Cui Bono

A leading national daily once asked a Pakistani fast bowler to perform some brand endorsement functions. The player refused, claiming that he did not have the time. Two days later, the paper in question — you know who you are — front-paged a story that selectors and the establishment in Pakistan were concerned about the bowling action of the player in question, and there were some doubts whether he would be picked for an upcoming tournament.

Another day, another story: India had just finished one more of its disastrous campaigns at the world level [those holding the IPL entirely to blame for the latest disaster might, while we are on the topic, like to consider that outside of the win in the inaugural edition of the World T20 Cup, our recent record in global competitions has been less than stellar, to put it mildly]. Then coach Greg Chappell was back in India, preparing his post-tournament report. At the time, a national daily, three days running, front-paged stories citing “confidential sources” and claiming that the coach’s report was incendiary in nature; that it came down heavily on various players [all of them named]; that three or four players in particular were slated to face the coach’s wrath, and so on.

The reports also claimed (a) that senior players Tendulkar, Ganguly, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Zaheer and Yuvraj had formed a coterie against then captain Rahul Dravid; that they lacked commitment and refused to follow instructions of the coach and captain; that they put their personal interest over the team’s interest; that it was the coterie, for instance, that forced Dravid to opt to bat first if he won the toss against Bangladesh, and so on and on.

There was only one problem with the story — it wasn’t true. And I knew this at first hand. The day he returned to Bombay, Chappell had called on phone, and asked if I would go over to the Taj to meet with him. At that meeting, he said he was putting together a presentation for the board, showed me the first draft, and asked if I had any thoughts. What struck me at the time was the forward-looking nature of the presentation — where I had expected a post-mortem of the World Cup disaster, I found instead a meticulous roadmap of all that could be done to improve Indian cricket from the ground up.

Without going into tedious detail, its centerpiece was the point that exposing players to the latest coaching methods once they had reached the national level was counter productive. The player was physically shaped, Chappell argued, during his formative years in school/college/club cricket, he was pretty much set in his ways, both physically and in terms of skill sets, by the time he reached the state level. And once he got to the national side and was exposed to a different brand of coaching altogether, it was proving to be counter-productive in the extreme. Thus, the presentation argued, the BCCI needed to set up a grassroots-up coaching structure. School, collegiate and club coaches would work under the direction of a state coach; the state coaches would form a body interacting closely with the national coach, and the goal at all times would be to ensure that players were moved systematically through the development process, so that they peaked at the national level rather than reaching that stage and being forced to unlearn everything they had learned till date.

The presentation, when it was made, surprised, even delighted, the board. The paper in question reported it on the sports pages, without ever once mentioning the doomsday drumbeat on its own front pages in the days leading up to the event. It did not at any point in time even consider that its inspired kite-flying on the tail wind of “confidential sources” could have damaged relations among players; it offered no apology for misleading the readers; it did not even explain how its “sources close to the coach” could have gotten it so completely wrong.

I was reminded of these and other similar incidents when I read this morning in the Times of India that the BCCI was “considering” sacking MS Dhoni, and replacing him with Virender Sehwag for the ODI and T20 sides.

Who is doing this “considering”? Here are a few facts: (1) The board officials have neither met, nor telephonically or otherwise discussed, India’s latest world cup campaign. Their line is that they are currently busy with the Lalit Modi hearing due on the 16th, and that discussions of the team performance can wait till the team returns, and the captain and coach file their reports. (2) The national selectors have not at this point in time discussed the Caribbean campaign, and are slated to do so only once the two reports have been routed to them via the BCCI [the normal process is for the reports to be submitted to the board secretary, who forwards them to the selectors together with any comments the board officials may choose to make]. (3) The issue of the captaincy will not be decided upon now, but will be on the agenda of the selectors when they next meet to pick the national side for India’s next major engagement.

So again — who is this mysterious entity that is “considering” the captaincy issue? More broadly, what is the genesis of such stories?

A good question to ask yourself is, cui bono? Who benefits?

The facile answer is, Virender Sehwag — the man being nominated by various confidential sources as the next captain. But that is superficial — the real answer lies at the subcutaneous level: a combination of sponsors and player agents.

For sponsors, a player’s brand value rises exponentially as he rises in the team hierarchy [and vice versa — an ‘ex-captain’ tag on a player is worse than if he had never been captain at all]. And the more a player’s value rises, the more agents stand to earn through pimping his services for various brands.

What is really startling is the knock-on effect such stories have. One media outlet front pages it or surfaces it on its TV channel, and everyone else picks it up and amplifies it, not because their “confidential sources” are confirming the story, but because not having the story on their own channels/pages makes them seem disconnected, dated, out of the loop. [Do a search for ‘Sehwag, captain’ and you’ll see what I mean].

Unfortunately, such inspired planting of stories causes great collateral damage — but again, that is not the paper’s concern. The point is to build up a tailwind for the thought, to transform a motivated wish into a national outcry through the mysterious alchemy of the front page, and if damage is a by-product, then so be it.

PS: Here’s Harsha Bhogle on India’s performance in the Caribbean:

The new ball, in the hands of India’s bowlers, made no statement. It wasn’t the first serve, as it should have been. It was merely a formality that had to be achieved for a game to start, just a pawn that was pushed forward with little intent. The new ball on flat pitches and on grounds with short boundaries is like a toy for a pampered child to toss around, but here it had fangs. India’s openers were shown them, the opposition weren’t. It is a serious issue. New-ball bowlers have to be cultivated and nurtured so that they grow into handsome trees; they cannot, at the first sight of a storm, wither away.

India’s fielding stood out. Like a radio might, or like my old phone does. It was like a retro movie. When it comes to fielding or athleticism, India make an occasional concession to modernity, flirt with the latest and slip back towards the old and the comfortable. When Australia took the field, I thought more than once that their hockey players had arrived. They were smooth, they glided around and made what might otherwise have been a three a two. Great catches arrived with the frequency of a politician’s quotes. It was beautiful to watch but I do not think our young cricketers are watching. They demand the latest sometimes but they do not demonstrate it.

Once India’s finest, Yuvraj stood at mid-on, the abode of the tired fast bowler and the slow-moving spinner. At long-on and fine leg, the limbs had to be cranked to start. It was painful because of what should have been. He is a cricketer who is richly blessed, and a period of humble introspection might just be the right prescription. The turn he took a kilometre ago was the wrong one.

PPS: Pleasantly surprised by both the number and quality of comments on yesterday’s post. Unfortunately, am preoccupied with various personal and professional issues and apt to be off the net till at least some time late tomorrow evening. Will get back then and respond, where required. Meanwhile, stock up with salt — lots of it. I suspect that in the coming days you’ll need it.

PPPS: Now that I think about it –the above piece is *not* to be interpreted as a defense of Dhoni, please, or an argument for his continuance. A review — a serious, comprehensive one — is required and hopefully, will happen. My intent is merely to suggest that rumor-mongering does no good. To the concerned media outlets, the players who are named, or even to us the readers.

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What a missed opportunity, sirji

New year. New city. New job. Same old cricket – these last couple of years, the Indian and Sri Lankan cricketers seem to spend more time with each other than with their respective spouses/squeezes.

Then again, who needs to start the year/decade with a crib about the scheduling? So I’ll start with a mild crib about the Board’s priorities instead.

In between the moving from Bombay to Bangalore, the settling down at the Yahoo office, the official induction process and the unofficial getting to know the city, I managed to catch parts of some fascinating cricket – Test cricket, glory be, that provided a far more compelling spectacle than these 50 over hit-abouts we seem to overindulge in.

The good news on that front is that India’s board appears to have taken captain MS Dhoni’s request to schedule more Tests with a measure of seriousness [MS seems to speak a language intelligible to the Board – shortly after his public strictures on the need for a bowling coach, the board has lined one up], and gotten the South African board to ditch some ODIs and play two Tests instead [now if the board could do the same with Australia, cutting the ODI schedule down from seven to say three and factor in some Tests, it would really deserve a rousing cheer].

The program versus the Proteas, which Neo Sports is already billing as the battle for number one and as the ‘World Championship of Cricket’, saves a year that otherwise would have featured Tests against only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Given all that I had on my plate in recent weeks, I haven’t done much browsing/reading – but a news item in the Times of India’s Bangalore edition dated January 8 did catch my eye.

The Karnataka State Cricket Association apparently requested the BCCI to permit Rahul Dravid to play for/lead the state team in the upcoming Ranji final against Mumbai. Since the game gets over a mere two days before the start of the first Test against Bangladesh, Vijay Mallya reportedly offered to fly Dravid over to Chittagong in a private jet.

The BCCI nixed the idea without – in true board style – assigning any reasons. Apparently the honchos believe that it is more important for Dravid to get an hour of net practice than full-on match practice in the final of the board’s premier domestic competition.

Pity. It is very rare that marquee Ranji games don’t compete for attention with the national team – I’d have thought the board would have wanted to grab the chance to allow both Karnataka and Mumbai to field full strength teams, play up the championship clash, and get the fans involved.

Would have been a nice start to the year – but never mind, we have a rare treat ahead this Wednesday, when India plays Sri Lanka.

Again.

What an idea, sirji.

PostScript: To all those who asked, in comments and mails — Bangalore is treating me just fine, thanks. Was off the map thanks to a combination of a screw-up with my cell phone connection, some delays in getting my cell and laptop set up at this end, and way too much on my plate thanks to the induction process, and generally finding my feet in the new workplace.

Blogging will likely remain desultory this week, since I’ll be away a good bit of the time getting my new home set up once the packers get my Bombay stuff down here Tuesday/Wednesday.

PPS: Will be away from desk, and net, for the rest of the day, and back here tomorrow morning.

Planning commission, and omission

Suresh Menon’s latest article should resonate with all who watched the game yesterday, and cringed at Dinesh Karthik’s performance with the gloves [the Keystone Kops nature of his let off of Dilshan was bad enough; the fumble as prelude to the Sangakkara stumping was downright embarassing].

It would be foolish to depend on a very small group of players and then discover when the need arises that the replacements are not ready. Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni for example, is now forced to miss two matches because of India’s poor over-rate in the Nagpur one-dayer. This means a wicketkeeper, who hasn’t kept for a while, will have to do the job. Yet an intelligent policy of rotation would have ensured that such a person is ready to deliver. This is not to say that Dhoni should be dropped from the team at regular intervals, only that there should be a plan to introduce one or two players into the team just so they keep in touch.

Successful teams have skillful players both on the field and on the bench ready to step in at short notice. You do not experiment during a tournament like the World Cup. But during the build-up it is necessary. And sometimes you learn more from a loss than a victory, which tends to hide the shortcomings.

Yesterday’s win hid a whole laundry list of shortcomings. We are an incisive opening attack short; the bench strength in the seam department is suddenly non-existent; the middle order remains unstable, so much so that had opening batsman Sachin Tendulkar not anchored the chase, the hard work of our spinners could still have been undone; clearly we have no viable understudy for a wicket-keeper who, as captain in all three forms, is the most over-worked player in the side…

Another clip from Menon:

India can no longer afford to define victory in narrow terms, on the basis of matches actually won. It is when substitutes perform well, when the bench strength rises to the challenge that from a long-term perspective it may be assumed that a team is doing well. Australia showed that when they won the one-day series in India with what was in effect their second team, injuries having eliminated many frontline players.

It is not necessary for India to go for broke every time. There is such a thing as building a team. If Virat Kohli, for example, is not ready to replace a top player like Yuvraj Singh or Sachin Tendulkar in the middle of a World Cup, then the selectors have failed. But batting is not really a major problem, although there is a call for ensuring that everyone gets enough rest, and that the replacements can hit the ground running. The World Cup is the making of a player, and if one or two matches in the build-up are lost while someone is given the chance to establish himself, then that is a fair trade-off.

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?

Zak is back. Again

These days, Zaheer Khan decides when he needs to turn up for practice, and when he to treat himself to a break even as his mates sweat it out.

He has, almost right through his career, been like that – only, earlier his absences were seen as a sign of unsound temperament in one who, during the first quarter of his career, was not particularly keen on fitness. Women members of Exert, the gym in Bombay’s Haji Ali region where Zak used to work out then, used to laugh at his regimen: a gentle amble on the treadmill followed by a sandwich; then a round of two of desultory pumping of iron before he went ah fuck it and strolled off.

His absences, seen then as a manifestation of a lazy work ethic and unsound temperament, are now viewed by his team in far more benign light. They acknowledge that Zak is a total team man, and a champion who is aware of his body’s needs and has a well honed sense of when to conserve his energies, and when to expend them.

Zaheer belongs to a new generation of players who do see being dropped from the side not as an excuse to go into a massive sulk, but as a spur to look within, to identify flaws and set about rectifying them with enviable focus.

In Zak’s case, the seminal moment came at the end of the 2005-’06 tour of Pakistan, when he was dropped thanks to a combination of indifferent performance, a less than ideal work ethic, and the emergence of Irfan Pathan.

He went back to the nets, then decided that he needed to hone his skills in competition, not isolation. And so he went to Worcestershire, teaming up with coach Steve Rhodes and bowling coach Graham Dilley.

That stint saw Zaheer develop from being a bowler of limited variety and fragile temperament, to one who through trial and error cut down on his run up, improved his balance on the jump into the delivery stride, and added the weapons of both-ways conventional and reverse swing to his arsenal. “When I was playing for India, I couldn’t experiment too much but in county cricket I had that freedom to try new things, and to explore what I could do,” he said at the end of his stint.

His comeback made you sit up and rub your eyes – or, if you were Graham Smith, curse fluidly. Zak took the South African captain’s wicket for fun – six successive times, spanning four one dayers and the first Test of that series.

That was where Zak revealed just what he had learnt during his time in the wilderness. As long as he was a bowler reliant on rhythm and a natural outswinger, he could be negotiated, even decimated – as Adam Gilchrist famously did to him in THAT first over of the World Cup final.

In England, he added both-ways swing, learnt to use the width of the crease, and developed immaculate control on length – and these showed not only in his serial take downs of Smith, but in the way he made world class left handers sweat. He always had Sourav Ganguly’s number [think back to the 2005 Duleep Trophy final; to the former India captain’s outing for Northamptonshire against Worcestershire in the 2006 season; to the Bengal versus Bombay Ranji fixture at the Wankhede…]. On the tour of Sri Lanka shortly after South Africa, he was at it again, effortlessly taking out the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara [one early spell read 3-0-3-3]; in England it was Andrew Strauss who found Zak too hot to handle.

In an interview to the Observer that I’d saved at the time, Michael Vaughan nailed it against the backdrop of a performance that ended England’s six-year sequence of being unbeaten in home Tests and saw Zak being named one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year 2008. “We never knew what was coming next,” Vaughan said. “I can’t remember so much swing, not even from Chaminda Vaas or Wasim Akram. Zaheer – and I think he was the man coming up with all the ideas – kept doing the unexpected. It was fascinating to watch. On that last day at the Oval, Zaheer was still swinging the ball both ways. Traditionally, he should have been bowling over the wicket, but he kept coming round to left handers; he was changing the angles all the time. The guys would not have seen that before, and I can guarantee they would not have practiced that.”

That comment encapsulates the new Zaheer: two-way swing at will, perfect control of length, a bouncer that has gone from a means of venting his frustration to a potent weapon he uses to maneuver the batsman and get him where he wants him, and a calm calculation of angles and lines that argue a refined grasp of the geometry of seam bowling.

His five wickets in the Lankan second innings at Brabourne signal his return to full form and fitness where, thus far on his nth comeback, he has looked a bowler searching for misplaced rhythm. Two of his victims – Samaraweera and Kulasekhara – were done by his control on length; on both occasions, Zak banged the ball in just close enough to off stump to have the batsman unsure whether to play or leave, got the ball to lift off the deck and seam in just late enough to crack the edge of the defensive bat and fly to slip.

In the case of Mahela Jayawardene, Zak played on known uncertainties around off stump early in his innings, setting him up with deliveries angling across, then bowling one hitting line of off, drawing the smooth-stroking Lankan into the push, and seaming away to find the edge. His best though was reserved for Kumar Sangakkara this morning: one ball just around off cutting in that the Lankan captain defended; the next on fullish length outside off that got Sangakkara driving; the third on middle and off on good length that had him defending, only for late away movement to find the edge through to Dhoni.

Those were the dismissals of a bowler with enviable control on mind and craft both. And with all of that, he has also found and harnessed a new ruthlessness, best exemplified during the home series against Australia when Zak developed such a stranglehold over the Aussies that Mathew Hayden, who by then had been dismissed thrice in three tries by Zak [Hayden’s third ball dismissal in the first innings of the first Test in Bangalore was a carbon copy of the take down of Sangakkara at the Brabourne yesterday], was reduced in the second innings at Mohali to attempting cricket’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

His temperament is brittle, Hayden suggested before that game, reminding all who would listen of what his erstwhile mate Gilchrist had done to Zak while he watched from the other end. In his attempt to test that temperament, Hayden charged the first ball Zak bowled in the second innings en route to going down in flames after a manic 29 off 20 balls [Bhajji got Hayden then; Zak proved that ‘brittle’ was a thing of the past when he came back to nip Australia’s nascent resistance in the bud with three quick strikes that smashed through the lower middle order, and help hand Australia a 320-run defeat].

Ironically, it was Zak who after the first Test of that series in Bangalore did unto the Aussies what they were in the habit of doing to everyone else. He taunted Ponting on his “defensiveness”, and suggested that neither the Aussie pacers nor spinners were good enough against the Indian team. “On a fifth day pitch the spinners could not do us any harm – that shows what their spin attack is all about,” he taunted. “And even the pacers didn’t look like getting wickets at any stage today.”

Zak’s return to the team, and to form, is probably the single most significant outcome of this series. He is now a bowler serenely aware of his strengths, and confident enough to not just shoulder the burden of spearhead but also that of mentor. When Zak is on song and the seamers are operating, Dhoni happily allows him to lead the side, setting fields and talking his junior mates through their spells. Both Sreesanth [in South Africa, and particularly one spell at the Wanderers], and Ishant Sharma [particularly in England] have bowled their best, most sustained spells under his wing; on both occasions, Zak proactively worked with his juniors, stationing himself at mid off/on and walking/talking the bowler back to the top of his mark.

During Zak’s time away, MS Dhoni has seemed a little at sea as his seam bowlers lost their way. The Indian captain, now boasting a Test record of seven wins and no defeats in nine tries, will likely rank the return of his go-to man on par with India’s clinching the number one spot in the Test rankings. Or maybe even higher – Dhoni said at the presentation ceremony that making it to number one wasn’t the thing; “the real task for us is now, we have to maintain our standards.” And to do that, MS will look more than ever to his spearhead.

In passing, I liked the way MS handed the trophy over to Pragyan Ojha and pushed him to the front for the mandatory team photograph. For a youngster looking to find self-confidence and a sense of belonging at the highest level, the gesture will have meant much. I liked, too, his pragmatic reaction to the question of whether the number one ranking will mean much without India having beaten South Africa and Australia. From Dileep Premachandran’s piece:

Over the next year or two, the No.1 ranking will change hands often. Unlike in the days when Australia, and West Indies before them, ruled the roost, it no longer signifies the best team in the world. For India, greater challenges await, but there’s little use brooding about Australia or South Africa right now. When asked if victory in those climes was essential to be legitimate top dogs, Dhoni said: “Let’s see when we go there. We can’t play them sitting here.”

PS: Away from office, and on the road, all day today. Back here tomorrow, see you guys then.

Test 3, Day 3

“Sri Lanka clearly hasn’t learned the art of putting the boot in when it can,” I said at the start of my blog post on the first day’s play in this Test match – right quote, wrong team.

If India wins this Test – and despite the quality of its play on day three, it still can – it will thanks to the ICC’s incomprehensible number-crunching find itself elevated to the number one slot on the Test table.

By its play today, however, it indicated that it has a long way to go before it can translate that statistical anomaly into undisputed – even by the likes of Simon Wilde — reality.

Australia’s unchallenged hegemony through the nineties and early ‘noughties’ is widely attributed to a rare concatenation of outstanding talents with bat and ball, an unprecedented array of individual match-winners who collectively became even greater than the sum of their parts.

What is not as often discussed is that the real driver was the ruthlessness developed during the latter part of Mark Taylor’s captaincy, and honed to a fine art during the Steve Waugh years.

During its decade-long dominance of international cricket, Australia reveled in putting opponents down on the mat as soon as it possibly could, and then putting the boot in with a ruthlessness that sent a message to future opponents that they too could expect no mercy.

As a result, teams took the field against Australia having already lost the mental battle; their sights were fixed not on winning, or even holding Australia at bay, but in not being totally disgraced. “If we can draw the first Test, we have a chance,” Rahul Dravid once told me the day before the team was setting out for a tour Down Under; then BCCI board secretary JY Lele more pragmatically said the team would lose 3-0.

Avoiding a whitewash was the substance of not just our ambition, but of the rest of the cricketing world, whenever they padded up to take on Australia.

And it was not just that Australia was ruthless – it was also relentless. It never let up, no matter the quality of the opposition nor even the status of the series. Thus, it would play at the same levels of intensity against an England and a Bangladesh; it would play tooth and claw cricket in the first game of a series and in a dead rubber after the series had been sealed 4-0.

It is this lesson India is a long way from learning – champion sides [and individuals] don’t just win, they dominate; they intimidate oppositions, they put the fear of god into them.

India ended day two on 443/1, motoring along at a rate close to six rpo and occasionally hitting the high sevens – unprecedented that early in a Test match innings. In the process, it reduced Lanka’s most potent weapons, the spinners Muralitharan and Herath, to abject submission.

In the first two sessions of day three, batsmen of the accomplishments and experience of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Yuvraj Singh managed 186 runs in 56 overs for the loss of six wickets. That is to say, those four storied players managed a combined 212 runs in 383 deliveries faced; this in contrast with the 254 deliveries Virender Sehwag faced to score 293 runs.

Here’s another illustration: India’s champion batsmen, for the most part, scored at or under 3 runs per over on day three, against an attack that had already suffered the death of the thousand cuts. Had India scored at that pace on day two, it would have ended at or around 237, some 150 runs behind the Lankan score, and we would have been talking this morning of the need to play cautiously, focus on going past the Lankan first innings score, and then consolidate and build a big lead. ‘India fight back,’ the headlines of this morning’s papers would have read.

The contrasting attitudes are best exemplified in this: “Murali is a big challenge to face,” Sehwag said at the end of day two. “If you have to play against a spinner like him, you have to attack him. Otherwise, he will come and dominate you. So instead of allowing him to dominate, I dominated right from the first ball and pushed him onto the back foot.”

Sehwag faced 77 deliveries from the off spinner, and scored 83 runs including 11 fours and two sixes. By the end of the day, Murali was a shadow of his world record-breaking self, reduced to bowling around the wicket, from wide of the crease, into the spot a foot outside leg stump.

Against that, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Yuvraj faced 112 deliveries of the same bowler, managed 65 runs, and saw him end the innings with 4 face-saving wickets while Herath, who had similarly been reduced to the ranks of the impotent, came back with two today, taking his tally to three.

None of this will likely make much difference to the outcome of this particular match – but what the Indian team needs to learn is that momentum needs to be seized and built on when it presents itself; it cannot be pickled and put away for a rainy day. Get into the habit of riding the adrenalin, and it serves the collective cause in the face of sterner examinations; bat at half throttle simply because there is no apparently urgency, and you find it that much more difficult to move up the gears against the better sides.

Having reduced the Lankans to complete submission on day two, today was the opportunity to demonstrate the ruthlessness of champions, the chance to administer the coup de grace and put the opposition so far behind the mental eight ball that the Indian bowlers could pretty much have things their own way against a totally demoralized opposition.

Related, ruthlessness – the so-called “killer instinct” – cannot be switched on and off at will but needs to be cultivated as a constant; an attitude that permeates the team as it steps across the white line. Absent that quality, this team with its “best batting lineup in the world” will continue to do well against the likes of Lanka, Bangladesh et al, but will struggle when it goes up against the mentally stronger big boys at the top of the table.

As far as the match goes, thanks largely to MS Dhoni’s late order power-hitting on the back of the two double century stands powered by Sehwag, Vijay and Dravid yesterday, India is in full control.

Lanka faces the task of batting out 180 overs knowing that even if they succeed, on a tougher wicket than Kanpur, the best they can hope for is a 0-1 result – not the kind of mindset conducive to extended concentration and focus. To trot out a tired cliché, it will be a “test of character” for the Lankans and, for the home side, a measure of their desire to attack relentlessly in the quest for the best possible result. [Oh, and another chance for Pragyan Ojha to give it a go and put himself permanently in the frame].

PostScript: There are three television screens within eyeshot of where I sit, in the Rediff office – and yet, yesterday, I struggled to follow the Indian innings because of the crowds in front of each of those screens. It was not just my editorial colleagues; our fellows from across the ‘border’, from the marketing, sales, tech and allied departments all gave up on work for the day, and only went back to their seats once the umpires had downed stumps.

Today, only one of the three screens was turned to the game, and even that had no ‘attendance’ – the first ‘crowds’ began trickling in around 4 pm, when Dhoni, with only Ojha left for company, began opening his shoulders.

Just saying.

On another note: Sambit Bal salutes Virender Sehwag for what he is: the most destructive act in cricket. Period.

Oh, and by way of weekend homework: Check out the blogs in all categories. Support the good ones. A blogging universe in its infancy can use all the backing you give it.

The art of running backwards

‘A million fans were cheated of a chance to witness history,’ says the reporter on the TV screen.

The decision was dodgy, to put it mildly — but ‘a million fans’ have been ‘looking forward’ to seeing this particular slice of history being created ever since this series started; we can wait for another game. Or two.

What appears to have been reduced to a side-story is the fact that India lost a game it should have won with considerable ease. The wicket was loaded for the batsmen [while on that, India’s bowlers and, for once, the fielding, did outstandingly well I thought to limit Australia to an under-par 249], unlike the Kotla wicket of two days ago. And yet, strangely, India opted to approach this chase as if it was still batting at the Kotla — with an exaggerated caution that at first seemed inexplicable, then progressively ridiculous.

‘Strategy’ is a two-edged sword — it can clear the mind and help you focus on what you need to do. That said, it strikes me that devising a one-size-fits-all ‘strategy’ is equally daft. India’s batting ‘game plan’ appears to be something on these lines: Sehwag is a force of nature, no point telling him anything, so let him do his stuff and get out. Then we will, come hell or high full toss, start “pushing the ball around” till we get to the end game, and at that point we will “explode”.

It is a ‘strategy’ we appear to implement without reference to the ground conditions, the bowling, the wicket or even the size of the target, almost as if there is a court injunction that stops us from playing any other way. And it works just fine so long as our ‘exploders’ manage to hang around till the end.

Yesterday they didn’t, and we paid. The how of it is contained in these two sets of stats: the over comparison [incorporating the run rates and required rate] and the player-versus-player stats, which when parsed [check out the singles versus dot balls; check out what happens when you break a batsman’s score down into its component parts: proportion of dot balls to scoring shots] shows you exactly where, and how, we lost the game.

[Incidentally, in all this talk of how well Doug Bollinger bowled — and yes, he was exemplary in his adherence to line and length — what does it tell you that the best strike rates against him are those of Harbhajan Singh and Praveen Kumar?].

One other random thought occurs: Virat Kohli needed to come in to cover for Gautam Gambhir’s injury [though we do have the more experienced Dinesh Karthick as cover, and likely could have used him to better effect] — but does that automatically mean the youngster, still to play the one innings that will give him confidence at this level, should be inserted in Gambhir’s batting position?

Kohli is as yet too unsure of his own skills, and how they stack up at the international level, to take on the crucial number three position, yet it is in this slot that he gets to bat every single time. The upshot — the innings gets becalmed after the inevitable Sehwag cameo, with the inexperienced Kohli playing for survival and the experienced Sachin playing, presumably, for those impatient million fans the TV reporter is still nattering about. [But I forget: suggesting that maybe Sachin is currently not optimizing his game for the team is fraught with risk — what, have I forgotten the knock he played in Sri Lanka?!].

In passing, a clip from the Cricinfo bulletin:

India’s chase had a terrific start with Virender Sehwag caning Mitchell Johnson for 30 runs off 14 balls. Australia began to fight back after Sehwag fell but India were on course while Sachin Tendulkar was batting. However, his dismissal for 40 – the highest score of the innings – was the beginning of the end as wickets fell frequently thereafter.

Really? Or would it be more accurate to say, Sehwag treated the bowling as it deserved to be, and India allowed the Australian bowlers to catch their breath, recover their wits and get back into the game once Sehwag fell?