Hits and misses

Those who have been watching cricket closely and reporting on it reckon they can tell when Virender Sehwag has been given a talking to by his captain and/or coach. The tell lies in the way he bats in the opening overs of the knock he plays immediately after that jawing.

The first recorded instance of such a dressing down [a fairly strong word to use for what, in Sehwag’s case, is almost always a mild remonstration] was when John Wright took him to task, some months after Sehwag had been promoted to open. John, wincing in nostalgic bemusement, once recounted that conversation after a beer or three, and as far as I recall, it went like this:

“Viru, for fuck’s sake, this is a Test match, you don’t have to play all your shots in the first over.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not saying don’t play shots,” says Wright, somewhat taken aback by the demure acceptance of his strictures. “Just give the first hour to the bowlers.”

“Why?”

“Because after that you can hit all the shots you want, you can bat all day. Don’t you want to do that, murder the bowling all day?”

“Yes. But why give the first hour to the bowler if he bowls me a half volley first ball?”

John had a penchant for extremely colorful language, so I’ll leave out the rest of a conversation that, even in reminiscent mode, caused the then coach to turn a rare shade of puce. Anyway, you get the idea.

Today he ‘gave the first hour to the bowler’ – and it was excruciating to watch. It always is with batsmen of this type, whose every kinesthetic sense screams hit, while an external voice in the ear says block. After 11 overs he had inched his way to six off 24 balls [not coincidentally, India’s run rate at the time was 2.3 – the lowest it would touch all day].

And then, the transformation. The closest analogy is a school kid who, having gritted his teeth and worked his way through math homework, flings the hated book aside and dashes out into the open air to join his friends at play, secure in the knowledge that he has satisfied the parental diktat.

Almost, in these atypical starts of his, you can imagine that point where he looks up at the dressing room, semaphoring to his mates ‘Okay, have I been responsible enough for you? Can I be me now?’

It is good advice, actually – if he does rein in his atavistic impulses initially, he becomes unstoppable, and makes up lost ground in no time. [Equally good, as again evidenced by his final tally of 133 in 122 balls, is the other advice he constantly gets: Bat in ODIs like you do in Tests, why don’t you?] Only, his mates feel free to offer it to him [and the batsman will stand still for it] only after Sehwag has thrown away a few knocks by trying too hard too early.

A statistical measure of the value of that advice: after 30 overs, India had made 169/0 [and 232/0 after 41 – that is, less than half the day’s quota — when Viru got out]. If it was a one day game, the stands would have been in a state of permanent eruption; in Tests, that rate of scoring is just flat out absurd.

If backing Sehwag to open is one of the very few occasions I’ve had to pride myself on a measure of perspicacity, suggesting in numerous blog posts that Gautam Gambhir would never make it as opener is among my more monumental follies.

I watched him bat early in his career and found a guy unsure of the area around his off stump; a guy, too, who was so aware of his weakness that he seemed to over-reach himself, play too many shots way too early in a bid to deflect the bowler’s attention from his deficiencies.

What I failed to see then is the steel core that has emerged of late; a quiet determination to parlay his skill sets into as many runs as he can possibly manage. More than Sehwag, whose tendency to get bored means he constantly under-achieves, Gambhir has discovered a reservoir of ruthlessness that enables him to grind the opposition down, to maximize every opportunity he gets. And he’s ridden that strength to a dream run of four Test centuries in sequential Tests, and seven three figure knocks in his last nine Tests. Who would have thought…?

But more than the weight of runs scored, individually and collectively, what caught the eye is the complementary nature of their association.

Distressingly often, we’ve seen — and commented on — the phenomenon of one batsman’s struggles, or even his deliberately obdurate defense, taking the wind out of the sails of his partner. Sehwag and Gambhir provide a lesson in the opposite: when his partner was struggling early on in his innings, Gambhir took the onus on himself to score runs at a fair rate so Sehwag could find his feet minus pressure. More on Sehwag’s innings here, and on the theme of batting in pairs here.

Once the two Delhi mates team up to construct a platform [233 runs in 41.2 overs at 5.6 with Gambhir contributing 98 to Sehwag’s 131], the rest is mathematical for this batting lineup  against what by then was a dispirited, disheartened fielding side [the loneliest man on the field must have been Mahela, who should have held Viru before he had scored but for a tyro keeper distracting him].

With Dravid and Tendulkar at bat and looking in goodtouch, and Laxman, Yuvraj and Dhoni to follow on a wicket currently vying for high honors in the batting beauty pageant, the better part of day two should see more of the same. Or so one hopes – India can easily undo all the good work by getting into attritional mode, and letting the Lankan bowlers and fielders get a second wind.

On a day that saw 413 runs being scored, though, the best blow was probably struck some 15 minutes before start of play, when MS Dhoni won the toss and took first strike.

The last Test played at Green Park lasted all of three days, and by the third innings the wicket was already so bad, Harbhajan Singh opened the bowling for India against South Africa.

Commentators are already salivating about this track breaking up by day three and turning at impossible angles, but I suspect that is half hope, half hype; the wicket will likely turn [which takes no expertise to predict, given this Test is being played in India] but I suspect from what I saw on day one that the turn is going to be on slow bordering on very slow.

SL could well collapse – but if it does, it will be the weight of runs that breaks its back, not raging turn; I’d even go on a limb and suggest that Ojha and to an extent Yuvraj could be more influential than Bajji in his current flat-and-quick avatar.

Batting, though, was always going to be at its best on days one and two, and Dhoni did his team a favor by getting the coin toss right [maybe it is a science after all].

The question is, now what? The wicket is already on the slow side and will get slower [the best indication is that Dravid and Tendulkar have already begun playing the ball, especially the spinners, as late as they possibly can]. India is punting big time on Sreesanth as Zahir’s opening partner [the gamble would be that his time in the wilderness has given Sree enough motivation to prove himself]. Bajji hasn’t for the longest time been half the bowler he can be, and it is hard to see a turnaround here. That leaves Ojha, on a test drive before the selectors and team management makes up its collective mind whether he is worth the investment [IMHO he is the one to groom as your spin spearhead].

All of that translates into an under-strength attack against a good batting lineup. The morning of day two might not seem the best point in time to call a game – but what odds are you giving me that this match will get progressively more boring as it goes along, and we end up with a second successive draw?

PS: Appreciate all the kind words and good wishes on my post about moving to Yahoo. Unable to reply individually cos these next few days look to be fairly chaotic, for reasons you can appreciate. Oh, and for those asking, the blog will remain active even after my move.

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9 thoughts on “Hits and misses

  1. At least, I am glad that HS and MS didn’t throw their wickets and that the pitch is turning with some pace/bounce. Playing for an hour after tea and then declaring or getting all out for close to 700 isn’t so bad, IMO. SL batsmen will be exhausted and under pressure it will be great if India can get 1-2 wickets in a deteriorating pitch.

    Kapalik

  2. I think India should look at playing all day today – I think it is a stupid and illogical fascination our experts/commentators have with declaring early and then they get very critical if that isn’t adhered to. I hope Dhoni doesn’t fall into the trap. I agree with Prem that the batting shouldn’t be very slow or defensive and it hasn’t been. It also cannot be as fast as yesterday when the pitch was better. An average of around 4 today would be very good and they are currently exceeding that.

    India should look for a minimum of 750-800. Batting longer ensures that India doesn’t bat again in conditions that are far worse and scoring rate lower. It also ensures India can’t lose which puts SL under greater pressure (we know what happened when India got out before lunch in the 1st test). And the pressure of facing a mountain of runs and need to score 550-600 to avoid follow-on can break the strongest. Huge score also lets Dhoni set attacking fields and not go defensive, as has been the problem with him and other captains lately. And by batting longer, Dhoni ensures that SL does most of their batting in a worsening pitch.

    Prem and other, what do you think?

    Kapalik

  3. Prem,here you go,I knew that this knock from Sehwag will make you forget your personal issues and bring you back to the blog,and you appreciating that bloke is well known.My take has always been that he is a better test player than ODIs.Unfortunately today people keep on harping about run rate in all forms of cricket-tests included,which is sad-agreed that Sehwag takes it to another level.
    On another note was pissed off with all the comparisions of Gambhir as the best opener blah blah….This we are doing after him playing about 30 tests.Give him a break,why is the media so hung up about creating instant greats/instant stars?Let him enjoy his cricket-he will get his due-I appreciate him more as he is one guy who came back and is doing well.
    With the few tests India playing each year-I do not see them having long careers(Would be happy to be proved wrong)

    • Yeah, here I go. I actually came back to the blog the day before, and mentioned I’d post on the match — before I knew VS would survive a third ball duck 🙂 Two and two don’t necessarily add up to 22, mate.

      As for instant stars, what is that about? The guy has a certain degree of contemporary achievement — mentioning it is a far cry from adulating the man himself.

  4. Sehwag really is your favourirte cricketer of recent times, isn’t he? Something of the schoolboy cricketer in him, as you’ve pointed out.

    That aside, congratulations on the move to Yahoo! Here’s wishing you all the best. I’m also glad to read that this blog will stay active.

    Side note: its remarkable how your writing has matured and become more precise and refined over time. Have been reading some archived articles, and you can really notice the transition. Great work!

    • Not really, mate — more than the person, I have a partiality for the ‘type’; I believe whoever opens for India needs to have a get on with it mindset. It is hard enough to win Tests with the kind of bowling we field; to make a decent fist of it we need time, and the attritional styles of some recent openers is counter productive. So yeah, I like what Viru and Gambhir bring to the table.

      Thanks for the good wishes, and as for the writing, thanks again — it would have been disastrous had my voice, or that of any journalist for that matter, remained the same over a 20-year span. The weird bit actually is, in recent times I’ve been reading some really great anthologies of writing — sports, essays/opinion pieces, interviews, the works — and the upshot is a growing sense that I have scope for enormous refinement. Pity I’m finding that out now; or the half full version is, thank heavens I found out at least now 🙂

  5. Think we will do better than a tame draw in this match. With the listless Ishant out and the maverick Sreesanth & the promising Ojha in who will be out to prove a point or two,it should make it an interesting first innings when SL bats.

    The positive intent in the Indian batting approach is whats been the difference. Maybe there is a message to our iconic players. Get on with it. Play ball on merit and push on. Atleast try to make a good score in least time and then put pressure on the opposition.
    It augurs well for ‘Test’ cricket. The scoring rate is almost as good as odis.

  6. Agree with you Prem that if India are to win, the Sri Lankans have to crack under the weight of runs, not any demons in the pitch.
    And as I type: Tendulkar out in Sehwag-esque fashion. Had a century for the taking there… But Dravid continues to be a delight to watch.

  7. I understand that the objective of the Indian team will be to put the match beyond the Sri Lankans by the end of the day. But even then a strike rate of 37 by Tendulkar is not acceptable.

    Dravid is playing his usual game – a strike rate of 58 and playing the anchor role to perfection. It is now up to Tendulkar to start playing more positively now that the first hour has been successfully negotiated.

    It would be a travesty if India ends up with 650+ at the end of the day.

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