time in many many years, Anil Kumble won his first series as captain, the Indian batting was never seriously threatened, Irfan Pathan bowled and batted well, Wasim Jaffer batted brilliantly, Sourav Ganguly was majestic, Rahul Dravid was able to get a start every single time without ever making the opposition pay, none of the batsmen looked out of touch, Ishant Sharma got better and better as the third Test progressed, and like it was after the English series, we will discuss whether or not the Indian captain has "guts", "confidence", can "back himself and his team" and "make things happen". In addition, this time around there is another elephant in the room along with our armchairs - Australia. This word is currently so overloaded with meaning, that it would require a post in itself to explain what it meant. Very briefly, Australia is not only the unstated final frontier in cricketing terms, it is also the entity which embraces everything that may present itself in our hazy armchair dreams for the Indian team. Australia are "aggressive", "confident", "believe in themselves", "win" etc. etc. etc.

Coming back to mother earth, Cricinfo's comment on the Bangalore Test is a classic armchair critics manifesto. The statement of the thesis is:

"In hindsight I probably should have bowled medium-pace in the first innings," Kumble said after the draw. In hindsight, he should have perhaps backed himself, and the rest of the bowlers, and declared half-an-hour earlier".

This is advice, admonition and commentary about strategy all rolled into one. Cricinfo are always fair though, and they present both sides of the story. Balance, you see. The arguments favoring the choices Kumble made are stated as follows:

"Those in favour will echo Kumble, who said India "had to get to a situation where we could absolutely ensure a series victory." India were, after all, defending a 1-0 lead and were justified in wanting to shut the door completely. Another argument is that the poor light was unforeseen and, but for it, they would probably have comfortably picked up those last three wickets given the speed with which the first seven fell."

Then comes the killer paragraph:

"Convincing, but not as emphatic as the counter to those arguments. India's lead was 310 by lunch and the probability of Pakistan chasing a target of such magnitude, on a pitch where the bounce was getting lower by the over, was almost zero. Importantly, had the declaration come ten overs earlier, at the cost of 35-40 runs to the target, India would have had a buffer against the weather. The timing of the eventual declaration, little more than an hour after lunch, leaving Pakistan 374 to chase and 48 overs to save the Test, betrayed a defensive mindset."

Really? Declaring 10 overs earlier would have given India a buffer against the weather? Doesn't this fly in the face of all normal logic? The reason India got all those wickets was because Kumble decided to bowl seam up, after tea. Would declaring 10 overs earlier than he did, enabled India to squeeze in 10 overs more after tea? Or is it the cricinfo author's case that Kumble would have thought about bowling seam up 10 overs into the innings anyways, and that the break at tea time which allowed then to take a moment and think things through had nothing to do with the development of the idea? Also, would 10 overs have given India a "buffer" against an "unforeseen" weather disruption? Is that not a contradiction? India's lead was 310 by lunch, and there the Cricinfo author makes the beginnings of a good argument, but does not pursue it further for some odd reason .

The Cricinfo's commentators argument, made so shamelessly with the benefit of hindsight, hits all the right buttons - "aggression v defensive mindset", "aversion to risk", "what of Australia". It also suggests that this is somehow becoming a habit, reminding us of the Oval Test, where

"India left the declaration until an hour after tea on the fourth day, when they had accumulated a lead of 500, after having earlier decided not to enforce the follow-on. England finished the fifth day 131 short of their target with four wickets in hand."

India made 59 runs in the hour after tea in that Test and about 90 runs between the hour after lunch and the hour after tea, having suffered a rare batting collapse (5/89) in this innings. Had India declared say an hour before tea, then would England have ended up 40 runs shy with 4 wickets in hand? Would giving Zaheer Khan two hours less to recover been in India's favor? Would it have been wise to have allowed that kind of situation after having fought so hard to win the series?

I reject the "aggression" argument. Not declaring does not imply an aversion to risk or a lack of aggression, anymore than using the reverse sweep against Harbhajan Singh implies a liking for risk or an instinctively "aggressive" mindset on the part of Younis Khan. This was the juxtaposition repeated time and again by Bruce Yardley (who seems to really believe in earning his money - he talks all the time). The reverse sweep as used by Younis Khan was a carefully prepared method against a particular bowler. Harbhajan Singh has an aversion to coming round the wicket to the right hander, hence his line of attack is usually outside off stump. He also bowls without a cover point most of the time, choosing to have a silly point instead. Thus, the reverse sweep is a "risk free" option against him. The batsman can't be LBW because he's outside off stump, the batsman runs little risk of being bowled because the pad and the body is between the ball and the stumps, the batsman runs little risk of being caught close in, because the expansive stroke invariably causes the close in men to duck. It worked almost every time for Younis while Harbhajan Singh was bowling over the wicket. When Harbhajan came round the wicket, it became a different ball game altogether. Now, the LBW came into the picture, as did bowled, because the ball pitched in line with the stumps and straightened with the break, causing the batsman to be offside of both the stumps and the line of the ball. Younis went for the reverse sweep nevertheless, and was promptly bowled. Now, was this a fatal attraction to risk? Or did Younis Khan simply miss the point? Or, with the tables turned on him, and with Harbhajan doing something that the batsman did not expect, did Younis lose the plot? Or was he bull headed and stubborn in sticking to the same ploy?

I raise this simply to show how shallow and inadequate arguments about "aggression" can be. Why didn't Anil Kumble declare at Lunch? Thats an excellent question. I wish some one would ask it. Then again, how many times has a Test match been won with a side being bowled out in the last two sessions of play? Almost never. Why did Kumble declare immediatly after Dinesh Karthik was dismissed? Could he have been swayed by VVS getting hit on the elbow? Could he have decided that it wasn't worth risking either himself or Harbhajan with the Australian tour coming up? What did he expect when he declared with 48 overs to be played? Was it simply a case of "at this point, we would rather bowl, instead of exposing our bowlers to Shoaib on this wicket"?

There are clues to Kumble's thinking in what he said, and indeed in the scorecard. The spinners achieved nothing of note in this game (Kumble's success came bowling seam up). There was "no turn or bounce" in Kumble's judgement. There was therefore nothing significant to work with. With a second string pace attack consisting of a rookie and a third seamer, could Kumble have seriously hoped to achieve what Shoaib and Sami with their tailor made styles for uneven wickets (pace, a habit of attacking the stumps) couldn't? Did the wicket, prepared by the KSCA with the help of pitch experts from New Zealand, not defeat everyone in the end?

If the wicket was as bad as it was, how can you explain the fact that until Yuvraj Singh came along, and Anil Kumble's seam up style paid dividends, the scoreline for the match read (India 626 and 284/6 d, Pakistan 537 and 144/3)? In fact, if you leave out the fact that the Indian and Pakistan tail end folded rapidly in the first innings, India reached 600/6 and Pakistan reached 500/6 respectively.

Pakistan went into this series 1-0 down. If Younis Khan was indeed interested in taking risks and winning, why didn't he declare immediatly after the follow on had been saved? Then if India had batted on, he would have at least have tried to win but been thwarted by India's refusal to make a game of it. Why is the onus for enforcing a win on the side that is ahead 1-0 and not on the side that must win to save the series? Did the ease with which Pakistan were batting in the first innings not suggest that they might have fancied a chase of say 350 in the last 8 or 9 hours of the game? Given that they were behind, and had conceded 600 in the first innings, would a 350 run chase not been worth going for? What happened to the "lets go for the win, it doesn't matter if we lose 2-0" argument? With Shoaib back to full fitness (he bowled 17 overs in the 3rd innings), would it have not been worth the gamble?

To say that Kumble was not "aggressive" is to miss the point. It is to reduce every decision into two clear and ultimately useless categories - aggressive or defensive. Kumble the captain did not let down Kumble the bowler. Kumble the bowler was useless on this wicket. It was Kumble the "bowler", bowling seam up who found something that he could exploit. Ironically Kumble the "bowler" was a creation of Kumble the Captain.

A left arm spinner, who would have out of necessity attacked the stumps more than an off spinner might actually have been effective on this wicket. Both Abdur Rehman and Murali Kartik will wonder about this.

As for India, Kumble and the Australian tour, we can rest assured that Anil Kumble will not do anything reckless in Australia. As for "aggression" - the Vengsarkar committee has just selected Virender Sehwag for the Australian tour, on a hunch, with no runs to his name in the Ranji Trophy. Almost exactly a year ago, this same committee made one other selection like this. That player made 534 runs in the current series and has made over 1100 runs since his comeback at an average of about 60.

This is a hunch, much like Kumble's hunch about bowling seam up (note than Ganguly in his seam up avatar was not as effective). Hunches ought to be made when there is nothing to lose - either when everything is already lost, or when nothing significant can be lost if the hunch doesn't work. Until such time, the Anil Kumble approach is the way to go.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bangalore Test Day 2

Southpaws continued their dominance on Day 2 of the Bangalore Test. The bat dominated the ball again. Sourav Ganguly, Irfan Pathan and Salman Butt all prospered and at the end of the day, India are almost certainly gauranteed a series victory. India's batsmen mastered whatever bowling Pakistan could throw at them. Early indications are that Pakistan's batsmen have reciprocated. However, this can be definitively said only after the morning session tomorrow, for batting in the morning has been significantly more difficult than batting in the afternoon and evening sessions.

It was barely a contest between bat and ball and Sourav Ganguly will probably tell you that his runs yesterday were some of the easiest he has ever made in his test career. The Pakistan bowling this series has been disappointing barring Shoaib Akthar's bowling at Delhi. Danish Kaneria has been unable to control the runs. Mohammad Sami has been unlucky at times (he should have had Dinesh Karthik in the morning session) and wayward at others. Yasir Arafat had a five wicket haul on Test debut - in itself a fine achievement. It was however one of the most pyrrhic five wicket hauls one could ever imagine.

When India bowled, the new ball attack was easily negotiated by the Pakistan openers, and whatever trouble they had was of Yasir Hameed's own making. Ishant Sharma bowled an opening spell where he delivered nothing that would have gone on to hit the stumps. As a bowler, with 5-6 methods of dismissal available to him, he was clearly not bowling for 2 of them. This didn't deter Hameed though. He seemed intent on knocking off much of the deficit yesterday itself going hard at balls wide outside off stump. His partner was much more composed and showed very sure judgement of his off stump. Coming as it did after 5 sessions in the field, it was an impressive innings, aided by some lacklustre bowling.

Anil Kumble started off poorly, but with Yasir Hameed, it was a matter of time. There was much discussion in the commentary box about Hameed having opened his stance. Just as Aamir Sohail was completing his sentence, Hameed planted his front foot down and was struck low down in front of off stump. He was plumb. Dismissed in exactly the same way as before. Having reduced everything to "learning from your mistakes", Sohail found himself at a loss for words. There was one other delivery from Kumble which skidded along the ground under Younis Khan's forward defensive blade and missed the off stump by a whisker. It will give the Indian captain a lot of hope.

Having watched the first two tests and now the first two days of this one, one can't help feeling that this is a Test series between a veteran Indian side which is surprised by nothing in the Test Match arena any more and a Pakistan side which is going through the motions and can be roused only when it is threatened with defeat. Misbah Ul Haq, Salman Butt, Younis Khan, Kamran Akmal and to some extent Yousuf have shone with the bat. Mohammad Sami has shown himself to be a great trier with bat and ball, and Danish Kaneria has wheeled away inspite of knowing that the Indian batsmen are not really troubled by him. In all three Test's however, Pakistan have thrown away the advantage in their first innings, and had to play catch up for the rest of the game. They've gone through two captains, been a bowler short in two consecutive Test matches thanks to Shoaib. Being a bowler short is the worst possible thing that can happen to a team in a Test Match (well, being 2 or 3 bowlers short is much worse obviously). It kills the game as a contest, and only one team can realistically win the game, unless it chooses to engage in sporting declarations.

This wicket, prepared by the KSCA with expert help from New Zealand has been a disaster with uneven bounce on the first day. It is probably not as slow as the Eden Gardens or Kotla wickets were, but seems to be two paced. Come Boxing Day India's batsmen will have to make every ounce of their experience count if they are to make the adjustment. These runs will help though.

On the pace bowling front, there are more serious worries for India. Ishant Sharma looks raw, Irfan Pathan is not the bowler he was in 2004, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel, Sreesanth and R P Singh are all injured. I can see Ponting and co. licking their lips in anticipation.

This Bangalore Test has ceased to be of interest at this point. Pakistan cannot win it from here. It remains to be seen if India's bowlers hit the right spots on the pitch enough times, with a high enough frequency to eek out 20 wickets before stumps are drawn on Day 5. As it was at Eden, the Pakistan first innings will be the key. If they make 400, it will be difficult for India to force the issue.

So far this series has been a vindication for Dilip Vengsarkar and his masterstroke in late 2006. Sourav Ganguly has made 1034 Test runs in 20 innings since his return at an average of 57.44. He was picked on a hunch, without any Ranji Trophy runs to go by. Since his return, Ganguly has batted as though he belongs in Test cricket, something that was sorely missing in the run up to his dismissal in 2005. He is at ease with his batting technique and feels under no pressure. He has been above the fray, much like Tendulkar was in the early part of this decade when he could and did speak on behalf of the team as he after the Australia defeat early in the 2003 World Cup. He has said nothing at all about Chappell and seems to have put it all behind him. Shaun Tait, Brett Lee and Stuart Clark will Test Ganguly. But he could not be better placed in terms of form, confidence or mindset to take them on.

Unless Ishant Sharma surprises us, it will be Kumble & Harbhajan v Pakistan for the last 3 days of this Test match.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

So long Sanath!

Sanath Jayasurya was not the most elegant cricketer of all time. Yet he was was great athlete. He was not classical by any stretch of the imagination, and yet he had a lot of class. Whats more, he performed one of the most specialized roles in a cricket team - that of opening the batting. This exalted position, which in Rohan Kanhai's opinion was the domain of only the very brave and slightly mad batsmen, was occupied with great distinction by this marauding powerhouse from Matara.

Jayasurya began his career as a lower middle order spin bowling all rounder. He batted at number 6 or 7, and among his early scores were half centuries against Pakistan and South Africa - two of the best bowling attacks of the early 1990's. He was soon promoted to open the batting, and made a century at Adelaide in only his 3rd Test as opener. From then on, he was a fixture at the top of the Sri Lankan order and made nearly six thousand test runs as an opener at a healthy average of 41.48. He made test hundreds in Australia, England, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. India and Pakistan were his favorite opponents and he made nearly two thousand of his 6973 Test runs against these two nations. Jayasurya was one of the mainstays of the Sri Lankan Test line up for almost 15 years.

As good as he was in Test cricket, it was One Day Cricket which gave him his stature and his fame. He was a pioneer of modern ODI batting at the top of the order. With his powerful bottom hand and brilliant eye he could loft any length anywhere at his best. He was impossible to bowl to as many bowlers around the world will testify and there was no area of the ground which he ignored. He played spin brilliantly inspite of his predominantly bottom handed method. His ability to square cut spinners and pacemen alike off a good length outside off-stump enabled him to hit good balls for four. Indeed, Jayasurya changed the definition of a good delivery in One Day Cricket. Many other batsmen followed his lead.

He had a distinctive superstitious method of preperation as he set himself to face up to the bowler. He tugged at all his equipment as if to remind to protect him as he went into battle with the bowler. Usually it was a worried bowler and even more worried fielding captain that he went into battle with. His little superstitious routine also drove many bowlers to distraction, but it was part of the Jayasurya legend.

It is difficult to pinpoint any one great innings in such a long and illustrious career. Jayasurya's record speaks for itself. With 12,207 ODI runs and 6973 Test runs, made with the aid of 39 international hundreds, all of them at breakneck speed there is little doubt that he was one of the most important cricketers of the contemporary era. Add to this his underrated bowling which brought him 307 ODI wickets and 98 Test wickets, and it is easy to realise why Sri Lanka valued him so much, especially in the ODI game, where he gave Sri Lankan captains that extra option.

His bowling was central to Sri Lanka's well oiled spin bowling strategy which caused them to go undefeated for a period of 5 years in ODI games where they had more than 250 to defend with Murali in their ranks. Jayasurya and other bowlers would bowl around Murali. They could not match Murali's wicket taking genius, but were not easy to score off.

Sri Lanka will miss his all round prowess. That his retirement from Test cricket was eventually a happy, match winning occasion (match winning thanks largely to Jayasurya's brilliant 78 in the Sri Lankan second innings at Kandy) is a fitting tribute to the man who by his very play confirmed Sri Lanka's place at the cricketing top table in the mid 1990's. As he walked off, escorted by Percy Abysekera, Sri Lanka and world cricket will wonder if they will ever see his type again. Actually, they may. He gave legitimacy to a belligerent method, which spawned a whole generation of batsmen all over the world who sought to play like him.

But then again, may be not. The original as they say, is one of a kind....

Bangalore Test Day 1

The run up to the Bangalore Test was replete with the debris of hurly burly of Test Match cricket. Injured players, sick players, reluctant captains, eleventh hour confusion about replacements, a selector under siege and an untested pitch promised a interesting Test Match. In a series devoid of any great individual contests, there has rarely been in a dull moment. The atmosphere at the Chinnaswamy Stadium was electric as Anil Kumble won the toss on home turf and decided to bat first.

Shoaib Akthar looked healthy again, and the Indian opening combination - Wasim Jaffer and Gautam Gambhir faced up to some genuinely quick bowling. Shoaib being Shoaib, it was too good to last, and he soon began clutching his back and getting treatment between overs. Given how unpredictable Shoaib's fitness is, it is not surprising that Younis Khan doesn't want to captain Pakistan.

Runs were difficult to come by nevertheless, and even though the Pakistan new ball pair did not threaten to take wickets, they did not bowl poorly. The bowled to their field, and with the batsmen choosing to ignore most offerings outside off stump, for much of the first hour, bat ignored ball. Gautam Gambhir fell early to Mohammad Sami, caught at the wicket as he pushed speculatively at one that moved just that little bit off the seam. At the other end, Wasim Jaffer found the fielders with unerring regularity, with the result that India were off to a slow start. Rahul Dravid came to the wicket to a grand ovation and set about the Pakistan bowling as though he meant business. The deceptive Arafat came on as first change, and before long Dravid aimed a square cut at one which seamed in just a tad off a shortish length and also bounced extra, only to see a resulting edge fly to Misbah Ul Haq at first slip. 44/2.

Arafat was warming to the task on his Test debut and the fact that he came into this Test with 520 first class wickets at 22.43 showed in his bowling. He bowled an immaculate length and made the batsmen play without ever drifting down leg side. Wasim Jaffer fell to one which nipped back from outside off stump off a great length, while VVS fell to one which kept low and sneaked in under his bat to knock back his off stump. 61/4. Both wickets were the result of a fine length.

Having chosen to bat first, India were in trouble at this stage, and all the old memories of the Bangalore jinx came to mind. The wicket seemed perfectly playable and India looked like they were going to throw away the significant advantage of first use. Enter Yuvraj Singh at the stroke of Lunch.

Yuvraj Singh proceeded to play a sumptuous innings. Shoaib bowled a spell after lunch, which Yuvraj and Ganguly navigated successfully. Once he had left the scene, the two Indian southpaws set about the bowling - each in their own distinctive way. Yuvraj was all expansive stroke play with that magnificient high backlift, while Ganguly was all class, seemingly holding himself back all the time. Difficult situations seem to bring out the best in the former Indian captain, and he and Yuvraj proceeded to light up the Chinnaswamy stadium in a triple century partnership in just two sessions of play. Yuvraj first mastered and then dominated a Pakistan attack already reeling from an acute sense of deja vu thanks to Shoaib's visit to the hospice. Having hammered the bowling into submission, Yuvraj proceeded to milk the bowling in the last hour of the day. He made a century in the session after tea. The Greenpeace army cheered on as the two Indian left handers sizzled - Ganguly's deftness being matched and surpassed by Yuvraj's powerful display. Having waited a year and a half after an eminently forgettable run of scores in the Tests in West Indies in 2006, Yuvraj left an indelible mark. Dilip Vengsarkar watched from the stands as his masterstroke from 2006 continued to yield pure gold and Yuvraj Singh proceeded to create another impossible situation for him selection wise.

Younis Khan for his part was his usual magnificient self. He kept trying something or the other and was finally rewarded when Yuvraj fell against the run of play in the final moments of the second day to the second new ball. In walked Dinesh Karthik at number 7, to face the second new ball, under immense pressure with nothing to gain and everything to lose in the final 3 overs of the day. It was here that Ganguly showed his class. In Sami's final over, Ganguly played the 4th ball towards the point fence and with the man on the fence and hesitated to take the easy single that was on offer, trying to shield Dinesh Karthik for the last two balls of the day. Karthik of course was having none of it, and played out the last two balls of the day with aplomb.

At 5/365, India are not out of the woods by any means. But they have given themselves the opportunity to produce a huge first innings score and seal the series. Until Yuvraj established himself on this newly laid wicket, that looked quite unlikely.

What twists will tomorrow throw up? Shoaib is likely to be available to bowl tomorrow. With Irfan Pathan still to come, India will fancy their chances of reaching 500. This is Ganguly's chance of making a Test double. I really hope that he makes the 75 runs required tomorrow.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bangalore Test Preview - Swings and roundabouts

India go into the Bangalore Test leading 1-0 in the series, needing a draw to securing a series victory. The usual story in such an instance, especially with the opposition not having threatened at all with the ball with the bat in the 2nd Test would be one where the side in the leading would reiterate its committment to chasing a win and not sitting on a lead, while the side trailing the in series would claim to have found a second wind thanks to their stirring fight back in the 2nd Test. This is India v Pakistan however, and this series, even though it is devoid of the usual needle (enemies going at each other at cricket and all that stuff), has had its own share of swings and round abouts.

Both sides have been decimated by injuries on the eve of the Bangalore Test. This is something which might have been expected with three back to back Test matches. Only a few years ago, the thought of playing "back-to-back Tests" would have merited a comment from TV Pundits. Nowadays, its par for the course. In this instance, the usual injuries due to wear and tear have been supplemented by sickness. Shoaib Akthar, Misbah Ul Haq, Mohammad Sami and a few other Pakistan players have been sick. In addition to this Umar Gul and Mohammad Asif have both been ruled out of the series due to injuries. On the Indian side, Tendulkar is a doubtful starter with a knee injury aggravated during training. Munaf Patel, RP Singh and Zaheer Khan have all been rendered hors de combat. Dhoni is injured as well. Some of the players have doubtless been ruled out keeping an eye on the upcoming Australia tour, where India are likely to travel with a few players recovering from niggles. If this was a do-or-die Test match with the future of life itself hinging on it, then many of those players might have played, much like Shoaib played at Kolkata when he should have been tucked up in bed.

On the Pakistan side, there is also the question of captaincy. Shoaib Malik has a tenuous hold on a Test spot. It is hard to imagine that his original deputy was Salman Butt, until good sense prevailed and Younis Khan was recruited for the number 2 job. Younis Khan's reluctance to become captain has led to speculation (in that peculiar way in which the press can manufacture it) that he is reluctant to lead the squad in Bangalore in Shoaib Malik's absence. Younis of course has denied any such reluctance. He doesn't want to be Captain of Pakistan, but will do the job during the Bangalore Test. If his past efforts are anything to go by, he will do a very fine job.

Then there has been the "miscommunication" between Rauf and Rao - two unfortunately similar names which belong to two of Pakistan's fringe fast men. Abdur Rauf was apparently supposed to join the Pakistan side until it turned out that it was infact Rao who was coming. This quickly gave rise to the speculation that Younis wanted Rauf, but got Rao. All Younis would say in the matter was a cryptic "It goes without saying that a captain should have a big say in team selection".

As you can see, to suggest that there are swings and roundabouts is an understatement here. But wait - the icing on the cake is the fact that this is an untested, virgin wicket! It is newly laid, and nobody knows how it will play. The 1996 World Cup semi-final was played on a newly laid wicket and that one didn't last very long. In other instances, newly laid wickets have lasted quite long. This newly laid wicket has been prepared under supervision of two experts from New Zealand. BCCI was blamed (typically - i sometimes wish they didn't have such a conveniently simple acronym. If it was difficult to use, they might not have been blamed so much) for the Kolkata wicket. It should be noted that the Bangalore wicket is being prepared by the authorities in Bangalore, not by BCCI. The wickets, and the ground belong to the local association. The responsibility lies with them too. It remains to be seen how this wicket will play. If it turns out to be "slow and low", you know who will get the rap.

Finally of course, there is history. India have lost twice to Pakistan at Bangalore, both times in final Test of a series. In 1986-87, they lost a close game on a horror wicket where Sunil Gavaskar made an epic 96 in the 4th innings before being caught close in off his forearm protector. Maninder Singh took 7-27 in the Pakistan first innings. Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed bowled Pakistan to victory. In 2005, it was Inzamam who laid the foundations for Pakistan, making an unforgettable 184 on the first day. Virender Sehwag replied with 202 when India batted, but his dismissal, trying to worked a leg break from Danish Kaneria pitched outside off stump to midwicket only to be caught and bowled, sparked a batting collapse which left VVS Laxman stranded. Shahid Afridi then made a rude century as Pakistan raced to set up a declaration. India collapsed on the final day.

For Anil Kumble, his first series as captain could not possibly have been a greater mess. The redeeming feature is that he hasn't lost. He will hope that this does not come to pass in his first Test as captain on his home ground. It will be a great occasion for him. I hope Rahul Dravid can mark the moment with his first Test hundred at KSCA. It will be a battle against history for Kumble and India to win the series.

Even though many of India's supporters will frown at this supposedly defeatist ploy, i think India would do well to go into the match with the extra batsman. My line up would be Wasim Jaffer, Dinesh Karthik, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble, VRV Singh. It is disappointing that Munaf Patel will miss out on what may be the one wicket in this Test series which might have suited him. But then again, when Indian players are out injured, he's unlikely to not make that list. I do hope that Tendulkar plays though.

I should leave you with the thought that Younis Khan made 267 and 84 not out at Bangalore in 2005, and that India made 449 in their first innings and still lost by 168 runs.

Bangalore awaits....

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mumbai Mirror - Fogged In

The Mumbai Mirror's cover story on November 28th 2007 is a textbook case of how a ambiguously sourced story is damaging. There are several problems with this story. The most obvious one is that it does not name sources. "Senior players" - a phrase flogged to death by the press much like the phrase "BCCI officials" is ambigious, and most crucially drags in anybody who may qualify as a "senior" player. It makes no allowance for the possibility that certain senior players may infact be in favor of Kirsten - or more simply, that there may be various different personal opinions amongst the senior players about the selection of the coach. Further, who are the "senior players"? Kumble, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman? Are Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan also amongst the "senior" players? Is Dhoni who captains the ODI side a "senior" player? It could be speculated with some merit therefore that 8 out of the 11 that played the Kolkata Test are "senior players". Is it reasonable on the part of the Mumbai Mirror to assume that all these senior players (the number ranges from 4-8 by any reasonable standard) are all of exactly the same mind? The Mirror has also used that classic non-source "a source close to the team" who reveals the following:

"Even Niranjan Shah, who is one of the seven members of the high-profile committee was kept in the dark about the meeting and so were the senior players. Prof Ratnakar Shetty called Anil Kumble and he was asked to proceed to BCCI president Sharad Pawar's home at 6, Janpath and then introduced to Kirsten,"

And yet, in Cricinfo's story by Nagraj Gollapudi about the coach selection issue on 27th November states the following:

"Kirsten was interviewed in Delhi by the coach selection committee, comprising former captains Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and S Venkataraghavan, BCCI joint secretary MP Pandove, treasurer N Srinivasan and secretary Niranjan Shah. Anil Kumble, India's test captain, was also present at the meeting. The committee had decided to expedite the process with the intention of appointing a coach before the tour of Australia next month."

So we have 2 sources - one "unnamed" and another "close to the team" who contradict each other. The first insinuates that there was something underhanded about the process itself, while the other says that the coach selection committee interviewed Kirsten and that the Captain of the Test team was also present. In their obsession with unnamed sources, the reporter for the Mumbai Mirror ignores or doesn't realize the one really interesting question here - If Kumble was invited, why was Dhoni not invited? What does that say about the position of the ODI captain? Of course the story doesn't concern itself with this.

So, we don't know who the senior players are, or how many they are. Neither do we know why there is blatant contradiction between two reports about the same alleged meeting. Here is further demonstration of why the story in the Mumbai Mirror is of such poor quality. Cricinfo's story on December 3 by Neil Manthorp about this issue starts off by saying:

"Gary Kirsten has delayed accepting the position of India's coach after hearing about alleged "unhappiness" among some senior players about him being offered the job."

Anyone who reads that statement could be forgiven for believing that "some senior players" (a qualification - "some", that Mumbai Mirror does not make) are unhappy with the BCCI's choice for coach. This is completely different from saying that the senior players think that any head coach is unnecessary! Yet, given the nature of Mumbai Mirror's story, it is possible to see why Manthorp interprets it as he does.

These are some of the problems that arise when poor quality cricket press being allowed a free hand with the senior bosses at BCCI (i refer to the President, Secretary, Treasurer and the Vice-Presidents). In part it is BCCI's fault that they do not put out a single coherent message. Shunning the press amounts to damage control, it cannot be a policy.

Mumbai Mirror's story (a cover story no less) was written by "A special correspondent" - a further smokescreen. Nobody in the mainstream press - nobody who gets paid to report the news is going to criticize this type of story, which is commonly seen in the cricket press. With BCCI not having a spokesman, there is even more confusion. Today, Gary Kirsten has accepted the job. Will anybody ask Mumbai Mirror what happened to the senior players making the case to BCCI? Will they pursue this and run the story? If indeed there was discord in the team about Kirsten's appointment, then surely it is worth pursuing as a story. Did the senior players make their case to BCCI? What came of it?

Mumbai Mirror has used articles from this blog in the past when they used to take posts from various blogs about issues of the day and post them on their website, while providing links back to the source blogs. I should point out that on no occasion did they correspond with this author about using those blog posts. One could debate the merits of such a practice on the part of the Mumbai Mirror, but that is not the reason why i raise this. If someone at Mumbai Mirror still reads this blog, will they infact respond to this criticism of their cover story?

I wonder.....

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Kolkata Test Day 3 - "Battles" on and off the pitch

In my review of the first two days of the Kolkata Test, i speculated that Anil Kumble's handling of Harbhajan Singh would be crucial, and that the Pakistan batsmen would take an aggressive approach against Harbhajan Singh especially. As it turned out, Kumble began with Harbhajan, who responded brilliantly with an exhibition of teasing flight and length. Bedi's dictum about the perfect spinner's length being the shortest possible length which would still have the batsman playing forward was on show. Both Salman Butt and Mohammad Yousuf were beaten by the flight and the trajectory. This was a Test Match bowler with 240+ Test wickets to his name giving us a demonstration of his skill.

That the Pakistan batting strategy dictated assertive batsmanship against Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble was immediatly evident. Harbhajan Singh landed one on middle stump, full enough for Younis Khan to whip away to the squarish mid-wicket fence. Kumble's response was swift - the cover point moved over to mid-wicket. The game was now set. Harbhajan would attack the stumps with his stock delivery and occasional drag the batsman out to induce a cover drive. Or so Kumble thought. The next ball, Younis Khan aimed a reverse sweep to the vacant cover point region and missed. Before the over was done, Younis tried it again and got a boundary for his trouble. It seemed to put Harbhajan off. At the other end Misbah Ul-Haq brought out the sweep and the battle was well and truly joined.

Slowly but surely Pakistan's batsmen repaired the early damage. Kumble was unable to build on the early advantage that Harbhajan's first spell brought. Munaf Patel and Zaheer Khan got nothing out of the wicket or in the air. The ball stubbornly refused to deviate off the straight, and the forced change of ball didn't help vis a vis reverse swing either. For their part, Akmal and Misbah were superb, reminscent of Akmal and Razzaq at Mohali in 2005. Whether their effort brings a similar result for Pakistan remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, off the pitch, there was much speculation. Dilip Vengsarkar left for Mumbai to attend to a bereavement in his family. This led to speculation that he had left the test match mid-way to protest the BCCI's refusal to compensate him for lost income after they ordered him to stop writing his weekly newspaper column. Cricinfo clarified later that Vengsarkar had in fact threatened no such thing. The gist of that story is that there is a disagreement between the Chairman of the Selection Committee and his employers at BCCI about compensation. To this end, as the Cricinfo story reveals there is ongoing negotiation.

The press of course has its own dog in this fight. The BCCI diktat which has caused a spirited exchange of views anonymously in the press and behind closed doors between the selectors and BCCI, is also concerned with the selectors dealing with the press. The lack of a press conference is something that hurts the reportage. Hence, we get reports like the one on Express India, which stoops to the asinine depth of doubting a bereavement in the Chairman of selectors family (if this had to be brought up, it ought to have been easy enough to verify for any reporter worth his salt) and speculating about Vengsarkar threatening to resign. The press has been systematically constructing this "battle" off the pitch. In doing so they abuse their position of being above the fray. In this instance they are not in fact above the fray, as the outcome directly affects them. They would ideally like Vengsarkar to give press conferences again. But in their reportage of this story lies the the gist of the BCCI's case against them, and the reason for its ban.

Sixty thousand or so have watched each day of the Kolkata Test at the Eden Gardens, many millions have watched it on TV, and possibly many more millions have followed the progress of the Test match on the news. As long as this interest persists, the nature of the coverage by the press will have limited importance. These skirmishes however will continue to reveal the standards which the press sets for itself.

The outcome of the Kolkata Test will be known by the end of play tomorrow, much like it was with the Delhi Test match. The Selector v BCCI (v Press) battle will be resolved soon as well. The team for the third test and the Australia series is to be announced before the end of the Kolkata Test match. This announcement will hopefully be accompanied with a clarification from BCCI and the selectors about the whole selectors v BCCI issue. Gary Kirsten's appointment is also likely to be announced.

This press story linking a family bereavement to all alleged (by the press) threat by DBV to resign will be forgotten.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

India v Pakistan, Kolkata Test, Day 2

It was a Day of many firsts at Kolkata. Yet, it was something this batting line up have done quite often in this decade. Six of India's top 7 scored atleast 50, as India piled up 5/616 declared in 152 overs in their first innings at Kolkata. For Sourav Ganguly, the century at Eden was the icing on his comeback cake, with the red cherry on top as Navjot Sidhu would say. For the spectators at Eden, things just got better and better. First, Wasim Jaffer played a truly brilliant innings and in pure batting terms out-shined his illustrious colleagues in the middle order. Rahul Dravid score a careful, combative fifty before being evicted due to umpiring error. Tendulkar scored 82 of the easiest runs he may ever have scored in Test cricket. Laxman and Ganguly made hundreds, and Dhoni made a characteristic fifty full of dot balls and muscular strokes to round things off.

Even God might not have been able to script it better. Geoff Lawson and the Pakistan team management might contest the fact that God had anything to do with India's brilliance. They had to pick a clearly sick Shoaib Akthar because Yasir Arafat had not arrived yet. That Shoaib on antibiotics, weakened to the extent that he couldn't even deliver his second over convincingly, was considered better than the next available bowler ought to worry Pakistan. That they're judgement proved to be correct ought to worry them even more. If the three Indian batting innings in this series have revealed anything, it is that the other three bowlers in the Pakistan line up are just making up the numbers. Danish Kaneria can be effective, but he needs somebody to build pressure at the other end. Neither Sami nor Tanvir did that convincingly. Geoff Lawson's defense of his bowlers was spirited, and his position that his bowlers infact did well on a batting pitch will earn him the gratitude and respect of his team, but it begs the question - Does conceding 5/616 at 4 an over, even on a "batting pitch" constitute a "good effort"? Lawson mentioned that he thought they had Sourav Ganguly early in his innings. I can only assume he was referring to a couple of close LBW appeals - in each of those cases replays showed that the umpire had got it right, that the impact was outside off stump, and since Ganguly was offering a shot he could not be given out. Lawson neglected to mention that they got the biggest fish of them all thanks to Billy Doctrove's sympathetic index finger. Given Dravid's desire to get back into his groove, they might still have been bowling at him right now had that decision not gone Pakistan's way! Further, when India were bowling late on day 2, there were a couple of appeals against the left handed Salman Butt, with Kumble bowling round the wicket for LBW - where Butt padded up, and hawkeye showed that the ball was going on to hit the stumps. These were, strictly speaking even more likely to be out than any appeals against the Sourav Ganguly.

In each of the instances, the umpires got it right i think. Butt could not have been given out in those instances because there was simply too much doubt and too much speculation required. I also agree with Lawson's defense of his bowlers. He had little choice and he defended them gallantly.

The wicket is still playing well and Pakistan will hope that it holds together until the end of day 3. Even if it does, and even if they bat out of their skins and save the follow on, they will have to save the game in their first innings. Batting out even 70-80 overs on the 5th day, when the wicket is likely to become a Kumble Special will be extremely difficult. But, it isn't as simple as it seems for India. They have their own bowling worries. Munaf Patel still looks uncertain, Zaheer seemed to have hurt his ankle yesterday (but he returned) and Harbhajan Singh is on a comeback trail. This is where he will be expected to deliver cheap wickets. He will be under pressure. Rameez Raja prescribed a strategy for Pakistan in his audio report for Cricinfo - play Kumble with mainly with the bat and Harbhajan Singh mainly with the pad. Given the pressure Harbhajan Singh will be under to deliver, Pakistan may just consider attacking him, at least early on day 3.

Managing Harbhajan will be Kumble's biggest challenge as India look for the remaining 19 wickets.