XI has a new king

Tom Moody has no problems with Yuvraj. He wants Yuvraj’s batting to come to the fore. The team wants Yuvraj to concentrate on his batting. The management at Kings XI wants Yuvraj to, well, step aside.

Long story short, Yuvraj is no longer captain of Kings XI; Kumar Sangakkara will play that role in the third edition of IPL.

In other words, the Kings XI management has made de jure what was hitherto de facto — it is no secret that throughout the second edition, Sangakkara acted as captain, with ex officio help from Mahela Jayawardene, while Yuvraj Singh chewed gum in the outfield.

Not all that long ago, Yuvraj was being spoken of as a potential to wear the captain’s armband at the national level. Sic transit gloria, and all that.

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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?

Easy does it

The man of this particular match should be the curator.

Baby commentators are taught, along with the alphabet, to react to every incident with an instantaneous pitch diagnosis: “It’s keeping low”; “The bounce is very good”; “It is taking turn”; “The pitch has evened out”.

Sometimes, if you are particularly lucky – as happened during one particular period of play today – you get all four conflicting judgments in the span of a few overs. Must be something in their contract that says you get docked a Scotch or two if you don’t do this.

The Brabourne wicket started off on day one with bounce when the bowler extracted it; movement for when you got the upright seam to hit the deck just so; turn for bowlers prepared to give it a tweak; and full value for shots played by batsmen with the nous to handle a track that had something in it for the bowlers as well.

Consider the Samaraweera dismissal: Zaheer Khan, who on the day recovered both his lost rhythm and his smile, went around the wicket and hit the deck hard, back of good length and on the kind of line just outside the off that forces a batsman to play at it; the ball climbed and seamed away just late enough to find the edge and nestle in the soft hands of a diving VVS Laxman at second slip. It’s the kind of dismissal you look to see on day one of a Test; this was day four, and the ball was then exactly 58 overs old. Equally, when the spinners – particularly Harbhajan – bowled, there was turn off length and such perfect bounce that MS Dhoni, standing up, was taking them just above the waist. Moral of the story: good pitches can be made in India, if you have both the skill and the intent.

All of this has made for a fascinating fourth day’s play. Wickets didn’t tumble in a heap, as they tend to on rapidly deteriorating tracks; the bowlers had to work their victims out. Dhoni gave his bowlers well thought out attacking fields, the kind that allowed them to concentrate on one batsman at a time without worrying about him taking a single and sneaking away to the other end, and put a high premium on mistakes.

The most costly mistake of the day was the one made by Darryl Harper, though. Tillekeratne Dilshan got a bummer for the second straight time – the ball he was deemed out to hit him on the outside of the front thigh; it was clearly turning sharp, and bouncing enough to miss the stumps for both height and direction — and that was a pity, for he seemed to come out with positive intent. [Bajji has at the time of writing this only got the one gift wicket, but no matter. He did pretty much everything right: stuck to good lengths, gave the ball air, probed away around off, occasionally varied trajectory by going around the wicket, and built such a deal of pressure that he stymied any thoughts the Lankan batsmen may have had of trying to break out of jail. He has in the past bowled far worse for much greater rewards, and likely will again.]

His dismissal cued a period of play that tested the bowlers’ patience. Kumar Sangakkara dug deep into his reserves of will to grit his way through his ongoing bad patch; Paranavitana at the other end displayed good technique against spin, playing either fully forward or back, always with bat in front of pad, and always playing the ball below his eye line.

It took a peach of a delivery to dismiss the opener – and Sreesanth produced it in the first over of a fresh spell, when he angled one across the left hander, got it to bend in the air, and straighten on middle. Sree looks a whole different bowler when he cuts out the gratuitous theatrics and turns his focus inwards, on his craft. To his credit, despite the crowd repeatedly egging him on to kick over the traces, he stayed focused throughout this game, and bowled with considerable thought, skill and, when he needed it, pace. The ball that got Paranavitana was a beauty, but it was shaded by one he bowled to Mahela that had everything: pace up around the 139k mark, the full length, lift, and the kind of impossibly late moment that left even a batsman of Mahela’s class looking helpless.

Zaheer has sleep walked through much of this series; in the post-lunch session he suddenly rediscovered his rhythm and produced two lovely dismissals. The one of Samaraweera was the prettier one, but the take down of Mahela was a classic of conception: Zak started the over with a ball straightening on off; the next attempted to duplicate it, but drifted into the pads a touch and went for a couple; the third was angled across the right-hander, landed outside off and kept going, and then came the one angled across again, but this time hitting length around off, forcing Mahela to play, and seaming away just enough to find the edge.

Zak’s two quick strikes, in the 54th and 58th over, pretty much knocked the Lankans out of the game; Pragyan Ojha nailed it down tighter when, on the cusp of tea, he tactically worked out Angelo Mathews.

Ojha clearly has some distance to go before he gets comfortable bowling to left-handers. Against right handers, though, his use of flight and loop, the fuller lengths he bowls and the turn he extracts makes him a bit of a handful. To Mathews, he got the ball to turn sharply off length, looking for the edge; when he found it and saw the ball sneak through the slip cordon for a fortuitous four, he adjusted his length fractionally to the short side, providing more room for the ball to bounce, and again found the edge – this time to Dhoni.

Sangakkara and Paranavitana are still out there, with the Lankan captain showing some sign, after the break, of wanting to go down fighting. But with half the side back in the hut, a 170-run deficit remaining as I write this, and with four sessions to go in the game, this one’s done and dusted.

Time enough for series post-mortems later; time now for me to hit the road on a trip I’ve been pushing off all afternoon so I can watch “just one more over”.

Enjoy the rest of the game, and the weekend. See you guys Monday.

Lanka’s leader

Contemporary cricket has thrown up a lot of interesting leaders [none of whom are British or Australian]: there’s the laid-back cool of Chris Gayle, the more understated version showcased by MS Dhoni, the always frank and occasionally risible sallies of Younus Khan and the all-round statesmanship of Kumar Sangakkara.

Alex Brown celebrates the last-named.

Kumar Sangakkara

Kumar Sangakkara returns to Lanka post-Lahore

Since arriving in England three weeks ago, Sangakkara has taken it upon himself to serve as the team’s unofficial Lahore spokesperson, sparing team-mates the angst-ridden task of regaling the media with recollections of the March terror attack, all the while risking reopening his own barely-healed emotional wounds. It has been a job that required the tact of a politician, the valour of a general, the sensitivity of a counsellor and the patience of a saint. On all counts, Sangakkara passed with distinction.

…..

After the winning runs ricocheted off Afridi’s pads, Sangakkara summoned his players to the centre and embraced them all. Few outside the Sri Lankan dressing room can appreciate the emotion, resilience and spells of trepidation experienced by the team throughout this first international assignment post-Lahore, and Sangakkara’s paternal pride was evident for all to see.

Ever the patriot, Sangakkara swelled the chests of a war-weary nation when, as part of the internationally telecast presentation ceremony, he thanked the Sri Lankan people in a speech delivered in Sinhalese. To hundreds of millions around the world, the oration was indecipherable. To 20 million Sri Lankans, it was inspirational – a private message delivered on cricket’s grandest stage for their ears only.

And, so, Sangakkara – warrior, statesman – left the stage to be received by a galvanised team, an appreciative nation and a reverent cricketing world. Leaders might spend entire careers in pursuit of such universal appeal, and yet Sangakkara has managed it just three weeks as Sri Lankan captain. His team, one feels, are in good hands.