Friday, December 28, 2007

India still has a chance to win at MCG

At the end of day 3 of the Boxing Day Test the equation is simple, India needs close to 500 runs to win with 10 wickets in hand. Going by the history of Test Cricket, no team has ever won chasing 500 in the 4th innings. Only thrice have teams won chasing 400. Hostile Australian fast bowling backed by superb fielding and unsettled Indian batting order all makes Australia favourites to win the match tomorrow itself.

But I am thinking positively (for a change) and that Impossible task of chasing 500 is possible. I am taking inspiration from India's Test wins against Australia so far this decade. All of them looked absolutely impossible.
1) Kolkata - India were following on trailing Australia by 274 runs. It took India Laxman's 281, Dravid's 180 and Harbajan's 13 wickets that included a hat-rick for the impossible to happen.
2) Chennai - At the end of day 1 Australia were 300 odd for 3 and Hayden completed 200. It took Sachin's 126, Laxman's twin 60s and Harbhajan's 15 wickets to turn the tide in India's favour.
3) Adelaide - Australia 400/5 on day 1. India 84/4 on tea on day 2 chasing Australia's 556 in 1st innings. It then took Dravid's 300 in the match, Laxman's 148 and Agarkar's quick 6 second innings wickets.
4) Mumbai - India bowled out for 100 in the first innings. Australia needed just 107 to win in 4th innings. It took shrewd captaincy from Dravid and tight spell from spin triplet led by Murli Karthik to script an impossible victory.

India trailed Australia in the first innings in all of those matches except the for the one in Chennai. It took a few great individual performances, record breaking partnerships and complete team work to win.

Looking at how some of the recent 4th innings totals have been chased
1) West Indies bt Australia at Antigua in 2003 chasing 418.
2) Australia bt South Africa chasing 280 odd off 75 overs loosing just 2 wickets.
3) West Indies came within 60 runs of chasing 460 set by England in the 3rd Test of 2007 series in England.
4) Sri lanka led by Sangakkara's 192 fell short by just 96 runs chasing Australia's 500. Had umpire not given the wrong decision, who knows Sri Lanka might as well have won.
5) At Perth last year England were in with a chance of chasing 550 against Australia by being 300/3 at the end of 4th day.
6) Zimbabwe batted 2 days led by Andy Flowers 232* to save the match against India at Nagpur.
7) Atherton's 185* saved England the J,burg test against South Africa having to bat 2 days to save the test.
8) Jacques Rudolph's unbeaten century saved South Africa the Brisbane Test having to bat a day and half. That was the last time Australia didn't win a Test 17 tests ago.

Pitches have improved considerably in the recent past and they do last 5 days without becoming a mine-field on the 5th day. This Melbourne Pitch is still good for batting and India has the batting resources. Australia's bowlers are not experienced and will be severely tested when the batting looks settled. Absence of a quality spinner should work in India's favour. You need a spinner or two to bowl tight long spells especially in the second innings.

Indian batsmen need to play their natural game and score runs. They need to overcome nervousness of playing in the 4th innings that too against Australia. They should look for singles and use the bad balls by putting them away for runs. They will also need help from the umpires. They shouldn't get the same treatment that they got in 1st innings. There will be several tough spells which will have to negotiated. Once the bowlers tire there will be plenty of runs to be made. Australians no doubt will set attaching fields and there will be plenty of gaps to score runs. Thought of playing for a draw should never come in. If they can bat out 2 days, they can as well score 500 to win. In form batsmen like Sachin, Saurav and Laxman needs to put their hands up and score big runs. Others will have to support them. India needs 2 or 3 big partnerships. Kumble needs to keep telling his batsmen to be positive as he did during the successful 4th innings chase at Delhi.

Before the series began, I had doubts about the Indian bowling lineup. I think, they did a great job in the 1st test. They bowled with lot of fire and energy. With little more discipline and help from fielders, they are on the way to capture 20 wickets. They seem to enjoy the fact that Australian batsmen like to go after their bowling which kind of challenges them and also gives the bowlers a chance to get them out. They gave Australian tail enders an opportunity to bat which they didn't get in the previous series. India needs to stick with the 2 spinner approach throughout the series.

Australia are favourites to win it but India has a chance to make a match of it. I would like to see India ending tomorrow's day at around 300 for 3.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Highlights of Day1 of Boxing Day Test 2007

What a fantastic way to begin the most anticipated series, The Border-Gavaskar Series between India and Australia starting Boxing Day at the historic MCG. Australia got 337 and India got 9 wickets. That leaves the first day honours even though India has a slight advantage. But to an Indian fan this is a huge satisfaction, to stay in the game at the end of Day 1 overseas that too Australia.

For India its captain Kumble has led from the front taking 5 wickets. He rates this as his best bowling spell overseas. For Australia Hayden scored 124 (100 of just 120 balls), he too rates his hundred as the best of his career. To rate this as their best achievements from players of the stature and experience of Kumble and Hayden shows what a massive day this has been and how important this contest is for the respective teams.

The turning point to me of the day was Zaheer Khan castling Ponting's off-stump. That was a peach of a delivery, bowled from an angle, pitching on good length, swings just away to beat Pointing outside edge and hit the top of off-stump. The best fast bowlers have a very simple strategy, just bowl such that the ball pitches and hits the top of off-stump. This though is a very effective strategy because at that length the batsmen is unsure as to whether to play it off the front foot or back foot. The line is such that the batsmen has to play at it. If he misses it he will get out bowled or lbw or if he gets an outside edge it will carry to waiting hands and slips.

On his personal front, it is a very special day for Saurav Ganguly who is playing his 100th test match. Lord's and MCG are Mecca and Madina of cricket. He is the most privileged one to play his first test at the former and 100th test at the latter. He scored a 100 on the first occasion, could he score a 100 on this occasion? He made his ODI debut too here 15 years back. He is the 7th Indian to play 100 tests and 3 of them (Sachin, Rahul and Anil) are playing alongside him in this match. When Laxman will play his 100th match, hopefully India will have 5 centurions in same team, 4 in the middle order. He has scored a few hundreds with the bat in Tests, ODIs and First Class matches but it will he this hundred (matches) that he will value the most.

Regarding the selection, I am happy that a spinner was picked ahead of the medium pacer. Kumble very much realises that Australian batsmen are susceptible to quality spin bowling and are very comfortable with medium pace. Only Kumble and Harbhajan of the Indian bowlers have troubled Australia consistently in the recent past. But the shuffling of the settled batting order was what I didn't like. I am not against selection of Yuvraj Singh, but the fact that Dravid is made to open and Laxman has to bat at No 3. Harsha Bogle in his column for espnstar wrote "If you want to pick a junior minister in the cabinet, you don’t move the home minister to finance, the finance minister to external affairs so that the junior man can take home!". I feel sorry for Dravid here, he is in his worst phase of his career, struggling with the bat, quit captaincy, lost his one day place and now lost his favourite Test Batting position. No doubt he has the skill and technique to bat at any position and he is ready to make any sacrifices for the team.

At this stage India have their noses ahead but a Test win is still far off. To me Australians are still favourites to win this opening encounter.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Indian Playing X1 for Boxing Day Test

Thinking about selecting the team for 1st Test against Australia starting Boxing Day makes me realise how difficult yet thankless the job of Indian Selector is. Dilip Vengsarkar certainly deserves a better deal for taking revolutionary decisions like inclusion of Ganguly in South Africa, asking Kumble to captain the test team, making Karthik as opener, giving new ball to R.P.Singh, sticking to the tried, tested and guaranteed middle order in spite of relentless pressure from Yuvraj Singh.

Let me start the selection with a few easy and uncontroversial ones. List is in Chronological order of walking into the batting crease
1. Jaffer - Best Opener for India over the last 2 years. Showed good form with a stroking 200 against Pakistan.
2. Rahul Dravid - He missed only 1 match since he has made his debut. Not in the best of form rather has just completed his worst (by his own high standards) year at office. Has got class and technique and is just a 100 away from striking form again. His selection into the team is beyond doubt but his batting position.
3. Tendulkar - Was he ever dropped ever since he has started playing? The decision whether to play him or not is left to himself. He on in part is raring to go.
4. Ganguly - Best Indian batsmen over last one year right from the first innings since he has come back. He is at his best form of his life.
5. Laxman - Remember, We are playing against Australia. We are not here to please Australians by dropping him.
6. Dhoni - Hasn't done any mistake with the gloves. Cheers up the dressing room. Batting and that too aggressively is a bonus. One who is touted to take over captaincy can learn the nuances by being a sincere deputy to Kumble.
7. Kumble. Full Stop
8. Zaheer Khan - India's strike bowler after Srinath's retirement. Worked extremely hard to earn a place back in the Team. Hasn't put a wrong foot since his return. Architect of India's triumph in England.
9. R.P. Singh - Good controlled bowler. Has his name registered at Lord's for his 5-wicket haul. Excellent new ball partner to Zaheer Khan. Both of them lack the pace to trouble Australian batsmen, but who else has? Swing and control is what is expected of them. It is important that they don't carry any injury during the entire series.

Pareto's 80-20 principle holds very well here. Selecting 80% of the 11 is only 20% of the effort but the remaining 20% will take 80% effort. I am yet to select Jaffer's opening partner and the 4th bowler.
Again starting off with an easier debate i.e. on 4th bowling option. My argument is that it has to be a spinner.
* The pitch at MCG is expected to be good for batting and will assist the spinners after 3 days. Stuart Clark has expressed his disappointment at this.
* Shane Warne last year picked up 5 wickets on day 1 against England to bring up his tally to 700. Suggesting that spin works at MVG.
* Australians are expected to bat big and long. A second spinner comes in handy then to share Kumble's workload.
* Only twice have Indian fast bowlers (Zaheer Khan and Agarkar) taken 5 wickets in an innings in at least last 20 tests against Australia. We don't have a 3rd fast bowler who looks like challenging that record. Australians were never troubled by Indian fast bowling but by Spinners.
* With Sreesanth unfit, Pathan looks the next best option. But being yet another left arm medium pace bowler, there wouldn't be any new variety to bowling attack. His batting would be useful isn't a valid argument when his bowling is useless. Ishant Sharma lacks any sort to discipline to play at Test Level, let alone against Australia. I was agitated at seeing him bowl at Bengaluru. I don't know Pankaj Singh, if he is quality bowler, I would have known.

I said we need a spinner, that doesn't mean that it has to be Harbhajan. He might have excellent record against Australia at home but that was few years back. Present Harbhajan is no longer the Turbonator, he is now a listless unidimensional off-spinner. Murali Karthik would have been good but only Harbhajan has flown to Australia and I am forced to select him.

Coming to the batsmen and Jaffer's opening partner. The possible options are Sehwag, Yuvraj and Karthik. Let me discuss of them one by one.
1) Sehwag - Till a year ago he was India's best batsmen along with Dravid for 3 years. He had one bad series in South Africa. Because of his poor one-day form he was dropped from Test Side. India had found a good opener in Karthik and never got a chance back. His style of game suits only Test Cricket. Attaching close in fielders, bowlers bowling to get his wicket rather than containing runs, new ball coming on to the bat etc suits well for him. His record over 5 years in various forms clearly suggests that. When he scores he scores them quickly, converts starts into huge scores. I wouldn't criticize the way he plays as the same method earned him huge successes in the past. Now he is low on confidence and form. So doesn't merit a selection. Selectors might hope/pray that he will come out well. But we can't expect such gambles to pay off against Australia.

2) Yuvraj Singh - He is one player who is causing head-aches to selectors, other settled middle order batsmen and me. Following arguments favour his selection. Is in form of his life; Likes ball to come on to the bat as it does in Australia; Strikes and Times the ball well; Brilliant fielder. Scores runs quickly and can be very good when counter-attacking; Provides a decent part time bowling option. But the big question is, where do one fit him? Only one opening slot is free. To select him we need to promote(?) Dravid to open and Laxman to No 3. Dravid hasn't been very successful as opener, still he as a team man has agreed to open. But I wouldn't open with him, because No 3 is his slot he has earned scoring about 7000 runs at that position. He is too good a batsmen to risk at opening slot. I wouldn't make such drastic changes in a long settled batting line up. So, if Yuvraj is to be selected he needs to open which he has never done successfully. That means he will have to sit-out and wait for his turn when any other batsmen gets injured. I would be very happy to have such a good batsmen sitting in the bench. Injury to a major batsman wouldn't be a problem then. This is a good problem to have for the team. Hussey got a break into Australian Team after age of 30 and 15000 first class runs.

3) Karthik - He had one bad series against Pakistan but otherwise he was top run scorer in England, had a good match in Cape Town, scored a hundred against Bangladesh. Dynamic fielder, back up wicket keeper and great team player. Has got India to a few solid starts with Jaffer. So I would give him a chance for 4 innings at least. That concludes the Team Selection.

Parthiv Patel and Aakash Chopra can also be considered. We have good number of options for batting but limited in bowling department. Is any pace foundation listening?