Reality Bites !

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The mirror has been shown and how! While the BCCI led bigwigs in International cricket are preparing to take control of the functioning of the ICC in Dubai, a subservient cricket nation has upstaged the current World Champions with almost a clean sweep. New Zealand in a fortnight have put on display who is at the bottom of the relegation table.

The five match ODI Series was an ideal opportunity for a young Indian side to start their road to the World Cup next year. The confidence was high as it was a battle of No. 1 vs No. 8 in One Day Cricket. But this belief came crashing as the visitors failed to register a single victory and continued their winless season in overseas conditions. It is appalling to look at India’s record post the World Cup win in 2011 where there have managed only 3 wins and 3 ties along with 11 loses in Australia, England and now New Zealand. 

The much famed Indian batting faltered in conditions suitable for pace and bounce but ideal for stroke play as well. It wasn’t one of those green top surfaces but flat drop in pitches. Openers Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma averaged less than 30 and got out more often than not while playing the pull and hook shots on short pitched bowling getting caught at deep square leg or fine leg areas. Ajinkya Rahane’s failure has once again weakened the middle order and the chant for getting Cheteshwar Pujara back for the ODI’s are only going to get louder. Suresh Raina’s selection was always a doubtful case and he complemented with back to back failures in dealing with the short stuff. Virat Kohli was the one man army scoring consistently and reminding of the late 90s era of the Sachin Tendulkar domination. Skipper MS Dhoni continued his brilliance with the bat but always had a lot to do. It is frustrating to see him coming so late as the game is generally lost by that time. He must have a change in the batting order and should promote himself at No. 4 or No. 5. 

Fast bowlers carried on with their task of giving headaches to the captain and team management. The death bowling was extremely poor and Shami and Co. failed to get the yorkers at the end. The new rules in the game have undoubtedly affected the Indians the most. Bhubaneshwar Kumar was expected to swing the ball in overseas conditions but his wickets column doesn’t show that. Mohammad Shami took wickets but with an economy of 7.15. Others like Varun Aaron got intimated by the bounce and pace of the pitches and tried to ball short but most of them resulted in half trackers. Once again the absence of Zaheer Khan will raise eyebrows as he remains India’s best bet. The spin department was disappointing too. With Ashwin getting just 2 wickets in the last 8 away ODI’s and Ravindra Jadeja’s wickets column neither very impressive, Dhoni should have gone for Amit Mishra.

The team management’s selection was ‘rigid’ most of the times. Playing Ashwin despite his poor performances and ignoring Amit Mishra was unfair. Even Stuart Binny who played in one game was sloted at no. 8 and was given only 1 over to bowl even if it meant that the captain had to bring on Ambati Rayudu to complete the quota. This time of crisis has surely given the Indian think tank an opportunity to get things back on track. It has also raised hopes for players like Gautam Gambhir desperate to make a comeback. But let’s hope all is not forgotten when they start performing on sub-continental pitches. 

New Zealand on the other hand were lethal. The consistency shown by Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor in the middle overs was eye catching and they propelled the innings total near or over 300 every time. Corey Anderson was the new star discovered as his allrounder abilities dismantled the Indians. Tim Southee and Kyle Mills along with newbie Mitchell McClennagan asked serious questions to the Indian batsmen to which they had no answer. It seems that the home team has found a good bunch of players at least in home conditions. 

 

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Time for a Kiwi ride !

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The beautiful skies of the Kiwi land welcome the Indians once again as the visitors lock horns with hosts New Zealand in a 5 match ODI Series starting this Sunday.While the Brendon McCullum led New Zealand is coming off from a successful home series against West Indies – winning the Tests & T20s and sharing the ODI Trophy, the Indian team found itself once again in hot water with no success on the South African tour. The bilateral series holds much significance in both camps. The young New Zealand team is looking to build a unit with many fresh faces and India’s preparation for the World Cup title defence also gets underway as they seek to get a fair idea about the weather and pitches here before the World Cup early next year.

The Indian batting is arguably the strongest in the world but it will be a task cut out for openers Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma who have to get rid of ‘flat pitch bullies’ tag. Dhawan’s over- aggressive strategy did him in South Africa and he must be circumspect in the first few overs. It will be a litmus test for Suresh Raina against short pitched bowling as he struggles to keep his place in the side. Virat Kohli remains the backbone of the batting order. Ajinkya Rahane’s impressive showing against South Africa also instills confidence in him. Captain MS Dhoni has been at his lethal best over the past 24 months with the bat and remains a nightmare for the bowlers in death overs. A toss up in selection is expected between Ravindra Jadeja and newbie Stuart Binny who will have the role of a slogger.

Bowling remains a weak point for India with inconsistency being the main problem. The Bhuvaneshwar – Ishant – Shami trio will have a grilling time on small grounds and flat pitches. shwar Pandey and Varun Aaron are promising lads but it is unlikey that they will be first choice for the team management.The slower bowlers Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja too have been very ordinary overseas and remain Dhoni’s big worry. Stuart Binny could be the ideal medium pace bowling all-rounder that Dhoni has failed to unearth so far. 

Jesse Ryder’s successful comeback has boasted the batting power of the Kiwis. With names like Brendon McCullum, Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill in the side, it is enough reason to be worried about. The new sensation in world cricket – Corey Anderson is another exciting power hitter to watch out. Former Aussie wicket keeper Luke Ronchi was in red hot form against West Indies and would be eager to capitalize his good run for his new country. 

The pace attack will be led by Kyle Mills. Tim Southee makes his way back into the team after an injury. Young Mitch McClenaghan was the leading wicket taker against West Indies and could prove to be a surprise package. The blackcaps haven’t gone with a specialist spinner which indicates the role of spin on these pitches.

Pitch and Weather – Most of the stadiums in New Zealand are rugby grounds thereby making use of drop in pitches so expect flat tracks. Equally helpful to the batsmen will be the smaller dimensions of the grounds. The square boundaries in Napier and Hamilton are hardly 62 metres and the straight boundaries are 4 metres in front of the advertising boards. Swing remains a critical factor due to the added wind that blows throughout. The temperature is expected to be mainly between 15 to 28 degree C. 

 

End of the road for Viru and Bhajji ?

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Sport is a great leveller and in particular cricket. Just two years back Virender Sehwag roasted the West Indies bowling attack and blasted 219 runs in a ODI match – a world record. And an year later he found himself on the wrong side of the fence and has failed to make a comeback into the Indian team being replaced by his Delhi counterpart Shikhar Dhawan.

Sehwag was never an athlete with a chiseled body in his illustrious career but he was always special. His power hitting ability and free flowing strokeplay were often compared with the likes of Sir Vivian Richards. He had the unique ability of scoring quickly and finding gaps in a packed inner circle during the field restrictions. Despite the lack of footwork, his bottom hand was strong enough to deal with fast bowlers and spinners alike. But Viru has been all but a shadow of himself over the last two years. His domestic record too has taken a beating with just 195 runs in the last 7 matches averaging a meagre 16.23.

The story is no different for Harbhajan Singh whose form has declined sharply post the 2011 World Cup. Once being the leader of India’s spin brigade, Bhajji has somewhat lost the art of doosra and his deliveries have become quicker with less spin. While making a comeback in the Border Gavaskar Trophy earlier this year, his spells lacked the usual spunk and Dhoni was hesitant to give him more overs. In short, his role was reduced ‘to contain the batsman’. His Ranji Trophy performances for Punjab have been equally disappointing over the past two years. He has picked 24 wickets in the last 9 matches with a poor average of 56.5.

The two soldiers of the Sourav Ganguly era find themselves in cold water struggling to find form in the domestic circuit. Even the BCCI has called off each of their central contracts.  Sehwag 35, and Harbhajan 33 also don’t have age on their side. With the World Cup approaching in 13 months time, the chances look bleak. The tables could be turned only if their domestic performances are revived. 

Otherwise the day is not far when another glorious chapter of Indian cricket is closed forever.

The Ashes Preview – Advantage England down under

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The battle for the urn begins this thursday as the Poms take on the Aussies in their own backyard in the return Ashes Series. With a comprehensive win in the last 3 Ashes bouts the English look confident to do it again this time. On the other hand the baggy greens are facing a low phase in international cricket with tremendous pressure on captain Micheal Clarke to deliver the goods. 

Hosts Australia look almost the same side that toured the first leg of the Ashes earlier this year. The only fresh face in the team is middle order batsman George Bailey who is having a dream run in ODI cricket with consistent and match winning performances in the recently concluded tour to India. The opening pair of David Warner and Chris Rogers is settled with the latter looked very promising in England. Senior pro Shane Watson would be the bone marrow of the batting order followed by captain Clarke, Bailey and Wicket keeper batsman Brad Haddin. Steven Smith is the spin all-rounder in the team who is also an acrobat in the field. The lone spinner Nathan Lyon will have a task cut out to provide wickets on flat pitches. The pace department boasts of Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, James Faulkner and Ryan Harris which is the strongest point for Australia. 

It is critical that Shane Watson replicates his ODI form in test cricket if Australia are to beat England. Consistency is what they lacked in England and despite taking a lead in majority of the matches they threw it away in the 2nd Innings and failed to win a single test.

Visitors England start as favourites to retain the Ashes. Alastair Cook and Micheal Carberry are fresh with big tons in the warm up match against Australia ‘A’ and it is no mystery now that Carberry will replace Joe Root as Cook’s opening partner. The middle order is solid as ever with Trott, Pietersen and Bell. Johny Bairstow and Matt Prior are the two wicket keepers in the side. Zimbabwe born Gary Ballance makes his way into the senior team with a high scoring season with Yorkshire this season. Top spinner Graeme Swann will lead the spinners brigade with Monty Panesar being his deputy. However it seems unlikely that both will feature in a test match together. James Anderson will lead the pace attack with Stuart Broad. Out of form Steven Finn has still managed to keep his place in the side. Irishman Boyd Rankin and Ben Stokes are the reserves in the side. Chris Tremlett too makes a comeback into the team and despite his poor showing against Western Australia and Australia ‘A’ in the tour matches he is likely to be given preference over the others.

Despite a poor showing in the first warm up against Western Australia at WACA, the English hit hard with a dominat performance against Australia ‘A’ and a win against CA Invitational XI. With the Cricket Australia’s strategy of flat pitches for this Ashes an open book, expect big scores from both teams in the 1st innings. The spinners could have a torrid time throughout. However, make no doubt about the intensity as emotions are going to run high and the England team will be up against a hostile Aussie crowd. Controversy can take a back seat as there won’t be the Hot Spot technology in the DRS. 

As the weaker team plays at home this series should be a close encounter than the previous one. I go with a 2-1 win for England. They look just too hot for the Kangaroos to handle.

Players to watch out for – 

Australia – Micheal Clarke, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson

England – Kevin Pietersen, James Anderson, Jonathon Trott

Death Bowlers – The Extinct specie ?

Image                                                                                                                                                     Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s latest batting prowess failed yet again all thanks to the ‘listless’ Indian bowlers. With 44 needed off 18 balls, India were set to take a 2-1 lead in the marathon ODI Series but Ishant Sharma had other ideas. The 48th over of the Australian innings went for 30 runs and as the Mohali crowd was trying to figure out the carnage it was all over. This match once again became a testimony to India’s horrid display of death bowling.

The problem seems to be perennial with the seamers going for more than 7.5  runs per over combined in the four matches played so far (including the T20I). If one looks back on time one will find that Indian bowlers have been masters of leaking runs in the final overs of the innings. Though this issue was temporarily addressed by the likes of Zaheer Khan and Indian spinners. With Indian pitches becoming national highways and the spinners finding it difficult to contain due to the new 4 fielder rule, the young pace battery has been exposed.

These days it is easier to score 400 runs but executing a yorker looks impossible. The most lethal weapon for a fast bowler in the closing overs – the art of yorker has suddenly become extinct. All one sees is the big full toss. Probably it was Javagal Srinath in the 90s and Ajit Agarkar in the early 2000s who were the best in this business for India. It is time that the pacers take a leaf out of Lasith Malinga’s book on how to deliver toe crushing yorkers.

With the pacers afraid to pitch it up, they look to target the batsmen with the short stuff. But with speed not more than 130-135 kph it is a cakewalk for the batters to clear the stands.

If we gaze at the domestic talent in the country two names immediately come to mind who bowl with heavy pace – Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron. But Yadav is seriously out of form and has been too wayward recently while Aaron is out of action due to injuries. Other young blokes like Jaidev Unadkat, Sidharth Kaul and Parwinder Awana look promising but are yet to prove their mettle. It is a task cut out for bowling coach John Dawes and the selectors to find these mystery bowlers else India’s chances of defending the World Cup are dented.