Analysis of a defeat

Most Indian cricket supporters will react with horror and disgust at India’s batting collapse on the last day, but the insipid events on the final day was merely the last act of a team crumbling under pressure. But, why was the pressure on India in the final Test when they were leading 1-0 in the series?

The phrase “psychological edge” is thrown around far too often to explain victory and defeat that it has become a well worn cliché so I shall refrain from using that. But momentum is easily deciphered, and it can be a powerful force. India won the second Test in Mohali chasing a tricky target on the final day. Coming into the Third Test in Mumbai, the momentum was with India, and when England lost Steve Harmison before the match it was well and truly India’s to lose. But, instead of batting first and taking on a depleted English bowling attack Rahul Dravid chose to field. He thrust great responsibility on his three young fast bowlers, two of whom were playing only their second Test match. Their collective first day failure resulted in England finishing the day on 272 for the loss of only 3 wickets, courtesy a gritty century by the out of form opener Andrew Strauss and a brash half century from the unknown Owais Shah. All the momentum had disappeared in one day, and India were left trying to catch up for the rest of the match.

They were up against a very good England side with some of the finest bowlers of the current era in Andrew Flintoff and an incredible Matthew Hoggard, who just didn’t allow the Indian batting to get away. Although the Indian bowlers pulled it back a little on the second day, the English bowlers were even better. And on the final day, they made a mockery of the Indian batting on its home soil. 100 all out! That is going to rankle for quite a while.

Rahul Dravid’s goal is for the Indian cricket team to be the best in the world, and that can happen only if India wins Test matches abroad. Winning Test matches abroad is one of the most difficult tasks for India, and to achieve that India needs fast bowlers. In Munaf Patel and Sreesanth he has unearthed two young bowlers with ability and fire. His only failure in strategy was in not allowing for the inexperience of his young fast bowlers. It completely backfired and Dravid will be ruing his decision to insert England after winning the toss. The end result was a humiliating Test loss and a series win thrown away. That is much more difficult to swallow, than a failed one day game strategy. But, even in this dark hour of defeat one must grant that Dravid is a brave captain with an admirable courage of conviction.


India's greatest bowler

It is now obvious to most Indian cricket fans that whenever India wins a Test match, Rahul Dravid has contributed with a big score. What is often overlooked is Anil Kumble’s role in the rise of the Indian Test team. He is by far India’s greatest bowler and it will be a long time before somebody can even come close to what Anil Kumble has done for India. The match looked like it was headed for a rain curtailed draw before Anil Kumble stepped up with another tour de force.

His strength of purpose was what brought India back into the match when he cleaned up the England lower order in the first innings with the last three wickets falling at the score of 300. India’s first innings saw Harmison and Flintoff let slip the dogs of war as they pounded into the Indian batting line up with fearsome display of hostile fast bowling. Only Rahul Dravid was able to resist the attack, with Harmison in particular bowling throat balls at an incredible pace. Kumble hung in there taking body blows and building valuable partnerships with Pathan and Harbahajan that sneaked India past England’s total and to a priceless 38 run lead.

A draw? Kumble was having none of that, the champion could smell a win. He wasn’t done yet; with the ball in his hand he was a man on mission as he snaffled three top order wickets in the last session of the fourth day. England were staring down the barrel with only Flintoff and Jones remaining as last of the recognized batsmen on the fifth day. As they prepared to withstand the Kumble assault on the final morning, they forgot about the ambitious young Indian fast bowler Munaf Patel. Munaf produced a scorcher of a short ball in his first over that surprised Jones and clattered onto the stumps off his bat. He then bowled sharp reverse swinging yorkers at will to claim two more wickets. Kumble only had to get one on the fifth day, as Dhoni pulled off a lightning quick stumping down the leg side to cap off a great match behind the stumps. Rahul Dravid ensured that India had no trouble chasing 144 and he even outscored Sehwag who was extremely watchful. It was quite a sight to watch Sehwag, obviously inspired by the way Dravid values his wicket, tread cautiously against Harmison, Flintoff and Hoggard until the match was in the bag. After which, of course, he exploded against Plunkett and Collingwood to quickly go past Dravid. Sehwag’s feat can only be appreciated when it is put in the context that it was only his third second innings fifty in 44 matches. Could he be changing? Remarkable.

The score card says India beat England by 9 wickets in about 3 days of cricket. It looks like an easy win, but without the burning desire of a champion it would have never happened. This is the man who once bowled with a broken jaw, as he believed he had a job to do for his team. He is nicknamed Jumbo for his ability to get bounce, but it could well have been for his spirit. Steve Waugh once remarked that Kumble is always at you, never allowing a moment to relax; this tenacity coupled with the new variations in his bowling has made him an even better bowler in his thirties. Let us salute Anil Kumble, India’s greatest bowler.


Even Stevens

An unexpected and improbable run chase made for a thrilling finish to the first Test match between India and England in Nagpur. The spectacular assault on England’s bowling in the final session of the match, masked the fact that India were outplayed for the better part of four days by a green England side. This was a Test match where Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh claimed only 4 wickets in 136 overs; a Test match where the fast bowlers did most of the damage; a Test match where three, nearly four, maiden centuries, were scored; a Test match where India’s batting was rescued by the new generation.

Yes, it may mask a lot of things, but what an assault it was! The intent and the imagination was a revelation. The captain started the charge, the tyros continued the aggression and the batsman formerly known as the best batsman in the world made us whoop with delight with a cameo that reminded us of the destroyer that he once was. This was a stark contrast to India’s meek capitulation to Pakistan on a similar fifth day situation less than a year ago. That collapse left such a bad taste that even though the Test series was tied 1-1, it felt like a humiliating defeat for India. The captain and coach have changed, and with all due respect to Sourav Ganguly and John Wright, they were running on empty by then.

The mighty Indian batting line up continues to deceive. For the last two years the Indian batting line up has been merely Virendar Sehwag and Rahul Dravid, if either of these two fail, India struggle and if both of them fail; India lose. Not a happy picture there; that is why it was heartening to see Wasim Jaffer step into the opener’s role and bat like he belonged there. Sehwag has proved that there is no such thing as a classical opener and that it is all about scoring runs, but Sehwag is one of a kind. Jaffer has been India’s best opener in domestic cricket for the last few seasons and in Nagpur he showed that it is a deserving tag. He scored in both innings against the best pace attack in world cricket at present. He is definitely a man for the future. I was very impressed with Wasim Jaffer when I saw him play in the West Indies and have been rooting for him since then. In the Caribbean in 2002 he was extremely strong square off the wicket, but this time he was more watchful and left the majority of the balls outside the offstump. He patiently waited for the bowler to err and scored predominantly on the legside. He played the cover drive and the square drive perhaps only a couple of times in the entire Test match, he even worked Monty Panesar against the spin through mid on.

VVS Laxman’s returns have been pretty bleak over the last two years and he was unlucky to be given out LBW in the first innings when the umpire failed to spot an inside edge on the ball. If he fails in the next two Tests, there is no doubt that he will be dropped from the team. Kiran More, the Chairman of selectors, has been in a punchy mood of late, and there will be no kid gloves for Laxman. Yuvraj will be back for the Mohali Test and Laxman’s rival for the middle order slot, Mohammad Kaif, was tremendous in this Test. In the first innings when India were on the ropes, Kaif found an unlikely ally in the batting revival of Anil Kumble. Way back in the past Kumble used to get some runs for India in the lower order and even has a highest score of 86 against South Africa but his batting has fallen off and this indeed was a timely revival. Maybe Pathan’s all round skills have inspired him, whatever it was, the Kaif and Kumble partnership went a long way in saving the Test match for India.

England’s bowling and batting showed dogged determination and their fielding was outstanding. Andrew Flintoff was simply superb while fielding off his own bowling and plucked slip catches like he was picking up daisies. In contrast the Indian fielding completely unraveled on the fourth day after the most atrocious decision by a television umpire in the history of the game. Umpire Shivram declared Kevin Petersen not out after he hit a return catch to Kumble. It was just unbelievable. But, that is no excuse for the complete fielding implosion that followed. Shreesanth and Harbhajan dropped sitters and Mohd. Kaif capped a horrible display at forward short leg by running all around a skier from Pietersen before making a hash of it. It is to Jaffer and Dravid’s credit that they didn’t let the poor fourth day affect their batting on the fifth day.

It is proving to be an extremely competitive series and one waits with trepidation for the Mohali pitch. The last Test match played there was a draw with the pitch easing out and Pakistan batting comfortably on the fifth day.