Culpable homicide

#Why is it that the ICC gets its truss in a knot when 10 wickets fall in a day’s play, or when a pitch takes turn, but is totally silent when it comes to pitches on which a grand total of 825 runs are scored in one hundred overs?

Rajkot was, not to put too fine a point on it, an unmitigated disgrace — if bowlers had unions, they would be organizing a gherao outside the curator’s home around now. We’ve had — distressingly often — ‘batting beauties’ in the past, but this wicket was something else: no matter what you bowled — pace, spin and every variation in between — the ball did just one thing: it sat up and begged to be hit.

To speak of the batting feats of Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dhoni, Dilshan, Sangakkara and others would be a travesty — the real heroes of the game yesterday were the bowlers who ran in ball after ball, knowing that ‘victory’, on this ground, was the difference in whether they were hit for a four or a six. Maybe the innovation the ODI format really requires is a rule change that permits teams to have 11 batsmen, and for all the bowling to be done by machines calibrated to serve up 300 half volleys per innings.

#It occurs to me, too, that if some smart entrepreneur were to bring bullfighting into this country as a professional sport, that would be the end of cricket. The crowds that infest our cricket stadia increasingly want blood sport, not cricket. They want Indian batsmen to hit sixes off every ball, and Indian bowlers to take a wicket every over; the silence with which they greeted a brave charge by Dilshan [who, on the day, outperformed even Sehwag with ease] and some classical hitting by Sangakkara, was disgraceful to say the least.

#For all the reasons above, parsing the Indian team’s performance on the day is pointless, yet one point occurs that will, I suspect, recur in course of this series.

The first relates to the question of opening bowlers. You have 414 on the board. You know that the wicket is dead. You want to somehow winkle out a wicket or two early, while the ball at least has hardness going for it. So why on earth would you bowl your best strike bowler as first change?

Zaheer bowled first change for the same reason Ishant has been doing it in recent times — because Praveen Kumar just cannot bowl first change; at his pace, he will be slaughtered on any but the most responsive of wickets. Strikes me that is a half-smart way of managing a bowling attack — because you insist on shoe-horning Praveen into the side, you are forced to use your best bowlers as stock, and that means you lose out both coming and going.

It seems fairly axiomatic that the bowler you pick for a particular slot should be the one best suited to that slot; thus, if Praveen Kumar is given the new ball, it needs to be because he is best fitted to use it, not because he cannot be used in any other position. Equally, for example, if Zaheer and Ishant are your best new ball bowlers, you need to give them the new ball — and then, from available options, pick the best possible number three. Fail to do that, and you not only have a less than penetrative opening attack, you end up blunting the edge of the one bowler who can be your spearhead.

In passing, watching Ashish Nehra bowl yesterday — except at the very end — was an exercise in wanton masochism. Granting that the wicket offered him nothing, Nehra made things worse for himself by carefully picking out the exact wrong line [and/or length] to bowl, at every available opportunity. MS for instance set a packed off field for Dilshan, with on occasion a short cover as an attacking option.

The field cried out for bowlers to bowl as wide as legally possible outside off, and force the batsmen to play into the packed field. Nehra promptly pitched middle and leg or, if by accident he strayed onto off stump, pitched the ball at that precise back of length spot that was guaranteed to invite the batsman to go back and thump through the untenanted off side.

If this was the first time Nehra was losing control to this extent, you could put it down to the mind-melt consequent on bowling on concrete — but this was precisely the problem he had during the T20s as well, so maybe it is time someone spent quality time with the guy.

Zak is back. Again

These days, Zaheer Khan decides when he needs to turn up for practice, and when he to treat himself to a break even as his mates sweat it out.

He has, almost right through his career, been like that – only, earlier his absences were seen as a sign of unsound temperament in one who, during the first quarter of his career, was not particularly keen on fitness. Women members of Exert, the gym in Bombay’s Haji Ali region where Zak used to work out then, used to laugh at his regimen: a gentle amble on the treadmill followed by a sandwich; then a round of two of desultory pumping of iron before he went ah fuck it and strolled off.

His absences, seen then as a manifestation of a lazy work ethic and unsound temperament, are now viewed by his team in far more benign light. They acknowledge that Zak is a total team man, and a champion who is aware of his body’s needs and has a well honed sense of when to conserve his energies, and when to expend them.

Zaheer belongs to a new generation of players who do see being dropped from the side not as an excuse to go into a massive sulk, but as a spur to look within, to identify flaws and set about rectifying them with enviable focus.

In Zak’s case, the seminal moment came at the end of the 2005-’06 tour of Pakistan, when he was dropped thanks to a combination of indifferent performance, a less than ideal work ethic, and the emergence of Irfan Pathan.

He went back to the nets, then decided that he needed to hone his skills in competition, not isolation. And so he went to Worcestershire, teaming up with coach Steve Rhodes and bowling coach Graham Dilley.

That stint saw Zaheer develop from being a bowler of limited variety and fragile temperament, to one who through trial and error cut down on his run up, improved his balance on the jump into the delivery stride, and added the weapons of both-ways conventional and reverse swing to his arsenal. “When I was playing for India, I couldn’t experiment too much but in county cricket I had that freedom to try new things, and to explore what I could do,” he said at the end of his stint.

His comeback made you sit up and rub your eyes – or, if you were Graham Smith, curse fluidly. Zak took the South African captain’s wicket for fun – six successive times, spanning four one dayers and the first Test of that series.

That was where Zak revealed just what he had learnt during his time in the wilderness. As long as he was a bowler reliant on rhythm and a natural outswinger, he could be negotiated, even decimated – as Adam Gilchrist famously did to him in THAT first over of the World Cup final.

In England, he added both-ways swing, learnt to use the width of the crease, and developed immaculate control on length – and these showed not only in his serial take downs of Smith, but in the way he made world class left handers sweat. He always had Sourav Ganguly’s number [think back to the 2005 Duleep Trophy final; to the former India captain’s outing for Northamptonshire against Worcestershire in the 2006 season; to the Bengal versus Bombay Ranji fixture at the Wankhede…]. On the tour of Sri Lanka shortly after South Africa, he was at it again, effortlessly taking out the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara [one early spell read 3-0-3-3]; in England it was Andrew Strauss who found Zak too hot to handle.

In an interview to the Observer that I’d saved at the time, Michael Vaughan nailed it against the backdrop of a performance that ended England’s six-year sequence of being unbeaten in home Tests and saw Zak being named one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year 2008. “We never knew what was coming next,” Vaughan said. “I can’t remember so much swing, not even from Chaminda Vaas or Wasim Akram. Zaheer – and I think he was the man coming up with all the ideas – kept doing the unexpected. It was fascinating to watch. On that last day at the Oval, Zaheer was still swinging the ball both ways. Traditionally, he should have been bowling over the wicket, but he kept coming round to left handers; he was changing the angles all the time. The guys would not have seen that before, and I can guarantee they would not have practiced that.”

That comment encapsulates the new Zaheer: two-way swing at will, perfect control of length, a bouncer that has gone from a means of venting his frustration to a potent weapon he uses to maneuver the batsman and get him where he wants him, and a calm calculation of angles and lines that argue a refined grasp of the geometry of seam bowling.

His five wickets in the Lankan second innings at Brabourne signal his return to full form and fitness where, thus far on his nth comeback, he has looked a bowler searching for misplaced rhythm. Two of his victims – Samaraweera and Kulasekhara – were done by his control on length; on both occasions, Zak banged the ball in just close enough to off stump to have the batsman unsure whether to play or leave, got the ball to lift off the deck and seam in just late enough to crack the edge of the defensive bat and fly to slip.

In the case of Mahela Jayawardene, Zak played on known uncertainties around off stump early in his innings, setting him up with deliveries angling across, then bowling one hitting line of off, drawing the smooth-stroking Lankan into the push, and seaming away to find the edge. His best though was reserved for Kumar Sangakkara this morning: one ball just around off cutting in that the Lankan captain defended; the next on fullish length outside off that got Sangakkara driving; the third on middle and off on good length that had him defending, only for late away movement to find the edge through to Dhoni.

Those were the dismissals of a bowler with enviable control on mind and craft both. And with all of that, he has also found and harnessed a new ruthlessness, best exemplified during the home series against Australia when Zak developed such a stranglehold over the Aussies that Mathew Hayden, who by then had been dismissed thrice in three tries by Zak [Hayden’s third ball dismissal in the first innings of the first Test in Bangalore was a carbon copy of the take down of Sangakkara at the Brabourne yesterday], was reduced in the second innings at Mohali to attempting cricket’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

His temperament is brittle, Hayden suggested before that game, reminding all who would listen of what his erstwhile mate Gilchrist had done to Zak while he watched from the other end. In his attempt to test that temperament, Hayden charged the first ball Zak bowled in the second innings en route to going down in flames after a manic 29 off 20 balls [Bhajji got Hayden then; Zak proved that ‘brittle’ was a thing of the past when he came back to nip Australia’s nascent resistance in the bud with three quick strikes that smashed through the lower middle order, and help hand Australia a 320-run defeat].

Ironically, it was Zak who after the first Test of that series in Bangalore did unto the Aussies what they were in the habit of doing to everyone else. He taunted Ponting on his “defensiveness”, and suggested that neither the Aussie pacers nor spinners were good enough against the Indian team. “On a fifth day pitch the spinners could not do us any harm – that shows what their spin attack is all about,” he taunted. “And even the pacers didn’t look like getting wickets at any stage today.”

Zak’s return to the team, and to form, is probably the single most significant outcome of this series. He is now a bowler serenely aware of his strengths, and confident enough to not just shoulder the burden of spearhead but also that of mentor. When Zak is on song and the seamers are operating, Dhoni happily allows him to lead the side, setting fields and talking his junior mates through their spells. Both Sreesanth [in South Africa, and particularly one spell at the Wanderers], and Ishant Sharma [particularly in England] have bowled their best, most sustained spells under his wing; on both occasions, Zak proactively worked with his juniors, stationing himself at mid off/on and walking/talking the bowler back to the top of his mark.

During Zak’s time away, MS Dhoni has seemed a little at sea as his seam bowlers lost their way. The Indian captain, now boasting a Test record of seven wins and no defeats in nine tries, will likely rank the return of his go-to man on par with India’s clinching the number one spot in the Test rankings. Or maybe even higher – Dhoni said at the presentation ceremony that making it to number one wasn’t the thing; “the real task for us is now, we have to maintain our standards.” And to do that, MS will look more than ever to his spearhead.

In passing, I liked the way MS handed the trophy over to Pragyan Ojha and pushed him to the front for the mandatory team photograph. For a youngster looking to find self-confidence and a sense of belonging at the highest level, the gesture will have meant much. I liked, too, his pragmatic reaction to the question of whether the number one ranking will mean much without India having beaten South Africa and Australia. From Dileep Premachandran’s piece:

Over the next year or two, the No.1 ranking will change hands often. Unlike in the days when Australia, and West Indies before them, ruled the roost, it no longer signifies the best team in the world. For India, greater challenges await, but there’s little use brooding about Australia or South Africa right now. When asked if victory in those climes was essential to be legitimate top dogs, Dhoni said: “Let’s see when we go there. We can’t play them sitting here.”

PS: Away from office, and on the road, all day today. Back here tomorrow, see you guys then.

Easy does it

The man of this particular match should be the curator.

Baby commentators are taught, along with the alphabet, to react to every incident with an instantaneous pitch diagnosis: “It’s keeping low”; “The bounce is very good”; “It is taking turn”; “The pitch has evened out”.

Sometimes, if you are particularly lucky – as happened during one particular period of play today – you get all four conflicting judgments in the span of a few overs. Must be something in their contract that says you get docked a Scotch or two if you don’t do this.

The Brabourne wicket started off on day one with bounce when the bowler extracted it; movement for when you got the upright seam to hit the deck just so; turn for bowlers prepared to give it a tweak; and full value for shots played by batsmen with the nous to handle a track that had something in it for the bowlers as well.

Consider the Samaraweera dismissal: Zaheer Khan, who on the day recovered both his lost rhythm and his smile, went around the wicket and hit the deck hard, back of good length and on the kind of line just outside the off that forces a batsman to play at it; the ball climbed and seamed away just late enough to find the edge and nestle in the soft hands of a diving VVS Laxman at second slip. It’s the kind of dismissal you look to see on day one of a Test; this was day four, and the ball was then exactly 58 overs old. Equally, when the spinners – particularly Harbhajan – bowled, there was turn off length and such perfect bounce that MS Dhoni, standing up, was taking them just above the waist. Moral of the story: good pitches can be made in India, if you have both the skill and the intent.

All of this has made for a fascinating fourth day’s play. Wickets didn’t tumble in a heap, as they tend to on rapidly deteriorating tracks; the bowlers had to work their victims out. Dhoni gave his bowlers well thought out attacking fields, the kind that allowed them to concentrate on one batsman at a time without worrying about him taking a single and sneaking away to the other end, and put a high premium on mistakes.

The most costly mistake of the day was the one made by Darryl Harper, though. Tillekeratne Dilshan got a bummer for the second straight time – the ball he was deemed out to hit him on the outside of the front thigh; it was clearly turning sharp, and bouncing enough to miss the stumps for both height and direction — and that was a pity, for he seemed to come out with positive intent. [Bajji has at the time of writing this only got the one gift wicket, but no matter. He did pretty much everything right: stuck to good lengths, gave the ball air, probed away around off, occasionally varied trajectory by going around the wicket, and built such a deal of pressure that he stymied any thoughts the Lankan batsmen may have had of trying to break out of jail. He has in the past bowled far worse for much greater rewards, and likely will again.]

His dismissal cued a period of play that tested the bowlers’ patience. Kumar Sangakkara dug deep into his reserves of will to grit his way through his ongoing bad patch; Paranavitana at the other end displayed good technique against spin, playing either fully forward or back, always with bat in front of pad, and always playing the ball below his eye line.

It took a peach of a delivery to dismiss the opener – and Sreesanth produced it in the first over of a fresh spell, when he angled one across the left hander, got it to bend in the air, and straighten on middle. Sree looks a whole different bowler when he cuts out the gratuitous theatrics and turns his focus inwards, on his craft. To his credit, despite the crowd repeatedly egging him on to kick over the traces, he stayed focused throughout this game, and bowled with considerable thought, skill and, when he needed it, pace. The ball that got Paranavitana was a beauty, but it was shaded by one he bowled to Mahela that had everything: pace up around the 139k mark, the full length, lift, and the kind of impossibly late moment that left even a batsman of Mahela’s class looking helpless.

Zaheer has sleep walked through much of this series; in the post-lunch session he suddenly rediscovered his rhythm and produced two lovely dismissals. The one of Samaraweera was the prettier one, but the take down of Mahela was a classic of conception: Zak started the over with a ball straightening on off; the next attempted to duplicate it, but drifted into the pads a touch and went for a couple; the third was angled across the right-hander, landed outside off and kept going, and then came the one angled across again, but this time hitting length around off, forcing Mahela to play, and seaming away just enough to find the edge.

Zak’s two quick strikes, in the 54th and 58th over, pretty much knocked the Lankans out of the game; Pragyan Ojha nailed it down tighter when, on the cusp of tea, he tactically worked out Angelo Mathews.

Ojha clearly has some distance to go before he gets comfortable bowling to left-handers. Against right handers, though, his use of flight and loop, the fuller lengths he bowls and the turn he extracts makes him a bit of a handful. To Mathews, he got the ball to turn sharply off length, looking for the edge; when he found it and saw the ball sneak through the slip cordon for a fortuitous four, he adjusted his length fractionally to the short side, providing more room for the ball to bounce, and again found the edge – this time to Dhoni.

Sangakkara and Paranavitana are still out there, with the Lankan captain showing some sign, after the break, of wanting to go down fighting. But with half the side back in the hut, a 170-run deficit remaining as I write this, and with four sessions to go in the game, this one’s done and dusted.

Time enough for series post-mortems later; time now for me to hit the road on a trip I’ve been pushing off all afternoon so I can watch “just one more over”.

Enjoy the rest of the game, and the weekend. See you guys Monday.