Category: _author:Dileep Premachandran

Is It Time for Team India to Look at a New Poo…

Centurion: Consider these quotes from the press conference…

“The bowlers have done a pretty good job through the series and to miss out on the opportunity to win it is a little disappointing. I don’t want to overstate things, but I think it’s fair to say that our batting was disappointing in the last two Test matches.”

“We are just not getting enough consistent runs. We seem to be losing wickets in batches, which is something you try and avoid in international cricket, particularly in a Test match.”

“Looking at the tour as a whole, there are more questions than answers. There will be a few guys under a bit of pressure, there’s no doubt.”

“It’s very easy to look at things in hindsight and say what if, what if. We made the choices based on what we saw and what we had.”

These words didn’t come from Virat Kohli in January 2018. They were spoken by Greg Chappell in January 2007, after another ill-fated tour of South Africa. The similarity in the sentiments expressed, if not the tone, can be viewed in two ways. The pessimist or eternal cynic will say that nothing has changed in Indian cricket, that a team that routinely beats all-comers at home gets travel sickness once it passes emigration.

The glass-full types can look instead to what happened in the years that followed that South African tour. The same core of players went on to win Test series in England and New Zealand. They drew in South Africa, and might have done at least that much in Australia but for some truly abysmal umpiring.

As we pick through the wreckage of these two Tests, what solid planks of wood are there to cling to? There’s the bowling, for a start. Never as consistently brilliant or relentless as the South Africans, but far far better than we’d become accustomed to in the half decade since Zaheer Khan lost his mojo and Sreesanth chose outlaw over outswing.

Then, there was the Virat Kohli innings, and Hardik Pandya’s defiance in Cape Town. R Ashwin illustrating his value with both bat and ball. But that’s about it. At the press conference, before the questions/statements that irked him so, I asked Kohli about planning for the future to try and avoid such outcomes. After all, one of the strengths of the Gary Kirsten-coached side in South Africa was the manner in which young talent was carefully groomed.

Kohli and Ashwin were among those who won their first caps in that era, though they didn’t become Test regulars until after Kirsten left. In that context, I asked, was there a temptation to sit with Rahul Dravid, and assess the outstanding options at Under-19 or A team level?

“We will have to sit down and discuss those things,” said Kohli. “Look, it doesn’t feel nice that you come out and you feel good as a team and then you are not able to execute what you want to. It almost has to be a madness to be able to win away from home. And you have to live that every minute, every day of being on tour.

“I can’t speak on behalf of selectors as to what they are thinking. Obviously, the selectors will come into the conversation as well when we are looking at planning for future tours, because we have a lot of cricket away from home. This was not the only tour. We have to identify all the areas that need improvement. And accordingly act on those.”

The ‘guys under pressure’ in the Chappell era were far superior to Kohli’s support cast. If you look at matches in the SANE countries (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England), Rahul Dravid scored ten hundreds and 17 half-centuries. Only in South Africa did his average drop below 30. VVS Laxman averaged 34 in England, but over 40 everywhere else, while making 5 tons and 15 50s. As for Tendulkar, the master, there were 17 centuries and 23 scores over 50. His lowest average in those four countries was 46 in South Africa.

In 31 innings in the SANE nations, Cheteshwar Pujara averages 27.19. You take out the lone hundred, a 153 in Johannesburg on the last tour, and the numbers are dire. Every bit as bad as Rohit Sharma, who has 452 runs at 22.6. Shikhar Dhawan, dropped after Newlands, has 612 at 27.82. Between them, they have two centuries and seven 50s.

The averages for Kohli (48.73) and Ajinkya Rahane (48.59) are almost identical, though Kohli has scored eight hundreds to Rahane’s three while playing 13 more innings. As for Murali Vijay, his excellence in Australia and England has been offset by failures in New Zealand (only four innings) and South Africa. Across 32 innings, he averages 36.78. The sample size for KL Rahul, just six innings, eliminates him from the discussion.

So, there you have it. Three batsmen who can conceivably get the job done when the ride gets bumpy – one of them who hasn’t seen any action this series, thanks to a prolonged slump in home form – and three others whose continued selection is testament to the triumph of hope over logic.

Is Shreyas Iyer ready for Test cricket on speed? Can Prithvi Shaw take his stunning first-class form to the highest level? If we’re to find out the answers, it will only be once they’re thrown into the deep end. With the conveyer belt of home Tests now over, they would have to be blooded in England or Australia.

It could be the making of them, as it was for Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in the summer of 1996. Whether the selectors and team management take such left-field punts remains to be seen. What we can be almost sure of, however, is that the current bunch aren’t going to be able to turn around the grisly statistic that tells you India have lost 17 and won only one of their last 24 SANE Tests. The numbers, in this case, don’t lie.

Kohli’s Decision to Drop Bhuvneshwar and Persi…

A whole host of former Test stalwarts, Indian and otherwise, are aghast about the selection. One of India’s greatest openers wants the captain to drop himself if he doesn’t score at Centurion. Twitter trolls are out in force, as are the meme-makers. Even by the standards of Indian over-reaction to events on the cricket field, this seems extraordinary.

Two of the changes India made after Newlands were non-controversial. Picking Shikhar Dhawan in Cape Town was a triumph of hope over logic. Those that make decisions seem fixated on the 80-odd he made in Brisbane more than three years ago. But there’s been scant evidence either side of that innings that he can hack it on bouncy or seam-friendly pitches. It’s harsh in the extreme on Dhawan to be sidelined after one game, but in reality, he should never have been picked ahead of KL Rahul.

Parthiv Patel came in for Wriddhiman Saha, who is apparently nursing a hamstring strain. It’s fairly bizarre then that the board hasn’t bothered to send an update on his condition, and whether he’ll be available for the third Test at The Wanderers. But even the buzz around that enforced change – Parthiv last played against England in December 2016 – was drowned out by the Bhuvneshwar Kumar furore.

The facts are simple enough. Bhuvneshwar was India’s highest wicket-taker at Newlands, with 6 for 120. With the bat, he faced more balls (127) than anyone other than AB de Villiers, while making 38 for once out. Along with Hardik Pandya, he was the silver lining for India to take away from another chastening overseas defeat.

The conditions at Centurion were meant to aid pace and bounce, which brought Ishant sharma, with his height, into the equation. But omitting Bhuvneshwar, and not one of the others, in the name of horses for courses was to suggest that he’s a one-trick pony. That simply isn’t true.

Maybe he was three years ago, when he was slower through the air and relied primarily on new-ball swing. In the last couple of years though, he’s added much more variety to his repertoire. He’s no longer cannon fodder in unhelpful conditions, and he possesses the accuracy that his teammates don’t have on a consistent basis.

Jasprit Bumrah may yet become a Test bowler of note. For the moment though, he does little more than bring the ball into the batsmen. And the manner in which he has been handled is even more mystifying. If Bumrah was going to be part of the Test plans in South Africa, why did he last play a first-class match in January 2017? Surely a few Ranji Trophy games would have provided better preparation than a surfeit of white-ball cricket.

As for Mohammed Shami, now only the seventh Indian pacer to take 100 Test wickets, he has to be switched on from ball one. Too often, he’s listless in the opening exchanges. The team’s strike bowler needs to be better than that. Bhuvneshwar may not have run through the Proteas’ line-up on a pitch that was far more placid than Newlands, but he would undoubtedly have been on the money from ball one. India didn’t leak runs at Centurion, but with Dean Elgar scratching around, the feeling that the new ball had been wasted was inescapable.

Which brings us to the change that wasn’t made. Ajinkya Rahane, who Kohli himself says has been India’s most consistent batsman outside Asia over the past few seasons, continues to sit out, with Rohit Sharma given another opportunity to cement his place. Rohit is a bit like Yuvraj Singh was a decade ago. Teammates and coaches alike are in awe of his ball-striking ability in the white-ball formats, and prepared to tinker with the line-up in order to accommodate him.

It never worked out with Yuvraj, who averaged a touch under 34 in a stop-start career that spanned 40 Tests over nearly a decade. Before Centurion, Rohit had played 15 of his 24 Tests overseas, averaging a full 60 runs less than he does at home. There have been four half-centuries in 27 innings.

But having reposed faith in him at Newlands, India had to stick rather than twist. If he fails in this game, and he made just 10 in the first innings, it won’t be the knives that are out, but chainsaws. As for Rahane, his reputation grows with every match he doesn’t play, with the memory of his wretched form on relatively benign home pitches against modest opposition also fading. It’s almost like Kohli and the think tank have gambled everything on the No. 5, hoping that the roulette wheel does them a massive favour.

Cape Town Loss ‘Should Hurt’ Kohli & Co, But A…

Even the eventual margin of defeat at Newlands mocked India. A decade ago, when Anil Kumble’s side, 2-0 down to Ricky Ponting’s rampant Australian team, clinched victory in Perth, it was by an identical margin – 72 runs. That too was against a four-man pace attack, at a venue where touring sides rarely experienced anything other than pain and humiliation.

Make no mistake, India had a chance to make history in Cape Town, especially once their bowlers combined to deliver pretty much the perfect session. No team other than Australia has won at Newlands since South Africa were readmitted to the fold in 1991-92, and those involved in the batting debacle will carry these scars for a long time. This match will be this generation’s Barbados 1997, any mention of which still makes Sachin Tendulkar wince.

“It hurts, and it should hurt,” said Virat Kohli, who was disarmingly candid in explaining everything from the batting meltdown to the selections that had caused such a buzz on the first morning. India didn’t lose because of the personnel they chose. They fell short because key players couldn’t do what was expected of them.

Murali Vijay, whose solidity at the top underpinned a Test victory at Lord’s and so nearly helped Kohli pull off an improbable chase in Adelaide, failed both times. Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t capitalize on a start in the first innings. Both fell to poor shots at the first time of asking. Wriddhiman Saha was excellent with the gloves but did nothing with the bat. And Kohli himself was beautifully set up in the second innings after having made fluent progress to 28.

If we’re being brutally honest, the epic Test that both captains spoke of would never have been but for Hardik Pandya’s fortune-laced 93. Instead of the deficit of 150, the momentum shift he brought about gave the bowlers something to work with. And the inexperienced pace quartet – only Mohammed Shami had played a Test in South Africa before – did wonderfully well to exploit helpful conditions.

Kohli spoke of partnerships, and of losing wickets in clumps at the wrong times. Again, he was right. If you look at India’s most famous victories away from home, they have invariably been set up by those prepared to dig a trench and stay there. It was Rahul Dravid and Sanjay Bangar, the current batting coach, at Headingley in 2002. It was Dravid and Tendulkar in Perth, VVS Laxman in Durban (2010) and Sourav Ganguly and Laxman at the Wanderers in 2006.

Then, there are the partnerships that fly below the radar, the scores that don’t immediately jump out at you from the page. The Wanderers win would not have been possible without Dravid (32) and Tendulkar (44) adding 69 for the third wicket in 24.5 overs. Against Dale Steyn, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel, with Jacques Kallis providing the back-up, they kept out everything on a pitch that was playing all kinds of tricks.

By the time the two were separated, the ball was old enough for the other batsmen to take some liberties. They were beaten often enough, and edged quite a few, but both also had the nous to know which balls to leave and which ones to score off. In that sense, India definitely missed a trick with their batting order in the second innings.

It was absurd to send Saha and Pandya ahead of Ashwin. Ashwin has shown, at venues as far removed as Manchester, Sydney and Brisbane that he has the technique to match wits against quality fast bowling. If you are playing only five specialist batsmen, then it has to be Ashwin at No.6. The more deliveries he eats up, the more damage Pandya can potentially do against the older ball and tired bowlers.

The other theory that needs to be reassessed is the left-right combination at the top. That works well only if the partnership gets you runs. Neither of the two skittish innings Shikhar Dhawan played inspired any confidence. KL Rahul scored six half-centuries against Australia. Yes, they were on home turf, but almost all those runs came in challenging conditions where other batsmen struggled.

With this South African attack, the pressure is absolutely relentless. You’re not going to see off Vernon Philander or Kagiso Rabada, or Morne Morkel on his home ground in Centurion, with a couple of streaky fours. India’s best opening stands in South Africa came courtesy Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik, both right-hand batsmen.

Above all though, the team management would do well to stick to their guns. Channels have TRPs to get, newspapers need screaming headlines to catch the eye. Their perceptions are often a world removed from reality. A decade ago, after India had scraped a draw at Lord’s in the first Test of the series in England, an Indian journalist wrote a piece that said it was time to take a wrecking ball to the famed middle order.

Fortunately, no one of any consequence was listening. India won the next Test at Trent Bridge. The architects of the victory? Zaheer Khan and that same middle order. I know the idiot who wrote that story. I still see him in the mirror every morning.

Pandya’s Cape Town Performance Shows He Belong…

The penny dropped for Hardik Pandya when the India A team went to Australia in August 2016. He took with him two large suitcases full of attitude, and only a small laundry bag of performances. The tattoos were there, as was the swagger and the big Indian Premier League (IPL) pay cheque. There had been 15 minutes of fame too – an eye-catching IPL innings and the nail-biting final over in the World Twenty20 against Bangladesh. What there wasn’t was a semblance of consistency.

In their opening 50-over match at the Tony Ireland Stadium in Townsville, Chris Tremain and Daniel Worrell skittled India A for 55. Pandya’s contribution was 1. In four other innings, as India A stormed back to win the Quadrangular A-Team Series, he managed 46 runs for twice out. There were five wickets in the five matches that cost him 42 apiece. Those weren’t exactly Kapil Dev numbers. More than the next great all-rounder, Pandya seemed destined to be the next Big Time Charlie.

In the first unofficial Test against Australia A, Pandya made 0 and 7, as India A lost by three wickets. It was a good time for Rahul Dravid, the coach, to step in. We aren’t privy to what exactly was said, but the gist of the message was to focus on substance rather than frills. Dravid has a reputation as a mild-mannered man, but I’ve seen him bawling out Zaheer Khan for perceived lack of effort. It perhaps wasn’t a coincidence that Zaheer turned his stalling career around soon after.

To give Pandya credit, he took on board what his coach told him. When he was selected for the Test squad against England in late 2016, a couple of months after making his ODI debut, he told the DNA newspaper: “I can’t but thank Rahul Dravid enough for his contribution. I understood that there is a mental aspect about the game that needs to be worked upon. He (Dravid) made me mentally stronger.

“I don’t think I have learnt more than what I did during those one and a half months under Rahul sir. He would tell me about things that I need to try out. I was mentally strong but after interacting with him, I understood that I could get even better.”

He didn’t play against England, and there were plenty of derisive noises when he was given his cap against Sri Lanka in Galle in July 2017. But Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri were resolute in their judgment, with the captain going so far as to make Ben Stokes comparisons. Pandya repaid that faith with a belligerent half-century on debut, and a stunning century in his third game in Pallekele. In the second Test, it was his cutter, a ball he had barely mastered before that, that broke a stubborn partnership and opened the door to victory.

But this was not the Sri Lanka of Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and those performances were viewed with an asterisk over them. When Pandya was subsequently rested for the home Tests, the sarcasm meter went through the roof. With his bling, flamboyant hair and cool-kid demeanour, Pandya epitomizes a new generation that rubs many traditionalists the wrong way. He’ll get his comeuppance in South Africa, they said.

The team management never had any doubts about playing him. Kohli and Shastri don’t go by numbers or technique. Both know that if India are to salvage anything from tours of South Africa, England and Australia, they need warriors on the field, men who will absorb hard blows without buckling at the knees. They want those that will thrive on adversity.

When Pandya came to the crease at Newlands, India were 76 for 5, 210 behind, with Cheteshwar Pujara having fallen first ball after lunch. By the time tea was taken, he had romped to 81 not out. There were two reprieves – a dropped catch from Dean Elgar at gully when he was on 15, and Quinton de Kock’s missed stumping off Keshav Maharaj when on 71.

Either side of those, Pandya wielded his bat like a scimitar. The classical drives went hand-in-hand with improvised bunts over the keeper and slips, and he took on the short balls in conventional fashion too. More importantly, he trusted Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who has shown several glimpses of batting ability in the past, to keep up his end.

At that tea interval, I went down to the Supersport commentary box to chat to Michael Holding. “Did anyone ever take on the four of you like that?” I asked. Holding grinned. “A few guys tried to come out swinging,” he said. “But none of them lasted very long.”

The very fact that he didn’t rubbish the question tells you of the esteem in which this South Africa pace attack is held. In swing-and-seam-friendly conditions, only James Anderson can match Vernon Philander. Morne Morkel, on his good days, can be as discomfiting as Patrick Patterson was back in the day. Kagiso Rabada’s silent menace summons up memories of Holding himself, while Dale Steyn, now sadly lost to this series, is the most complete pace bowler we’ve seen since Wasim Akram.

There simply isn’t a weak link there. But Pandya, with a playlist full of songs he doesn’t know the lyrics to – if you go by what his captain says – took them on, and on his terms. He wasn’t interested in survival. He wanted to leave his imprint on the match and series.

Top-level sport is all about wafer-thin margins. Had Pandya been snaffled for 15, you can imagine what a field day the cynics would have had. That he backed up those runs by coming out and taking two wickets only rendered them muter still. But this is just a phase. He’s so out there as a character that there will always be those waiting for him to fail, so that they can put the boot in. It’s been that way with his captain for a decade.

Neither fits a certain template of how cricketers are supposed to behave. Just as with the good-girl notions, these are ideals that no one can really live up to. Some try. Kohli never bothered. Neither will Pandya. And we should celebrate them both for that alone.

Why the India vs South Africa Rivalry is Impor…

This will be the fourth South Africa-India series to overlap with the Ashes in a little over a decade. Hopefully, it will be once again be a whole lot more engrossing than the non-contests for the urn. You have to go back nearly two decades, to 1998-99, for the last Ashes series in Australia that kept viewers interested till the very last. Then too, Australia were by far the more accomplished side, but the spell of a lifetime from Dean Headley gave England victory in Melbourne and sent them to Sydney 2-1 down in the series.

So many of the subsequent series have been grisly mismatches, about as much fun to watch as footage of Muhammad Ali reducing Brian London’s face to golf-ball-sized lumps. Australia won 4-1 in 2002-03, and completed 5-0 sweeps in 2006-07 and 2013-14. In 2010-11, Andrew Strauss’s England were so much better than in-transition Australia that they won three Tests by an innings.

In sharp contrast, South Africa and India have served up some titanic contests. In 2006-07, when Sourav Ganguly was drafted in to the Test squad after the ODI series debacle – the handshake with Greg Chappell when he arrived ahead of the warm-up match in Potchefstroom was one of the southern summer’s more awkward moments – India defied doomsday predictions by winning the first Test at The Wanderers.

A beaming Mickey Arthur had asked for pace and bounce in the Highveld. And on a surface where the ball darted around appreciably, it was Sreesanth, bowling over after over with the seam bolt upright, and Zaheer Khan that shone brightest, skittling South Africa for 84 in the first innings to pave the path for a 123-run win.

South Africa leveled in Durban, but on a dry, Asian surface at Newlands, India had one hand on the series trophy midway through the second day. Ganguly, who finished as India’s top scorer in the series, was stroking the ball with élan, and Virender Sehwag, moved down to No.7, had clattered 40 from just 49 balls to take India to 395 for 5.

But a miscued hoick off Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner making his debut, changed everything. Before your cup of tea had gone cold, India were all out for 414 – a good total, but not enough to shut South Africa out of the contest. Graeme Smith’s 94, a triumph of will over technical flaws, got them to within 41, and India then slipped for the second time.

Harris didn’t do much other than target the leg-stump rough. But as Ravi Shastri, now India’s coach, said so memorably on commentary, India made him look like Lord Harris. What made it more galling was the identity of the protagonists. Sachin Tendulkar played two of his greatest Test innings at Newlands – the 169 in 1996-97 and the 146 against Dale Steyn in full cry 14 years later – while Rahul Dravid had enjoyed half a decade of prolific run-scoring all over the world.

But against Harris, and with the game up for grabs, they treaded water, playing barely a shot in anger. India made 24 in the 15.1 overs that they batted together and the momentum lost would never be regained. Worse still, on a wearing pitch, India had no second spinner, with Harbhajan Singh having been left out to accommodate the reverse-swing threat of Munaf Patel.

But Munaf wasn’t fit, and he pulled up after just one over in the second innings as Zaheer, Sreesanth and Anil Kumble toiled in vain to keep South Africa at bay. Four years later, the teams once again arrived in Cape Town all square. South Africa had won by an innings in Centurion, with Jacques Kallis scoring his first double-hundred. Tendulkar and MS Dhoni batted magnificently to almost save the game, and India took some self-belief to Durban, where they gave their hosts a massive Boxing Day headache.

In seam-friendly conditions, it was again India’s pacers that hit the right lengths, with Harbhajan providing admirable support. But the key to India’s victory was VVS Laxman, whose second-innings 96 was one of the greatest innings of the modern era. That no one else crossed 40 should give you a hint as to how well he batted on a pitch where you were never really in.

The emblematic image of that Indian triumph was the brutal delivery that Sreesanth summoned up to dismiss Kallis. Only a batsman as accomplished could have got a glove to it as it reared up at his face off a length. But Kallis would have the final word, stalling India’s push for victory at Newlands with twin hundreds.

His first innings 161 was a classic, matched only by Tendulkar’s epic joust with Steyn on day three. Then, nursing badly bruised ribs after wearing one on the body, Kallis struck 109 to lead South Africa out of the mire. At 130 for 6 in the second innings, a lead of only 128, India had the scent of victory in their nostrils. But with Mark Boucher batting for his future, and Kallis carrying on despite every shot being followed by a wince, India’s bowlers eventually ran out of puff.

On their last visit, soon after Tendulkar’s retirement, two batting collapses in Durban cost India the series. To be fair, even the draw at The Wanderers, after South Africa had been set an improbable 458 to win, had felt like a loss after India bossed proceedings for the best part of four days.

Faf du Plessis, the current captain, led that final-day resistance, and he was in no doubt as to the intensity of the contest we can expect over the next month. “Big series are why you play,” he said on the eve of the series. “We don’t have an Ashes, so it’s good to see that India versus South Africa can start becoming a really big series. There are some really high-class players that are going to bash it out over the next four weeks.”

There certainly are. And after yet another damp squib of an Ashes, Test cricket badly needs some big boys to come out and play.

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