Friday, August 12, 2011

At Times Like These

When all the usual criticisms and abuse are directed at India's cricket team. They have had a horror series - a difficult series made worse through an astonishingly bad sequence of injuries, some of which were very poorly managed. A very limited fast bowling attack has been exposed mercilessly by an in form English batting line up in their prime. England have pounced on the indifferent, inconsistent lines and lengths from Ishant Sharma and S Sreesanth with even greater gusto they mustered up against Hilfenhaus, Johnson and co. in Australia this winter. A batting line up in which the middle order keeps getting exposed to new ball have been allowed very little breathing space by a very well prepared pace attack that has mastered home conditions.

The English batting has been phenomenal since the start of the Ashes. Starting with a second innings of 517/1 at Brisbane, they scored 620/5 at Adelaide, 513 at Melbourne and 644 at Sydney. They won by an innings all three times. Against Sri Lanka they produced 496/5, 486, 335/7 and 377/8. They've followed this up with 474/8, 269/6, 544 and now 456/3 against India. Their three batting failures came in the two innings at Perth - 187 and 123, and in the first innings against India at Trent Bridge - 221 all out. It has been a remarkable run of form. India's new ball bowlers - S Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma have, between them, taken 14/811 in 198 overs - a wicket every 58 runs or 85 balls, in conditions that are far better for fast bowling then they can ever dream of getting at Eden Gardens or Chepauk or the KSCA or the Kotla or even the Wankhede. England's major bowlers have not done much better. James Anderson has bowled better before for fewer wickets. But their two change bowlers have been phenomenal. Tim Bresnan and Stuart Broad promise to make up the most formidable lower middle order fast bowling all rounders in Test Cricket since South Africa could boast of Jacques Kallis, Brian MacMillan and Shaun Pollock in the same XI.

This English team is yet to be tested in the sub continent. But so far, they have mastered everybody they have been asked to play against.

In the face of such all round brilliance, the response of India's fans has been scathing. India's players have been accused of not trying, lacking "intent", of "throwing their wickets away". As always, the Worlds Number One Cricket Fan goes for the jugular - the players character. The more experienced (and better) players invariably get it in the neck. So Harbhajan Singh gets criticized mercilessly, while 14-811 in 198 overs is set aside as "inexperience". Never mind that Ishant Sharma has now taken over 100 wickets, and both he and Sreesanth have been played for 4 and 5 years respectively. Sachin Tendulkar gets accused of throwing his wicket away, as does VVS Laxman. Someone suggested to me the other day that VVS's pull shot should be outlawed. This, at least, was funny.

Most of this criticism is not. There are others, reasonable people, who say that fans should be left to their own devices. That each fan is entitled to seeing his team his own way. But it bothers me when India's players are accused of not trying their best. It is the worst thing one can say about a sportsman. In the case of India's players, it is invariably the first thing that is said.

India have had a miserable Test Match and a miserable series. They've brought it upon themselves to a large extent by scheduling 7 Tests in 9 weeks across two continents 3 weeks after a 7 week 20 overs a side tournament, which itself began only a week after a sapping, intense 7 week World Cup campaign. They've been exposed very badly by an excellent England team.

They remain excellent players. As indifferent as Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth have been in this series, they are both still potential world beaters - potential 300 Test wicket men. And they will play well again. Of that I have no doubt. Not much needs to be said about Tendulkar, VVS, Dravid and Gambhir. We may never see players like Tendulkar or VVS or Dravid again. By the time Gambhir finishes his career, we will probably say the same thing about him.

India will never be a consistently powerful Test Match team unless they can find pool of very good fast bowlers. Bowlers who possess basic control, and can do something with the ball. Currently, they lack these bowlers.

India's best bowler in this series has been Praveen Kumar. He has stood out because of his control. He's been hard to hit and has commanded the respect of an in form batting line up. It has been one of the greatest seam and swing bowling performances by an Indian bowler ever. What stands out about Praveen (like it did with Kapil Dev, who had a much more pace and a much better out swinger), is that he has been consistently good. I cannot recall him bowling a single bad spell in the 5 innings he has bowled in this series or in the 6 innings he bowled in the West Indies. He has given India 260 excellent overs of seam and swing bowling so far. His record has been 27 wickets at 24.96, and an economy rate of 2.58. His success is testimony to the conditions available for fast bowling on India's tours to West Indies and England this year. At some point, his lack of pace will hurt him. But if India can find a wicket keeper who can master standing up to the stumps to Praveen Kumar, they will have found a combination reminiscent of Bedser and Evans. Praveen is unlikely to ever run through a batting line up. But he can make a superb third seamer.

Eventually, the BCCI will have to take stock and make sure that it focuses on developing and nurturing talent. For without this, all the business acumen will come to naught. Eventually, the BCCI will decide which way it wants to lead cricket - down the T20, IPL route, or down a route that involves keeping Test Cricket preeminent. The Future Tours Programme from 2011-2020 gives India lots of Test Matches - many more than it has ever played in a single decade. Remarkably, India are also going to play an enormous number of ODI games in the coming decade, as well as a large number of 20 over matches. It all seems quite unrealistic if you ask me. India will need a pool of 20 Test players and 20 ODI players to manage that work load. And it is hard to build a top quality Test XI, let alone find 9 other players who could be just as good!

Caught between the cash crazy administration and the crazy fans, is a cricket team that is currently struggling. I'm going to support that team. I think they always try their best (to the extent that it is humanly possible to do this). And they are usually really good. They haven't been in this series, and they know it.

They owe me nothing. But they have given me plenty over the years. Times like these are when they should be able to lean on those achievements. If not now, when?


  1. I agree. This team is perfectly capable of winning. Sport is like that, one good partnership, one difficult catch held, the nature of the match changes. India have run into difficult situations, not lack of effort. England's batting has been in tremendous form and even their out of form players are finding form. The lower order is capitalizing on a tired Indian attack.

    The average fan sees VVS getting out to the pull shot and will not realize why he continues to play it -- it is his scoring shot. Sometimes it goes wrong, like it did in this series. I hope he doesn't shelve it.

    That said, they are out of the current test. I hope they have at least two good partnerships tomorrow and at least take it to the fifth day.

  2. England have been very good in this series, but they have been extremely fortunate to have had a majority of their top 6 available for ALL those matches and especially the openers.
    I will be watching with great interest how England perform in the subcontinent, especially if they have to play 7 Tests in 9 weeks after playing 20-20 for a couple of months and preceded by a month and a half of ODIs without Cook, Strauss, Swann, having forced to play 4.75 days of a Test Match with 3 bowlers.
    If England can score all those runs with Trott forced to open for a couple of Tests and they can win 5 out of 7 such Tests, I will be the first to admit that they have an excellent team.


    some folk are already getting too big for their itsy-bitsy boots. It is very apt that this sort of talk comes from a fellow who in many people's opinion could play a neanderthal with very little make-up......

  4. I don't remember England mastering South Africa either home or away. They've benefited from a favourable schedule just like India did from late 2008 until now. By the time England are done with their tour of Sri Lanka I think we'll have a new number one side & it will be South Africa.

  5. i'm surprised they played ishant and sreesanth together even at Trent Bridge, let alone Edgbaston again. Munaf would have been a better bet, can bowl 5 good bowls an over, and keeps things steady atleast.

  6. Comeon!.It has come to an extent where the players dont deserve any sympathy!.No expects them to look sad,depressed and aloof on the field but watching them going through the motions and taking everything lightly makes one wonder whether one should feel sympathetic for them!..

  7. It has nothing to do with either sympathy or hope. Support is not conditional to some hope that they will turn a corner, neither is it due to any sympathy for their plight.

    It is unconditional, because I like watching cricket and they play it. Its that simple.

    How good they are, how good the fast bowlers are, what the conditions are, who does how well in which conditions - these are all things that come in the context of cricket - they are not judgments about the player's characters or their inherent goodness as individuals.

    I don't for a moment believe that they weren't trying - or that they were just going through the motions because they didn't care. Those are stiff accusations which I cannot support.

    Its one thing to say that Player X is down on confidence, or is disheartened. Its another to say that he doesn't care or that he's not trying.

  8. Kartikeya
    don't you agree that Sehwag really could have tried better by getting his shoulder fixed instead of giving higher priority to IPL.I don't begrudge that he is earning money in IPL but if test cricket is not important please retire.
    Frankly he was unfit and played in this test and MSD and Fletcher should be held responsible too. Same as playing Zaheer in the first match