Category: _author:Anand Vasu

IPL 2019 | Vasu: Naive to Expect “Workload Man…

Consider this scenario: it’s deep into the 2019 season of the Indian Premier League and Virat Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore are in a bit of a jam. They’re on the road for the third back-to-back away game, and they must win their next match to stand a chance of making it to the play-offs. The World Cup is around the corner and Kohli is carrying a tiny niggle. Does Kohli think about India or RCB at that point? Does he rest himself, the most important batsman in his team’s line-up, someone on whom a lot of India’s World Cup chances ride? Or does he take his franchise towards a championship?

Can Kohli choose failure, in order to manage his workload, keeping his India duties in mind? Does his franchise owner back him and do nothing if his captain — an employee in a manner of speaking — throws away their key to glory in helping out with a bigger cause?

The answer is pretty obvious and this is by no means applicable only to one player, one captain or one franchise. Every team owner had poured in significant investment in building their brand, some over a decade and some who are just dipping their toes in these waters. To expect them to be thinking about the World Cup, when they are tasked with doing the best with their team, is a bridge too far.

If anyone needed to think about the workloads of the players it is the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the team think-tank and the Committee of Administrators. With these players being contracted to the BCCI, there may have been room for some manner of scheduling, but even that is a long shot. To pull premier Indian players out of the Indian Premier League, even partially, would seriously finish the value of the tournament.

What’s more, the coaching staff of each of these teams has built a unit relying on the availability of players. It was not that long ago that English players, even the best of them, were unattractive to franchises because they were not available for the entire duration of the IPL.

And there are other scenarios to think of. What if one middle-order batsman was asked to rest, and does so, only to find that someone competing with him for an India spot scores three hundreds on the trot and puts his hand up for selection? In an ideal world, performances in the IPL alone should not form the basis for selection to 50-over cricket, but it would also be impossible to ignore current form or a truly exceptional run in the tournament.

There has been plenty of noise coming in from various quarters on the very real need for workload management and even hints from players that they would like to see a system in place that allows for this during the IPL. The reality, however, is that the only scenario in which a marquee Indian player sits out IPL games when available for selection is in the back-end of the tournament if his team has no chance of making it to the playoffs.

To put things in perspective, you only need to look at where different Indian cricketers have opted for rest. India’s tours to Zimbabwe have been reduced to virtually India A tours of Zimbabwe, with players being excused en masse. There have been cases of a player missing a Test series, or sections of a long One-Day International bilateral engagement, but not once has an Indian player voluntarily sat out of the IPL.

Just the legal, logistical and financial implications of doing so boggle the mind. If a player is forced to miss IPL matches, does the BCCI compensate him financially? And what of the money the franchise had docked from their auction purse, does it get released? And what of the broadcaster, who has paid for rights with the explicit understanding that top players will be competing whenever they possibly could?

To suggest that players should be rested or rotated during the IPL because there is a World Cup around the corner is well-intentioned. Expecting that to actually happen, is naive.

India vs Australia | Vasu: Captain Kohli Makin…

When Virat Kohli’s batting was first compared to that of the great Viv Richards, there was a touch of blasphemy in the air. Surely, no-one would ever come close to King Viv. And then Sir Viv Richards went and said that he saw a bit of himself in Kohli.

When Virat Kohli’s hunger for runs was compared to the appetite of Sachin Tendulkar, there was a touch of incredulity in the air. Surely no modern cricketer could emulate the longevity and consistency of the ultimate run machine. Then Tendulkar suggested that if anyone bettered his numbers, it would be Kohli.

By the end of 2018, Kohli could have 50 One-Day International centuries to his name. At age 30. Let those words sink in. He only has 40 to his name at the moment, but there’s a World Cup and six ODIs against West Indies before it’s time to ring in 2019. Whenever Kohli gets there, it will be a monstrous achievement, not least because he still has so much cricket left in him and is likely to raise the bar so high that a player starting off in the game will consider the mark unreachable.

Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. (Photo Credit: Twitter)[/caption]

But, even as Kohli’s place in the pantheon of batting greats is sealed in the time it takes some players to just make a name for themselves, there is another major opportunity ahead of the Indian captain.

Kohli’s leadership, and this includes team selection, taking a group of players with him, marshalling resources on the field and absorbing the pressures of constantly being in the limelight, will be in sharp focus in the World Cup. The format, a repeat of 1992, means that every team will play all their other opponents, allowing a team to grow in the tournament, undergo course correction where required and even come back after a couple of losses.

What this also means is that Kohli’s captaincy will be under the microscope. While he has let himself down with selections and on-field strategy in the past, it does appear that Kohli is finally settling into the job. The manner in which the Indian team used the lead-up ODIs to plug the gaps in their eleven — Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar taking their chances and shaping the line-up — showed that there was a clear plan in place. There was less impetuosity in terms of change for change’s sake, less taking a punt or working off a hunch and more of a long-term vision.

On the field, Kohli is still learning. Fortunately for him, there are two players in the team he can lean on. Behind the stumps, Mahendra Singh Dhoni directs traffic like a policeman in peak-hour traffic: with precision, with authority and with a method that is proven to work. In the infield there is Rohit Sharma, who always offers an alternate view, bringing to the game a natural instinct for captaincy. Remember the time he suggested Jasprit Bumrah try a slower ball on the final ball of a session in a Test in Australia?

The India-Australia ODIs have shown that Kohli fully understand the value that these two players bring, and his collaborative approach has ensured that India are making the most of what they have. Dhoni will not be around much longer, and Kohli will want to learn as much as he can from the senior pro during the World Cup.

Image: Twitter

A case in point of Kohli’s approach to captaincy came in the Nagpur ODI. Vijay Shankar did not merely stake his claim for a World Cup spot with an all-round performance, he ensured that Kohli’s decisions on the field paid dividends.

“Vijay Shankar batted outstandingly, but he was unfortunately run out and we lost Kedar and MS in quick succession,” Kohli said after the game. “I was thinking of using Vijay in the 46th over, but I spoke to Rohit and MS, and they said, let’s stick with Shami and Bumrah, and if they get some wickets we’re on top, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Kohli also explained that he was unafraid to lean on his senior players when the moment called for it.

“Both [Dhoni and Rohit] are experienced, it’s always nice to speak them,” he said. “Rohit is the vice-captain and MS has been there for a long time. These guys watch the game so keenly. I have a word with the bowler as well, invariably all of them are on the same page.”

When the leadership group is on the same page, it always bodes well for a team. When they work together to deliver results, it becomes less important who contributed how much and who had the brightest ideas. Kohli has realised this, and it can only be a good thing for India’s World Cup prospects.

India vs Australia | Vasu: Unsettled India Wai…

Sydney: When a team is leading 2-1 in a country where they have never won a series in nearly seven decades of trying, you would expect it to be a well-oiled, finely-tuned machine. You would expect stability and a settled look. India are anything but.

The latest round of uncertainty emerged in Sydney on the eve of the final Test against Australia with India’s media spokesperson opening Virat Kohli’s press conference by stating that R Ashwin had not recovered fully from his abdominal strain and was ruled out of the final Test of the series.

Less than two hours later the same spokesperson issued an update, saying that Ashwin was included in the 13-man squad from which the playing eleven would be picked. Interestingly, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav, the other two spinners in the squad of 18, were also included in the thirteen.

Ishant Sharma, who was excellent in the previous Test, was excluded though there was no clarity on why that was. Only later did the management release a statement that Ishant had, in fact, sustained an injury and the team was not willing to risk him for the final Test. “Ishant is experiencing some left rib cage discomfort and the team management did not want to risk him during this Test match. He is currently being assessed,” read the statement from BCCI.

Umesh Yadav, who was dropped for the Melbourne Test, was back in the thirteen that included Mohammed Shami. If anyone looked doubtful for selection during India’s training session it was Shami, who arrived at the ground on a hot summer’s Sydney day in a jacket and flip-flops and did not take part in any of the drills performed.

It’s worth remembering that it was not so long ago that Jadeja was included in the thirteen for the Perth Test, but did not feature in the playing eleven in a game where Nathan Lyon was Man of the Match as Australia won. At the time, there was no mention of Jadeja being injured and in the course of the game, Shami even said at a press conference that the spinner was missed. Several days after the Test ended Ravi Shastri, the coach, insisted that Jadeja did not feature as he was injured at the time, suffering from stiffness in the shoulder.

When Kohli addressed the media, it seemed to be written in black and white that Ashwin would not feature. When asked about Ashwin, Kohli said: “Well, it’s unfortunate that he has had two niggles quite similar in the last couple of away tours. That’s obviously him, more than anyone else, who will be focused to correct. The physio and the trainer have spoken to him in terms of what’s required in order to get over that injury.

“He is very important for sure. In Test cricket, he is a vital part of this team, and we want him to be 100% fit and for a longer period so that he can contribute to us more in the Test format. He is very disappointed with the fact that he has not been able to recover in time, but the things have been laid out to him (as to) what needs to be done to get back to full fitness. Honestly, you can’t predict an injury, when it happens you just manage and doing what he can to get over that injury.”

What’s more, Kohli explained how India’s plans were disrupted when a key player such as Ashwin got injured in the middle of a series and was unavailable for selection. “I think it [Ashwin’s absence] does make you alter your plans a little bit throughout the course of a series. But the fact that Vihari has bowled beautifully whenever we’ve given him the ball makes us feel absolutely calm about Ashwin not being able to play,” said Kohli.

“It is obviously a disappointment for us as a team and for him personally, but if you see the way Vihari has bowled he has looked like picking up a wicket whenever he comes to bowl. He’s pitching the ball in the right areas so we are looking at him as a solid bowling option right now. Especially in this Test because he has pace on the ball, he puts in the effort and he’s economical and that’s all you need from a guy who is coming in to bowl 10-15 overs in a day.”

During India’s training session Ashwin underwent fitness drills with Shanker Basu, the trainer, and at one point went indoors with him while the rest continued to practice. There were also several pow-wows within the camp: before the net session began, Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane had a long chat with Sanjay Bangar, the assistant coach and following the session, Kohli was seen in discussion with the support staff.

Being out of earshot, one can only speculate, but it seemed logical that the batting group’s conversation was about the pitch, which they had just seen and the support staff were discussing options with the captain following injury and/or illness revelations.

What seemed likely, from what Kohli said, was that Vihari would return to his No. 6 position while KL Rahul came into the XI in place of Rohit Sharma, who is back home to spend time with his wife and newly-born daughter. This meant that old friends Mayank Agarwal and Rahul would be back in harness together once more, this time at the international level. With Shami being named in the thirteen, most would assume that he would join Jasprit Bumrah and Jadeja in the bowling line-up, leaving a late call to be taken on whether Ashwin would be fit to play, and in the event that he was not, either Kuldeep or Umesh would make the cut, based on the pitch.

India’s Squad for SCG: Virat Kohli ©, Ajinkya Rahane (VC), KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, R Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav

India vs Australia | Vasu: Obsessed & Selfless…

Melbourne: Such has been India’s dominance in the Test series in Australia that there was an air of mission accomplished even as they were 2-1 ahead after a comprehensive win in Melbourne with one Test still to be played in Sydney. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy was retained, but that was only a subplot when the team arrived on these shores. The main aim, winning a series in Australia, is yet to be achieved, but, with the visitors playing like the No. 1 ranked team in the world, and the hosts batting as though they don’t know whether to attack or defend, only the very brave or foolish would put money on Australia getting back into the series.

On the fourth day, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon frustrated India, but not so much as the rain on the fifth morning. It was a spitting, feeble drizzle — quite fitting really, for that has been Australia’s batting resistance for the most part —but it still did not allow play to start until 12.55pm, local time.

Once the game began, though, it was over before Australian dreams of a great rearguard could be entertained in any seriousness. It took all of 24 minutes and 27 balls to wrap the game up, India winning by 137 runs.

It was fitting that Jasprit Bumrah knocked Cummins over, a peach of a ball removing the tail-ender who batted better all series than his top-order colleagues. It was apt that Ishant Sharma picked up Nathan Lyon, in a curious sense, for Ishant has now won more Tests outside the subcontinent (excluding Zimbabwe) than any other Indian. Yes, his 11 wins are more than Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar VVS Laxman or Mahendra Singh Dhoni, to name a few.

The significance of the win in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne was such that the last time India won at the venue was nearly 38 years ago. Not a single player in either of these two teams was even born at the time. India have hunted, waited, longed and finally achieved.

While Jasprit Bumrah was the darling of the week, bowling as vigourous and irresistible a spell of quick bowling as any Indian, on the way to recording the best figures by an Indian pace bowler in Australia, 9 for 86, don’t forget for a moment the contribution of Cheteshwar Pujara, that veteran builder of Indian successes and Mayank Agarwal, the debutant. Pujara stonewalled the Australians for 319 balls and Agarwal kept them at bay for 263.

Kohli explained what it took for this Indian team to get to the stage where they could translate the belief they had into results on the ground overseas. “When I spoke about obsession [after the Centurion Test earlier this year] I forgot to add one thing, not listen to people too much. That’s very important as well. If you want to win a series away from home, it has to be an obsession. And once you are obsessed, changing your decisions according to opinions is not an option at all,” said Kohli.

“Instinctively, you have a gut feeling of playing a shot or bowling a particular ball. And inside if you feel good about doing something in a particular Test match, you should just follow that. You can’t change for someone else. I think that’s been the most important factor for us. That we haven’t changed our mindset regardless of who said what, and at the end of the day, your belief is what matters. As I said, hats off to the whole team for sticking together and believing in themselves and being obsessed with getting results.”

To walk the walk after having talked the talk, especially as the team competed in South Africa and England but could not seal the deal, meant a big deal to Kohli. “We don’t want to just talk and just win one game and be like oh we played so well in Australia. It’s all about the team. Even Bumrah’s team interview post game was all about how can I contribute to the team. That fact that he didn’t get any wickets in Perth and the way he bowled there, he didn’t lose heart, he knew wickets are going to come at some stage,” said Kohli.

“And if you see the other bowlers, they are not trying to outdo someone else. If Bumrah is taking wickets, they are containing runs. If someone is picking wickets, Bumrah comes in and does his job. So does Jadeja. So does Ashwin. It is a team effort at the end of the day. When it comes together nicely, when it gets you results, it feels wonderful. Because that’s what you play cricket for, right? You don’t play to just play well, you play to win. So it feels good to have those results go our way.”

All Indian teams that have stepped out on the park, have played to win, but not all have been successful. This one has the fast bowling firepower, the spin stocks and the batting good sense to ensure that Australia are well and truly put down by the time the Sydney Test. When the Melbourne celebrations are done and the new year beckons, you can be sure the attitude within the team will be: Bring it on.

India Chip, Chip & Chip Away to Arrive on Cusp…

Patience is a virtue in life, but in looking to win Test matches, it is a necessity. And only one team had enough of it to push their case on a pitch in Melbourne that continues to defy prediction. Hanging on by the skin of their teeth, Australia took the match into a final day, but you had to admire the manner in which India’s bowlers operated after putting enough on the board to set Australia a notional target of 399.

The first person to display haste was Aaron Finch, and expectedly he paid the price, dismissing himself in Jasprit Bumrah’s first over. As though looking to make the most of a Powerplay, Finch swished outside the off stump, presenting Virat Kohli with a simple enough catch in the slip cordon. Over the years, Finch has been a tremendous player at different levels and in different formats, but in this series he has not stuck around quite long enough to form a judgment on whether he has what it takes to make it as a Test opener.

Travis Head was the second Australian batsman to choose the speedy route over the slow grind, and the fact that he did so after facing 91 balls made his case all the more curious. Feet stuck firmly to the crease, Head through his hands at a ball from Ishant Sharma that would have missed two more sets of stumps and could only play on. Head muttered to himself as he walked off, and surely he must have been cursing himself for not waiting for the right ball to hit, instead attempting to manufacture a scoring shot.

(ICC)

Mitchell Marsh was unfairly booed on the first day of this Test, when all he had done was replace Peter Handscomb, the Victorian and MCG local. While his team-mates rallied in support at the time, and Marsh showed that his selection was a wise one given how much bowling had to be done, they might have been left scratching their heads on the fourth day. Having slog-swept Ravindra Jadeja over mid-wicket, a shot fraught with risk, Marsh then tried to blast the left-arm spinner over short cover, allowing Kohli to take a smart catch. Did Marsh not trust his defence enough? Was he trying to hit his way out of trouble? Only he will know, but whatever he was attempting, it did not work.

With Australia at 135 for 6, there was no real reason why India would have believed the game would go into the fifth day. Under overcast skies, with rain predicted, there was always the threat of disruptions and stop-start cricket, but thankfully this did not happen. At no stage did India try to force the pace just because the weather was closing, instead they stuck to their bowling plans.

Ishant Sharma kept the seam upright and the ball full, if a touch wide, Bumrah sent down his typical mixture of all sorts, but never once looked like he was going to bowl a loose spell, Mohammed Shami attacked the stumps, allowing the natural variations in bounce to be his biggest ally and Jadeja was his usual relentless self, finishing each of his overs in the time it takes to change a lightbulb.

(ICC)

At no stage did Kohli allow anxiety to creep into the manner in which India approached things, even when Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon set their stalls out for a late recovery. Cummins, who has been Australia’s stand-out fast bowler of the series, and Lyon, who was instrumental in their win in Perth, have shown more application than most of their more illustrious top-order batsmen. Cummins showed what was possible when you presented the full face of the bat in defence, left balls alone outside the off stump and made the bowlers come at you rather than the other way around.

Perhaps it’s all the bowling this duo have done in the series, against an Indian batting line-up that has had no difficulty in digging deep and playing boring, tough, patient cricket when needed, or perhaps it’s the fact that they have not been overly ambitious at any stage. While it has been said, quite correctly, that this Australian batting line-up is a pale shadow of teams of the past, in terms of technique, skill and natural ability, there is no earthly reason why they should be any less determined.

Cummins and Lyon treated every ball with the respect it deserved, and they literally dragged the game, kicking and screaming, into the final day, even after the extra half hour was taken on the fourth evening. If only Australia’s batsmen had shown the same sort of character, putting a price on their wickets and realising how priceless patience can be, this game would have looked a whole lot different, as well as India have bowled.

India vs Australia: Pujara & Kohli Ace the Slo…

People of a certain age will remember an event that took place on sports day in their schools. It’s called a race, but it was anything but. The slow cycling race was the challenge in which you went from the starting line to the finish line, staying inside your lane, never losing balance or putting your feet down on the ground.

The winner, naturally, was the one who came last. A cricketing version of that happened in Melbourne, on the second day of the third Test between India and Australia.

On a pitch that was two-paced when the ball was new and hard, some deliveries rearing sharply from a length, others refusing to rise to expectation, and otherwise slow and rather lifeless in any way that was useful to bowlers or batsmen, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli set out to maintain their balance, play only shots that the surface allowed without risk and wore out the Australian bowlers, and fielders.

Pujara, who doesn’t believe in the sprint, either with or without bat in hand, still took 280 balls to get to his century. With 40 of those runs coming from only 10 balls, via boundaries, his remaining 60 runs came at a strike rate of just over 22.

And if you think that’s just Pujara being Pujara, Kohli consumed 208 balls in getting to 82, and even that number was padded up when he had to throw his bat around a bit after struggling with his back. Perhaps it was stiffness, perhaps it was the result of the workload he has had to burden, either way, Kohli was in distinct discomfort by the end of his innings, sitting on his haunches at every possible opportunity, stretching his back and then appearing unusually stiff when it was India’s turn to field.

India posted a chunky 443 but it took them nearly 170 overs to get there, and Australia had to resort to the third new ball before Kohli called an end to the innings.

(AP)

When Australia played out a seven-over passage of play it became immediately clear just how vital the Pujara-Kohli partnership was. All of a sudden the ball was doing more, there was playing and missing and even as the overs were counted down, neither Aaron Finch nor Marcus Harris gave the impression that they were anywhere closer to sussing out the pace of the pitch they were batting on.

Pujara’s method was generally to allow the ball to come to him, playing deliveries within the line of the stumps, and what made his innings so special was how unmemorable any of his stroke-play was. Apart from one spanking off drive that took him to his century — and even this was an all-bases-covered, leaning low, along the turf drive — there was barely a stroke that you could remember from the day. What you will recall, however, is how he absorbed the pressure, how he blunted Nathan Lyon, how he ensured that Josh Hazlewood bowled so many overs that he hardly had any gas in the tank by the time the innings ended.

Kohli, even when not playing the big shots, and he played one straight drive, follow through checked, pose held for the cameras to capture for posterity, usually likes to push hard for ones and twos. But, on the day, even King Kohli could not push the scoring along, even before his back became an issue, and had to endure more dot balls than he would have liked. But what was it that made a slow crawl the only real option?

“The kind of pace, as batsmen it is tough to get used to this pace, you feel it’s on the slower side and one odd ball kicks up,” explained Pujara. “I got hit on my finger 3-4 times. Those were not short balls. They were back of a length and I got hit on my gloves. As batsmen there is always doubt when playing on such pitches and the ball which I got out to I couldn’t have done anything about that. So if it stays low, you have limited options.”

Fortunately for India, it was only the 319th ball that Pujara faced that kept low enough to creep under the wall he had built in the middle of the MCG. Australia’s batsmen may have been plucky enough to defy India long enough to set up a winning score on a juicy Perth pitch, but whether they have it in them to play the long game, which is the need of the hour in this Test, is a big question.

India vs Australia | Vasu: Stars Align at the …

When one of your best friends has his lifelong dream come true, your cup of joy should be running over. But what if that happens at your own cost? KL Rahul, who is best buddies with Mayank Agarwal — the two opened together for India Under-19 in the World Cup in 2010 — could only watch from the dressing-room at the Melbourne Cricket Ground as Agarwal feasted on Australia’s bowlers on a carnival Boxing Day.

It was here in Melbourne that Rahul made his Test debut, four years ago, and it is here that Agarwal confirmed to himself and the world that all the runs he made in domestic cricket were not in vain, that he belonged at the world stage. As Rahul’s star dimmed, at least temporarily, for he is still very much in the mix in other formats, a new star was born for India.

The atmosphere leading up to the delivery of the first ball was pitch perfect. Thousands streamed into the MCG, the drums of the Swamy Army being comfortably matched by Melbourne locals who planned their holiday season around this match. At 1-1, the two teams were evenly matched, Australia having come back to show the Indian team that even though they might not have the aura of teams past, they have the wherewithal to win at home. And win comfortably at that.

Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins were well rested and raring to go and Nathan Lyon had led the bowling attack with composure and control. If there was a test of nerves, a challenge of someone’s composure, Agarwal had it all tidily stacked up when he stood at the non-striker’s end watching Hanuma Vihari take first strike after Virat Kohli had won a very important toss.

There was no way Agarwal would not have been nervous, given just how long he has had to wait to pull on an India cap. And, to say the stars had aligned would not be over the top. To start with, Prithvi Shaw, an odds-on favourite to open in this series, was injured even before the first ball was bowled and his recovery was so slow that he had to return home. Despite unexpectedly having four innings to come good — albeit on trying surfaces in Adelaide and Perth — both M Vijay and KL Rahul failed. And, even with Parthiv Patel, the reserve opener being available, India set for Agarwal.

From the moment he felt bat on ball, Agarwal appeared set to make it count. Moving forward decisively, wearing the blows on his body without flinching, punching beautifully off the back foot, Agarwal showed that while he had matured as a cricketer, he had not lost that impish hunger to play shots and score runs.

Especially impressive was the manner in which Agarwal tackled Lyon. All series Lyon has been Australia’s go-to bowler, not only when wickets were the order of the day, but when the runs were coming a little too loosely for Tim Paine’s liking. Lyon was successful in keeping batsmen pinned to the crease and quiet, allowing the quick bowlers to hustle from the other end.

While Cheteshwar Pujara used his feet to kick the ball away, even he found it hard to commit to the stroke when coming down the pitch to Lyon. But Agarwal was different, driving past the bowlers with control and choosing when to take the aerial route, hitting one clean six to the longest boundary in a large ground.

When Agarwal brought up his half-century, India finally had an opener who did two vital jobs — seeing off the new ball and putting the pressure back on the opposition bowlers. To illustrate just how much Agarwal’s innings was worth, here’s a statistic: even though the opening stand lasted only 18.5 overs, it was India’s best in terms of balls faced outside the subcontinent since 2010.

Agarwal was well on his way to a maiden Test century when the impressive Pat Cummins bent his back, finding that bit of extra bounce from a largely lifeless track to kiss the glove of the batsman on the way to the keeper. Strangled down leg side, Agarwal had 76 to his name. On a day when his dream of playing for India came true, it will not be the 24 missing runs that Agarwal thinks about. The centuries will come, if he continues to bat in this vein and give the team the starts they so badly need.

If Virat Kohli’s dream of winning a series in Australia is to be realised, a good start and a reliable opening partnership was the first building block in the process. With his innings, Agarwal has shown that he is one of the pieces that the jigsaw puzzle was missing all season.

India vs Australia: Agarwal to Debut, India Dr…

Here’s wishing Hanuma Vihari and Rohit Sharma a Merry Christmas. One of the two will open the batting for India in the Boxing Day Test against Australia, after the management decided to drop both KL Rahul and M Vijay. Mayank Agarwal will make his Test debut, just reward for having a super bumper domestic season.

India departed from norm and named their playing eleven a day in advance, leaving no room for speculation. R Ashwin has not recovered fully from his abdominal strain and Ravindra Jadeja was named as the frontline spinner in the mix.

The three fast bowlers who have kept India in the running and taken them ahead when supported — Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah — are thankfully untouched.

All this, of course, goes with the rider that all players named in the eleven are fit, continue to stay fit and do not develop any conditions in the 24 hours leading up to the game. It was only one Test ago that India named Jadeja in the 13 only for the coach to reveal a week later that the left-arm spinner was unfit and therefore unavailable for selection for the Perth Test.

The choice of opening partner to bat with the debutant is an interesting one. With four openers to choose from (including Parthiv Patel) India have decided to send up a middle-order batsman.

MSK Prasad, the chairman of selectors, while conceding that it was the team management that picked the eleven and made decisions regarding batting orders and things of the kind, said it would be Vihari to open.

“We have called in Mayank Agarwal and he is in good form after that India A series, so naturally he gets into the side. And the way Vihari batted, it convinced everybody that he has got that sound technique to play,” said Prasad.

“Going by current form, we all know that the current openers are not really living up to the expected things. That is the reason why… It’s really unfortunate. I can definitely say that it’s really unfortunate but going not only by form but we also look at the combinations – what Vihari can offer, what Parthiv Patel may not offer. All those things are taken into consideration while picking the XI.”

Vihari, who is all of two Tests old, has done a job in the lower order, showing determination and promise and always looking like he belonged. Was it then a touch unfair to displace him and send him up the order? “It’s fine. Technically we feel that he is well equipped, there were times where Pujara also opened when the team required. The team demands it and definitely I hope he will come out successful. Definitely it is not a long-term solution, I can tell you that.”

Naturally, watchers of this Indian team will struggle to escape the sneaking feeling that Rohit is also in contention for an opening spot. He made the move from middle-order to opening successfully in One-Day Internationals, and despite what the chairman of selectors says, the team could be tempted into taking a punt on him in a similar role in Test cricket as well.

The state of the pitch on the final day and the result of the toss could have a say in sorting this out, and it is fair to assume that Vihari is the default option, with Rohit being a dark horse.

Virat Kohli believed that this pitch would have enough in it to keep the bowlers interested, despite suggestions that it could be a touch too flat and end up not producing an outright result even after five days of play.

“Last time, the pitch played a big part in not being able to have a result either ways, for both sides. But seeing the pitch now, it has much more grass than it had last time and I hope that it is a lively pitch. I hope it does as much as it did in the first two games because as a side, you always know that you are in for a result that way,” said Kohli.

“The surface, what I saw yesterday, looked pretty dry underneath. There is a good coverage of grass which should keep the surface intact but again, we have to figure out on the field how the pitch actually plays and then figure out our plans accordingly. I think it should have enough for the bowlers to stay interested on all days of the Test match and hopefully, it’s a much more lively wicket than the last time we played here.”

On that happy note, here’s wishing the two teams the best of the season, and for the fans’ sake a lively pitch that allows bright cricket to be played.

India XI: Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (capt), Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah

India vs Australia: ’70-80%’ Fit Jadeja Wasn’t…

It began with the most innocuous of questions about India’s non-selection of Ravindra Jadeja in playing eleven for the Perth Test match, where Nathan Lyon picked up eight wickets and ended up being the Man of the Match.

Typically, these questions are brushed aside as hindsight being 20-20, and perhaps even a hint of acceptance that the pitch had been misread and a not-so-ideal combination chosen. But, Ravi Shastri dropped a bombshell, and whether he was merely trying to deflect from this line of questioning or not, opened up a serious can of worms.

Shastri revealed that Ravindra Jadeja had arrived on Australian soil not being 100% fit, that he had taken one injection for stiffness in the shoulder back home and another in Australia and despite this was only “70-80%” fit when it came to selection for the second Test in Perth.

Shastri’s words were at odds with what Virat Kohli said at the end of the second Test. When the captain was asked about Jadeja’s non-selection, he said nothing about fitness or injury concerns. The Indian team’s media management also muddied the waters further when it released a 13-man shortlist of players for the Perth Test – which included Jadeja – while specifically pointing out that Prithvi Shaw (ankle), Rohit Sharma (jarred back) and R Ashwin (abdominal strain) were unfit and unavailable.

Shastri’s press conference — typically combative and brusque —involved a blast at critics who had said that Jadeja should have played in Perth. “When you are millions of miles away, it is very easy to fire blanks,” Shastri said of those who questioned India’s selection.

“Problem with Jaddu was that he had taken an injection four days into coming to Australia because of some stiffness in his shoulder, and it took a while for that injection to settle down. So when you look at Perth, we felt he was about 70-80% fit, and we didn’t want to risk that in Perth. If he is 80% here he will play, that’s the answer.”

If Jadeja came to the tour without being fit enough to be considered for selection in the playing eleven, questions must be asked of the selectors, who insist on players passing yo-yo tests before even being considered for India A tours. What is more pertinent currently, though, is that Shastri said that Jadeja would play in Melbourne, even if he was only 80% fit.

“When he came here, he felt some stiffness, and he felt that in India as well but he played domestic cricket after that,“ Shastri said. "Still felt stiff in the shoulder, and he was injected again and it takes time to settle. It has taken longer than we expected, and we wanted to be careful. Last thing you want is someone breaking down after five-ten overs, and then we are stuck for players to pick for Melbourne and Sydney.”

India’s selections and omissions have put them on the back foot more than once in overseas tours this year in South Africa, England and now Australia. But not once has such a bizarre line of reasoning been put forward in the name of explanation.

India’s injury management too has come in for criticism. R Ashwin played in the Southampton Test before he was fully fit and this set him back considerably. In Jadeja’s case, the explanation seems less plausible as he was fielding between 20 and 25 overs on most days of the Perth Test, standing in for one fast bowler or another and firing in throws from the deep. He has also been a consistent bowler in the nets including on Sunday, when he was one of the most enthusiastic of the lot, operating for a considerable amount of time.

At the end of the Perth Test, when Kohli was asked about Jadeja’s non-inclusion, he made it clear that this was based on the conditions. “Yes, we could have considered that,” Kohli had said when asked if Ashwin would have played if not for injury.

"If you see, the rough didn’t have much assistance. It was just the pace on the ball that Lyon bowled that he got the wickets that he got. We as a team didn’t want to think that we definitely wanted to consider a spinning option on this pitch, especially having a look at the pitch on day one and how we thought it would play on the first three days, and exactly played out that way. We thought a fast bowler is going to be more productive and more helpful for us as a team.”

To say that this Indian team is in disarray would not be an understatement. They have 19 players to choose from officially, although at any point it could retrospectively be claimed that X, Y or Z was unavailable, as has been done in the case of Jadeja and Perth.

For the moment, what is officially known is that the two openers are out of form, Bhuvneshwar Kumar has hardly played first-class cricket, Hardik Pandya, returning from injury has one Ranji Trophy match under his belt, and Ashwin was bowling off only two paces in the nets.

“It is a big concern, that’s obvious,” Shastri said about the lack of runs from the openers. “Responsibility and accountability has to be taken by the top order and I am sure they have got the experience and exposure over the last few years to get out there and deliver.”

When further pressed about the selection, Shastri was once again bombastic. “We have to do what’s best for the team, as simple as that. Question was asked about Jadeja, which I answered, and I don’t think there was any other selection dilemma. If there was, then not my problem. [Critical] Comments are [coming from] too far away, we are in the southern hemisphere.”

You can be in any hemisphere – hell, you don’t even have to be on this planet to figure out that all is not well when the captain says one thing and the coach something quite else altogether just a few days apart.

It’s just that the issue is only those within the dressing-room, deep in the Southern Hemisphere, can say that with any degree of honesty or certainty.

Off the Relentless Cricket Treadmill, Robin Sm…

A silver fox is propping up the bar in a trendy establishment that is bustling with activity in tony South Perth on a Friday afternoon. Many patrons greet him with a wave of a smile, he’s familiar here, but few recognise him as one of the best Test batsmen England produced. The rounded shoulders that played the most rasping square cuts of the 1990s give Robin Smith away.

Born in South Africa, played for England and now calling Perth home, this is one of cricket’s complex characters: physically tough as nails and yet mentally pappadum-fragile, deeply private yet generously giving.

When we meet, Smith has just come off a five-hour coaching session, outdoors, in 37-degree Perth sunshine. He should be putting his feet up, unwinding, because coaching is not his only gig, he works nine hours a day at his brother’s clothing firm.

When Robin of Durban, not Locksley, moved to England to play for Hampshire, it was elder brother Chris, who led the way.

“It certainly made it a lot easier for me. Chris is five years older than I am and he joined Hampshire in 1980 as the overseas player to take the place of the great Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall. Being South African at the time we were regarded as overseas players in England,” says Robin.

“Chris had a very good season and he then paved the way for me to come to England, realising that both mum and dad were born in England that we were able to acquire British citizenship, and then the club offered me a four-week trial. After that, they understood that I could qualify as a non-overseas player four years later and they quite liked what they so and I was offered a four-year contract.”

Smith, for the uninitiated, was a muscular, mustachioed man’s man. He walked with a swagger, he never dabbed a ball he could smash. Hampshire shaped him a fair bit, not least because Barry Richards was a fixture there.

“Barry Richards was my first coach in South Africa. He lived a kilometre from where I did and he was a wonderful mentor. He was a family friend,” says Smith. “We used to have a bowling machine in our back garden and he used to come and practice there.”

And then came Mark Nicholas, who has since described Smith as the most valuable player Hampshire has produced.

“Mark was the best captain I played under. He seemed to bring out the best in me. He made me relax a bit more. He encouraged me to express myself. He explained to me about anxiety and nerves, about putting the practice in and then going out there, doing your best and not worrying about the result,” says Smith. “No fear of failure in this team. Mark was outstanding. Had he been a slightly better cricketer and maybe not so selfish I think he would’ve captained England.”

Perhaps if some of Smith’s England captains had more of the Nicholas touch, they would have got more from him? “I’m quite a complex character. There is a bravado about me, but that’s not the Robin Smith that I know, deep down. I needed management around me like Mickey Stewart and Allan Lamb, to support me, to back me, to love me, but also to discipline me,” says Smith. “I needed that balance in life. I needed care. I needed people to love me, but also to come down hard on me if I was doing the wrong thing. Communication is a beautiful thing in life. Once the old school had left, I don’t believe I got enough of that.”

In 1996, when Smith was dropped, he had played 62 Tests, scoring 4236 runs at 43.67. He was statistically better than all his peers, and yet he was let go, one fine day. Did that feel like a letdown? “Of course you’re going to feel let down. From starting my professional career, and when there was talk about me possibly playing Test cricket. I never thought that way because I was from South Africa, which was isolated from international competition because of apartheid. I didn’t have any aspirations of playing Test cricket,” says Smith. “ I felt there could have been a bit more communication. I had a pretty good run towards the back end of when I was dropped. I do think you live and learn. I was 31, yes I had made mistakes, with my lifestyle, my cricket technique. But I still had five of my best years in front of me. You’ve learnt from your mistakes.”

Speaking of technique, while batsmen from around the world struggled to save themselves from bodily harm against the West Indian pace battery of the time, Smith cracked that code but is known as one of Shane Warne’s early bunnies. “I brought him to Hampshire. Whenever he bowled to me in the nets he’d get me out every six balls. I always said to him, go and bowl in another net. He said he was happy bowling here. I told him I wasn’t happy, I was the captain and he bloody well go bowl in another net,” says Smith. “I said to him: Warnie, I need to feel happy walking out of the nets. I need to feel positive about my game. You just disintegrate my game. I never let him bowl to me in the nets.”

But were Smith’s weaknesses against spin over-emphasised? “I think it was. I’ve got a hundred against Murali in Colombo, I’ve got a good record against Pakistan, a better record than my Test record. When I went in to bat against Waqar and Wasim, with Mushtaq Ahmed around … Even against Saqlain at Surrey. When you bat in the middle order you’re going to get out to spin more often than not,” says Smith. “Do we say that Mike Atherton wasn’t a good player of pace because he got out to Ambrose 18 times and McGrath 19 times? No. Because he’s exposed to that. If I was brutally honest, I should have been an opening batsmen because I felt comfortable against quick bowling.”

Life after cricket was not initially kind to Smith. “When that bubble bursts, you’ve got to be well prepared. As I will mention in my book, in the last fifteen years, I’ve had a few mental issues, a lot of struggles with my life after cricket. Being at the top of your game, one of the best, and when the game is over, if you haven’t prepared properly for that, it’s very difficult,” says Smith, who suffered from anxiety and other mental struggles. “There’s nothing worse in life than losing respect. You’ve got to think to yourself, if nothing changes then nothing will change. You’ve got to find out what is important to you, to get past where you are. I’ve woken up nights in cold sweats, tossing and turning, worrying.”

Smith is a carer for his parents and one of the reasons he returned to Perth was to be with his ageing mother, who is a chronic diabetic, and is losing both vision and hearing.

“I’m of a culture where they looked after me, and I now look after them. I will not put her into a home. Family is first and foremost. I’m very close to my daughter and son. When I was at my lowest, drinking and all of that, my son was more understanding. For a short time, they lost respect for their father because I’d disappointed them, but they never lost their love for me.”

When Smith is not looking after his mum or working full-time, he spends hours coaching at the grassroots level. This is proper giving back to game, not the kind that some stars claim to do when they take up high-paying roles with domestic teams or T20 league teams. Smith is paid almost nothing and will coach a wide range of enthusiastic cricketers, from young kids to amateur club cricketers.

“I don’t do it for the money. I love coaching young guys who come to me and say: “I play for the Under-14 B team and I’d love to play with my mates in Under-15A next year. The young guys need to understand they need to work towards a Test-match technique before working on their short-form cricket. You can go from being a good Test player to a short-form player but not the other way around,” says Smith. “Everyone always says ‘go back to the basics’ but if you don’t have the basics of technique, then you have nothing to go back to. If someone comes to me wanting to learn to play T20 cricket, go find someone else. If someone wants to learn the basics of batting, of batting technique, be the best batsman he can, then I’m your man.”

And he’s not bluffing. CricketNext caught up with Pankaj Chandra, an Indian from the small town of Kymore in the Katni district of Madhya Pradesh, who is in Perth pursuing a PhD in Chemical Engineering in Curtin University. Pankaj, who is a top-order batsman and has once played against Mayank Aggarwal in an inter-match, was once captain of IIT Banaras Hindu University. But, after a point, he had to give up playing. In Australia, that has changed. So obsessed with cricket is Pankaj that he actually has the word tattooed on his hand.

“A person of my ability and my talent would never get a chance to be coached by an international cricketer in India,” says Pankaj. “Here, Robin Smith tells me when to come to the nets, he operated the bowling machine, gives me a full session and afterwards shows me the video of what I’ve done wrong and what I’ve done right. It’s such a privilege.”

The players of the Curtin Victoria Park Cricket Club, for whom Pankaj plays, compete in the West Australian Suburban Turf Cricket Association. You can be sure most Australian Test batsmen, forget English, have never heard of either. But Robin Smith has, and cricket is better for it.