Category: _author:Ayaz Memon

IPL 2019 | Memon: IPL Form & Fitness = World C…

Performances in Twenty20 is not necessarily an index to how a player will fare in ODIs. The two formats are like apples and oranges, and juxtaposing them to assess a player’s form is loaded with peril.

Yet, with the IPL just preceding the World Cup, this carries some value. Whatever the limitations of T20, it would be churlish to deny that over the years, the IPL has played a significant role in showcasing players who have been fast-tracked into playing international cricket in different formats.

Think Shane Watson for Australia, a slew of Indian players (R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah for e.g.), and this year, most certainly Andre Russell who got a call up for the West Indies World Cup team because of his bionic batting in the IPL.

If nothing else, the IPL this year gives an insight into a player’s fitness, how his hands and feet are moving, whether he has enhanced existing skills or developed new ones, perhaps most importantly, how mentally tough he is for severe competition.

In the Indian context, which is the thrust of this article, Mahendra Singh Dhoni provides a classic example of how the IPL may have helped. Before the tournament, several doubts about his form were swirling around. Dhoni has dispelled them with aplomb.

(Credit: IPLT20)

His batting prior to the tournament had been lacklustre and uninspiring at times. The strike rate had been paltry, and there were compunctions whether advancing years had not taken its toll.

In the IPL, Dhoni’s batting was a revelation. He still prefers to take the innings deep before launching into attack mode, but the balance he struck between watchfulness and aggression was exemplary.

His quicksilver reflexes behind the wickets – he has easily been the outstanding wicket-keeper in the tournament – reiterate that Dhoni’s superb fitness and make him the best `all-rounder’ in the league.

What is noteworthy is how he has managed his body in the long drawn tournament. He’s suffered from viral infection, had a couple of niggles, but has nursed himself back to fitness with timely rest without compromising on team interest.

Add to this acumen, and ability to `read’ the game, and you have the best player in the IPL in my opinion. All this reveals how Dhoni has assiduously worked himself to peak form and fitness, which in turn reflects the ambition to play the World Cup on merit, not on sentiment.

In my view, Dhoni’s performances in the IPL have been the biggest boon ahead of the World Cup, even more than that of K L Rahul and Hardik Pandya, though their form has not been insignificant.

Both were under a cloud after being suspended for their misdemeanour on the Karan Johar show and there were serious misgivings how they would emerge from the infamy that followed.

Rahul and Pandya shrugged off the pressure and silenced doubting Thomases with excellent contributions to their respective teams. They had a point to prove, and did it in great style too.

Rahul, in fact, has made a strong statement that he should be considered in the playing line-up from the outset of the World Cup, particularly because Vijay Shankar could not quite provide the `three dimensional’ effect that the selectors had tom-tommed when he was picked.

One can’t be harsh on Shankar, who has shown a lot of grit in winning a place in the squad within a year of his stuttering start in international cricket. He has taken up any position assigned to him and put everything behind his performances.

However, his status as an all-rounder has taken a bit of a dip. He hasn’t had much bowling to do even in the IPL, and without any big scores in the league, has some serious catching up to do in the World Cup warm up games to be considered an automatic choice as no. 4.

The only other underperformer in the IPL from India’s World Cup squad has been Kuldeep Yadav who lost his place in the KKR playing side after a string of poor bowling performances where he was not only short on wickets, but also expensive.

A great deal is vested in Kuldeep’s left-arm wrist spin, and like Shankar, how he fares in the warm-up matches will determine whether he takes the field when the World Cup begins. The onus is on him to come good quickly.

(Twitter)

All the other players – batsmen and bowlers – have lived up to their billing even if not exactly setting the IPL on fire. Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan (particularly), Rohit Sharma (increasingly so towards the latter half) have scored a fair number of runs and with confidence.

Among bowlers, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Ravindra Jadeja and Yuzvendra Chahal have put their selection beyond debate. They’ve not flagged and have also picked up wickets consistently, which shows up the heft in the squad.

The only real worry is the question mark over Kedar Jadhav’s fitness. Apprehensions about whether the IPL workload on players chosen for India’s assignment in the World Cup seemed unfounded till the injury to Jadhav on the eve of the play-offs.

In CSK’s last league match against King’s XI, Jadhav hurt himself while fielding. At the time of writing this, it is unclear whether the injury is serious enough to scuttle his prospects of going to England on May 22. But it will keep the team management on tenterhooks.

Going by the record of the past 6-8 months and statements from captain Kohli and chief coach Ravi Shastri, Jadhav is integral to their gameplan for the World Cup.

His absence would upset the composition and balance of the playing side as envisaged now, but there is not much that Kohli and Shastri can do except keep their fingers crossed that he recovers in time.

It would be a travesty if Jadhav can’t make it. He had missed a fair number of ODIs last year through injury too, but had returned fitter and even more accomplished, with bat and ball, to earn his place in the World Cup squad.

All said, though, selection to the World Cup team can’t be based on sentiment. The task is gruelling, and will need players to be at their optimum. It’s not enough for a player to be 70 or 80 per cent fit: it’s either 100 per cent or not.

Luckily, Jadhav does not have a fracture. But he has to regain full fitness to be considered. The cut-off date for finalizing the squad is May 22. Jadhav has a race against time to make the cut.

Memon: IPL Sparkle = World Cup Ticket?

Andre Russell’s jaw dropping assault on RCB bowlers last week in the IPL prompted Brian Lara to play instant chief selector for the West Indies.

“Windies Team For World Cup @Russell12a and any other 10,” tweeted the former great after KKR’s burly all-rounder had clinched an improbable win with brutal hitting rarely seen in T20.

There is more than just gushing hyperbole in Lara’s tweet. Even if obliquely, it also highlights how teams are looking at the IPL to resolve selection issues for the World Cup which begins in less than two months.

The buzz on the circuit is as much about who will make the cut for the premier, once-in-four-years ODI tournament, as it is about which team will win the IPL. This has had players on the fringes of selection as well as coaches, captains and selectors in deep anxiety.

The last date for naming the World Cup team is April 23, just over a fortnight away. Interestingly only New Zealand, runners-up in 2015, have gone public yet with their 15-member squad for the tourney.

The Kiwis approach was always unambiguous. The World Cup team was to be picked on ODI performances – in which several players were given opportunities of course. They have decided to stick by this, irrespective of what happens in the IPL.

New Zealand are the only side to have named their World Cup squad so far. (AFP)

Indeed, whether IPL performances should even be considered for winning a place in the World Cup is contentious. T20s and ODIs are like apples and oranges, and any comparison of form between these two formats comes fraught with some peril.

Coaches, captains and selectors from all countries have said at various times that T20 performances can’t be a determinant in picking the World Cup side, yet have had to put selection in abeyance.

Virat Kohli, for instance, said before the limited overs series’ against Australia that T20 form wouldn’t count for the World Cup. This was reiterated by vice-captain Rohit Sharma last week. Ironically, India have been forced to consider IPL form more than others, but of that later.

Actually, giving some weightage to what’s happening in the IPL is not without value. This is the last major fixture in the cricket calendar before the World Cup starts, so why shouldn’t countries take maximum advantage of the time limit provided by the ICC.

Moroever, the IPL is hugely competitive. Over the past dozen years, careers have been made and unmade – in every format – and therefore the delay in announcing teams for the World Cup becomes even more understandable.

Of the frontrunners for the World Cup – which apart from New Zealand includes India, South Africa, England and Australia – the last two mentioned have already reaped some benefit.

England, currently no.1 in the rankings, in fact have a problem of plenty, and this happy situation only seems to have got accentuated with players like Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow showing sizzling form.

Jonny Bairstow is one of many Englishman lighting up the IPL. (Image: IPL/BCCI)

Ben Stokes has looked good with bat and ball though not at his devastating best, Sam Curran’s shaping up well and Moeen Ali comes across as still their best option as a spin-bowling all-rounder.

Who to leave out is England’s problem now!

Australia’s situation is perhaps even more interesting for different reasons. A few weeks back, the team was in the doldrums, 0-2 down in the ODI series against India (in India), having earlier lost the series at home too.

The turnaround since has been stunning. The Aussies won three matches on the trot to win the series against India, then more significantly, beat Pakistan 5-0 in the UAE. A side that looked hapless and wallowing in mediocrity had suddenly perked up.

Still, questions about the form of David Warner and Steve Smith, allowed to play in the IPL this year while still undergoing their year-long ban, remained. How would they fare?

As it turned out, Warner has been at his devastating best and Smith, though still seeming short of his best has importantly spent very useful time in the middle. With the top order now looking solid and classy, and not wobbly as it had for almost a year, Australia are looking like a champion side again.

South Africa, also struggling for a consistent and in-form top order, haven’t been able to exploit the IPL as they would have liked since few batsmen, apart from captain Faf du Plessis and Quinto de Kock are participating.

Which brings us to India and frankly it’s a piquant situation that the selectors, coach and captain find themselves in.

A year back, when India thumped South Africa, it appeared that the World Cup squad was already in place. After a roller-coaster ride in the past 12 months, vacancies have cropped up in the frontline batting, riled by the shallow form of the main contenders in recent weeks.

In South Africa, apart from Kohli, India’s best batsman was Ajinkya Rahane. He doesn’t feature in the scheme of things now where ODIs are concerned. But his replacement(s) haven’t been able to foster great faith either, prompting some off-beat suggestions.

RR skipper Ajinkya Rahane is no longer part of India’s ODI plans. (Image: IPL/BCCI)

Former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar plumped for Rahane’s experience and technique since the World Cup is being played in England, while another former captain Sourav Ganguly, even more radically, advocated the claims of Cheteshwar Pujara after his sterling performances in the Tests against Australia.

Pujara, of course, was handicapped that he doesn’t play in the IPL, though he had some fine performances in domestic limited overs tournaments. Rahane’s form, unfortunately has remained iffy in the IPL, and he’s virtually out of contention.

The problem for India was enhanced because those who were considered certainties for the World Cup ran into trouble: Ambati Rayudu because of his form, and K L Rahul, because of form and the controversy over his participation in Karan Johar’s talk show which restricted his appearances in ODIs.

While all talk and debate has centred around finding a no.4 batsman in the line-up, I believe the need is actually of finding one, maybe even two specialist batsmen though the team management and selectors might want an extra fast bowler as cover for injury prone Hardik Pandya.

For the sake of argument Vijay Shankar, who has shown ability to play freely and capacity to absorb pressure, can fill in the no.4 spot. The requirement then is of a batsman (or two) who can play in any spot between no.1 and 6.

There are quite a few claimants for that which vexes the situation Apart from those mentioned earlier (Rayudu, Rahul, Rahane, Pujara), add Rishabh Pant and Shubhman Gill (who’ve played in ODIs recently), plus some others on the fringe like Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw too.

If an extra fast bowler is needed, there are several prospects too like veteran Umesh Yadav, newcomers Mohamed Siraj and Khaleel Ahmed, or even someone like Navdeep Saini who has made fine impression in the IPL.

Given the number of players in the fray, which way will the selectors, captain Kohli and chief coach Ravi Shastri tilt is anybody’s guess. Players who’ve been part of the set-up in the past few months have the advantage. But I wouldn’t discount a ‘wild card’ entry either.

It’s a fluid situation and as the title of a popular stage show goes, ‘Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai!’ (Anything is possible)

Kane Williamson – A Modern Day Batting Phenom

To see Kane Williamson in full flow is not just watching sport, but a fascinating journey in aesthetics. In the course of playing a substantial innings, he uses his bat like a master artist, leaving viewers dazzled and pining for more.

Rapier thrusts, sizzling cuts, deft pushes and deflections, majestic drives, dainty glances, strong pulls and hook emerge to make a kaleidoscopic formation where the sum of the parts add up to a staggering work of beauty and precision.

Williamson’s strokes describe not just technical virtuosity but also wonderful imagination and a deep-rooted ambition to excel without which consistent high scoring would be impossible.

I had been waking up at an unearthly hour in the past fortnight or so to watch the Test series between New Zealand and Bangladesh primarily to see Williamson bat, and my appetite has been whetted further with what I saw.

An unbeaten double hundred in the first Test, in the course of which he became the fastest Kiwi to 6000 runs, was an absolute delight for the quality, ease and range of strokes. The splendor of his shots and the economy of effort made it a spectacle where even the most bleary-eyed simply had to be roused into rapt attention.

In stark contrast to the brutal hitting of Neil Wagner and Colin Grandhomme as New Zealand galloped to a 700-plus score, Williamson was sublime, scoring runs through every bit of space available on the field, leaving bowlers and fielders wringing their hands in haplessness.

There is not much a fielding side can do when batsmen, reveling on a flat track, are smiting the ball out of the park. But it is even more terrible agony when a batsman is scoring runs through nifty strokes, beating the field repeatedly with fine placement.

Unbeaten on 93 overnight, Williamson scored 107 runs off just 125 deliveries on the third day before reaching the landmark and declaring. He hadn’t hit a single six, but each of his 19 boundaries was exquisitely executed, and at a strike rate that the team needed to put up a speedy declaration.

In the second Test, despite suffering a shoulder injury while fielding, Williamson stroked his way to a splendid 74. There was no evidence of any discomfort as he tamed the bowlers with a skillful display of batsmanship that evoked admiring oohs and aahs from spectators.

The gait and general demeanour of the fielding side meant their resolve had sagged. There’s not much that can be done when a protective field is breached repeatedly with a clever twist of the wrists, or a late improvisation. Another century looked imminent until Williamson’s dismissal came against the run of play.

It may be argued that Bangladesh are among the weaker sides in the cricket world at present, especially when playing overseas. That is fact, but not germane to this article, which is not so much about the quantity of runs scored by Williamson (though that has its own relevance as explained later), rather how he makes them.

All cricket lovers and aficionados have their favourites among batsmen, and usually, this hinges on the strokes they come to fancy from them. These become strongly associated with the batsman: indeed, in some cases that stroke defines their cricketing identity.

Former South African captain Dudley Nourse (Senior) highlights this best in this evocative passage on Wally Hammond, the great English batsman, and his penchant for the cover drive in the book, The Joy Of Cricket:

“I can see him now, right foot travelling across to meet the half-volley. There was power, yet accompanied by grace. One did not immediately become conscious of the force of the shot until it hit the rails. Just as a single stroke can outlast the memory in an innings of mammoth proportions, so that one stroke, the cover drive, refused to be erased from memory.

“Grace and power had become intermingled. Timing was a new theme to me. The ability to persuade the ball on it sway adding to the impetus imparted by the bowler’s arm became a new discovery’’.

Across eras, fans have picked their favourites for distinctive, trademark strokes that expounded their batting virtuosity. These strokes helped build a stronger identity and loyalty for the batsman in their own minds.

Gundappa Vishwanath’s square-cut, the straight drive of Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman’s flicks to the onside, Zaheer Abbas’s silken square drive, Viv Richards’ explosive strokes over mid-wicket, M.S. Dhoni’s `helicopter’ shot, Virat Kohli’s off-drive played on the rise et al are examples of this.

The sheer variety of strokes possible will obviously demand different descriptive prose, but the broad sentiment expressed by Nourse remains constant. There are some things about a batsman that get embedded in the mind of the watcher forever.

Like Nourse had for Hammond, I am fascinated by Williamson’s cover drive. It is a model of perfection, right from the transfer of weight in footwork, to the wonderful arc made by his bat before it meets the ball with mellifluous timing. Of slender build, timing rather than force is the key in Williamson’s batting, and nobody in the modern game has a sweeter sense of this.

Make no mistake, batting, all said and done, is about scoring runs, particularly when they are most needed, and to be most cherished when they lead the team to victory. Good batsmanship is about technique, timing, power but also temperament, courage, resourcefulness, intelligence and heart.

Within this broad spectrum, however, there is a genre of the `touch player’ that is perhaps the most gratifying to watch. Their methods are refined rather than raw and are based in sensibilities that see contest between bat and ball as a duel of minds and technical one-upmanship rather than power and strength.

Williamson belongs to this genre. There is a balance, poise, finesse and serenity in his approach that raises batsmanship from the single-minded pursuit of making runs into an art form. In itself, irrespective of the result, his batting becomes an experience to cherish.

By now, there can be no doubt that I am an unabashed Williamson fan. Have been since I saw him make a Test century on debut, at Ahmedabad circa 2010 when he arrived on the international scene as a callow 20-year-old with pretensions of being an all-rounder.

His off-spin, however, was quickly diagnosed as having fundamental flaws. He was banned from bowling for a while till he ironed out his action. Which he did, but in the process, he lost the bite, bounce and turn which makes spin bowling effective and has since become only an occasional trundler.

Perhaps just as well. Compelled to give up on his aspirations to be a world-class all-rounder, Williamson has been able to focus on his batting, which has since blossomed into such supreme ability that he is now touted as the best Kiwi batsman ever, surpassing even the redoubtable (sadly late) Martin Crowe.

Greatness in cricket, however, is subject to consistency. A flash in the pan performance, however brilliant, does not bestow this plaudit on a player. How regularly this brilliance is repeated is the defining characteristic which separates the truly great from the impostors. There are umpteen examples of players with seemingly extraordinary ability fizzling out prematurely.

Williamson has crossed that threshold successfully in the years since his debut. He is not only New Zealand’s best batsman today, but is currently clubbed with those batsmen considered in the highest echelons viz Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Joe Root.

In fact his double century against Bangladesh brought Williamson hot on the heels of Virat Kohli as the ICC’s No.1 ranked Test batsman. After the second Test, he was placed No. 2 at 915 points, just seven behind the Indian captain, and could conceivably achieve the top spot when the major teams resume playing the five-day format after the World Cup.

Rankings do not necessarily ratify a player’s true worth, but can be a good indicator of performance over a period of time. A volatile ranking would suggest sudden crests and troughs, and such inconsistency would erode the stature of a batsman.

Williamson’s ranking, in step with his runs and centuries, has improved with a rhythm and pace to reveal a batsman from the topmost drawer who could, if he sustains his current form, notch up not just several more records, but go down as one of the best-ever not just in the current era, but in the history of cricket.

Memon: Unsavoury Squabbling Between CoA Member…

The dissonance, indeed acrimony, between Vinod Rai and Diana Edulji appears to well suit the great writer John le Carre’s satirical observation that “a committee is an animal with four back legs”.

The Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (COA), of which Rai and Edulji are remaining members, has run into its worst nightmare: it appears to have turned on itself. Apart from tarnishing their image, this has serious repercussions for Indian cricket.

Rai and Edulji have been pulling in opposite directions on the issue of selecting the coach for the women’s cricket team after star player Mithali Raj sparked a major controversy, questioning Ramesh Powar’s role and conduct during the World T20 in which she was kept out of the semi-final of the tournament.

A series of leaked mails, starting with Mithali’s long tirade against Powar followed by those from others including captain Harmanpreet Kaur, vice-captain Smriti Mandhana and BCCI acting secretary Amitabh Choudhary not only riled the situation, but has showed up fissures between Rai and Edulji too.

Rai has now decided to appoint a three-member panel including Shanta Rangaswamy, Kapil Dev and Anshuman Gaekwad to select the coach. This sparked protest from Edulji, who claimed that nobody in the COA, which now has only two members, enjoyed veto power.

Rai and Edulji were both handpicked by the Supreme Court to ensure the reforms that were meant to improve the state of Indian cricket are smoothly implemented. While Rai enjoys a hefty reputation as a former bureacrat and is senior in age, Edulji is a former India captain, and the only cricketer in the committee, as was expressly mandated by the Supreme Court.

What caused the unrest between the two was Edulji coming out openly in support of Harmanpreet Kaur and Mandhana who have pitched for retaining Powar. But this was to reveal a deeper divide for it seems that she and Rai have been in disagreement on various issues in the past.

In her statements regarding the women’s coach, Edulji raised the issue of the Indian men’s team coach selection being influenced by the captain. In mid-2017, on Virat Kohli’s insistence, Anil Kumble was removed as coach. Incidentally, she had been dead against this.

For a quick recap, Kohli fell out badly with Kumble and put up his objections to the authorities that run Indian currently, COA and BCCI. After some months of backroom maneuvering, Kohli’s wishes were acceded to, a process for selecting a new coach was hurriedly put into place and Kumble was replaced by Ravi Shastri.

A testy Edulji has argued why, if the authorities (read Rai and BCCI CEO Rahul Johri) could agree with changing the coach on Kohli’s insistence, they should now disregard what Harmanpreet says and wants?

The logic in this is undeniable, though Edulji perhaps could have handled the volatile situation with greater discretion and patience instead of jumping into the Harmanpreet-Mithali melee.

As part of the COA, it would have been prudent to hear out all sides before voicing her opinion. This could have given her more elbow room in negotiating with Rai and Johri, though even that is moot given that they clearly have not been on the same page for a long while now.

Edulji, it might be recalled, had also taken a very strong position on the allegations of sexual harassment against Johri. She wanted the BCCI CEO to demit office or be removed instantly. Rai appointed a three-member inquiry committee that ruled in Johri’s favour, but Edulji remained unconvinced.

While there is obviously the immediate impact this bickering will have on women’s cricket, what is also a concern are the ramifications this unsavoury squabbling between the COA members will have on the larger matter of Indian cricket.

A four-member panel when originally constituted almost two years back, the COA has whittled down to two. Historian Ramchandra Guha resigned barely six months after the committee came into existence, and banker Vikram Limaye not much after.

Since then, Rai and Edulji have been in charge in what’s become a roller-coaster ride to implement the Justice Lodha recommendations assigned to the COA.

The `old guard’ of the BCCI has been recalcitrant in accepting the changes, which has led to a cat-and-mouse game between various state associations and the COA over the past 18-20 months. Both sides have been beseeching the Supreme Court to intervene and resolve the issue, but the matter lingers.

The 10th status status report filed by the COA in October highlights that 17 state associations have been substantially compliant to the Lodha recommendations, 10 partially compliant, while 7 have been non-compliant.

What is significant is that almost two years of the COA being in existence, no association is yet totally compliant.

There are pros and cons to arguments on both sides, a few of which have been taken into cognizance by the apex court. But without speedy dispensation, the situation has become extremely politicised, and consequently, several controversies have been allowed to fester.

Having embarked on this exercise, it is now incumbent on the Supreme Court to resolve this deadlock as soon as possible and prevent it from becoming a total farce.

Justice Lodha, while clarifying in the media that there while there was no veto power for anybody in the COA, has chastised both Rai and Edulji for making a “spectacle of themselves.”

This is scathing criticism of the COA’s functioning. Rai and Edulji need to settle their differences, buckle down to the task that has already taken extraordinarily long.

India vs Australia | Memon: Kohli is Leading L…

Fans, critics, analysts and former cricketers alike in Australia have been obsessing about how Virat Kohli can be stymied in the Test series and that alone shows the stature the Indian captain enjoys in cricket currently.

If you had to track the countdown to the first Test, you would be led to believe it is one man against the combined might of the Australian team. Of course, creating a riveting drama is an old and established practice in the media to whip up interest in a contest, but this time it appears singularly focused.

Apart from regular scribes and commentators, former players of the heft of Ian Chappell, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist have based recent articles/broadcasts on the `Kohli Factor’ – if I may call it that – dissecting his batting style, technique, and the threat he holds out and what Australia’s bowlers need to do to get him cheaply.

Interestingly, the views of these former players on how to control Kohli are so divergent that it suggests the absence of any real weaknesses in his batting which in turn highlights the difficulty quotient for the Australian bowlers.

While such attention may appear lop-sided and even unfair to other players on either side, the hype is not entirely without basis. For one, Kohli is unarguably the game’s biggest star today. Nobody else measures up, certainly in star appeal.

This has become even more acute in the current series. The absence of Australia’s majordomos, Steve Smith and David Warner is obviously a big factor. Others competing for attention – for instance Australian and Indian bowlers who have been splendid performers in recent times – do so obliquely: in how they can restrict Kohli from running amok.

Kohli pulls in the crowds with the rawness of his passion, tempestuousness, strong competitive streak, and overt demonstrativeness, which makes him the most followed player on the field of play, by fans and critics.

However, that is only one aspect of his cricketing persona. The other has to do with his marvellous ability as a batsman. Over a period of time, the second aspect becomes the more important. The star value of Kohli would erode rapidly if his bat was not reeling out centuries and thousands of runs at a better rate and more excitingly than others.

This is what makes Kohli such a commanding presence in the sport today. The 2014-15 tour of Australia was the turning point in his career, and since then he has moved up the echelons rapidly to be universally acknowledged as the best batsman of this generation.

Where Indian cricket is concerned, his exceptional batting has put him on a pedestal enjoyed by a very few: In fact, only Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar come to mind readily. But even here, there is a point of departure, for both Gavaskar and Tendulkar had some support when playing outside Asia, while Kohli has found very little, except in the West Indies which is no longer the force it once was.

This has been shown up agonizingly in the Test matches India have Played this year. In eight overseas Tests, India lost six (winning two), despite the bowlers doing a fantastic job and Kohli himself in roaring form, making a whopping 1063 runs in 10 matches.

The numbers below highlight how India’s batsmen have fared in Tests in 2018 vis-à-vis their career record. Rishabh Pant, Prithvi Shaw and Hanuma Vihari have not been included because they’ve just started out. Those for Shikhar Dhawan have been included to show how deep the predicament has been.

This is a tell-tale of how India’s top order batsmen have slumped this year, leading to setbacks for the team. Mind you, for some batsmen, these figures also include one Test against Afghanistan and two against West Indies at home, otherwise, it would read worse.

The point I want to make is that all else being the same (Kohli being in top form and the bowlers picking up wickets as regularly as they’ve done through the year) India would still struggle to beat Australia unless other batsmen come good.

On paper and by reputation, these are high-quality batsmen. And rich on experience too. Except for Shaw and Vihari, none from the top order has played for less than 5 years at the international level. Some like Pujara and Rohit have in fact been at the First-Class level for a decade or more.

Just as much as Kohli. But while the Indian captain has zoomed ahead, building on his innate ability to excel at the highest level and showing great capacity to lift his game when the situation gets more demanding, the others have either stagnated or begun to languish.

This could be temporary loss of form (though this can’t go on endlessly), some bad luck, stage fright because of the pressure of expectation or whatever. What’s unambiguous is that it has hurt India badly this year and could mar the team’s hopes over the next few weeks too.

This then, is the crux of the series, as I see it: India’s top order must come good. This means Vijay, Rahul, Rohit, Rahane will necessarily be under the microscope. To put it more bluntly, some careers are on the line.

India vs Australia: Captain Kohli’s Best Chanc…

That Virat Kohli is likely to play a pivotal role in the impending Test series between India and Australia has naturally found consensus. Not just diehard fans, but even critics and former players – across the cricket spectrum – seem to be in agreement.

For instance, after India’s series-levelling win in the third Twenty20 International, in which Kohli made a sizzling unbeaten 61, former England captain Michael Vaughan tweeted, “You get the feeling @imVkohli is going to be the difference between the two teams over the new few weeks.”

Such verdict is not based on favouritism. Though Kohli’s fandom runs into millions – including from his own fraternity – it is his performances that have compelled adulation and admiration from even the most hardened critic.

Kohli has been in imperious form and particularly this year. In India’s eight overseas Tests in 2018, he has scored 1063 runs. He has been the pillar of India’s batting in tough and testing circumstances. Alas, the rest has largely been rubble.

India’s captain Virat Kohli celebrates after scoring a century. (AFP)

What this has meant is that despite Kohli’s genius, India have lost six of these eight Tests, which blots his record as a captain. The promise held out by several stalwarts and young guns in the side, for one reason or the other, hasn’t been actualized.

This then is the area in which Kohli’s role will be even more vital in the upcoming series. Of course, his batting form is crucial but the bigger challenge is in how he handles and inspires fellow players to give off their best.

What can he do differently this time for getting better results?

In the press conference in Mumbai on the eve of the team’s departure Down Under, Kohli reiterated that the team would play aggressively with positive intent, and not be defensive because of past results.

He also hoped his players had learnt from mistakes that cost them so many Tests this year. Both these aspects are supremely important. Intent to win is the starting point in any sport, and unless supported by hard drill, an individual or team is hardly likely to excel.

The primary desire to win has to be robust and, in the case of a long-drawn Test series, sustained over a period of time. Flagging of purpose can give the opponents the upper hand, often against the run of play.

Among the most fascinating stories I’ve read about strong intent comes from the final Test of the Bodyline series in Sydney in 1932-33.

England had by then already won the Ashes. In the course of the Australian innings, Harold Larwood, Douglas Jardine’s warhead against Bradman, injured his foot. He had scored 98 with the bat already and thought some respite might not only help him recover soon, but was also well deserved.

I’ll pick up the narrative from Frank Keating’s superb book – The Highlights: The Best of Frank Keating (edited by Matthew Engel), in which the celebrated English writer quotes Larwood verbatim from an interview he had done.

“Bradman comes in. At once my foot went and I’m collapsed in agony. Jardine picks me up and says I must finish the over. ‘I can’t, skipper, I’m finished.’ He orders me. So I do, in terrible pain.

“Can I go off now, skip?’ I say. ‘No,’ he whispers, nodding towards Bradman, ‘not until the little bastard’s gone. Let him think you can come back for another spell any time. I want you to stand at short cover point and just stare at him.

“So Hedley Verity comes on at my end and that’s where Bradman loses his head, thinking to cash in while I was ‘resting’. He dashes out at Hedley’s second ball, head up, and it bowls him. At once Mr Jardine signals me off. He’d done the trick and Bradman and I walk off beside one another and neither of us spoke a word.”

This represents one of the most dramatic moments of the Bodyline series: the man at whom the controversial strategy was aimed accompanied by the man who would execute it, watched by the man who had devised it!

Jardine’s pursuit of a dangerous tactic made him the most loathed cricketer of his time. In citing this story, I obviously don’t mean that captains should deploy unfair or life-threatening methods. But his single-minded intent in busting Bradman is truly admirable.

Intent allied with knowledge of opponent is the springboard from which focused – rather than general – preparation takes shape. Jardine had mulled and brooded over how to stop Bradman for two years to crystallise the Bodyline theory.

Of course, not every idea need take so long to fructify. In fact, given the hurly-burly of the modern game, this may be impossible. Rather, speed of finalizing a tactic and practice is of the essence today.

To borrow an example from another format, in the 1987 World Cup, India met England in the semi-final at the Wankhede Stadium. The home team was strongly favoured to win, particularly because of its spin prowess with young Maninder Singh the lynchpin of the attack.

England’s hopes rested on thwarting Maninder. To this end, the team management recruited the services of a local, club level left-arm spinner from Mumbai to bowl at the batsmen in the nets. For the entire duration of net practice, the English batsmen worked on the sweep shot.

In the semi-final, Gooch and Gatting swept aside Maninder & Co and India’s challenge with aplomb. Hours of diligent practice on the eve of the match had worked to their advantage, aided by the fact that the spinners failed to alter their line. India had fallen into their own trap!

A great deal, as already discussed, stems from preparations before a match – the rigour of net practice, fathoming pitch and conditions, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his own players and the opposition correctly.

(Getty Images)

Yet the process of captaincy in a match has to be flexible, not dogmatic. A blueprint to act on for what is likely to happen is critical, but every decision of the captain can’t depend on a set piece move.

Sport is dynamic by nature, and cricket perhaps even more so given the number of variables involved. Once play starts, circumstances keep changing, usually subtly, sometimes dramatically. The captain must be nimble in thought. He must have the ability to read trends of play and match situations astutely and react accordingly, relying on his instinct or judgement.

Sometimes, off-beat/unconventional decisions pay rich dividends. In the third Test between India and Australia in Melbourne in the 1947-48 series for instance, heavy rains left the pitch damp.

Remember, those were the days of uncovered pitches and the contest had been fairly even in the first innings of both teams. Not wanting to be caught on a drying, lethal pitch, Sir Don Bradman opened the Australian second innings with tailenders Johnson and Dooland and Johnston, another bowler, at number 3.

By the time the main batsmen arrived, the pitch had dried up sufficiently. Arthur Morris made 100, Bradman himself plundered 127 not out (his second century of the match), India were demoralised and Australia won by 233 runs.

Closer to our time, in the final Test of the 1987 series between India and Pakistan in Bangalore, Imran Khan opened the second innings with his most experienced batsman Javed Miandad (and Ramiz Raja) to stymie the spin threat from Maninder.

The left-arm spinner had taken 7/27 in the first innings, bundling out Pakistan for a paltry 116. India’s lead was narrow – only 29, but on a dustbowl, this could have been hugely problematic against spinners.

Miandad made just 17, but batted out an hour and was dismissed only after the lead had been wiped out. Pakistan made 249 runs in the second innings after that solid start and won the Test by a meagre 16 runs. Imran’s unusual gambit had paid off splendidly.

Aggressive captaincy is not only about theatrical chutzpah and overt tempestuousness. A strong gut and the capacity to take risks are vital constituents, even if muted. I would also add imagination to this list.

I particularly liked this anecdote in Mike Brearley’s masterly treatise `The Art Of Captaincy’ in which he talks about a match between his county, Middlesex, and Yorkshire, which was drifting into humdrumness. To inject some life into the proceedings, Brearley and left-arm spinner Phil Edmonds tried to infuse some life into the proceedings with a novel tactic. I’ll let Brearley describe this in his own words:

"We decided to do away with the short square leg and rather than place the helmet in the normal position behind the wicket-keeper, we had the idea of putting it on the square, at short mid-wicket.

"The idea here was that the lure of a five-run bonus for the ball hitting the helmet might tempt Jim Love or Richard Hunt to play against the spin and give a catch from the leading edge.”

As it happened, neither batsmen fell for the bait. But a new regulation that the helmet can be kept only behind the wicket-keeper came into existence. While Brearley and Edmonds may have failed in their ploy to get a breakthrough, the sport had advanced!

My all-time favourite story about how a captain can influence a match comes from the first-ever Tied Test (Australia v West Indies, Brisbane 1960-61) through just a few words of inspiration in arguably the greatest contest in the history of cricket.

Everything boiled down to the last 5-6 minutes and how Sir Frank Worrell got the best out of his fast bowler Wesley Hall in the dramatic final over forms the crux of the story.

Sir Frank’s classic line, “If you ball a no-ball Wes, you’ll never be able to land in Barbados again”, is now part of cricket lore, but there was much, much more that happened in that crucial six-ball period.

(AP Images)

I can relate that in words here, but it would be an injustice to the mood and drama of the event, which is best captured by Hall recounting this in his own words in this sound clip. It is seven minutes long, but worth the hearing I promise you: (https://soundcloud.com/bytonywilson/wes-hall-describes-final-over-tied-test-1960.)

By and large, all tactics have their success linked to the captain: when and who he decides to deploy a particular strategy, and how he goes about it. While it is a truism that a captain is only as good as his team, it is equally true that a proactive, thinking captain – through a few inspiring words and fine judgement to support intent – can bring out the best from his players and match situations to the team’s advantage.

A cricket captain is a unique entity for the power he wields. No other team sport pitchforks one player to such eminence. How such power is used is usually the key to how the team performs.

In the press conference in Mumbai, Kohli spoke candidly about how his team had actually done very well in the eight overseas matches to get into winning positions several times, only to squander the opportunity. This is Kohli’s real test in Australia on this tour: how to make the most of the chances that come his team’s way, leaving nothing to regret for later.

It can’t be left to his players alone for frankly they haven’t shown the same wherewithal as him in daunting circumstances. In the context, his leadership assumes greater significance. While Kohli’s captaincy record at home is marvellous, in overseas matches (outside Asia and the Caribbean), it remains poor, as it has been for most Indian captains. The series against Australia offers scope for redemption and making this year, which he had argued would see a turnaround in Indian cricket, come true.

India have never won a rubber Down Under. A victory would be historic, not only mitigating the disappointments of South Africa and England, but also plonk Kohli right in the forefront where Indian captains are concerned.

The next cycle of overseas Test series may just be too late.

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