Friday, December 29, 2017

Which has been India's best pace-bowling contingent?

India go into their upcoming series against South Africa with four seamers who have had a fair amount of success in Test cricket. Even their fifth option, Jasprit Bumrah, who has not played a Test, is already an established name in the shorter formats. This gives them a depth in fast bowling that few India squads have had. Shami, Umesh, Ishant and Bhuvneshwar were all part of the setup when India went on four tours in 2014, but they were only sporadically successful. Each has developed since then. The one question facing this attack is whether there is a clear leader of the pack.

Javagal Srinath spent most of his career waiting for a support cast to back up his fiery pace. Towards the end of it, he went to South Africa with his old partner Venkatesh Prasad and three young quicks who had all shown they could zip it around in ODIs. Ajit Agarkar had broken Dennis Lillee's record to become the fastest to 50 wickets in ODIs, while Zaheer had put the world on notice with his yorker to bowl Steve Waugh in the 2000 Champions Trophy. Unfortunately, none of the young quicks stepped up, and Srinath was again left waging a lone battle.

India had three dangerous quicks going into their 2010-11 series in South Africa, which was billed as the battle for the No.1 ICC ranking. Zaheer Khan had established himself as one of the best in the world, Ishant Sharma was in one of the best phases of his career, and Sreesanth had been impactful on tours. The downside was that beyond that, there were two newbies. So, when Zaheer was out injured for the first Test, Jaidev Unadkat had to make his international debut and looked insipid against South Africa's batting. With Zaheer back, India managed to win the second Test and level the series.

India went Down Under in 2003-04 with three talented left-armers. Two, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, had already generated excitement with consistent performances in ODIs - they had taken India to a World Cup final in South Africa - and flashes of brilliance in Tests. The third, Irfan Pathan, was untested but already being touted for big things. Ajit Agarkar provided the experience, having travelled to Australia before, while L Balaji was an unknown quantity. It was Agarkar who shone in the end, bowling India to a victory in Adelaide.

This attack will be remembered for delivering India a first series win in England for two decades, but on paper, it looked quite inexperienced. Zaheer Khan's career had, until then, been patchy, with injuries and dips in form keeping him from being a fixture in the Test side. Sreesanth had impressed in South Africa, but was just eight Tests old; RP Singh had never played a Test outside Asia; and Ranadeb Bose had not played any international cricket - he never did, as it turned out. What the attack did have, though, was pace and raw potential.

Monday, December 18, 2017

TN coach admits to being aware of Vijay injury

Tamil Nadu coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar has admitted to being aware of M Vijay's injury that kept him out of the Vijay Hazare Trophy fixture against Mumbai in Chennai on Thursday. The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) had subsequently left Vijay out of the squad for the remaining games after he had "failed to report" to the ground citing "shoulder pain".

The TNCA had also stated in a press release that the state body, selection committee and the team physio were unaware of Vijay's injury.

Kanitkar, however, acknowledged the possibility of a "communication gap", and said Vijay had informed him of his unavailability on the morning of the match. He also said the team wasn't caught unawares. "Vijay had told me on the morning of the match that he wouldn't be able to play," reports quoted Kanitkar as saying at the end of the Tamil Nadu-Madhya Pradesh match on Friday. "I think there was some communication gap with the association. I knew about it before coming to the ground. I also already knew who to replace him with. It wasn't a surprise because we were prepared for it.

"Even during the Ranji Trophy match against Tripura earlier this season, he opted out on the morning of the match with a neck sprain. But on that occasion he came to the ground to get it treated. I know Vijay has always played with commitment for the state."

A top TNCA official, however, confirmed to ESPNcricinfo that the association's decision to replace Vijay with young batsman Pradosh Ranjan Paul remained unchanged and that "the matter was closed." The TNCA official had said on Friday that Vijay had informed the Tamil Nadu coach at about 7.30am on the day of the match. The TNCA was upset by Vijay's last-minute withdrawal and had generally been unhappy with his "attitude" over a period of time.

Although the TNCA official had confirmed there wasn't any disciplinary action initiated against Vijay, he said that going forward national players wouldn't be allowed to pick and choose matches once they had confirmed their availability for a tournament. He further said the issue was likely to come up for discussion at an executive committee meeting of the TNCA.

Meanwhile, an injury-ridden Tamil Nadu side suffered another blow with captain Vijay Shankar ruled out of the Andhra game on Sunday. Offspinner Malolan Rangarajan has been added to the squad, which will now be captained by B Aparajith. Lead spinner R Ashwin, who picked up seven wickets from four games, is also set to miss the game. The official clarified Ashwin had sought permission of the TNCA in advance, and the association, in consultation with the selectors, granted his request.

Monday, December 11, 2017

England's over-reaction fuels the booze-cruise narrative

If there was one moment that summed up the hysteria currently surrounding the England squad, it came at the end of the warm-up game in Richardson Park when Moeen Ali was asked if "you and your team-mates will be able to stay away from pubs between now and Thursday".

You would think most reporters sent to cover such a game might know by now that Moeen is a practising Muslim and therefore appreciate that such a question might be considered pretty crass. As Moeen responded dryly: "I'm not much of a pub guy, to be honest."

But the moment did serve to highlight how the image of the England squad has long since separated from reality.

The reality of this England squad, containing as it does, such clean-cut young men as Alastair Cook, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood (another teetotaller) and Moeen (to name but four of many), is that they arrived in Australia with a single-minded determination to retain the Ashes. You're more likely to see them early in the morning running in the park than drinking in a bar late at night.

The image, however, is of a group of lads on a stag night for whom sessions in the field are a necessary evil in between sessions in the bar.

It's unfair and it's inaccurate. But it's the perception now. And once perceptions are set, they are harder to shift than red wine stains on cricket whites.

It's an image reinforced every time an England player behaves like a fool. Few people can seriously believe Jonny Bairstow or Ben Duckett committed serious indiscretions but, at a time of heightened sensitivity, their actions have provided ammunition for those who want to sustain the narrative that talks of a squad out of control or a team in an alcohol-fuelled crisis.

And it's an image reinforced every time anyone from either set-up is interviewed. The England management, knowing they can't be seen to minimise incidents that, deep down, most of them feel are trivial, inadvertently fan the flames when they talk of "unacceptable" behaviour or impose fines upon players for actions that, if they are honest, they saw every week of their own touring lives. Moeen, with the best of intentions, did the same on Sunday.

Duckett may well need to recalibrate his work-life balance but he is nothing worse than a good-natured halfwit who has been scapegoated by the ECB to show they mean business. A thousand former players - and at least one in the current team - are thinking 'There but for the grace of God...' A more senior, more valuable, player might well have been treated more leniently.

The Australia management, meanwhile, need only sigh and look serious. Darren Lehmann, the Australia coach, played it magnificently over the weekend when, with the gravitas of a weapons inspector, he suggested the Duckett affair was "not funny", thereby passively giving credence to the theory that there is a serious problem at the heart of the England set-up.

Monday, December 4, 2017

England provide a glimmer of what might have been

Like the bit at the end of a gameshow where they wheel out a speedboat and say "Look what you could have won," England's cricket in the latter stages of the third day served only to show what might have been in this game.

To see England's eighth-wicket pair post the highest stand of the innings or see James Anderson and co pitching the new ball up and troubling batsmen, was to see how they should have played when the match was there to be shaped. Alanis Morissette would (wrongly) have called it ironic; England supporters might simply call it really bloody irritating. Even James Anderson admitted "there are some very frustrated players in that dressing room."

But maybe they're encouraged, too. For if we learned anything on the third day of this Test it was that England can compete. They are not up against the West Indies of the late 1970s or the Australia of the start of this century. They just have to play better.

That is not to demean Australia. In Steve Smith they have a batsman who may well be remembered as a great, while in David Warner and Nathan Lyon they have two other top-class cricketers. That seam attack deserves plenty of respect, too.

But if England are honest, they will reflect on their cricket in the first half of this game and admit they were not blown away as much as they let themselves down. Their bowling with the first new ball of the match and most of their batting was well below the required standard. As a consequence, they have allowed Australia a head-start that will surely prove decisive. To win after conceding a first-innings deficit of 215 - or win the series after going two down - would be close to miraculous.

Consider the dismissals of England's batsmen in their first innings here. Consider James Vince fencing at one he should, at that stage of his innings, have left 11 times out of 10. Consider Joe Root, drawn into a lavish drive and edging to the cordon, or Alastair Cook guiding one to slip off the face of his bat as if providing catching practice. These were soft, loose dismissals. And if three of the top four sell their wickets so cheaply, it is going to prove desperately tough to set a competitive total. "We didn't feel like we batted particularly well," Anderson said with feeling afterwards. "We should have got more runs."

Monday, November 20, 2017

Kohli joint-fastest to 50 international tons

50 - Number of international hundreds for Virat Kohli. He became the eighth batsman overall and second Indian, after Sachin Tendulkar, to get there. Kohli got there in his 348th innings, in Kolkata on Monday, the joint-quickest along with Hashim Amla, who got there in February 2017.

2 - Number of third-innings centuries for Kohli in Tests. Both have come in successive third innings outings against Sri Lanka. The first was an unbeaten 103 in Galle earlier this year. Before these two knocks, Kohli averaged 27.12 in the third innings across 25 knocks, with four half-centuries. The last India captain to score a third-innings century before Kohli was Tendulkar, who did so against New Zealand in Mohali in 1999. The previous India player to score a third-innings century at Eden Gardens was Rahul Dravid, against Pakistan in 2005.

83 - Kohli's run tally across six Test innings at Eden Gardens before this century. He was out for single digits in four of those innings. In ODIs, he has a century and three fifties in six innings here.

119 - Balls taken by Kohli to score this century - his fastest of the 18 Test hundreds. The previous quickest was off 129 balls against New Zealand in Wellington in 2013-14. Kohli scored 68.87% of batsmen runs since he arrived to the crease - 104 out of 151 - at a strike rate of 87.39. While the other batsmen contributed 47 runs at strike rate of 31.92.

9 - Number of hundreds for Kohli across formats this year - three in Tests and six in ODIs - the most by him in any calendar year. He made eight hundreds, his previous best, in 2012 and 2014.

0 - No captain has made more international hundreds in a year than Kohli's nine this year. Ricky Ponting (2005 and 2006) and Graeme Smith (2006) also made nine hundreds. Kohli still has six internationals left this year to set a new record.

1 - Kohli is the first India captain to score a duck and a century in the same Test. He's the 18th captain overall to do so. Last India player to do so was Cheteshwar Pujara, also against Sri Lanka, in Colombo (SSC) in 2015. The last instance of an Indian doing this at home was Dravid, against England in Mohali in 2008.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lehmanns can make it work - Alec Stewart

Over the coming days, when Australia's selection panel sits down to finalise the squad for their opening Ashes encounter in Brisbane, at some point during the conversation, Darren Lehmann will have to excuse himself from the room. If the name of his son, Jake Lehmann, comes up - and it almost certainly will, even as an outside choice - then senior Lehmann will leave the other selectors to deliberate without him.

While this process will be the result of a formal Cricket Australia Board directive to avoid conflicts of interest, it seems Darren Lehmann actively prefers not to be involved. "I'd be that nervous anyway I probably wouldn't be coach, I'd probably go to the bar," he said when the subject arose last year. Should Jake put on another good showing in this week's Sheffield Shield, the old man might have to come up with a coping strategy by the time Australia and England step out at the Gabba on November 23.

One former Ashes combatant who knows a fair bit about the father-son, coach-player dynamic, albeit from the English perspective, is Alec Stewart. England's second-most capped Test cricketer, Stewart began his international career in 1989, at a time when his dad, Micky, was manager of the team. Fortunately, they already had a well-established method for making the relationship work.

"When I signed professionally at Surrey as a 17-year-old, he was manager of the Surrey side then," Alec told ESPNcricinfo. "We'd obviously spoken about it, when I left school he knew I wanted to try and play cricket. He was only ever going to sign me if he felt I was good enough - he almost took the surname or the relationship out of the question, he just looked at me as a cricketer.

"That's what we made very, very clear. When we were at home, he's obviously me dad but when we were at cricket - or work, because that's what it was - then I didn't have a dad who was the coach and he didn't have a son who was a player. I was a player and he was very much coach, or manager. I never called him or referred to him as 'dad' when I was at work. Once we got home, or at a family occasion, he's dad and still is. But when we're at work it's very much a player-coach relationship."

Whether with Surrey or England, Micky was always "gur" (short for manager) to Alec, just as he was to everyone else. Although, he adds: "I might have called him a few other names under me breath if he dropped me."

Monday, November 6, 2017

The incredible rise of Jasprit Bumrah

It was Mohammed Siraj's international debut and he had been plundered for 10 and 16 in his first two overs. Siraj was at the receiving end of a merciless Colin Munro on a flat deck in Rajkot. When he finished his second over, Jasprit Bumrah walked up to him and put his arm round his shoulders to console him.

Bumrah tried to comfort Siraj, telling him every bowler gets hit and that they learn by getting hit. Bumrah is not the senior-most bowler in the Indian team; it's Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Bumrah still took the initiative to calm Siraj's nerves when he could have stayed back at his fielding position between overs. Bumrah himself is less than two years old in international cricket but he chose to take the responsibility upon himself, just the way he has as a bowler in the absence of more experienced quicks such as Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami.

On that day, it was primarily because of Bumrah that New Zealand did not race away to score over 200. He pulled the length back on the batting-friendly pitch when good-length balls and slower ones were being launched into the stands. In his second spell, he returned to stem the flow of boundaries in the death overs when Munro was "going berserk", in Bumrah's words, by giving away only 14 in his last two overs.

Bumrah has risen through the ranks at incredible pace and given the team management immense flexibility, allowing them to rely on him and Bhuvneshwar as their lead new-ball pair in both T20Is and ODIs while resting Shami and Umesh for the Test cricket. When he made his international debut in early 2016 in Australia, it was mainly his outlandish action and angle that deceived batsmen. Since then, players from around the world have had time to adjust to him - by now they have had 57 international matches to watch him in and try to pick up his weaknesses.

But Bumrah has been one step ahead. To add to the yorker he learnt from Mumbai Indians team-mate Lasith Malinga, he now possesses variations that include deceptive slower deliveries, in particular the offcutter. Within two years, he has emerged as the specialist death bowler India had desperately been seeking for many years.

"The kind of action he has, batsmen find it difficult to pick him, but he has also improved on a few things," Bhuvneshwar explained on the eve of the third T20I. "He has had a yorker, he has improved his slower deliveries too. When you bowl with such a bowler, you are confident that if you do well, he will also do well from the other end. If you aren't having a good day, at least he will bowl well. We feed off that confidence. The best part is before every match we talk to each other about the wicket and what strategy we can employ. That helps a lot."

Bumrah's package of skills was on display in Kanpur too, during the decisive third ODI when New Zealand were on track to chase down 338. Another flat track and Bhuneshwar was being taken to the cleaners. But Bumrah stepped up. He sent down some of his slower offcutters - removing Ross Taylor with one of them - and then defended 15 off the last over when dew made the ball difficult to control. Such was Virat Kohli's faith in him that Bumrah bowled four of the last 10 overs and he is relied upon to bowl his last two at the death in T20Is too. It reflects in how he has delivered more than one-third (34.37%) of the death overs bowled by Indian bowlers since his debut last year.

Being stingy as a bowler is one undebatable advantage but Bumrah has combined that with wickets. Only 10 months ago, England were chasing 146 in the Nagpur T20I and needed 41 from the last five overs, with Ben Stokes and Joe Root at the crease and seven wickets in hand. There was no Bhuvneshwar that day, but Bumrah had the wily old Ashish Nehra for company. Once Nehra dismissed Stokes, Bumrah bowled a combination of hit-the-deck back-of-a-length deliveries and slower balls that turned into four dot balls to Root and Jos Buttler in the 18th over.