Wednesday, December 31, 2008

ODI Ratings, December 2008

These are my ratings for the top 8 sides in ODI cricket at the end of 2008. Please click here for a full sized view. The methodology is explained here

1. Australia, 2. India, 3. New Zealand, 4. South Africa 5. Sri Lanka, 6. England, 7. Pakistan, 8. West Indies

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

4th Innings Batting - A Comparison between Tendulkar and Ponting

Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting would figure in most people's list of truly great post-war batsmen. They have each played over a hundred Tests and built imposing career records. Ponting is a couple of years younger than Tendulkar, and also has the advantage of playing for Australia. I say this because Ponting's 127 Tests have been played over 13 years, while Tendulkar's 156 Tests have been played over 19 years. It is quite likely that Ponting will surpass any batting record that Tendulkar might set before he is through. Statistically, there are a few batsman in world cricket today who might surpass Ponting and Tendulkar by the end of their careers - Graeme Smith comes to mind immediately, but they will doubtless be very tired men by the end of it all.

This post is about a fairly controversial matter. It addresses a number of issues which pre-occupy cricket fans, but do so in a way which has little or nothing to do with actual cricket. These questions relate to the value of a given player. Who scores runs when it matters? Who scores runs when its most difficult? Who is a flat track bully? Who is better on the "big stage"? This gamut of questions is often framed in one devastating query - Who has won more matches for his side? I will compare the 4th innings batting of Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting to try and explain why these questions are more complicated than the simplest statistics might indicate.

I take the notion of the "match-winning" batsman to be a myth. I am firmly of the view that Test Matches are won by bowlers. Batsmen can at best set them up, or prevent their side from losing. In a 4th innings run chase however, there is some scope for batting heroics, and with the recent spurt in successful 4th innings run chases, this subject is at the forefront of a lot of debate. Cricinfo speculated recently that there has been a spurt in successful 4th innings batting in recent years, while popular cricket blogs like The Cricket Watcher's Journal have addressed this issue at some length as well.

Please bear in mind that all the statistics in this post include Test Matches featuring the top 8 Test playing nations only. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe do not feature in any of the games considered in this post.

Of the 1769 Test Matches featuring the top 8 Test playing nations (as they stand today - Australia, South Africa, India, England, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, New Zealand and West Indies), 1129 have yielded a conclusive result (Win, Loss), while 638 have ended in a draw. Of these 1769, 1187 Test Matches have involved a run chase in the 4th innings, of these 455 have been won by the side batting 4th, 400 have been lost by the side batting 4th, 2 games have ended in a tie and 330 have been drawn.

Of the 1187 4th innings run chases, Test teams have made 300 or more in a 4th innings 97 times. Of these, only 22 have been match-winning run chases, while 45 have ended in defeats. By contrast, 1310 of the 1769 Tests featuring the top 8 Test playing nations have seen scores of 300 or more in the 1st or 2nd innings. In a nutshell, teams have reached 300 or more in 74% of 1st and 2nd match innings, while they reach 300 in only 8% of 4th innings. It ought to be fairly clear that this point that 4th innings batting is difficult.

The table below shows a comparison of the batting records of Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting in the 4th innings. Both have scored over 1000 runs in the 4th innings of Tests (Ponting 1016, Tendulkar 1088) and are amongst only 16 batsmen in the history of Test Cricket to do so. This is a list dominated by batsmen who batted in the top 4 in their respective batting line ups (with the notable exception of Shivnaraine Chanderpaul). Ponting and Tendulkar by no means have the best 4th innings records for non-openers.

At the outset, it is clear that Ponting has a superior record to Tendulkar's. His batting average in the 4th innings is 10 runs better than Tendulkar. Tendulkar's 4th innings batting average is 18 runs lower than his overall average, while Ponting's is only 11 runs lower than his overall average. Both Tendulkar and Ponting have scored 3 4th innings centuries. Tendulkar has passed 50 6 times in 42 4th innings, while Ponting has done so 5 times in 33 4th innings.

The peculiarity of the 4th innings though, is that there is always a firm target score in place. This target score reveals what has happened before in the Test. Some target scores are easy - within a hundred runs, while others are impossible, over 400. 400+ run chases have been successfully completed only 4 times in the history of Test Cricket. The best such run chase is 418.

I have broken down the 4th innings played by Tendulkar and Ponting by the target score into 4 groups - upto 200 runs, between 200 and 300, between 300 and 418 and greater than 418. Of these, i consider targets below 200 to be eminently gettable run chases (there are obviously exceptions). I consider targets between 200 and 300 to be an even contest, which each side having a chance to win. I consider targets in excess of 300 to favor the bowling side. This is to state that in the case of targets under 200, the side batting 4th can be said to be ahead in the game at the end of the first three innings, while in the case of targets in excess of 300, the side batting 4th can be said to be well behind at the end of three innings.

What is immediately apparent looking at these figures, is that Ricky Ponting has played the majority of his 4th innings in pursuit of targets below 200 (18 out of 33) while Sachin Tendulkar has played the majority of his 4th innings in pursuit of targets above 300 (28 out of 42). This is despite the fact that as a percentage of the total number of Test innings, the number of 4th innings played by Tendulkar and Ponting is about the same (16% and 15% respectively).

Ponting outscores Tendulkar easily, by about 18 runs per innings in run chases below 200, but these seems to have no impact on the Win-Loss record of Australia and India - the results are identical of each side.

Both Ponting and Tendulkar perform strongly in run chases between 200 and 300, averaging 81 and 71 respectively. What is noteworthy is the fact that neither side seems to have played too many of these games where the game is evenly balanced going into the 4th innings. Ironically, Tendulkar's finest innings in a run chase of this magnitude came in a defeat, while Ponting's century came after a desperate declaration by Graeme Smith where he set Australia 288 to win in less than 70 overs on a good wicket without a top spinner in his ranks.

In run chases in excess of 300, Tendulkar outscores Ponting by 11 runs per innings, yet this has no impact on the respective win-loss records of India and Australia. Australia have found themselves in this situation less often and have had stronger batting lineups (and probably better wickets to bat on - their most storeyed 4th innings run chases have come in Australia and South Africa). India on the other hand, have found themselves in this situation often, and have made 300 or more to win only twice in their history.

In situations where a target in excess of 418 has been set, Tendulkar has been a complete failure, while Ponting has played one great innings of 156 in the 2005 Ashes. 

The overall picture is far more nuanced than the simple conclusion which can be reached from the basic statistics. Tendulkar, more often than not has played in the 4th innings with his side down and out, and struggling for survival, or at best with the game evenly poised (in 33 out of his 42 innings), while Ponting has played in the 4th innings more often than not with his side well and truly on top, or at worst, with the game evenly poised (21 out of 33 innings). Indeed, if we consider 4th innings run chases between 200 and 418, Tendulkar averages 48 over 25 innings, while Ponting averages 42 over 10 innings.

What is significant here is that Tendulkar has played 10% of his Test innings in 4th innings run chases between 200 and 418, while Ponting has played about 4% of his Test innings in a similar situation. When you consider the conventional wisdom that wickets in the sub-continent deteriorate faster than wickets overseas, these statistics become even more significant.

What this also indicates is that the "match-winningness" of a batsman is largely a myth. Ponting has played in more winning sides, but his runs seem to matter less than Tendulkar, who has played in fewer winning sides. If we take a step back from the 4th innings, and consider the second match innings as a whole, then Tendulkar averages 41.13 in 2nd innings batting with 23 50+ (10 hundreds, 13 fifties) scores 97 innings, while Ponting averages 44 in 2nd innings batting with 17 50+ (5 hundreds, 12 fifties) in 83 innings. Keep these numbers in mind as you consider the following statistics.

In Test Matches where Ponting has played, Australia ended the 1st innings of a Test match with an average lead of 125 (435 played 310) runs. In Test Matches where Tendulkar has played, India have ended the 1st innings of a Test Match with an average lead of 12 (383 played 371) runs.

In conclusion, it is hard to determine the quality of a batsman in 4th innings play (even if we assume that this is a singularly important measure of a batsman's accomplishment) by looking at the statistics. The details behind the numbers are much more revealing and interesting. In the comparison between Tendulkar and Ponting, the findings are somewhat counter-intuitive. Ponting not decisively superior to Tendulkar as a 4th innings player. Furthermore, his batting is less important to Australia than Tendulkar's is to India.

Ricky Ponting is still one of the modern day greats, and i suspect that we will see the best of the Australian captain in the next two to three years. His batting will become more and more important for Australia, once his illustrious colleagues begin to fade away.

As for Tendulkar, there is only one type of Test inning that the great man hasn't played - and that is a marathon 10 hour match saving effort (like Atherton at Jo'burg), where he may bat over 4 sessions to save a Test Match. One would not want to see India in a situation where such an innings is required, but if such a situation does come to pass, Tendulkar will have something special to pursue.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Year in Review

So the first full calender year in the post-IPL era comes to an end. It has been a watershed year for Test Cricket. After 10 years of Australian domination, it appears that the Australians are finally on the wane. Most observers have forecast this, especially once Warne and McGrath retired, but now it seems to have come to pass. Australia have now lost two Test series in the same year, while their most recent opponents have had their best Test Match year since their return to Test Cricket 16 years ago.

What a year its been for South Africa! They have beaten England in England, Australia in Australia and shared the series against India in India. The year began on a sobering note for the Proteas - they had lost a Boxing Day Test at Port Elizabeth to a modest West Indies side and went into the new years Test Match in a must win situation. They won that game in Cape Town with Graeme Smith leading the way with a swasbuckling 85(79) in the 4th innings run chase, and haven't looked back since. They have won 11 out of 15 Tests this year. Even if we discount their 4 wins in 4 games against Bangladesh, South Africa have still won 7 out of 11 Tests against top opposition, for the most part away from home. Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini both took over 50 wickets in the calender year, with Steyn topping the charts (74 wickets at 20.01).

The other team who's year somewhat mirrored South Africa's is India. They too began the year uncertainly, having been hammered at Melbourne. Sydney was an important Test Match, for even though the Australians won a great victory, India proved that the World Champions could be challenged in their own den. At Perth, India proceeded to prove it. They went from strength to strength in 2008 despite two significant retirements.

2008 also saw the emergence of a number of potential superstars in the Test arena. For South Africa, Dale Steyn established himself as one of the preminent fast bowlers in world cricket. Steyn has broken the mould of the tall, powerful fast bowler whose effectiveness came mainly from extra bounce off the wicket on account of a very high release. Steyn is more in the mould of Malcolm Marshall - a rythm bowler who is genuinely quick and relies heavily on swing and seam. J P Duminy emerged towards the end of the year as an astonishingly mature Test Match performer. Hashim Amla established himself, scoring runs all over the world. Amla has a touch of VVS Laxman in him, and has developed into an extremely effective number three batsman. Neil McKenzie has successfully reinvented himself as a Test opener. For India, Gautam Gambhir came of age as a Test opening batsman, scoring 1000 runs in just 8 Test Matches. He was India's best batsman in Sri Lanka, and carried that good form into the series against Australia and England. 

Sachin Tendulkar had a fine year after a while. If 2007 was a workmanlike year, 2008 was more like the Tendulkar of old. There were three centuries against Australia, and a brilliantly crafted 4th innings century against England at his favorite Chepauk. Sri Lanka was Tendulkar's one bad series of the year. Ricky Ponting rescued his year with a brilliant show in the boxing day Test - a century and a 99 by him couldn't prevent a South African victory. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Hussey found himself back amongst normal, mortal Test cricketers after his olympian exploits since his debut in 2005 - he made 900 runs at 37.5 in 2008. Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid had a similarly modest year.

Shivnaraine Chanderpaul was possibly the outstanding middle order batsman of the year, reaching at least 50 in 10 out of his 16 visits to the crease in Test Match play. He ended the year with 909 runs at an imposing 101 runs per innings. 

The two outstanding batsmen of 2008, without any real doubt, were Graeme Smith and Virender Sehwag. Smith ended the year with 1656 runs at 72. Only Viv Richards (1710 in 1976) and Mohammad Yousuf (1788 in 2006) have done better in the history of Test Cricket. Sehwag's year was studded with several astonishing performances, starting with his exquisite 151 at Adelaide, his brutal 319 at Chennai, his match-winning 201 not out at Galle and his vicious 83(68) against England at Chennai - an innings which set up India's mammoth run chase.

Amongst bowlers, 2008 saw the emergence of possibly the most exciting spin bowler since Saqlain Mushtaq in the mid 1990's. Ajantha Mendis had India's batsmen in a bind with his ability to turn the ball both ways with little or no change in his action. By the time the batsmen had figured him out, Mendis (along with the great Murali of course) had won the Test Series for Sri Lanka 2-1 with 26 wickets at 18.38. This is easily one of the great debut series performances in Test history. Ishant Sharma did not end up with figures quite like Mendis, but proved himself to be a worthy performer in Test Cricket. These are two bowlers to watch out for in the coming years.

England and New Zealand also played a lot of Test Cricket in 2008. Kevin Pietersen had a great Test Match year, making 5 Test hundreds (only Smith with 6 managed more) and over a thousand runs. England were hampered by the loss of Ryan Sidebottom for their winter tour to India. Sidebottom had a great year and might have rivalled Steyn for the top bowling honors but for his injury.

The outstanding Test team of the year was without doubt South Africa. With Steyn, Ntini, Morkel and Harris, they have a quality attack. But it is their batsmen who have brought them the runs which have brought them great victories. South Africa have chased very well in the 4th innings this year. Four South Africans made 1000 Test runs or more in 2008, and a fifth - Prince would almost certainly have made 1000 runs but for his fractured thumb. His replacement, JP Duminy, played two exceptional innings and now averages 108 in Test cricket!

Australia are still a very good Test side. They beat New Zealand with characteristic ease before taking on the South Africans, and also beat West Indies in West Indies earlier in the year. But the reason why i think they have been decisively pulled back into the pack, is that they were fairly comprehensively beaten in India, and then, more importantly, have now lost two consecutive Tests against South Africa in Australia after being the early front runners in both cases. The nature of Test Cricket is such, that the better side usually wins, and it usually wins by getting ahead early in the game, and almost certainly by winning the first innings. Australia's problems in this series are deeper than a mere inability to dismiss the South African tail. A case could be made that their success on Day 2 at the MCG, was a case of them getting better results than they deserved.

Australia are clearly missing a quality spinner. But they are missing a new ball attack even more. Stuart Clark's absence has left a huge hole in the Aussie pace lineup, and Ricky Ponting has very little to play with in the field. Andrew Symonds has problems, Mathew Hayden is 37, Michael Clarke is making runs without ever looking dominant and Michael Hussey is in a (hopefully temporary) slump. The only positives for Australia this year have been the bowling of Mitchell Johnson, the emergence of Brad Haddin, and the Mckenzieesque development of Simon Katich as opening batsman. Australia desperately need Shane Watson back in the line up. Andrew Symonds's days may be numbered.

Still, there is too much quality in the Australian line up to predict any significant demise. However, if able replacements for Ponting and Hayden do not appear on the scene, Australia will be firmly in the middle of the Test Match pack in the foreseeable future.

India and South Africa seem to be favorites at the this point assume Australia's mantle, though it is unlikely that either side will achieve the dominance of the Australians. South Africa seem to be better placed, and could seal their position at the top of the cricket world if they beat Australia in South Africa early next year. India have two relatively low-key assignments in the near future - they tour New Zealand in March 2009, followed by a tour of the West Indies in June. The series of the year though, promises to the the Ashes series in England. Pakistan, who haven't played a single Test in 2008 will most probably face Sri Lanka in Pakistan early in 2009. This is an intriguing series, if only because of the quality of bowling on both sides. Murali and Mendis for Sri Lanka, and Gul and Asif (making a comeback) for Pakistan. 

Adam Gilchrist, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble retired in 2008, each having played over a 100 Tests. It has been an important year in Test Cricket. All in all it is safe to say that the classical form of the game is in rude health.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Test Ratings Update

I have just updated my ratings to include the recent Perth Test Match between Australia and South Africa. My last update was almost exactly a year ago.

Its been a good year for India, although this improvement comes due to an improved performance in Home Test series - India beat Australia 2-0 (they had lost 1-2 in 2004-05) and England 1-0 (a 1-1 drawn in 2005-06). The result in Sri Lanka was very similar to what India achieved on their previous tour there. The Australians have fallen from their amazing 0.657 high (to achieve a 0.650 or thereabouts in my system a side would have to basically win every alternate Test Match and not lose any games), but will not fall back into the "pack" (which currently includes India, England and South Africa) unless they lose one of their series against South Africa as well as the Ashes.

Sri Lanka won in the West Indies, while the West Indies returned undefeated from New Zealand. These results constitute improvements for Sri Lanka and West Indies respectively. New Zealand managed to draw one Test Match in England, thus improving on their 0-3 hammering in England in 2004. Their position in the ranking remains essentially unchanged.

Pakistan have not played a single Test Match in 2008. The last time they didn't play a single Test Match in a calender year was in 1968.

South Africa and India stand to make gains in their current and upcoming series. The South Africans have had a rough time against the Aussies, and have already improved on their 2004-05 performance. India are to tour New Zealand next. The last time they tour, they were hammered 2-0 in a 2 match series.

The most impressive result of the year in my opinion was South Africa's 2-1 win in England, while the most impressive Test wins of the year were South Africa and India's wins at Perth and India's win against England in Chennai. The best Test hundreds of the year in my view were - Mathew Hayden's second innings hundred against India at Sydney, Graeme Smith's century in the 4th innings at Birmingham, Virender Sehwag's double hundred at Galle and of course his triple hundred in reply to a 500+ first innings by South Africa at Chennai. 

Sehwag would also be my Test batsman of the year. He made 1462 runs in the year at a strike rate of 85! Harbhajan Singh, without ever seeming to bowl very well has taken 63 wickets in 2008 to emerged as the most prolific spinner. Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson are both on course to emerge as the most prolific fast bowler in 2008. Steyn in currently in the lead with 65 wickets (at an astonishing strike rate of 37.6!). He would have to be the fast bowler of the year.

All in all, it has been a tremendous year of Test Cricket and an exciting boxing day Test Match is the ideal way to bring it to a close.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Myth of the Cricket Team

Commentators, whose job it is to tell us all the story of the game in progress often take refuge in cliches, but more often, they take refuge in myths - in apparent theories and trends in the game which are applicable in a given contest. In doing so, they often discuss, and sometimes mangle the margins of the contest without ever getting to the crux of the matter.

The brilliance of this wonderful form of the game is that it is at its very core, the simplest form of Cricket. The fielding side's job is to dismiss the batting side, while the batting side's job is to score as many runs as possible and avoid getting dismissed. This, in a nutshell is Test Match cricket. The two most fundamental qualities which come into play here are the quality of the batting and the quality of the bowling. The most crucial factors in a Test Match, once the basic quality of each side and each player is established, is the form of each player. My contention is that most other things are at the margins, and are not decisive.

Test sides try to score at "four an over". Just yesterday on commentary, David Lloyd was telling us "Steve Waugh told us, bat at four an over, get the batting out of the way, there are twenty wickets to take". This is at the very least a gross overstatement and misunderstanding of developments in Test Cricket in my view. But it is a popular myth - that Australia rewrote the rules about the game. Another similar myth is that Virender Sehwag has rewritten the rules of opening the batting in Test Cricket. That he has successfully torn up the rule book. Nobody in a 131 years has "rewritten" anything.

The most underrated thing about Test Cricket, is how much of an individual sport it is. It is ostensibly a team game - eleven against eleven, but it is at its very core, a deeply individualistic sport. At any time in the game, only one player from each side is involved in the play. The others can merely wait. They may have a lot of to say about how the play should be made, but that is merely theory.

Steve Waugh did not rewrite the rules of Test Cricket. The truest thing Steve Waugh told us, was that he was lucky to captain a side with so many once-in-a-generation players in it. Australia are learning today, what once-in-a-generation really means. Similarly, Virender Sehwag has not torn up any rule book of batting. He plays all the strokes in the book correctly. He plays a fluent cover drive, he plays a proper defense, he plays a very orthodox square cut, he plays with a very straight bat. Its just that he plays more strokes than the average player, because he has a phenomenal eye and is astonishingly fit. Im fairly confident at Usain Bolt couldn't bat for six hours. It would be physically and mentally beyond him, as it would be beyond Roger Federer. Cricketers have a different kind of physical and mental conditioning which is quite special.

We are obsessed with post-orthodoxy in Test cricket, as if it is forbidden territory. This tendency does not stand up to scrutiny. Even Sachin Tendulkar was considered unorthodox when he began, on account of his peculiar grip on the bat, with both hands close together towards the bottom of the bat handle. Shivnaraine Chanderpaul has the most original stance in Cricket today, yet when he meets the ball he meets it with the straightest of bats, right under eye, with a still head and a well balanced body. These basic rules, along with the rule of watching the ball, are about all the orthodoxy there really is. And every player who has ever been successful has always met all of these conditions.

If Test Cricket is secretly a great individualistic game, what of captaincy? I tend to view captaincy as being similar to wicket keeping - a thankless task, where there is plenty of scope to cause damage, but very little scope to actually be a match-winner. M S Dhoni can ring in all the changes that he wants, apply all the instincts that he has about his players, but he would get nowhere if he had ordinary bowlers to play with, or ordinary batsmen to bat for him. He is at best a maintenance man.

Recently, a friend of mine (a fellow believer in Test cricket) told me about an email he recieved after the end of play on Day 4 at Perth. It pointed out that about 5 other men did the mile in under 4 minutes in the year that Roger Bannister first broke the 4 minute barrier. This was obviously in anticipation of the possibility of a South African win at Perth. At first glance, it sounds like a great analogy - one which points convincingly to the idea that new ground is being broken in Test Cricket. Cricinfo has a statistical analysis of 4th innings run chases. What Cricinfo's analysis also shows is that there is no significant change in the number of losses in 4th innings run chases as a fraction of the total Test matches played. The drop is in the percentage of drawn games. This is in tune with the fact that Test Cricket in general has become more prone to decisive results in this decade.

Test Cricket is about cricketers - about batsmen and bowlers and the contest between them. It has remained remarkably the same over 131 years, and i hope it remains the same for the next 131. All the myths created around it - of deep and consequential team strategy, and attitude and mental disintegration and other such things are simply gobbledygook constructed by those of us who watch from the sidelines. Yes, even "mental disintegration" is gobbledygook in my view, for being able to concentrate for long periods of time is central to batsmanship. The Cricket team is merely a convenient framework within which this beautiful simple contest between bat and ball takes place. Winning Cricket teams are almost without exception the more skilled, more talented and more accomplished cricket teams on the day.

The great spectacle of Test cricket, which so grips me as a viewer lies in actually watching the days play - watching events on the field and in not trying to predict them. In trying to read what's going on. Take the example of the third days play of the Mohali Test between England and India or example. The central fact of the day if you ask me, was that it was an absolute belter of a pitch, with even bounce and reasonable pace. There was no lateral seam movement, but the Indian bowlers did manage to produce some reverse swing. Led by Kevin Pietersen, England made the most of a fine batting day. The attacking fields set by M S Dhoni early in the day allowed England to accumulate lots of runs in boundaries. Over by over, events were far more nuanced.

Take for example the time when Harbhajan Singh returned for his second spell. Pietersen was well set, and immediately took the attack to the Indian off-spinner, executing one phenomenal "switch-hit" for six. Dhoni and Harbhajan's response was interesting. They set a 2-7 field, with only a deep point and a long off on the off side, and Harbhajan began to bowl at middle stump. This immediately quitened things down. Watching Mishra bowl was quite an experience as he varied his flight and his pace, and the amount of turn he imparted on the ball. All this was not Dhoni's doing, it was Mishra's skill. After the Tea break, India came out with the aim of killing the scoring - a legitimate strategy if they bowled in a way which in theory allowed the batsman to reach the ball. Bowling outside off stump to a packed off side field is a well-used strategy which is deceptively difficult to execute. Once a bowler decides to bowl outside off, the key issue becomes the length. If the bowler drops it short, a defensive ploy very quickly becomes suicidal, for there isn't a batsman in international cricket who wouldn't enjoy a short and wide offering outside offstump, irrespective of the field that has been set for him. The leg spinner bowling round the wicket into the rough is also a legitimate ploy for the bowler is attacking the stumps. The ploy worked for India as the 25 overs after Tea produced 71 runs for England - less than three an over, which considering Englands pre-Tea runrate of 4.3 was a substantial drop.

As a strategy though, this was not original. Captains have attempted to control the scoring and defend for well over a hundred years. The results depend on the bowler. They also depend on the batsman, for some batsmen adjust better to a run saving ploy than others.

There is no other form of cricket which affords this kind of detailed watching. One of the reasons why One Day Cricket has seen so many rule changes, is that it quickly becomes stale, and more importantly, it is unsustainable as a contest between bat and ball. Twenty20 doesn't even pretend to be a serious contest between bat and ball, because the batsman doesn't care about being dismissed, and the bowler doesn't care about dismissing the batsman. The secret of Test Cricket is the beautifully, finely balanced contest between batsman and bowler, set in a time frame which leaves neither party any place to hide.

Thats why it is a Test. And thats why it is about the batsman and the bowler.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dravid recovers while South Africa dream

Rahul Dravid produced a fighting 136 to propel India to a first innings total of 453 on Day 2 of the 2nd Test against England at Mohali. India collapsed from 1/320 to 10/453, losing their entire batting line up save Sehwag for a total of 133. It was an impressive comeback from England, but one which may well indicate how difficult it could be to start against the old ball. Graeme Swann was the best English spinner on show yet again, and Panesar has been unable to resurrect himself the way Rahul Dravid has. 

Dravid ended the second day at 65(205), about 30-40 runs short of what he might have achieved in the same situation, against the same bowling 3-4 years ago. But it was worth it, for today he made 71(123), and matched the in form Gautam Gambhir who went from 106 (229) to 179 (348) to add 73 (119) on the day. Gambhir for his part continues his terrific year which began in the limited overs series in Australia, and continued into the series in Sri Lanka where he was India's best batsman (along with Sehwag of course) and the series against the Aussies. Gambhir is showing a happy knack of being able to produce large scores and bat for long periods of time.

The story of the game has  been Dravid though. In some ways it is not surprising, because Dravid has been so outrageously consistent since the start of his Test match career. As Sachin Tendulkar said of him, he's not just a good player, he's a great player. 26 test hundreds is testimony to greatness. But it will take more than one innings to confirm Dravid's recovery. Sadly, India are unlikely to play too much Test cricket in January, what with the Pakistan series being cancelled. Dravid will have to make do with Ranji Trophy games to prepare for the series in New Zealand in the first half of 2009.

Despite the batting collapse, 453 is a solid first innings total, and with nearly 20 overs being lost over the first two days to bad light, England's chance of making a play to level the series is narrowing. This should be an interesting Test Match from here on, for i expect England to try really hard to win. They may declare behind, in which case Dhoni may be forced to be nice and set up a sporting declaration (what with England having coming back to India to play and all that). If England declare at say 7/350, then you can be sure that Dhoni will be seen in a bad light if he doesn't play along lets the Indian second innings meander to 290 all out in say 105 overs. England's most realistic chance of victory (unless one of their batsmen produces a Sehwagesque triple) is in a accomplishing what is sure to be a challenging fourth innings run chase.

Speaking of run chases, the Test match in Perth heads into the 5th day with South Africa needing 187 more with 7 wickets in hand, with Jacques Kallis and A B deVilliers at the crease. Chennai must loom large in South African minds tonight. Graeme Smith made a century to set up this position for South Africa, after Australia's new Gilchrist-lite (make that very lite) extended the Australian second innings to 319, and the lead to 413. Perth is not Chennai, and the 5th day wicket is still likely to be good for batting. This has been a peculiar Test match all in all. Despite being reduced to 3/15, Australia began the fourth innings of the match with a lead of 414, the main reason for this being 1 spell of 6 overs by Mitchell Johnson late on the 2nd day, where he took 5/5. That may yet come back to haunt them, for this is a deceptive total - South Africa have only Duminy and Boucher to follow before the tail, after this pair. But it should also indicate to them that they are very well placed in this series, and could very realistically win it even if they lose tomorrow. 

Finally, Shivnaraine Chanderpaul has just made yet another Test hundred, reaching 126* as the West Indies were bowled out for 307 in their first innings at Napier. Chanderpaul had played 13 Tests and 22 Test innings since the beginning of 2007, and has reached atleast 50 in 16 of them! His batting average, which was a respectable 44.6 in 101 Tests, has climbed up to 50 in the next 13. If Mohammad Yousuf was the stand out batsman of 2006 (9 Test hundreds, most runs by any batsman in a calender year), then Shivnaraine Chanderpaul has been the stand out batsman since that period. Others, like Sehwag have made astonishing comebacks to Test cricket, but for sheer consistency against allcomers, its hard to beat Chanderpaul.

All in all, an eventful day of Test cricket. If only the weather in Mohali would improve!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Australia v South Africa and other Test Cricket

The marquee series down under has begun with emphatic style, with the first two days of the Perth Test producing 618 runs and 17 wickets. The amazing thing is that 8 of these 17 wickets have fallen in a clump, for a total of 9 runs.

Australia began their first innings at Perth having won the toss and chosen to bat first, if the first over was anything to go by, viewers must have felt they had seen this before. Ntini's first over to Hayden consisted of a full toss and a half volley, and both were dispatched to the boundary by the powerful southpaw. At the other end, Dale Steyn bowled a wide first ball. The Australians have prided themselves over the years on starting a series with a bang, dominating the first session and assuming the frontrunner's spot early.

Ten balls later, Australia had been reduced to 3/15, with Hayden, Ponting (first ball) and Michael Hussey (zero) all dismissed. As starts go, Australia could not have imagined anything worse. Typically though, the Australian recovered to post 375, 73 of those runs coming after the 8th wicket had fallen. There were no centuries for Australia, but consistent runs down the order.

The South African response was proceeding well, having reached 234/3, when Mitchell Johnson struck devastatingly to reduce the visitors to 8/241 in 6 overs. Amazingly enough, these were overs 71 - 77, just before the second new ball was due. Johnson produced his best figures in Tests - 7/42 in the process, and with two wickets still to go, he could very well enter record breaking territory.

For now it appears as though Australia have the Perth Test well within their grasp. They seem poised to take a significant first innings lead and are unlikely to concede this advantage over the next 3 days. But, given how this Test Match has gone so far, i wouldn't be surprised if the last two South African wickets narrowly Australia's first innings lead significantly.

All in all, an eventful Test Match.

The Mohali Test begins today in the afterglow of the Chennai result, with no fitness trouble being reported on either side. The next few days promise rich fodder for Test Match afficionados.

The BCCI have also called off their upcoming tour to Pakistan in early 2009. Osman Samiuddin (who's writing i enjoy immensely) thought there was a double standard in England itching to return to India, but not being as keen to go to Pakistan. I wonder what he thinks of this! But with evidence mounting, and being reported by multiple governments, i don't expect India to tour Pakistan anytime soon. I must admit to having mixed feelings about this, purely from a cricketing point of view, for Pakistan is possibly the most outrageously gifted cricket team in the Test arena, and India's recent tours to Pakistan have been very successful (see Pundits from Pakistan).

I wonder what the wicket will be like for the Mohali Test. Im almost hoping that it will be green, not least because of India's increasingly iffy spin bowling attack. I think Harbhajan Singh problems against left handers are of significant seriousness. Dileep Premachandran has the numbers about India's spin bowling woes. But thats unlikely to happen. Like Chennai, Mohali was only recently finalised as the venue for this Test Match, and that must have an effect on the preperation of the wicket. I wouldn't be surprised if there was some early juice in the wicket though.

Mohali has been a fixture in English tours of India in recent times, and India have won both Test Matches they have played against England here. They won by 10 wickets in 2001-02 when Sourav Ganguly sent in the number 11 Iqbal Siddiqui to open the batting in the 4th innings for India to knock off the winning runs (a deeply disrespectful choice in my view), and in 2005-06, when they won by 9 wickets.

The one Indian player who is under immense pressure is Rahul Dravid. This great batsman has been struggling this season, with poor returns against Australia and a struggle in the Chennai Test. The last time India played England at Mohali, Dravid was India's mainstay, scoring 95 and 42 not out in India's 9 wicket win. Dravid is definitely under the hammer here, and many are calling for his ouster. I am not so sure that Rahul Dravid is finished, and feel he should be persisted with for the Mohali Test.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Watch the final few balls

And of course, Dharamvir was there as well. How could he have missed this Test Match....

Dharamvir is a polio stricken guy from Madhya Pradesh, who once took a 36 hour train journey (unreserved) to Chennai in 2006 to watch the Challenger Trophy. Since then, the teenager from Muraina in Madhya Pradesh has been a fixture at India games (and it looks like he is thankfully spared all the security stuff). Yuvraj Singh and others pitch in to enable him to travel to games, and he even participates in nets with them. He is allowed to wear India colors (not the ones that some of us wannabe India players buy for exhorbitant prices in gift shops, but real India colors, made for real India players), and in this story from a few months ago, confidently asserted that "we" would level the series.


With Dharamvir watching over them, its no wonder that Indian Cricket team has steadily gotten better in recent seasons.

History at Chennai

India have just won the Chennai Test after being outplayed for 11 of the 15 sessions. A Test Match which began to empty stands and a sad, distracted viewership, had, by the time the last ball was bowled, captured the imagination of a city. Chennai turned out in great glory at Chepauk on this Monday, 75 years to the day from the start of Test Cricket in the Indian sub-continent, when the Indian opener S Wazir Ali faced up to Morris Nichols, the Essex Professional, at the Bombay Gymkhana Ground in the heart of what is today South Bombay (literally a stones throw away from the CST Railway Station).

It was fitting then that the winning runs came from one of the Indian sub-continent's greatest sons, nurtured by these very maidans - a fine delicate paddle past the short fine-leg, in the pursuit of a total never before chased in 75 long years. As Tendulkar walked off, the Chepauk groundstaff, which had done such a wonderful job of getting the ground ready at a moment's notice despite bad weather were the only ones able to run up and congratulate him mid-pitch. A lady in a red saree, also a member of the ground staff raced up to him and exchanged a brief handshake.

Between the man, and the men who grew up idolizing him, they made history. My grandfather might have said that the stars were aligned well today. Even a skeptic like me would have to agree.

First Perth, then the Final at Sydney, and now Chennai. What a year this has been! 

I hope you watched it. It was something.

There's this image as well, but somehow it didn't seem to fit the day.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Sehwag Blitz into a stiff headwind of history

England have dominated this Test Match since the start of Day 2. Sessions 4,5,6,7,8,9,10 and even 11 belonged to England, as they turned a first day score of 5/229 into a lead of 387 going into the 4th innings. It has been textbook work from England. They methodically took every run they could in their first innings, then bowled like demons to bowl India out 75 runs short, and then, faced with early setbacks (including Captain KP) in their third innings, went about their task of building a stand most professionally, knowing all the while that one stand was all it would take to force Dhoni to save runs. They have played the old-fashioned way - bowling accurately, and batting carefully (a first innings run-rate of 2.45 was accompanied by a third innings rate of 2.93).

History suggests that India have almost no chance chasing 387 in the last 4 sessions of the Test Match. These run chases just don't happen. The total has been reached in a successful run chase thrice in Test history - by Bradman and co. at Headingley in 1948, by Gavaskar and co. at Port of Spain in 1976, and by Lara and co. at Antigua in 2003. Gavaskar and co. also achieved 8/429 chasing 438(!) at the Oval in 1979. All these games were played either in England or in the Caribbean. It just doesn't happen in the sub-continent.

Virender Sehwag has little time for history. Since his debut early in this decade, he has spent a lot of time writing it - so that others (like me) may read in awe. But the value of history, is that it may be read critically. The chart below shows how India's batting innings has fared on those occasions where Virender Sehwag has reached atleast 50 in a Test innings in India. 

Almost without exception, there is a drop in the run-rate after his dismissal of almost 1 run per over. As a rule of thumb, it is possible to say, that in the last 5 years, if India score at about 4- 4.25 runs per over while Sehwag is at the wicket, they score at about 2.6 - 3.00 runs per over after his dismissal (especially when he's blitzed his way to 50). Part of the reason for this, is that Sehwag tends to score ridiculously quickly. Part of the reason is also, that when he reaches atleast 50, it means that the new batsman has to come in against an older ball, which in India is harder to score off. His dismissal usually results in the dissipation of momentum, and occasionally even a slow shift in momentum towards the opposition.

So we have this to keep in mind when we think of the 5th day of the Chennai Test match. Had Sehwag been unbeaten at the end of play, one might have felt more inclined to rate India's chances. For starters, we might have been looking at 240 instead of 256. We might also have expected brisk scoring in the morning. This is a crucial element of batting on the last day in a run chase. Quick runs early in the day force the fielding side to save runs (and have fewer catching men). They also keep the run chase in the picture for a longer period of time. With Dravid (especially), and Gambhir at the wicket, if India score 1/50 in about 24 overs in the first session tomorrow, they are still looking at 206 in 2 sessions with 8 wickets in hand - a tall order on the 5th day.

As brilliant as Sehwag's assault has been, i remain deeply skeptical of India's chances tomorrow. It would still count as a miracle (even after Sehwag's miraculous innings on the 4th evening) if India were to win tomorrow.

Having said that, 256 is still a 1 partnership score - i.e, if India score the next hundred or so runs for the loss of at the most one wicket, then the next 156 will be that much easier, and will mitigate the potentially deadly threat of the 5th day wicket that much more. The benefits of keeping wickets in hand can't be overstated.

Unless Rahul Dravid finds another gear from somewhere, India's approach tomorrow is likely to be to play until the second drink's break and see where things stand. Given the overrates in this game, the first 3 hours are likely to produce at the most 40 overs - enough time for about 100 runs to be scored.

All this leads me to think that as brilliant as Dhoni has been in the captaincy, he missed a trick on the 4th evening. By sticking with the settled batting order, he seems to have chosen conservatively. Given the Sehwag blitz, i wonder what might have been gained by promoting Yuvraj Singh (in tremendous form, but ill at ease in Test cricket) to join Gautam Gambhir. By backing his usual number 3, Dhoni may just have played a masterstroke, but such is the effect of an innings by the Najafgarh Nugget, that it brings so many good options to the surface.

This Test Match could end up being India's Hobart. But im dreaming now. Sehwag tends to do that to you.

Rarely has a great innings by a batsman put so much pressure on the rest of his batting line up. History (and the formbook) suggests that England should win this Test Match tomorrow. 

But watch this India!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Chennai Test - Day 2

It was a great day of Test Cricket at Chepauk. 

England began the day at 5/229, hoping to turn the tide in their favor after being set back in the last session of Day 1. Dhoni played a masterstroke early in the day by bringing the leg-spinner Mishra on to bowl. The move worked like a charm, for Flintoff was dismissed in Mishra's first over. It was one of those dismissals which was not set up or anything, but just happened. This seems to be a wicket which will reward the good ball. This was to be a pattern throughout the day.

Dhoni stayed with Mishra and the old ball, what with Zaheer Khan getting some early reverse swing. In hindsight, he may feel this was a mistake, for the new ball was available, and with Prior and the tail to face it, might have yielded quick results. The counter argument there, is that the old ball was swinging, while the new ball may not have. In any event, the last five English wickets added 87 runs on the day.

Dhoni's faith in spin did not yield the results that he may have wished for, because his premier spinner - Harbhajan Singh bowled an awful spell. It was quite amazing how often he bowled an aimless, flat, shortish ball, against a tailend batsman who was intent on defensive. He seemed to be caught in two minds between the conventional wisdom, which suggests that a spinner needs to bowl slightly faster in India, because the wickets are very slow, and the more classical idea that a spinner needs to rely of guile and lure the batsman to his doom. Against a defensive nightwatchman and a reasonably good wicketkeeper batsman, both of whom seemed to rely exclusively on the sweep, Harbhajan Singh seemed unhappy and out of ideas.

When India batted, they faced a top quality new ball attack - fast bowlers tailormade for these wickets. Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff are both very tall, strong bowlers who hit the wicket hard and can derive enough lift from the wicket deny the batsman the opportunity to drive on the rise. Harmison bowled an immaculate line, giving the Indian openers nothing to cut or to drive. Sehwag and Gambhir responded properly, leaving as much as possible, pinching the occasional single when they could play a ball well enough to direct it into a gap, and basically trying to see off Harmison's spell. Flintoff came on, and forced the batsmen to do pretty much the same thing.

Sehwag's dismissal was against the grain. I hesitate to say that it was against the run of play, because the English new ball attack was very good, but it was not set up in any way. It was simply a case of Sehwag making the judgement that a ball was available to cut. There was a bit of swerve into the stumps, and the ball was just too close and too full to cut. There was something slightly cheeky about the attempt, and Sehwag seemed to know as he played the stroke that he had made a horrible mistake. It was an event which highlighted the thin line between great judgement and bad judgement. It was not a reckless stroke by any means, neither was it expansive. Sehwag's intent was to watch the ball onto his bat, and he failed.

Rahul Dravid came into bat with the best fast bowler in the world at the moment in full cry. Dravid is going through a run drought at the moment, and naturally has not been spared all the accompanying pressure and crisis of confidence. I found myself willing him on, as he poked and prodded, and occasionally smiled wryly. He made missteps, and then corrected them. When he was able to push one into a gap and run a quick single, the relief was evident in his running. 

Just when he may have though he played himself past Flintoff's spell, he faced up to the last ball before tea. It was a good ball, pitched on a great length, and turned. Dravid missed it, and was caught in front of the stumps. It was the sort of dismissal which happens to an out of form batsman. Had he been in good touch, that last ball would have been a gentle off break which he would have patted back to the bowler and walked away for the Tea break. But typically, it had to be better than just a gentle offbreak and Dravid had to play it tentatively from the crease and miss it! In any event, it was Swann's second wicket in his first over in Test Cricket - the first bowler to do so in the history of Test Cricket.

The wicket of Gambhir, which was Swann's first in Test Cricket, was a worthy effort. Gambhir played according to a well tested method to offbreaks pitching in a rough - he tried to cover the line of the ball and the turn. Part of the reason for playing this way, is that it is a safe way to play against any in-drift, because the batsman is fairly confident that the ball will turn away from the stumps. Swann had bowled the conventional off-break, and so, it should have turned. But, two things defeated Gambhir - firstly, the ball didn't really turn much at all, and second, it drifted in prodigiously (this is possibly a function of the ball being new), which meant that Gambhir was padding up uncomfortably close to off-stump. It was just one of those dismissal's like Sehwag's and even Dravid's, which was not set up, but came out of the blue.

The pre-Tea session for India truly highlighted the fact that it can take but one ball to dismiss a batsman.

Post-tea, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman began the repair job, until both were dismissed within 4 runs of each other against the run of play. England were bowling very well, but the Indians seemed to be batting well too. Every bowling change Kevin Pietersen made came off.

At 6/155, India are in trouble. They have to bat 4th on this wicket, and are still 161 behind England's first innings score.  But, the last four wickets added 87 runs for England. India's scoring rate suggests that they have had no trouble scoring runs. It is still a game where one substantial score of 70-80, will significantly dent England's advantage. India have built a history of batting poorly in their first batting innings in a series against England. At Lord's in 2002, they were dismissed cheaply on a good wicket. A similar thing happened at Nagpur in 2006 (Kaif an Kumble rescued them to 291 in reply to England's 407), and again at Lord's in 2007. 

Another gripping day is in the offing. The quality of cricket has been very high over the first two days, and with 16 wickets having fallen, a result looks certain, even if the equivalent of a full day is lost to the weather. 

The Indian captain has his work cut out for him.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chennai Test - Day 1

It was a day of classic old fashioned Test Cricket at Chepauk on Day 1 of the first Test between England and India. The visitors won the toss and batted first - potentially a huge opportunity for the English players to put the runs on the board and mount some serious pressure on India's batsmen. On a Day 1 wicket which had little in it for the bowlers, India were on the defensive, seeking to curtail the damage.

Not unsurprisingly, the first 50 overs of the 1st new ball produced more runs for England than the next 40. Andrew Strauss scored a fine century, while Alistair Cook threw one away with his reckless dismissal. After scoring 1/142 in their first 50 overs, England managed only 4/87 in their next 40. Whats more, with Strauss's dismissal late in the day, England don't have a specialist batsman left to partner Andrew Flintoff. 

England have picked a well balanced side for this game, with Harmison, Flintoff and Anderson complemented by two spinners - Panesar and Swann. India made an expected selection, with Yuvraj Singh taking the place of the retired Sourav Ganguly.

India's new found bowling strength was on display today. The key figure from todays play was 229 in my view. It suggests that England were never allowed to score freely unless they were well advanced into a partnership. The first 25 overs of the opening stand produced 60 runs, the next 15 produced 58 more before Cook fell off the last ball of the 40th over. The next 50 overs produced 111 runs. The key for India was the bowling of the new ball pair. Even though the wicket had nothing in it for them, Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma bowled 32 overs for 65 runs. This helped India stay in the game as much as the wickets did.

MS Dhoni seems to have found a little gem in the bowling of Yuvraj Singh. Today Yuvraj bowled 11 overs for 22, and had a few good shouts too. He troubled the English batsmen with his extremely attacking line, with the odd ball continuing on with the arm. Im sure Monty Panesar was watching with interest.

It will be interesting to see how the Indian batsmen play Panesar, especially in the middle order. Panesar's emergence as a Test Match bowler has much to do with his accuracy and temperament. He troubled the Indian batsmen in 2006 and 2007 and his fine record (114 wickets at 32 in 57 innings)  is a testament to his ability to keep it tight when the conditions don't suit him. I don't expect to see a 21-2-80-0 statistic against Panesar's name, unless Sehwag makes a double hundred, in which case all bets are off.

All in all, it has been a solid day for India. The visitors will rue the fact that their middle order couldn't carry on the good work of Strauss and Cook. They will need a Flintoff special tomorrow to take them past 350.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Test Match Season resumes..

The cricket season resumes in the sub-continent and the southern hemisphere, with the full England side returning to India for a short two Test series, the West Indies in New Zealand and the South Africans in Australia. The West Indies have won only two Test Matches outside the West Indies against good opposition this decade - against England at Birmingham in 2000 and against South Africa at Port Elizabeth in 2007. New Zealand not won a Test Series in New Zealand against good opposition since they beat the West Indies 2-0 in early 2006. Since that series, New Zealand have shared a series with Sri Lanka and lost a series against England. Amazingly enough, New Zealand didn't play a single home Test Match in 2007. India should have toured New Zealand before they made their tour to Australia in 2007, but they will tour in early 2009 instead. The most famous incident from the last New Zealand - West Indies series was this bizarre run out featuring Shivnaraine Chanderpaul and Runako Morton. This series is very much a battle to avoid the wooden spoon amongst the good sides in Test cricket at the moment.

The Australians are gearing up to host the South Africans. This is always a much anticipated encounter, which is made even more interesting by the fact that the touring schedule is such that South Africa's tour of Australia is followed almost immediately by a visit by the Australians to South Africa. The hard contest is an illusion though, for in the last four tours, in 2001-02 and 2005-06, Australia have produced a 10-1 record in 12 Test Matches. South Africa's lone win came in a dead rubber in 2001-02, when a Herschelle Gibbs century in the 4th innings enabled the South Africans to chase an impressive 335 at Kingsmead.

There has been plenty of speculation about a titanic battle just as there has always been. In the last two touring cycles, the combined strength of the Australian batting (Ricky Ponting - 1287 runs at 67 in 12 Tests, Matthew Hayden 1285 runs at 61 in 12 Tests) and the Australian bowling  (Warne 66 wkts at 27, Stuart Clark 20 wkts at 16, McGrath 34 wkts at 26) has overwhelmed the South Africans. This time around, there is no Warne, the Australian batting is ageing, and the Australian pace attack, even though it was good enough to bowl New Zealand out twice in both Tests of the Trans-Tasman Trophy, will face a mature South African batting line up led by Jacques Kallis and ably supported by Graeme Smith, Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla and Neil Mckenzie. There is much reason to believe the build-up this time around. The South Africans have shown a great ability to blow it against the Australians though (their many World Cup debacles against the Aussies come to mind), and the fact that they've hired Duncan Fletcher to help does not inspire confidence.

The Australians will have to brace themselves for tough battle. They do not possess the overwhelming firepower that they once did, but still possess plenty of quality in both the batting and bowling departments. Stuart Clark, who made such a fantastic debut in South Africa in 2006 will be a key bowler (if he can stay fit), for he has the priceless ability to control the runs. The absence of Warne is the key leveller.

The more interesting series will be played in India, now that England are almost certain the arrive at full strength. England have the line up to test India more than the Australians did. The English batting line up, while it has no Ponting or Hayden, is a competent, experienced Test Match line up which has stayed remarkably stable over the past few seasons (Bell, Pietersen, Collingwood, Strauss, Cook). The English bowling is probably the best suited bowling line up in the world for Indian conditions, save the Indian line up. Unlike Australia, they have two tall, powerful bowlers (Harmison and Flintoff) who are genuinely quick and can hit the wicket hard. These bowlers are difficult to play at the best of times, but are especially hard in India, especially on third and fourth day wickets. Monty Panesar is a better spinner than anyone Australia had to offer. James Anderson or Stuart Broad will offer important support.

England are a well balanced side which should do well on any wicket. With India also possessing a good bowling attack, this promises to be a terrific contest. England won their last Test Match in India in 2006, and can realistically expect to match their performance from 2006. I only wish this was scheduled as a three or four Test series instead of two.

The two series also present interestingly contrasting circumstances. The Australia - South Africa series is a classic anglo-saxon sporting rivalry, full of bluster and rough language. There has already been some to-and-fro between the two coaches, and with characters like Shane Warne on the sidelines, howlers can never be far away. The India - England series is being played against the terrible backdrop of the coldblooded murders in Bombay, and im amazed that the series is being played at all. This is a testament to the BCCI's bargaining muscle. I cannot help but feel that the massive international profile of the events in Bombay has made this series more likely and not less.

These are the first tussles of the post-Australian era in Test Cricket, whether Ricky Ponting likes it or not. The players to watch out for in these series in my view, in no particular order are Dale Steyn, Ishant Sharma, Shivnaraine Chanderpaul and Andrew Flintoff. The usual suspects will feature prominently and what a line up they form - Pietersen, Tendulkar, Sehwag, Laxman, Ponting, Hayden and Kallis - all greats of the modern era.

Im glad we have all this cricket to look forward to.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

England comes through

Full team coming to India for Tests....

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A new day...

There has been plenty of fury directed at the government after the attacks in south Bombay (some of it with good reason), but this is a most wonderful picture.... 

Key Map, see full photograph here

Meanwhile, at the Bandra Kurla Complex, Wasim Jaffer and Ajinkya Rahane have hammered the Hyderabad attack to the tune of 1/366 at the end of Day 1 of Mumbai's Ranji Trophy game. Jaffer is batting 207, Rahane with 137. These two have shared a 328 run stand so far.

I hope England make their tour, if only to demolish any false equivalence between India and Pakistan, what with Javed Miandad seeking a pan-Asian front. I feel an irrational lack of sympathy for Miandad, given this history, and this demand from the Indian government. Miandad was a truly great batsman, but in this, he has it wrong. India is not Pakistan, and there is no equivalence there.

So far, the positions of the ECB and BCCI have been better than one might have thought possible. That ECB considers the tour possible, is in itself quite amazing. Sourav Ganguly is right when he says that it is too much to expect someone to come when they are not convinced about their safety. England's visit though, would be a visit for normalcy, and important balm for India. Nasser Hussein has written a fairly unequivocal
column in the Daily Mail about this.

The many maestros-in-embryo on Mumbai's sprawling maidans have already shown the way.