Friday, December 30, 2011

Review of first India-Australia test match

Hello friends,

India lost the first test of an away series like they usually do, but this time, there is not a feeling of abject surrender among the cricketers and fans. The main reason for that is, we managed to take 20 wickets without giving away too many runs and were in the game right through till the last innings. But the old folly of bad batting in abroad conditions cost us once again. I dont know if it is a matter of application or simply in the mind that we lose the first test of away series so regularly. Let us examine some aspects of the test match.

First, let us look at the positives. It was heartening to see the bowlers hit their straps right away on day one and reduce Australia to 214 for 6. But after that, the old failing of letting the lower order take away the game, came back to hurt us. This is quite puzzling to me since in Indian conditions, we are able to get rid of lower order batsmen with relative ease and even in the second, third and other test matches in away conditions, we are able to do it, though with less frequency. So what is it with lower order batsmen in away conditions ? The good thing is, Dhoni made statements that suggested that they are aware of the problem and will look to rectify in the future. As I have always said, recognizing the issue means half the problem is solved. It would be nice if we work on developing a bowler who is especially skilled at taking lower-order wickets. It could be one of the regular bowlers, or someone like Sehwag or Kohli/Rohit/Raina/Sachin who can be used to target lower order batsmen with variations, or firing the ball full on the stumps. This is just an idea, but one worth considering since we have been struck by this problem too many times now to ignore it.

The other positives were the fact that Zaheer came through the entire test without any visible pain, though he did clutch his hamstring once in the second innings. He also looked in top form while bowling, using his brains and variations to get crucial wickets. Yadav showed a lot of promise and showed what some extra pace can do for us in away conditions. Even though he got a lot of batsmen bowled while inside-edging the ball to the stumps, in my mind that is also due to his extra pace that batsmen end up being a bit late on the shot and the ball takes the inside edge instead of the middle. Ishant bowled well with less luck and I was surprised to hear that he once touched 152 kmph in the second innings. Hopefully, his ankle will last the entire series, as will Zaheer. Ashwin bowled well in that he was able to control the runs for the most part, which was his primary job, but I was not happy to see that he bowled a lot of deliveries that were too short. Maybe he just got a little carried away by the bounce on offer, but I would like to see his length on the fuller side much more in the coming tests.

Now lets look at the batting. The most disturbing aspect of the batting was the fact that a lot of batsmen got out to familiar mistakes that they have been making of late, especially on the England tour. Gambhir got out poking at deliveries in both innings, Dravid was bowled off the incoming one in the second innings, Sachin got out flashing at a wide one in the second innings, just like he did in South Africa and England earlier this year. Laxman got out to really slow starts in both innings and that resulted in his dismissal both times, though the modes were different. He needs to work on getting his feet moving and being much more positive at the start of his innings, like Sachin is and even Dravid is sometimes these days. Kohli once again looked a little out of place in the test match setup. That is another puzzling matter to me. A batsman whose game is based on getting set and then attacking the bowling even in ODIs and T20s, should be completely at home in test matches where he has all the time in the world to get set. But he does not give the feeling like he belongs, which is something he needs to rectify urgently otherwise Rohit could replace him as early as the third test. Dhoni is another one who is becoming a liability at the test match level. Even Ashwin is batting better than Dhoni these days in tests. With Kohli and Dhoni not performing, the pressure on the likes of Sehwag, Dravid and Sachin is much greater and unless these two start doing well, I dont see India posting the 350s and 400s like they used to when they were number 1.

For the second test at SCG, I see that the curator is looking to once again have a track with a fair bit of grass on it, which means that there will be help for the bowlers right through if they land the ball in the right areas. Also, the first day will offer more help to the bowlers, like it did at the MCG. So I hope India wins the toss and bowls first, and that this time, they are able to restrict the Aussies to a total under 300. One other point worth considering for the team management is, with Gambhir looking out of sorts, it may not be a bad idea to push Dravid to open with Sehwag and have Gautam at number 3. Dravid has opened in tests before, as recently as in England and is batting well at the moment. If Dravid can bat out time and not keep Sehwag away from the strike for long periods, then we could see Gambhir also come into his own when he bats since the ball will not be that new and the bowlers would have bowled their first spells as well. But I know this will most likely not happen since the team management will think they should not break up a successful opening partnership. Anyway, I just wanted to throw my idea out there which I dont think is that bad and out-of-place.

I was thinking about the idea of playing 2 spinners in the second test since it is the SCG. But the article I read this morning convinced me against that idea. These days the SCG is not like the track of old where it would be a batsmen's paradise for the first 3 days and break up on day 4 and 5 offering lots of turn to the spinners. The Aussie curators these days are preparing tracks like MCG where there is help for bowlers on all 5 days while at the same time being good to bat on as well. There is also no breaking up on the last 2 days, so the track maintains its nature for the entire test match. In my opinion, such tracks are perfect for test matches and I would love to see such tracks in India and the rest of the world as well. Anyway, for the SCG, I would go in with the same bowlers and in fact, retain the entire eleven unless there are injury concerns.

Lets hear it from you guys. My next post will be after the Sydney test match, so stay tuned.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Preview of India-Australia first test

Hello friends,

It is probably a bit too late to post a preview of a test that starts in less than 24 hours, but some of my thoughts will be relevant through the series, so I decided to post this anyway.

India have had a decent build up and practice before the first test match, but I suspect that the Canberra track will not be similar to the tracks that India will face in the test series. So most of the benefit will be in the minds of the players and if they have gained some confidence, that will help. One of the people who will have benefitted is Virat Kohli who seems to have sealed his spot as number 6 for the first 2 tests at least. The number 6 position is vital to India's prospects and it is good that Virat has some runs under his belt before the first test. Another plus from the warmups is the form of Ashwin. It is his first tour down under and as I mentioned in my previous post, there is a big difference in bowling in Australia compared to India, so that is another positive for us that Ashwin has bowled well and has the confidence of a few wickets under his belt.

It would have been nice to have some runs for Gambhir and Sehwag, but Gambhir did score some runs in the second innings at Canberra. Sehwag has done well in Australia before, but he needs to once again realize his importance in setting up Indian totals and wins and adapt his game accordingly. The current crop of Aussie pacers can all swing the ball at pace, so Sehwag will need to leave a lot of deliveries initially in every inning and make the bowlers bowl close to the stumps, so that he can play on the leg side or down the ground till he gets set and then unfurl his attacking shots.

A lot of people think that this series is about the battle between the Aussie pacers and India's experienced batting lineup, but to my mind, if India are to win, the pacers, particularly Zaheer, are equally important. I really hope that Zak can play the entire series without getting injured. Its been a long time since we saw Zaheer bowl in a test match, so I am looking forward to seeing him bowl at the MCG. I read somewhere today that they are using drop-in pitches these days for MCG tests. The difference between such pitches and the ones earlier at the MCG, is that the drop-in pitch does not change character too much as the match goes on. So earlier, the fourth and fifth day pitch would offer assistance to the spinners, Shane Warne in particular, I dont expect to see such wear and tear this time. So other than the first 2 hours or so offering generous help to the pacers, particularly swing bowlers, I dont expect to see much help for the bowlers in this pitch.

So the plan for India should be fairly simple. Win the toss, bat first and look to post a big total after seeing out the first session. If they bowl first, they should look to take 3-4 wickets before lunch time and then try to exert pressure on the remaining batsmen by bowling tight lines and not offering easy runs. Dhoni should definitely look to extract 10+ overs from his non-regular bowlers each day. Given that Zak and Ishant are not at their peak fitness, they should be managed carefully and Dhoni should exercise caution in the first test regarding using them. My one concern is regarding the form and effectiveness of Dhoni at test match level. He needs to contribute regularly and needs to place a premium on his wicket. Ashwin is a good number 8 and has the confidence of a test century with him, so that is not an area of concern. I hope the team management do not spring a surprise and pick Ojha instead of Ashwin at the MCG.

Lets get ready for an exciting test series and hope that India perform to their potential this time. I hope this series is all about what happens on the field and that there are no unnecessary controversies like last time. I will post again after the first test, so stay tuned.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Review of India-WI ODI series and a look ahead to Australia

Hello friends,

So India wrapped up the ODI series comfortably by a margin of 4-1. The whitewash was not achieved, but there are a lot of positives to take away from this series. The biggest positive is the emergence of youngsters in batting as well as bowling. As I was watching the last ODI, I observed that other than Gambhir, who is around the 30 age mark, all the others in the team were around the 24-26 age group. It is great news for Indian fans that there is good bench strength being created which has the potential to carry Team India forward for the next 8-10 years. With everyone being very young, the fielding has automatically seen a dramatic improvement from the early 2000s when the ODI squad would include several players who were just average to very ordinary fielders like Dravid, Kumble, Srinath, Joshi, Prasad, Ganguly. Now we see lots of diving around in the field and for the first time, opposition batsmen are wary of India's fielders where earlier, they would think a single is there for the taking by simply tapping the ball to the fielders.

It was nice to see that the selectors and team management tried all the available options in the squad and that almost everyone grabbed their chance to stake their claim for future matches. I was happy to see Manoj Tiwary come in for the last ODI and promptly score a hundred. I mentioned in this blog during the IPL that Tiwary appears to have worked on his batting and the difference has been evident in his batting since the IPL. Also, Irfan Pathan came back after a long absence and showed that his swing and zip have returned and that he belongs in the squad from now on. I wish the selectors would have taken Pathan to Australia instead of Mithun or Vinay Kumar. In my opinion, Pathan poses a greater threat to the Aussie batsmen than either of the other two with his ability to swing the ball late and away from the left-handers, and his talent and commitment in his batting.

Rahul Sharma also finally got his chance to play and proved that the hype about him generated from IPL, is not without reason and that he deserves many more chances in the future. I specially enjoyed the fact that most of the wickets he got were from hitting the stumps, which reflected in his accuracy and ability to surprise batsmen with his pace, much like Anil Kumble. It will be nice if Kumble can now spend some time with Rahul Sharma and impart some invaluable tips to him.

Sehwag proved in the fourth ODI what everyone have been believing for a while now - that he can easily break the double-century barrier if he applies his mind to it. I only hope the confidence he has gained from this, will help him and Team India in the tough Australia tour ahead. We need Sehwag to bat long in the test series as we have seen when he is out there, runs come quickly and as soon as he is out, the bowlers and pitch change character and batting becomes much more difficult.

Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma should be well rested for the Australia series and that is another plus point, besides the fact that Zaheer got through 2 Ranji games without any trouble and still feels fit and confident to lead India's bowling attack. I was watching New Zealand's close but amazing victory in the Hobart test and I made some observations. Let me share some of them here.

1) The Aussie bowling attack contains fast bowlers who are all capable of hitting speeds of 145 kmph on a consistent basis and they can also swing the ball at that pace. Batting is not going to be easy against the Aussie pacers. With India having the penchant of collapsing on foreign pitches, especially in the first test, they have to be very watchful in Melbourne since the MCG pitch is very difficult to bat on till around lunch on day one. In fact, if Dhoni chooses to field first after winning the toss in MCG, I would not criticize him too much as I am already dreading another collapse for around 100 if we bat first

2) As potent as the bowling is, the Aussie batting has deteriorated remarkably in the last 2-3 months as can be seen by several collapses in the last 2 series against SA and NZ. So that is a good sign for us. We should look to capitalize on their batsmen's lack of confidence and get them out cheaply. The mantra here is to not experiment too much. Line and length are very important with a little swing. If our bowlers stick to the basics, they can get Australia out quickly

3) From what I have seen of the Australian summer so far, the weather conditions and pitches seem to favor fast bowling more than earlier years. I think the curators will be asked to leave a decent covering of grass on the pitches to blunt the Indian batting. So we have to be prepared to grind it out against the new ball and score only once the ball gets a little older and the bowlers finish their first spells. To this regard, I see Gautam Gambhir and Dravid as the key batsmen from our side to nullify the threat of Aussie bowling so that the likes of Sachin, Laxman etc. can cash in later. Even Sehwag should be prepared to leave a lot of balls initially and look to score only when he gets a rank bad ball

4) The one thing I am happy about is the choice of spinner for this tour. Going by his recent showings, Harbhajan would have given back any advantage gained by the pacers. But Ashwin can be counted on to maintain the pressure with his tight bowling and variations. We have seen a lot of times in the past, especially in foreign tours, that the pacers would bowl brilliantly and have the opposition in trouble, but once the opening bowlers finish their spells, the third pacer and spinner would come on and release some pressure allowing the opposition batsmen to bat their team out of the hole. But this time, with Ashwin and (hopefully) Yadav being the third and fourth bowlers, we can hope to see the pressure maintained on the Aussie batsmen. In my opinion, Ashwin should be the first choice spinner for the tests, especially with his ability to score runs at number 8

Lets hear it from you guys. Indian cricket is in a good position and an exciting series awaits. What do you think are India's chances in Australia ? Do you believe, as I do, that we have a realistic chance of finally winning a series there, or do you think India will go there with much build-up and like they have done several times in the past, fail once again, especially with the bat ? In my opinion, India have a good shot at winning the series, but only if they can survive the Aussie bowlers, who are very pacy and talented, but inexperienced. Unlike previous times, the Aussie batting is not as strong this time, so for India to win, the batsmen will have to dig deep and produce good scores.

My next post will be a couple of days before the first test match, so stay tuned.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Review of first 2 ODIs against WI

Hello friends,

India have put in professional performances in the first 2 ODIs and as a result, are now up 2-0. The heartening aspect of these wins was that both were achieved on the back of some stellar performances by our youngsters. In the first match, Rohit and Jadeja had the match-winning partnership that stabilized the sinking ship during the chase and though they could not complete the win, the young fast bowler duo of Aaron and Yadav held their nerve to seal the win. In the second ODI, the win was achieved due to the mammoth partnership between Virat and Rohit and this time, Rohit ensured that he completed the job. The bowlers have also stuck to their task for the most part, except for a while during the second ODI when the let Ravi Rampaul lead the WI innings to a respectable score from the horrible position they were in after the loss of their 9th wicket.

Ashwin had a bad game in the second ODI, as did Aaron, but it was nice that India still won and now that they have had their bad game out of the way, hopefully they will perform well in the remaining matches. In fact, I would even be tempted to rest Ashwin and give Rahul Sharma a chance in the third ODI or at the latest, in the 4th and 5th matches. This is not to punish Ashwin for his bad performance, but now that we have seen that we can win even with Ashwin contributing very little, it would be nice to give him a rest before the tough Australia tour. He is one of only 3 players who have played all the test matches as well and he has performed with both bat and ball unlike the other 2 (Sehwag and Gambhir), so he must be more tired than the others.

I was watching the partnership between Virat and Rohit in the second ODI and it was nice to see that there was no panic even though the target was stiff and India had lost 3 wickets early. These youngsters are so confident of their abilities and go about their job with so little fuss, it is almost as if they are born to do just this. Virat has established himself in the ODI lineup as a batsmen who can bat long as well as score at a very decent pace. I think he is going to be the fulcrum of the middle order in the future and I really wish he can translate his amazing talent and poise to the test arena as well. Rohit has also made a name for himself as a special talent and it is nice to see him perform consistently for India over the past 2 ODIs and take his average from the low 31s to 34+ in the last 2 games. Like I said in the previous post, there will be slots opening up in the middle order in tests over the next year or so, and if these 2 can perform true to potential for the remaining 3 ODIs and in Australia, it may even hasten the retirement of the big 3 from the test match setup, knowing that Team India will be in safe hands in the future.

Jadeja continues to show how a proper number 7 who does his job in the line up brings so much more to the team than someone like Yusuf Pathan who is a wild card. With the re-emergence of Jadeja, India looks stronger in all departments. Jadeja illustrated his importance perfectly in the first ODI where WI might have relaxed slightly when they had India at 59 for 5 in the chase of 211, but he batted superbly with Rohit and got India close enough that the number 10 and 11 were able to complete the job. While on that, I was as confused as everyone else, why Varun Aaron refused that single to deep fine leg off Umesh Yadav's bat. It seems that the pressure got to him and eroded his ability to stay calm and think logically. But if he had more confidence in his batting, he got it right when he hit that important four a little later and then Yadav finished it off with a nice stroke made with a straight bat. In fact, I was watching both Aaron and Yadav bat and they dont look like typical number 10 and 11, they appear to be better than pure tail-enders, which augurs well for Indian cricket in the future.

I also cannot help but feel sad for this WI team. They seem to be doing a lot of things right in this Indian tour, but they have no results to show for all the hard work and fight they are giving, especially in the last 3 games. What they seem to lack is the application and focus to do the right things for an extended period of time. Also I believe that their captain Darren Sammy is more of a liability than an asset. He has not contributed much with bat or ball, and his captaincy skills are quite ordinary. I think they need to find a more aggressive captain who can help maintain pressure on the opposition with his field placings and bowling changes.

For the next 3 ODIs, I would definitely like to see Rahul Sharma get a game or two. Also maybe if India win the series in the next game, they should look to rest Sehwag or Gautam Gambhir and give Manoj Tiwary a chance. If u are not going to test ur bench strength against teams like the WI and after you have won the series, when are u going to do it ? Sehwag and Gambhir have a long tour of Australia ahead of them and I am sure, could use some rest before that.

I will post my next update after the 5 ODIs are completed. Stay tuned.