Category: _author:Ayaz Memon

Deep-rooted or Knee-jerk, Kohli Got This One W…

To his chagrin, Virat Kohli last week realized that social media, while giving unlimited and unfettered contact with the world could be a booby trap too unless one is careful.

His outburst against a fan who popped up on his new app and questioned the worth of Indian cricketers, so to speak, went viral, earning him opprobrium from a vast cross-section of people in cyber space, subsequently spilling over into mainstream media, and conversation across the cricket world.

The storm raged for a whole day and more, but Kohli emerged to handle the controversy impressively thereafter I thought. His explanatory tweet later about why he had lost his cool was reconciliatory, if not outright contrite, and laced with humour.

After the ungainly hoick the previous day, the next stroke, if I have to use a cricket analogy, was deftly played that gave critics no further chance to pillory him and restored the equilibrium

Essentially, Kohli asked trolls to light(en) up. Levity is always the best balm in such situations, and I was amazed that he didn’t choose this route originally. The provocation itself was banal and it is only Kohli’s reaction that converted a silly and controllable situation into international brouhaha.

AFP

Frankly, the question asked by the fan was infantile. To call Indian players, including Kohli `overrated’ was hardly in sync with performance or stature and meant so clearly to trigger hostile reaction that I am surprised Kohli fell for the bait.

He could have avoided the question altogether, or better still laughed it off with a “you have a right to your opinion, but it doesn’t match mine’’ kind of reply which would have poured cold water on the questioner’s eagerness to rile the Indian captain.

But Kohli came up with a churlish response, asking the questioner to go to those countries whose players he liked. While pandering to puerile nationalism is the unfortunate recourse chosen by many worthies in public life these days, it was unexpected of a sportsperson who himself has been the recipient of widespread adulation, sans barriers.

There are two aspects to fandom in this context that can’t be lost on Kohli. He is the stellar cricketer today, but he was also a fan once: Perhaps still is, though the terms of assessment of players would have been redefined.

One, every cricket follower has an opinion, not all of it necessarily as a player may expect it. Get into a group discussing the sport and you will find it a bedlam of likes and dislikes, a lot of it irrational, and often expressed in language harsher than what Kohli encountered on his app.

Fans can be fastidious in their affection, but also fickle. They may not change their minds for decades, or do so in a day, perhaps by the hour. While the logic in their arguments may seem trite or untenable, it is their undeniable right to express as they see and feel things.

The second aspect is more sublime. Sportspersons, like all performing artists, transcend limits of geography and nationality. The joy of sport, the horizons of excellence and brilliance achieved by its practitioners makes such barriers mundane, and meant to be broken down.

At a personal level, my first cricketing hero was Rohan Kanhai. The greatest cricketer who’s walked this planet yet, I still believe, is Sir Garfield Sobers. Sir Donald Bradman’s status as greatest batsman that ever lived has been unchallenged for over 70 years. It may never be. None of them are Indians.

Over more than half a century of watching and (subsequently) writing on cricket, my `favourite’ or `best’ players at various times have been – apart from those mentioned above – Pataudi, Norm O’Neil, Bedi, Gavaskar, Imran, Miandad, Kapil, Botham, Lillee, Roy Dias, Martin Crowe, Wasim Akram, Tendulkar, Donald, Dravid, Dhoni and now Kohli.

I may be missing a few names, but it’s a motley mix of players from all over the cricket world, not just India. This would, I reckon, be symptomatic of the vast majority of fans and critics all over the cricket universe, but it hardly mitigates their sense of patriotism.

Thankfully, acknowledgment of the genius of a Federer, Messi, Serena Williams, Ronaldo, Bolt, Richards, Tendulkar or Kohli – to name only a few – is not restricted to their own –countries. How limiting, dissatisfying and unfair – to sport and life – that would be?

Considering that Kohli is currently top of the pops in cricket and idolized all over the cricket world, the irony in his harsh response to the fan’s provocation was unmistakable. What prompted it?

Some observers highlight the `superstar’ syndrome in modern times (sport among the biggest components of this), which offers a sense of disdainful entitlement to the protagonist/player where he/she is cocooned in a surreal world of self-aggrandizement, uncaring of anything else.

Extraordinary fame, undiluted adulation, extraordinary riches, millions of followers on social media et al, as has been shown up in several celebrities, can create a self-serving universe that can obscure reality and reason.

Not being an expert in this domain, I’ll refrain from indulging in pointless pop psychology. It could well be that Kohli while launching his new app that day was in a impatient state of mind, or just having a bad hair day.

In all fairness, I’ve never seen him react adversely in such matters. He is a tempestuous character and obviously very proud of himself, his team and country, in which also lies a large part of his appeal. But he has always been ready to acknowledge the performance of opposition and players from other countries.

His post-match conferences are immaculate in its articulation, and if I may say so, even better when he (or his team) hasn’t done well. There is no passing the buck or the blame. Kohli cops it well, and better still gives credit where it’s due.

All said, the outburst is a conundrum. But whether Kohli’s reaction was deep-rooted or knee-jerk, he was still holding the bat the wrong way. Or wrogn, if he prefers that spelling.

Memon: Legend Dhoni Must Command His Place in …

Mahendra Singh Dhoni not finding a place in the T20I squad (vs West Indies & Australia) and Rohit Sharma’s return to the Test team has had the cricket world buzzing since the selectors announced their choices last week.

To put this in perspective, Dhoni has never been omitted from any Indian squad in any format ever. He was the only constant factor in all formats. Before him, Sachin Tendulkar (in two formats) and since 2011, Virat Kohli have been the only other cricketers to enjoy such complete trust. Even when Dhoni retired from Test cricket midway through the series against Australia in 2014, it was on his own terms.

Rohit on the other hand, while stamping himself as among the finest limited overs batsmen in contemporary cricket, has been in and out of the five-day team over the past 6-7 years. He gets perhaps a last opportunity to establish himself as Test player: if he breaks through past several rivals within that is.

Of the two, Dhoni’s non-selection was obviously more newsworthy. Since he led India to victory in the inaugural World T20 in 2007, he has been the country’s pre-eminent – for several years also the best – in this format and considered indispensable.

His record – as wicket-keeper, batsman and captain – has been unimpeachable. The ‘Dhoni Effect’ was something that not only Indian cricket, but also opponents always, for different reasons, had to factor into their plans. In a sense, this marks the end of an era.

His non-inclusion in the T20I squads gave rise to questions whether he had been rested or dropped. I think the selectors did well to step in quickly and scotch further speculation on this by asserting it was indeed the latter. Peddling insincere niceties (read lies) in such situations has been the bane of Indian cricket.

However, unlike some players (M Vijay, Karun Nair, Kedar Jadhav) who’ve complained of lack of communication between them and the selectors about being dropped from the India squad, I would be surprised if this was the case with Dhoni.

The former captain has a monumental body of work which speaks for itself. Dhoni commands cult status in the sport, and not just in India and it would be heresy not to discuss his future with him.

The one clear takeaway from Dhoni not being in the T20I squad is about when he will quit the sport. Everything now suggests that the 2019 ODI World Cup in England will be his swansong.

The World T20 comes a year later, when Dhoni will be pushing 40, and he is unlikely to last that long. This would entail finding another wicketkeeper-batsman belatedly if he continues to be part of the team. The cut-off time has been timed perfectly.

It allows Rishabh Pant to grow into the role, though the 21-year-old can’t take this position for granted. His teammate from the under-19 days Ishan Kishan, who has shown sparkling form in the Deodhar Trophy, could be among his rivals.

Not being part of the T20I team frees up Dhoni to focus his attention and energies for one-day cricket and the impending World Cup. This is where his value, as player, mentor and senior pro, is still enormous.

Captain Kohli, chief coach Ravi Shastri, the other support staff and all players, without exception, have consistently praised Dhoni’s contribution not just behind and in front of the wickets, but also in the dressing room and at net practice.

These credentials and testimonies bespeak the faith in Dhoni’s abilities and experience. He is the most experienced player in the country today and his record remains outstanding despite recent travails.

Apart from leading India to a World Cup title (2011) he also has to his credit the 2013 Champions Trophy in England. This could be a huge plus given that the next World Cup will be played there.

And yet, his being dropped from the T20I squad opens up some vulnerabilities as far as the World Cup is concerned. His batting form in the past couple of years has been laboured at best. The strong, brilliant finishing that defined Dhoni as a matchwinner, have become agonisingly infrequent, raising questions whether his decline is so steep as to affect the team’s prospects.

That would be a harsh and perhaps imprudent conclusion to reach at this stage. He could just be going through a trough that can afflict the best. Now that Pant (and some others) has shown the ability to play finisher, Kohli is already looking to Dhoni to play the bulwark in the batting order, which gives him scope for redemption.

But even in this recast role, it becomes imperative for Dhoni to score enough runs that consistently advances the team’s prospects. The form and rhythm that makes this possible have to be found immediately.

With just over 15 ODI matches remaining before the World Cup – his last hurrah begins – India’s most talismanic limited overs cricketer has his task cut out. Dhoni must command a place in the side, not retain it on favour or sentiment.

Memon: Potential Thriller of a Series on the C…

India’s unexpected and emphatic win in the third Test has given the current series against England a tantalising twist. The remaining two matches promise gripping fare, and the exciting possibility of come-from-behind victory for Virat Kohli and his team.

As it stands, the situation is similar to what happened against South Africa earlier this year. Having lost the first two Tests, India went on to win the third. But by then the series was over, alas. What if there were two more Tests to be played? The thought itself makes me drool.

There are serious financial and logistical challenges for playing a full series, more so with T20 leagues proliferating in the annual cricket calendar. But from what we saw in South Africa and how the current series against England is panning out, the case for five-Test rubbers among at least some teams gets stronger.

Meanwhile, the fantastic victory at Nottingham, when every aficionado and critic had written off the team, took me on a trip down memory lane to two other series involving India that followed a topsy-turvy path and produced scintillating cricket.

In 2001, India were overwhelmed so easily by Australia in the first Test at Mumbai that Steve Waugh’s ambition of `conquering the final frontier’ seemed a cinch. What could stop a side that looked comprehensively better with bat, ball and in the field?

But at the Eden Gardens, India turned the tables on the cocky Aussies sensationally after being forced to follow on, V V S Laxman and Rahul Dravid batting an entire day without being separated to put their side in the lead.

Frustration at not being able to win easily swiftly transformed into acute pressure on the Aussies to try and save the match on a crumbling last day pitch. The result could have been straight out of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. In a humdinger final Test, India won the battle of nerves to stymie Waugh’s ambition.

(Getty Images)

The second series goes back a further quarter century, to 1974-75 against West Indies, and while this did not result in a win, in some ways it is closer to the one being played currently in England because that too was a five-Test contest.

India lost in Bangalore and Delhi. The third Test in Calcutta too looked gone after a paltry first-innings score by India. But a superb second-innings century by Gundappa Vishwanath gave some hope and skipper ‘Tiger’ Pataudi scope to exploit a turning pitch with his spinners.

Needing 310 to win, West Indies were bundled out for 224 by Bedi, Chandrashekhar and Co after being 163 for 3 at one stage. The momentum shifted the other way and India won the next Test in Chennai by 100 runs.

Here again, the hero was Vishwanath who made a sterling 97 not out of India’s measly first innings score of 190 on a fiery first-day pitch to give his bowlers a semblance of hope. India’s spin trio of Bedi, Chandra and Prasanna rose to the occasion.

The last Test – incidentally the first at the Wankhede Stadium – saw packed crowds as excitement was at fever pitch. The West Indies won by 201 runs, a hefty margin, after a devastating double hundred by Lloyd, intent on proving a point.

It is pertinent to remember though that this Test was played over six days to break the 2-2 deadlock and fetch a result. Had it been restricted to five as was the norm, it would have been a draw, and a fairer result for India.

Such extraordinary comebacks are not easy. Obviously something has to click, with a sliver of luck thrown in. Fundamentally, it comes down to self-belief, pride, and discipline in performance, aided and abetted by smart tactics.

In the current series, India were badly let down by the batting in two Tests. The bowlers have been consistently brilliant. In six Tests as yet this year against South Africa and England (I’m omitting the Test v Afghanistan), India have taken all 10 wickets in 11 out of 12 innings.

This is unprecedented in overseas matches for India. There have been some fantastic performances in the past too, notably in 1986 in England when Kapil Dev, Chetan Sharma, Roger Binny et al were major contributors in a 2-0 win. But nothing as consistently as what the current bowling complement has achieved.

(AFP PHOTO)

What the team has lacked is support from the batsmen. Apart from the brilliant Kohli, runs have been in short supply. At Nottingham, where there were decent contributions from Rahane, Pujara, Pandya, to an extent even Dhawan, the outcome speaks for itself.

What explains the transformation in the Indian team’s fortunes at Nottingham?

Slice of good fortune for sure. Joe Root opting to bat second worked to their advantage. However, it can also be argued that India got the worse of the conditions at Lord’s simply because the toss went against them.

Luck can play an important part in sport, but can’t be the only determinant between victory and defeat over a period of time unless some other attributes have undergone change too, as seems the case with India.

Mistakes in selection at Lord’s, candidly accepted by Kohli and Shastri, were rectified swiftly. Contrition in decision makers was crucial at this stage. The series was slipping away rapidly, and to live on pre-set theories would have been delusional.

Simultaneously, there seems to have been soul-searching – perhaps even hard talk – in the dressing room. Clearly some batsmen have been rapped on the knuckles to shape up or ship out. Changes in the squad for the last two Tests suggest that some regulars are on notice.

The most important thing was to prioritise hard diligence, unattractive and unexciting as may be, over airy-fairy flamboyance. Test matches are not won on bluster. The essential need is for intelligent application of skills and unrelenting mental toughness.

It would appear that India have done a course correction in time. The task ahead is that this mindset must hold over the next three weeks.

While they still trail 1-2 in the series, India start as favourites for the fourth Test, with England in disarray.

That’s a huge psychological advantage to capitalize on. It would be presumptuous to believe the fourth Test will be won, but the prospect of a heady climax to the series at the Oval whets the imagination.

Memon: Wadekar Was a ‘Character’, Somebody Who…

Encomiums and rich tributes have poured in for Ajit Wadekar ever since his death last week, none of them exaggerated as can happen in such situations. His contribution to Indian cricket – in multiple roles – is enormous, and acknowledgment of this is mot juste.

In my growing up years, Wadekar was a formidable name. When I first saw, in the early 1960s, his fame was spreading fast on the first-class circuit. In fact, he was knocking hard for a Test place. But it was on Bombay’s maidans that I first realized the buzz he had created.

Wadekar played for Shivaji Park Gymkhana, among the leading sides in the ultra-competitive league cricket in the city which would attract huge crowds. And his presence would make the attendance swell even further.

I remember him as a dashing left-hander who batted with panache, excelling in cuts, hooks, pulls. Aggressive batsmen win fans easily, especially of impressionable 10-year-olds, and Wadekar was soon my favourite.

His exploits in domestic first-class tournaments bespoke his talent, and his contests with the great spinners, Prasanna, Chandrashekhar, Venkataraghvan and Bedi is part of folklore. Records, in fact, show that Wadekar got the better of these maestros most times.

Former India captain Ajit Wadekar (Image: ICC)

He was first picked for India in the series against Sir Gary Sobers’s West Indies in 1966, making his debut at the Brabourne Stadium. His last Test in India was also at the same venue, in 1972-73, and I happened to see both matches which spanned one of the more fascinating careers in Indian cricket.

Unlike most players in the sub-continent, Wadekar was almost 26 when he played his first Test. By this time, he had finished his post-graduation and had a job with State Bank of India. I think both his education and experience of working in a large corporation helped him enormously, as a cricketer, coach and administrator.

In the early 1980s, I was commissioning editor for a magazine, Cricketer Asia (published out of Hong Kong), and Wadekar was one of the leading contributors.

He was then managing an SBI branch in Worli, and spending time with him in his office gave me an idea of how good he was with understanding details, fine print, in analyzing situations and dealing with people.

In 1992-93 when he became coach of the Indian team, I got to know him and his methods better because he was constantly around, and made it a point to interact with those in the media. I think it was his way of keeping his ear to the ground.

All told, Wadekar was a `character’, somebody who would stay with you forever even after a few meetings. The dragging gait and Marathi accented drawl made him distinctive, and rapid-fire one-liners for any situation unforgettable.

The last time I spoke with him was some months ago. He didn’t sound in great health but was in top form with his characteristic wit. India were then touring South Africa and the batsmen were struggling against the pace and swing of Rabada and Philander.

Wadekar’s analysis of the problem made the ridiculous sound sublime and telling. “The most important thing for batsmen is not to know their home address, but where the off stump is,’’ he said with a chuckle.

I wonder what he would have had to say seeing the debacle at Lord’s on the current tour where India were twice bowled out for less than 150?

Unlikely, however, he would have blown a fuse for I can’t remember him ever being angry.

On the occasions I asked him about India’s abysmal show at Lord’s in 1974 when the team he was leading had been bowled out for 42, Wadekar would say in jest. "I don’t know what they fed us for breakfast that day? Must have been some English conspiracy.’’

(Image: ICC)

A sense of humour seemed to be his reconciliation with the vicissitudes of life. I found him to be a pragmatist who could take setbacks in his stride, often with a smile, and would regale us with stories from the past, even at his own expense.

Wadekar was not your typical raconteur. The anecdotes were not long-drawn, rather came as a series of one-liners or witticisms, and told with a deadpan expression that would befuddle those who didn’t know him well.

Surely somewhere the hurt and regret of the 0-3 rout against England in 1974 must have hurt him, but one never heard him complain. That ill-fated tour cost him his captaincy, and after he was dropped from even the West Zone side when the home season began Wadekar announced his retirement.

He was only 33 years old and had spent less than seven years in international cricket. But this period had been excitingly, extraordinarily eventful for the sport in the country.

Wadekar could not quite match his batting exploits in domestic cricket (where he averaged over 58 compared to just over 30 in Tests), but left a lasting impression as captain. His second coming, as it were, as a coach, was impactful too, though in a different way.

Getty Images

In neither role was he fancied to succeed, and ended up surprising everybody. His biggest achievement came in 1970-71 when he was thrust with the captaincy after Vijay Merchant’s casting vote ousted the charismatic Tiger Pataudi.

Against a strong West Indies team, which included Sobers, Kanhai, Lloyd, Hall and Griffith, Wadekar led India to an unexpected victory. If this was a huge surprise, what followed in England a few weeks later was astounding.

Ray Illingworth’s team had returned after winning the Ashes and if rankings were prevalent then, would have been top of the pops. But India handed them a stunning defeat at the Oval.

Forget winning a series, India had never won a Test before this in either the West Indies or England. Wadekar had turned the cricket world upside down, against all odds and in defiance of what experts had forecast.

Whenever I asked him about this twin triumph that gave Indian cricket new direction, Wadekar would reply modestly. "It was easy for me. Sardesai, Gavaskar and Solkar made it possible in West Indies and in England it was Chandrashekhar’s magical spell.’’

Some critics argued that he was a ‘lucky’ captain. I venture that Wadekar made his own luck. Behind the easygoing demeanour was a hardy and canny cricketer and a shrewd manager of people and situations.

As a careerist banker, Wadekar had honed his analytical brain, was excellent at man-management and knew when to make decisive moves. This was evident not just when he won three successive Test series, but also when he became coach.

He shielded young Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli as much from themselves as others. They were allowed to pull his leg, but he knew when to rein them in. He also protected Azharuddin, hugely vulnerable as captain, against the growing ambitions of rivals in the dressing room.

Wadekar lacked the glamour of a Pataudi, and the star value of a Gavaskar, Kapil Dev or Tendulkar, but his contribution to Indian cricket – though there is less brouhaha about it than warranted – is no less significant.

Under him, as captain and coach, Indian cricket reached dizzying heights. The true import of what he achieved, the legacy he left behind, grows in significance with the passage of time.

RIP

Memon: After India’s capitulation, the Blame G…

Two stories in the past couple of days claiming that skipper Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri would be grilled/questioned if the team’s performance doesn’t improve in the third Test intrigued me.

One of these stories, put out by a national news agency, is attributed to a BCCI official. The other, reported on the front page of a national newspaper, was sourced to the Committee of Administrators.

Since the BCCI and the COA have been at loggerheads on almost everything over the past 18-20 months, it’s fascinating they should concur on this issue, and almost simultaneously, as if in competition.

If both stories are accurate – and there is no reason to doubt this – I am compelled to put on a cynic’s hat and wonder if this is in preparation for another round of blame game between the BCCI and COA, given their fractious past.

Or perhaps both factions washing their hands of a fiasco, if indeed the team’s performance does not improve, much in the manner of babus who like to take credit whenever things go well, but pass the buck when they don’t.

The stories suggest there is regret now about the carte blanche given to Kohli and Shastri in choosing players, deciding the tour itinerary et al, but this does not absolve the administration of undermining its own authority. In fact, it makes them more culpable.

(AP Photo)

The fundamental issue, however, is not so much about the accountability sought from the captain and coach but the timing of these stories. For the powerful and highly paid positions they hold, Kohli and Shastri must necessarily be assessed on results. But when, is the question.

While the media may indulge in itself at all times in criticizing performance, by convention, postmortems by the establishment are done at the end of a series; or at the very least, till the series is decided.

Depending on how players, captain, coach and support staff perform, the administration reserves the right to retain or dispense with them thereafter. But as of now, the series is still open, and though India are struggling, it seems preposterous that administrators should be vocally negative.

Cricket can be unpredictable. Who can tell what may happen from here? By jumping the gun, not only have administrators betrayed a lack of understanding about the vicissitudes of sport, but also put the rank and file under duress instead of building their confidence.

Even if the third Test beginning Saturday does not go favourably for India, what exactly do these administrators propose to do? It is highly unlikely that the Kohli and Shastri will lose their positions. What’s more likely is that there could be changes when the squad for the remaining two Tests is named.

While the purpose of veiled warnings looks to be to bring Kohli and Shastri to heel, the greater pressure will actually be on other players, especially those struggling, whose places in the squad and careers are at stake.

Virat Kohli. (AFP)

That said, the responsibility on Kohli and Shastri to deliver cannot be deflected. Their pre-tour grandstanding (in fact this stretches back a year) promised big things, that have been rudely and badly overturned in the first two Tests itself.

True, the first Test was closely fought and could have gone either way. India had the worst of conditions at Lord’s too. A poorly planned itinerary (for which Kohli and Shastri must share onus if they’ve voted for this) hasn’t helped anyone either.

For instance, there wasn’t a single first-class game before the first Test, and there are none between Tests. Now, there is no way to assess the form of reserve players or the opportunity for those out of luck or rhythm to regain their confidence in a side game. How ridiculous!

But India’s misfortunes are not only because of some ill luck or a poor itinerary. That would be making excuses. Selection of the playing side for both Tests was questionable, especially at Lord’s where the weather and pitch screamed for an extra fast bowler instead of a spinner.

As seen over the past couple of series, this fits a general pattern of cocky excitability rather than an intelligent appraisal of conditions. The biggest worry now, however, is the collapse of confidence suffered by batsmen. This is pulling the team down badly and is the major challenge confronting Kohli and Shastri, particularly the captain.

Not only does Kohli have to sustain his own fine form, but must also help inspire self-belief in other batsmen. For, unless the top order finds its mojo, the contest could well remain, as Nasser Hussain put it acerbically, between “boys and men”.

Memon: India’s Batting Regression Needs Robust…

For a while on Friday after the unfortunate Cheteshwar Pujara run out – stranded badly by Virat Kohli – India were reduced to 15-3, I feared we were in for a repeat of Lord’s 1974. Or worse.

Cricket followers of my vintage are unlikely to forget what happened in the aforementioned match. Set a target of 328 to win, India were bowled out for a paltry 42, Geoff Arnold and Chris Old exploiting the overcast conditions splendidly to destroy a fairly strong batting line-up.

Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, avoided this ignominy on Friday, huffing and puffing for survival, and Ravichandran Ashwin’s pluck then helped India past the 100 mark. But the visitors find themselves in deep trouble even though it is effectively a four-day Test – with the first day being washed out.

But two days still remain and England already have a first innings lead of 250, thanks to a maiden Test century by Chris Woakes, who had to fill the big boots of Ben Stokes, and a crucial 93 by Jonny Bairstow who was under the microscope for not delivering as much as he promises.

Their 199-run partnership for the sixth wicket not only salvaged the situation for England, who had the top-order lopped off by Shami and Sharma, but has also provided the home team a chance of victory.

Unless the weather further intervenes – as the met reports suggest – India could be hard-pressed to escape from Lord’s without another setback, which could then effectively seal the fate of the series.

The only dilemma for England – if weather permits – is whether they should bat on or declare first thing on day 4. Time will be of the essence in the Test and I reckon Joe Root would have been happier if his side had been bowled out with this lead for it would have spared him turmoil.

What’s put India into this precarious situation again after the defeat in the first Test at Edgbaston?

True, losing the toss was a big blow as India had to bat in distinctly bowling-friendly conditions. My surmise is that England’s batsmen would have struggled too as India’s bowlers have been very productive in recent months, though whether they would have fared as badly can only be speculated.

But ill-luck with the coin cannot condone the thoroughly inept batting by the India on the opening day. Rejigging the order, getting in Pujara for Dhawan has made no difference from the performance at Edgbaston. If anything, the batting looked as vulnerable as ever.

Clearly India’s current woes are linked to the failure of the main batsmen. In three innings yet, only one – Kohli – has gone past 50. In fact, he made a century and a half-century in the first Test, which only accentuates the problem.

When you extend the frame of reference to the other overseas series played this year – three Tests against South Africa – the comparison between Kohli and the other batsmen only becomes dramatically starker.

India’s captain has has scored 509 runs in 5 Tests (9 innings), which is impressive by any yardstick. The best run aggregates after him are by all-rounders Hardik Pandya (183) and Ashwin (142).

Virat Kohli has been the lone saving grace for India. (AFP)

Pertinently, 17 other players, including top order batsmen, have made a meager 1155 runs in 90 innings, which works out to an average of 12.38 runs per innings! This dismally lop-sided performance in the batting shows why India are floundering currently.

While the series in South Africa was fiercely contested – as reflected in the 1-2 result – and the first Test of this tour was a humdinger, India’s collapse in the first innings at Lord’s shows regression rather than progress as far as the batting is concerned.

Of course, playing in English conditions remains the biggest challenge for batsmen from all over the world, not just Indians, as the record books show. Late swing in the air and sharp seam movement off the pitch test the mettle of the best.

But it is success against this hardship that throws up the true-blue great batsman, as distinct from fair-weather, feather-bed maestros, which seem to abound in the Indian squad going by performances over the past couple of years.

The crux issues are of technique and temperament, not of talent. Natural ability alone can help up to a point, practicing with bowling machines up to a point further. No machine can predict the extent of swing a high quality bowler will get.

The greater need when playing in these conditions is of technical certitude acquired through constant learning, and more particularly a doughty temperament and good old-fashioned grit, to go with intrinsic talent.

Kohli’s success in South Africa, and especially on this tour as yet, highlights this. On his previous visit to England in 2014, he was an abject failure scoring just 134 runs in 10 innings. At Edgbaston, he made 200 runs – and with aplomb – to show why he is the best batsman in the world today.

Behind Kohli’s transformation is four years spent climbing a steep learning curve. He examined and assessed his own shortcomings, worked hard to overcome them with assiduous practice/training, all stemming from a burning ambition for excellence.

It must be ceded that Kohli is an exceptional cricketer, yet there is something to be learned from him by the other Indian batsmen where application, adaptability and ambition are concerned.

In turn, as captain, Kohli has the responsibility to apply both his analytical mind – in conjunction with the support staff – as well as man-management skills (this almost entirely on his own) to help his struggling teammates actualize their potential.

What comes very easily to Kohli may not be easy to understand or follow by others, even the most skilled. Players can be victims of anxieties, insecurities, casualness. The captain’s responsibility is to resolve this, compassionately or ruthlessly, depending on the circumstances.

A one-man show may work once in a while, but is unsustainable over a period of time for a team that aspires to be the best in the world. This is what Kohli and Co had set out to do on this tour: make their no.1 Test ranking more meaningful.

Barely into the second Test, the team finds itself on a slippery slope. Results of previous tours (0-4 in 2011, 1-3 in 2014) show how sharp this fall can be unless the determination to fight back, through robust analysis, astute player management is strong.

Memon: Virat Kohli Inspires Among Floundering …

The Edgbaston Test was memorable, among the finest in years. It was keenly fought, with some outstanding individual performances, full of twists and turns that led to edge-of-the-seat suspense till India’s last wicket fell on the eve of lunch on the fourth day, leaving England winners by just 31 runs.

In a contest as close as this, it seems a travesty that one side should lose. But sport can be brutal. A player or team – however good – that drops guard, loses nerve, lacks focus or is tepid of commitment and ambition can come to grief.

This was a terrific Test I’ll reiterate, but the defeat will rankle the Indian team. Victory was within grasp and the opportunity was squandered, which is disappointing for a side ranked no.1 and has made winning consistently overseas as its priority.

There are four Tests still to be played in the series, so a comeback is not beyond possibility. But England have drawn first blood and will be the more confident, psychologically stronger team from here. On the other hand, the pressure on India will grow exponentially after Edgbaston.

It’s a slippery slope from here for Kohli and Co. The next Test starts in three days time with no first-class game to assess form or try out the bench players. This will put the team management under duress. As the previous two tours (2011, 2014) have shown, unless this trend is reversed soon, it could all go rapidly downhill.

Usually it is a combination of things that go wrong for a team losing a tight game, but at Edgbaston the problem was clearly the batsmen. A few catches grassed blotted the copybook no doubt, but did not do anywhere the same harm as supine, pusillanimous batting by the top order.

Barring one, of course. Virat Kohli was simply brilliant. The manner in which he played, transforming the match with a century in the first innings and almost taking his side home single-handedly with a half century in the second could be the subject matter of a saga in heroism.

Sadly, one of the other five batsmen among the top six came anywhere close to matching his performance, which had a serious impact on the outcome. While Kohli made 200 runs in the match, the only other Indian to make more than 50 was no.7 Hardik Pandya.

True, on a seaming pitch all batsmen struggled. But where England had useful contributions from an assortment of players – Root and Bairstow in the first innings, Curran in the second – it became dependent only on one man.

Failure to chase down 194 in their second innings – after being unable able to top 300 in the first when the pitch was at its best – exposed severed shortcomings in the frontline Indian batsmen.

Whether this is because of the pressure of a marquee series, poor temperament or inept technique is difficult to pinpoint, but it raises several questions about them nonetheless when playing away from home

The overseas performances of Dhawan, and increasingly in recent times, Vijay, Rahane and Rahul, seem to be in inverse ratio to their mighty reputations and wonderful exploits when they bat in the sub-continent.

Where this tour is concerned, their collective failure in the first Test has put Kohli and Shastri in a quandary about who to retain or drop for the next Test. Should Pujara be recalled, and if so for Dhawan, Rahul or Vijay? And is Rahane in a `good space’ to hold his place?

A severe chop and change policy will reveal panic. At the same time, India need to find confident and in-form performers soon without becoming overly defensive or reckless. It’s a testing time for the team management.

India’s batting woes belittled the effort of the bowlers who were quite superb in claiming all 20 wickets. There was also much to cheer when the successful bowlers were all those whose were under pressure for one reason or the other.

Ashwin bowled marvelously to dispel the notion that he can’t take wickets overseas. Six of his seven dismissals were top order batsmen as he spun a web of deceit around them with splendidly controlled variations.

Ishant scythed through the England batting with a five-wicket haul in the second innings. He’s been around for over a decade now and tongues have been wagging for a while about his strike rate. That issue will not be raised for some while at least.

Mohamed Shami, after a tumultuous past 5-6 months in which he was embroiled in a much-publicised domestic quarrel, had a question mark over his fitness and mental preparation. Had Bumrah or Bhuvaneshwar been fit, Shami may have been on the bench. He bowled splendidly in the first inning and should have had more than just three wickets to show.

But with so many batsmen flopping, it became a Kohli versus England contest. In the context of a low-scoring match where bowlers from both sides dominated and batsmen struggled, his contribution was epic.

On his last tour to England, Kohli was an abject failure, scoring a paltry 134 runs in 10 innings. In the four years since, he has grown into the sport’s biggest star and drawcard. But could he bury the ghosts of 2014 was the looming question.

He rose to the challenge in rousing style.

There is nothing passive or straitlaced about Kohli’s cricket. The playing field is a grand stage for him to exhibit his talent and personality: usually melodramatically, always interestingly, and often enthrallingly, as in this Test.

From the time he ran out Joe Root with a direct throw – a moment of pure magic – to stymie England’s progress in the first innings, Kohli stalked the Edgbaston ground, making it his fiefdom as it were, especially with bat in hand.

He is a gladiatorial personality, and perhaps the only thing sublime about his cricket is the drives in front of the wicket on either side: the timing is usually wondrous, and he picks up gaps so uncannily as to have fielders rooted to their spot.

Kohli’s marvelous century in the first innings, which ensured that India were not snuffed out prematurely, must rank among not just his best, but also those by an Indian batsman in England. It can be divided into two parts.

The first was essentially about putting mind over matter. Early on, he struggled for timing, rhythm and reading the swing of Anderson & Co. But he showed grit and intent to not be fazed when beaten or even dropped. The second half of the innings was about taking charge.

Once he was secure about pace, bounce and movement in the pitch, Kohli played with the aplomb of a maestro, raising the tempo and tenor of his batsmanship to a crescendo – especially in the company of tail-enders – with imperious strokeplay that would have done Viv Richards proud.

For four years, Kohli had possibly brooded and agonised over his failures and privately nursed the ambition to make big runs in England. In this period, he had also risen to become a batting major domo, but doubts about his true greatness lingered.

Now these doubts stand banished. It is not just talent, but also Kohli’s unrelenting ambition and mental toughness that made him do everything – from working on his fitness to eliminating technical flaws – to reach the stage he has.

He’s the world’s best batsman: Unquestionably now. Alas, despite a tour de force performance that he had to finish on the losing side is not without pathos.

Life can be cruel.

Down Memory Lane: Ayaz Memon Recalls India’s 1…

Going over results and stats to refresh my memory of India in England in 1996, the most astonishing aspect that came through was how the tour itinerary was structured: The run up to the first Test at Edgbaston, included six first class matches.

This apart, the team also played four one-day warm up games and three ODIs prior to the first Test. And in between the first and second and second and third Tests, there was a county game each. And remember, this was just a three-Test series.

Contrast this with the current tour, which includes five Tests. While India have been in England for almost a month and have played two international limited overs series, there has not been a single first-class match before the first Test starting Wednesday.

The only one scheduled, a four-day first-class contest against Essex, was reduced to a friendly after the Indians said they would play only three days because of an `unfriendly’ outfield and the unusually hot, energy-sapping weather.

India will now play five matches on the trot, without opportunity to assess form of players on the bench if needed, or for stellar players to find their groove if they are struggling.

One can’t be overly critical since the itineraries in most bilateral series (except the Ashes) have made first-class matches redundant, but I think this needs a serious rethink, for it restricts players from finding their métier and limits options for captains.

Going into the first Test on August 1, for instance, India have more questions than answers on what the playing XI should be. Had there been a couple of more first class matches, Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri would have been better placed in making the selection.

To get back to the 1996 tour, the Indians, I recall, was in turmoil when the set reached England. A couple of months earlier, the team – favoured to win the World Cup played in the sub-continent – had crashed out ignominiously in the semi-final, and this hung heavy on the minds of the players.

The ODI series was lost 0-2, with one match washed out, setting the tone for struggle and strife over the next six weeks. The tour was also scheduled for the first half of the summer which made it even more difficult for the Indians, especially the spinners.

There was some rain, and the weather was generally cold, which gave the home team a distinct advantage on pitches that had enough assistance for seam and swing bowlers. As the weather warmed up, India’s batsmen came into their own in the second and third Tests, but collectively, the team lacked the vigour to force a result.

England did not really boast of a formidable team, but in these conditions they proved a notch higher, especially in the bowling. Between them, Alan Mullaly, Chris Lewis, Dominic Cork and Mark Ealham claimed 43 wickets.

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India’s leading pace bowlers Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad picked up 26 wickets, but an effective back-up seamer’s absence was sorely felt. What perhaps hurt India most was Anil Kumble’s lack of success.

With conditions not favouring him a whit, Kumble got only 5 wickets in three Tests. Had the bowling support been stronger, India’s fortunes in the Test series could have been brighter, though in the first Test, it was the batsmen who led the team down. India never recovered from the defeat.

Sachin Tendulkar, by now the world’s premier batsman, was in superb form, scoring over 400 runs including two brilliant centuries. His 122 out of 219 at Edgbaston was breathaking, and the 177 at Nottingham imperious. The race between him and Brian Lara for who was the world’s best batsman had begun.

Yet, after the first Test, the spotlight turned to two other 23-year-olds who made their debut at Lords’ in the second Test: Sourav Ganguly, who made a century on debut, and Rahul Dravid, who narrowly missed his, dismissed tragically for 95.

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A few months older than Tendulkar, the three had played with and against each other at the junior level, before the latter broke free and made his entry into international cricket at just 16 with his precocious batting talent.

Ganguly and Dravid were left to play catch up for almost seven years. Both had a contrasting passage to Test cricket. Ganguly was on India’s tour of Australia in 1991-92, and not just didn’t get a match in the series, but also got adverse reports from the team management ostensibly for his aloof behavior.

Disappointed, Ganguly had almost given up on cricket. He somehow managed to hang in, had a wonderful domestic season, and when the opportunity arose, came good in great style. His flowing off-side drives earned him plaudits universally. And he showed a penchant for the big stage by notching a century in his second Test too.

Dravid, introverted, measured and circumspect – on and off the field – unlike the flamboyant Ganguly, had worked his way up resolutely through various age group tournaments. In his first two Tests he batted at no.7, but gave enough evidence of the resilience and ambition that was to make him one of the greatest no.3s in the history of the game subsequently.

For the rest, the Indian batting was indistinctive. Sanjay Manjrekar was surprisingly low on runs, and Azhar hit such a bad trot that he mustered only 43 in the three Tests. After the World Cup setback and this series defeat, he was to lose his captaincy for the next series.

My abiding memory of the tour, however, is not about the performances on the field, but opener Navjot Singh Sidhu storming back home after the first Test.

He wasn’t played at Edgbaston, which was a surprise, and the next thing one knew, Sidhu was gone. I chased him down to London before he flew back, but Sidhu wouldn’t say anything beyond, “Maamla pag tak aa gaya”, implying that his intrinsic pride had been hurt.

Several stories and theories have been bandied about his sudden departure, but what really happened remains a mystery.

Memon: Being Prime Minister was Always Imran K…

Allegations of electoral malpractice and skepticism about his ability to govern independent of the army have been swirling ever since Imran Khan emerged as the prime minister-in-waiting of Pakistan. The cricket world, however, has hailed his achievement.

Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shahid Afridi and Mohammed Aamir are among many renowned players from his country to have gushed over Imran’s splendid performance at the hustings. But the hosannas are not restricted to just Pakistani cricketers.

Congratulatory tweets from Geoffrey Boycott, Sanjay Manjrekar, Ian Bishop, Adam Holliake inundated social media while Imran’s contemporary and former India captain Kapil Dev made known his delight on television.

Fraternal joy over Imran’s success is understandable. Among sportspersons who have played at the international level, only George Weah, who represented Liberia in football, went on to lead his country in politics.

Four cricketers have become Prime Ministers – F H D Bell (New Zealand PM in 1925), A F Douglas-Home (British PM 1962-64), Kamisese Mara (Fiji PM 1970-87, President 1994-2000) and Imran’s nemesis Nawaz Sharif (Pak PM 1990-93, 97-99, 2013-17) – but they never went beyond first-class level. Imran is the first international to reach such political heights, and remarkably, by starting his own party only 22 years back.

It’s been a long and largely lonely struggle, against heavy odds, that appears to have finally borne reward.

“I have no doubt he will be Prime Minister one day”, I recall Wasim Akram telling me in 2013 when we were part of the same TV commentary team. “Even if he’s 90 and doddering, he won’t give up!”

The self-belief, tenacity, resilience, deep ambition and optimism – which have brought him to this stage in politics – were defining attributes in Imran’s 20-year career in international cricket too. While his Casanova image grabbed headlines all over the world, at his core Imran was immensely hardworking and dedicated, driven to excellence and triumph with unremitting passion.

Starting as a tearaway fast bowler in 1971, with little control over line and length, he worked relentlessly to hone his technique and skills till he became the world’s best for a few years in the early 1980s. It had taken him over a decade, but he had reached his goal. In this period, he was also arguably the world’s best all-rounder.

And unarguably the best captain for a decade, reining in Pakistan’s scintillating but mercurial players, spotting and blooding talented but rank youngsters to become world beaters. His authoritative (many said `autocratic’) leadership was matched by inspiring personal example in determination, as I remember from my first tour to Pakistan in 1982-83.

This was a series India lost badly 0-3 largely because of Imran’s brilliant swing bowling. Not many know, however, that he continued bowling of his full run-up despite suffering an ankle problem midway through. He couldn’t bowl for two years after that, but Imran’s intent to beat India by the largest margin wasn’t to be stymied by injury.

At one stage, it appeared that his dream of winning the World Cup would remain unrealized. He had played in all tournaments from 1975, and Pakistan had been semi-finalists in 1979 and 1983. In 1987, playing at home, they were favourites, but lost again in the semis to Australia. Dejected, Imran announced his retirement, the only instance I remember where he was consumed by setback. Subsequently he was convinced to return by then President Zia-ul-Haq, and went on to lead his team to a memorable victory in the 1992 World Cup.

Apart from aforementioned sterling qualities, Imran had also shown himself to be a fearless risk-taker, and a visionary. For instance, in 1986, when West Indies (then the world’s best side) toured Pakistan, he asked for neutral umpires from India, leaving people on either side of the border stumped.

Mumbai’s Piloo Reporter and Hyderabad’s V K Ramaswamy were chosen to officiate in what turned out to be a tense, memorable series. I watched the last Test of that series in Karachi, and asked Imran why he was so eager to have neutral umpires.

“Our umpires always come under flak,” he said. “To be the best, you have to beat the best, but this would only have meaning if there was no allegation of cheating.”

As it happened, the series was drawn. But Imran had scored a major point.

In 1989, he went a step further, demanding neutral umpires for a series against India! Pakistan’s cricket administration was aghast, but Imran was adamant.

“There is so much vested in India-Pakistan cricket, but ruined by mistrust of umpires,” he said before the series.

This was a gamble of sorts, at least psychologically, for Pakistan had never lost to India at home earlier. As it happened, the series was drawn. But the agenda for neutral umpires, which Imran had vehemently campaigned for years to save international cricket from perennial bickering and mistrust, had been won.

The 1991-92 World Cup win was undoubtedly the acme of his cricket career. Past 39, Imran was a lion in winter. But his superb leadership – and mature batting in tough situations – saw a young team pull off a remarkable turnaround, coming back from the brink of ouster midway through the tournament.

By this time, he was committed to building the best cancer hospital in Pakistan his mother’s memory, a monumental task even for a cricket superstar. Imran’s diligence saw the project through despite the obstacles. This experience of fighting the odds perhaps impelled his entry into politics.

In cricket, Imran stands on a pedestal. For those who know him through and for the sport (like this writer), he is the epitome of excellence as player and leader: In my opinion, the most influential along with Sir Frank Worrell in the post-War era certainly.

Politics, however, is a different ball game, and questions have been raised about his motives and methods. Over the past two decades, analysts have found it difficult to fathom his motives and methods. At various times, he’s been described a neo-liberal, centrist, pacifist, nationalist and hawk.

In the months leading to the recent elections months, compunctions about his proximity to religious ultras in Pakistan and a possibly subservient role to the army have worried political observers in the West, and particularly in India, what with relations between the two countries at a low ebb now.

Imran’s first response after the elections has been encouraging. He’s said he knows India more than anybody else in Pakistan and that he shouldn’t be typecast as some Bollywood villain, or words to the effect.

This reassurance hasn’t stymied speculation and suspense about the future though. As he prepares to start his second innings, whether Imran will captain the Generals or the other way around is the question that looms large.

Down Memory Lane – Ayaz Memon Remembers his Fi…

My first Test tour to England coincided with a particularly turbulent period in Indian cricket. Players and the administration had been on a collision course following the 1989 tour of West indies. This had caused suspensions, upheavals, and brought India a new captain, Mohammed Azharrudin after the 1989-90 tour of Pakistan.

How Azhar became captain is the story for another occasion, but Raj Singh Dungarpur, then BCCI president, had recast the side a few months earlier, envisioning a `Team of The 90s’ under him with a cluster of young players around him. This process reached fruition when the team for England was announced.

In fact, the squad was rich in talent and well balanced when you go through the names today: Azhar, Ravi Shastri, Navjot Sindgh Sidhu, Sanjay Manjrekar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar, Kiran More, Sanjeev Sharma, Atul Wassan, W V Raman, Nayan Mongia, Anil Kumble, Narendra Hirwani, Venkatpathy Raju. But of the 16, only Kapil and Vengsarkar were over 30.

There were several exciting aspects to the Test series when the first match began at Lord’s. The summer was warm and pitches flat. India had won the two ODI matches convincingly, the batsmen and bowlers looked in good form.

A maiden century had eluded 17-year-old teenage sensation Sachin Tendulkar in New Zealand a few months earlier and critics and fans alike had their attention focused on him. Would he get his first Test century at Lord’s?

But Tendulkar was not the only one in focus. Also in the side was `Lord of Lord’s’ Dilip Vengsarkar, with three successive centuries at this hallowed venue: An outstanding achievement and a fourth century would make it truly incredible.

As it happened, neither Tendulkar nor Vengsarkar got to the three-figure mark. But India’s performance was exhilarating nonetheless.

Azharuddin, using his bat like a rapier, evoked comparisons with Ranjitsinhji in a brilliant, counterattacking 121. Shastri added more heft to his growing stature as an opener with a hundred too and late in the innings Kapil Dev hit an astonishing four sixes in a row off Eddie Hemmings to help India avoid the follow on.

With such remarkable exploits, how did India lose this Test? In hindsight, I can think of three reasons.

One, misled by a cloud cover, Azhar chose to field first. The grey blanket over Lord’s lifted quickly and soon the conditions were tailor-made for batting.

Second, India had a chance when Graham Gooch edged Sanjeev Sharma and was dropped behind the wickets. He was on 33. He went on to score 333 in the first innings and helped England to a mammoth score of 653 for 4.

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Third was the frenetic pace at which India batted in the first innings, scoring 454 in 114.1 overs. This allowed England opportunity to set a target and successfully bowl India out in the fourth innings.

Notwithstanding this defeat, India were the toast of the summer for the attractive cricket they had played. The players, particularly the batsmen, found appreciation from critics and fans alike. And as the action moved to Old Trafford for the second Test, the buzz around Tendulkar rose a few decibels higher.

It had been less than a year since his debut in Karachi, but Tendulkar had already captured the imagination of the cricket world. His prodigious talent was evident, what was still missing was his first century, and it seemed the English fans wanted this even more eagerly.

The milestone was achieved at Old Trafford. In excruciating circumstances, which highlighted not just Tendulkar’s innate talent, but also his hardy temperament, and how rapidly he had grown in coping with pressure at the highest level.

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In the first innings, he scored 68, as India chased another mountainous score by England (519), but fell short by 87 runs. Azhar was the main run-getter with a superb 179. But England batted strongly again and India were left to save the Test on a wearing last day pitch.

At 103 for 5, with the top order vanquished, it appeared India were doomed. That’s when Tendulkar rose to the occasion, scoring a fighting unbeaten century in the company of resolute Prabhakar. In a way, this was an announcement to the cricket world of what he was to achieve over the next 23 years.

Incidentally, making his debut in this incidentally was a young, tall, bespectacled leg-spinner who was the feature in many Test subsequently with Tendulkar. He picked up three wickets but the complaint against him then was that he hardly turned a ball.

He was dropped for the next Test. In the next 18 years, Anil Kumble was to break all bowling records for India!

Second Test saved, India still had a chance to square the series in the third at The Oval. Shastri’s second century of the series and one for Kapil Dev too saw India score 606. When England were bowled out for 340, an Indian win became an exciting possibility.

But the pitch started easing up and became a featherbed to the grief of bowlers. Gower, who had just about avoided being dropped, scored a classy 157, and the match petered out into a tame draw.

Despite the defeat, it had been a terrific tour, throwing up some memorable performances and a couple of players who were to become among the greatest in the game, before or since.