Back where we came from

When I read the headline ‘Kumar Sangakkara apoplectic about fielding’, I wondered for a moment why the Sri Lankan captain was taking India’s shambolic effort so much to heart.

We missed a caught and bowled because the bowler stayed back and preferred to take it on the bounce rather than dive forward and try to make a catch out of it. We missed a catch at point when the ball lobbed off the shoulder of the bat because the fielder there reacted late, and then froze. We missed a run out because the bowler — who, incidentally, has made a habit of this throughout his career — took up position between the ball and the stumps. And all of that happened in the first six overs — after which it only got worse.

With Indian cricket, you can never tell how, and when, it happens — but it is axiomatic that just when matters seem to be looking up in one particular department, there is a precipitous slide that leaves us back where we started from, or even further behind.

The need to up fielding standards was the initial argument for jettisoning the veterans and getting youngsters in, and for a brief while it looked like the team was improving. Suddenly — and damned if you can put a finger on the how and the when — the team is if anything worse in the field than it was during the early part of this decade.

On date, there are at least four fielders you need to hide – and then there’s Virat Kohli, who oscillates between brilliant stops and shambolic muffs. Hide? Scratch that — hell, at one point Ashish Nehra [whose chronic inability to bend beyond 15 degrees makes you want to wheel him into the nearest operating theater and surgically remove the stick up his ass] was stationed at point; the graceful way he turned as a ball drifted past him, and ambled along in its wake, made you forget the pain of the runs he was giving away and laugh at the old-world amateurishness of it all.

There are a couple of statements those who write on cricket get a lot. One is ‘It’s easy to say…’. The other is, ‘If it were so simple, don’t you think the captain/coach/team would have seen it?’. I’ve had my share of these, and I’ve never known how to answer. Still, consider this:

The safest thing for a batsman to do on a cricket field is to play the defensive push with the straight bat, correct? A batsman resorts to this when the ball is good and he can see no opportunity to score? And when you play that stroke the ball goes, depending on the line, to mid off or mid on? Granting all that, why do we invariably station our mid off and mid on halfway to the boundary, so that every single time the batsman plays the safest of shots, he is guaranteed a single? [Compounding that is the fact that spinners work best when luring the batsmen to try and go over the top; bring the fielder in and the tactic is on, push him out, and you remove one of the main weapons of the attacking spinner.]

Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey scored 132 runs between them. That included 60 dot balls — and 76 singles, besides 7 twos. 25 of those singles were scored through mid off [16] and mid on [9]. That is 25 runs added to the total for free during that phase of the game when the bowling side looks to check the scoring; 25 times the batsman turned the strike over and forced the bowler to work on a different player. [By way of contrast, Pakistan is not the most electric of fielding sides, yet India managed just 98 singles in its innings of 248 the other day].

We don’t take them when we bat; we give them away with generous prodigality when we field — in other words, we get it coming and going. And for me, it is deja vu all over again: it was simple when we talked of this in 2002; it is simple now, so how come the team doesn’t collectively get it? You tell me.

India is on the verge of getting knocked out of the Champions’ Trophy, barring a fairly improbable concatenation of circumstances — and on current form, that is a fair result. The team, minus the explosive threat of Virender Sehwag at the top and Yuvraj in the middle [for all his recent sins, I’ll add Rohit Sharma to the list of players we are missing], plus the calming influence of Zaheer Khan with the new ball, is looking a shadow of itself; it certainly is nowhere close to champion material.

It might seem a cop out to blame all of it on singles — but IMHO, the runs we leak in the field and the runs we don’t make with the bat are contributing immensely to the deterioration of the bowling effort. Harbhajan and Ishant are admittedly shadows of their best selves and clearly have work to do, most of it in the space between their ears.

Bajji for instance needs to remind himself that it is the job of the part-time spinner, not the attacking spearhead, to spear the ball down on indeterminate length; his brief is to bowl the attacking lines, to look for wickets. [While on Bajji, the team needs to get over this ‘seniority’ hang up and start picking players for form, not for how many years he has been part of the side — this business of automatically picking Bajji as the first spinner is past its use-by date. Amit Mishra impresses whenever he gets to bowl; so does Pragyan Ojha. Yet both these bowlers are reduced to sitting on the sidelines during their best years, simply because someone carved on a stone somewhere that if we play one spinner that has to be Bajji, form or no form].

And likewise, Ishant Sharma needs to remind himself that he is a fast bowler, not a medium paced trundler — and therefore, even if he only gets to come on first change and finds a defensive field set for him, his best bet still is to charge in and let it slip as fast as he can. That return to his basic skill set — and not sex — will give him the testosterone high he is clearly lacking just now.

That said, the worst thing that can happen to bowlers is to find runs flowing off defensive pushes to good deliveries, because they then are forced to try different things. A bowler works best when he can find a tight containing line as the stock option; he can then use it to probe the batsman, and use the variation to work him out. The way we are in the field, the stock ball is a free single; this forces the bowler to constantly vary, and in the one day format with its non-existent margin for error, that is a prescription for disaster.

All of this is why I don’t think India’s problem is one of team balance; it is not about four bowlers or five. It is far more basic than that — and basic problems demand a return to basics as the solution.

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11 thoughts on “Back where we came from

  1. I think cricket’s rules need to be changed 🙂 everyone fears getting injured while fielding. The solution is to have a special team of “in-circle fielders”. They wont bat or bowl. But teams can use them as long as they stay inside the circle. The fielding team can hide the worst fielders by having them sit on the bench. Outside the circle specialist batsmen and bowlers can field. They can field without the worry of injury. This will lead to really good cricket all around.

  2. i agree about Bhajji. i think i heard Dhoni say during the toss, when explaining that they’ll play 5 bowlers that one is “obviously” Bhajji. why the fuck is it obvious? it shouldn’t be, according to the way the dude is playing!! Yusuf had better figures against Pakistan.

    and what the hell happened to the fielders? raina, yuvi, hell even nehra was fielding during the IPL, what happened? Dhoni admitted as much during the press conference in SL that our fielding was lacking, did nobody do anything? Why bother even turning up to such a tournament with half assed preparations?

  3. Prem,
    Enjoyed the bit on Nehra bending,and the singles coming and going.
    Wholeheartedly agree that it’s not seniority,it should be about commitment ,performance and ability (maybe form).I also agree that India has not been consistent because they don’t stick to the basics,it’s also about the individual brilliance /failure than the collective effort or the lack of it
    I do not agree that Sehwag,Zaks or Rohit Sharma would have done wonders because Sehwag and Zaks were there in 2007 WC as well as the recent T20 WC so were Yuvi and Dhoni.IMHO India does well when they are the underdogs,if Sehwag,Zaks and Yuvi were India would have been the favourites of course.Historically India has done well as the underdogs-Wc 1983,BH 1985,T20WC 2007,even the ODI series in Australia in 2008 when we had collective efforts -ie 3-4 players doing well consistently.

  4. Prem,

    What is your take on strauss refusal to allow a runner to smith? I think strauss was right . If you are not fit enough to run for yourselves, then the batsmen should retire hurt.

    I think the runner funda itself should be removed from the cricket rules.

    Regards
    Magesh

    • I agree with Strauss — barring the most severe cases of injury sustained on the field of play, I think this runner business needs to be stopped. You don’t give a substitute bowler if the on field one gets cramps — why do batsmen need to be pampered?

      • On the other hand, there needs to be consistency on allocation runners or not. Its not fair that some umpires allow it and some don’t. There should be a rule that there won’t be any runner allowed. Period.

  5. The attitude is the most important part of any team, winning or losing regardless. One of the reasons that the ICT could make to the top if the ICC table of rankings was also due to their fearless attitude. However they seem to be loosing it. The excuses given by the captain for the defeat were poor even by previous ICT’s standards. He should have been bold enough to confess that they played real poor cricket and let the country down. Had they focused more on the game than on scoring game on television, the result might have been different. This confession at-least would have helped them score some points with the public of the country for admitting their failure and taking responsibility for it. Instead he made a mockery of himself by saying “I did not know so many runs could be scored at the backward point region (priceless..!!!).” Or “We were three bowlers short (yes as most of the teams these days play 8 bowlers and the team consists of 14 players.)”. It was sad that they lost but what was worse was the attitude towards the defeat. May be the team should be shown video’s of their previous exploits where they had played like true champions and probably that might help them see the light. Whatever be the course of action if the team does not get their attitude back on track, they downfall is eminent.

  6. Very nice analysis. I think the fielding bit is getting a bit obvious now except fto the captain it seems. I agree with you on Bajji too and that we should rotate between Bajji, Ojha and Mishra depending on their form. I am very surprised that Rohit Sharma is not in the team. He is way better than Kohli. Infact, even Nayar is better than Kohli who btw acc. to me is the most over hyped youngster in our team.

  7. Two lines :

    1)We missed a run out because the bowler — who, incidentally, has made a habit of this throughout his career — took up position between the ball and the stumps.

    WHY THE HELL we have a fielding coach who can’t fix these?

    2) “basic problems demand a return to basics as the solution.”

    Something which is applicable everywhere…

    India is almost out of Champs trophy 09… coz I believe Pak will desperately lose to Australia and make sure that India don’t reach semis…

    On rediff, I read JPD predicting a Aus vs Pak final… Looking at the other group, i’m pretty confident that his prediction comes true…

  8. Prem,

    I completely agree with you that Bhajji is outdated already and may be picked oonly to play on Lankan pitches henceforth which will have something in them always for an offie.

    But otherwise, yes, we need to see beyond Bhajji and give the confidence to Pragyan, Amit and Piysuh.

    On the fast bowling front, how many years since Indian bowler is considered fast and not medium fast? Today we are discussing Ishant, but everyone seems to have forgotten the swing and pace of Irfan Pathan when he first burst on the scene against Pak in U-19 (or some such) tournament finals. Why is it that our bowlers stop bowling fast, stop variations and we even have a bowling coach (!!!)

    Forget the captain on the field, coach, we have specialist coaches for separate areas and we still are the same old story!!!

    MSD is a pale shadow of himself and I think there is this whole thing about ‘place in the team’ that dictates everything in Indian Cricket as seen in last 4 decades!

    I think that MSD needs to shed his current skin and lead from front, take risks, be aggressive and a key decision-maker to make this ”cant-bat sometimes, can-bowl sometimes,can-field sometimes too’ team into a cohesive unit aiming only at winning.

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