A song of fire and ice

THE following happened in the space of 11 deliveries:

A fast bowler produced a searing delivery from around the wicket in the channel around off, seaming away late while climbing. It was good enough to beat attempted aggression by a well-set batsman playing his preferred area square on the off, to find the thick edge and fly to slip, where a regulation catch was shelled by probably the worst fielder in the side. (The fact that he was standing there testifies to this — captain Rahane wanted fleeter feet in front, and despite having caught like a dream at slip all series, opted to pull out of slip and post himself at mid on).

A little later the batsman takes that same line at that same pace backed by a field set exactly for that shot, and nails a square drive that drills a hole through the point region to the fence. To the same length and very nearly the same line, the batsman then pulls fiercely, taking the ball from outside off and despite pace around the 140k mark, hitting across the line and defeating the best opposition fielder at mid-on. The batsman wants either a one or a three to retain strike; it ends up as a two as the fielder recovers quickly.

At the other end, the man who had just dropped the catch gets a ball in perfect line, just close enough to the stumps to compel the batsman to play, the ball bouncing off the deck, turning sharp and late and finding the edge. The fielder at second slip gets down low quickly, gets his fingertips around the ball, holds, appeals, gets the decision, and races into the pavilion because he has to come out shortly and bat.

The decision meanwhile is reviewed and it turns out the ball kissed the turf just the tiniest bit. The player who pulled off the catch (Vijay) has to come dashing back out from the pavilion and onto the field of play. The bowler and fielders are upset; an umpire actually gives one fielder a sympathetic pat on the back in passing.

And one ball later, the bowler makes one go through straight to defeat a batsman on the lookout for turn, hits the pad, gets the LBW, triggers another review, and this time gets the ruling in his favor.

Eleven deliveries from start to finish showcasing good quick bowling (Umesh Yadav), fierce batting (Wade), desperate striving to keep control of the game in his hands (Wade again), intelligent spin bowling that gets a batsman almost out with one kind of delivery, then uses it as set up and takes the same man out with the other type (Ashwin). And sandwiched somewhere in there, both bad catching and good.

That was how the Australian second innings ended, and that in microcosm is how this entire Test series and particularly this final Test has been: dramatic, packed with incident, its plot points coming so thick and fast that it becomes impossible to chronicle, or even catalog, them all.

THE events of the previous day’s play had me musing on the irresistible force/immovable object paradox, which the Chinese began pondering as early as the third century before Christ.

Neither they nor anyone else has solved that one yet – but if and when they do, they can get started on the Dharamshala Corollary: to wit, what happens when the two opposing forces change roles, now irresistible, now indomitable, so often that it becomes impossible to tell the other from which?

When play began this morning, Australia was in control. 52 runs ahead in a game where every run has to be excavated at the cost of blood and sweat with just four wickets left to take. An hour into play, India had assumed control – the deficit wiped out, the wickets still intact, the batsmen in the middle batting with increasing nonchalance and near-immaculate control.

In the very next hour, Australia takes back control, blasting out the remaining wickets, allowing just 28 more runs to be added to the 4-run lead. At the end of hour three, India – are you managing to keep track of all this? — are right back in control, having taken three wickets in the space of 11 overs, with the opposition a mere five runs ahead of the game…

Test cricket is about momentum, control, shifting from side to side. But almost invariably, these swings of fortune happen over time and are the result of the slow action-reaction sequences triggered by opposing strategies and tactics.

What has distinguished this India-Australia series is not that fortunes have swung end to end– when two closely matched teams take each other on, you expect that to be the norm. What makes this really special is the pace at which such swings have happened – look away for half an hour, any day of this series, and more likely than not the two teams have changed the narrative on you and taken the storyline in totally unpredictable directions.

While memory is fresh on both sides, someone needs to chronicle it, capture the many events as they ramified, and preserve all in a book. And some day maybe a decade from now, someone born in the age of Twitter and weaned entirely on the compressed versions of cricket will read it and dismiss it all as wild exaggeration.

PostScript: My post-play report is here. And below, please find a couple of thought bubbles, spinoffs from an enthralling day of Test cricket at its very finest:

#1: Ravindra Jadeja gets a bad rap on social media, where he has been ironically knighted. It’s taken a while, but Jadeja is now the one laughing last, loudest, longest.

Even by the standards of a home season that has seen him match, at least statistically, the batting numbers of his presumed betters such as Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Vijay and Rahul and equally, match and then overhaul the performance of his bowling partner and world rankings topper with the ball, this final series against Australia could be the breakout performance he needs to establish himself as the first name picked in any format, on any conditions, in any country, against any opposition.

That he has learnt to take the pitch out of his equations when he bowls has been evident for a while; that he has learnt to be equally penetrative against left handers and right handers, top order batsmen and tailenders, is also increasingly self-evident. Of more recent vintage is his self-discovery as a complete batsman. He came in to bat when India was down and almost out; he top-scored to leave India in a position to win the game. But what was remarkable was not the runs he scored, but the manner of it.

His wagon-wheel here was exemplary. On the off side, he stroked 11 through the covers and six in the mid off region; on the on, he had six to square leg, 12 through midwicket, 14 to long on. It was an amazingly even spread on a track where the best batsmen on either side were reduced to mostly playing on the on. Accentuating that is the fact that where edges and nudges were the default mode of scoring for most, Jadeja only scored five behind the wicket, on off and on sides combined.

Where everyone found Nathan Lyon unplayable, Jadeja stroked an easy 27 runs off  34 balls faced. His authoritative six off O’Keefe, hit with casual contempt, meant that Steve Smith never used the left arm spinner for the duration of Jadeja’s stay at the wicket — that is to say, for a span of over thirty overs. He left what he had to and defended when he must, playing out 68 dot balls, and he still ended up scoring his runs at 66.31 – quicker, under more pressure, than Smith and Warner had done in the Australian first innings. And this controlled innings came on the back of the one in Ranchi where, with the tail for company, he went after quick runs and batted with freewheeling enterprise.

#2: Ajinkya Rahane is a quiet fellow who goes almost unnoticed on the field, particularly in a team led by the tempestuous Virat Kohli. Even his celebrations are muted – a slight smile, a token high five more for form’s sake than with any vim. In a lippy team, he is the one who has nothing to say to the opposition – and yet, when it comes down to it, he turns out to be the most aggressive of the lot.

Every Indian captain I have watched as part of my work, and that is a list that goes all the way back to Azharuddin, would in the Australian second innings have gone with in-out fields, trying to find a balance between taking wickets and defending runs.

Rahane attacked flat out – three slips, gully, point in, cover in, mid off in, mid on mostly in, midwicket drawn in, square leg well inside the ring… His intent was clear: he was willing to concede runs if the opposition was good enough to make them, but his first priority was to back his bowlers.

Equally, every captain I’ve watched would have had either Ashwin or Jadeja opening the bowling or, if they felt unusually ambitious, used the debutant hero of the first innings first up. Rahane slipped the leash on Umesh Yadav and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and let them bowl 13 straight before he even turned to spin.

There was considerable appreciation in the commentary box for India’s aggressive bowling in the second innings, but insufficient acknowledgment of the fact that no bowling unit can attack consistently unless they are given sharp teeth in the field.

Consider, too, his perfectly weighted bowling changes. That he brought Kuldeep Yadav in as early as the 14th over, as the first spinning option ahead of Ashwin and Jadeja, owed to the fact that the debutant had dismissed the two batsmen then at the crease, Maxwell and Handscomb, in the first innings.

When Maxwell went after Kuldeep in his second over, hitting him for a six and a four off successive deliveries, and smacked another four in the next over, Rahane allowed the youngster yet another over and kept the field up. Contrast with Smith, who took O’Keefe off after just one show of aggression by Jadeja and kept him off for the entirety of that partnership. Also consider what it means to a young bowler when the captain shows faith, doesn’t banish him after one expensive over.

Kuldeep’s spell was 5-0-23-0. After that 5th over, you knew he was going off. At the other end, Jadeja was bowling beautifully (4-1-9-0), and yet it was Jadeja who came off to give place to Ashwin. And then in the very next over, Jadeja was brought on at the other end. Ashwin got Handscomb in his second over; Jadeja took out Shaun Marsh in the very next over, his second after the change of ends.

You could dismiss all this as happenstance. When things go well for you as they sometimes will, it is easy to hype molehills into mountains. But go back and consider the post-lunch session on day one, and you see similar patterns.

Rahane is an outwardly quiet lad, but an aggressive one who doesn’t need words and pumped fists and incestuous suggestions to channel his aggression. He is, too, a noticing lad; he sees things and he acts on them.

Kohli will come back once he recovers. And he will take back the captain’s armband, which is both fair and natural. But his injury timeout has had one unlooked for benefit: India has found its next captain, for when it needs one.

(My match report for First Post)

India v Australia Day 5

(This was written for FirstPost before start of play on the final day)

677 runs and 22 wickets in 360 overs over four days; eight of the first 20 wickets to those quick bowlers who were at peak levels of skill; control of the game shifting from one team to another at least once every day, often once per session — the first four days of this Test have been a template for what Test cricket at its best is supposed to be about.

If pitches could sue for libel, the JSCA would get millions without the jury leaving the box. “Rolled mud”? “Nothing like we have ever seen before”? Really?

The final day begins with one result — the draw — possible; another — an Indian win — probable. And odd as it may seem, Australia’s fate is entirely in its own hands — not in the pitch, not in the hands of the Indian bowlers and, while we are on the subject, not in the vagaries of DRS reviews that seem to be dominating conversations to an unwarranted degree.

Continue reading

India vs Australia Day 4

(Before play, as posted to FirstPost’s live blog)

One hundred and eighty.

If you like turning over envelopes and calculating possibilities on the reverse, that is the number you want to put down first. 180 overs remain in this Test and every calculation, by either side, will be predicated on that number.

If you are an Australian point of view, you need to figure out how many overs you reckon you need to bowl India out in the second innings. This is neither Pune nor Bangalore and even in the last innings, you want to budget at least 90, 100 overs for the job.

Sounds like that is rating India too high, or selling the Aussie bowling too short? Their main strike bowler is Pat Cummins who, in just his second first-class game after injuries kept him out for five years, has had to combine the durability of the workhorse and the penetration of a shock bowler. He produced consistent, searing pace and headhunting bouncers; two of those got him wickets that would have been beyond the capabilities of most other quicks — but it’s been hard toil for a player not yet fully grooved into the demands of Test cricket in these conditions.

Continue reading

On Tests, captaincy, and a chicken soup moment…

“I am irritated by own writing”, AdviceToWriters quotes Gustave Flaubert as saying.

Me too. 🙂

Must be one of those blah moods. Whatever — no point irritating you as well, so will leave you with some interesting reads from the past 24 hours.

Harsha Bhogle discusses the art of captaincy with Aakash Chopra and Adam Gilchrist. Nice reading — not sure I agree with the takeaway that the captain’s importance increases as the format grows shorter, though. Sid Vaidyanathan nailed it when on Twitter just now he asked if the Hong Kong Sixes had produced the best captains of all time. Related, a recent Aakash Chopra piece on captaincy, especially in the T20 format.

Another good Harsha interview is the one with Steve Waugh. Again, I am not sure I agree with the takeaway that it is time to introduce day-night Tests.

Test cricket at night is definitely possible. I would have loved to play day-night Test cricket. I think it is exciting, brings another dimension to the game. People want a bit of a change, they want that excitement. Why not bring that in Test cricket? We have got it in Twenty20s. Let’s get a pink ball in and play a day-night Test, if it is possible. Obviously in England it is not really possible because it doesn’t get dark till 10 o’clock in summer. Maybe in the subcontinent the dew might make it impossible. So you’ve got to have common sense around it as well.

So then, given those problems and others, day-night Tests could remain at best a curiosity, an innovation specific to certain countries but not to the ICC universe? Don’t see the larger point of that.

Never mind all that — here’s a chicken soup story on the meeting between an authentic cricket legend and his octogenarian fan.

Oh, and today I am back to hosting the live show. Questions, suggestions, links worth throwing up there? Post them here, and I’ll “do the needful” 🙂 Link to the show, as always, on Twitter. Mine, and the Yahoo stream.

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.

A bite out of the bum

A few minutes after Sachin Tendulkar and Ishant Sharma walked off the field taking advantage of the offer of ‘bad light’, an Indian batsman [what with ads taking up half the screen and a giant graphic occupying most of the remaining real estate, I couldn’t make out who] walked out towards the practice area for a bit of a knock. At the same time, Shakib Al-Hasan, with a wry grin on his face and with his eyes slitted against the glare of the evening sun, walked slowly out of the park.

Technology is good – but where in the manual is it written that a light meter should replace common sense?

An hour or more had already been lost in the morning; surely the umpires could have used their minds, and their eyes, to figure that the light was more than good enough for play to continue rather than bank on that silly little gadget? An ICC that wants Test cricket to survive doesn’t do much for that cause when it encourages its officials to abandon play on such laughable pretexts. Surely umpires need to rely on the naked eye, not the light meter, to tell them when conditions are dangerous for play to continue — the meter can merely confirm the evidence of their own senses, not replace it.

As to the play itself, Bangladesh coach Jaimie Siddons was way off the mark when he said Sehwag’s comments about the toothlessness of the Bangla bowling attack could “bite him on the bum in a few years time” – it only took 12 hours.

The way the game unfolded notwithstanding, I’m personally convinced that Shakib Al-Hasan’s ploy of asking India to bat first was a defensive measure. The home team was not, IMHO, betting the bank on its bowlers as much as it was shielding its batsmen from the task of facing India’s 3-seam attack on a wicket with some juice in it [conditions, in fact, that prompted Sehwag to comment at the toss that he would have chosen to bowl, had he called the coin right].

Motivations don’t show up on scoreboards, though – only results do. And Shakib and his men did themselves proud on a day when the vaunted Indian batting lineup was reduced to rubble by a bowling lineup packed not with stars but with a bunch of disciplined youngsters who stuck to their briefs and throughout, remained unfazed by the reputations of the opposition.

India seemed to have fallen victim to its own press. The “world’s number one Test side” apparently forgot that all it really takes is one good ball or one bad shot – and as it turned out, there was enough quality bowling from Bangladesh and silly cricket from the batsmen to make for a disastrous post-lunch session [a missed catch off Tendulkar at 16 being the difference between disastrous and fatal].

Sehwag and Gambhir looked – as they always do – capable of decimating the opposition. But once the stand-in captain got out, playing a push-drive without his usual authority and giving the ball just enough air for Tamim Iqbal at a shortish cover to hang on to, the wheels came off in totally unexpected fashion.

Gambhir flailed at a ball too wide for the square drive that is his bread and butter shot; Dravid got a high quality delivery from Shahadat – yorker-length, late curve through the air and perfectly pitched; VVS looked patchy; Yuvraj Singh [whose franchise recently relieved him of his captaincy so he could ‘concentrate on his batting’] has, except for the first innings he played after his return to the ranks, sleep-walked through his batting assignments and continued to do so in this innings…

If not for Tendulkar’s ability to lock himself into a world of his making and play his own game irrespective, India’s embarrassment could have been monumental – and due credit for that goes to skipper Shakib.

Prior to the game, Shakib set expectations low when he said his goal was a draw in the first Test, but there was nothing defensive about his captaincy on the day. Except against Sehwag once the opener had the bit between his teeth, the field placings remained consistently aggressive and always calculated to give his bowlers the chance to attack; his rotation of the bowling resources was fairly thoughtful, and he was consistently good in the way he harnessed his pace and spin options to optimum effect.

The highlight for me was his bowling to Sehwag in the post-lunch session, when he repeatedly foxed the Indian captain with subtle variations of flight, line, length and direction, eventually forcing the tentative miscue. Not too many spinners can boast of having tied Sehwag up and forced him to play the get out shot — Shakib, despite being hit for a first ball four, made the dismissal look almost inevitable. VVS, too, is a master of the art of playing spin but on the day, the Bangladesh captain made him look a rank amateur, tormenting the stylist with almost every one of the 17 balls he bowled to him before finally claiming his wicket when Laxman, a modern master of playing inside out, got bat and legs into an awful tangle and yielded a simple stumping chance.

Shakib led the bowling effort with 25 overs of sustained cunning. The Bangla captain comes across as someone clearly aware of his bowling limitations and willing to work within the limitations of his own craft; his marathon spell of 25 unchanged overs proved decisive in pushing India to the wall.

Equally notable was young Shahadat Hussain, who bowled in sharp, hostile bursts. The tall young lad, who served notice that he was one to watch a couple of years ago with a 6-for-27 spell against South Africa, has the height and smooth run up of a genuine pace bowler; his slightly open-chested delivery allows him to get the natural angle away from right handers and to use the rare one coming in as a surprise weapon — vide the lovely late-inswinging yorker to castle Dravid.

The image of the day for me was Shahadat’s celebration after the fall of Dinesh Karthik’s wicket — the youngster raced down the pitch and, when in proximity to the departing batsman, put his finger to his lips in a ‘talk less, play more’ gesture that the team, and its stand-in captain, surely begged for with the dismissive remarks of yesterday.

Hopefully, the message of that gesture — and of the scoreboard, which reads an underwhelming 213/8 in just 63 overs — has gotten across. Had fog and bad light not delayed the start of play and the umpires not abruptly truncated it with a little under half an hour yet to go, India could have suffered the huge embarrassment of being bowled out inside a day’s play by a team ranked 8 places below it.

What a missed opportunity, sirji

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again.

What an idea, sirji.

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

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

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