Monday, November 03, 2014

p.s. Great minds think alike

Rahul Dravid’s team to Australia: 

This team exactly mirrors mine, with just two exceptions. First – Dravid has no Raina, thinking there’s no need for an extra middle-order batsman. I’m not invested in Raina, but think having the insurance of another batsman on a 4-Test tour is important.

The bigger difference concerns the spinner, with Dravid preferring Karn Sharma to Pragyan Ojha. His arguments for a wrist-spinner in Aussie conditions are persuasive, but I still think Ojha is the best spinner in India today. As a certain Rahul Dravid once said – whenever Ojha has been given a chance, he has never let the team down.

Otherwise, Dravid makes some of the very same arguments that I do: that in Australia, we’ll need to play 6 batsmen. That in Australia, extra pace will make a difference, leading to his selecting an identical seam attack to mine.

Just confirmation of my thoughts that Dravid should be the next coach of the Indian cricket team.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Final team to Australia

The Indian selectors will select their team to Australia this week. The following is my team. It is tempered by a major realistic consideration, which is that there is no way bar injury that M.S. Dhoni will be dropped for this series. I still maintain that Indian Test cricket will not prosper as long as Dhoni is at the helm of affairs. But I also recognize until the World Cup we are stuck with him. The best we can hope for is that he will quit Test cricket after another disastrous series in Australia. For now, the fact of the matter is that he will lead India on this tour.

In spite of that, there is the chance of putting together a good team to tour Australia. I also feel we should send an India A team simultaneously to New Zealand. This would allow for a ready pool of replacement players to be available in case of injury. It would also give a chance for India aspirants who are not yet part of the senior side to show what they are capable of in conditions abroad.

While in the past I have been a strong proponent of a five-bowler attack, I think that in Australia we will have to go in with six frontline batsmen. Our batting line-up was exposed even in England; against Australia, we will need to pad it up as strongly as possible. This might be a defensive move; but especially given Virat Kohli’s and Cheteshwar Pujara’s questionable form, and the fact that Dhoni struggled in Australia in 2011, going in with the extra batsman seems like necessary insurance. We’re not going to win this series in any case; our best hope for a fight is to somehow draw the First Test in Brisbane, which might give us the confidence to put up a fight later in the series, especially in more batsmen friendly conditions in Adelaide, the venue of the Second Test. That is what happened in 2003, after all.

Given all of this, my team would be as follows:

Six people select themselves. Murali Vijay and Bhuvneshwar Kumar were outstanding in England; Ajinkya Rahane and Ishant Sharma were further outstanding in New Zealand, in addition to their stellar performances in England. Kohli and Pujara struggled in England, but they are too good to keep failing for too long and there is no question of dropping either. And Dhoni is the 7th person in the side. This leaves the question of Vijay’s opening partner, the no. 6 batsman, the third seamer and the spinner as the only places up for grabs.

The first thing I would insist upon is that Pragyan Ojha be selected as the lead spinner. If we are playing just 4 bowlers, we absolutely have to pick the 4 best bowlers we can – we cannot be taking a spinner in such a line-up for his batting abilities. Ravindra Jadeja was completely shown up as a Test cricketer in England: he is not good enough to bat in the top 7, and he is not a good enough bowler to be one of 4 bowlers. He will have an important role to play in the World Cup; but he has had a good long run in the Test side, nearly two years at a stretch, and has been given a fair chance and found wanting. Ravichandran Ashwin does have potential, but again hasn’t done enough with the ball to suggest that he can do the job as a lead spinner in a 4-man attack. Ojha is by far the best spinner in India today, and his continued exclusion from the side has just been inexplicable. He has to come back.

The third seamer needs to be someone who can bowl in the 140s. Pace works in Australian conditions – and while Ishant and Bhuvnesh would walk into the side based on their recent performances, they need to be backed up by someone who can crank it up and provide the attack some x-factor. Mohammed Shami and Varun Aaron both fit the bill and both have enormous talent. But both are also raw and with question marks over their fitness. Without a doubt, both deserve to be on the plane to Australia; but I think that the time is ripe for Umesh Yadav to earn a recall. He seems to have regained full fitness, and has been bowling with increasing rhythm over the past few months, starting with the A tour to Australia this summer. He also has experience of success in Australian conditions, being the one bowler who acquitted himself with credit on our 2011 tour there.

With the two remaining batting spots, the question is whether to give incumbents a longer rope or replace them. There are question marks over whether Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have what it takes to succeed abroad, and both occupy a bit of a grey area. They have been outstanding in India and mixed abroad. Rohit has only one 50 to show from tours to South Africa and New Zealand; but he could legitimately argue that 4 matches are not enough to write him off. Dhawan meanwhile was outstanding in New Zealand, suggesting that he is more than just a flat track bully; but he failed his two sternest Tests in South Africa and England. I’d give both one more chance. Australia will be the toughest test of them all. Much has been invested in these two, and they should be given the chance to show whether they can crack this test. If they can, then that is an enormous gain for Indian cricket. If they can’t, then at least we would have given them a full and proper run and learned of their limitations the hard way.

The second thing I would insist upon is to flip positions in the batting order for Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara. Pujara is a fine batsman; but given his lack of runs in England, it doesn’t make sense to bat him at 3. Rahane meanwhile is basically an opener, and having someone with the technique and the experience to play a new ball coming in at 3 will be invaluable. Effectively, this means our top 3 are all batsman who have experience opening the innings, which will be important against the Australian quicks.

This leaves the bench. Ashwin certainly deserves to be in the picture as second spinner; Shami and Aaron would obviously back up Umesh Yadav for that third seamer’s slot, and I think anything more than 5 seamers on tour is redundant. Wriddhiman Saha is the obvious long-suffering reserve wicket-keeper. The only question concerns the reserve batsmen.

This leads to my third and final insistence. There is no question that Gautam Gambhir’s international career is over after his disastrous tour of England, so the reserve opener’s slot is open. I have been harping on Lokesh Rahul’s ability for some time now, and he has come good at just the right time with a hundred in each innings in the Duleep Trophy final just before the team is selected. There is no question that the time is ripe to include him in the Indian side; and if Dhawan struggles early in the series, he might even be making his debut before the series is done. As for the reserve middle order batsman, I’ll go along with Ravi Shastri’s public pronouncement and give Suresh Raina another go. There are a number of other middle order aspirants, but no one who is knocking on the doors of the side as insistently as Rahul is for the opener’s slot. As with Dhawan and Rohit, let Raina get tested in the sternest of conditions to see if he has what it takes. He certainly has technical deficiencies; but he also has a lot of heart, and it remains to be seen whether he can overcome those deficiencies with character and temperament like Sourav Ganguly did. It is now more than three years since his disastrous failures in England, and it is probably time to give him another chance.

Therefore, my final team to Australia is as follows:
1.   Murali Vijay
2.       Shikhar Dhawan
3.       Ajinkya Rahane
4.       Virat Kohli (V)
5.       Cheteshwar Pujara
6.       Rohit Sharma
7.       Mahendra Dhoni © (W)
8.       Bhuvneshwar Kumar
9.       Ishant Sharma
10.   Umesh Yadav
11.   Pragyan Ojha


12.   Lokesh Rahul
13.   Suresh Raina
14.   Wriddhiman Saha (W)
15.   Mohammed Shami
16.   Varun Aaron
17.   Ravichandran Ashwin

My A team would be as follows, giving an indication of who I feel should be India’s second line of players, waiting to come into this series in case of injury, or into contention after this series in case of sustained failure on someone’s part:

India A

1.       Jiwanjot Singh
2.       Robin Uthappa
3.       Manoj Tiwary ©
4.       Ambati Rayudu
5.       Manish Pandey
6.       Naman Ojha (W)
7.       Stuart Binny / Akshar Patel
8.       Amit Mishra (V)
9.       Ishwar Pandey
10.   Dhawal Kulkarni
11.   Pankaj Singh


12.   Kedhar Jadhav
13.   Karun Nair
14.   Ashok Dinda
15.   Akshar Patel / Stuart Binny

Thursday, October 02, 2014

2013-14 thoughts

The 2013-14 season has come to an end, and a new one is about to immediately begin. 2014-15 is an important season, with a Test series in Australia followed by the World Cup. Going into the new season, the state of Indian cricket appears mixed. There is much hype about the ODI side after their easy 3-1 win against England. But the 1-3 Test debacle if anything was even worse than the losses in 2011, because the defeats were absolutely spineless and the opposition was much weaker this time around. If anything, the Aussies are stronger than they were 3 years ago, so another 0-4 drubbing beckons. I’m not too optimistic about the World Cup either. In spite of the hype, the fact remains that England is a terrible ODI side and beating them doesn’t tell us much. Our ODI performances in Aussie conditions have been horrible and we lost everything in sight there in 2011. And a 0-4 Test drubbing just prior to the World Cup won’t do our morale much good. 

The real problems with Indian cricket however lie off-field, with the Srinivasan-Dhoni cabal continuing to rule the roost regardless of results. And I don’t see that changing in the near future, because neither is the sort of person who will relinquish his power. our best hope for change might in fact lie in a disastrous World Cup performance. But even that is not a guarantee that Dhoni will step down or that he will be removed, because he is bound to find a scapegoat. In 2011, it was the seniors. Now it is the youngsters. If it is not the bowlers, it will be the batsmen. Even Ravi Shastri, supposedly brought in to clean up shop, has expectedly given a clean chit to Dhoni and Fletcher – he is the BCCI’s man, after all.

Nonetheless, this post is as always about what should happen, not what will happen. And what should happen is very simple. Let Dhoni lead India’s limited overs side through the World Cup. He is a fine ODI batsman and a decent enough limited overs captain. But let the Test side be led by people who are good enough to play Test cricket; indeed, let it be populated by those who have the ability and passion to play the longer form. It is clear that a number of our ODI superstars led by Dhoni don’t. In this post, I’ll work through who I think should therefore be part of our plans for the months to come.

We actually have the nucleus of a good side. In England, Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane with the bat, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma with the ball, were outstanding. Vijay has shown a newfound maturity and was unlucky in New Zealand to be dismissed early in his innings by good balls. Rahane was always a class act, and now that he has finally been given a chance he has shown it. Bhuvi thrived in conditions that favored swing, but what really impressed was his cool head and calm temperament with bat and ball. And Ishant has built on a fine performance in New Zealand, suggesting that he might finally be fulfilling his enormous potential. So we have a useful seam duo, a fine middle order batsman, and half of an opening pair. What we don’t have is a certain third seamer who can complete a seam attack, and reliable second half to the opening pair. We do have a useful middle-order though. Kohli’s and Pujara’s simultaneous loss of form hurt us deeply in England. But they are both class acts who have proven themselves around the world in the past. I am sure that they will be back to their best soon enough.

The issues to address therefore concern: a second opener; a number 6; the wicket-keeper; a third seamer; and a viable spin attack.

In many ways, the question of the second opener is the most important and vexed one we face today. It is clear that we cannot succeed abroad without a decent opening partnership, and we have not had a single one reach 50 abroad since 2011. There in a nutshell is the reason for our poor performances abroad. Gautam Gambhir’s performances in England were embarrassing and might have led to him having played his last international game for india. The much trickier question concerns Shikhar Dhawan. His caliber as an aggressive ODI batsman is not in question. But is he good enough to be a Test opener? His debut against Australia was not trivial and the psychological advantage of that kind of performance is significant. He also showed in New Zealand that he has what it takes to succeed abroad. But he has failed his two sternest tests, in South Africa and England. If being fair to the player is the priority, then Dhawan deserves a longer rope. If putting up a fight in Australia is the priority then risking a weak opening pair at the start of the series is a recipe for disaster. There is no question of Dhawan’s centrality to our limited overs and ODI plans. But his role as a Test batsman in Australia has to be under question.

This is where I make my first strong and unequivocal case for a newcomer. Karnataka’s Lokesh Rahul must be brought into the mix as Vijay’s opening partner. He is quite simply the most talented young batsman in India today, with the technique and temperament to succeed at the top of the order in Australia. He is Rahul Dravid’s protégé and the similarities to Dravid are strong. Give him three Tests against the West Indies at home, and take him on tour. He will deliver.

The middle order is strong with Pujara, Kohli and Rahane. But is its order? This is where one really sees the difference between Dhoni and Sourav Ganguly as captain. Even as Pujara continued to fail in England, Dhoni persisted with him at 3, which Ganguly never would have done. Now it is one thing to think of Pujara as the next Dravid. I think the real parallel however is to Sanjay Manjrekar. The sorry tale there is that batting at number 3 after an ineffectual opening combine brought a premature end to Manjrekar’s career. We shouldn’t make the same mistake with Pujara.

Moving Rahane up to 3 and dropping Pujara down to 5 will serve two functions. First, Rahane in fact is a specialist opener, and only weird selection policies have rendered him a middle-order batsman. Even if our opening pair fails, Rahane has the experience and technique against the new ball to deliver. Second, as the in-form batsman, Rahane can set the agenda for the middle order and take some of the pressure off Pujara. Pujara at 3 didn’t help Pujara, because he had to keep coming in to face the new ball while out of form. Pujara at 3 didn’t help Rahane, because it meant that invariably he was coming in at 3 down for very little rather than at 1 down for very little – and that ended up telling on Rahane’s performances as well as the England series progressed.

I think that the critical spot however is our no. 6 spot, and here we find ourselves in a bind. Finally (except in Southampton, when the slide started) Dhoni realized the necessity of playing 5 bowlers. Without a 5th bowler, there is just no chance of bowling out international sides of caliber especially in unfamiliar conditions.  The problem is that especially with Pujara and Kohli out of form, it weakened our batting impossibly. The obvious move would be to go back to the old formula, but I just don’t think that makes sense (and in any case, it never worked). What we desperately need is a proper all-rounder who can bat at 6 or 7 and provide a genuine fifth bowling option. Ravindra Jadeja promised to be the great white hope in this regard, but I think it is clear now that he is one of those players who should be kept only in the limited overs side. he is accurate enough to be a useful second spinner in Tests; but he is just not good enough to bat in the top 7 in conditions abroad, his occasional hit-and-miss cameos notwithstanding. And he’s not a good enough bowler to warrant a place in the side based on his bowling alone.

On the other hand, I think that both Ravichandran Ashwin and Stuart Binny have shown enough potential to be persisted with for the all-rounder’s spot. Ashwin’s bowling abroad is still a question mark, but there is no doubt about his potential. I would not bank on him to be our lead spinner, but he would make a useful second spinner, someone who can actually bowl 30-40 overs an innings. However, what we really need to take seriously is Ashwin’s batting. He is not some useful no. 8 who can occasionally make a telling contribution, like Jadeja or Harbhajan Singh. This guy has the technique of a frontline batsman, including against fast and short-pitched bowling. Both in England this summer and in Australia in 2011, Ashwin showed a comfort with the bat that virtually none of our top order batsmen displayed. At the moment, when played, he is being used as the frontline spinner who bats at 8. This is a poor use of his abilities. He is not a frontline spinner abroad, but he has a Test average of 40, which is more than enough for a Test no. 7. Ashwin’s story, like Rahane’s and Pujara’s, is one of the right man performing the wrong job. Binny of course is not a bowler in the same league as Ashwin, but he is a better bowler than he was allowed to be in England because Dhoni used him so poorly. What impressed me was his batting, which was gutsy, stroke-filled and technically sound. If India wants to have the option of a horses-for-courses seam-bowling all-rounder, who is always an important person to have abroad, then Binny deserves to be persisted with.

This opens up the tricky question of the wicket-keeper. If Ashwin or Binny is batting at 7 – and I would suggest it is too much at this stage to ask either to bat higher – then we need a keeper who can bat at 6. To be honest, Dhoni proved a lot of people wrong with his batting in England, where his temperament made up for a lack of technique. but his wicket-keeping was embarrassing and is reaching the stage where it risks costing us games. If Dhoni is to play any more Test cricket, it has to be as a specialist batsman. But he is not a good enough batsman to replace anyone in the top 5, and in any case I don’t think his technique is good enough to withstand Australian conditions (as we saw in 2011, when Ishant Sharma looked more solid than he did). We can’t afford to play Dhoni as a specialist number 6 who can’t keep and can barely bowl just in order to accommodate him. And we do have strong replacements. Wriddhiman Saha has always been the best wicket-keeper in India, and is a technically sound batsman. No. 6 however might be one slot too high for him. But there is no question that it is the right spot for Naman Ojha, who is in the form of his life and has just made lots of runs in Australia this summer with India A. The last two players to turn in such a superlative performance with A tours in Australia were Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane – if you can do well in Australia, you have what it takes to be a successful player for India. Ojha is also a perfectly safe wicket-keeper. He and Saha can do the wicket-keeping job in Tests far more adequately than Dhoni can, and it is time for a change of guard there.

The next question concerns the third seamer’s spot to support Ishant and Bhuvnesh, and there is no dearth of candidates. The problem is, there is a huge dearth of reliable candidates. Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav have both looked like the next great Indian fast bowling talent, but both have struggled with consistency after strong starts to their careers. Varun Aaron has a lot of hype surrounding him after a couple of sharp spells in England, but he mixes that up with lots of expensive tripe. Ishwar Pandey is a terrific prospect, but so far has been used as Rahane’s replacement as official water boy. It was wonderful to see Pankaj Singh finally get to play Test cricket for India, but he bowled too many bad balls to suggest that he can be a reliable support bowler. And the likes of Dhawal Kulkarni and Ashok Dinda have been domestic stalwarts just like Pankaj, and deserve to be kept in the mix; but we don’t know yet if they are international class. Kulkarni in particular is a busy swing bowler just like Bhuvi, and could well be a useful part of our World Cup plans. But he may or may not be a Test bowler.

What this means is that there is no dearth of seam bowling options. But none of them are sure bets to be an effective third seamer. Pankaj, Kulkarni and Dinda all deserve a look in and a longer rope – but do they have the quality to trouble Australian batsmen? Aaron has genuine pace – but will it scare Aussies brought up on such a diet if it isn’t combined with accuracy? Shami, Umesh and Pandey are probably the three who deserve to go to Australia, because each has the ability to be a match-winner and each deserves to be nurtured. But you wouldn’t yet count on any of these three to see India through a tough four-Test series.

This is why Zaheer Khan has to come back to lead the attack. Yes he is 35. Yes there are doubts about his fitness, after his second stupid IPL injury. And yes, he has lost some of his reverse swing, a function no doubt of age and of the loss of a pivot in his follow through, especially while bowling round the wicket. But in fact in New Zealand, he was bowling 40 over spells in the low 140s, tirelessly coming at Brendon McCullum in the course of the latter’s epic match-saving triple hundred. In terms of skills, consistency and craft, he remains one of the best in the business. And his biggest contribution is as the leader of the attack: he is able to guide and lift everyone else around him, so that the bowling unit as a whole becomes sharper when he is playing. Indeed, given Kohli’s loss of form, I’d even make Zak the captain of the side, asking him to perform the kind of transitional role that Anil Kumble performed so vitally in 2007-08. In addition to his experience, Zak has shown himself to be a tactically astute leader whenever he has captained Mumbai; it would be a wonderful way to crown an outstanding career.

A bowling attack of Zak, Ishant and Bhuvi has class, experience and variety. If backed up by Shami, Umesh and Pandey (who could come in to replace the frontline bowlers in case of injury, but who could also provide a fourth seam bowling option on a pace-friendly wicket), there is an attack with the potential to ask the Aussies a few questions. Nonetheless, we will not win matches abroad without a quality spinner. This might seem counter-intuitive given that most wickets we will play on will help seam. However, it is the spinner who can provide the fulcrum around which a seam attack can operate. A good spinner can play the dual role of keeping things tight from one end on unhelpful pitches, and of playing a wicket-taking role in more helpful conditions such as Sydney or Adelaide.

Our choice of lead spinners over the past three years has been one of the major factors behind our poor performances abroad. Ashwin is a naturally attacking bowler, but just cannot grind down and hold things together in conditions that don’t help him. Jadeja can keep things tight, but is not an attacking option even on fourth innings wickets. And yet the best spinner in India, Pragyan Ojha, has been consistently kept out of the side, not being given a single Test match abroad. This is someone who can both defend and attack, who picked up 10 wickets and a man of the match award in the last Test he played before being dropped. He may not be a Warne or a Murali or a Kumble – nobody is in world cricket today – but can be our Rangana Herath. The problem is that our defensive limited overs mentality has meant that we have constantly looked for spinners who have a second string to their bow and tried to turn them into lead spinners – hence the burden placed on Ashwin and Jadeja as lead spinners mainly because they can also bat, though they just don’t have limited ability in their day job outside the sub-continent. I said before the start of the England series that we will pay for not selecting Ojha, and we did. I’ll say it again – if he doesn’t go to Australia, we will pay. Unfortunately, Ojha is one of those low profile, hardworking cricketers who doesn’t get much media attention, and so no one (except Sourav Ganguly, after New Zealand) is making an issue of his continued exclusion.

I’ll make a couple of final plugs. One is for Baba Aparajith, as a reserve middle-order batsman. Along with Lokesh Rahul, he is the best young bat in India today. Rahul is absolutely ready for the big time – we have an empty spot at the top of the order for him, and he has been a top performer on the domestic circuit for four years now. Aparajith is in contrast a bit more of a punt, ahead of Rohit Sharma who currently occupies that spot. But every successful team has someone that you take a punt on; and my judgment is that Rohit is our next Yuvraj Singh – a fine limited overs batsman who could even play a defining role for us in this World Cup (if he is used in his rightful place in the middle order), someone who might even play the occasional big Test innings in the sub-continent (like his 177 on debut against a mediocre West Indian attack), but who just doesn’t have the technique to succeed in Tests abroad. Like Yuvraj, he is pretty, and that is enough to label you as “talented” and give you a long rope. But he just does not add value to a touring party. In contrast, Aparajith has terrific technique, is a more than useful off-spin bowler, and is a slip fielder par excellence – something that we desperately need after Dravid’s and Laxman’s retirement. He provides a different kind of all-round option to Ashwin and Binny, so that if we really wanted to strengthen the batting (say on a bowler’s paradise like Perth) he could be brought in while still providing a fifth bowling option. He is a special talent in his own right, and adds balance and flexibility to a touring side. Take a punt on him.

The second is for the one day side. This looks largely settled, with an ideal top 6 of Rahane, Dhawan, Kohli, Rohit, Raina and Dhoni, and Ashwin and Jadeja (or Binny) providing all-round options and batting down to 8. (The only crucial thing here is to have the technically solid Rahane open and move Rohit back to the middle order where he belongs). Rayudu is a good man to have on the bench. There are some question marks over who will support Bhuvi with the ball, since neither Zak nor Ishant really is a limited overs bowler. Shami is the obvious choice, and I’d say it’s time to give Ishwar Pandey a proper run here. He is accurate, consistent, and has the best slower delivery in Indian cricket. But here the odd exclusion is Robin Uthappa. He has been in outstanding form; can bat anywhere from 1 to 6; can provide a back-up wicket-keeping option to Dhoni; did well in the chances he got in Bangladesh; yet he wasn’t taken to England. Why?

And finally – a few names to look out for on the domestic circuit this year. These are probably players who are not yet ready for an India cap, but who deserve to be part of A team plans. The likes of Manoj Tiwary, Parthiv Patel and Amit Mishra, who have been domestic stalwarts for years, are obvious members of this category; Abhinav Mukund, who has been in the wilderness for the past three years but who is a good batsman, needs to be part of the pool of openers we are looking at. But the players to really look out for are Punjab’s young opener Jiwanjot Singh, whose first two Ranji seasons have been outstanding; Maharashtra’s Kedhar Jadhav, the top domestic performer last year; and Madhya Pradesh’s Jalaj Saxena, who could push Ashwin for the spin-bowling all-rounder’s slot. If these three continue to perform consistently and well, they could be pushing for an India spot.

Therefore, at the moment (pending form and injury), my Test team to Australia would read:

Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli (V), Cheteshwar Pujara, Naman Ojha (W), Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Zaheer Khan ©, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha [Reserves: Shikhar Dhawan, Baba Aparajith, Stuart Binny, Wriddhiman Saha (W), Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishwar Pandey]

And my World Cup team:

Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohi (V), Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Mahendra Dhoni © (W), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishwar Pandey [Reserves: Ambati Rayudu, Robin Uthappa (W), Stuart Binny, Dhawal Kulkarni, Amit Mishra]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What can stay the same, and what needs to change

India’s capitulation at Old Trafford has to rank as amongst the three worst performances by an Indian cricket team in the last three decades that I have followed cricket. The other two were the debacles at the Oval in 2011 and at Perth in 2012. The only two common threads in the three defeats are M.S. Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher, but more on that later. It is time to analyze dispassionately what aspects of this team need to change, and which aspects we need to persist with and show patience towards. That is the subject of this post.

Without question, the failures that have hurt us most in this series are those of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. In 15 years, the only series in which Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar both failed was in Dravid’s last one in Australia. Having both pillars of our batting fail together is obviously a huge blow. But it is not a matter of concern to me. Pujara and Kohli are both class acts who have proven themselves in conditions abroad; all batsmen go through lean patches; and it is our poor fortune that theirs has come together, after years of consistent success. But both are just one good innings away from returning to form, and they both remain central to any prospect of success we might have in Australia later in the year.

Many questions have also been asked about our seam attack, but that too is not a worry for me. It is true that this is a young, raw and inconsistent attack. But it is an attack full of potential, and with proper guidance, these are bowlers who will only get better. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma (when fit) have been outstanding, and provide a potentially potent new ball partnership for the long term. Varun Aaron bowled with fire and genuine promise at Old Trafford. Pankaj Singh bowled too many four-balls; but he was also desperately unlucky, toiled manfully through his misfortune, showed the capacity to bowl long spells, and on occasion worked up pretty useful pace. He has had to work harder than most to get his chance, and he deserves a proper run before judgment is passed on him. Ishwar Pandey has been the outstanding seam bowler in domestic cricket over the past couple of years, has genuine potential, and has been kept on the bench for too long. And Mohammed Shami, who has been the one disappointment amongst the seamers, is a special talent who deserves a long rope, especially since this is his first failure in 10 months of international cricket. I also like the selectors’ idea of selecting 6 seamers for a long tour such as this, because it provides back-up options in case of injury and poor form and allows for rotation in case of tiredness. It is a policy worth pursuing in Australia, and we have the right personnel in these six seamers to provide a varied and challenging attack if they are properly used.

I would argue that the real problems are four-fold, as follows:

First – the opening partnership. Murali Vijay has been a revelation in England, but serious questions have been asked of Shikhar Dhawan’s technique. Of course Dhawan has done well elsewhere over the past 18 months, including in New Zealand, so it is too early to give up on him. But he has also failed his two sternest tests, in South Africa and England, so it is also hard to place too much confidence in his abilities to tackle Mitchell Johnson and co. in Australian conditions. From the perspective of team balance, having an opening partnership that can fire is essential, and the fact that we have not had a single half-century opening partnership abroad since 2011 is one of the central reasons for our poor performance abroad.

This is why the first major change to be made is to find two openers who have the technique to succeed on fast pitches abroad. Vijay has indicated enough to suggest that he is one of them; Dhawan may or may not be the other. But Gautam Gambhir is certainly not the solution to this problem, and his selection in the 18 to tour England was misplaced. Gambhir was never the strongest batsman technically; what allowed him his success between 2008 and 2010 was his strong temperament. But there have been no signs of that temperament for over three years now. Gambhir’s selection for this tour was not based on any form – his performances for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy last year were distinctly ordinary – but was purely a function of past reputation. That cannot be the basis for selecting him for a tour as difficult as Australia. As far as I am concerned, this is the end of the road for Gambhir.

The answer to our opening conundrum lies in Lokesh Rahul. He is technically quite simply the best young prospect in India today, and his form for Karnataka has been outstanding. He should have been the third opener in England, and there is no doubt in my mind that he is the best bet as Vijay’s opening partner in Australia. He must be brought in to replace Gambhir.

Second – we need a halfway decent spin attack. It is a shame that in recent years our spinners have been out-bowled not just by quality bowlers like Graeme Swann, but by trundlers like Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali. It is easy to forget that some of our memorable successes abroad in the 2000s were on the backs of quality spin performances, invariably by Anil Kumble. Unless one has a seam attack of the caliber of the current Australian or South African attack, the absence of a quality spinner will hurt.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja do not constitute a halfway decent spin attack. Both are cricketers with merit – but more as a function of their overall utility rather than because of their quality as spinners per se. Jadeja indeed was drafted into the side not for his bowling but for the triple hundreds he churned out for Saurashtra – batting form that has rarely materialized while playing for India. Indeed, Jadeja has looked at best a number 8 batsman in Tests. This would be fine if his bowling compensated, but it is bowling that is clearly suited only to Indian conditions: after his 6-wicket haul in his first overseas Test at Durban, he has shown no penetration in either New Zealand or England. Ashwin in contrast came into the side as a bowler who could bat a bit, but it is his batting that has been the revelation. He was one of our best batsmen in Australia in 2011, and looked better than any of our frontline batsmen in Old Trafford. But all of his bowling successes have been in sub-continental conditions. Having one of these two in a playing 11 could be useful because they do lend balance to the side, providing a fifth bowling option and batting skills. But playing them both and pretending that we have a dual spin attack is a joke – basically, this means that even if on paper we are playing 5 bowlers, in practice two of them are bits-and-pieces cricketers and we are left with only three frontline bowlers. I do think that Ashwin has an important role to play in our Test plans in Australia (on which more below). But neither Ashwin nor Jadeja alone can be expected to take on the role of lead spinner, and having them both in the side together doesn’t make up for the absence of a genuine spinner who can provide an attacking yet reliable option.

The only person who can play that role in India today is Pragyan Ojha, and it is simply scandalous that we have tried Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra (miserable flops in England in 2011), Ashwin (miserable flop in Australia in 2011, South Africa in 2013) and Jadeja (miserable flop in New Zealand and England 2014); but our steadiest, most dependable spinner has not had a single Test match outside the sub-continent. Ojha is someone who can keep things tight, but who also has natural flight and loop and can attack; he is someone who has a solid temperament, and who has never let the team down; he is someone who picked up 10 wickets and a man of the match award in the last Test he played, against the West Indies in Mumbai. He would be the first bowler I would put on a team sheet, and it is high time he got his due.

Third – we need a number 6 who can play a role with both bat and ball. There is no way we can win matches abroad without 5 bowlers. But our batting is brittle enough that we cannot afford to have a batting line-up that ends at no. 5 in order to accommodate that fifth bowler. I am not looking for a Kapil Dev here – there is no one in India of that caliber. What I am looking for is either a Ravi Shastri – a support bowler who is good enough to bat at 6 – or a Sourav Ganguly – a frontline batsman who can be relied upon to bowl 10-15 overs and pick up a wicket or two in conditions abroad.

I had hoped that Jadeja would play a Shastri-esque role, but his batting is not even good enough for a reliable no. 7, let alone no. 6. Yet the person who can play that role is Ashwin. He has technical solidity, all the shots, and is comfortable against the short ball. He is good enough to be groomed as a long-term no. 6. I don’t have confidence that he can be relied upon as a frontline spinner, but he would certainly make an excellent support spinner to Ojha and be a genuine fifth bowler. Similarly, Rohit Sharma is no Ganguly, either with the ball or with the bat, and like Jadeja has shown no indication that he has what it takes to succeed outside the sub-continent. But Manoj Tiwary is a frontline batsman who has constantly improved as a bowler, and could well play the kind of fifth bowler role that a Ganguly or a Michael Clarke have played for their respective teams. Purely on batting merit, Tiwary is far more deserving than Rohit, and has shown substance and consistency over the years in four-day cricket. In contrast, Rohit has earned his Test spot largely on the basis of pretty T20 cameos and Dhoni’s favoritism. Add Tiwary’s superior bowling skills, and bringing him in for Rohit should be a no-brainer. Having both Ashwin and Tiwary in the side as possible number 6 provides the captain with multiple options, of either strengthening the batting or the bowling depending on the conditions, but without sacrificing the other as the case currently is.

This brings me to the fourth and most important point, the captain. Dhoni got many kudos for his captaincy at Lord’s, but he was helped by an inspired spell from Ishant, and by English ineptness. Since that win, he has reverted to form with a vengeance – muddled team selections, peculiar bowling changes, bizarre field placements and a fundamentally defensive mentality. This is not new; our record abroad since 2011 now reads 1-12 in 15 matches. And Dhoni has shown no sign of learning from his mistakes. I would rather we lose under a raw captain who learns from his mistakes than under a stubborn captain who keeps repeating them over and over. In addition, what has gone without scrutiny is Dhoni’s miserable keeping this series – failure to go for chances that he should have taken, botched run-outs and the like. His batting has been better than it has been in the past; but even there, Wriddhiman Saha with his better technique, and Naman Ojha, fresh from a 500+ run series in Australia for India A, are likely to be more successful in Australia. Meanwhile, the less said about Duncan Fletcher’s non-performance as coach, the better. You mark my words: if we send a team to Australia with Kohli as captain, Anil Kumble as coach and Sanjay Bangar as assistant coach, this group of youngsters will give the Aussies a run for their money.

What I am asking for, in effect, is simple: a team that has two openers with solid technique; a number 6 who has adequate batting and bowling skills to lend balance to the side; a genuine frontline spinner; and a captain who has some modicum of attacking sensibility and willingness to learn from his mistakes. This is not rocket science. We have the personnel for this in Lokesh Rahul, Ravichandran Ashwin / Manoj Tiwary, Pragyan Ojha and Virat Kohli respectively. What we need is the vision and courage, from somewhere, to take on the Dhoni-Srinivasan mafia and implement these basic and necessary changes.

[Post-script: and what of the Oval? Unfortunately, Rahul, Tiwary and Ojha are not options there, and Dhoni is not going to step down or make way for another captain. At this point, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being bold, so I would make the following changes. First, send Ashwin up to open with Vijay. He has looked far more solid than either Dhawan or Gambhir, and he certainly can’t do worse than them. It won’t be a long-term move, but would be the first step to signaling that his place in the side is as a top 6 batsman who can bowl. Second, bring Naman Ojha in as a specialist batsman at 6. He has better technique and is in far better form than Rohit. Third, and obviously, bring the fit again Ishant Sharma back in for Pankaj Singh. Since the Oval traditionally takes spin, I am inclined to give Jadeja another chance; but there is a case also for giving Ishwar Pandey a go instead to see what he can do, especially if there is some grass on the wicket; or even persisting with Pankaj for another game as third seamer].

My team for the Oval: Vijay, Ashwin, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Ojha, Dhoni, Jadeja / Pandey / Pankaj, Bhuvnesh, Ishant, Aaron

And for Australia: Vijay, Rahul, Pujara, Kohli ©, Rahane, Ashwin / Tiwary, Saha (W), Bhuvnesh, Ishant, Aaron, P. Ojha (Reserves: Dhawan, Tiwary / Ashwin, N. Ojha (W), Shami, Pandey, Pankaj)