Cricket clips

#1. Rohit Sharma had an opportunity to make his case for consideration for the national team, and he blew it. At the time of writing this, Manish Pandey is however grabbing his chance with both hands and then some — 43 off 39 with five fours and two sixes, as I write this.

#2. Suresh Menon makes the point well: Shahid Afridi has managed to get away with a slap on the wrists for an offense that should have attracted far heavier punishment. Menon also takes a swipe at the ICC for one of the more memorable wtf quotes of recent times:

The ICC has banned Afridi for just two matches. Its official communiqué states: “The Pakistan captain was observed in the act of changing the condition of the ball during Australia’s innings without the permission of the on-field umpires.” So that was the problem then. Bad  table manners. He should have asked the umpires first. “Mr Umpire, could you please pass the ball please; I always carry a salt shaker in my pocket. You never know when the opposition is 35 runs from victory with five overs remaining, and your fast bowlers might need some help.”

3. Sharda Ugra and Rohit Mahajan are scathing on the subject of the fiasco involving the Pakistan players in the IPL-3 auction. From Sharda:

Modi calls this theory a “pre-conceived conspiracy” except that its preconception came from the IPL bosses a few days before the auction. Switch off the camera and put down the pen and most franchise executives will say that.

That a few days before the auction the franchises were told to “take it easy on Pakistani players”. Two days before the auction, Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper reported a story: “IPL teams told not to bid for Pakistani players in auction”. It quoted IPL Chief Operating Officer Sundar Raman’s one-word reply to the report: “Rubbish”. After the story appeared, Lalit Modi messaged the reporter calling the report, “totally biased” and adding, “anyway fiction is good once in a while.”

And from Rohit:

It has become evident that the franchisees actually wanted several players from Pakistan; it’s also become clear that the Indian government didn’t play a role in the exclusion—on the contrary, the government had given 17 Pakistani players visas in December. All along, the Board for Control of Cricket in India and the IPL have insisted that the franchisees were and are free to buy players of their choice. So who prevented the franchisees from choosing players from across the border? It wasn’t the IPL governing council, as Rajeev Shukla, BCCI vice-president, says: “There were no instructions to the teams from the IPL governing council not to pick Pakistani players.”

But sources say instructions were  indeed given. And the man giving the instructions, according to sources at IPL franchisees, was IPL commissioner Lalit Modi himself. “It was he who personally advised franchisees to not buy Pakistani players at the auction,” a source with an IPL team told Outlook.

Publicly, Modi and the BCCI have maintained that the teams were completely free to pick up any player. Modi told a TV channel: “There was no pre-decision. They (franchisees) were all worried about availability and that’s why the Australians weren’t picked along with many other players.”

That’s a bit disingenuous, for while the Australians are indeed playing an international series during the IPL, the Pakistanis are not. Salman Ahmed of Portfolio World Sports Management, who manages several Pakistani players, says he appreciates that the sponsors could have been wary about the presence of the Pakistanis due to the 26/11 Mumbai attack, but adds: “The right thing to do is to sit down with the players, explain to them the situation and hand them their money for terminating their contracts. A little tact and honesty would have helped…Modi has played a dirty game by putting them up for auction and then ensuring nobody bought them.”

Until three days before the auction, Tanvir, Misbah, Umar Gul and Kamran Akmal were not up for auction—they believed that they were still contracted with the teams they played for in IPL-1. They had been sent letters by their teams in December, stating they’d play for their respective IPL teams. This was confirmed by a senior official with the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise. There was no talk of them being on the auction list at that stage.

This auction is already the gift that goes on giving; with a sizable chunk of BCCI honchos waiting for an opportunity to cut Modi down to size, the coming days should bring a host of interesting revelations.

#3. Two interesting reads, for when you have time: Rahul Bhattacharya, who ranks high on my list of favorite cricket writers, on what goes into making a cricketer great; Harsha Bhogle, who I had been hoping to rope into Yahoo only to find he had already signed an exclusive deal with Cricinfo, interviews VVS Laxman at length.

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Number three

Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli – three of the most serious talents in the next generation.

All are young, and confident; all three are great runners between wickets and very good fielders both within the circle and out in the deep. And all three have been given opportunities to make the number three spot their own.

That slot is key when it comes to building the team for the World Cup – at the pivotal position, you need to be able to keep the momentum going if the openers have given you a start, stop the bowling in its tracks if the conditions are suitable and the bowlers have built up a head of steam, and overall control the innings, creating the platform for the big push and allowing the strikers to bat around him.

In terms of sheer talent and aesthetics, I’d rate Rohit, Suresh and Virat in that order, but consider the stats:

Rohit had six opportunities to bat at 3 and went 26 against Bangladesh, 24 against Pakistan, 11 against Hong Kong, 22 against Bangladesh, and 4 and 0 against the West Indies before his ‘discomfort against the rising ball’ saw the selectors put him on the shelf.

Suresh has had more opportunities – 16 of them, in which he has totaled 374 runs and averaged 23.37 at a strike rate of 77.43; neither of those indices indicate that he has done enough to seal the slot for himself. In fact, his average and strike rate are both lower than his career stats in those parameters.

And then there is Virat Kohli – the player who, to the naked eye, would appear the least talented of the three, but the one who is rapidly staking a claim to make the number three slot his own.

In that position, he has had knocks of 10 against Australia, 9 against Sri Lanka, a break-out innings of 91 against Bangladesh, 71 not out against Lanka, and now 102 not out against SL for 283 runs in five innings at an average of 94.33 [give that average the weight of two not outs – there is an argument to be made for discounting not outs when calculating averages, but that can wait for another day] and a strike rate of 96.58.

So who’s the one who has made his case with the most emphasis?

If he does not have the outrageous talent of his peers [and yes, before you remind me, it is early days yet – consider this post an early radar sighting], Kohli has two qualities that are worth gold:

He has a clear idea of his strong areas and weak ones, and looks to have learnt to maximize his strengths while ensuring that his weaknesses do not prove fatal. More to the point, he has learnt to put a premium on his wicket – when he gets in, he clearly has the desire to stay in and score as much as he possibly can. Of the three contenders, it is Kohli who has seen his chance and grabbed it with both hands.

If there is to be any gain from the inordinate number of one-dayers the BCCI has built into its calendar for the year, it has to be in providing the management an opportunity to build the framework of a team, and identify both the floaters and the reserves for key positions.

You would have to say that from a team point of view, the goal should be to lock down your top five, and let the players grow into their respective roles so that come the World Cup, each player has a good sense of what he has to do, and what his mates are capable of doing.

The problem is the wild card – Sachin, who when he decides to play, takes one of the two top slots and pushes everyone else one place down [Kohli will, in such a situation, end up batting at 6 since Yuvraj will bat four and Dhoni five; not only will that disrupt the rhythm the youngster is building, but also disrupt the Raina-Dhoni pairing that has performed outstandingly well in recent times.

Consider another aspect of that situation: when picking a player for a slot, you need to pick the one best suited for it. So, when SRT comes back, you have to make a choice for number six between Kohli, in the form of his life, and Raina, who in recent times has settled very nicely into the role of finisher. Who do you pick?

It’s a conundrum the management has to crack. I am not suggesting there is no place for Tendulkar in this lineup – there is, in fact, a fairytale feel to the thought that the veteran, who time out of mind has said his one remaining ambition is to win a Cup for his country, will play his last World Cup on home soil.

The trick for the team management has to be to figure who is absolutely the best for each role, and then lock them in place – in making that determination, the skill sets, form and ability of a player to play a particular role has to be the sole criterion; the personal preference of any player, no matter how senior, can have no role to play.

#Random observation: Keep an eye on Raina when the bowler bangs it in; the lad is yet to develop any kind of comfort level against the short ball. Of late, he hasn’t come up against the kind of opposition, or the kind of conditions, that can exploit that weakness, but in these days of video analysis, it is something stronger opposition will have made a note of.

#Random observation 2: Today there was crackerjack game at the domestic level, and a ho-hum one-dayer at the international level. How often have we been in a position to say that? And while on a great domestic game brewing, did you see the Mumbai batting crack against a good seam lineup on a testing pitch? While watching that, I couldn’t help thinking of the practice Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar are getting in the nets, against club trundlers on flat practice wickets.

New wine, old bottle

If I was a young man, say Rohit Sharma whose place Dravid has taken, I’d look in the mirror and ask hard questions of myself. If I represent the future and have just lost my place to someone 14 years older, the outlook couldn’t be too rosy.

Harsha Bhogle on the recall of Dravid, and related issues.

Exits, comebacks…

It was only when I read the news of his retirement that I realized Vinod Kambli, last seen in Test action in 1995 and in the limited form in 2000, was actually still ‘available’ till the other day. Preternaturally talented, manically self-destructive [at least until the late 2006 marriage, his second, to Andrea Hewitt, at which point he showed some sign of finding the personal sense of equilibrium he appeared to have misplaced], Kambli for me is the single greatest instance in modern times of talent wasted partly due to his own shortcomings and partly due to the short-sightedness of an administrative structure that has neither the skill, nor the inclination, for effective man-management.

Elsewhere, Rahul Dravid returns to the one-day squad — which, as Sidharth Monga argues, may not in and of itself be a bad thing. The thinking seems to be, India’s young guns have been found out by pace and bounce, we need a semblance of solidity, and there is nothing as solid as Dravid, ergo. Fair enough.

But that is at best part of a solution — and a short term one at that. What is not equally clear to me is whether the BCCI has some sort of mechanism for rehabilitation. Having identified Rohit Sharma as the one player with this weakness [Suresh Raina, to quote just one other example, didn’t shape all that well against the shorter ball but he seems to be back in the side], what next? Do selectors red flag the player, send the board a note saying this kid is a talent but he has a problem we need to work on? Does the board then consult with its experts in the coaching academy, and send Sharma to the NCA for some intensive work on technique? Absent any of this, merely substituting a Dravid for a Sharma is nothing more than a band aid applied to a wound, while the underlying infection is allowed to go untreated.

In passing — a question for the selectors: what is the problem with Pragyan Ojha? Do you know? And if you do, have you communicated your thoughts to the player, and advised him on what he needs to do next? Or is the Misra for Ojha switch merely one more example of the easy come, easy go, plenty more fish in the pond thinking that characterizes our cricket administration?

Band aid solution

Harsha in his latest column makes a point that has been debated on this forum ever since the selection of the 30 probables for the Champions’  Trophy.

There is another way to look at it though. There are two months between now and the Champions Trophy and there is a full fledged National Cricket Academy, one of whose objectives is to look at corrective measures for established players. Either Raina and Rohit Sharma, for that matter, could spend four weeks there, or a week, then the ‘A’ tournament in Australia (where there would have been enough opportunities to test them against short-pitched bowling) and then back to the academy.

The question the selectors would therefore have asked themselves is: do we react quickly to what we believe, and have seen a bit of (the susceptibility to short-pitched bowling), or do we give young men an extended run and back them to solve problems like these which are part of a cricketer’s development anyway. It might be worth considering the positives, which is that Raina and Sharma, and indeed Ravindra Jadeja, emerge from the Champion’s Trophy having conquered their weakness and become significantly better players as a result. And in any case, we are talking of playing a few overs, not a whole day against terrifying fast bowlers, whose numbers are dwindling anyway!

Meanwhile consider this delicious, and entirely possible, thought. Rahul Dravid walks out on a genuinely sporting pitch at the Wanderers in late September and bats like we have always known him to; peels back the years, months actually, and has a great tournament. What then? Do you pick him against Australia for the home series of one-day games? And if he is indeed going to play in South Africa shouldn’t he play the one-day games in Sri Lanka next month? As usual, many answers are sought. It will be interesting to see what shape this kaleidoscope throws up!

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.