Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Season of Shame - II

(This is the second part of my review of Indian cricket over its home season. Part 1 is here)

With the test leg of India's season over, it was time for the Limited Overs Internationals. India were in a weird place wherein they would go top of the ODI and T20 rankings if they won their remaining matches in the year - 2 T20Is each against England and Pakistan and 1 ODI against Pakistan.

Ofcourse, India ended up splitting both T20 series (if you can call them series) and lost the first ODI to Pakistan. What was frustrating, though, was the management's insistence on picking players who were either out of form (Gambhir) or not suited to the format (Rahane).

While T20s can be a bit unpredictable, it is the 50-over format in which India have done really well. But with both openers (Gambhir & Sehwag/Rahane) being out of form & Virat Kohli suffering his first real lean patch since 2009, it was imperative for the captain to push himself up the order. Instead, we had Yuvraj Singh coming in at 4 every game with Raina at 5 while India's best ODI batsman batted at 6 (He even batted at 7 in one game). India's score when he came in to bat in these ODIs: 29/5, 70/4, 63/4, 198/4, 119/4, 144/3, 158/4, 49/4.

Yuvraj seems to be having the same problems as he has always had, in that he struggles against offspinners as 5 of his 8 dismissals were to offspinners. He finished his ODI leg with a duck today, which brought his average to 20 with just 1 fifty in 8 innings. I think he has been back long enough for people to question his place in the side, or at the very least where he bats.

None of the openers played with any amount of assurance, although an 83 from Rohit Sharma brought out all his fanbois. Some of them even drew a parallel between his numbers and those of Sachin Tendulkar before he opened the innings. Ofcourse they conveniently ignored the fact that Rohit had opened in ODIs before albeit on just three occasions. Sure enough, he was out today driving on the up for just 4 runs. Ajinkya Rahane put up a very mediocre run of scores, although I fail to understand why people expected someone with a List A average of below 40 to do well in ODIs in the first place. It's the same with Rohit Sharma who averages slightly less than Rahane in List A matches but has played 87 ODIs while players like Pujara couldn't make the squad until the England series despite having a List A average of just under 57!

Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami gave the fans something to be happy about. Both seem to possess the accuracy and discipline essential for being an international bowler. Kumar can even bowl long spells as Dhoni has bowled him out at the start of the innings on more than one occasion. What impressed me about Shami was he decided to attack Nasir Jamshed from around the wicket right from ball one. Jamshed had looked at ease against the Indian seamers as none of them really had threatened his stumps, pads and either edge of his bat until then. After scoring a hundred in each of his last 3 ODIs against India, he looked really uncomfortable and was beaten time and again by all the bowlers. For some inexplicable reason, he was dropped for the first ODI against England and India promptly lost the game.

Among the spinners, Ashwin continued to be erratic and should be a cause for concern going forward. It's a pity that the selectors don't consider Pragyan Ojha good enough for LOIs because he is a better bowler than Ashwin in all formats. Fortunately for them, Ravindra Jadeja had a terrific run in the ODIs. It's high time people realise he is a bowler who can bat a bit rather than the other way round.

While the 1-2 and 3-2 scoreline reflects the performance of the respective sides, I feel that an Indian team with the right personnel and right batting order would have beaten Pakistan 2-1 and swept England with plenty left in the tank. The Champions Trophy is in June and India aren't scheduled to play any ODIs before that. Not the best way to prepare but then I seem to be one of the few who seem to care about that competition.

This has been one of the worst home seasons for Indian cricket. Probably the worst since Tendulkar made his debut. The side needs to undergo a massive overhaul in tests and a few changes in LOIs, which brings us back to the upcoming Border Gavaskar Trophy and the squad I think India should pick.

1. Mahendra Singh Dhoni
2. Virender Sehwag
3. Ajinkya Rahane
4. Cheteshwar Pujara
5. Virat Kohli
6. Subramaniam Badrinath
7. Ravindra Jadeja
8. Ravichandran Ashwin
9. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar
10. Umesh Yadav/Ishant Sharma
11. Pragyan Ojha
12. Shikhar Dhawan
13. Rohit Sharma
14. Pankaj Singh
15. Mohammad Shami

After 3 years without a hundred and a tendency to cost the team wickets with his running between wickets, it is time for Gautam Gambhir to make way for someone else. While I'm not a fan of Rahane in LOIs, I feel he has been kept out of the test side way too long given his record in first class cricket. Although the selectors should have told Sehwag to shed some of that fat long ago, they can still do it and pick him but make it clear that a bad series against Australia would lead to him being dropped and out of contention for the South Africa tour unless he dazzles them by putting in some hard yards in County cricket post IPL. Shikhar Dhawan can be the reserve opener.

The middle order should see Virat Kohli move up to number four as there is no place for a struggling Tendulkar in the side. I am well aware that the selectors will never do this. However, I can't make my picks based on what they will or won't do. The number 5 spot should go to one of Rohit Sharma, Subramaniam Badrinath or Manoj Tiwary. I am tempted to go with Badrinath at 5 with Rohit as backup. Harsh on Tiwary but he didn't exactly have a great season before he got injured. Neither did Badri, but has been consistent for much longer than any of his peers and has shown that he can put a price on his wicket better than any of the younger batsmen.

Ravindra Jadeja won a place in the test side with excellent performances with bat and ball. He outbowled two of the frontline spinners in Nagpur so he retains his place. While Mahendra Singh Dhoni hasn't done too well of late, any decision on his future in tests should be taken after this series. If he doesn't do well, the selectors should announce his replacement as soon as the series is over rather than wait till the eleventh hour like they did with Laxman. Again, I know they are unlikely to do any of this.

The spinners retain their places although with Ashwin it's more down to a lack of viable alternatives more than anything else. If he has a bad series Ojha should go ahead of him for the spot of first-choice spinner, although recent history suggests the selectors are unlikely to do it. I don't see the need for a third spinner as Jadeja is more than capable of bowling long and accurate spells.

Coming to the seamers, I think it would be a major risk to pick Zaheer Khan given his injury problems. There is no news on Umesh Yadav but if he's fit, he plays in the 11 alongwith Ishant Sharma. If not, either Pankaj Singh or Bhuvaneshwar Kumar should make their debut with Mohammad Shami getting the final spot. It might be a risky move but Pankaj Singh has ticked all the boxes without being considered for a place, while Bhuvaneshwar Kumar has also been consistently among the wickets in first class cricket.

I fully expect India to win this series given how inexperienced the Australian side is likely to be. Of their top 7, Clarke is the only one to have played test cricket in India. It is anybody's guess as to which pace bowlers will make the trip as there are major injury concerns for a number of them. Nathan Lyon is their first-choice spinner and with all due respect to him, he isn't as good as either of the England spinners. Expect a close series with India winning by either 2-1 or 2-0.

The Season of Shame - I

With England finally completing their tour of India & the Ranji season being a couple of days away from its end, it feels like the right time to look back on Indian cricket over the past season. Yes, the Aussies are yet to tour but I will come to it later. Also, this is the first of two parts as writing about the entire season in one post would've made it too lengthy for my liking. (Part 2)

India's home season started amidst a lot of turmoil. While Rahul Dravid had announced his retirement well in advance, VVS Laxman decided 5 days before the start of the first test against New Zealand that it was time for him to retire. There were reports that he had trained hard at the NCA and played club cricket to prepare for the test series but when he was given an ultimatum by one of the selectors he decided to walk away.

If these reports were indeed true, this was one among many cases of poor planning and co-ordination among the people running and representing Indian cricket. The selectors, the coaching staff, and the captain had months to figure out if they wanted Laxman in the side, whether they had a deadline in mind after which Laxman wouldn't be picked even if he were available. Yet, none of this happened and we were left with a major hole in the middle order.

The two-test series went by with Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli showing a lot of promise with the bat while Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha continuing to dominate batsmen who were ill-equipped to play spin.

There were, however, concerns about the opening pair as neither Gambhir nor Sehwag managed to score a hundred. Gambhir's run of innings without a hundred went back to January 2010 & spanned 40 innings while Sehwag hadn't scored a hundred in his last 30 innings going back to November 2010. Gambhir went so far as to pointing out their average as an opening pair was 53 and that people who talked about them not contributing should look at the stats. Equally worrying was the form of Sachin Tendulkar who hadn't scored a hundred in his last 24 innings - his longest run of scores without a hundred in his 23-year career.

None of this seemed to worry the new selection panel which picked an almost identical squad for the England series. The only changes were Yuvraj Singh replacing Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh replacing Piyush Chawla. Neither Yuvraj nor Harbhajan had put in a prolonged run of good performances in first class cricket. Harbhajan, infact, had struggled to take wickets for Essex in the second division of County cricket in the 2012 season.

Things were just as ridiculous off the field as BCCI officials claimed that the India and England would not be competing for the Nawab of Pataudi trophy, as the trophy was named after Anthony de Mello - One of the founders of the BCCI. Never in all these years had the board informed its fans about this, not even in 2008 when England toured India for the first time after the Nawab of Pataudi Trophy had been so named. Clearly, the babus took precedence over the cricketers when it came to being recognised.

The first test came & went as most people expected it to. India put up a big first innings total thanks to typical knocks from Sehwag and Pujara. It helped that England made the mistake of playing a third seamer in place of Monty Panesar. They appeared clueless in their first innings and although they put up a spirited fight in the second innings, India went on to win the match by 9 wickets. There was some bad news for India as Umesh Yadav was declared unfit for the second test. He had looked the most effective of the five seamers in Ahmedabad with his ability to reverse the ball at high pace and an unusual accuracy. There was no comment on how long he would be out, although anyone who has followed Indian cricket long enough would have known he would play no further part in the series.

The second test was played on a proper turning track. Both teams played an extra spinner. India seemed to have an advantage by winning the toss but threw it away with an awful start which saw them reduced to 119-5. They recovered to post a decent total of 327 but followed it up with some very average bowling from Ashwin and Harbhajan. Alastair Cook laid a rock-solid platform with his second hundred of the series, but Kevin Pietersen played the innings of the series to give England a lead of 86. India lost 7 wickets in a session and that was pretty much the end of their challenge as England won the test by 10 wickets.

Those who thought it couldn't get worse were proven wrong in the third test at Kolkata. Some incredibly terrible running from Gautam Gambhir cost the side Sehwag and Pujara in the first and second innings respectively. The two were the only ones to score a hundred in the series upto that point and seeing them get run out thanks to someone who has always been terrible between the wickets was all the more frustrating. To make matters worse, the musical chairs in the slip cordon saw Pujara in shin pads fielding at first slip when Alastair Cook nicked one on 17. The England captain went on to score 190. The incident epitomised the difference in the fielding of the two sides. The visitors took the series lead after another horrible session for hosts in which they lost 6 wickets.

The fourth test was one of the most snoozeworthy matches in recent memory as neither side was able to score freely or take wickets. It was baffling to see such a pitch when the home team was in desperate need of a win. England were more than happy to play out a draw and win their first series in India in 28 years. It was also India's first loss at home since 2004. Gambhir and Tendulkar extended their run of innings without a hundred by 7 innings while Ashwin proved that he had a long way to go before people consider him a top class test bowler.

To put things into perspective, the team that beat India in 2004 had Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, and Michael Clarke making his debut. Even they needed a rained out final day in Chennai, a green top in Nagpur & a half-fit Tendulkar who missed the first two tests to conquer their final frontier. Siddharth Monga captured the decline of India's test side with a collection quotes from various people over the past few months. You know things are bad when everyone right from top board officials to players still making a mark in test cricket refuse to accept the reality of India's decline into an average test side.