Thursday, August 18, 2011


Bring out the shroud while the rain drops drone The king has fallen from his throne Down the pitch rolls the mighty crown Where the victor waits to wear it to town It is too late to be clutching at Strauss For isn’t every Duncan destined for a tragic cause Bruised and battered the champion lies Are we applauding the winner even as he dies? Or is there hope; will he live… yet again will he rise?

And to that I say, of course India will rise again. And soon. But would it be soon enough to win at the Oval and salvage pride, hope and a final scoreline that at least leaves the bylanes of shame and despair and gets somewhere close to the highway that leads to respectability? More importantly, would we be good enough to bounce back like world beaters, reclaim the top spot and keep it for a while like the West Indians or the Aussies ? My money says we would, but for that, a few things would have to change.

But why did India lose the way it did? Popular opinion would suggest that India’s bowling is toothless and wouldn’t really dent a batting line-up as powerful and varied as England’s. They say that without Zaheer Khan, India is just not good enough to bowl out teams twice. But if that were to be the case, India would never have reached as high as it did in the Test rankings. One good bowler would never make us the world’s top Test team. We had a Kapil Dev once, and New Zealand had a Richard Hadlee, but neither India nor the Kiwis came anywhere near world domination in the 1980s.

And don’t you go about trying to fling Harbhajan Singh’s name at me and trying to suggest that he is the other reason why we managed to consistently run through sides around the world over the last couple of years. And that’s because I can’t remember the last time the turbanator turned it on, or in for that matter, to play anything more than a supporting role with the ball. Why, his batting has been spinning more magic than his doosras for a while now. Now, you must understand that I’m not being critical of the man’s recent performance. I’m just saying that he has been pulling his weight without being exceptional and so he isn’t necessarily ‘the other reason’ why we have been doing so well as a unit until this series.

I would go so far as to say that our bowling looks fine, even without a Zaheer or a Harbhajan. I am not saying that we don’t need them. I am just saying that even if both happen to get injured, we have enough options available to fill those big boots. However Amit Mishra and S. Sreesanth are perhaps not those options. Here’s why…

Cricket is a game that is perhaps more cerebral than all other athletic pursuits put together and as the ‘experts’ insist, is played as much between the ears as it is between the wickets.

Just look at Lasith Malinga. He knows that he can’t really swing or seam the ball. But does he still try and bowl reverse-swingers like Waqar Younis? No. Instead he develops that mindbogglingly accurate toe crushing yorker and teaches himself how to vary his length and pace to keep the batsman guessing. On the other hand what does a Sreesanth do? He opens his spell believing he can blow the batsman away. And while he has delightful swing and can touch the low 140s, he is hardly express quality. But I guess if you try telling him that, he’ll send a screaming bouncer your way as well. So every 15 overs, he would bowl a real peach which might or might not get him a wicket but the rest of his stuff get clobbered all over the park. Then I guess he ends up feeling like it’s yet another ‘just not his day’ day and his spirit drops low and his pace drops lower. Then he tries bouncing Alastair Cook while trundling in at 130 and gets clobbered some more. The ball swings all day, but swings wide and wider. There is talent but there’s no thought.

Here’s another example of ability without attitude. Amit Mishra can turn the ball a mile while Anil Kumble couldn’t. But while Kumble planned and plotted the downfall of entire teams with his marginal movement and incisive thinking, Mishra turns his arm over with a childlike wonder and wonders “What’ll it do now… ah a perfect leg spinner. Darn, too bad it missed the edge, the wicket keeper and the pitch. Ok… let me see what the next one’s like… OMG! OMG! It’s a googly… but why is it flying to the stands… bowled it too short, did I? golly.. let me try a flipper next… or maybe a top spinner...”

It’s a pity that we have a man who thinks like Kumble, bowls the same way with limited spin but is aided by limitless creative and consistent ideas, has succeeded in all forms of international cricket that he has played in and yet hasn’t been blooded into Test cricket yet because he is an off spinner. Ravichandran Ashwin is too good a bowler not to have played for India yet just because Harbhajan Singh is an off spinner too. Play with both if they are your best bowlers I say. Did Clive Lloyd ever say I wont pick a Michael Holding because I already have one express quick in Andy Roberts? Did anybody ever say we shouldn’t pick VVS Laxman and let’s pick the left handed Hrishikesh Kanitkar instead because we already have two very good right handed middle order batsmen in Dravid and Tendulkar?

As for the rest of the attack, Ishant is a proven match winner. He just needs direction, in his bowling and in his thinking. And Praveen Kumar might not have the pace, but he has both the talent and the spirit of a future champion. I spent some time thinking about medium fast bowlers who achieved greatness at that pace and though up quite a few… Alec Bedser, the English medium-pacer made a man no less than Bradman his bunny once. Then there was Terry Alderman’s out swing at a little above medium pace which won Australia a pair of Ashes urns and made Australia the kings in waiting through the early 90s. And last but not the least, PK needs to look no further than the last cricketing knight, Sir Richard Hadlee who every batsman, from Desmond Haynes to Sanjay Manjrekar claimed was the best bowler they ever faced and one who was better, though slower at 35 than he was at a nippier 25. What PK needs to learn is not to pack on more pace but how to make his swing work against world class left handers. As for the third seamer, between Jaidev Unadkat, Umesh Yadav and Verun Aaron, we will find the man we need and something tells me the last named is most likely to be the one, because he seems to think like a winner even before he begins to bowl like one.

As for the batsmen, let me recount a story I heard Ashok Malhotra, former cricketer and selector, narrate on television. He mentioned that while he was a selector, he once saw a batsman tear apart the South Zone attack during a Duleep Trophy match and score a big double ton. So Ashok called up the then chairman of selectors Mr. Chandu Borde about this explosive new find and then walked up to the young man and told him to pack his bags for the Indian team’s tour of Australia. However, in the next match which Malhotra was watching with Mr. Borde, this young man came out to bat against a quick and whippy Zaheer Khan who bowled him a snorter and dismissed him without so much as a how are you. Chandu Borde just looked at Ashok Malhotra and shook his head. That man did not make it for that tour to Australia. His technique wasn’t considered good enough against fast bowlers it was said. Well, too bad I guess for who knows what Virender Sehwag could have done against the Aussies during a series that we otherwise list 3-0.

The point I’m trying to make is that there is no dearth of class and ability in a Yuvraj Singh or a Suresh Raina or even a Virat Kohli and a Rohit Sharma. They just need a long rope which will help them build self belief. Who knows, these could be our ‘fab four’ for the decade to come. Chance, faith and persistence allowed Gautam Gambhir to blossom. These four just might need a bit of the same.

India’s consistency and success has allowed us to mature as an audience, and not tear down our heroes at the first sign of defeat. The calendar and the BCCI have received their due in terms of flak and criticism instead of Dhoni’s house being stoned. But besides keeping faith in proven class, picking for cricketing intelligence as much as ability and spacing out the calendar with enough space for recuperation and preparation, there’s one more thing that needs to be addressed and that is the role of the coach.

The way the team’s fortunes soared with the tenures of John Wright and Gary Kirsten and plummeted ignominiously during the dark days of Greg Chappell’s reign would suggest that the coach plays a vital role in an Indian dressing room and Duncan Fletcher just doesn’t seem to have ‘it’. I’m sure he has the plans but he hasn’t been able to execute or communicate the same to younger members of the team. The bowlers sprayed the ball, the batsmen batted without a plan and everybody, especially during the English innings at Edgebaston, seemed to be at their wit’s end. Traditionally India would start poorly but always got better as the series progressed, even in the 1980s and the 1990s. But here things have only got worse. The thinking just didn’t blend with the team.

Fletcher might be a great coach but apparently, not for this team. Something’s got to give there. Every great team gets a wake up call. The West Indians were shocked out of their pants by pace in 1974-75 and then again were beaten by lowly New Zealand in1980 while the Australian dominance over the last decade or more was punctuated by losses to England and India. Each time these champions learnt from their losses,got back on their feet and hit back harder. Now India’s been knocked down and it’s our turn to rise from our ashes and take wing again…


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