Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wellington Test thoughts and New Zealand series post-mortem



Even though the result of the Wellington Test was a disappointment for me as an Indian fan, it was another great game of Test cricket to follow on from the one in Auckland. This series has just confirmed how Test cricket is the greatest format of the game. One of the nicest things about this Test was the good crowds on all the days, which adds so much atmosphere to a Test match, especially compared to Auckland, where the stands were largely empty. The rarity of five days of fine weather in Wellington only added to what was, for a neutral observer, a perfect game of cricket.

For a biased Indian fan though, this was not a perfect game. In spite of winning every toss in the series, we could not win a single match. The toss was especially important in this game, because it would have been a different story if we had to bat first. The New Zealand 1st innings showed how difficult it was to bat on a green top, and there is no question the wicket eased up considerably after the first day. India was similarly lucky in Auckland with McCullum not enforcing the follow-on, otherwise we wouldn’t have had a chance there either. This is a series we would have been favorites to win going in, so the end result was simply embarrassing. Meanwhile, this has to be one of NZ’s most famous series wins.

It is not all doom and gloom though. The team has improved, and at least showed more of a willingness to fight than in England and Australia. We chased 407 gamely in Auckland, and began the 2nd Test well. But at the end of the day, the success was in the moments, and the overall tour was a failure. What is so disappointing is that yet again, we were well placed at so many moments but couldn’t make it count. There are positives to take back, but it is happening too often that we just take positives from series abroad without actually winning. It is now nearly three years since a series win outside sub-continent – indeed since a single Test match win outside the sub-continent - which represents something closer to a crisis than a disappointment. We have been hiding behind home wins for too long, and it is now time to face reality and do something about it.

Too often, it is our much maligned bowling attack that is blamed in such situations, but I don’t think they were at fault this time. Even in the 2nd innings at Wellington, as NZ piled up the runs, the bowlers kept up the pressure and didn’t leak runs. If I do have one general criticism of our seam attack, it is the inability of anyone to bowl yorkers. I didn’t see a single one all series, not even to the NZ tail. It is a skill our quicker bowlers do not seem to possess.

Kohli’s drop of McCullum was clearly the turning point of this Test, but the real cause of our failure to win was that the selection was not bold. To win Test matches abroad, we need 4 proper bowlers, 5 proper batsmen, an all-rounder and a keeper. When will our team management wake up to this reality? On this wicket, we should have selected 4 fast bowlers. That would have indicated a mindset to attack and go for a win. (Even with just three seamers, we managed an over rate of just 11-12 overs per hour, which is a disgrace). I have no problems with Jadeja playing the role of all-rounder and batting at 7; but his selection as one of 4 bowlers suggested more a desire to bolster the lower order batting than to take 20 wickets. If you’re going to play 4 bowlers (itself a defensive move) then you need to play 4 proper bowlers, all capable of taking wickets. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s ability to control his line and move it both ways would have been a real threat in these conditions, and it would be important to have him involved in England. NZ in contrast did well by selecting an all-seam attack, rather than playing a spinner who would release the pressure as Ish Sodhi did in Auckland.

Selection is the responsibility of the captain, but that wasn’t the only point at which Dhoni failed as a leader. His field placements continued to be terrible. The signature example of this was when Tim Southee came in to bat in the 1st innings. Southee is a tailender and has no technique, he was swinging wildly at everything, yet everyone was immediately placed on the boundary for him. In some ways, the extra runs allowed to NZ in the 1st innings is symptomatic of a more serious long term problem and worry than the inability to break an epic partnership. It really shows how average Dhoni is as captain when the time comes to go for the oppositions’ throat – and there are now too many examples of this to count. It happened at Lord’s, when England was 72 for 5 at lunch in the second innings and Dhoni opened the bowling after the break with Suresh Raina; then at Trent Bridge, when England was 124 for 8, and Dhoni spread the field as soon as Stuart Broad came out to bat, losing the game and the series in that moment; then again at the Wanderers, when we nearly lost defending 458 in the 4th innings; then  again in Auckland, where NZ were allowed to get 500 after being 30 for 3; and now Wellington. 5 of the last 14 Tests abroad could have been won had Dhoni been more proactive as captain. He has no killer instinct, and it felt like he had simply given up during the McCullum-Watling partnership. Not for the first time. He doesn’t change plans as the situation demands and just sits back and hopes things happen. Dhoni doesn’t just make mistakes with where he places his field, but also with who he places in particular positions. Kohli is a brilliant in the circle, but has now dropped a number of catches close-in throughout his career. I don’t want to excuse Kohli’s miss off McCullum, which was criminal – but why was he the close in fielder there?

Quite simply, Dhoni has been shown up both as an overseas Test player and captain. So – how many more losses are needed to lead to a change in captain? It is time for a Kohli / Pujara leadership combine. If he had any self-respect or interest in the development of Indian cricket, Dhoni himself would have stepped down at the end of this series. But it is clear that he is only interested in maintaining his own power.

Let’s talk about the performances of the others in the team. Amongst the bowlers, Ishant Sharma was the stand-out performer of the series, and his bowling in the 1st innings was wonderfully hostile. He is in a good rhythm after a long time, and bowled as well as he had done to Ponting in his first series. It was almost as if he had been on the phone with Mitchell Johnson, and he was unrecognizable from the Ishant of the past 3 years. He also put a value on his wicket while batting as night-watchman in the 1st innings, which is something we have seen from him often. It was an almost perfect performance, except for the dropped catch of McCullum off his own bowling. That is becoming a worryingly consistent habit of his. He dropped Clarke early when the latter made 327, and Cook when he went on to make 290, so the minute he dropped McCullum I had a sinking feeling that we were in for something special. It looks like dropping opposition captains is Ishant’s thing.

It was also good to see Mohammed Shami regularly hitting speeds above 140. He gives the Indian attack the bite it lacked, and needs to be encouraged to keep bowling fast. But he is still a work in progress, and needs to learn to bowl dry. When good, he’s very good, but when bad, he’s tripe. Even when Ishant is bowling poorly, he’s not that expensive, but Shami leaks runs when off-color. Zaheer started the series poorly, but was at his best in the 2nd innings in Wellington. What he brings is loads of experience, and clearly is having a role in grooming the younger bowlers. What he can do like no one else is spot weaknesses in the batsman and prey ruthlessly on them. And he gave it his all, bowling at 140k with the 3rd new ball after 160 overs in the 2nd innings. It was a heroic performance from the senior stalwart.

The batting was on the whole encouraging. We made runs in 3 innings out of 4, but more than that what stood out was how positively we batted, scoring at a healthy run rate throughout the series. This is a line-up that for the most part looks to be on the right track. Currently, the lowest average of our top 6 is 37. If Ishant can carry on from here to become the leader of our bowling attack that he promised early in his career, then along with this line-up we have the nucleus of a good side.

The stand-out batsman was Shikhar Dhawan. I think his 115 in Auckland was very important for him, because he is a confidence batsman, and one could see how he fed off that knock in the 1st innings in Wellington. That 98 to my mind has been the best innings of his career so far. What was impressive was how he played on the merit of the ball, showing maturity and judgment. He is showing that he can be aggressive while still having a calm approach, and he made the bowlers work hard to get his wicket, even when bowling conditions were very good. His one weakness seems to be short ball on the body. The series in Australia at the end of the year will be the real test for him, as he will get a lot of those from Mitch Johnson. Rahane’s was the other impressive batting performance. He copped a couple of poor decisions earlier in the tour, but showed calm composure when the team was under pressure, and produced some beautiful drives. His 100 should give him tremendous confidence to establish himself in the Test arena.

The other batsmen didn’t have such great series. Vijay was unlucky, getting a beautiful ball from Wagner to dismiss him in Auckland, and then from Southee to dismiss him in the 1st innings in Wellington. Still, our opening partnerships in the series were 10, 2, 36, and 1, which should raise alarm bells. Vijay probably deserves a slightly longer rope, but the fact that we didn’t have a third opener on tour or an obvious replacement for him in India at the moment is a matter of serious concern. Pujara and Kohli had disappointing series, the latter’s 2nd innings 100 notwithstanding (he did have a big nick early in his innings after all, so it really was two innings – and he had a lot to atone for with that dropped catch). I’m not worried about Pujara, he has performed in every series he has played in except this one, and we all know how much potential Kohli has. It is good that our batting on the whole performed in this series even though our two best batsmen going in to it had an ordinary time of it.

The one batsman who does not look the part to me is Rohit Sharma. Simply put, I am not sure that he has the temperament to survive in Test cricket. Sure, the start to his career was great, but that was against the West Indies in home conditions. He has not been up to the mark in the two series outside the subcontinent since. Jadeja is as good a Test batsman as Rohit, and having him bat at 7 would allow us to play 5 bowlers. Rohit does not even provide a particularly decent bowling option; he never looks like taking a wicket, and does not even meet the part-timer standards of a Ganguly or a Clarke. Replacing him with Bhuvnesh in the 11 in England would add much more value to the side.

The other person whose place in the side must be reevaluated is Ashwin. Of course, he didn’t get a chance in New Zealand, but that’s precisely the point – he is supposed to be a strike bowler, but the captain and team management didn’t have the confidence in him to play the role of lead spinner. This may in part reflect Dhoni’s defensive mindset, but it is also a reflection on Ashwin’s earlier performances (or lack thereof) outside the sub-continent. I think this could be the end of the road for Ashwin outside the sub-continent. He is undoubtedly an impact player in the sub-continent and in T20 cricket, but his performances in Tests and ODI’s outside the sub-continent, and even in ODIs in the sub-continent, have been mediocre. He is ineffective on pitches that don’t help him. Given that two spinners in a Test abroad is unlikely, Jadeja’s accuracy makes him a better first-choice spinner, while Pragyan Ojha provides a more reliable back-up option on the bench.

Finally, a word about New Zealand’s performance. One could criticize them for not declaring earlier and giving themselves more time to go for a win, but McCullum was clearly content with protecting the series lead. Nonetheless, this was an amazing summer of cricket from NZ. I like the look of this team. Their fast bowling is more impressive than I’ve seen for a long time. All their seamers can maintain nagging lines and lengths, seam and swing, and have the ability ramp up their pace when needed. Trent Boult was especially impressive. He bowls with pace, and is capable of moving the ball away and back in to right hander with control. Southee was also brilliant throughout the series and has really come into his own of late. Wagner was always probing. As their bowling coach, Shane Bond surely deserves heaps of credit for these performances.

Of course, one must raise one’s hat to McCullum. He was always a flashy player, so what was most admirable about his 300 was how out of character it was. If there was ever a captain’s knock, his was it. His partnership with Watling was not simply great, it was epic, nearly on par with the Dravid – Laxman partnership in Calcutta 2001. As he walked off on Day 4, McCullum was batting on 281, which makes this an entirely appropriate analogy. The only difference is that the Dravid – Laxman partnership won India a Test, whereas this partnership simply avoided defeat, so in the annals of the game the former must still rank as the greater one. Still, McCullum’s was one of the best innings in Test history, plain and simple. What guts, what courage, what patience! The atmosphere at the Basin Reserve when he got to 300 was truly special. I also raise my hat to the dour Watling, who did his bit and showed real grit and determination. He reminds me of Lee Germon, an underrated but valuable New Zealand keeper-batsman of the 1990s.

For all of McCullum’s heroics, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor provide the backbone of this batting line-up. I am especially impressed with Williamson. He is a beautiful driver of the ball and reminds me of Michael Vaughan.  The three together constitute potentially the best NZ middle-order ever. Neesham’s batting was also impressive, especially his ability to counter-attack, and I see him establishing himself in the top 6 more than I do Corey Anderson.  Anderson has shown that he is a fine one-day player, but does he have the patience to play Test cricket? Is he capable of a 100 in 200 balls? Or is he another Shahid Afridi? Neesham is also a better bowler than Anderson, so I see him emerging as NZ’s number 1 all-rounder going forward. NZ’s only problem at the moment is their opening combination. We’ve probably seen the last of Peter Fulton at the international level, with Tom Latham likely to take his place as opener in the West Indies. If they can sort out their top order problems, this will turn into a quality side. And that is good for the world of Test cricket.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Asia Cup and T20 World Cup teams



I just wanted to make the following five points about the Asia Cup and T20 World Cup teams to be selected tomorrow.

1. This is a somewhat tricky selection, because the T20 side has to be picked with the short term in mind – as in, who can win us a World Cup in that format in Bangladeshi conditions? But the Asia Cup itself is of little consequence, and that team needs to be picked with the next World Cup in mind – and so, who can add most value for us in Australia and New Zealand? There are still a number of question marks regarding that, especially given our rather abject performances in the ODIs in South Africa and New Zealand these past few weeks.

2. The big difference between the two teams therefore has to concern the place of Suresh Raina. On flat tracks, he is a good T20 batsman. It is not clear that he is a good one-day batsman even on flat tracks anymore, as evidenced by a single half-century in his last 30 games, half of which were in India. If we are to have any hope in Australia next year, we need a solid middle-order batsman at 4. Cheteshwar Pujara should have been part of our World Cup plans a long time ago. It is high time he becomes a part of them now. So – I’d have Raina in the T20 side, but Pujara in the ODI side. But even in the T20 side, I’d have Raina fighting for the no. 6 spot with Stuart Binny. Raina is more the “specialist” batsman and a sharper fielder. But Binny can be just as dangerous a finisher, and provides a genuine extra bowling option. Given the flimsiness of our bowling attack, that’s not a bad option to have.

3. I think the experiment with Rohit Sharma at the top of the order should end. He has improved by leaps and bounds as a limited overs batsman in the past year, but his technical limitations at the top of the order have been clearly exposed both in SA and NZ. Ajinkya Rahane is far better equipped to bat at the top of the order, and as he has shown for Rajasthan Royals he can be as good a T20 player as an ODI player. So – I’d have Rahane opening in both teams, and Rohit slotting in to the middle order. Let’s remember that Rohit doesn’t even open for the Mumbai Indians in the IPL, preferring to bat at 3 or 4.

4. In Asian conditions, we need a third genuine spinner, not just as a back-up to Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, but as someone who could conceivably be part of our starting line-up. In my mind, that has to be Pragyan Ojha, who has been badly treated but who I still think is the best spinner in the country. Jadeja of course provides more all-round value, but even Ashwin I think has only managed to be picked ahead of Ojha because of his batting. Ojha may not play every game – but having the option of playing him as a third spinner will be good to have, especially given our woeful seam attack.

5. Re the woeful seam attack – what to do? I think Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami are the two certainties, and Ishant Sharma has earned himself a longer rope, though he is inconsistent enough that he cannot take his place in the starting 11 for granted. I would drop Varun Aaron – I think he only has pace, and lacks direction, and in New Zealand, he was awful in the chances he got. (In fact, he wasn’t even particularly fast, bowling mostly around 140, which is no quicker than Shami or most of the New Zealand seamers). I would replace him with a newcomer whom I am rooting for, Himachal Pradesh’s Rishi Dhawan. This is hard on Ishwar Pandey, who never got a chance in New Zealand. But Dhawan’s domestic form over the past couple of years has been as strong as Pandey’s, and more importantly, he has genuine all-round potential, which is useful for a one-day side. He also has more T20 experience than Pandey, having turned in some useful performances for the Mumbai Indians. Now is the time to explore new possible fast bowling options, and I think Dhawan is one of the most exciting prospects in the country. Pandey could still be in the picture for the ODI World Cup, since taking three spinners to Australia is unlikely, and Ishant’s place in the scheme of things still hangs by a thread. But at the moment, I would supersede him with someone who can offer more with the bat while looking just as good with the ball.

My teams, then:

T20 World Cup

1. Ajinkya Rahane
2. Shikhar Dhawan
3. Virat Kohli (V)
4. Rohit Sharma
5. Mahendra Dhoni (C) (W)
6. Suresh Raina / Stuart Binny
7. Ravindra Jadeja
8. Ravichandran Ashwin
9. Bhuvneshwar Kumar
10. Mohammed Shami
11. Ishant Sharma / Pragyan Ojha

Reserves:

12. Ambati Rayudu
13. Stuart Binny / Suresh Raina
14. Rishi Dhawan
15. Pragyan Ojha / Ishant Sharma

Asia Cup

1. Ajinkya Rahane
2. Shikhar Dhawan
3. Virat Kohli (V)
4. Cheteshwar Pujara
5. Rohit Sharma
6. Mahendra Dhoni (C) (W)
7. Ravindra Jadeja
8. Ravichandran Ashwin
9. Bhuvneshwar Kumar
10. Mohammed Shami
11. Ishant Sharma / Pragyan Ojha

Reserves:

12. Ambati Rayudu
13. Stuart Binny
14. Rishi Dhawan
15. Pragyan Ojha / Ishant Sharma

First Test thoughts




The first Test provided for thrilling fare, and at the end of the day provided a satisfactory result. India showed spunk and fight from an impossible situation just when it seemed like the horrors of England and Australia were about to repeat themselves. New Zealand hung in to win. In earlier years, I would have felt devastated that we came so close yet lost. But in recent times, what Indian cricket has started to stand for is so rotten that I cannot feel unequivocally supportive of the Indian team. I still like the players; I still want them to do well; and I would still ardently support India against England or Australia any day. But when we are playing South Africa or New Zealand, a part of me is willing the opposition to do well. Certainly, Brendon McCullum did not deserve to be on the losing side after his brilliant 1st innings, and some consistently aggressive and impressive captaincy.

One line doing the rounds in the Indian media is that we lost because Dhoni was given out off a no-ball. That is rubbish. The call itself was borderline, one view showing a no ball and the other not, so the bowler getting the benefit from the third umpire was legitimate. If anything, it was Rahane’s dismissal that was the shocker, and probably more costly for us. In any case, New Zealand was also the victim of two bad calls, Corey Anderson’s in the 1st innings and B.J. Watling being given out off a no ball in the 2nd. We lost because we conceded 500 and only managed 200 in turn, plain and simple. The comeback from there might have been stirring, but the fact remains that over the course of the game the better team won.

In any case, this means that the slim chance of playing 5 bowlers in the next game is probably gone, with the bowlers recovering magnificently in the 2nd innings and the batting still looking questionable after the top 6. The two batsmen whose spots were under scrutiny, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, also came good. As far as I am concerned, the verdict is still out as far regarding Rohit – he needs more than a 50 abroad to earn my faith fully. But Dhawan’s innings was fantastic. If his 187 on debut against Australia suggested he was the new Sehwag, this innings suggested that he is the new Gambhir. His temperament, judgment, willingness to leave, yet take advantage of the loose deliveries, were all reminiscent of Gambhir when he was at his best, between 2008 and 2010. He got an absolute snorter from Wagner to end his innings, otherwise it seemed certain that he would take India through. At no point did he look like throwing it away.

There is a longer term question to be asked of the bowling attack though. 4 bowlers don’t just stretch us thin within a single game. Across a series, asking the same 4 bowlers to turn up for back to back Tests is also taking a risk, as we saw in Durban, when our attack had absolutely no gas left in its tank after the exertions of Johannesburg. Now at least we have an extra day to recover, and we batted last, so conceivably a 4-man attack can front up again. But over a 5-Test series in England in the summer? At the moment, this 11 has done enough of a job to be retained in Wellington, but is this really the strategy that will get us through the big challenges to come in England and Australia over the rest of the year?

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

First Test non-preview



Normally, I would be excited at the prospect of a series in New Zealand. It is a team that provides a competitive challenge in its home conditions, and the seam-friendly conditions are a good Test of our own team’s caliber. But I cannot bring myself to get too excited about this series, because everything about cricket at the moment stinks.

I refer of course to the BCCI, CA and ECB coup of world cricket. let’s call it what it is – not restructuring, but a naked power grab based simply on greed, which effectively is the beginning of the death of world cricket. This is because squeezing countries like South Africa and New Zealand monetarily will only stifle the development of the game there. add to that the kinds of scheduling that are envisaged in the new arrangement, which will see India, Australia and England play each other endlessly – other teams only getting a slot in for reasons of politics or convenience (such as the contrived Tendulkar farewell series against the West Indies) – and a game that is already a small presence on the world stage will become a marginal one. As it is, over the past two decades, two of the most gloriously attractive teams in world cricket, West Indies and Pakistan, have been allowed to wither away because of a lack of resources and infrastructure combined with politics. Now what remains will be killed off as well. South African intransigence is holding off the coup for now; but they too are most likely just in the process of naming their price, and ensuring that, befitting a no. 1 ranked team, it is much higher than that demanded by Bangladesh, who required only a day to fold. Sri Lanka and Pakistan will probably value themselves somewhere in between. Make no mistake – what we are watching is a bartering of the game of cricket itself, by those who have been entrusted to be its custodians, but who are in fact its parasites.

In terms of India’s cricket itself, it continues to be the microcosm of its administrators – rotten. In spite of a better than expected batting performance in the Tests in South Africa, we have over the past couple of months been shown up in expected fashion as a team that can only do well at home and not abroad. Our administrators probably don’t care, since they probably assume that once they have taken over the game they can just contrive to have more and more domestic series and do away with such nagging irritants as having to prove oneself in different conditions. But for anyone who actually appreciates cricket as a sport, who recognizes its glory as lying in the different conditions in which its players have to excel, and who recognizes that India’s own pride as a cricketing nation over the past decade has not come from television deals cut by its administrators but by a generation of players who strove hard to make the team competitive abroad – this lapse back into the bad old days of utter mediocrity while traveling is as depressing as it is familiar.

So I’ll say just one thing. As long as Dhoni continues to be at the helm of affairs, this will not change. I had said at the start of the South Africa series that he is the man with the most to prove, as captain and batsman, because he has never succeeded on either front outside India in Test matches in a career that has now spanned nearly a decade. While Pujara and Kohli established themselves as the brightest young batsmen in world cricket, while Vijay and Rahane showed they belonged, while Zaheer, Ishant, Shami and Jadeja all showed glimpses of genuine potency, while even Dhawan in spite of a poor series tried hanging in there at the top of the order, Dhoni and his two boy wonders Rohit Sharma and Ashwin failed miserably. Rohit looks completely out of his depth in conditions that help seam bowling, in any format. Ashwin, ironically, looks limited as a bowler but has become better and better as a batsman, and might yet be the all-rounder that we are looking for, as a no. 7 batsman and support spinner. But such an arrangement would involve Dhoni batting at 6. We know by now that Dhoni is a good limited overs batsman. But in South Africa, he looked woefully inadequate with the bat even at 7 (as he had done before in Australia, and before that in England), just as his captaincy, while calm under pressure, continued to be utterly unimaginative tactically.

If India is to be a force to reckon with in Tests, we need a 5-man bowling attack, and therefore a keeper who can bat at 6. Parthiv Patel is the best man for the job, and Kohli on every evidence we have seen is ready for captaincy and will be a more aggressive and intelligent captain than Dhoni. But it won’t happen, because Dhoni’s hunger for continued power is as insatiable as Srinivasan’s, and the protection and entitlement that he gets from Srinivasan is as comprehensive as that which Srinivasan gets from his money and muscle in administrative affairs. In recent months, the only voice that has openly spoken against Dhoni is Bishen Bedi – someone who would often be laughed at in the 1990s for putting his foot in his mouth, but who remains one of the only former cricketers in India without an axe to grind and who hasn’t sold himself to the powers that be.

So I hope for the sake of Test cricket that there are two competitive Tests in New Zealand, and I personally hope that some of the players whom I like – such as Pujara, Kohli and Rahane – do well and further their claims. But I cannot in good conscience support the Indian cricket team anymore, not when everything that Indian cricket stands for today is so pervasively rotten.

A sad aside in parenthesis, as Kevin Pietersen’s career has come to an end. It is not surprising that the English would find as their scapegoat the one player in their side with genuine match-turning ability. So now, for “star” quality in their batting line-up, we can look forward to watching Alastair Cook, who is about as thrilling to watch as a trash compactor. The game has already, in the last two years, lost its stalwarts in Ponting, Hussey, Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar and Kallis. With Sehwag unlikely to play international cricket again, it has now lost two of its geniuses as well. This is a sport that is getting poorer by the day, even as the BCCI gets richer.