Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Indian Cricket From Across the Border

Guest Post by Kamran Wasti

In a watershed moment in Indian cricket history, Saurav Ganguly led his team out to play England at Leeds. Already 1-0, Ganguly faced the prospect of leading a potentially dysfunctional team playing England on a green wicket under the traditional cloudy Headingley skies. Other than having more fast bowlers, the temptation to include the opener Shiv Sunder Das, who had just hit 250 in a side game, was also there. He did not play and has not played since. Instead, the limited but gutsy Sanjay Bangar was included as a makeshift opener as Ganguly played two spinners, won the toss and batted. The rest is history – Bangar rose above his abilities to join Rahul Dravid who played possibly the greatest innings of his career as they defied England bowlers and made things easier for Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly himself to rack up aggressive hundreds before Anil Kumble spun England out for a landmark Indian victory.

As a university student living in a hostel, Ganguly’s decision to bat first reminded me of Mark Taylor’s call in the 1997 Manchester Test. Taylor reportedly had wanted Shane Warne to bowl last in conditions which seemingly looked ideal for fast-bowling. Like Taylor, Ganguly knew what his strengths were – he put the onus on his batsmen to survive the testing conditions and the spinners, his best bowlers, to do well on a track completely different from the raging turners at home. They delivered.

Ganguly’s era followed by the Rahul Dravid’s and to some extend even Anil Kumble’s was a rare phase in Indian cricket where the team backed its strengths rather than camouflage its weaknesses. As a result, India’s achievements were greater than the sum total of the ability of its players. Other captains, including Mahendra Singh Dhoni, exemplified Samir Chopra highlighted in his very well-written article, India never cultivated aggression, even when they were No. 1.

I remember reading a Kapil Dev interview from 1985 after a farcical tournament at Sharjah where no team Pakistan failed to chase 125 after Imran Khan had taken 6 for 14 against India and England were led by 45-year-old debutant Norman Gifford. India had earlier won the World Championship of Cricket in Australia where Sunil Gavaskar had handled his limited bowling resources brilliantly, as aspect of India’s success surprisingly lost on most critics. In short, India, were having a high in one-day cricket. Kapil Dev, in that interview, announced that his focus area was one-day cricket and that he ‘would like to see who placed the West Indies ahead of India now’. There was one slight irony though in both these tournaments: India had won every single match they had played but had yet to face the West Indies even once. When they finally did, in the three nation Rothman’s Cup in Sharjah later that year, West Indians walked away with an easy win as they did a year later and indeed after the 1987 World Cup, where they won 7-1 in an ODI series. All through this phase, the West Indies were not the ‘official’ World Champions. India, while they were,
never won a single match against them. The point was as lost on Kapil Dev as it is on the Indian team today: It is Test Match cricket that matters.

Consider further examples: Pakistan won the 1992 World Cup. They had a good test team but were not the ideal one-day side. They had a wretched run in one-dayers in the lead-up to their most important test assignment, the 1993 tour to the West Indies. The selectors knee-jerked and replaced Javed Miandad by Wasim Akram, dropped experienced batsmen like Shoaib Muhammad and Salim Malik and packed their side with a host of rookie fast-bowlers. What they had missed out on was that Pakistan had continued to do well in test matches. Predictably, they were blown away by a rampant West Indian side in the tests. Wasim Akram celebrated his return to captaincy with a similarly preposterous take when he took the 1995 tour to Australia as preparation for the World Cup defense as unsurprisingly, Pakistan suffered humiliating defeats. India learnt this lesson the hard way in 1983 when the West Indians routed them at home and are learning the hard way now having exposed completely in England last year and now in Australia. Where has it all gone wrong?

India failed to back its traditional strength which is spin bowling. Regardless of how good Zaheer Khan may be in the eyes of his fans, his prime has seen him take wickets at around 27 or 28 runs per wicket – much better by his standards but hardly world class. Across the border, Waqar Younis averaged 5 wickets per test at 22 till the end of 1998 and even a wretched last 32 tests meant that his final cumulative career average was 23. Wasim Akram, for 7 years, between 1990 and 1997 was the top bowler in the world again averaging 5 wickets per test at 20 and Imran at his peak did the same at 17. On the contrary, India’s most consistent bowler during their prime years was not a fast bowler but the venerable Anil Kumble. During some of India’s greatest moments, like the series wins in Pakistan and the West Indies, it was Kumble who won them matches. The Leeds test, played on a green wicket, was again an Anil Kumble masterclass and even on the 2003 tour to Australia, it was he who took the wickets. Admittedly, they don’t have a replacement for him and you very rarely get an Ambrose for a Garner within a year but didn’t India realize where their strength is? India’s other humiliating tour to Australia was in 1991 – a year earlier they played Anil Kumble on the soft, slow English wickets but did not take him to Australia at a time when Australia had not played quality leg-spin at test level for a long time. This time they played their leg-spinner in England but did not realize that he would be more useful, in fact critical on the bouncy Australian wickets. To cap it up, they failed to realize that R. Ashwin, their spinner, with his 3-test career had done little wrong but critically lacked the controlling support of Pragyan Ojha at the other end where invariably, Ishant Sharma would be playing the benign pie-thrower in Australia. This would never have happened during Ganguly’s times.

In this regard, Ian Chappell has an interesting story - he was being forced to play Terry Jenner and he wanted Ashley Mallet for the Perth test; the next tests were at Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne and he knew that Terry Jenner (I think he was talking about the 1974-5 Ashes) would be able to get a few wickets at Perth and then it would become difficult to justify not playing him on wickets where he expected Mallet, then the best spinner in Australia, to play a crucial role. He had his way and Mallet took a bagful of wickets (considering that it was the signature Lillee-Thomson series). This can never happen with this management. It may not happen with Duncan Fletcher either; remember how he used Ashley Giles and how he kept Monty Panesar out. Panesar had bowl really well against Pakistan in 2006 and yet when they landed in Australia, Fletcher played Giles who had not played for over a year. When Panesar finally played, ironically at Perth :), he immediately got wickets. The best bowlers should always play; Derek Underwood would be deadly when the pitched helped him. When it didn't, he offered great control. And the West Indies used Joel Garner as a stock bowler till 1984. When Roberts retired and Holding became first change, Garner terrorized batsmen all over the world.

A more poignant pointer would be the 1977 Perth Test when Bishen Bedi played three spinners at Perth in a narrow defeat and himself took the only 10-for of his career. The West Indians did not resort to spin in 1983, 1987 or 1994. Nothing exemplifies the importance of this principle that the last test in 1994 when, with a second-string team and no Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh hurried India to defeat through pace on a slow wicket. The lure of fast, bouncy wickets is well-known but India is not a fast-bowling nation – three of India’s best fast bowlers have ordinary records and Zaheer Khan is the worst of the lot, with Kapil Dev, the best of them averaging only fractionally below 30.

When you back your strengths, it automatically means your best bowlers play. If conditions suit, then India’s fast bowlers will always do better; India won the Leeds test in England in 1986 not through some great fast-bowlers: Kapil Dev averaged 40 in England. The match was won by Madan Lal and Roger Binny. They were not great bowlers but were certainly the best available and they delivered when it mattered. Additionally, England fell to Maninder Singh and Ravi Shastri in the second innings. Would one have expected MS Dhoni to make such a move when he didn’t play two spinners even at Adelaide where Nathan Lyon was able to take crucial second innings wickets? I do not think so. But ask Misbah ul Haq if he would play at Perth with just Saeed Ajmal and he won’t.

As far as India’s standard attack is concerned, Zaheer Khan obviously makes the cut till he is fit but I have my doubts about Ishant Sharma. After half a decade, his achievement is 20-odd wickets against a very poor West Indies and a few good spells here and there, including the Ricky Ponting one delivered 4 years ago. After the emergence of Umesh Yadav, Sharma sole contribution perhaps was to keep either a revitalized Irfan Pathan or a second spinner out of the team. Sanjay Manjrekar was clinically honest in his appraisal– Sharma just isn’t good enough. With Yadav around, he is not their second pick. In my book, with the way I saw Irfan Pathan bowl recently, he isn't even the third best and with one spinner around, he should not be in the team anyway.

Ian Chappell and Imran Khan recently criticized India’s obsession with Tendulkar’s hundreds. The same was valid for this number one position as well. The moment India went number one, the team started getting rave reviews with the die-hard fans drawing similitude with Australia’s recent run. Nothing could have been far from reality. As far as I can recall, I have not seen an Indian team win by a two test margin in an overseas series even once (save for wins against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh) since Kapil Dev’s team won in England in 1986. India’s major achievements included 2008 and 2010 wins over Australia: These were pretty misleading too; particularly if you consider the 2010 series, Australians were fielding a side that had been bowled out for 88 and then defeated by a very poor Pakistani team. Compared to the 2004 series that they won in India, not a single player remained save for Ponting and Clarke. The same team was blanked by England. Were Indians really honest about what they were 'achieving'?

Indians beat South Africa in a test but that they had done even during their Greg Chappell days, which are unanimously termed the worst in recent Indian history. Honest supporters would have realized that South Africans were always bound to lose at least one test in an embarrassing manner - they just do it. What was more critical was the way Indians failed to win the third. I was sitting with my friend in Lahore and wondering how can they claim to be number 1 with such an approach? Predictably, an opportunity to win the series was lost. Similarly, the series against the West Indies reminded me of Zaheer Abbas's captaincy when he would draw tests that were easier to win.

Samir Chopra's take on India’s lack of aggression (cited above) is something I have known since I was a child.

Almost all Ranji Trophy finals are decided on the first innings lead. I wonder why? The Pakistani Cricketer used to have a Facts & Figures Quarterly in the mid-80s. My first flavour of Ranji Trophy was through that and I followed the 1986-87 version; I think Arshad Ayub (the off-spinner) hit 174 and it was a high scoring draw with 400 runs being made in the three completed innings. The trend has continued pretty consistently. Even this year, I think one of the teams took some 300-run lead and yet batted on.

For India’s sake, I wish that Tendulkar gets his hundred and not one but two in the triangular. Why two? Because the first one would take him to his 100th and immediately the fans would want the 50th one-day ton too! This is the level of obsession that they have with figures. Even after India’s 4-0 disaster, CricketNext experts were discussing why it was good that Tendulkar did not get his 100th and why it should come in an Indian win. So let us hope he gets those two and then India can look forward to the future.

When England tour India next, don’t expect them to be a cakewalk. They will be wounded lions for this team is willing to learn. For the first time, they have taken a subcontinental defeat seriously and they did manage to win a test under Flintoff – they might just do that again. I just hope Indians are not playing a batting line-up with two 40-year-olds. A younger batting line-up would mean closer encounters but would be a long-term investment. We might get to see Rohit Sharma debut as well!

One good thing that happened for Pakistan after the 2010 England tour was the decision to drop Muhammad Yousuf for good. His best years had come half-a-decade earlier and at 37 his peak years were history. By doing so Pakistan gave an extended run to Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali who played crucial back-to-the-wall knocks in the recent series against England. Indians should do the same with Tendulkar (after he gets those hundreds – because otherwise you’ll have riots), Dravid and Laxman and, even more importantly, Harbhajjan Singh who is in terminal decline. At 31-32 you expect a spinner to peak but he has surprisingly, consistently grown more defensive and flatter. Unlike Pakistani off-spinners, his normal trajectory was never a flat one but he has continuously followed that route. As a neutral (if you believe me), I saw him bowl what were termed 'magical' 4-over spells in the 2007 T20 World Championship - sickeningly, he was bowling flat yorkers outside leg-stump to prevent batsmen from hitting out. That, in short, sums up his state. He has occasionally produced decent spells, like Ishant Sharma, but that's about it - a regression analysis would show that he in decline and unlikely to rejuvenate. Indians must look towards new spinners and I think dumping Mishra or Chawla was a bad call. Ojha is another good bowler and Ashwin isn't bad either. So basically they have four spinners who can become really good bowlers. They won’t be the Bedi-Venkat-Chadra-Prasanna quartet but they form very good bench strength and a hundred times better than some of the ‘supreme’ fast-bowling talent.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,