Dravid on spot-fixing and fear of consequences

Like I said, I can’t speak for other people but at a personal level if I were to doubt everything that happens in this game, it would take away the joy and the love of the game, from what it’s meant to be. It has been my life from the time I can remember, my first memories are of a ball and a cricket bat. So personally no, my first instinct is to trust and believe what is happening on a television screen. I hear, people do come to me, and you hear chat about this might have happened or look at that. But like I said, I’ve seen a lot of strange things on a cricket field and from people and players I would never doubt, I would bet my life on that fact.

Sambit Bal interviews Rahul Dravid on match/spot-fixing, and matters related. Nice, nuanced, and from the heart — typical Rahul. The money segment:

I think a two-pronged approach [is needed]. My personal belief is that education and counselling at a junior level is really important. As we’ve seen recently with these incidents, they aren’t only about international cricketers but we’ve seen with the sting operations last year, with what’s happened this year, is that a lot of these elements are targeting younger players, domestic players, first-class players. So obviously counselling and guidance has to go to the first-class level and junior level. So I think we’ve got to start early, we’ve got to start young but like I said earlier, in answer to your question, that part of it is already being done. I know that India has its own ACSU and even for Ranji Trophy teams this education is given. So I don’t think only education can work, [we have to] police it and have the right laws and ensure that people, when they indulge in these kind of activities, are actually punished.

People must see that there are consequences to your actions. That will create fear for people. For example, look back on the doping in cycling. Everyone knows it’s wrong and it’s frightening having read a little about it and the number of cyclists who were doing it. Surely everyone knows it’s wrong. [But] it was an exception not to do it. So the only people cyclists were scared of was not the testers, not the [cycling] authority, they were scared of the police. You read all the articles, the only guys they were scared of was the police and going to jail. So the only way that people are going to get that fear is if they know the consequences to these actions and the law that will come into play. It has got to be a criminal offence.

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‘Hard work is a talent’: Abhinav Bindra

TO me it is not just amazing — it is intimidating,” said Rahul Dravid, in a revealingly candid moment.

He was referring to Olympian athletes in general, and more particularly to Abhinav Bindra who, at age 26, became the first Indian to win an individual gold (10 m Air Rifle, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics), ending a gold drought that had lasted since 1980.

It was not the act of winning gold that had Dravid waxing superlative, but the scarcely credible circadian rhythms of an Olympian’s life. Here is how Abhinav explains it in his book:

The cricketer has Test matches through the year, the tennis player has four Grand Slam events in twelve months, the golfer has the same number of majors annually. Constantly, there is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to stake a claim for greatness. Not for me. My only chance comes every four years. My only chance is seventy shots in 125 minutes every four years (the first 60 shots have to be fired in 105 minutes, each of the final ten shots within 75 seconds.

We have to be a little insane to do this, a trifle obsessive, almost as single-minded as shaven monks who sit for years meditating under trees in search of distant nirvana… Let’s be clear: we are not you. We are not better than you, or other athletes, just caught in lives weirder than most.

‘Intimidating’ — a word well chosen by a sportsman, monkish in his own way, who could only marvel at the enormous discipline, the focus, the drive and desire that could impel a teenager to dedicate his life towards producing that one perfect shot at that one moment that only comes once in four years — knowing as he pulls the trigger on that day that even absolute perfection isn’t enough.

(No, seriously — a series of perfect tens merely puts you in the final — to win gold, you have to better perfection. In the 2004 Games in Athens, Abhinav set an Olympic record with a score of 597/600 across his first 60 shots — and ended up seventh!).

“It is awesome to think that he can invest four years of his life towards that one moment, towards producing that perfect shot when he needs it most – because that one moment is all he gets. Us cricketers, we can fail in a game or a series, and know that there is another game around the corner, another shot at redemption. But for Abhinav, that moment is it — nothing before that matters, nothing that comes after will matter. Investing an entire life for one hour, one shot — that is intimidating.”

Rahul was speaking at the launch, last evening in Bangalore, of A Shot At History, the autobiography Abhinav co-authored with arguably India’s best sportswriter, Rohit Brijnath.

BOOK launches can be incredibly boring affairs. Some random VIP, often bearing no connection to the theme of the book, “launches” a copy most members of the audience are already clutching in their hands; an author untrained in public performance reads a random passage that means nothing to the lone member of the audience who is actually listening to him/her; several members of the audience pose “questions” designed more to show off their own erudition than to showcase the author and his book; cue clumsy vote of thanks by the organizer and a general stampede for the bar.

This one, at the Mysore Hall of the ITC Gardenia, in Bangalore, was the exception proving the rule (obligatory idiot question notwithstanding). Two sportsmen, brilliant in their own right, discussed the mental mechanics of their respective arts with some gentle shepherding by Rohit — and what came through was a passion shared across sporting disciplines that could not be more dissimilar.

Abhinav and Rahul are the high priests of hard work, and it was the shooter who settled the work-versus-talent debate when he said:

“Practice is a talent. Perseverance is a talent. Hard work is a talent.”

Champions are made in those moments no one else sees — those moments when, insulated from the pressures of competition and the adulation of fans alike, they sweat the tiny details of their craft through relentless repetition, each iteration a baby step towards an ideal of perfection few others can even comprehend. Rahul and Abhinav were unanimous that it was those moments — and not the competition, the glory, the applause — they truly lived for.

“Practice,” said Rahul, “is all about the pursuit of excellence without the stress of competition — and it is those moments, when you are hitting a ball just because you can, that brings you back to the joy of sport and reminds you of why you took it up in the first place.”

Abhinav concurs. “It is when I am in my shooting range, just me, the rifle and the target, that I am truly myself. That is when I am shooting for the pure pleasure of producing the perfect shot, with nothing on the line, with no one watching you. Put 25 pence on the line, and everything changes.”

Abhinav calls it a “meditative experience,” and Rahul latches on to that descriptor. “That is where I see similarities with Abhinav,” he says. “That single minded pursuit of excellence that he talks about, it resonates with me. It is not about the gold medal, but about the quest for the perfect shot, the quest to be the best shooter he possibly can be — that for me is the essence of sport.”

The two spend some time discussing the nature of ‘The Zone’, that Holy Grail of all sportsmen everywhere, and they agree that they cannot put a finger on what it is. At best, says Rahul, what he can say is that there are times, days, when he feels so perfectly at ease with himself, so focused on the moment, that he just knows he will play well, that he will make runs.

“Is that the zone? I don’t know — I only know that it comes rarely, and it comes on its own, and there is no way I have yet found to switch it on and off at will.”

It is, says Abhinav, about “living in the moment” — a phrase so often used in sporting conversations as to have become cliche, but one that is clearly an article of faith for the Olympian. “You only have that one moment, that one brief window of time that comes along once every four years — and you try to put yourself entirely in that moment, oblivious to everything, to the past, the future, the competition lined up alongside, everything. That is why, when I win I feel exhausted, dazed, unable to even comprehend the fact of having won. But when I lose, I am not as tired — because when I lose is when I have not managed to invest everything of me into that one moment, that one perfect shot.”

Two things stood out in that response. The first, most obvious, was the unshakeable conviction; the second, more important, was ‘voice’.

When reading a particularly fine passage in a co-authored autobiography, the almost inevitable question in the mind is, how much of this is the voice of the subject, and how much the voice and skill of his amanuensis. I was at the time a little less than halfway through a book studded with passages of stunning eloquence, and already that question had occurred to me multiple times.

Now, after an evening of listening to the ace shooter speak, at ease extempore, I know: the skill, the craft, is Rohit’s, but the voice is indisputably Abhinav’s.

It is a certain, sure voice; the voice of a man confident in his chosen sphere and comfortable in the knowledge that he has chosen a life of hardship and pain that may — or may not — bring him fleeting glory once in four years (“I know that when I win, it is not going to last too long. So I have no choice but to be humble,” was Abhinav’s matter of fact response when asked about the perils and pleasures of fame).

And that voice comes laced with a top-note of delightfully wry humor (“Like Gordon’s gin,” Rohit said later when I commented on it). Sample these exchanges:

Rohit talks about how fame can affect the balance of even the most level-headed sportsman. “Oh, I am very lucky,” chips in Abhinav. “People read about me only once in four years.”

When asked the inevitable ‘If not shooting, what sport would you have chosen’, Abhinav’s dry response: ‘I would love to captain an IPL team.’ (Rahul, predictably, picks golf. It is, he says, a golf where your quest for excellence is private and personal; you practice on your own; you are focused on finding the perfect balance to play the perfect shot..’)

When a member of the audience talks of the wealth of technical detail in the book and asks Abhinav if he is not worried about revealing the secrets of his craft, just ahead of next year’s London Olympics where he will defend his gold: ‘The only secret I know is that there are no secrets in shooting. But yes, I hope my opponents might get confused.’

There are few purer pleasures than to be able to eavesdrop on two sportsmen of the highest calibre delve into their own minds, almost oblivious to the surrounding public as they seek validation for the monkish existence they have willingly assumed in the pursuit of excellence. That pleasure was ours last night — and it was just the appetizer to the book that was the reason for the evening (Review follows, in a day or two).

The voices the BCCI doesn’t hear

A compelling dialog between Harsha Bhogle and Rahul Dravid is easily the highlight of the day. Here’s the summary, and here’s the full audio/transcript version. And this is the money quote:

“We must have our own domestic calendar, or six or seven months that are ideal for us to play cricket. And play our quota of six Tests and a certain set number of ODIs during that period, and then work around that,” he said. “If we do that, at least during those six or seven months, everyone knows there’s going to be cricket in these venues. That’s very important.

“Everyone around the world needs to recognize that Test cricket needs to thrive in India. Everyone knows now that it is important Test cricket succeeds in India for it to succeed worldwide as well,” he said. “People have to come to this realization in some other countries and recognize that India now needs to have a set international calendar for the benefit of the world game really.”

Read the whole, and what strikes you is how much thought Dravid has put into this, and how evolved his thinking is. This particular dialog does not merely make the case for a careful recalibration of India’s cricketing calendar — at a larger level, it makes the far more eloquent case that what Indian cricket needs, at a time of great flux, is for the BCCI to incorporate intelligent, articulate players/former players into its management structure, and to give them the responsibility for a total revamp of our cricket.

Let the politicians hog the glory and line their pockets, if they must — but let’s get players [not the time servers, the usual suspects who suck up to the organization in return for the opportunity to make some bucks being permanently ensconced in the commentary box and ‘running’ various ‘committees’] involved in the hands on running of the game.

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 ‘watch paint dry’ party

There is a deliciously nostalgic feel to seeing four Indian fielders crouch around the bat as a spinner comes in to bowl – an image that evokes the era of the spin quartet at the height of their pomp.

Unfortunately, nostalgia ends right there, with that image – once the spinner in question bowls, you are left with a wistful yearning for times past.

On balance, off spinner Harbhajan Singh’s analysis of 7-3-9-0 leads you to believe he was weaving a web of spin; that it is just a matter of time. In reality, that analysis owes much to rigid adherence to a line, particularly mystifying in an off spinner, that begins around middle stump and takes the ball onto leg or outside.

The Indian spinners I grew up watching would have killed for 642 runs to bowl against; hell, they would have sold their collective soul to the devil for half that number. Against that, the reaction of today’s premier spinner is to immediately hit the sort of run-denying line [four deliveries in Harbhajan’s first over were middle and leg tending to leg] that would earn appreciation were this match being played in colored clothing, but is out of sync with a team trying to win a Test.

Blame who you like: a board that systematically over-schedules ODIs and T20s and as methodically cuts back on Tests; the absence of a bowling coach who can work with spinners on ideal lines and lengths; the absence of an Anil Kumble on a bounce-less wicket where straight wicket to wicket lines and minor variations yield big results; an off spinner who has so retooled his game for the shorter formats that he has misplaced the skills that catapulted him into the limelight in the first place…

Fact remains, there was very little in the 11 overs of spin, and indeed in the 24 completed overs of the Lankan innings, to hold out much hope of anything other than a long drawn, and thoroughly boring, game of attrition. The only question being asked of Sri Lanka – a team reared on slow, low-bouncing wickets — do you have the patience to bat forever and a day?

Earlier in the day, India’s batting display was inexplicable [oh I know, we got 642, what more do you want, are you never satisfied, yada yada. Right, take all that as read]. The morning featured a – another — commanding performance by Rahul Dravid, who batted fluidly to play the dominant part in an association with Sachin Tendulkar. Rahul is a quintessential Test batsman at all times; in these last two knocks, he has added a layer to his skill sets with an aggressive mindset, a fluidity of strokeplay and an ability to keep the board ticking over at all times that makes him the fully finished article.

Sachin, for his part, seemed to have misplaced his gearbox. His first boundary came after he had played 86 deliveries, and it was a waltz down the wicket to crack a straight six; four balls later, he went charging out again at Mendis in an unwonted, clumsy, neck or nothing fashion. As it turned out, it was nothing.

Yuvraj and Laxman both looked in good touch; the way they batted in the first hour after lunch seemed to suggest that the goal was to coast along risk-free at around 4 rpo, then open out heading to tea and immediately thereafter. Nice plan – except they read it upside down, and inexplicably got into a rut in the second hour of the second session; a comatose period that, in the final analysis, triggered a collapse from 613/5 when Laxman got out, to 642 all out – a loss of 6 wickets for 29 runs and a five-for to Herath, both gifts gratefully accepted by the weary Lankans [and immediately returned, when Tillekeratne Dilshan to the first ball of the innings played a flick too soon and holed out].

At close, Lanka was grinding it out at around 2.7 rpo – hardly the sort of stirring stuff that fills stands, but the Lankan focus is, and will clearly remain, ensuring the follow on is averted one nudge, one nurdle at a time.

We can follow that process, ball by ball, tomorrow. Or we can watch paint dry.

In passing, Dileep Premachandran on the pitches we make:

The facts are irrefutable. Over the past five years, nearly 50% of the matches in India [11 of 24] have ended in draws. And unlike a Cardiff 2009 or The Oval 1979, most of the stalemates have been mind-numbingly boring. In the same period, 11 of 35 Tests in England have been drawn. Leading the way in pitch preparation, as on the field, are Australia [two draws in 27] and South Africa [three in 29]. And just to prove that south Asia does not only do touch-of-grey Tests, Sri Lanka have had 18 results from 22 games.

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.

Random thoughts on a lazy Monday

‘Lazy Monday’ is such a luxury, no? 🙂 Happy Dussera all — in a few hours from now, India will look to slay the Australian Ravan to keep its hopes alive… okay enough already with the festive metaphors.

We seem to have a positive genius for finding ‘solutions’ to problems that don’t address the problem. Take for instance the case of the number three in the Indian batting lineup.

‘India can’t play the short ball,’ someone said; the cry got amplified and the selectors promptly picked Rahul Dravid to “step into the breach”.

Which breach? This is the 50-over format. A bowler can send down one short ball per over, max. And that is the huge bogey forcing us to rethink our batting strategy? [A corollary problem with our publicly voiced fears is that it has given the opposition a handy fright mask to scare us with — vide Mitchell Johnson’s comments here].

While on that, memo to writers of cricket reports:  “holding one end up” is not an absolute, but a qualified, good — it works only if something constructive is happening at the other end.

It is not fashionable to question Dravid’s inclusion in the side, or at the least his batting position, after he top scored in the failed chase against Pakistan — but while watching the game, it was hard to escape the thought that his taking root at one end [literally, since he was for long stretches unable to place the single and turn the strike over] was turning the screws on Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina in succession. We picked a player to solve a non-existent problem, and in doing that appear to have created other, more crucial problems.

The tragedy is the problem was predictable [Harsha for instance said as much in a chat some three weeks earlier], hence avoidable.

Here, on the basis of what we saw in the India-Pak game, is a list of things I’d like to see today:

First, the team in batting order: Tendulkar, Gambhir, Raina, Kohli, Dhoni [any higher, and he tends to go into a shell in the name of controlling the chase], Dravid [this low down, you take away from his mind all thoughts of defense, and give him the space to return to the finisher role which is the only time he has excelled in the one day squad],  Pathan, Bajji, Amit Mishra, Ishant, Ashish. With the proviso that if we get a good start, I’d like to see Pathan floated to the number three position with the brief of producing a momentum-providing flurry of big hitting.

Pathan clearly lacks the confidence to finish games — an act that is not merely about hitting the cover off the ball. Free him of the pressure of having to calculate the later stages of a chase and let him free higher up with an uncluttered brief, and you likely will get the best out of the bloke. Plus, Pathan coming in early will force the bowling side to delay its Power Play, where with Dravid at three they will tend to take it between 10-15.

While on power plays, I’d like to see India take its batting PP somewhere between the 20th and 35th overs. A batting lineup without Yuvraj in the middle lacks the batting muscle to delay its batting PP right to the end — deploying it in the middle ensures that qualified batsmen can use those five overs to provide a boost just at that point when the game is drifting into a holding pattern; the additional plus is that it disrupts the bowling side’s option of sneaking in some non-regular overs and thus saving top bowlers for the death.

The news out of Centurion is that India is set to go into the game against Australia with five bowlers, “putting the onus” on its batting lineup. I’m a huge fan of playing five regular bowlers more often than not, but IMHO this batting lineup without Sehwag and Yuvraj is not the sort of form where it can absorb the added pressure.

Besides, Sambit Bal has a point when he says spin, not pace, will be the ideal weapon against Australia — more so as the wickets thus far have shown a tendency to aid spin more than pace/seam. Three seamers are an unaffordable luxury for this game, and in any case RP Singh in his current form is more handicap than help [his presence means India is forced to waste Ishant Sharma in the first change position where ideally he should be bowling with the new ball].

I’d like to see Ishant open with Nehra; Bajji to come in first change [with his head screwed on right], and for India to use Raina [not using Raina was among the glaring errors in India’s first game} and Yusuf in brief bursts at one end while Bajji rotates in the attacking role with Amit Mishra at the other.

One final item in my wish list for the day: during the middle overs, when spin is being used, I’d like to see the fielders within the ring come right in to where they can stop singles. Throughout their partnership, Yusuf and Malik routinely stroked pressure-free singles to point, cover, mid off, mid on, midwicket and square leg, though most or all those fielders were in the ring.

There has to be a definite point to where you place a fielder — he is there either to stop singles, or defend the boundaries. A fielder on the edge of the circle does neither — the fours come through the gaps anyway, and there are too many easy singles on offer. Block the singles with a tighter, closer ring and force the batsmen to take risks going over their heads, would be the final item on my wish list.

A win against an Australia on form and on a winning streak would be close to miraculous, more so for an India missing three of its key players. A more likely result would be India’s premature exit from the Champions’ Trophy — but what the hell, it is Dussera, time to slay demons. 🙂

For the duration of the game, will be on Twitter. See you there — and back here tomorrow.