Wednesday, February 24, 2010

ODI Cricket Conquered by Tendulkar

For the third time in less than a year, Sachin Tendulkar came within striking distance of an ODI double hundred at Gwalior. He reached his hundred in the 28th Over off 90 deliveries, and took a further 57 to reach 200. It could have been better - his last 10 runs took him 10 balls, but even so, he made 200 not out in 147 balls out of a possible 300 available to the team. This was the ultimate demonstration of the logic that the best player in the side should have the chance to play the full 50 overs.

Tendulkar has passed 150 in an ODI game 5 times now - 186 v New Zealand, 152 v Namibia, 163 v New Zealand, 175 v Australia and now 200 v South Africa. He has made 93 international hundreds, and going by the landscape of International Cricket today, we are living in special times - what with Mutthiah Muralitharan and Sachin Tendulkar both on the anvil of unbelievable international milestones - 800 Test wickets and 50 Test hundreds respectively.

Tendulkar's career has seen a revival tremendous revival since the 2007 World Cup. He has made 2779 Test runs in 31 Tests with 12 centuries, at 59.12, while in ODIs he has made 2751 runs in 57 games at 51.2. He has reached at least 50 in 23 out of 54 Test innings, while in ODIs the figure is 21 times in 54 innings. He has made two centuries and a ninety in grand finals, and now, has made an ODI double hundred. Nobody has made more Test hundreds than Tendulkar since the 2007 World Cup (even though many have played more games), and only Mahela Jayawardene has made more Test runs. Only MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh have made more ODI runs than Tendulkar in this period (even though he has played only 58 games to 92 and 84 by Dhoni and Yuvraj respectively) and only Gautam Gambhir and Ricky Ponting (6 each) have made more ODI centuries. For a player whose career went into seemingly terminal decline between the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, this has been an astonishing revival. Tendulkar has remained largely injury free in this period and has flourished thanks in no small part to a very healthy team environment - first under Rahul Dravid, then Anil Kumble and now M S Dhoni.

This was an innings, in style and in essence that Tendulkar could not have played in an earlier phase of his career. There was a Laraesque flourish to some of his strokeplay, as well as a Richardsesque brutality. The bowler's line and length was what he - Sachin Tendulkar, decided it was. He pierced the off-side ring at will, hit the straight boundary with great ease, and when it came to making a choice between cover and mid-wicket, it seemed to depend only on his mood.

The ODI 200 could have been reached in many ways. It could have been reached by a brutally powerful slogger having the day of his life, or it could have been achieved in desperation - by say Herschelle Gibbs had he made 25 more runs (the way he was playing it would have taken him merely 5 or 6 strokes). Instead it was somewhat fitting that it was achieved with a degree of certainty, by a man who has gotten close more often and more frequently than any other player in history. The milestone has well and truly been achieved - in the sense, that not only has Tendulkar done it, he has done it in a way which makes it possible to imagine that it could happen again. For it was an innings in which all the parts came together - it was perfectly paced and it made full use of the rules - 33 runs in the batting powerplay. This was no freak occurence. This was just around the corner, especially if you consider the man's form in the last 12 months. He retired hurt on 163 at the end of the 45th over at Christchurch, and was out for 175 off the first ball of the 48th over at Hyderabad.

It was a question of when and not if. That has now been answered. But just consider how terribly toothless the fast bowlers were. This attack included the world's best fast bowler today - Dale Steyn, who has a Test record which is superior to any bowler in Test Match history with around 200 Test wickets or more (Barnes excepted). We don't even talk about bowlers being taken to pieces nowadays. That is a given.

There will come a time when less worthy batsmen reach these milestones. What does that say about these batting-centric rules?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

9 balls better than Number 2

It was an innings win on paper, but it was a razor thin win on the ground. It was a game with 7 centuries - 3 for South Africa and 4 for India. It was a game in which at least three players fell to injuries - the left handed trio of Smith, Zaheer and Gambhir, continuing the miserable fortune southpaws have had in this series (with the exception of Zaheer with the ball). The modest Hashim Amla has crept unobtrusively, tortoise like, to the hilltop. Can you remember a single stroke he played? Can you remember if he's slow or fast between the wickets? Can you remember a single mannerism of his? You've watched him bat for 23 hours in this series, yet what do you remember?

This is essential fact of Test Cricket - within it lies a world - detailed, nuanced, complicated by technique, personality, conditions, form and history. The essential question in Tests is - Can you do enough to win? This is in fact the basic question in all Sport, but in Test Cricket, the answer is not obvious at all. It is not contained in speed or in concentration or in skill or in temperament or in talent alone - of individual or team, but in an unfathomable and essentially unpredictable soup of these things which we see on the ground. There is no way to answer the essential question in Tests. Teams do as much as they can, occasionally, they win, especially when the opposition is good and is also doing as much as they can. This ought to put victory and defeat into perspective. Maybe it is this perspective that defines connoisseurship - can we as observers put victory and defeat into perspective?

For do you really think that a victory by an innings and 57 runs puts the Kolkata Test in any perspective? For much of the last day, runs did not matter at all. Virender Sehwag was happy to concede 5 penalty runs towards the end trying to kick the ball over the boundary. All that mattered was whether India could get 10 South Africans Out. We had some hint as to which 10 South Africans those would have to be before this South African innings began. It is to Hashim Amla's eternal credit that we were proved right.

How tragic is it that we won't see a third Test thanks to ODI mania and 9 weeks of evil?

This series has been both a magnificient advertisement for the state of international cricket, as well as a telling commentary on it. A series between the two top ranked teams in the world was hastily arranged after Sachin Tendulkar among others commented about the lack of Test cricket for India in early 2010. Where else would such idiocy be permitted? It should have been self evident that India and South Africa should have played a full Test series in India in early 2010 given their spots in the rankings and given that they were not playing anywhere else. You can see why he was worried. He probably knew he was coming into some purple form. This is probably the last year in which he will be able to play Test Cricket unmolested by retirement whispers. But what else did you expect between the two top teams in the world? How badly have the powers that be (mainly Ian Chappell's allegedly Sehwagesque Lalit Modi) misjudged the game? We get 2 Tests and 3 ODIs. That's sheer incompetence if you ask me.

Why are India not playing 4 Tests home and away against Australia, England, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, New Zealand and West Indies? Try and answer that. Let the sheer excellence of Hashim Amla prick your conscience while you do. And yes, do try and answer this before you are hammered into submission by the mindless swinging in that twenty over rubbish. Really, what would you rather do? Watch modest batsmen swinging wildly against part-time bowlers (or severely defanged full time bowlers), or what real batsmen face real bowlers with something at stake?

In the end, India preserved that Number 1 ranking by the skin of their teeth. By 9 balls actually. That would be a better way to measure a Test - they won with 9 balls to spare. And Eden roared.

Monday, February 15, 2010

India assert, South Africa interrupt

The first two days of the Kolkata Test could only have been played at Kolkata. The deafening roar of the crowds probably contributes as much to batting collapses as does the reverse swinging old ball and the fine wicket that we have for this Test. This game has been the story of two double century stands - Alviro Petersen and Hashim Amla added 209 in 49.4 overs when South Africa batted, and Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar added 249 in 57.4 overs when India batted. South Africa have made more mistakes than India have - they gave Virender Sehwag two extra innings, India game Hashim Amla one extra inning. Yet, i believe the most crucial innings in this Test Match are yet to be completed. VVS Laxman and M S Dhoni will decide India's fate in this game. It remains to be seen whether India's added batting depth in this game can withstand the South African assault with the old ball. Anything Amit Mishra, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh can contribute, one ought to consider as a bonus. After two days of frenetic cricket - 638 runs, 15 wickets, two double century stands and two batting collapses of varying degrees, the game is far from decided. India lead by 46 on the first innings with 5 wickets standing.

There has been much debate, especially in connection with the use of Hawkeye for LBWs as to whether Umpires adjudicate the contest between bat and ball, or whether they make objective decisions. Yesterday's events at Kolkata should leave us in no doubt that they do so. Ian Gould decided that he would call anything delivered by Paul Harris from over-the-wicket that pitched outside leg stump and continued outside leg stump past the batsman, a wide. This does not mean he would call anything delivered by any bowler down the leg side a wide. A bouncer for example, which strays outside the leg stump will not be called a wide by Gould. Should Harris bowl one down the leg side from round-the-wicket, that will not be called wide either. These deliveries were wided, because Harris was judged to be deliberately bowling the outside leg stump line. It was very very good umpiring. There was clarification for both Sehwag and Graeme Smith as to what would be called and what wouldn't be called. Gould was not de-legitimizing the left-arm-over strategy. He was merely not letting Harris get away with bowling every other ball down the leg side, because it didn't turn.

Was Gould using too much discretion in his calls? Definitely not in my view. There was a method to his calls, just as there is a method to LBW decisions. Hawkeye demolishes that method without admitting to doing so. J P Duminy for example - had he been given not out by the on-field umpire, would have had to go had Hawkeye been asked about the decision. Yet, i would argue, that he had a fairly good stride in, and i would have been Ok with that decision not being given Out, especially as it was his first ball. Yet, the Umpire thought it was Out and gave it. On another occasion, he gave Alviro Petersen not out off the bowling of Amit Mishra - Petersen had a similarly good stride in, that saved him. So LBW's are situated - in the contest between bat and ball, and in my view, most fundamentally in the sense that the batsman has been beaten. Hawkeye being used in LBWs destroys this sense with a narrow list of conditions which are decided based on decidedly shaky technology.

What a stand that was between Sehwag and Tendulkar! Tendulkar dominated the strike, but Sehwag scored 13 runs more than Tendulkar in the stand. Tendulkar kept an eye on Sehwag. He also kept watching Sehwag and being tempted to play like Sehwag. Only years of painstakingly cultivated self-discipline kept reined him in. This was their 4th century stand and third double century stand - their second double century stand against South Africa. It was also their first century stand in 5 years. Sehwag has now made hundreds in his last 4 Home Test matches - 133, 293, 109, 165, while Tendulkar has made 5 centuries in his last 7 Tests, and his 8th in his last 13. Tendulkar went through a lean patch in Test cricket between the Lahore Test in April 2004 and the Cape Town Test in January 2007 - during this period he played 21 Tests for 925 runs at 28.9, with just one Test hundred - his 35th against Sri Lanka at Delhi (against good teams, not counting Bangladesh - he made his highest Test score 248 not out against Bangladesh during this period). His revival began in England in 2007. Since that tour, against good teams, Tendulkar has made 2261 runs in 27 Tests at 52.58 including 8 Test hundreds.

Good times.

But, the innings of this Test Match is yet to be played. If VVS Laxman does not play it, i suspect Graeme Smith will.

Friday, February 12, 2010

On the evolution of VVS Laxman

And why he shouldn't bat at No. 3 at Eden

Many have argued that VVS Laxman should bat a number 3 for India in the upcoming Test Match at Eden Gardens. What is striking is not merely the unanimity among respected voices that this should be so, but that everybody makes the same arguments. All these arguments are are to the effect that VVS is a sufficiently brilliant (great, accomplished, high quality, choose any of these or any vaguely synonymous adjective here) batsman that he should be given that position. The usual synaptic connections - Eden Gardens - India in trouble - Australia 2001 - VVS at Three, either reinforce or introduce the argument.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Dhoni explains

This must have been a superb interview. I'm intrigued by the use of the words "Dhoni admits India were outplayed" in the title. What did he admit, that he had previously denied? The conventional word for describing this interview would be "candid". But that would pose the same problem as Cricinfo's title. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's analysis puts a lot of professional commentators and columnists to shame.

Dhoni's explanatory response to a query about Sehwag's batting is quite persuasive. Unfortunately the exact question is not quoted in the report.
"You can say we lost the game but you can't put the blame on him because that's Sehwag-cricket for you and more often than not he'll win more games then he'll lose. There are other ten batsmen who can fit into the space. One and a half years back if he hadn't played that innings against England in Chennai, we would not have been on the winning side. He has that liberty because he is a match-winner," Dhoni said.

"When he is playing aggressive cricket he puts pressure on the bowlers, they have to shift their lines which may not be their strength. It may look like a rash shot, but that's the kind of cricket he plays, and we should leave it to him because he's very successful in the cricket he plays. It's very difficult to imitate that so I will not recommend that. Sehwag is one of a kind, he's a great batsman and I just love the way he plays, and I hope he gets more and more runs."
It's fairly clear though that Sehwag's approach is very much a deliberate ploy. It might have been more useful to ask Dhoni what he thought of the change in Sehwag's approach after he got to his hundred. This is not a one off event in Sehwag's case. He has tended to be less selective in his shot making after reaching his hundred in recent seasons. A more specific and careful question about this detail would have been interesting, as this is exactly the sort of thing a Captain should have an opinion about. Further, did Dhoni and Kirsten contemplate asking Sehwag to modify his approach given the relatively top heavy batting line up that India had for this game?

I wish there were people asking good questions to M S Dhoni. He's clearly interested in giving serious, well considered answers.

Flawless South Africa

Innings defeat was a fitting result at Nagpur. South Africa took the advantage of winning the toss and never let go. India's performance was epitomized by Harbhajan Singh who conceded 52 runs to singles and twos in 21 overs on Day 1 - 52 runs conceded without a shot being played in anger. Perhaps the conditions allowed little else, but with that argument, it could be argued that India had conceded the contest on the first day itself. They tried to keep the runs down - true, and cut their losses, but they simply didn't have the bowling firepower to compete with South Africa on Day 1.

If the bowlers can't force wickets, then wickets can fall only if batsmen make mistakes. This Kallis and Amla did not do, while Tendulkar, Sehwag (twice), Badrinath and Vijay did. I mention these three because they got in and built substantial innings before throwing it away. India made a lot of mistakes, while South Africa made none. That, along with the advantage of the toss was the basis was South Africa's win.

This was a imposing performance from a well balanced side. I don't buy this analysis about Harris because the success of his approach was a function of the match situation more than anything else. After the Kallis-Amla stand it was Plan A all the way for South Africa.

India will need a miracle at Eden Gardens to make their come back. It's hard to see where they will get 20 wickets from. If quality bowling is to be found, the people who make public opinion about cricket in India (not the Selectors, but commentators - pundits, columnists, bloggers) need to stop the idiotic practice of using T20 or ODI bowling efforts to judge quality. Aushik Srinivas who is 16 years old right now and has played his first season for Tamil Nadu (and South Zone). Watch where he goes. I predict that he will be swallowed up by T20 cricket, bowling 4 worthless overs game after game, being called brilliant every time a batsman misses or miscues a slog off him.

Test Cricket is physically and mentally one of the toughest sporting contests devised in the modern world. It may look calm and easy, but think of the price of a mistake and the ease with which a mistake can be made and then imagine yourself bowling a spell late in the day with the old ball against two high quality batsmen on an easy paced wicket. It's easy to bowl 4 overs at 90-95 miles per hour at 8.00pm in a T20 game, where nothing matters - not line, not length, all that matters is whether you (and the batsman) guess right or wrong. It's not easy to do that when you've already bowled 15 overs in the day and been concentrating on every ball in the field for 4 hours or so.

T20 is a akin to a duel among gunslingers in the Wild West, while Test Cricket is like running a marathon, playing chess and being in a sword fight all at once. One does not prepare you for the other. The decline in spin bowling and the neutering of India's pace bowlers into medium paced trundlers is a function of too much gunslinging more than anything else. The IPL will be a 10 team league in 2011 with the same rules for young, upcoming Indian players being in playing XIs. It will last for 11 weeks. That's 11 wasted weeks in the development of all of India's upcoming fast bowlers, spinners and batsmen.

The bowling problem is going to get worse I'm afraid. In such an event, India can forget about winning Test Matches unless they score 550 - 600 runs in a Test innings. With batsmen reared on T20 cricket, India are less likely than now to make 550-600 runs in a Test innings in the future. The IPL will (should) go down in history as the most myopic penny-wise-pound-foolish bungle in India's cricketing history. It works brilliantly for other sides - because only the great, established players from these sides make it to the IPL sides. It is only India's finest upcoming talent that is fed into this nonsense 11 weeks a year.

We had two exciting finals in First Class Cricket this year. How good do you think the quality of cricket in those finals was?

Monday, February 08, 2010

The stupidest tourists ever to tour India

Tony Greig, the England captain on their 1976-77 tour to India offers an explanation, 34 years later, of the so called vaseline row where England's new ball bowler John Lever was accused by Bishen Singh Bedi of ball tampering. As always, there is an innocent explanation for something that an England player does. Particularly classless from Greig (even 30 years later) is his little comment in the end that "Bishen Bedi was under pressure" - the insinuation being that Bedi was especially vehement about this to draw attention away from the fact that India were losing the series. If the vaseline was wrong - if it was "clearly against the rules", then what difference does it make whether India or England were winning? What difference does it make that it could be explained innocently?

This is one of those situations, precisely like the recent incidents with Stuart Broad and Shahid Afridi, in which there are only two explanations possible - first, that the guilty party was trying to cheat; and second, the guilty party was incredibly and breathtakingly stupid. It defies belief that professional bowlers like John Lever and Tony Greig would not realize immediately - as soon as the vaseline idea was even uttered that they would be breaking the rules. Because, think about it - the Umpire realized it as soon as he saw the ridiculous gauze, Bedi realized it as soon as he saw the gauze - do you seriously think it is plausible that no one in the England side - players or managers among the 1976 MCC touring party would have realized immediately that this would be a problem? Is it really plausible that John Lever was sitting in the dressing room having this ridiculous gauze stuck to his eyebrows and nobody realized that the vaseline would end up on the ball? Is it?

Besides, this explanation of the "heat" is a convenient one - it's also a classic orientalist one. It basically goes - "Oh, that Chennai is such a crazy place, i can't believe people live there. It's so hot you sweat salt - the sweat evaporates because it can get from the temple to the eyebrows - we had to come up with some harebrained scheme - putting vaseline on our eyebrows and sticking gauze on them, just to survive in that backward place". I mean, think about it. They've been playing at Chennai for 74 years now. Yet, Tony Greig tells us that his gang were a outstanding set of visiting players who felt they had hit upon a brilliant idea - something that nobody before or since (not to mention the countless local cricketers whose misfortune it is to encounter the diabolical Chennai heat day in and day out) have thought of. This is a story meant in the same vein as those crazy exaggerated Shikari stories that the enforcers of the Raj made up for the ladies back home in England. A little overgrown schoolboy prank.

Idiots or Cheats. Take your pick. Despite what Tony Greig says, it's still an open question. Oh, and I'm obviously going on about this because India are not doing well at Nagpur.

Stained by Approach, Steyned towards Defeat

It is unfashionable to comment on a batsman's approach, on the choices that the batsman makes. But Virender Sehwag's innings on the third day at Nagpur was the textbook case study about why this is necessary. You will hear the line "That's the way he plays" countless number of times over the course of the next few days, you may have heard it already. But really, that's not the way he plays. There were two separate Virender Sehwag's on show yesterday - the one who made his first hundred runs in the first innings and the one who made his last 25 runs of the day.

The same Sehwag who chose his balls with such care outside off stump, seemed to vanish once he got his century - He wanted to hit every ball. He reached his century off his 134th delivery. He was out 5 balls later for 109. At those five balls, he aimed a sweep out of the rough at the first one, and went after very wide deliveries in Parnell's over - except one, which he couldn't reach at all - it went for 5 wides! The Sehwag before 100 would have hit maybe one of those 5 balls - got his four, kept the scoring going and stayed at the wicket. Given the fact that India have a long tail in this game - this is no secret, and that they were still 360 behind, Sehwag's choice of stroke was terrible. And yes, it was not "just the way he plays". In the second innings, Sehwag seemed intent on playing the way he did after he got his hundred. Yes he left a few outside off stump. But there are two Sehwag's - the one who plays careful defensive strokes to good deliveries, and the one who carelessly wafts at everything. And they are not the same batsman. No other batsman in contemporary cricket is as brilliant or as exasperating - no other batsman oscillates between Afridi and Ponting like Sehwag does. Ironically, sometimes his Afridi style play comes off.

Dale Steyn produced the perfect spell of reverse swing bowling after Tea, to complement his early brilliance with the new ball, and with a long Indian tail to bowl at, produced a batting collapse that may prove to be decisive. From 192/3, even 7/100 might have been enough to convince Graeme Smith to bat again. Instead, India lost 7/41, giving South Africa a lead of 325, which, given India's top heavy line up, offered a good case for the follow-on to be enforced, there by giving India very little chance of winning the game. There is no way South Africa can lose from here. India are still 259 behind. Without Sehwag at the wicket, they are unlikely to score over 300 runs in the day even if they have a terrific batting day. Imagining India ahead by 150 by lunch on Day 5 is highly optimistic and very unlikely, unless someone produces a peerless double hundred and is backed by a couple of others. And even then, South Africa will be left with 150 to win on the last day, which, given the (lack of) confidence of Harbhajan Singh, should not be very hard. South Africa have batting troubles of their own - Ashwell Prince has had a rough time opening the batting, and JP Duminy hasn't made runs for a while now, but they seem to have enough to counter India's bowlers.

South Africa have had the perfect day with the ball. They bowled very well and were rewarded generously for their brilliance. The ball consistently caught the wafer thin edge - of the stumps and the bat. On other days it might not. India will hope that tomorrow is one such day. South Africa will believe otherwise.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A Magic Spell

If you watched Dale Steyn bowl this morning, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is beyond the capability of the human being to bowl to leg stump. There was no question of a loose ball. Nothing to cut, nothing on leg stump. On a wicket which is still very flat and easy paced, Dale Steyn was able to produce a handful of unplayable deliveries. When he wasn't bowling the perfect outswinger, he was setting the stage to bowl it.

This is possibly the finest swing bowling India have faced in a Test Match ever since they face Ryan Sidebottom in top form in England in 2007. Steyn is a great bowler now, and has the record to prove it. Despite bowling mainly on very good batting wickets, Steyn has now taken 187 Test wickets at 23.6, at a strike rate of 40 balls per wicket - faster than Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee, Glenn McGrath and all the other great bowlers.

The late outswing that Steyn produces is really hard to play. You saw both Murali Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar play away from their pad as they tried to play forward. Tendulkar will not be happy when he sees that replay. For two unrelated reasons. First, it was a brilliant delivery, but I think he will feel in retrospect that he shouldn't have been driving at it. The great man will feel he missed a great chance to make another century today given how good the wicket is. If only he had played Steyn out. The irony is, that my first impression after his first few deliveries was that he had started well. His judgement of his off stump was immaculate as ever. I don't care much for Cricinfo's description of his stuttering footwork - he was trying to leave the judgement about whether or not to play as late as possible. Positive, decisive footwork is a matter of judging the line and length and not the other way around. The second reason Tendulkar will be upset is that he may feel that he was unlucky to have edged it. I doubt whether he would have been good enough to get the edge had he been defending.

If Steyn can also produce reverse swing with the old ball, it will be worth watching. His work with the new ball was like magic. What a situation to make your debut in! A little unbridled partisanship in favor of S Badrinath and Wriddhiman Saha is called for.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A solid first day for South Africa

Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla made the most of a placid first day wicket at Nagpur to score a century each and give their team a strong platform from which to reach 550 tomorrow and put India's severely depleted batting line up under pressure. India bowled reasonably well all day - they were accurate, but, if played patiently, posed no sustained threat to the batsman. It was a wicket on which the batsman can feel that he is "in", as they say.

Cricinfo now offers Hawkeye maps as part of their ball by ball coverage. While one ought to take Hawkeye with a pinch of salt, the beehive clusters that it shows are worth considering. Here are a few of these clusters on the first day. The fact that Amla and Kallis both made centuries helps us here as each India bowler bowled a number of deliveries at each batsman. Let's focus on each bowler bowling at Jacques Kallis.

Zaheer Khan

Ishant Sharma

Harbhajan Singh

Amit Mishra

Let's consider what each of these clusters mean. They tell the story of Kallis's innings, of the day's play. Each map gives us an insight into each bowler's method. Note that this map is a simulation of where each delivery passed the stumps at the batting end. As such all the problems with Hawkeye when it comes to LBW also apply here.

Zaheer Khan is by far the most skillful and most attacking bowler in the India bowling line up. His map has to be seen while taking into consideration the fact that he bowled from both round and over the wicket. He made the batsman play more often than the other bowlers on account of his angle. There was no swing on offer for Zaheer - he seems to have lost the inswinger to the right hander, and most of those deliveries ending up on middle stump or leg stump, were probably delivered from around the wicket.

Ishant Sharma cannot be as attacking as Zaheer Khan because he does not have the ability to attack the stumps consistently. He's very accurate as the map shows - he attacks the top of off stump consistently, but when there's no seam movement on offer, he's not unplayable. He has been trying to get close to the stumps as he bowls - hence his recent troubles with umpires about his follow through. But even so, his only method of getting a wicket is staying there and thereabouts on and outside off stumps - in the so-called "corridor of uncertainty". Except, given that his off cutter is not what it used to be, there isn't much uncertainty for the batsman outside off stump. Occasionally he does get the ball the straighten and it looks amazing - but most times, these deliveries are too good for the batsman - they don't even get the edge. Besides, these deliveries come only about two or three times a day. Ishant's length has been immaculate, but in order for him to be effective, he needs help from the wicket, especially against really good batsmen like Kallis. Ishant Sharma's method amounts to waiting for the batsman to make a mistake, but such is the standard of Test Cricket, that very often, there are batsmen like Kallis who see a good wicket and a good situation, and don't make a mistake all day.

Amit Mishra, the leg spinner bowled well on the first day - there was only a little bit of turn for him, and it was slow turn. Most of the runs he conceded were down to errors in length, or to misdirected googlied. Both batsmen appeared to have no trouble reading Mishra. Nevertheless, Mishra did beat both batsmen in flight on more than one occasion. It was a fairly conventional day for him.

Harbhajan Singh offers the most interesting pitch map. Despite his figures, he was the most accurate Indian bowler on show. But what does this accuracy mean? For a very long time now - almost for the whole of Harbhajan Singh's career, he has faced criticism from former players about various aspects of his bowling. Even in his most successful series against Australia in 2001, Erapalli Prasanna noted how few of Harbhajan Singh's dismissals were classical off-spinners dismissals. This pitch map indicated why. Harbhajan Singh's stock delivery would have passed over middle or leg stump, and for the most part was played down behind the wicket on the leg side by the batsman for a single. Harbhajan Singh conceded 40 singles and 6 twos - a total of 52 runs to the two batsmen - almost all of them without the batsman playing a shot in anger. Recently, Sanjay Manjrekar observed that Harbhajan Singh has stagnated as an off spinner in the last 3-4 years - since the year 2006, Harbhajan Singh has played 32 Tests for India in which he has taken 126 wickets at 37.07. No other bowler has complained more about wickets than Harbhajan Singh in the last 3-4 years.

Why is this happening? And what does the beehive map tell us about this? Harbhajan is basically trying to beat the batsman off the wicket and not in the air. On a slow wicket where the ball is not exactly spitting off the surface, this is unlikely to happen as good batsmen will have the chance to play him off the back foot. Further more, on the first day of a Test, he can't really bowl with a leg slip and a short leg, and he's basically bowling for one type of dismissal - caught short leg. Harbhajan Singh wants to get the batsman out on the defensive prod, not on the drive. This is consistent with the criticism of Harbhajan Singh by Prasanna for example, and also with Harbhajan's criticism of the wickets that India play on. There is something to both.

The idea that a spin bowler might lure a batsman - a top class Test batsman at that, into a drive, is a fiction for the most part. Most Test Match batsmen are too good to be beaten in the flight on a regular basis. Time is also a factor. Most batsmen don't need to drive the spinner all the time - players like Kallis are masters of the waiting game. Harbhajan knows this. The thing that is not in Harbhajan Singh's favor is that Jacques Kallis does not feel the need to disrupt the field that has been set for him. He is happy to play within a given field. It is here that the Captain comes into play.

But it is all very well for us to criticize both bowler and captain for not attacking more. To attack more is to invite the possibility of more runs being scored. One could argue that Harbhajan Singh should think of trying to get his wickets in more than one way - but this is easier said than done. It's much much harder to defeat a batsman in the flight than one might think. It is not merely a matter of getting the ball above the batsman's eye line. On a slow wicket, even if a batsman has been beaten in the flight, he still has the chance to recover, unless he is fatally committed to a stroke.

On days such as this at Nagpur, when a great batsman gives you no chance at all, it looks even worse. Harbhajan Singh did everything he was supposed to do on Day 1 - he bowled accurately, he bowled to his field (he was hit for one four on the off side all day), and yet he went for 81 runs off 21 overs. He needs to work out a way to concede fewer singles though. That is as much as matter of field setting as it is a matter of line and length. It is difficult to say whether Harbhajan Singh gets the field he wants, because he wants to bowl in a particular way (either from over or round the wicket), or he bowls to the field depending on how he is supposed to bowl. While he is not beating batsmen in the flight, his floater or straighter one are also ineffective. On a slightly quicker wicket, Harbhajan Singh's leg trap might be more effective. Against Kallis and Amla on a slow Day 1 wicket at Nagpur, it has looked ordinary.

There were a couple of games going on yesterday. West Zone chased 536 in the 4th innings against South Zone - Yusuf Pathan made 210*(190) to added to his 109(76) from the first innings to take West Zone to a 3 wicket win. A lot of people probably thought that that was a far more interesting and exciting game than the first day of the Test. And in many ways it probably was. But the quality of cricket in the Test Match was much much higher, and i don't refer to all the catches the South Zone dropped.

South Africa had the better of a high quality stalemate at Nagpur.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Dinesh Karthik reacts to being dropped

I don't want to belabor my point about Badrinath's reaction to being dropped, but here's another response by a player to being dropped. This was not Dinesh Karthik being dropped per se, as M S Dhoni is still the first choice wicketkeeper batsman, but merely being relegated from his position as M S Dhoni's understudy - a good place to be, given Dhoni's back troubles and the inevitability of him sitting out some games due to the massive responsibilities he undertakes when he plays - wicketkeeping, batting and captaincy.

This emerges as a theme in Dinesh Karthik's career. He has invariably excelled when handed any challenge to play for India. He first emerged as someone who belonged in international cricket at Kolkata in 2005. This, in my view was one of the best Test Matches in India in this decade. Rahul Dravid made a century in each innings and Anil Kumble took 10 wickets in the match. India won by 195 runs, but there were points in the Test were Pakistan were on the verge of running away with the game. The scoreline at the end of day two read India 407 all out, Pakistan 2/273 (in 66 overs) with Yousuf and Younis at the wicket, each with a century to his name. India recovered on Day 3 to take a 14 run first innings lead. In their second innings, they lost Gambhir and Sehwag early, after which Tendulkar and Dravid added 98. Tendulkar was out for 52 and India lost Ganguly and Laxman (retired hurt), to be 170/5 effectively. Dinesh Karthik made 93 coming in after these wickets fell, added 165 with Rahul Dravid and put India in an impregnable position. Take his performances opening the batting for India in 2007 - he made 60 at Lords, 77 at Nottingham, 91 at the Oval and 63 at Cape Town, reaching at least 50 four times in 7 innings as opener in South Africa an England.

Like Wasim Jaffer, Dinesh Karthik is not a regular in the India side because there are world class players who play in their spots - Gautam Gambhir and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are possibly two of the most versatile players in the world. This may be the defining fact of Dinesh Karthik's career - much like it was Padmakar Shivalkar's misfortune to play in the same era as the great Bishen Singh Bedi, or Vasu Paranjpe's misfortune to play in Bombay in the same era as Ajit Wadekar. Dinesh Karthik remains a valuable fall back option for India should they have injury troubles - as opening batsman, as wicketkeeper or even as middle order batsman. As long as he makes runs with a vengeance like he has in the Duleep Trophy final - achieving the rare feat of scoring 150 in both innings of a game (in Test Cricket this has been done only once - by Allan Border at Lahore in 1980) - and not just any game, but the Duleep Trophy Final. Only two other half centuries have been scored for South Zone in 17 other innings in this game.

It is not so much the number of runs, but the sheer versatility that Dinesh Karthik displays that makes him such a terrific cricketer in my view. It is quite ironic that after struggling to find a wicketkeeper batsman to replace Nayan Mongia - Deep Dasgupta, Ajay Ratra, Sameer Dighe, and MSK Prasad, India now have an glut of wicketkeeping talent. Even if Dinesh Karthik doesn't play regularly for India henceforth, he ought to rank very high on the list of India's most useful Test cricketers. His effort in the Duleep Final is just another example of his ability to compete in any cricketing arena.

India would be lucky to have him in the XI. They are luckier still to have him on the bench. It has taken an M S Dhoni to keep him there.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Someone for the future

Abhishek Nayar made a century against the full South Africa Test attack in the tour game at Nagpur. Nayar has hit a purple patch towards the end of this season. His runs have come against some good attacks.

37, 50 v Karnataka in the Ranji Final, the second innings was in a crucial 95 run stand with Dhawal Kulkarni. Nayar fell to a great catch by Manish Pandey.

Nayar has played ODI cricket for India in 2009. In 3 ODIs, he batted once - and was undefeated for 7 balls, and bowled 3 overs.

It's hard to see where he slots in though. With a lot of these players, even though they do one thing quite well, it is often the fact that they do another thing only moderately well (in Nayar's case, bowling), which confuses the issue. Their bowling (in many cases) is never going to amount to much against top line international attacks. So even though they may actually be really good batsmen, they are tagged in the Chris Harris - Robin Singh category - the sort of bits-and-pieces, jack-of-all-trades cricketer that was in vogue in international cricket in the late 1990s.

Nayar's challenge will be to escape that, because there is a spot for a left handed middle order batsman in the Indian Test team, and his only serious challenge is Yuvraj Singh. If he can establish himself as the preeminent left handed batsman in India after Yuvraj, then he has a realistic chance of playing for India.

Unfortunately, his first class season has just come to an end, even though cricket can still be played in March and even April in some parts of India. The Duleep Trophy is too brief, and the Ranji Trophy as it is currently formed is an uneven tournament.

Such are the vagaries which affect selection. Given all this, i think the selectors do a brilliant job. Nayar ought to keep making runs and keep playing in Ranji winning Mumbai sides.