Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review of Lord's test match

Hello friends,

So India were outplayed by a far better England team and were comprehensively beaten in the first test match. I know people are talking about Zaheer's injury and also Gautham's injury and Sachin's illness as the reasons for this loss. But in my opinion, we lost it in the first innings with the bat. England had declared at 474, which is not a monumental score like 550 or 600 which only gives one team the chance to win. I was pleasantly surprised by Strauss' declaration at that competitive score. If India had got around 600 in the first innings or even 550, things could have been very different and Strauss would have faced a lot of flak. But he backed his strong bowling unit and I suspect, the fact that India start poorly in any test series and looked to have not come to terms with the English conditions. I doubt he will declare at this score in venues like Trent Bridge and Oval.

Anyway, to come back to the Indian first innings, other than Dravid, not one batsmen looked too comfortable and score big. Mukund was looking very good, but got out in the most unlucky manner, dragging a wide ball to the stumps. In fact, the one facet I have noticed about Mukund's batting is that he looks quite good at the crease and calms the nerves of the viewers and I am sure, the dressing room as well. But he has tended to get out when well set. I am sure it is a matter of time before he starts getting the big scores regularly. This is one guy who should definitely be in the radar for the opening slot, even more than Vijay. Sachin started well, but seems to have a mental block at Lord's and gets out when looking good for more. No matter how great a player is, sometimes even they develop mental blocks against certain venues or certain players. One prime example I can think of, is Roger Federer of tennis. Even when he was at his peak, he would lose regularly to Rafael Nadal. It had got to a point where all Nadal had to do was show up, and Federer would lose, irrespective of what stage in the tournament they were, or the type of court they played in. Sachin appears to have a similar mental block at Lord's. These things cannot be proven and if someone asks him, he will vehemently disagree and parrot out some stats and scores in other grounds. But I can think of no other reason why he fell in the 30s when looking good and untroubled in the first innings. I am sure his highest score of 37 was playing in his head and that made him anxious and he poked at a fairly wide ball that he would have left alone 9 times out of 10.

Coming back to the batting, Laxman fell to a strange shot in the first innings. I have never seen him flick the ball in the air for so much distance. His flicks sometimes go in the air, but only for short distances before landing and then racing to the fence. Again, it could be due to some inner nervousness on the part of the entire Indian team, particularly the batting. That also explains the tentativeness of Dhoni's batting in the first innings where he took more than 100 balls to make just 28. I think this hype about India starting slowly in away test series and the build-up of the potent England attack, got to the Indian team collectively and resulted in the kind of performance they put up. Of course, this is not the only reason, but in my opinion, could be one of the major factors behind the first innings performance.

Once we lost Zaheer, it was always going to be very difficult to dismiss the England batsmen twice. But I am encouraged by the individual performances of PK in the first innings and Ishant in the second. It gives me hope as an Indian fan that this England team can be bowled out twice in a test match. Now if only Harbhajan can take some wickets and look more threatening with the ball. Dhoni has said he was impressed by the pace at which Harbhajan bowled in this match, much slower through the air. But to my eye, Harbhajan these days does not look like a bowler who can even trouble the top batsmen, let alone taking wickets. There is something missing from his bowling, whether it is loop or confidence I dont know. But he looks just a pale shadow of the bowler he was in early 2000s or even in the series against SA late last year.

It looks like Zak is not going to play in Trent Bridge. In my opinion, Munaf would be the right replacement for him. Even though Sreesanth promises a lot more wicket-taking ability, it would be too big a risk in my opinion to play him. Munaf is steadier and can build pressure from one end for PK or Ishant to take advantage of at the other. Sachin seems to have recovered from his illness, so he should play. I dont know the extent of Gambhir's injury, but if he does not play, I would continue to open with Dravid and play VVS at number 3. I have always felt that VVS is better at 3 than Dravid bcos he scores quickly and can take the game away from the opposition. Look how KP batted after getting set in the first innings and how Prior and Broad took the game away from India through positive batting even though they were in some trouble in the second innings. I have long maintained that one way to get out of troublesome situations is to score runs at a decent pace and not hang around. In places like England, you need to keep scoring because sooner or later, there will arrive one ball with your name on it and you will get out. Bowlers will always get some assistance in the air and off the pitch, so it is important to keep scoring and not stagnating. Look what happened to Sachin in the second innings. Granted he was recovering from a viral infection, but the way he was playing, I knew he would be gone any moment. At the moment, the only Indian batsmen who looks to keep the scoreboard moving at all times, is Suresh Raina. I am liking what I am seeing with his batting, the way he is playing close to his body and looking to play straight in the initial part of his innings. Also the way he looks to score runs at all times. We need more such cricketers in the future and then we will be well placed in the test arena even after the departure of the big three.

In fact, the one guy I really missed in the first test match is Virender Sehwag. When he is in the team, the entire look of the batting unit changes and the feeling in the opposition changes from respect to fear for the batting lineup. I cannot wait to see him back in the side. Hopefully, he will play in the third test.

Looking ahead to the second test match, I would not be too shattered if Gambhir sits out of that one. He did not look at his best even though he got starts in both innings. The other more crucial point is, he will most probably be replaced by Yuvraj. If Yuvi is fully fit, I am sure he will be hungry to do well and keep himself in the reckoning for a spot in the squads in the future, especially with Raina having almost sealed the number 6 slot now. Yuvi is another cricketer who will not hang around and will look to score runs all the time. But the biggest plus for India will be his bowling. Dhoni kept saying that they missed having someone like Sehwag or Yuvi who are decent replacement/fill-in bowlers (unlike himself :). Trent Bridge should also be a good track for batting, and if the weather holds up like it did at Lord's, I hope the Indian batsmen can put up a much better performance now that they are rid of their first match blues as well.

My primary goal at the start of this test series was that India should not lose by a 2 game margin, which would ensure England took over the number 1 ranking in tests. So if England win the series 2-0 or 3-1, then they will become number 1 in tests. I am hopeful that that will still not happen and that India can at least draw the series from here.

Lets hear it from you guys out there. Did you watch the first test match and what do you think are the reasons for India's loss ? What do you reckon are India's chances in the second test match and the series ? My next post will be after the second test match, so stay tuned.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Preview of India-England first test match

Hello friends,

As expected, India wrapped up the series in WI and are now in England for a much tougher challenge. I did read articles that India squandered the chance to win 2-0 in WI, but I think they did the right thing by accepting the draw instead of going for broke in the last 1 hour. At the moment of walking off, they needed something like 86 runs in 90 balls with Dravid and Laxman at the crease. There were Virat and Dhoni to follow but they had lost the in-form Raina. Considering that Dravid and Laxman are not part of the ODI squad any more, I think it was good that they decided to be pragmatic about the chase and accepted the draw. Even if they had decided to go for the win, in my opinion the draw would have been the most likely result and Dhoni would have coped more flak for deciding to go for the win and not accomplishing it. Anyway, I just wanted to put in my 2 cents regarding the drawn test match in WI. Lets now look ahead to the England series and particularly, the first test match at Lord's.

Lets make no mistake, England is a much tougher side than WI and are even more difficult to face at their home. They have a very good bowling line-up of 4 wicket-taking bowlers and all their batsmen are in top form at the moment. India are going to have to be on top of their game and cannot relax even for 1 hour or 1 session, as Sri Lanka found out to their dismay by losing the test series because of 1 bad hour in the first test match. Having said that, I am very glad that India have all their top players available other than Sehwag. They need to be at full strength to do well against this England side. In my mind, the starting eleven for the first test match is pretty much decided. I would go with 6 batsmen (Gambhir, Mukund, Dravid, Sachin, Laxman, Raina), Dhoni, Harbhajan and 3 fast bowlers (Zaheer, PK, Ishant). Neither Sreesanth nor Munaf showed they are ready for a test match yet and dont look good enough to replace PK, who is the only debatable choice in the line-up. If this is the line-up, I hope Dhoni does not give the new ball to Ishant instead of PK. Zak and PK would make for a nice bowling attack up front, using whatever swing is available and try to take out a couple of wickets early. Ishant should be used as first change to provide pace and bounce. With Ishant's pace, he can extract bounce and seam even with a ball that is more than 10 overs old and does not need the new ball.

Regarding the batting, we need to get at least 350 runs every time we bat. It is nice to see that Mukund is looking more assured these days than he was in his first 2 test matches. He also had a couple of decent knocks in the Somerset game which would have done his confidence some good. Lets hope Raina continues his good form and for him too, the hundred he got against Somerset would have done wonders to his confidence, even if it was after the loss of 8 wickets and against much friendlier bowling than he will face in the tests. In test matches, sometimes it is all about how good a batsmen is feeling about himself and once he is feeling good, the runs will automatically come irrespective of the bowling and conditions. The experienced middle order of Rahul, Sachin and VVS need to make the bulk of the runs and for that, they should remember to play close to the body at all times. All these 3 batsmen have got out a few times in the recent past either caught behind the wickets or bowled between bat and pad when playing a little away from the body. This England team is very good at maintaining the ball for 80 overs, so they will find seam and cut in the middle overs (20 to 50) and will also get reverse swing with the older ball, so the Indian batsmen need to be on their guard at all times.

Now lets look at some potential weaknesses in this England side, especially in the bowling. In my opinion, the biggest threat for India will be from Chris Tremlett. He is very tall, and generates disconcerting bounce from a good length and as we all know, the Indian batsmen are not very good at handling the bouncing ball. He also generates good pace and is pretty accurate. Anderson is the leader of their attack, but in my opinion, can have some ordinary days with the ball, especially when it is not swinging as much as he likes. But when he gets it right, he can be very dangerous and India can find themselves 20 for 3 or 30 for 4 in no time with Anderson taking most of the wickets. Broad is the weak link in my opinion, especially because he is down a little at the moment with his form. When Broad is not at the top of his bowling, he can drift down the leg side quite a bit, and since Indian batsmen are very good off their legs, they should look to capitalize on this and put him away for a few runs in the beginning of his spell. One other weakness in the England bowling side is that they have been playing 4 bowlers and have maybe 1 or 2 who can bowl, but are strictly ordinary and not regular at all. Trott has been bowling a bit lately, but he is not threatening from what I have seen and I dont know if KP is fit enough to bowl if needed. So India should look to target Broad or someone else, which will force Strauss to find other bowling options and that can make life difficult for England.

One other factor in India's favor for the first test match, is that the Lord's track of late has been pretty flat. The biggest thing, especially for the newer players like Mukund, Raina, PK, Ishant etc. would be to adjust to the slope. Once they do that, India can look to assert themselves and put some pressure on England. One more thing. One of the ways to put pressure on England and force them out of their comfort zone, will be to score at a decent pace. The run rate of 2.5 or so that Indian batsmen maintained in WI, is not going to do them good against England. They should look to score at least around 3.5 runs per over so that the longer India bats, the runs will continue to pile up quickly and Strauss will be forced to adjust and make changes to his field and bowling options and switch from attack to defense mode.

I am very excited with this series and believe it will be a good challenge for this Indian team and if India do well, it should silence the critics who express doubts whether India deserves their number one rank. Lets hope for some good cricket overall and an Indian win after a well-fought series.

Lets hear it from you guys now. I am sure you all must be excited to watch and follow the series. Lets hear your thoughts regarding team selection and what you rate India's chances to be.

I will continue to post regularly through the series. I will even try to write between test matches, so stay tuned.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review of second India-WI test

Hello friends,

India head into the final test knowing that this is one more series that they cannot lose. So Dhoni's record of not having lost a test series is still intact. That is quite an achievement in my opinion. Lets hope it continues for the rest of this year at least.

With the second test match badly affected by rain, the draw was the appropriate result in the end. But I admired Dhoni's guts in declaring early giving his bowlers enough time to bowl out the opposition, and also throwing the carrot to the WI in terms of runs to get. It shows the confidence this team has in itself and that is a good sign for the future.

The batting did not live up to its potential once again. 201 is definitely way under par for this team with the talent it has, even though we are missing a few of our top players. Virat and Vijay are beginning to realize the difference between test cricket and ODI/T20. In my opinion, the selectors have got it right by not persisting with them and dropping them from the England tour so that they can go back to the basics and work hard to get their place back. At the same time, it was nice to see Mukund fight it out in the middle and once he was set, look to play his shots. He appears to be a good prospect for the future. He still appears to favor the leg side a lot and needs to improve his off side shot making significantly, but the 48 runs he got in the second innings will do him a lot of good for the immediate future which includes the third test and the first England test at Lord's. In England, he will not get legside freebies like he got in WI, so that off side play has to improve quickly. It was heartening to see Laxman back in form and rescue India once again in the first innings, this time with Raina, who continues to impress. The change in Raina I am seeing is that, he appears prepared to work hard in the initial part of his innings and looks to play straight most of the time. Only when he gets set, he brings out the hoick over midwicket and other horizontal bat shots. I think he has sealed the number 6 spot for the England tour.

Ishant is another one who has been very impressive on this tour. I have always thought that Ishant is a good test match bowler who lost his way because of ODIs and T20s. On this tour, he appears to be doing the basics right and does not try too much. He has a good wrist position most of the time and if he continues to pitch it up like he has, he will trouble most batsmen. Given his pace, it is tempting to ask him to bounce the batsmen or bowl short. But that is not his game. He gets wickets with the full length and sideways movement that he generates, not with bouncers or short balls. So he needs to continue to not experiment too much and make the batsmen play him more often. He will only benefit from Zaheer's presence for the England tour. PK continues to impress and is definitely a long term prospect for India in test matches. In fact, I would love to see PK open the bowling with Zak in England. For that to happen, I suspect he needs another good performance in the last test, something in the range of 5-6 wickets in the match. Then the team management will find it difficult to leave him out in Lord's in order to bring in Sreesanth or Munaf.

Harbhajan continues to under-perform with the ball, and that is putting it mildly. He seems to have lost his wicket-taking ability and appears to spear it in quickly instead of relying on flight, loop and spin to get wickets. I suspect he has continued to be in the team more for his batting skills and with the hope that he will come good with the ball. Since India cannot lose this series from here, I would go as far as dropping him from the final test match and bringing in Mishra. That would send him a strong message, just like dropping from England tour sent messages to Virat and Vijay. But my gut feel is, with Harbhajan being so close to 400 wickets, the team management will play him and issue dumb statements like, 'he is a proven match winner, we back him to come good very soon' or some such nonsense.

Before I wrap up, I just want to make some comments on the team selected for the England tour. For probably the first time since I started watching cricket in my childhood, I have agreed completely with each and every selection for a tour. I cannot find any faults this time with the team selected for the England tour. On paper, this team looks brilliant, but we all know, the talent needs to be translated on the field for 5 days in order to win one test match. England are in very good form and know their conditions better than most other teams know theirs, especially with the ball. So we are in for a tough contest there. And lets not forget, our batting order in the first test, will have 2 key members who are returning from inactivity of almost 2 months. With the ball, we will have our main strike bowler coming back from a similar situation, but knowing Zak and how much he is in control of his game these days, I am not too worried about that aspect. It is the batting that concerns me. India have a tendency to start slowly in any away series, especially with the bat. So it will be interesting to see how the batsmen shape up in completely different conditions to the one they are facing right now. The only relief is that we are not going to be carrying any wild cards or passengers in the batting line up and all 7 are proven performers who have been around with this team for a while, except maybe Mukund.

Lets hope for a good test match in Dominica and that India win the series 2-0. My next post will be after the conclusion of this test match. I will be traveling till the 17th, so my next post may be after that, but I will definitely post before the Lord's test which starts on 21st.

Lets hear it from you guys now. What is your take on the WI series ? Do you like the team selected for the England tour and what do you think are our chances there ? Do write in with your thoughts.