March 11, 2011

Home truths before India and Dhoni

By H Natarajan

The optimists bracketed India among the pre-tournament favourties while the jingoists hailed the Men in Blue as champions-in-waiting. But only a miniscule minority of realists squeaked, amid the hype and hoopla, that’s India’s progress in the 2011 World Cup hinged heavily on the side’s anemic bowling.

For a long time now, the potency of the Indian batting has covered up glaring deficiencies in the bowling department. This weapon, many felt, would be considerably enhanced on the flat tracks of the subcontinent. There was also the belief that the subcontinent wickets would blunt the warheads of teams like Australia, South Africa and England that relied heavily on pace while at the same time place a team like India, banking on three specialist spinners, in a favorable position.

As India found out quickly, reality check does not bounce! The first reality was that a total of 300-plus can no longer be considered a match-winning total – a point that was spectacularly hammered home by Ireland when they successfully chased England’s target of 327 and England’s near-successful chase of 338 in that tied game against India. The second reality check is that quality pace bowlers can cause considerable damage, whatever be the conditions as Mitchell Johnson, Lasith Malinga, Kemar Roach, Tim Bresnan and Zaheer Khan have proved so far in this championship.

India is sitting on top of the heap in Group B. But that position will give the team little comfort, given how the matches have panned so far.

So where have things gone wrong for India for me to strike the note of guarded optimism, if not downright pessimism?
The first mistake is a well-documented one: The resurrection of Piyush Chawla and the overlooking of a proven performer like Pragyan Ojha. Chawla was creamed by the English tailender that India almost lost from a winning position. He failed yet again against Ireland and was surprisingly chosen to play a third successive match – this time against Netherlands.

Chawla’s disastrous outings have read: 10-0-71-2 vs England; 8-0-56-0 vs Ireland; 10-0-47-2 vs Netherlands. In all three games, he was India’s most expensive bowler. It’s human to err, but it’s downright stupid to persist with an error. Foolhardy obstinacy can never be a virtue.

Harbhajan Singh was expected to be one of the two strike bowlers for India, alongside Zaheer Khan. But he has taken just two wickets from four outings in this World Cup and has been restrictive at best. When you factor the performances – rather, the non-performances - of the two spinners and juxtapose their report card with that of the Indian fast bowlers in this tournament, it does not augur well for India.

Shantakumaran Sreesanth was clobbered for 53 runs in five overs by Bangladesh and lost the confidence of the team management; Munaf Patel has been inconsistent while Ashish Nehra has been unimpressive in first outing in his own backyard of Delhi. One shudders to think the plight of the team had Yuvraj Singh not come to the rescue as a match-winning bowler.

Yuvraj is doing for India in this World Cup what Mohinder Amarnath did in India’s victorious campaign in 1983. But Amarnath played a great supporting role as a bowler; here Yuvraj is asked to be the lead actor! And that’s where they have to get it right if the script has to unfold to box office expectations.

Had India been chasing against Bangladesh, the script would have been lot different. That spirited performance by Bangladesh, against a mammoth Indian total of 370 for four, put the Indian bowling in proper perspective in the very opening game of the tournament.

The Indian batting machine, powered by Sachin Tendulkar’s hundred, scored 338 against England, but what seemed a match-winning score was made to look woefully inadequate as Andrew Strauss made mincemeat of the Indian bowling. It was only Zaheer’s genius with the old ball that brought about a dramatic transformation in the game and, in the end, allowed India to tie the game.

If there was further confirmation needed about the insipid Indian bowling, then successive matches against Associate nations Ireland and Netherlands gave ample evidence. In fact, had Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Yusuf Pathan got out early, India may well have lost the game to Ireland. And against Netherlands, India needed more than 50 runs with just the bowlers left to bat. But for the second time running, Yuvraj Singh bailed the side out if a possible ignominy.

The single biggest gain in the last one year has been Virat Kohli’s exemplary batting. At No 4, Kohli is a sane and stabilizing influence in a side loaded with ballistic batsmen. But the run out against Ireland and the tinkering with his batting slot would have negated much of the confidence he had gained from that marvelous century on his World Cup debut. It will be suicidal for India to do anything that will dent the youngster’s confidence.

If sides like Bangladesh, Ireland and Netherlands have caused much grief to India, the alarm bells would be ringing in the Indian camp for the matches ahead. Dhoni has very little at his command to juggle around in case of bowling emergencies. In the light of frontline bowlers failing in a heap, it would make sense for India to abandon the four-bowler theory and go in for a fifth specialist bowler.

The team management cannot waste any further time in inducting the talented Ravichandran Ashwin in the eleven. Ashwin should open the bowling in place of Zaheer, who will be lot more dangerous with the old ball in the middle overs. And the time to unfold that strategy would have to be against South Africa on Saturday. It’s a game I would also like to see Sreesanth coming back into the team. He has done well against the South Africans in the recent series and it his confidence against the Proteas will be that much higher. Sreesanth is a strike bowler and if he finds his form and confidence, it will do immense good in the crucial matches ahead.

Matches are won on the field and not by TV hype. The team has to take their game to a higher level. If not, for at least four more years, Ritesh Deshmukh will not be able to eat chocolates, Sajid Khan will have to eschew non-veg, John Abraham will have to stay away from veg and Akshay Kumar will probably die of hunger! Get the point?!

( H Natarajan is the Executive Editor of )

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March 08, 2011

Ireland’s display against India shows why they are ready for big league

By H Natarajan

The ICC effected a subtle change in its “beyond-the-2.5 meter rule” with regard to lbw referrals under the UDRS system. As per the amendment, if replays indicate that the ball would travel in excess of 2.5 metres from the point of impact, the batsman can still be given out if Hawk-Eye shows the ball striking any part of the middle stump at a comfortable height.

And it’s because of the rule change by the ICC, bang in the middle of the World Cup, that saw umpire Rod Tucker reverse his earlier decision and adjudge Ireland's Alex Cusack lbw toYuvraj Singh. The ICC took the decision to bring about this dramatic change following a similar incident in the India-England game where Ian Bell was controversially declared not out.

Commenting in the group Cricket Fans on Facebook, Srinivasan Narayanan hit the nail on the head: “If you can change a rule midway, then why not grant Ireland full status now?”

Srini’s is not a voice in the wilderness. As Ireland soldier on impressively in the 2011 World Cup, they are winning the respect and admiration of opponents, critics, the cricketing cognoscenti around the world and the masses.

Not since Sri Lanka’s compelling and consistent on-field performances, an associate member nation has made such forceful claims for full ICC membership as Ireland. In fact, cricket has undergone a sea change in the near three decades since Sri Lanka got Test status.

It’s now a high-pressure game with the demands on the players scaling stratospheric levels in keeping with the high stakes. It’s in this dramatically different scenario, Ireland has measured up to the best in the business.

It’s all quiet on the Western Front after the din of the day-night drama at Bengaluru. The scoreboard says, India beat Ireland by five wickets. Fairly convincing, it may seem. But what cold statistics don’t reveal to those who had not followed the match closely is how things could have been vastly different with just the loss of one more Indian wicket at a critical juncture.

India were fortunate that one of the coolest heads in the game, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, walked in with India’s score reading an uneasy 100 for the loss of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli. Another 108 runs were needed for victory and there was just Yusuf Pathan in the hut.

Had Dhoni got out quickly at this point, the pressure on Pathan would have been enormous as the last of the recognized batsman. Pathan would not have been able to throw his bat as freely as he did. Yes, one wicket was all that Ireland needed at this stage which could have plunged a nation of billion-plus people into a huge disappointment. And another victory would have meant Ireland’s claims for higher recognition was almost guaranteed, as it would have followed that epic, back-from-the-dead victory over England at the same venue.

The Indian captain had ensured that victory was well within India’s grasp when he left with the score at 167. In a manner of speaking, Dhoni ‘took’ the Batting Powerplay by getting out, as the man to follow was that “Dexterous Destroyer”, Yusuf Pathan. And “Air Marshall” Pathan lit the night skies with the kind of pyrotechnics that only he can. In the end, few realized how perilously close India came to losing against Ireland.

There are three departments in the game of cricket: Batting, Bowling and Fielding. Ireland were superior to India in two of the three - and yet lost the game. The Irish bowlers very disciplined, bowling to the field and making the nuclear-powered Indian batting earn their runs. The Ireland fielding was a marvel – I dare say one of the best fielding sides in the world, if not the best. Their commitment and professionalism was top class. Despite the absence of a good foundation back home, their batsmen still showed guts, gumption and character to stand up to international class bowlers. Yesterday, it was the turn of skipper William Poterfield to put his hand up.

The chasm is huge between most domestic cricket and the game at international level. Indian cricket, for example, is replete with ‘kings’ in first class cricket forced to look like paupers at the international level. What the ICC needs to do is to help Ireland give greater and more meaningful exposure to the part-time cricketers of Ireland - with the co-operation of full-member nations - before easing them into Test cricket in a year or two.

What’s most admirable about Ireland is that the talent that you see in their ranks is home bred and not a motley collection of expats. And for a team that did not generate pre-tournament expectations from the world, they had sizable support from their own countrymen in the stands. Obviously, they knew their players better than the rest of the world were willing to believe.

What Ireland needs is a sense of fairplay and justice from the ICC. The ICC has been criticized for its protectionism attitude towards the full member nations – an indication of that is reflected in the World Cup format, which is favoured to ensure the safe passage of the fancied teams into the next stage. Encouragement, if any, needs to be given to the minnows. But then the ICC decisions are governed with one eye on sponsorship moolah. But Ireland has proved emphatically that minnows can be a draw as well. They need the blessings of the ICC to take their game to the next level.

A Shah Rukh Khan would still have been doing insignificant TV soaps had his talented not been noticed and pitchforked into celluloid. A Sonu Nigam would still have been singing in small, social gatherings than be one of the nation’s prized singers had he not been given due recognition at the right time. Ireland are like SRK and Sonu in their struggling days. If they need to join the big league, the patronage of the ICC is vital.

(H Natarajan is the Executive Editor of