Squaring the circle

In a post on India’s T20 World Cup exit, Great Bong looks at the vicious-circle effect:

Dhoni’s men have now come a full circle. In 2007, they started off as the “replacements” for a previous generation of heroes,  popular underdogs with nothing to lose and everything to prove. They were on the offensive and they were aggressive.

In 2009, things had changed. They were no longer the “little guys”. They had now become the new “fat cats”, a part of the establishment, with everything to lose and nothing to prove. This made them so overtly defensive that they deemed it necessary to shield their best player at a time when they needed him the most.

In a way therefore, their defeat had become inevitable.

Whether Dhoni and his men are able come out stronger from this experience remains to be seen. If they can, then yes they still remain champions even though they might not have the trophy.

Belief systems

Commentators talking of the fabulous run India’s limited overs teams have had since the first edition of the T20 World Cup invariably bring up all-round bowling skills, improved fielding and most importantly, a deep batting lineup of incandescent stroke-players.
There is one other quality to that team, unquantifiable, hence largely unmentioned — self-belief. Time and again, the team had pulled off wins where earlier versions would have given up the ghost; batsmen ranging from Yuvraj to Raina to Rohit and Yusuf have shrugged off steepling asking rates and air-tight bowling, tapped the ball around and timed their explosions to a nicety. They won because in every situation, against every opposition, they seemed to believe they could win; because for them defeat did not seem to be the faintest blip on the mental radar.
It is this quality the WC version of the team appears to have lost — as dramatically exemplified by the stumble when chasing a mere 131. Grant that the wicket was tired, slow; grant too that the South African bowling lineup had been strengthened further by the inclusion of Albie Morkel; and above all, grant that the all-star South African fielding, where even the tall fast bowlers are assets in the deep with their speed across the turf and additional reach on the dives and slides are worth an extra 25 runs to the side.
Even, for argument’s sake, grant that the team must be on a mental low after their unexpectedly early exit and, for all that commentators talk of playing for pride, it is difficult to get your game on when the outcome makes no difference.
Even so the middle order stumble, after being 47/0 at the end of the power plays [the ask at that point was 84 off 84 balls with ten wickets in hand; even with the inevitable slowdown after the PPs, India went into the second half of its innings needing just 73/60], was uncharacteristic.
Once the two set openers got out to adrenalin overdose and injudicious strokes, those who followed — Suresh Raina, MS Dhoni, even the normally imperturable Yuvraj Singh — seemed to bat in a state of near panic. That mindset was best underlined by Harbhajan Singh who, promoted ahead of Ravindra Jadeja, swatted Dale Steyn over extra cover and then hit the kind of straight six back over the quick’s head that a front line batsman would have been proud to add to his resume. Clearly it was all in the mind — and Bajji’s was, on the day, the only one uncluttered enough to see the task for what it was: doable.
This mental choke was all the more inexplicable because in the first half of the game, the team had looked sharp, more focused than it has been for a while.
Having overslept once while in Chicago to attend a journalism conference, I dashed into the hall to attend the opening keynote, grabbed an inconspicous seat at the back, and sat for a bewildered few minutes before I realized that I had accidentally gotten into the wrong hall. It was the annual convention of the American dental association.
There was that same air about the Proteas during their innings — that sense of having accidentally wandered into a spinners’ convention as, starting as early as the sixth over, they were treated to every gradation of ‘slow’ by Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh.
AB de Villiers’ knock was worth a big hundred, in context: he was the only one among the Proteas who scored at over a run a ball, because he was the only one who absorbed the pressure of the spinners’ chokehold, didn’t mind looking silly while he struggled, and had the mental fortitude to ride the rough and wait for opportunity where his mates looked to somehow muscle their way out of the fix. AB, in fact, alone had what the Indian team lacked on the day.
Other problems have been addressed by, among others, George Binoy here, and Ayaz Memon here; the days ahead will likely bring a lot more in the form of comment and criticism. Meanwhile, the Indian selectors meet today to pick the squad for the West Indies — there is an expectation of rolling heads, but I suspect the committee will treat this for what it is — a bad stumble, admittedly, but still just a stumble — and be reasonably conservative in their picks.
PostScript: In India, familiarity breeds orchestrated effigy burnings. In Trent Bridge, the stands overflowed with cheering Indians for a non-contest; MS Dhoni was booed right at the end, but handled it with gentle humor.
PPS: Busy day, mostly away from desk. Back on here much later.

Last straws

Some of the outrage was orchestrated, though. On Monday, Dhoni’s effigy was burnt in hometown Ranchi, but apparently it was “arranged” by two channels.

That is from an Anand Vasu story on the front page of the Hindustan Times, today. Almost predictable — having created the meme that Dhoni is somehow overnight turned uncool and, worse, arrogant towards the media, stage-managed protests, strident ‘analysis’ and all the rest will naturally follow.

The “arranged” bit reminds me of this. TV needs a ‘mahaul’ — celebration, hate, whatever.

Update: Amit Varma on the media.

Fear is the key

Just when, at what point, did India lose the game against England and with it, the berth in the semis?

Was it in the 4th over, when Ravindra Jadeja — a young talent, definitely, but untried at this level — walked out with the team 2/24 on the chase, and used up 35 balls for a scratchy 25 while the likes of Yuvraj Singh [whose first scoring shot was a six], MS Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan were still in the hut? Jadeja was out 10 overs later — and at that time, the score was a mere 85/4, with Gautam Gambhir also having succumbed to manifest felt pressure of a stagnant run rate.

Was it in the 19th over, when Stuart Broad took the ball? For the second time in two World Cups, India was facing England in a must win game and the team was in trouble. The last time this happened, Yuvraj slammed six successive sixes off Stuart Broad to change the game around completely. In this edition of the tournament, Broad had already had the stuffing knocked out of him in course of one disastrous final over when he single handedly managed to miss three run outs and at least one caught-and-bowled in the space of six balls. Here he was facing Yusuf Pathan, and India needed 28/12. Would he crack? In the event, he managed to stuff up yet another ridiculously easy run out — but gave no room at all for either Dhoni or Yusuf to go over the ropes, and ended up with a 9-run over that left India needing 19 from six balls — a hugely creditable effort considering Broad’s history.

Was it when Ishant Sharma, who through this tournament and in particular, in this game, has looked as if he is tired and/or suffering from some physical niggle, was given the 17th over? In contrast to his usual bustle, his walk back to the mark had been painful, labored; his bowling nowhere near par in terms of pace, length or direction.  Jadeja had just turned the screws on with a niggardly 16th over that produced 4 runs; Ishant went for 13, and the pressure was slackened again. Ishant ended up the only one of the three seamers to bowl a full quota, while Zaheer and RP Singh, the latter on target in his comeback with a 3-0-13-1 spell, ended up under quota?

Was it when a high class fielding lineup that reads Yuvraj, Raina, Rohit and, in this game, the quick-heeled Jadeja decided to take a day off? The Indians gave, by a conservative estimate, an additional 15 runs in the field. And it was not the runs they gave, so much as the pressure they eased at just the wrong moments. Take, as just one example of many, the final over of the England innings. Harbhajan had taken out two wickets in two balls. The over had cost just 5 runs in five balls. The sixth [and it was not the first time Bajji was doing this on the day] was fired in quick and wide of leg stump — an extra ball, but not in itself disastrous. The ball went straight to short fine leg; the fielder — Yuvraj, no less — bent lazily and let it through. 5 wides resulted. What was the difference between the two sides, again?

Any of these moments and a dozen more  besides, would qualify for the mandatory list of ‘stuff-up’ moments — but I’d reckon India lost this game 48 hours before the toss, when Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards combined to terrify the Indian batsmen with a sustained pace barrage consistently in excess of 150k.

During these last couple of years of India’s T20 pomp, and even in the face of the defeats this year in various bilateral contests, the one adjective consistently applied to this team, especially by its opponents, was ‘fearless’. They marveled at a lineup powered by a succession of young men who, irrespective of the conditions, the opposition and the game situation, could come out there and thump the ball to electrifying effect — to the point where opposing teams were consistently in awe of the combined abilities of ‘young India.’

Edwards and Taylor changed all that, when they changed their length and went short and hard at the Indians. They showed that this lineup could be intimidated — and others have been swift to pick up on it. England brought in Ryan Sidebottom; at the toss, Paul Collingwood said the intent was to go hot and heavy at the Indian batsmen [where, in earlier days, the opposition would talk of putting a large target on the board and somehow pressurizing the Indian lineup].

The diet of short balls worked. India managed a mere 36/2 in the power plays — a phase that also produced the spectacle of Suresh Raina being greeted by a bouncer he had no clue how to handle, and being taken out off a desperate heave at another short ball 4 deliveries later. After 9 overs, India needed 100 off 66 balls — and at that point, 49 per cent of all deliveries bowled in the innings was short [three-quarter length, good length, fuller length and yorkers altogether made up the rest — and remember that one of those overs was bowled by Pietersen]. Heck, even at their gentler pace, Broad and Luke Wright bowled more short balls than length.

The tournament is over for India, and now the tough part kicks in. Considering all that has gone before, the media backlash is going to be huge — there are in the press box enough journalists pissed off with Dhoni and his team for their brusque, even contemptuous, handling of recent attempts to whip up controversy. A losing team is a target of opportunity, so the ‘boys’ can look forward to some interesting reading matter over their morning coffee and sunny-side-up over the next few days. In fact, there are already demands that the team “answer to the nation” — demands no one makes of the Federal government, incidentally, but believe are completely appropriate for what after all is a sport.

That is the minor, and temporary, problem. The bigger one is that this tactic will now become institutionalized — and India needs to find answers, fast. One of the answers is in surgery — specifically Virender Sehwag’s. The short ball was supposed to be his greatest weakness, but the opener worked on that one in the nets, and now handles them with, if not grace and poise, a certain crude effectiveness. That coupled with his aggression at the top puts bowlers on the back foot and prevents them from the sort of sustained aggression on view yesterday.

But the ‘when Viru returns all will be well’ theory will only get the team so far; what it really needs is a rethink of its lineup and individual responsibilities. For starters, IMHO, they have to find a way to get Rohit back to number three before they bat him completely out of form — the sheen has long since worn out from that warm-up knock that in popular imagination enshrined him as the answer to Viru’s absence. His opening slot is a band aid solution at best, but it carries with it the danger of his losing the fluency he had brought to the number three slot.

Suresh Raina has some intense net time ahead of him [and in Gary Kirsten he has someone with the knowledge of coping with the quick lifting ball] before he bats high up the order against a quick attack  in alien conditions — but in the interim, he’ll likely need to go down the order, and face the softer ball where bowlers look for the fuller, not shorter, length.

Tuesday’s game against South Africa is a good time to start working on things — so, here’s my out of the box team for that game: Gautam Gambhir, Irfan Pathan, Rohit Sharma, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni/Suresh Raina [the game conditions and bowling to determine who walks in], Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Pragyan Ojha, RP Singh, Zaheer Khan.

If we are talking band aid solutions, why waste Rohit? Why not Irfan, who has the physical courage, technical courage and the height to handle the lifting deliveries? That reverts Rohit to his natural position; Yuvraj at four gets enough room to express himself; and India end up with three seamers [Irfan is the weak link admittedly, but the advantage is that he doesn’t have to be used for the full quota]’, two regular attacking spinners, and part time spin options in Yusuf, Suresh and Rohit [while on that, it is somewhat strange that neither of them has been used here, despite their very good work in the IPL].

A friend was telling me this morning that interest in the T20 WC is now dead.

Not really — I really want to see how India goes against South Africa, which has the look of champions about it; I want to see just how far England can take its sudden and unexpected revival; above all, I want to see how far the West Indies can ride its momentum, and whether it is the sign of revival or an aberrant phase before the next spell of somnolence kicks in.

Fast and furious

For a bloke so laid back he is positively comatose, Chris Gayle has a sharp eye for the main chance.

With India three down and unlikely to indulge in bravado, the West Indies captain was quick to bring rush through some overs of Kieron Pollard’s medium pace, his own ‘yorking spin from three steps’, and Suleiman Benn’s measured left arm spin.

It was the kind of bowling that, if they were standing on a firm platform, the Indians would have enjoyed going after – but a spell of electrifyingly quick bowling put the skids on that early on. Rohit Sharma had in the second over pulled off one pull to a Fidel Edwards express delivery timed a tick over 149k; the bowler cranked it up a bit more and put a little more shoulder into the next one and hurried the right hander as he tried for an encore.

I’ve been rooting for Suresh Raina to come in at three; watching him bat, I was reminded of that thing someone said about the gods punishing you by answering your prayers [though why the gods needed to take it out on Raina for anything I may have written on my blog, I don’t know]. On the day, the left hander seemed a touch bewildered by the sheer pace off the ball off the deck and distinctly unsettled by the shorter, lifting deliveries. West Indies bowlers – even Windies bowlers of this decade – don’t need a second invitation to try the three-card trick. Sure enough, the fuller length ball came along and as surely, Raina hung his bat out for Dinesh Ramdin to dive almost to Chris Gayle’s feet to pull off a great catch.

Against Gambhir, it was the other way round – fuller length denying room, then the inviting shorter one from Dwayne Bravo. Gambhir bit; Lendl Simmons ran back from square leg, watching the ball come over his shoulder and drop in front of him, and timed a headlong grab to perfection – a very good example of outfield catching.

Dhoni’s re-configured style of play has some utility in one-dayers in context of the rest of the shot-happy lineup, but in this version of the game and particularly in this tournament, he has looked horribly out of sorts. Fair enough, bad spells come to everyone – but Dhoni’s particular nightmare, in which he has tended to use the bat like a blind man abandoned in an unfamiliar environment, is IMHO not going to go away until he decides the heck with this and reverts to his earlier style of play.

Actually, bite my tongue. The one authentic shot Dhoni did play today got him out – a hard cut at a ball short and outside off from Bravo, that failed to beat Fletcher at deep backward point.

Yusuf Pathan walked out, and then they threw the game they were playing till then into the rubbish bin and played a different one.

Fletcher got his hands to a Yuvraj flick after a sprint to his left at deep backward square, but couldn’t hold on; his throw almost managed to run out Yusuf, but that didn’t work either. And then the two batsmen took the game away. Yuvraj’s slog sweep off Benn in the 14th over was the call to arms; a wristy flick to a full ball on middle got him four in the next over off Bravo, and then Pathan guided a four off Bravo, and followed it up with a more characteristic thump over long on for six.

Yuvraj by then had his juices flowing – a deflection through slips, a top edged pull that got him a brace behind the keeper, and then the shot of this or any recent match — a dainty late twirl of the bottom hand to pick a ball off his toes and flick it, against all laws of physics and geometry both, over midwicket.

Yuvraj was 28 off 26 when Dhoni got out; the next 15 balls produced 39 runs. Each time he does this, each occasion that he bails India out with scarcely credible hitting, you keep thinking damn, the law of averages has to find him out soon — but along comes the next game and he does it again, tapping a seemingly endless vein especially in this form of the game. Maybe it frees his mind to know he doesn’t have to pace an innings; maybe this suits his attention span; maybe it’s just a case of the right horse for the short course — whatever; it’s fun, and long may it last.

The two Pathans leaving back to back in the final over threatened to dampen the cruise, but Harbhajan finished things off in style with three consecutive fours, including a fair rival to Yuvraj’s shot of the match: a square drive off a yorker length ball on middle stump.

Three batsmen falling to the hook/pull and at least one other nearly emulating that example was the real story of the Indian innings: the wicket had real pace and so did the bowlers; that and bounce proved an unfamiliar and daunting mix for a young lineup that hasn’t had to confront anything akin in quite a while.

As I write this, the West Indies chase has begun, with the early wicket of Fletcher to Yuvraj Singh — but I have some traveling to do, and will likely be back on here only late tomorrow afternoon. Enjoy the chase — the Windies have the slightest edge, but this game could still throw up a surprise or three.

PS: If India wins this, which is not exactly the option attracting the best odds as I write this, it can go to bed feeling a tad happier — because it will not then need to go into its last game of the Super Eights against South Africa needing to win to nail its last four berth.

MSD redux

The Indian captain says he has no intention of batting at three throughout the World Cup. Amen!