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Monday, September 01, 2014

England Tour 2014 ODIs - Time to experiment now

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Win by six wickets with more than seven overs to spare. Wow! What a turnaround? If one looks at the last seven matches played by India in UK, they are on a roll (after incorporating the lessons learnt during the disastrous 2011 tour). The 3rd ODI was no different with the bowlers setting up a low target for the batsmen to chase down comfortably.

Even though the English openers started well, the part-time bowlers as well as the specialist spinners were able to put the brakes on the scoring by picking up wickets regularly. Rayudu provides MSD with yet another part-time option like Suresh Raina. On this day, he provided the breakthrough to the team by some smart bowling. England has been very fruitful to Rayudu right from his younger days - remember this match early in his career. Couple of ironies here - Rayudu was Raina's captain during the under-19 days while Rayudu's initial days in Ranji tournament went topsy-turvy when he had a spat with the son of current BCCI acting Chairman (Shivlal Yadav) - he still does not play for Hyderabad! Hopefully, those days are behind him and Rayudu should be ready to fire for his country.

Ashwin took three wickets - this should have given him the necessary encouragement for the future especially when his performance had taken a downward turn. His variations have taken a backseat (for the good) while his line and length have made a comeback to ensure the opposition was on the ropes continually. He and Jadeja will continue to form the backbone of the attack in the forthcoming ODIs - again, when there is a hint of turn, they become lethal. MSD loves this combination for just this aspect alone - he is able to put the right field to put pressure on the batsmen and choke them further. The opening bowlers are not able to dent the opposition so far - with two more matches, Dhoni will be trying to get this sorted. Just like the opening batsmen combination. Dhawan will be getting desperate every match - with Kohli getting some semblance of runs, Dhawan will face further introspection in the next match. Will he able to hit his way out?

Coming back to this series, the two wins have given India an unbeatable lead in the series - good opportunity for the Management to experiment with the squad. Sanju Samson (in place of MSD), Dhawal Kulkarni/Umesh Yadav (replacing Mohit Sharma), Karn Sharma (instead of Ravindra Jadeja) can be played in this match. This will help India identify options for the World Cup instead of focusing only on the current series.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

England Tour 2014 ODIs - Convincing win for India

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304 runs. 133 runs. 10 wickets. Those were the total India scored in their 50 overs, the margin of win in the 2nd ODI (after the 1st ODI was washed out) as well as the number of England wickets taken correspondingly. Based on the latest performance in the test series, these numbers were music for Indian fans not just at Cardiff but across the globe.

The opening batsmen were different from the last two that opened in the test series (Old Trafford and Oval) to their credit, they did spend some time to gauge the pace at the beginning of the innings (even though the pitch was no way comparable to those tests). Dhawan threw it away edging to the keeper but Rohit Sharma carried on - he will be under pressure to retain his place not just for this series but also the West Indies ODIs. Virat Kohli tried to be aggressive by running down the pitch to the third ball he faced (not sure what he was thinking) - this move also failed just like the other shots he manufactured during the tests. It might be good for Kohli to take a break in the next ODI to take his mind off. This might actually help him better than continuing to play all games (as he has done - not  just the international games but also the warm-up matches).

Rahane, even though he could not convert his score to a bigger one, seems to be a good choice to play at No. 4 - a batsmen strong in technique who can be the bedrock of the innings in case of a collapse. Especially when Cheteshwara Pujara has not been able to replicate his successes in the shorter format, Rahane is the perfect choice to have in the batting lineup. Just like Suresh Raina is at home where he played yesterday - this gives him the opportunity to rotate strike initially and then go for the big hits in the  last 15 overs. The Indian team now have their strategy clear - ensure that wickets are saved during the first 10 overs, start rotating strike with occasional risk during overs 11-35 and then launch into all-out attack from 36 over (when the PowerPlay overs start again). This seemed to work during the second ODI and there is no reason why they should change this method.

Ashwin and Jadeja have been getting the quick runs in the  two-three overs they get at  the end of the innings while turning their arm for useful wickets. Against teams who are weak against spin, these bowlers were a handful. How they will fare on unresponsive (for them) wickets and stronger (against spin) batsmen remains to be seen. As of now, they will continue for the rest of the matches (unless India win another ODI and the think-tank decide to give Karn Sharma a chance). The pace bowlers did well, especially Mohit Sharma even though he did not get any wicket. There will be days when he will get wickets by the bucket but in this ODI, Shami reaped the benefits. After the poor form in the tests, Shami kind-of redeemed himself but it will be good for him to continue the performance for the rest of the matches. Is the Indian team trying to tire Bhuvi out by playing him for all the matches? Isn't it time he is rested?

Overall, the Indian team ticked all the boxes in this ODI but the series is not over. It is resembling the test series in that there was no decision in the first test and ODI, India won the 2nd match (in both series). What should happen now that the Indian team continue to win instead of going the route the test series ended up. Lets hope the think-tank can guide the team to victory. First ODI win in the third overseas series is a good start but the game is not over.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

World Cup 2015 - Is India prepared?

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The 2015 World Cup is around the corner - the schedule has been announced and preparations are ongoing for the next extravaganza. The big question on everyone's mind is whether the Indian team is prepared for the event in terms of personnel identified, adequate preparation (matches played on similar surfaces) and any injury concerns.

Let us try to get some statistics right.

Since the last World Cup (if you have forgotten, India won it at home), what has been the performance of the Indian team?

There have been 6 series in all that have been held in India (all bilateral ones) and India have won all of them (England, West Indies and Australia) except the one against Pakistan (lost 1-2). They have played in England twice (before the current series) and won the Champions Trophy while losing the other bilateral series. The team has won overseas series in West Indies, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. In between they have lost few tournaments (Asia Cup twice, CB series in Australia) as well as the last two bilateral series (in South Africa and New Zealand where they have not won a single match). The last two have been a sticky point in the Indian think-tank for various reasons. The performance has been so poor that it puts the recent test loss to shame!

Let us slice and dice the numbers more carefully to see what has happened so far.

 This shows the matches played in different countries since the last World Cup. India's performance has been poor in places where the pitch and opposition have been tough (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and England). Performance in England has been decent thanks to the Champions Trophy win. If not, it would have been as bad as SAF and NZ. Proof that the Indian team have been poor travellers.
Is it due to poor scheduling? Is the team not playing the right number of ODIs? What do the stats say?

 No. 2013 saw the team play a high number of ODIs (and a good win % as well). This year, the number has dipped considerably with the focus being test matches and performance overseas. The two series (SAF and NZ) have contributed to the poor win percentage again.

 Very few ODIs against South Africa overall (4) and New Zealand (5) in the last three years. A number of them played against lowly West Indies and favorites Sri Lanka! England feature highly because of the home and return series that have been conducted. This is reflective of the BCCI standoff against different countries which has resulted in this skewed scheduling.
How did the Indians fare in Australia during the last tour?

 This was the tour that highlighted Virat Kohli's emergence to the international ODI scene (with his majestic 183 against Sri Lanka in the final ODI). India won once against Australia while they won twice against Sri Lanka (other than a tie) - not reaching the final of the tri-series. Most of the players who were part of that tour are present but will they make the squad to the World Cup?

What is the schedule for the Indian team during the World Cup?

Matches are scheduled in Adelaide, MCG, Perth, Hamilton and Auckland (initial phase) before the qualified teams play the quarterfinal. Will the Indian team have adequate practice in the Australian pitches before the World Cup starts? They are part of the Tri-series after the tests later this year.

The ODI schedule for the Indians from now till the World Cup looks like this:

Five matches in England and India (against West Indies) before they move Down Under for the tri-series which seems to be skeletal compared to the previous years. Each team plays the other only twice before the finals. The Indians do play in MCG and Perth thereby giving good practice to their players before the World Cup starts.

Let us turn our attention to the players now. Again, dividing the players by different positions and roles, we find startling insights from the data.

This is a clear problem area especially with the lack of form with Shikhar Dhawan (and to an extent, Rohit Sharma). 14 ODIs remain and the team can possibly turn upon Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane as back-up openers. It is not possible to blood any other player in this short time. What is the Team Management thinking about this? Any ideas? Will Virat Kohli be asked to open in a pressure situation?

Middle-Order batsmen

Four choices seem to be clear here - Kohli, Raina, Rahane and Rayudu (unless he drops in form very badly) have made enough to take the ticket to Australia. Rayudu has recently been on the India-A tour (and performed well) to Australia. Not much of a problem here.

The Pathan brothers have dropped off the radar and there is not much time (and opportunities) for them to make a comeback to the squad. Maybe the Champions League could be a possible stage for them to show their mettle. Otherwise, it will be Ashwin, Jadeja and Bhuvi. There could be a toss between Binny and Karn Sharma in the coming days and weeks. One of them might be picked for selection.

With Jadeja and Ashwin already part of the previous group, I expect Amit Mishra to be the only option possible (with close competition from Karn due to his batting).

Pace Bowlers
This is another area of concern for the Indian team with 15 bowlers tried out in three years and few of them falling off the radar for different reasons (poor form, injuries, international ban). Ishant Sharma could make a comeback with the flip-flop performance of the current crop of bowlers. Along with Bhuvi, Shami, Umesh Yadav, Mohit Sharma seem to be the favorites to make the trip. Ishant could definitely give the edge (provided he is injury-free).

Wicket Keeper batsmen
There is no doubt that this group contains a player who will fill in when MSD is injured or banned (for bowling slow). Sanju Samson is the latest choice after the selectors tried out Karthik and Parthiv Patel.

So, overall, the preparation from the Indian team point of view can be summarised as follows:

  1. 14 matches remain to tinker with the combination and selecting the 2-3 slots required for World Cup
  2. There seems to be no  problem for the Indian team to go to the knockout part of the World Cup. After then, what is the plan?
  3. The opening combination is a worry (just like test matches) and the Indian team would do well to prepare Plan B now (no time to create Plan A).
  4. The pace bowlers are also inexperienced and do not seem to be improving with matches. What is the fallback option?
Do the team management have answers to these and much more questions? They would do well to start finding some. I will be very happy to see this image again - I am sure as an Indian fan, you will as well.

Would love to listen to your thoughts.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

England Tour 2014 - India starts its ODI what?

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The Indian team for the ODI leg of its English tour was announced during the test series. Quite a few new faces, which in hindsight (after the test series), is a good idea so that fresh energy can be inducted into a squad that is feeling the effects of a long series.

The squad is as follows:
Openers - Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane (in case Dhawan's poor form continues). From the current thinking, I feel that Dhawan will be given the warm-up match (on 22nd against Middlesex) as well as first two ODI's to prove his form. If he continues to fail, Rahane will open the batting with Rohit. I feel that Rohit will get all the five matches, especially as he received only one opportunity in the test series. The openers will have their technique tested against the in-form English bowlers (even though Stuart Broad has been rested from this series). Rahane will get a chance to play in the opening position only, as there are other options in the middle.

Middle-order batsmen - Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Sanju Samson, MS Dhoni. Kohli will be the focus of all during this series, especially since this is a format he has excelled in recent times - an average of 50+ in ODI's and 45+ in England ODI's (though it has been helped by the matches during Champions Trophy) will be tested thoroughly. If he can regain some of his image that he lost during the test series, he will end the tour a relieved man. Raina will bring in the energy and fielding expertise into the squad that was missing in the last few matches (as well as bowling few key overs during the slog). It will be interesting to see Rayudu and Anderson against each other (for they are built of the same cloth!). Samson should get few chances to test him against high-quality bowlers but at the moment, the Indian team's motive is to win the series (which means that he might be on the reserves mostly).

Bits and pieces players (not exactly all-rounders) - Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Karn Sharma, Stuart Binny, Bhuvneshwar Kumar (on the basis of the just concluded test series). Bhuvi should be brought back (if required) only after the first three matches - he should be merely a tourist till then. That is the minimum the Indian team management can reward him with. Jadeja and Ashwin will start while Karn and Binny will be the back-up after the initial set of matches for poor form.

Pace bowlers - Mohammed Shami(29 ODIs), Mohit Sharma (8 ODIs), Umesh Yadav (31 ODIs), Dhawal Kulkarni. Inexperience is written all over this squad, especially the bowlers (even in ODI scenario). Shami seems to be struggling (based on reports) and hence he might not star in the lineup. Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma will be the likely duo who will open the bowling based on their exploits in recent days. Kulkarni can be a handful in these conditions but his pace will be almost the same as Bhuvi (35 ODIs). Umesh will provide the extra pace but will it be enough?

Based on the pitches and weather conditions (Bristol, Cardiff, Nottingham, Birmingham and Leeds will host the matches), the Indian team's performance will vary. Of course, Ravi Shastri's recent appointment will see the Indian team in a different light (hopefully better one). Dhoni will be back in his best form in a format that he relishes - revenge will definitely be on his mind but does he have the arsenal to attack as well as the mind to challenge? That will dictate the results of the ODI series.

Monday, August 18, 2014

England Tour 2014 - Stop the focus on Dhoni alone!

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During the last few tests of the disastrous 2014 test series against England, the Indian team has been facing a lot of criticism - none more than its captain MS Dhoni. Is Dhoni the only person to be blamed? What about the others? Who is to be blamed for the debacle? Let us take a unbiased review of what transpired before and during this series?
  • Let us look at the experience of the Indian team that toured England. The overall experience of the team is shown below - Batting charts of the Indian team shown below (Remember that these are numbers on their entire test career so far, after Oval test)
    Note that these numbers include the performances of the latest test series. Chet Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane stand out in this list with an average of 55+ during their first class career (49+ and 39+ in their test career). Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir average 47+ in their First-class career(39+ and 42+ in tests). There do not exist any other Indian batsmen who can replace them. There were no issues in selecting them - they had performed well in recent tours and tournaments (Gambhir in IPL). Everyone was happy with the team (and so far I have not heard about anyone asking these folks to be removed, Gambhir being the exception). If you look at the tests played by the Indian team overall, 61% of the tests have been played by MS Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir and Ishant Sharma. Ishant missed two tests and Gambhir three - that means that Dhoni was the lone experienced player in the Indian team. In this team, how many had played tests in England earlier? None other than these!
    Bowling charts 
    The bowling attack is much less experienced compared to the batting. Zaheer Khan was missing from the team after being dropped from the New Zealand squad. Ishant and Ashwin contribute to 89% of the wickets taken by the Indian team overall! Again, Ishant didnt play in two matches while Ashwin missed three. At Southampton, Bhuvi was the most experienced bowler from the Indian team - how many tests has he played? 11 including the 5 tests from this series! 
  • Now, consider the performances during this test series:  How did the Indian players fare?
    Batting charts of the Indian team during the five-test series
    Overall, the team faced a grand 5000 balls during the 5 test series (10 innings to be precise) averaging 500 balls per innings. This means that on average, the team collapsed after the second new ball was picked up. The number is high thanks to the first two tests - the last three tests were what we all know - disastrous. A princely total of 17 scores were made (hundreds and fifties combined) with Dhoni, Vijay, Rahane and Bhuvi being the most impressive. Rahane's form deserted altogether in last two tests! 
    Bowling charts from the Investec Series - Other than Bhuvi and Ishant, no one impressed in this series. Jadeja picked up wickets in four tests but did not match the exploits of Moeen Ali (against supposedly better batsmen of spin). Pankaj Singh and Shami picked up few wickets but their averages and strike rates did not help the Indian team's cause (with Bhuvi at one end).
    Typically, one notices that 2-3 team members have a great series outperforming their colleagues as well as their own overall form. Nothing of that sort happened here other than Bhuvi and Ishant with the ball. What was the end-result? Losses by an innings, 3rd continuous test series lost, Bowled out for 90+, five continuous scores of less than 200. More such statistics can be found here.
  • There was a good announcement of Rahul Dravid being made the batting consultant but that was limited only till the start of the first test match. Why? Dravid had a commitment to do commentary for Star Sports (who are the sponsors for the Indian attire). Could there have been no compromise done to ensure that Dravid could continue being the consultant with the Indian team? Can this arrangement be thought of earlier to the Aussie tour so that there is someone throughout the series? Doubtful!
  • When was the last time India played a five-test series? Long, long ago! It is very harsh to expect the team to play a five test series over the span of 42 days without any break on overseas swinging conditions when they have been playing three test series (or even two-tests) in recent days! Why was such a series planned in the first place? To fill ECB coffers?
  • How many players have experience of English conditions? How many players from the Indian team play county cricket? After Murali Karthik, none! Why? They do not have permission from the Indian board, not only in England but also in any of the other T20 leagues as well. What are the juniors doing when the senior team is away in summer? Why can they not contract to play with English counties and gain experience? Why cant a Murali Vijay get a contract to continue in England after the test series? Will the team have a similar experience during the next tour as well as they would not have any exposure to such conditions for the next 2-3 years? Sachin, Rahul and VVS have gone on record stating the help such county stints helped with their careers. If it helped them, why are the current crop of players not provided such opportunities?
  • Luck also played its part in this series. When the pitch was good for batting (3rd test), Dhoni lost the toss and Cook & Co. made the Indians pay. The 4th test when he had to insert the opposition after winning the toss (or losing the toss so that Cook would have batted), he made the decision to bat. What happened? In the 47th over, India were all out for 152. It was downhill from there. Similarly, in the same test, the Indians could not last the final session on third day and it rained for two days in Manchester. If only the session had been saved, the Indians could have reached Oval even in the series.
  • Catches were dropped in the slip-cordon. A number of dropped chances meant that the bowlers were not getting rewarded for their toils. Remember that the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman used to man this cordon and they are hard to replace overnight. Players have been tried out and shuffled around but very clearly it is not working. Ravindra Jadeja not only helped Anderson focus better with his altercation but also helped Cook recover his batting form (by dropping him in the first hour on a flat track) and guided his team make a remarkable comeback in the series.
  • DRS factor. While the Indian team is against the DRS, it does not justify the umpiring howlers that have been witnessed in this series. It does not mean that if you dont support DRS, you should suffer the injustice from the umpires? Two wrongs is definitely not the answer, right?
  • Dhoni, the batsman. Dhoni was the best batsman on view in terms of runs scored and retaining the team's composure during the series many times. He came to the crease at 112-5 (2nd innings in 3rd test), 8-4 and 61-4 (4th test), 28-4 and 45-4 (5th test). He was not elegant but made his best with his technique and temperament to guide the team to decent, if not respectable scores.
  • Dhoni, the wicket-keeper. Other than couple of chances where MSD did not go for the ball when it went between him and Dhawan at first slip, there was hardly an opportunity that he let go. His keeping was never been remarkable but always effective. Obviously, there is no thought of replacing him as a keeper.
  • Dhoni, the captain. Agreed that there were few areas where Dhoni slipped as a captain. His reluctance to keep a third-man was baffling (though he was not alone - Cook did the same mistake). His captaincy was questionable in terms of selection of bowling attack at critical moments in the test (but just remember the experience of his attack that we described above in this post). Dhoni had an inexperienced team that did not have much experience with conditions (even the ball used was new to the team) - what he could do with the team is what was the final outcome. But, blaming him for the debacle is not right. There were other factors that affected the series as well - not Dhoni alone. MSD also has to be given credit for the victory at Lords when he pushed Ishant to bowl the short balls. Also, he is supportive of his players in public - he keeps repeating the term that the team is learning by its experience and the focus on process continues. Though the scene in dressing room might be different, it is good management skills on MSD to keep the 'bashings' private!
After the last tour, I had written my own post-mortem here. If you read this, the first comment you will have is that nothing much has changed from then to now. I think we will not make any changes now also. What then will happen in Australia later this year? More of the same? Afraid so. Till then, let us stop Dhoni-bashing - I am not a fan of Dhoni but I just wanted to ensure that we take a holistic picture rather than an individual. Give him and his team some time and the performances will start. Hope you agree.

England Tour 2014 - 3-1 for England

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After Manchester, I had a doubt whether this Indian team was similar to the one that toured last time. The Oval test proved that the current team's performance mirrored that of the previous one, especially in this test match. The team could not play 90 overs in 2 innings put together. It was time, they thought, to give wickets not just to Broad, Anderson and Moeen alone. Jordan and Woakes would be the beneficiaries this time. The result was that the bowlers themselves were feeling odd that wickets that were hard to come by were being thrown away like candies.

Agreed that the toss was lost on a wicket that helped the bowlers quite a bit on the first day. The batsmen were guilty of not gutsing it out in the tough conditions. The captain showed the way with the help of Ishant Sharma on the first day that a decent score could have been knocked up if the team had shown some application. The procession continued as though the team was in a hurry to finish this test series as early as possible. Five tests were two too much for a team that would have drawn the series if it was a typical three match series. The BCCI wanted to increase its coffers by making the players play five - the players have no role to refuse. They were relative greenhorns on these pitches and the difference in capability and reality showed up so badly!

The bowlers did relatively better but the combination of umpiring howlers (in the absence of DRS) as well as poor slip catching meant that the English batsmen could continue their run-scoring. The runs were conceded at a high run-rate that there was enough time to skittle out the Indian team by tea even including a rain-break in between. No more words can be used to explain the performance in the last innings of the match. The team perished in 30 overs with two run-outs! What were the batsmen thinking?

Anyway, the test series ends and the teams will now play an ODI series. The Indian ODI teams have not won anything on their previous overseas tours and hopefully they will open their accounts here purely because England will opt to rest some of their star players after the five match test series. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

England Tour 2014 - Is it the India of 2011 Tour?

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8 for 4. What more can you expect from a team that few weeks ago, won a test match at Lords. The new opening replacement has failed as well as the other who had been scoring well. Add to it, the two batsmen who were supposed to be the future of Indian test cricket. MSD didnt realize that a small fact of winning the toss would have such a big impact on the test match. This was within the first six overs of the test match - must have been quite a shock to the incoming batsmen. Anderson and Broad were running amok but the other English bowlers were definitely at the same level of excellence. Add to the fact that this was the fourth test match in as many weeks and Broad was in doubt of playing this test (due to his knee problems). If only the Indian team had managed to play out a few overs more, the score would have been much better. Dhoni and Ashwin showed their colleagues how normal batting can indeed be enacted on this surface by their partnership. But, they couldnt continue for long.

This is where the test match was lost.

The bowlers put in a good show but the fielders could not support them as much as one would have expected. Pankaj Singh for all his height is not able to extract pace and bounce out of the pitch that one would have thought so. It was refreshing to see Varun Aaron trouble the English with his pace and bounce. Aaron and Ishant bowling together at Oval would be a good sight to watch, from an Indian perspective. Bhuvneshwar Kumar did well to get wickets and keep the scoring down but the Indians seemed to be going through the motions. From an Indian fan, it was a perverse delight to see Broad being hit by a bouncer from Aaron. But, lets not go there.

The second innings, when it started, seemed to be going normally and there was talk that the fourth day had the hurricane in town. The Indians had to bat through an extended session against an attack that missed Broad and a tired Anderson. Easy, right? The batsmen didn't think so. They decided to play Santa to the likes of Jordan and Moeen Ali (again). It was a disappointing end on the third day when the Indian team had somehow managed to mirror the performances of the previous team during the 2011 tour. Batsmen were coming in and out without any thinking or strategy in their mind. Is the team having too many problems in their mind? Is it the fatigue factor?

Kohli and Pujara haven't scored during this tour and this must be troubling them the most. Whether they have a weakness outside the off stump or given a bad decision, the truth is that both these players can feast on these bowlers during their heyday. They need to put these bad days out of their mind and concentrate on getting their form back.

Giving wickets to Moeen seems to be unforgiving for those players who are bred on such attacks in domestic cricket. Maybe Aakash Chopra's view here is right. Jadeja's batting (other than Lords) doesn't seem to be going anywhere - Dhoni's explanation to justify his presence in the squad is okay but how long can this continue?

On Dhoni himself, I would say that we cannot blame him alone for the debacle. MSD has done well but his team is not backing him with the right performance. If he had a Dale Steyn or AB De Viliers to call upon, his record outside India would have been better - alas, he doesnt have anyone in that calibre. What does he do? Try to become defensive. A wonderful insight into his captaincy comes from Guru Greg Chappell during his interview here.
The difficulty is when he goes overseas he doesn’t have the personal at his disposal to do well in those conditions. We saw in the second Test (against England at Lord’s) Ishant (Sharma) bowling and it made a difference.  
Outside of the sub-continent if you don’t have a potent pace attack, it’s very hard to succeed. By and large during his time as Test captain, he hasn’t had a potent pace attack consistently.
Off to Oval next. The verdict seems to be 3-1 in England favor but Oval is known for its high run-scoring matches as well as assistance to spin. Will the Indian team recover their form and get going again? London is where they won and they are back at the same place (though a different ground). Will the familiarity of location inspire them to jump back and square the series? Not impossible.

Friday, August 01, 2014

England Tour 2014 - Did India deserve this thrashing?

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The Indian team had beaten the home team at Lords after 28 years – one wonders whether the team started celebrating it immediately. As Akash Chopra pointed out in his column, John Wright reinstated the fact that the series was not completed when the Indians were in a similar position during his reign. The reason why I am asking the question was because of the laidback attitude that was visible in this test match. The team had taken a 1-0 lead and it seemed fine if they lost this test match. They could come back as they knew what it took to win a match in England now. Or was it another reason? Fatigue. The team was playing its third match in a row and most of the bowlers, especially, had put in long overs thanks to Dhoni’s refusal to use the fifth bowler (with or without help from the conditions). The team could have been exhausted from the first two test matches.

Let us go through the performances of the players then. There are 2-3 players on the bowling and batting who have been consistently failing, poor form or otherwise. They don’t have runs or wickets to show against their name. Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli on the batting front and Shami, Jadeja on the bowling side. I am expecting three changes to happen in the next test – MSD has given all of them three chances to prove themselves and such a crushing victory demands changes. Gambhir to come in for Dhawan and Ashwin for Jadeja. If Bhuvaneshwar Kumar is injured, Shami will retain his position in the team and we will have Varun Aaron in his place. If not, Shami will be replaced by Aaron. It is time for Ashwin to be unleashed and I have a feeling that the English batsmen will not be too comfortable against the offie at Manchester.

Dhawan and Vijay have not added a fifty partnership in a long time and that is a cause of concern. Gambhir may not be in a better frame of mind (nor form) but is a good option to have at this time. On the other hand, Kohli must be realizing why Laxman was given all those chances during the last tour when he was in the wings. He must realize that the team has been rallying behind him – he has to come good sooner than later. The stars of the series so far have clearly been Vijay and Rahane with the bat. Rahane scored 50s but he needs to take more strike in order to avoid getting stuck – he has been guilty of such situations in recent instances. But, what must be irritating MSD must have been the starts the batsmen had, that were not converted to a bigger score. Will Rohit Sharma play in another game? Dhoni will let him play the last three matches – time for Rohit to show his talent once again. Otherwise, there will be claims to oust him for the next series Down Under. The fact that the Indians presented six wickets to Moeen Ali must be haunting all of them – it will continue to do so for a while.

Among the bowlers, Bhuvi was clearly not fit but managed to grab few wickets. Jadeja’s bowling has been laid threadbare and there is no way that he can continue to command a place for the rest of the series (ahead of Ashwin). Pankaj was unlucky workhorse though one can say that he didn’t demonstrate anything spectacular during his stints with the ball. He is as tall as Ishant but pace is not good enough to trouble the batsmen like the latter would. Times have changed so much that Ishant’s absence is lamented by all Indian fans – wow! With him being not available for Old Trafford test (and Anderson getting a let-off at the enquiry), India is again at the mercy of the rejuvenated English team. Will they manage to draw, if not win, the series? It looks unlikely as of now. If they can change their attitude, that will be a good start.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

England Tour 2014 - A win at Lords

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28 years. That is the time it took India to repeat its World Cup win and now another win at Lords. Lords cricket ground - the Mecca of cricket and MSD chalked out a victory plan that his team could implement. Not that everything went his way though but the fact he was the winner meant a lot to him, his team and the fans.

The Indian team has been one without a lot of earlier superstars but the current team has benefited quite a lot by reduced expectations. They were expected to lose this series after the 8-0 drubbing earlier. Retirements have come and gone but the core of the team has not changed. Except Rohit Sharma's replacement by Stuart Binny, the top five have been consistent and same. Binny's debut was also necessitated by a change in Dhoni's strategy to play 6 batsmen (including himself). Not that Duncan Fletcher's inputs were far behind. Picking six pace (not fast) bowlers for this tour was probably Fletcher's suggestion but he may not get too much credit for this.

The batsmen have been improving and best of all, covering up for one another. Rahane scored in the first innings after the top order had seen off the worst of the track. Vijay and Pujara did the right thing by occupying the crease to an extent that the English bowlers were not only physically tired but mentally worried. Back-to-back test matches are going to test Anderson and Broad. In fact, Anderson might be secretly wishing for a two-test ban so that he can put his feet up. The support bowlers are not stepping up for England just like the new batsmen are.

Vijay has been an enigma for most of the Indian fans - someone who can bash the bowling in T20 shows utmost patience in test matches, leaving the balls outside the off stump with good decision-making ability. Pujara has been solid as well but without the scores (that one expects from him) to back up the stature of his innings. It has been Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan who have not been upto mark so far - Kohli will be given a run for all five tests but MSD will start thinking of Gambhir if Dhawan fails in the next test too.

Stuart Binny was unlucky that in the first innings Dhoni didnt go for the catch of Ballance of his bowling and while batting, he was given a bad decision. He will get another chance, if Dhoni's pattern is to repeat (of not changing a winning team) and that is where he has a good opportunity to perform again.

What can one say of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar! He has scored runs whenever he had a chance to bat, picked wickets mostly (except the last innings) and remains active on the field throughout. One of the most unassuming person on the ground, Bhuvi is a star for the Indian management to preserve. His swing is great and he should not be lost just like the Praveen Kumars and Irfan Pathans. He should be given more chances like the other star of the moment - Ishant Sharma!

Ishant has been getting wickets by the bunch in the last few tests - a sign that he has been less unlucky (a familiar explanation for his high bowling average). But, jokes apart, his forte has been his physical strength (despite a lanky frame), stamina and willingness to go on and on as per his captain's demands. Of course, execution of Dhoni's plan was the key highlight for Ishant - if not, one could have imagined another loss for India (at the hands of Root and Ali). One recalls the match against Australia where Ishant was asked to bowl at a 7-2 field and how he succeeded! The average is looking better already but he has a long way to go before he can fill Zaheer's boots.

Overall, a good victory for India with the master strategists Dhoni and Duncan plotting the rivals fall in detail. From now onward, it is India's series to lose. England seems to be on a downward spiral and the rest of the series can quickly go downhill for them.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

England Tour 2014 - First match drawn - sign to come?

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The first test match ended in a draw with England not being able to get 20 Indian wickets while the Indian bowlers got 10 in the one innings that they bowled! Not without both teams giving each other a tenth wicket stand of more than 100 runs. It was a mediocre match with the teams putting up performances that were mediocre, at the best. True, Bhuvi scored two fifties and took a fiver but there was nothing much to separate the two teams. That in itself is a sign to come up in this series. Of course, the pitches will be better in the following tests but neither team has shown the right skill and application to step up and grab the mantle.

With both captains being under pressure for different reasons, the match had a number of interesting sidelights but overall tended to be a bit like the dull and drab soap operas that appear on the telly. India will feel good that they did not lose their first test of the tour - something that they have been used to, every tour. The grounds seem to be in favor of the Indians more than the hosts (for commercial reasons - grounds having spent money on getting drainage systems fixed have to earn back the money quickly and for that, they need matches to go for five days)! The weather is also good with less interruptions from cloud or ground. All this means that the Indian team feels more at home on these pitches.

As I had suggested in my previous post, Stuart Binny was picked in the playing eleven as a batting allrounder but his captain was not sure about his bowling talent. He was given 10 overs of a total of 145, not something that he would have hoped for, when given the cap on the opening day. On the final day, his knock with Jadeja showed his temperament and ensured that he will live on for another test for sure. He seemed comfortable at the crease and definitely deserved more with the ball. MSD too mentioned at the end that he wouldn't change his bowling attack - that means there will not be any changes to the playing eleven for Lords test (not a bad idea though).

Murali Vijay and Pujara (in the second innings) continued the good work they had put in on the tours to SAF and NZ while Virat Kohli will try to forget this match quickly. Rahane and Dhawan got starts but could not capitalise much. Vijay was the batting highlight for India and he will do well to remember his good knock for all his moments in future where he will get into trouble. He is one batsman who seems to be comfortable in test matches and T20s, not ODIs. Strange! Rahane looked pretty while on song but could not convert his knocks to a bigger one.

Dhoni and Binny played one innings of significance which augured well for a team that went in with five regular batsmen. MSD has come up with a new plan to counter the swing on this tour and it seems to be working so far. The English bowlers seem to have found a defect in full areas to him - that might be a critical flaw in his game now. The tailenders contributed to the team total which meant that twice this series already, India went past 350. The last tour, they managed to touch 300 once only! Not a bad start for a team that had the batting legend, Rahul Dravid, as the batting consultant before the first test.

The bowlers did well till they met Root, Broad and Anderson. Bhuvi was always expected to do well because of the swing he obtained but Ishant continued the good work from NZ series. Ishant seems to have taken over the mantle left vacant by Zaheer but he needs more wickets under his belt. Shami was a bit disappointing but he is a good bowler who will learn from his mistakes soon. All in all, a good outing for a bowling unit that was not expected to take 20 wickets. They still havent but the hope has been revived in this test. This bodes well for Dhoni and his team for Lords.

Everything to play for in London and the Indian team will be keen to go forward quickly in the series.