One-Day Mataram

Deconstructing the gentleman's game

Intelligent selection, for a change

The colonel hath spoken!

Vengsarkar's approach to selection seems no-nonsense and aggressive

Dilip Vengsarkar has played a cracking shot with a straight bat. His no-nonsense and aggressive approach to cricket was stamped all over the selection of the ODI team to tour South Africa. The frankness with which he has admitted that there is no exceptional talent in the country, which could walk straight into the national team, was refreshing. I agree completely! There is an over-abundance of good to very good players... all trying their darnedest to impress the selectors. But is there anyone out there who has the selectors or the media or the past players in awe of his talent and performances? I guess not! So then... what do the selectors do?! They pick up bright sparks from the sea of mediocrity and hope that the formidable coaching staff that accompanies the Indian team, can polish the rough edges and produce a player worthy of representing the country. It's an approach that has a low hit to miss ratio. That's why being a selector is a thankless job! But by setting the stage right upfront, Vengsarkar has shrewdly pre-empted some of the criticism that might be directed at him, should the team his selectors have chosen, fails!

When asked about whether Sourav Ganguly was considered, Vengsarkar chose to stop all further speculation by a simple, "No!". And if Ganguly and his fans are sad or incensed... tough luck, guys!! Ganguly has precious little in his favour to fortify the case for his inclusion in the national team. He should really take his make-believe speech from a soft-drink ad to heart and fight his way back into contention with solid performances.

And perhaps the most unexpected surprise that Vengsarkar had in store was the inclusion of Wasim Jaffer.

Jaffer's inclusion is a wake-up call for Sehwag.

Jaffer isn't a natural ODI player and his technique is compact and sedate at best. However, I see his inclusion in the team more as a wake-up call for Sehwag. Sehwag's hit-or-miss approach more often than not lets the initiative slip out of India's grasp in the first few overs. And by including a solid opener in the team, the selectors have flashed a warning to Sehwag to get his act together. In fact, this warning could also apply to Tendulkar! On the other hand, the recall of Zaheer and Kumble was to be expected. However, Zaheer's inclusion will make Pathan nervous while having Kumble around will make Bhajji happy! It's a shame, though, that Ramesh Powar had to be sacrificed after some effective performances.

Finally, that the selectors included the names of Agarkar and Yuvraj in the squad knowing they were injured, was a signal to underline Vengsarkar's quote about the dearth of exceptional talent in the country. It is now upto young cricketers in India to take this as a challenge and prove Vengsarkar wrong! Good job, colonel!!

Chokers, Bloody Chokers!

I am sure I am not the only one who finds parallels in the Indian defeats at the hands of Australia, at the ICC Champions Trophy 2006 and the ICC World Cup Finals 2003. Both the games featured good innings by Damien Martyn for Australia and Virender Sehwag for India. Both the matches saw Sachin Tendulkar failing to put up a meaningful score even though his form was good leading upto those two matches. And importantly... the most disturbing commonality in the two defeats was the way in which the Indian opening bowlers crumbled to dust under pressure. It was Zaheer Khan in the 2003 World Cup and Munaf Patel in the 2006 Champions Trophy.

Indian bowlers choked
As much as I have lauded the Indian bowlers' performances in the previous matches, I hate to say that the bowlers lost us the match yesterday. The match, much like the World Cup Final in 2003, was lost within the first few overs of the Australian innings. There is absolutely no shame in losing to a better team, and Australia is an awesome team, but what rankles is the manner in which the bowlers like Munaf Patel and Irfan Pathan seemed hapless in the face of an onslaught initiated by a batsman who was cramping up ever since he came out to bat (I am talking about Shane Watson). The usually impeccable Munaf looked horribly confused and at a loss for ideas. His line and length, both, went for a toss. His speed dropped alarmingly. And he looked a shadow of his usual efficient self. At the other end, Irfan Pathan swung the ball well, but served up far too many boundary balls to make any impact. Only Sreesanth, with a point to prove, seemed to bowl with any fire. As a result, he was rewarded with two wickets... while Munaf went wicketless at an economy rate over 7 rpo. The spinners, Harbhajan, Mongia and Sehwag fared better than their pace bowling teammates, but could produce only one wicket in the 22 overs they bowled among themselves.

I will not criticize the Indian batsmen because they stood up to be counted in a high-pressure match. And even though 249 wasn't a score to rejoice, it still was one that gave lots of hope to the Indian fans.

Captain Anonymous
One person who should take a lot of blame is Rahul Dravid. He may have scored a 50 in the match. But his captaincy was utterly uninspiring when Australia came out to bat. As bowler after bowler was dispatched to the boundary, Dravid's face showed confusion mixed with helplessness and it seemed as if he kept on hoping against hope for a miraculous Australian collapse. This is certainly not an attitude expected in a leader.

Questions... lots of them
Finally... the Indian think tank's strategy left a lot to be desired. If Dinesh Mongia was deemed good enough to bowl a full quota of overs and also bat at number 3, why was he kept out of the squad in the earlier matches? If Sreesanth was drafted into the squad to replace Agarkar and brought into the team straight away, why was he kept out of the squad in the first place. And then what was RP Singh doing in the sqaud in the first place. Why was Ramesh Powar kept out of the team even after a brilliant performance in the first match? And indeed, why was Powar kept out if half the overs were in any case bowled by the spinners in both the matches? Where the hell was the home advantage?! Is home advantage restricted only to the home crowds? Why was the Indian team caught unawares by the lack of dew at Motera (in the match against WI) and the ignorance about the nature of the pitch at Mohali?! Doesn't knowing the prevalent conditions qualify as home advantage and if it does, then why on earth did the Indian team not use this home advantage to good effect?!

These are just the few questions that the Indian team (players and the team management) needs to introspect. And rather than living in denial and arrogance, the coach and captain should be be open to questions and suggestions coming their way. I don't really care whether the coach experiments or advises commando training. The only question, on which he has to be answerable to the board (which pays him) and the cricket fans (who keep the funds flowing into the board, directly or indirectly), is why the Indian team has not been showing positive results lately!?!

And until the coach and the captain find an answer to that question, the Indian team will have to bear the burden of being termed as the chokers of international cricket!!

Indian batsmen lose the plot again

In the end, it looked much more exciting than it actually was! Agarkar's late burst could do little to reverse the dwindling fortunes of an Indian team that just did not seem motivated enough to win. The match was, in fact, lost earlier in the day when the Indian batsmen failed to put a high price on their wickets, gifting them away by committing some embarrassingly basic errors! And these errors were compounded later in the day by some inaccurate fast bowling (12 wides!!). The only lot from the Indian side that came away unscathed were the spinners who kept the Indian hopes alive all along. Now the Indians go into a do-or-die encounter against Australia on Sunday... on a Mohali pitch that offers pace and bounce!

Batsmen forget the basics
Invited to bat first, the Indians should have scored at least in the vicinity of 260. Instead, we had Sehwag, Pathan and Tendulkar perishing by playing shots without any movement of the feet. Sehwag, in particular has continued to disappoint in ODIs. Recently, while speaking with a cricket-writer friend of mine, I complained about Sehwag's poor form and the need to drop him from the team. I was told that the justification for Sehwag's presence in the team was his ability to produce a stunning knock out of the blue... and that his average was, in any case, in the thirties. I found this logic quite surprising. Of course one can't produce huge scores in every match or even once every 2 or 3 matches, but the scores between the 'stunners' have to be consistently decent enough to justify your presence in the team. And Sehwag simply does not cut it with his pathetic form and an apparent refusal to consider revising his technique.

If Sehwag, Pathan and Tendulkar were found wanting in their footwork department, Rahul Dravid forgot the basics by showing a lax attitude while running a tight single. He was one more batsman who gifted away his wicket. Only Dhoni showed maturity beyond his ODI experience. His painfully slow start was compensated by some 'seen-to-be-believed' shots later in the innings. In the final analysis 223 was too low a score to pose a challenge to the West Indies.

Wrong selection handicapped Indian attack
I don't really blame the bowlers. There's not much one can do when a batsman like Gayle unleashes his array of shots. The agony gets compounded when he's given a life. Munaf Patel once again showed why he's regarded so highly by his peers in and out of the Indian team. RP Singh, however, was a misfit. I wrote in my pre-match post yesterday that RP looks ordinary without swinging conditions to help him. And he proved me right with a short and wayward spell. Agarkar seemed out of sorts in his first spell but managed to pull it together, to an extent, with his late burst that brought India into the contest once again. Another thing I wrote in my post yesterday was the need to introduce spinners within the first 20 overs. And to his credit, Rahul Dravid did just that! Bhajji, bowling with a dry and hard ball, wove a web of magic around the WI batsmen. It was a pleasure to see him bowl! Sehwag's contribution with the ball was commendable. But that still does not get him off the hook! He's in the team to score runs and if he doesn't do that, let him stay out!!

More 'heart' required
All in all, it was an average performance by the Indians which was in stark contrast to the inspired performance put in by the South Africans and the Kiwis in their matches couple of days ago. Now a determined Australia await India at Mohali... with a potent firepower that suits the Mohali pitch! If Indians cannot go past them on Sunday, they only have themselves to blame for wasting a golden opportunity against West Indies at Ahmedabad!

Bold moves can help India win

When India played their first match in the ICC Champions Trophy 2006, the tournament was just beginning (minnow matches notwithstanding). After defeating a flat English side, it's been a long break for the Indians. In the meanwhile, there has been plenty of action in the tournament. Sri Lanka, one of the pre-tournament favourites, is out after suffering defeats at the hands to two teams in green... Pakistan and South Africa. England is all but out. Eternal darkhorses, New Zealand, have qualified for the semi-final. Pakistan have shown that they can be stunning one day and pedestrian on another! And Australia have shown that they too possess a vulnerable underbelly. Chemicals have been used on the pitch and the outfield, with the sanction of ICC. While Pakistani speedsters have been hauled up for using chemicals of a different kind!

Now as India is about to take on a buoyant West Indies team (albeit with doubts over Lara's participation in the match), an exciting contest is on the cards. Both teams will be trying to go for a kill as a win in this match will ensure a semi-final berth. But looking at the situation in Group A, India should treat this as a must-win match if they have to qualify for the next round. A loss against WI will not end their chances of making it to the semi-finals, but will create a situation wherein they will face Australia in their last group match with both teams looking for a win to qualify. And a cornered Australian side is not an attractive proposition, to put it mildly! West Indies can afford to lose today's match because they face England next and given the form and class of this English ODI side, WI would not be unduly worried! But of course, both India and WI would like to settle matters today itself!

Rahul Dravid has gone on record to advise the Motera curator against keeping grass on the pitch. And I wonder why! With dew playing a critical role in these matches, spinners are rendered impotent in any case. So conventional wisdom (of grass-less pitches to aid Indian spinners) should not hold true. However, I am sure that Dravid and Chappell would have some plan in mind. That said, I would love to see the Indians bat first today. The batsmen are not playing at their best and it makes sense to give them the benefit of playing without the pressures of a chase. Also, batting on a hard pitch unspoilt by foot or ball marks... alongwith batting in natural light should help batsmen. And if the captain and coach are worried about the dew, let them look at what South Africa and New Zealand did in their respective matches. Moreover, I am surprised at the general trend of holding spinners back until the powerplay overs are out of the way. With the dew playing a key role in negating the spinners' effectiveness, I am bemused by the fact that captains have held back class spinners. If you have a spinner like Muralitharan or Harbhajan or Vettori in your team, use him in the first 20 overs when the ball is dry and hard. Surely, spinners of this class will be able to handle aggressive batsmen. And in any case, frontline batsmen are more accustomed to pace bowling than spin. So using spinners within the powerplay overs is a risk worth taking... especially in the second innings of the match. I am hoping Dravid uses such unconventional and bold ideas if he has to bowl last.

As far as team set-up is concerned, I would stick to the same side that beat England. Bringing in RP Singh at the expense of Powar may prove costly since without helpful (read swinging) conditions, RP looks a bit ordinary. Moreover, Powar is a much more accomplished batsman than RP.

But more than anything else, the Indian batsmen have to fire today. Relying on the bowlers alone is a strategy fraught with danger. The Sehwags and the Dravids of the Indian team have to come to the party tonight! Frankly... there's isn't much choice. As an ad for a motorcycle says... "It's now or never!!"

Update: Ahaa! ... Indians will bat first after all! Though this decision was made for them after West Indies elected to bowl first.

Guess what... it's an English collapse again!!

When the English openers, Ian Bell and Andrew Strauss, managed to get England off to a slow and steady start against Australia at Jaipur, it seemed as though the English team had learnt a lesson from its inept batting performance against India at the same venue a few days back.

Reaching 83 without loss was creditable. In the process, they managed to make the Aussies look ragged in the field. But already by then, the Aussie bowlers seemed to have started to claw their way back into the contest. Pressure was on the English batsmen and a steady flow of runs, that they had managed in the initial stages, seemed to have dried out to a trickle. Strauss looked decidedly ragged as his favourite cross-batted strokes were just not coming off due to the slowness of the pitch. Ian Bell looked edgy and nervous as he tried forcing the pace. That led to a ill-judged shot and Bell was gone.

As Bell went, England's death knell was sounded. None of the later batsmen seemed to have the wherewithal to cope with pressure and a slow & low pitch. Pietersen, Flintoff, Strauss, the lot, were exposed as the sorry old tale of an English batting collapse unfolded once again. And for God's sake... who on earth is Yardy?! ... and what is he doing batting so high up in the order?!! He's quite rubbish!! In the end, only Collingwood managed to offer some resistance with some sensible and level-headed batting. But he simply had no support from the other end! All England could manage was a paltry 169, which seems even poor when one considers dew factor later in the evening.

I assume Australia will overhaul this total quite easily. England will be left standing with a soapy ball and the prospect of an hasty exit from the tournament! One thing that they perhaps could do is to introduce Dalrymple into the attack within the powerplay overs in order to maximize his utility as a bowler by letting him bowl with a relatively dry ball.

Ohh... and a warm birthday wish for Geoffrey Boycott!! :-)

A match of rarities

It's a piece of trivia that will make for an interesting quiz question some years down the line. Vinayak Samant, Mumbai wicket-keeper, took the field for West Indies, for about 2 overs, in the Champions Trophy match against Australia on October 18 2006. Not having enough fit players in the squad and with Brian Lara suffering from a bad back, West Indies were down to 10 men in the field when Suru Naik, the CCI secretary requested Vinayak Samant to come down to Brabourne and help out the West Indians.

Isn't it bizzare that a guy who must've had no hopes of breaking into the Indian national team (being 33 years of age and with wicket keepers like Dhoni around) got a chance to play in an ODI... and that too in a mini World Cup, no less!

Of course, this isn't the first time that something like this has happened. Apparently New Zealand's Hamish Marshall appeared as a substitue, in a Test Match for England in 1998. But it definitely is a rare occurence... quite like a bowler taking a hat-trick against the mighty Aussies!
And guess what... that happened in yesterday's match too!

Indian bowlers have a field day at Jaipur

When India played England yesterday at Jaipur, no one expected Rahul Dravid to put the English in to bat on a seemingly flat batting track. Now, with the advantage of hindsight, I'd say it was a brilliant decision. Not because the English team managed to collapse like English teams of a few years ago. But because the decision was based on an accurate reading of the pitch, the composition of the team and most importantly... the knowledge that the Indian bowlers had been performing much better than their much-celebrated batting counterparts in recent times. It was a measure of confidence that Rahul Dravid and Greg chappell have in blokes like Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel and Harbhajan Singh, that prompted Rahul to toss the ball to these guys before letting his star batsmen have a crack at the English bowlers.

But it's different bowling first with early morning freshness in the air and pitch, than after a morning and then some of brilliant sunshine. The slight early-morning dampness on the surface of the pitch is no longer there. Neither is the cool morning breeze to help move the ball in the air. And yet... from the moment Irfan Pathan started bowling, there was immediate swing. It was a testament to Irfan's talent that he got the ball to curve both ways with equal ease. Gone were the cobwebs of self-doubt as he bowled with pace and control that had seemingly deserted him in the last few months. More importantly, he was smiling more often and was obviously enjoying seeing the English batsmen play with childish naiveté!

At the other end, Munaf Patel went about his business with a lethal combination of accuracy and intelligence. If this lad can keep his head on his shoulders, then he is destined for greater... much greater things in the future. Not many people may remember, but a couple of years back, Munaf was touted as India's fastest bowling prospect. Then an injury set him back by a year or two. But he has come back from injury a better bowler. He has sacrificed some speed for accuracy. However, as he has shown intermittently, he can still clock speeds well in excess of 140 kph... and at will. So this is one guy to watch out for. Yesterday, the English batsmen just could not get him away. In the process, Munaf's nagging line and length bowling at a lively pace paid rich dividends.

Agarkar was distinctly unlucky. He unfortunately found himself in a situation where Pietersen and Collingwood were giving him the charge in a desperate attempt to push the wretched scoring rate forward. What ensued was a couple of nicks, an overthrow and a couple of good shots... and Agarkar's figures were ruined for the match. And of course, the English collapse did not give him the chance to come back and work his usual reverse swing stuff with the old ball.

Then came the spinners. I don't think I have to say anything about Harbhajan. He was his usual fiesty self... with a few 'doosra' deliveries here and there. But what was heartening from a spinning perspective was the success that Ramesh Powar enjoyed. Plump as a partridge and bowling with shades wrapped around his rolly-polly head, he tossed the ball up and bowled an accurate line that invited the batsmen to play against the spin every single time... only to find the ball either not there for a drive or to find the ball turning into their pads. His 'classic' off-spin was in contrast to the modern nuances of the trade plied by Harbhajan. Yet... his bowling was the perfect complement to Bhajji's guile as the duo accounted for half the English side. And the final wicket (straight drive flicked on to the non-strikers' stumps by an ever-alert Powar) was fittingly a testimony to the sharpness and spark shown by the Indians in the field.

All in all... it was a brilliant performance by the Indian bowlers (aided no doubt by inept English batting) who fully justified the faith reposed in them by the Indian captain, Rahul Dravid.

Whither Champions Trophy?!

Two matches into the 2006 ICC Champions Trophy tournament, a couple of things are apparent. The first one is that the empty stands bear a stark contrast to the billing of this tournament as a mini World Cup. The second thing is that if ICC is going to include minnows like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, they'd better not call this as the Champions Trophy. In fact, the first point I made, is the direct result of the second.

Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are simply not worthy of being included in a tournament like this. Their presence dilutes spectator interest, prolongs the tournament and leads to some embarassing matches, like the one between West Indies and Zimbabwe.

Lets take Bangladesh first. These guys have been a part of the big boys club for some time now and all they've managed to show for that are the odd freak wins here and there. Their problem lies in the fact that apart for 3-4 core players who have some decent international experience, the rest of the team is made up of very young and immature players. Now it is a good thing that talented youngsters are given a chance to play international matches. But the way these youngsters are discarded, after a failure or two, is bound to be disheartening for them. The fear of failure and the subsequent ouster from the team weighs heavily on the players' minds and this pressure was clearly visible in the way the Bangladeshi batsmen opened their chase of the 300-plus score racked up by Sri Lanka. Ashraful, who's a tremendous talent, I think, was clearly batting to no plan or strategy. When you chase a 300-plus score against a world-class side, you just cannot afford to waste the opportunities to score with the field restrictions on. He seemed concerned with keeping his wicket intact rather than attacking the rather wayward Sri Lankan bowling. The initiative he lost upfront spelt doom for the Bangladeshis as they lost by just 37 runs. But looking at the players they have now, Masrafe Mortaza, Abdur Razzak and Saqibul are players to persist with. Looking forward, if the administrators in Bangladesh keep their focus, the future isn't too dark for their team.

Now coming to Zimbabwe. It is sad to see a side that had players like the Flower brothers, Heath Streak, etc. in such sorry state now. But one cannot blame them really. Their problems are mostly non-cricket. With such unrest and upheaval in the country, cricket has taken the backseat. Players' selections are done based on considerations that have nothing to do with cricket. As a result, most of the 'regulars' have migrated to greener pastures like England, leaving a team that looks and plays like a school side. Cricketing basics are conspicuous by their absence and this is apparent in the way simple catches are dropped with irritating regularity. Zimbabwe used to be a top-notch fielding side. Now, I'd say they're among the worst fielding sides in the world! Having said that, I thought players like the captain Utseya, Rainsford and Ireland are bright sparks. These youngsters ought to be nurtured and persisted with. These guys, with the addition of a good batsman or two, would make a nucleus of a decent side. The only concern is... will the Zim cricketing authorities concentrate on cricket above all else?

So if these sides aren't upto the mark, what are they doing in a Champions Trophy?! Well, they shouldn't be here! A place in the Champions Trophy should be earned. And only the top six teams should compete. A free-for-all tournament like the one we have currently should not be called 'Champions' Trophy. It's a joke!! If the ICC wants to give more international exposure to weaker teams, why doesn't it conduct a 'Champions' trophy for the ICC member nations minus the Test playing teams? Surely there are enough funds available for that! Why is ICC hell-bent on making a mockery of a premier tournament by allowing embarassing match-ups?!! Just some questions for the old fogeys at the ICC to answer!