The Sehwag factor

# It’s faintly curious that Viru Sehwag, who earlier this year renounced captaincy ambitions “to concentrate on his batting” and even promoted the cause of his Delhi mate Gautam Gambhir as the logical captain in waiting, was picked to lead during MS Dhoni’s enforced absence.

If Sehwag is serious about not wanting to lead India [the buzz at the time was that he was miffed that the captain’s armband had slipped past his grasp and gone to Dhoni, and that his renunciation was an expression of his unwillingness to be permanent bridesmaid, with no real prospect of ever becoming the bride], this seemed like a good time to give Gambhir a go, always assuming the selectors have identified him as a future captain.

# Viru and MS share certain characteristics as captain; the ability to remain collected and refrain from excessive hand-wringing and on-field gesticulation being the chief among them. The most notable difference between the two is their approach to defense [A codicil: We only have six random games to judge Sehwag’s leadership by, so perhaps what follows is a bit of a reach. But still.]

When the momentum is with the opposition, MS tends to try and slow things down; his preferred tactic is to pack one side of the field, get his bowlers to bowl those lines to the extent possible, make it as hard for the opposition batsmen as conditions and his resources allow, and then wait for the game to break his way.

In similar situations, Viru tends to attack a bit more proactively. For someone who loves to get his runs through boundary hits, he has as a batsman always been aware of the importance of the single as an attacking weapon; on the field, he carries that same awareness into field settings. Thus, and not for the first time, he yesterday started the turnaround by ignoring the boundaries the likes of Dilshan, Sangakkara and Upul Tharanga were hitting at will; he brought his fielders well inside the circle to make singles difficult to take [Dilshan had one, and not for want of trying to turn the strike over; Tharanga played out 42 dot balls to 27 singles] and banked on the fact that this would force batsmen intent on pushing the accelerator through the floor to take increasing risks with their hitting.

The other noticeable aspect of his captaincy was the recalibration of bowlers’ roles. Ashish Nehra as first change works far better than having him bowl with the new ball. The corollary of course is that Ishant Sharma went for plenty in the opening overs — but that is proof merely that the quick bowler is yet to fully find his rhythm, and not of the tactic itself [incidentally, Ishant looked a lot better when, during his second spell, he took to pitching the ball right up; makes you wonder how long it will be before the coach, or even senior pro Zaheer, talks to him about this].

Similarly, where Dhoni prefers to hold Harbhajan back as long as he can, often bringing him on after Jadeja and a part timer have had a go, Viru invariably uses the off spinner as early as possible, and in an attacking role [It helps that Bajji has in recent weeks rediscovered his bowling rhythm and now tends to bowl a little less like a wannabe seam bowler and more like the offie he is supposed to be].

None of this is to suggest that Viru is better than MS or vice versa — I doubt there is enough evidence on the table to argue the case one way or the other; suffice to say they are subtly different in their on-field thinking. There’s one more game to go with Viru at the helm, and that’s another opportunity to check out his captaincy style in contrast to MS.

#For once, India got a target to chase that did not require a boundary hit off every other ball, and that translated into a calm, measured response kick-started by Sehwag and guided throughout its course by a Tendulkar batting with clearly defined purpose. The 7-wicket win with 44 balls remaining was almost too easy — but personally, I found yesterday’s game far more absorbing than the two preceding thrash-fests.

#Back to recent events in Australia [for the last time], a couple of friends Down Under mailed, signaling their disgust with the behavior of their team at the WACA in particular. Neither wanted their mails reproduced, but the gist is that they had developed a respect for the West Indies thanks to Gayle and his men refusing to be written off, and the behavior of the likes of Haddin and Watson therefore stuck in their craw. In parallel, there is a tendency on the part of some to dismiss critical comment as the ravings of “crazies” — what this section of readers don’t get is that the Australian cricket team is almost universally admired for the all-round skills they bring to the table; hence some of us find it hard to stomach when the team blots its copybook with infantile behavior not consonant with what is expected of a champion side.

On those lines, here’s Greg Baum in The Age. An extended clip:

In this context, the sanction against Watson — 15 per cent of his match fee — was pitiful. A cricketer’s chief income is his base payment. The match fee is the icing on the cake. Fifteen per cent is a few specks of icing sugar. It is open to Cricket Australia to apply its own punishment and essential that it does. Otherwise, its code is merely a piece of paper.

The unexpectedly robust showing by the West Indies made for an engrossing series, but it also exposed an old Australian tendency to tetchiness under pressure. Three Australians other than Watson were disciplined in the series. So was West Indian Sulieman Benn, who got the most severe penalty, a two-match suspension.

In this, it was not hard to detect a familiar undercurrent. “Word” emerged from “contacts” in the Australian rooms that Benn had been a rude, precious and prickly opponent all series, and that in engaging with Benn in Perth, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson had merely been standing up for their mates. These “contacts” remained nameless.

It is hard not to be cynical. If Benn has shown himself to be volatile, you can be certain that the Australians have not missed an opportunity to prod and provoke him. When he reacts, they throw up their arms, as if shocked and affronted, their innocence plain for all to see.

We have seen this demonisation path before: remember Harbhajan Singh, two summers ago? Here is one line the Australians have found that they can scuff without crossing it.

Of course, some of the Australian cricket public love this. As far as they are concerned, there is “us” and there is “them”, and they are fair game, a schoolboy mentality.

But a sizeable proportion of cricket fans were disgusted by Watson’s display of triumphalism and discomforted by the brawl over Benn. These incidents jar on their sense of how cricket should be played.

A tale of two number threes

Two captains, both batting at number three, showcased the two ends of the spectrum of playing pivot.

Kumar Sangakkara was brilliant in the way he seized on the momentum the openers had created, escalated it, and took the game away from the bowlers. And what I particularly liked is that for the most part, he did not need to go beyond classical cricket strokes — even the inventive shots, like a breathtaking late paddle that played a delicate angle between keeper and short fine, was a thing of beauty.

At the other end of the spectrum, I am personally no fan of MS Dhoni’s self-prescribed anchoring from the number three position. The mindset of pushing singles along and leaving the charge as late as possible works more often than not in the ODI format, but equally, it is as counter productive in the shortest form of the game.

Consider the arithmetic. Start with the basic assumption that scoring a run a ball is mandatory in any T20 game. The challenge before the Indians yesterday was therefore to score run a ball, and to somehow squeeze in 86 additional runs from somewhere. The only way you win that kind of game is by biting chunks off that differential, especially during the power plays — something Viru briefly, and Gambhir in a brilliant explosion, did to such good effect [those two got 81 from 40 deliveries; that is, between them they knocked the differential back by41, that is, almost half the original ask].

If Dhoni, during that phase, sets his sights on going run a ball, the effect is to push his team further behind, because each delivery where you score just one will actually push the asking rate up. None of this is to suggest that MS lost us the game yesterday — we accomplished that in the field, even before we came out to bat. The point is, MS does not need to play that game; in fact, to do so is actually counter-productive given the lineup he has.

A far better lineup, IMHO, would be for either Raina or Rohit to come in at three [it also allows the team to maintain the left-right combo it seems so hung up on]. Both are good stroke players and can benefit from the little breathing space that position provides; Yuvraj at four, and Raina/Rohit at five with MS at six [with the option of coming in after Yuvraj if circumstances warrant a more cautious approach] and Pathan in the finishing slot at seven [again, with the option of being sent up as a floater if the game situation demands it] is, IMHO, a far better way of optimizing available resources. And MS, with his ability to keep the board ticking over and also of playing the big shots when his mind is free of self-imposed restraints, would be far more useful in that lower middle position.

The positive for me in yesterday’s game was the bowling of Ishant Sharma, particularly that first spell of 3-0-7-0. Oh yes, before you point it out, one spell is too small a peg to hang hopes of a real comeback on — but what there was of it was good.

In recent times, Ishant on his run up has looked like a tired marathoner hitting a heavy head wind as he nears the finish — a sense of pushing himself through those final few paces. When he is feeling good, however, he accelerates smoothly through the early and middle part of the run up and literally hurtles through the final paces, in the process creating a momentum that translates smoothly into his delivery. That is how he bowled yesterday, and the difference was most marked in the way he regularly hit the high 130s while looking like he had plenty left in the tank.

Equally, Ishant when not on song is particularly exposed when bowling to left handers — but yesterday, he was immaculate against Sanath Jayasuriya. He used varying lengths on the short ball to keep Sanath pegged back; he had both deliveries — the one leaving the left hander off the seam and the one jagging back in — going to confuse the batsman and inhibit strokeplay, and neither Sanath nor Dilshan looked remotely at ease during the 18 deliveries they faced off him, to score a sum total of 7 runs while benefiting from one let off apiece.

Now to see if he his recent enforced rest has helped Ishant rediscover his mojo — if he has, then with Zaheer back and Sreesanth “turning into a new leaf” as a friend once said, our opening worries with the ball could be in a fair way to being resolved.

On an unrelated note, here’s just what we needed: another commentator to interpret the Indian team’s recent rise to number one position. Do you get the feeling as you read this that Simon Briggs wrote it to paper over the earlier, and even more ridiculous, piece authored by Simon Wilde? Let’s see: the message seems to be, India [sorry, Wilde] actually “deserves” the number one placing, but cannot “justify” it because it does not have a superstar bowler or bowlers. Err — okay, so which team deserves that ranking because it can “justify” it, then? There is also some unintended hilarity about how Bradman could line up 300-in-a-day efforts because the bowlers then, like the ones enabling Sehwag today, are “subservient”. Harold Larwood and Maurice Tate, who suffered the most during the Don’s onslaught that fetched him 300 in course of one day’s play at Headingley in 1930, will love hearing that one.

Right, so who’s got the next bizarre theory? Step right up, ladies and gentlemen: the comedy club is now officially open.

PS: Voted yet?

Antidote

If Ishant Sharma doesn’t get back to being the pacy spearhead of the Indian bowling attack, it won’t be for lack of good advice. Anil Kumble had some for the bowler not long ago; now it is the turn of Sourav Ganguly:

Q Why do our fast bowlers lose pace and consistency after a year in international cricket? Ishant Sharma is the latest casualty.

A They’re all young and they bowl with venom when they come into international cricket. The problem arises when they return from a long series. It’s imperative that bowlers like Ishant have personal trainers—they can afford the best. They train unsupervised, not knowing what their body needs.  Munaf, RP, Sreesanth, Ishant must all do this. If Ishant wants to play for India for another decade, and he has the potential, he must do this immediately.

The quick and the dead

The Indian bowling at the start was a bit lacklustre. Praveen Kumar has had a bad day in office. He is a swing bowler with not much of pace and he will find it difficult in these conditions where the ball doesn’t swing much and one will require a bit of pace to be successful on flat wickets. Praveen doesn’t have that and he will have to find out a way to be useful in these conditions.

That clip, from Sourav Ganguly’s column in the Times of India this morning, encapsulates a thought I had while watching Praveen bowl in the first one-dayer between India and Australia. Two contrasting moments in the play underlined the thought: the first came in the 49th over of the Australian innings, when Mike Hussey walked down the track and with consummate ease, lofted a PK slower ball onto the roof of the stadium; the second came in the 37th over of the Indian chase when Suresh Raina took strike after a Dhoni single and was totally fooled by a Mitch Johnson slower ball into popping up a return catch.

A ‘slower ball’ is a deceptive weapon in the hands of a bowler who has pace. Johnson had set Raina up for the deception in the previous over when he bowled a quick bouncer as the first ball the batsman received, and followed it up later in the over with another short, quick ball. Praveen, by contrast, bowls in the low 130s — the sort of speed where the “slower ball”, especially over used by a batsman who finds his stock ball not working, is a misnomer. [In the 41st over, Ishant Sharma started with a good slower ball to Mike Hussey — a delivery that found Hussey back in his crease, scrambling to push it away; the difference in the batsman’s approach to the two bowlers stemmed clearly from the appreciation that Ishant possesses pace].

It might seem churlish to pick on Praveen after his heroics with the bat — but the fact is India lost the game with the ball and in the field, and it is in these two departments that the team will continue to struggle in the remaining six games. On a recent occasion, while watching cricket at Rahul Bhatia’s home, Amit Varma tellingly commented that Praveen was opening the bowling because he was too slow to come on as first change.

He has a point — and that in turn leads to another. There were many oohs and aahs in the commentary box at the start of the Australian innings when Praveen seamed the ball around and either missed the edge, or found it dropping short of slips. Meanwhile, Ishant Sharma — the one bowler we have who has the pace to take advantage of good bowling conditions early on — languished in the outfield.

Ishant got the ball when the mandatory power play was over, and the field was being spread — an increasingly frequent practice for MS Dhoni and one that, IMHO, is a major contributor to the bowler’s effectiveness being reduced. The move is akin to reducing a race horse to a carthorse — coming in after the PPs, Ishant is in no position to attack; this forces him to cut down his pace and rely on line and length in a containing mode, and the more the team forces this role on him, the more his confidence to bowl quick will erode and he will, over time, be reduced to a medium pace stock bowler.

[While on Ishant, it was interesting to see Viru Sehwag take over mentoring duties when the young quick was in operation. Repeatedly, Viru was seen walking up to the bowler with a few words of advice; the most notable intervention saw Sharma switch to round the wicket against Hussey, tightening the angle and ensuring the batsman had no real room to work with.]

Fine tuning the bowling options is going to be critical in a series where India’s fielding will effectively function as a 12th batsman for Australia. By the most conservative of yardsticks, the team surrendered a good 30 runs in the field; acerbating this is the fact that Australia, throughout the Indian chase [including in the batting power play] kept five swift fielders inside the ring to block the singles and thus turn the screws on the batsmen.

One other point occurred to me while watching the game. As early as the second over of the Indian innings, Sunil Gavaskar in the commentary box was moved to remark that Sachin Tendulkar had “set out his stall for a big innings”. Maybe — SRT’s game has changed over time, and in the latter half of his career the batsman once known for flat out attack has has developed a tendency to pre-plan his innings. Unlike Sehwag, whose game plan revolves around the merits of the particular ball he is facing, SRT is increasingly prone to determining ahead of time what his approach to the entire innings will be.

Fair enough. India could use a batsman who can bat long, rotate the strike and let others bat around him — but the place for such a batsman is not the top of the order. 22 dot balls in an innings of 29 deliveries that ends in the 9th over is bad news on a big chase, and with the Australian batting lineup in the form it is in, big totals could be the norm this series.

Thus, if the brief for SRT — or more likely, the brief he has prescribed for himself — is to bat long, he needs to come in at number three, ceding the opening slot to Gautam Gambhir, who works well with Sehwag, is tuned to turning the strike over rapidly, and is temperamentally tuned to using the power play overs to optimum. One of the odd faults of SRT, among many good qualities, is his insistence on picking his slot in the batting order; IMHO, that will need to change if the team is to fire as a batting unit.

Related, Sidharth Monga has a piece in Cricinfo on how both sides made a mess of their batting power plays. I actually thought India called for the PPs at the perfect point in the game — immediately after the mandatory ball change. After 34 overs, Australia had been 169/3; India was 167/3, and five good batting overs at that point would have made the job considerably easier as the game headed into the slog phase. It is a different matter that the batsmen then muffed it up — but on balance, I thought India called the PPs better than Australia did.

It looks set to be a fairly interesting series; not for the first time, I find myself wishing its length was five games, not seven.

On an unrelated note, back at my desk after four days away; swamped with stuff, back here much later in my day.


Looking good versus bowling good

In his column in the Hindustan Times, Anil Kumble writes of Ishant Sharma, thus:

What can be controlled is Ishant Sharma’s workload. He may be playing a lot but it is still important for him to get in a lot more overs. Most of the training time is taken up by gym work, which adds strength but you have to include a lot of sprinting as well to ensure that the rhythm is right. The challenge is to get the balance of cricketing skills, strength and cardiovascular training. The skills part is, naturally, most important and it is also necessary to realize that each person is made differently.

Which is why it is paramount that one understands the body quickly. Ishant is a young man but he would do well to understand what works best for him and apply that to his bowling and training. He’s also a thinking bowler and with the right guidance, he should soon be firing again.

Irfan after Pakistan

Irfan after Pakistan

Perhaps, he could have been tried with the new ball but in a short tournament such as this and after you have lost the first game, you don’t want to experiment. Also, the team combination is what decides who gets the new ball. When Praveen Kumar comes in for RP Singh, you have to give him the new ball as he relies on swing.

Ishant is not the only one — a more famous case is that of Irfan Pathan. In Australia and Pakistan, at his peak, he was whippet-lean, and his rhythm was spot on. During the hiatus after that tour, Irfan hit the gym with a vengeance, came back ‘pumped’ — and immediately thereafter, lost his bowling skills and has never regained them since.

The problem with heavy gym work — especially the kind that involves hard core pumping iron — is that it develops exactly the wrong kind of muscles. The shoulders and ‘wings’ develop — and tighten. And with that, the original bowling action is lost; the arm doesn’t come over as fluidly. Pace and control are the first casualties and once those are gone, confidence erodes and even the variations that worked so well for the bowler are, when delivered at half pace, less effective.

If it’s that simple, wouldn’t you reckon the bowler would know? Equally, that the support staff of coach and physio would spot the danger and move the bowler away from heavy iron work and into the kind of exercises that meet his requirements?

Yes — if the bowler will listen. And it is not just the bowlers — the malaise is fairly prevalent among the younger lot of cricketers. A former coach of India once told me that the ‘kids’ were only interested in building what he called “T-shirt muscles” — the kind you can flaunt in tight Ts, but are totally useless on a cricket field.

“They spend hours in the gym pumping iron,” he said, “and then when their game goes to pieces and you tell them they are not fit, they don’t get it — look at the time we spend in the gym, they argue, failing to understand that this is precisely the problem.”

Anil’s been there and seen all that; his advice to Ishant is good. Remains to be seen, though, if the bowler will take it.

Ishant, too, is top of the mind for Harsha in his last column.

But most dramatic, and disappointing for Indian cricket, was the decline of Ishant Sharma and RP Singh. Coming on the heels of similar problems with Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel and Sreesanth, it is a question that requires a very serious assessement. Good bowlers bowl well for ten years with the occasional bad period in between, not for two years or a season here and a season there. Could it be too much cricket? Could it too much in the mind? Could it be too little in it?

Inevitably then, the question will be what next? India cannot afford to lose Ishant and RP Singh but for the moment, a period of contemplation might be right. I wonder if players are encouraged to come up with their own solutions because one of the pitfalls of having too many coaches is that players stop becoming very good at thinking for themselves. As an observer I would love to know what these two think about this decline.

Right, just got back after three days away — and there’s an overflowing in-tray to deal with. Back here much later, folks — random doodles, as always, here.

Champions atrophy

Apologies to a friend for stealing the subject line of a common email thread on the subject of India and its premature exit from the Champions’ Trophy — what to do, it is so peculiarly apt.

On that thread, some of the friends brought up the question of the fairness, or lack thereof, of a tournament where a top team exits at the preliminary level because of one match gone west. Sambit Bal also suggests in his column that questions could be asked about such a format.

I’m sorry, but why? The Champions Trophy format is neither new, nor a secret — in fact, one of the best things about it is its crisp, short nature and limited field as opposed to the World Cup which, in the immortal words of one commentator, is “still probably going on in the Caribbean some place.”

Try these names on for size: Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Kenya. Those four teams are ranked full members at ICC’s ODI top table; in other words, in the eyes of the ICC they are the equal — in terms of rights, if not quality — to the eight teams that played the CT in South Africa, and they have good reason to be aggrieved that they have been kept from the tournament.

One of the few good things the ICC has done in recent times is to limit the field, and thus ensure a minimum of dud matches in a crisper, more viewer-friendly format. All participating teams knew, going in, that it was about winning two out of three in the first phase; if they had done their due diligence, they would have known, too, that there was always the possibility of rain spoiling someone’s party.

So, hey, we lost one game, and it turned out the loss was fatal — yeah, well, tough. Suck it up.

Harsha in course of a recent chat made this argument: Within India, there is an economic ecosystem vested in India’s continued success — a group that comprises the BCCI, the players and support staff, the associations, the advertisers, the broadcasters, and even news channels whose talking-head shows rely heavily on cricket and controversy, often twinned naturally or through artful surgery.

Therefore, Harsha said, there is an inordinate focus on the next game, the next tournament, as opposed to taking the long range view. It doesn’t, he pointed out, matter what happens a year from now — what matters is that we do well in the next outing, to keep the hype machine running. And so when we pick teams, we pay lip service to long term vision, to rotation and the need to rest key players, and pick the team that will, in our opinion, give us best returns in the game tomorrow.

He was referring among other things to the reversal of the youth policy and the return of Rahul Dravid to the mix [and no, this piece is not intended to lay the blame for India’s premature exit on Rahul]. And he is bang on the money — the BCCI and those equally invested in the cricket economy operate purely on short term logic unmindful, likely even unaware, that they are defeating themselves in the process.

Never mind the rain — despite MS Dhoni’s words, anyone who was watching the India-Australia game would have said that when the rains came down, the Aussies were odds on to win.  Sure, we might have pulled off a brilliant chase — but ‘might’ and Rs 3 will get you a cutting chai.

Consider instead the game against Pakistan, and India’s bowling effort against Australia. Pundits, the press, and even the captain have pointed, very rightly, at the lines and lengths our bowlers used as the root cause of the malaise. By the time the bowlers got their radar working, it was way too late.

So, why? Why didn’t international players get it? IMHO, a large part of the reason lies in our preparation — a point I bored everyone with while the whateveritis cup was being played for in Sri Lanka. Why did we play that triangular in conditions that were the exact antithesis of the one we would confront in the world tournament? Because the BCCI had a deal. Its hype machine cleverly sold the cup as India’s push for world domination — but the fact is, we played the triangular because the BCCI saw money to be made, not directly in that tournament but in the reciprocal Lankan tour that was part of the deal.

On Lankan pitches, you pitch up if you want to get driven to the dry cleaners — the optimal length is a shade short. We got it right, so did Lanka. The Kiwis, who by nature and inclination bowl fuller and quicker, got it wrong, and exited early — but look where they are now, and look where Sri Lanka and India is. [Consider, also, that England and Australia recently went through seven pointless one day games — but at least they were played in conditions where the fuller length was mandatory, and thus had little or no adjustment to make in SA. On the other hand the South Africans, who know these conditions best, were rusty, coming off a long lay off — and rust manifests first in the shorter length, as Wayne Parnell can tell you; to bowl fuller you need to be in a really good rhythm].

The damage is done, and India now has the dubious record of prematurely exiting three of the last four world level tournaments, to the considerable consternation of the BCCI, the advertisers, broadcasters, media, et cetera.

Lesson learnt? Likely not — but it should be. The next world level competition is a year and a half down the line — the time between now and then is packed with a heap of pointless bilateral ODIs [Oh I know — India and Australia are playing for revenge, for the world number one title, or whatever else the hypemeisters dream up].

There’s two ways we can go from here: Treat each game and each meaningless cup as an end in itself, as Harsha pointed out is the nature of the beast, or treat the interregnum as the ideal preparation for the World Cup, which will be played on home soil.

If you take the latter view, then the result of the Australia-India series and all the other cups and saucers to follow shouldn’t matter — those games are ideally used, initially, to experiment with fresh talent and to rehabilitate those who have recently lost their way, and closer to the WC, to home in on the best squad, and to work on fine tuning their skill sets and moving them towards peak form.

The right way to go is obvious. Unfortunately, it is equally obvious that our administration will go in the exact opposite direction — so I’ll save this particular post someplace; that will save me the effort of writing it out all over again at the end of the WC.

PS: We’re looking to close the week’s edition of India Abroad today, a day ahead of deadline, to sneak a rare three-day weekend; blogging, hence, likely to be erratic at best, more likely non-existent, for the rest of the day.