Ranji day three

Did you happen to watch the last two balls of play on day three? Ajit Agarkar to Satish — on perfect length, just that fraction short of ‘good length’, lifting nicely off the deck, then deviating off the seam at the very last instant to leave a well set, defensive minded batsman squared up and lucky to survive.

Deliveries like that, on day one of a game, would have the purists in ecstatic anticipation of a real clash between bat and ball; when it comes at the fag end of day three, when on almost any pitch around the world the conditions are at their best for batting, it’s a real delight.

Thanks to having a container full of stuff — my Bombay home, reduced to boxes of various shapes and sizes — land up at my Bangalore doorstep, I missed large chunks of the game, but did manage to catch bits here and there [thanks to a very friendly neighbor who recognized my name, and left his front door open so I could peek at his TV screen from across the corridor! :-)] and the post tea play in its entirety.

The eye-catcher, aside from the bowling [while on that, I’ll confess to perverse delight at the sight of Ramesh Powar, that beer keg on legs — he is perhaps the only throwback to a different era, when pot bellies were the norm, and when you look past the avoirdupois you find an off spinner cast in the classical mould], was easily young Manish Pandey.

The lad clearly has talent to burn, attitude ditto; the pull he played off Agarkar to get to his 50 — off the front foot to a short of length ball on this kind of deck, hitting to the left of mid wicket — was a sight for the gods, as was a cover drive and a clip off his legs that would have done top flight internationals proud.

He clearly merits a go at the highest level — trick is, how on earth are selectors going to slot the lad into a team that seems to have a half dozen decent contenders vying for two or three places? The answer to that one is going to be interesting to watch.

Oh, and on a day when India and Sri Lanka set a record, they were at it again. Actually, at the time of writing this, they still are, and there is a commentator yelling something about it being a cup final — but seriously, as Sidharth Monga said in that piece linked to above, it’s time the rest of us went on strike.

Again, I only managed to catch glimpses of the India innings [and I notice that Virat Kohli, with a less than optimal sense of timing, managed a failure on the day Peter Roebuck picked him in his list of young bucks to watch for] — including a slightly extended look at Raina playing spin, which always ranks among the more pleasing sights in the game. Lanka is now chasing, and I find I just don’t care. Seriously — there is something wrong when you actually begin looking forward to a Test match against Bangladesh.

Consider this today’s hi-hello post; tomorrow is about unpacking stuff, re-assembling dismantled furniture, et al. Strenuous, stress-filled day ahead — blogging, if time and energy permit, will happen sometime late evening. Be well, all. Meanwhile, here’s some leisure reading: Mike Marquesee on the Firozeshah Kotla in particular and Indian grounds in general.

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.

The Premadasa cup

How on earth does a ground manage to come up with a record as lopsided as this one? Forget the win-loss statistics — the real eye-opener is this:

  • They went on to amass a big score; in the same duration, the average runs-per-wicket of 30.71 in the first innings at the Premadasa is higher than any other venue in the country that has hosted more than one ODI.
  • They bowled India out cheaply; the Premadasa has the lowest average runs-per-wicket – 20.97 – in the second innings among all venues in that span of time. (Minimum of eight matches at the venue).

That’s a 10 run differential per wicket between the teams batting first and second at this venue — one hundred runs differential per team on average. Such aberrations take cricket out of the realm of skill, and reduce it to the spin of the coin — and when we talk of ODIs losing their attraction and of the need for reform, the topic that rarely if ever comes up is just how much loaded wickets contribute to the boredom.

Grant a lot of things about India’s performance in the final: Sachin Tendulkar turned the clock back — well, almost — with an artistic performance; as many as three top order batsmen played good knocks around the batting mainstay; Harbhajan Singh rediscovered — one hopes not momentarily — the virtues of flight and loop; two part-time bowlers, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, bowled 14 overs between them for 50 runs and two wickets…

If I were doing a conventional match report for Rediff, I suspect I’d at the end of the game have written reams about the triumph of will, about how India shrugged aside the record hammering of Friday and came out with all guns blazing, how when the chips were down the veterans aided by the captain set the game up for the bravura finish and how on the chase, despite bowlers and fielders being hampered by dew, the team helmed by its Captain Cool held its collective nerve to triumph over the invincible home team.

It is an easy narrative to construct. And when I made my living writing cricket, it was the narrative that came fluently, automatically, at the conclusion of a game like this.

And yet.

A truer storyline would be that India in the field did its utmost to lose the game, and was foiled by prevailing conditions.

The fielders — Yusuf Pathan and Virat Kohli in particular — dropped sitters. MS Dhoni uncharacteristically [uncharacteristically not because he is the best keeper currently playing, but because his glove skills have visibly improved since his entry into international cricket, and he is now a ‘safe’ keeper] missed a relatively simple stumping off Raina.

The overall standard of ground fielding was ordinary at best, creating such confidence in the opposition that batsmen repeatedly ran singles to short positions on the on and off [at one point during the Kadamby-Kapugedara partnership RP Singh, not the most distinguished in the field on the day, was reduced to fury by a fielding effort that converted a tight one into a cruise for two, with the batsmen even contemplating the possibility of a tight third].

It wasn’t a Cup-winning performance by any yardstick — and yet, despite an in-form Sri Lankan batting lineup that goes way down deep, India won with ease — and for that you have to give the Player of the Match award to the Premadasa curator, who more than any of the 22 players on the field exerted the utmost influence on the outcome.

Hey, India won without its two influential openers [and what I’d have given for the sight of Viru Sehwag in prime form on this track] and its most influential seam bowler, while coming off a layoff — so, glory be. But it is hard to avoid the thought that if the team is to do significantly well in the upcoming Champions’ Trophy, it needs an extended session in the dry docks of a training camp, where the support staff can go to work scraping off the inch-thick rust and getting lethargic arms and legs — and minds — moving again.

In passing, am I the only one who thinks the Sri Lankan bowling card was anomalous, and uncharacteristic of Kumar Sangakkara’s usually assured leadership? Thilan Thushara looked ordinary — and that is being kind — at the start, and yet he got to finish his quota while Nuwan Kulasekhara, who held a good line throughout, bowled two short. Even more inexplicably, Angelo Mathews bowled a mere three overs of tidy seam before being banished into some dark hole in the ground.

The whatsit cup final

Remarkably little heartburn in the papers Saturday, following India’s collapse chasing an improbable target of 308 against a well-rounded bowling attack backed by superb fielding. Nice. The team after all is easing back into competitive cricket after a decent-sized layoff, so any breast-beating at the symptoms of rust would have been premature. Come to think of it, if India loses the Compaq Cup final today, I still wouldn’t worry.

That said, there are signs that should begin to seriously worry selectors — and the first is Suresh Raina. Along with Rohit Sharma, Raina is being groomed to bat at 3 or 4 in the order in the new dispensation. Watch him play Shane Bond, though, and you realize just how far he has to go before he can live up to that billing — Raina was distinctly discommoded by anything that didn’t pitch in his own half and, in fact, was in such a state of chronic apprehension that once, ludicrously, he jumped onto the back foot to a ball of good length, and got into a horrid tangle. He may have been working on remedies, but clearly he has a heck of a long way to go still, and that opens up a major vulnerability within the lineup.

The other was the Yuvraj Singh sideshow on Friday. The one time contender for captaincy is a notoriously slow starter even when in prime form, but at the start of a season he is just plain flat-footed — and that is in large part the result of a lifestyle that avoids anything remotely resembling practice in favor of the bright lights of the Mumbai party circuit. During his time as coach, John Wright had identified the tendency to slack off during the off season as the single reason why the team invariably starts the new season slow. Years later, though the symptom was identified, there still seems no cure in sight. Do we even have an off season schedule, and does anyone actively monitor what the players get up to when there are no international commitments?

The third problem, unfortunately, is not something the selectors or the team can do much about just now. In ODIs, you need the ability to maximize the possibilities of the first ten overs — and absent Viru Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, the team lacks that ability. A slow start, compounded by Dravid at three, means pressure all the way down the line, and that pressure is falling on the likes of Raina and Yuvraj who, at this point, are just not equipped to turn it around.

At the end of Friday’s game, MS Dhoni said the toss was 50 per cent of the battle and if you can put up anything in the region of 250 batting first, that is 80 per cent of the game won. I don’t know if it is that simple — the team at this moment has a sluggish look about it, especially in the field [against Lanka, fielders routinely conceded twos where there should have just been brisk ones; against that, the Lankan inner ring routinely denied singles and had the Indians under enormous pressure]; even if they were to win the toss today, I don’t see them winning the game, not with rust so thick in all three departments of the game.

In any case — how many of you watched the two India games thus far? Just taking the temperature. 🙂 I’ll likely watch the first half of today’s game, anyway, before heading off to meet some friends just in from London — thoughts, as and when the occur, on my Twitter stream.

Raina’s signature perfume

What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong with this picture?

Take a look at this picture. What’s wrong with it?

Admittedly, while Raina here is playing a short ball it is not, judging by the evidence of his eyes, a bouncer.

Yet it is a good example of all that is wrong with the youngster when confronted with deliveries not in his half of the pitch:

He is more square on than side on for starters, which means he is not ideally positioned to either duck [if he does, he will actually be ducking into the ball] or to sway out of line.

Equally, look at the positioning of his hands: The right elbow is way off line and almost useless in terms of controlling the bat.

‘Fear of the short ball’ is the indictment leveled in recent times at the likes of Raina and Rohit Sharma, but I’m not sure ‘fear’ is the operative word — it is more a case of defective technique. Aakash Chopra’s column on dealing with the bouncer has a lead image of a player equally technique-deficient: eyes looking away from the ball, bat held at half-cock in a reflexive gesture…

All of which is why I found this story from last week interesting.

What made today’s contest the more fascinating was Raina’s revelation at the end of the game that Dravid was one of the people, along with Gary Kirsten and Sachin Tendulkar, who’d helped him tackle the short ball in the camp before this tournament.

On balance, you’d have to say the youngster has a fair way to go yet before he makes good on his boast to send the next bouncer he gets into the stratosphere.

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!