Friday, January 27, 2012

Zaheer Khan's atrocious shot deserves a sharp rap on the knuckles

This post by the author was published on Cricket Country on 27.1.2012 - the fourth day of the Adelaide Test between India and Australia

Quietly floats the Don?

For most of his life, Adelaide had been the home of the greatest batsman the world has ever seen.

From 1934 until his death in 2001, Sir Donald Bradman lived and worked in the city. As a cricketer and cricket administrator he spent thousands of hours at the Adelaide Oval, while running his stockbroking business nearby and raising his family in the suburb of Kensington Park.

Perhaps his spirit still hovers over the ground where every blade of grass whispers his name. That same spirit might have sat back in the stands to watch the on-going Test match, eagerly anticipating the delights on offer from the celebrated Indian batting. Perhaps another unceremonious surrender by the tourists had managed the impossible of inflicting physical pain on a departed soul, so much so that the said soul had not been able to passively withstand the massacre any longer. As Ravichandran Ashwin trudged back from the crease, perhaps the ghost of the great man had summoned his willow-wielding prowess and entered the body of the next batsman who walked in, Zaheer Khan.

It seems the only way one can explain the atrociously-ambitious stroke the Indian pace bowler played the first ball he faced to throw his wicket away. The ball itself was harmless enough, wide outside the off-stump, screaming to be left alone. The situation called for discretion, young Virat Kohli at the other end was quickly running out of partners, having done all the hard work and batting on a fantastic 91. And Zaheer Khan, with a decade of Test match experience behind him, tried the expansive backfoot drive, his mind’s eye watching it disappear to the cover point boundary, and ended up edging to his great friend behind the stumps.

A Sachin Tendulkar at the top of his form would scarcely have attempted such audacity while starting an innings. Same holds true for Ricky Ponting. A Virender Sehwag might have, but that is because of the way he plays and there is a distinct difference between the batting credentials of the opening batsman and the opening bowler of India. 

Character and the lack thereof

What grated on our sensibilities was the immense disregard for the magnificent work of Kohli at the other end. Here was a greenhorn, advancing to his maiden Test hundred – that too a special one against Australia in their backyard. Already at Perth, he had run out of partners and ultimately lost his wicket for a hard-fought 75. One could expect a man of Zaheer’s maturity to approach the innings with discretion, the intent being to stick around as long as possible, to allow the young man to get to his ton, and some more thereafter, to make India’s tottering position a wee bit more stable.

No one expects Zaheer to work wonders with the willow. It is unreasonable – ridiculous even – to expect him to score the runs that Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag could not.

At the same time, he is hardly a mug with the bat. He has three Test half centuries under his belt. His immense experience has been acquired over 83 Test matches. Could he not have made an effort to not give his wicket away with the generosity of a billion dollar donor? If only out of respect for the remarkable job done by Kohli?

Even Chris “The Phantom” Martin had hung on for a quarter of an hour to help Trent Boult put on 23 pivotal runs for the last wicket when New Zealand upset Australia at Hobart immediately before the current series. Danny Morrison, another Kiwi tailender, the accumulator of 24 ducks and an average of 8.42, had batted nearly three hours to save the last Test match that he appeared in. Courtney Walsh, the archetypical old fashioned rabbit, had survived 72 minutes and 24 balls as Jimmy Adams had guided West Indies to a one wicket win against Pakistan at Antigua.

These illustrations do not outline solid defence or elaborate strokeplay, but bring to fore the admirable display of character by men with less than ordinary batting prowess. Zaheer – whose ability with the bat is significantly greater than the three gentlemen discussed above – has shown little application or character in recent times, the one ball effort of Adelaide being the veritable nadir of apathetic approach.

One recalls the infamous Delhi Test of 1984 against England. On the fifth afternoon, Ravi Shastri had been stonewalling effectively at one end. Kapil Dev had walked out with India 96 runs ahead and five wickets in hand, the need of the hour to bat for half a session and ensure a draw. The six balls he played in that innings led to his being dropped for the next Test on disciplinary grounds. Scoring seven with one six and a single before holing out off Pat Pocock – thus triggering a collapse that led to an English victory – he rubbed the team management the wrong way by trying to send every delivery he faced out of the city and farther.

Of course, Kapil Dev was an all-rounder – one of the best in the world, and expectations from his bat were vastly different. Yet, given Zaheer’s seniority and augmenting it to the irresponsibility displayed at the wicket, a sharp rap on the knuckles will perhaps not be a bad idea.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sehwag's desire to bat in the middle order makes immense sense

When an opening batsman who has scored more than 8000 runs in Test cricket with characteristic audacity talks about coming down the order and batting with patience, it may surprise many. Arunabha Sengupta, however, argues that Virender Sehwag is on the right track, both for himself and the India team.

This post by the author appeared on Cricket Country on 25.1.2012
It is one of the adrenaline gushing moments of cricket to watch Virender Sehwag’s bat swish in a fast and violent arc outside the off stump, in a flourishing attempt to send the red cherry hurtling to the distant regions of the off side and beyond. If the ball bounces a tad too much or a wee bit less than anticipated and goes thudding into the gloves of the keeper, the result is literally nothing more than a dot ball. No psychological battle is won or lost; no subtle change of technique is encountered. The odds are that the next delivery in the same region will be treated with the same destructive intent, often with very profitable results.

There is innocence about the way one of the most successful openers in the game goes about his business. Failures, be it being beaten by a ball or a string of poor scores, generally make little impression on his celebrated uncluttered mind. The belief in ability remains undiminished, the audacity unimpaired and the full range of strokes unabridged.

Hence, when Sehwag recently disclosed that he was not averse to coming down the order in near future, one was bound to raise an eyebrow. A disbelieving start might also have resulted when he added that he had to show patience against the bowling attacks.

Is the acclaimed arrogance of his game showing signs of mellowing with age? Are the rough edges that endearingly stick out from the repertoire of his phenomenal talent, finally being rounded by the erosive powers of experience?

Lending balance in the middle

Probably, a more believable explanation is that we are seeing a very smart cricketing mind in operation. A mind that is lucid and immune from the internal demons of over analysis, but nonetheless keen and agile – astute without being artful. One simply cannot compile more than 8000 runs in Tests at a 50-plus average without thinking about the game. We need to remember that while no one can list Sehwag as a paragon of patience, he is the only man from India who has gone past 300, that too twice. There is an obvious method which lies obscured by his mayhem mingled madness.

This contradiction is evidenced even in his footwork. The lack of nimble movement of his feet, while relying on outrageous hand-eye coordination when playing quick bowlers, has often left purists shaking their critical heads; but whenever a spinner has come into the fray, the Nuke from Najafgarh has charged down the wicket at the rate of knots.

Just like his feet, the mind at the other extremity of this curious cricketer sprints along when necessary and makes quick calculations.

He spoke of the possibility of moving down the order once the current day giants in the middle of the batting order call it a day. Given that there will be enormous craters left in the wake of the farewell of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, it does not seem too bad an idea. Virat Kohli at No 3 followed by Sehwag at No 4 will definitely be less of a drastic transition than three newcomers walking into the colossal shoes together, tripping and tumbling in unison, the innings – a top heavy structure with a flimsy middle – toppling face down before taking off. With a big name, ten years of experience and 8000 runs in the bank borrowed from the top to balance the recently incurred losses of 36,000, the batting can still revolve around a major giant in the middle.

The man who revolutionised opening the innings

Sehwag, no doubt, revolutionised the way openers start a Test match innings. Men at the top of the order considered to be endowed with comparable boisterous streaks; Matthew Hayden, Chris Gayle and Sanath Jayasuriya had strike rates of 60, 59 and 64 respectively. In comparison, a monster strike-rate of over 80 while compiling over 8000 runs is plainly preposterous.

However, perhaps one of the reasons why he could bat with such gay abandon was the secure knowledge that at one-drop would arrive the broad blade of Dravid, at two down the genius of Tendulkar and after that the magic of Laxman. There can be at least some effect on his natural exuberance at the start of an innings if the three names to follow suddenly change into Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara. It may be much more suitable for Sehwag’s blitzkrieg batting to come down the order, perhaps to shepherd the inexperienced batsmen in the middle – providing a solid structure for the newbies to build upon, albeit the solidity may sometimes resemble bursts of sheer energy by approaching physical limits of velocity.

There is perhaps another reason for his meditations on the virtues of patience as well as the transfer down the order. He is a classic example of a combination of an excellent eye and lightning reflexes. This hand-eye co-ordination, that has helped him mock conventional batting by blasting bowlers with a static foot, can prove to be his undoing as the arrow of time catches up with the flight of his career. A fractional fraying of the reactions can make him plummet from the heights of achievement into the quagmire of mortal mediocrity.

Two contrasting paths

Sehwag has in front of him two diametrically opposite examples of batting superstars who went along divergent ways.

In Vivian Richards was the image of incorrigible machismo, a man who wielded his bat like the all-conquering sword of a triumphant King. Even as he progressed well into his mid-30s, his style remained the same; the walk to the wicket spoke of the same contempt for bowlers, the relentless gum-chewing spoke of belief in truckloads of ability. However, even the great Richards was not able to outrun the tide of time. After he turned 35, he tried to blaze away as was his almost sovereign right of the early years, but ended up dragging himself for the last few seasons. His average, which had stood at 53 before he reached a batsman’s middle age, hovered around, by his standards, a very ordinary 43 when in the wrong half of his 30s. As the breathtaking strokes to the onside came with less and less regularity, the last three seasons witnessed 13 painful Tests without a hundred.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sehwag’s long-time idol and team mate, Sachin Tendulkar – who had started off with a disdain for bowling that almost matched the great West Indian in his prime. Through the nineties, innumerable bowlers were scorched by the fire of his flashing blade. As the burden of carrying a nation for too long took toll on his overworked body, the master unfurled the new facet of his genius by the wise approach of flowing with time rather than fighting the current. The belligerence did not disappear, but became tempered – discretion and sustenance took precedence over enchantment with erstwhile ego. The blaster became an accumulator, and strangely, since he has turned 35, he has bettered his already scintillating record, scoring 3650 runs in 41 tests at an average of 57.03 with12 hundreds.

Perhaps, Sehwag, a year and a half away from the tipping point of 35, knows which road will lead him to rewards. Moving down the order at this juncture, away from the moving ball, is perhaps a mature step for someone on whom will soon be thrust upon the mantle of the mainstay of Indian batting. He has, in any case, always wanted to bat in the middle order, a desire that has remained wishful thinking given the many splendored riches of Indian batting. With Indian cricket about to enter a new era, this wish may of necessity come true.

Before the ongoing Test, when asked whether he was boosted by the memory of his century at Adelaide in the earlier tour, Sehwag answered, "Tomorrow is a different day, different game, different tour.” This demonstrates the pragmatism that lies underneath the refreshingly straightforward approach. Sehwag does not dwell on the ball that has missed his outside edge by a fraction of an inch. Neither does he rest on past laurels. He knows that time has passed and changes may be required.

This Sehwag, who is the acting skipper of the Indian side, is mature and constantly evolving. Perhaps he is very much aware that he has not struck a hundred outside the sub-continent ever since that last Adelaide effort. He realises that it may benefit both the cause of India and that of her sole remaining batting behemoth in future if he comes in after the fall of a couple of wickets.

In a year or so, we may very well see him coming in at No 4, putting a price on his wicket and holding the innings together – and, being Sehwag, doing all that by scoring at a shade less than a run a ball.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's Report Card is still very positive

It is a national pastime now to lambast MS Dhoni for the performance of the Indian side and voice demands for his removal. However, if one looks at the record of the current Indian captain and compares it with his predecessors, it seems that he has not done a bad job. Arunabha Sengupta concludes that the fortunes of the team have little to do with esoteric powers that we attribute to captaincy.

This post by the author was published on Cricket Country on 23rd January, 2012

Now that Mahendra Singh Dhoni has completed his rigorous three-fold examination, and has been pulled up by authorities on disciplinary grounds and stopped from appearing for the final Test, it may be a good time to indulge in some performance review. After all, passing judgement on the Indian captain – otherwise known as ‘Dhoni bashing’ – is by now a major national pastime.

In between finding gilt-edged solutions to national problems through opinions about the Lokpal Bill and wondering about the name of the new Bachchan baby, the armchair analysts as well as the paid critics have been quite vocal in denouncing every move and movement of the man – the same Dhoni who very recently led the country to a World Cup triumph.

Caustic criticism is nothing new, to be expected in times of tribulation. However, the biggest concern here is that the short-sighted selectorial strategy may soon latch on to Dhoni as a convenient scapegoat, riding on the wings of public outcry, fast fabricating a show of thoughtful change in response to the deplorable showing of the team. 

Out of the ‘box’ suggestions

Seven overseas losses in a row can, of course, be distressing. Suggested miracle cures have been proportionately aplenty, with the many million experts churning out their recipes of rectification. Predictably, the turncoat characteristic of the followers of the game has come to the forefront in multiple manners. The ones who had vociferously typecast Virat Kohli as a privileged brat of Indian cricket after the second Test, have suddenly started to  advocate for his Graeme Smith-like elevation to captaincy after the youngster’s second innings 75 at Perth. And curiously, voices in social networks as well as professional media, who had been bellowing about investing in youth for the future, have suggested bringing back Sourav Ganguly as captain – as a panacea for the problems. Out of box thinking indeed, if we strictly adhere to the usage of ‘box’ as in cricketing gear.

India is a country where perception plays a huge role. Quality and results finish a poor second to the deafening noise and repetition factor. FM Channels make hits of strident numbers, column space and television time turn most ridiculous of films into box office sensations. In such an environment, manufacturing the image of a past that is significantly different from what the record books tell us is not too difficult. Besides, in a nation brought up on Bollywood melodramas, subtlety is seldom accepted as a virtue. Hence, a captain who hardly allows himself a smile after clubbing a six to win the World Cup is perpetually one failure away from being branded a laid back good for nothing. Especially when considered next to others who have traditionally worn their hearts on their sleeves. So, while it is not unnatural for people to believe that Dhoni is in the process of undoing all the good that has been done by his predecessors in the past decade, it may not necessarily be the absolutely accurate picture.

Let us take a look at some of the allegations against the man, and how they fare in the face of cold facts.

Dhoni is the most successful Indian captain – overall & against Australia

Allegation 1:

India has fared excellently against strong teams in the last decade and the spineless showing of Dhoni and his team has ruined the record.

Well, the truth is that Dhoni’s record as captain is still the best among Indian skippers. If minnows are taken out of the equation, he leads the others by quite some distance. And most surprisingly, his record against the Australians still stands as the best among all the Indian captains, with twice the number of wins as the next best.

Overall Record
Record after
eliminating minnows

Sourav Ganguly
Rahul Dravid
Anil Kumble
MS Dhoni

Given that the next year or so will see India playing mostly in their backyard, if better senses prevail and Dhoni is not forced out of the top job, this record should keep improving.

Dhoni has achieved overseas feats his predecessors never could

Allegation 2

India’s recent successful overseas record has been dragged back by Dhoni’s team into the dark days of the 1990s. 

While the last seven defeats have indeed constituted a shocking streak and has brought Dhoni’s overseas win-loss record plummeting down, he has still managed to achieve certain feats in foreign and distant lands that his predecessors could not. Namely, winning in the difficult conditions of New Zealand and squaring the series in South Africa and Sri Lanka.

The following table puts things in perspective.

Overseas Record
(eliminating minnows)

Complete Overseas
Series Wins
Series   Losses
Series Draws
Sourav Ganguly
Zim, Bang*
Aus, Eng
Rahul Dravid
Eng, WI, Bang*
SA, Pak
Anil Kumble
Aus, SL
MS Dhoni
NZ, WI, Bang

 *The series victory against Pakistan in 2003-04 was achieved with Dravid leading in two Tests and Ganguly in one.

When one takes a look at the One-Day Internationals, the record of MS Dhoni stands head and shoulders above the rest. This gains even more significance when viewed in the light of the World Cup triumph.

ODI Wins
ODI Losses
Win Loss Ratio
World Cup Result

Sourav Ganguly
Rahul Dravid
1st round
Anil Kumble
MS Dhoni

Dhoni is the only one who performs better with the bat as a captain

Allegation 3

Dhoni does not lead from the front.

While it is perhaps difficult to compare this attribute in figures because two of the captains during the last decade were specialist batsmen, one a champion bowler and Dhoni himself a wicket keeper, let us nevertheless try to look at the degree by which they lifted their performances as captains. If we compare the way the respective batting records of Ganguly, Dravid and Dhoni as captains contrast with their overall career figures, once again the current skipper heads the pack. In fact, Dhoni happens to be the only one among the three who performs better with the bat as captain – in both Tests and ODIs.

Career Average
as Captain
Degree of
raising the
game as

as Captain
Degree of raising the
game as
Sourav Ganguly
Rahul Dravid
MS Dhoni

As the table shows beyond doubt, all allegations of his not leading from the front actually turn out to errors of perception, heuristic bias.

What one needs to remember here is that Dhoni is a specialist wicketkeeper – a position in which India has been traditionally used to men like Kiran More, Nayan Mongia and Syed Kirmani. Before Dhoni arrived on the scene, a batting average in the mid 20s was considered decent for someone whose main job was behind the stumps. Dhoni’s more- than-respectable figures in Test matches and outstanding ones in ODIs make him a phenomenal performer, more than an asset to the country. It is his presence that allows India to maintain the crucial balance in an era when most teams boast excellent wicketkeeper batsmen.

It is true that his batting record overseas is ordinary compared to that in the subcontinent, but when contrasted with other Indian wicketkeepers, he again emerges  right at the top.

The Big 3 Effect

A captain in cricket is actually, to use a cliché that has been hackneyed to the limit, as good as the team. The statistics given above demonstrate quite clearly that the monumental triumphs that we generally attribute to skippers of the past are actually figments of our fantasy, in most cases propelled by our culture of deification.

There is a much easier and believable explanation of the rise and fall of Indian cricket fortunes overseas. From 2001 to the very recent times, India has been blessed with three batsmen who are magnificent run makers on fast and bouncy as well as slow and turning wickets. As long as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman had been at their peak, the fortunes of Indian cricket had soared with the heady heights of their exploits. Now that the vintage has often been lowering guard to allow the world a peek at the advancing age, the defeats have come hurrying back. To me this is a much more logical explanation than the mystic, inscrutable powers which we tend to discover in captains, often in retrospect and through the lens of extremely malleable memory.

The above assertion can be demonstrated by considering four memorable wins of India over Australia in the past. At Eden Gardens, 2001, India had been following on and one key wicket away from innings defeat when VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid had rewritten history. At Adelaide, Indians had slumped to 85 for four in reply to 556 when the two maestros had decided to indulge in an encore of the miracle. At Mohali, 2010, with all over bar the Aussie celebrations, an injured VVS Laxman, with Ishant Sharma for company, had conjured up the unbelievable. And finally, in the next Test at Bangalore, coming in with the score at 38 for two while replying to 478, Sachin Tendulkar played an innings of 214 and followed it up with 53* in the second essay to win it emphatically. Each of these is an example of batting brilliance, a combination of gifted individuals who have brought bagful of victories, with little or nothing to do with the captaincy.

Now, with these three architects of dreams more often than not failing to click together, the success rate has gone awry.

This can be demonstrated with the following piece of statistic.

Average runs scored/Test by
Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman
together in won matches

Average runs scored/Test by
Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman
 together in lost matches
Sourav Ganguly
Rahul Dravid
MS Dhoni

The above table is eloquent in expressing how much the fortunes of Indian cricket have been influenced by the performance of the three middle order masters. When they have fired, MS Dhoni has won Tests in far and distant lands. When they have sputtered and stopped, matches have been lost.

With India about to undergo a major transformation in the next one year or so, with the Big 3 soon to make way for a younger lot, it is imperative that the man at the helm is persisted with, given all required support, and allowed to nurture and develop the young side, turning the talents into treasures.

The next few series at home will no doubt help the team in initiating the upheavals smoothly, spreading them out in phases, without feeling the full jolt of transitional shocks. And there is no better man to be in charge while the large gaps are gradually filled in – MS Dhoni, a wicketkeeper batsman of rare quality, a captain of choicest credentials, a man to safeguard the present.