Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Scholesy, you Little Beauty!

We are going to Moscow! It’s an absolutely indescribable feeling to be in the Champions League final again and it was only fitting that Paul Scholes who missed the game against Bayern Munich in ’99 due to suspension scored the goal to fire Manchester United into this year’s final. And what a goal it was. When Zambrotta gave the ball away cheaply inside Barcelona’s half in the 14th minute, it was picked up by Scholes who let rip one of his trademark strikes and Victor Valdes had no chance of saving what was truly a glorious goal from my favourite player.

Just as it was at the Camp Nou, it was another thoroughly professional performance from United. Although Barcelona enjoyed the bulk of the possession, they hardly created any clear cut chances and I felt United certainly deserved to emerge victorious from the tie. The back four put out a terrific performance with captain Rio being at his imperious best. He stayed on his feet every time a Barcelona player had a dribble at him and came across whenever required to cut infield runs made by Messi and Iniesta. It was a splendid team effort and I am hoping this inspires the team to go on and win the remaining two Premier League fixtures against West Ham and Wigan and thereby clinch their 17th League Title.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Where was Misbah?

The Bangalore Royal Challengers got their team selection for the match against the Chennai Super Kings shockingly wrong. Having failed to field Misbah-Ul-Haq when he was available for their previous match against the Rajasthan Royals, one would have thought Rahul Dravid and the rest of the think tank would have got it right for the match against the Super Kings. But they continued to bench Misbah-Ul-Haq whose ability in 20-20 cricket is unquestionable.

I can only put this blunder down to Dravid’s inability to take tough decisions when they matter most. Selecting Misbah would have meant that either Kallis or Boucher would have had to sit out for one match as they could have been drafted back into the eleven for the next match since the Chennai match was Ross Taylor’s last of this season’s IPL. Of the two although Boucher is a far better 20-20 player, dropping Kallis would have been the tougher decision not least because of his stature in international cricket. But what is also important to bear in mind is the fact that dropping Kallis would have meant that a local player with the ability to bat in the top order and bowl three or four overs would have had to have been brought in. The Bangalore team certainly does not have such strength and depth in their squad. However they do have Shreevats Goswami, the India U-19 player wicketkeeper who is also considered to be a promising opening batsman. Had the Royal Challengers brought in Goswami for Boucher and Misbah for Chipli, their chances of emerging successful against the Chennai team would have been far better. Having picked up only one win from their first 4 games, the Bangalore team is very much up against it in their quest to qualify for the semifinals.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

It's Supposed to be a Gentleman's Game

The recent controversy created by Harbhajan Singh has once again got me wondering whether cricket is still a gentleman’s game. The modern day game is plagued by far too many scandals which were hitherto never associated with the sport. Controversies created by the match fixing issues that were exposed in the April of 2000 sent the cricketing world into a state of deep shock. The doping scandals surrounding Shane Warne and later Shoaib Akthar once again brought forth several doubts with respect to terming cricket as a gentleman’s game. Off the field problems during the recently concluded series between Australia and India only accentuated my doubts. And now we have this issue of one player physically assaulting another on the playing field. This to me is quite simply inexcusable.

There is no place for such forms of disorderly conduct in the game of cricket or in any other sport for that matter. Harbhajan Singh for my money should be dealt with in the strictest possible manner. Merely banning him for a small number of games and fining him a few quid is going to be of no use. It is indisputable that Harbhajan has been on the wrong side of the law on far too many occasions. Harbhajan’s disciplinary track record must be kept in mind while determining his guilt and subsequent punishment. He is someone who simply never seems to learn from his mistakes. Singh who will be charged under Level 4 of the ICC’s Code of Conduct, can if found guilty be punished with a ban of between 5 test matches or 10 ODI Matches up to a life ban. Lalit Modi, the IPL Commissioner was quoted as saying that Harbhajan could be banned for up to 10 matches. In my opinion such meagre punishment would serve no purpose. Lesser offences in other sports have brought forth greater punishments. Rio Ferdinand was banned for a period of 8 months by the English FA for having missed a drugs test. Shane Warne was banned for a period of one year for having tested positive for a forbidden diuretic. I see assault on the playing field as an offence as severe in nature as cheating in the form of consuming drugs is or in the form of fixing matches is. Harbhajan in my opinion must be expelled from the game for a period of no less than a year and not doing so will only further dilute the reputation of cricket as a gentleman’s game.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Element of Style

All the razzmatazz and excitement created by the IPL has made me sit back and wonder whether I’d rather watch a brutal Brendon McCullum innings in a T-20 game or a finely crafted test match innings by someone like a Mark Waugh or a V.V.S. Laxman. For all the goose bumps that a 20-20 innings generates, I would any day go a million miles more to watch a stylish batsman construct a century in a test match or to watch a back-to-the-wall match saving innings by a Steve Waugh or an Inzamam Ul Haq.

The sheer pleasure of watching a Mohammad Azharuddin front foot flick or a Damien Martyn caress through covers is indescribable. No words can possibly do it justice. However what can be said is that it far exceeds the pleasure generated by watching a batsman massacre the ball in a T-20 game. Beyond a point viewing an Andrew Symonds or a Shane Watson carting every ball out of the ground is unexciting and boring. There is no doubting the thrills and spills that are produced by a game of 20-20 cricket, but I am just one of those stereotypical conservatives who still love watching cricket played by men in white.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Great Entertainment

I was at the M.A. Chidambram Stadium yesterday to watch the Chennai Super Kings take on the Mumbai Indians. It was a hugely entertaining night and I must admit that it was great fun watching a T-20 match in the stadium. The atmosphere was electrifying and I frankly have never seen anything like what I witnessed yesterday at the stadium. The pre-match entertainment served as a decent appetizer to what was going to be a great game of cricket.

I have been privileged to witness some great knocks at the Chepauk ground and although Suresh Raina’s half century might not be up there with the best of them, it still was a fantastic innings. Raina started of in slightly circumspect fashion but soon began to strike the ball beautifully on both sides of the wicket. His six over extra-cover of Harbhajan Singh was by far the shot of the day and his ability to rotate the strike when he couldn’t hit the big shots stood out in what was a superb fifty by the southpaw from U.P. It was Hayden’s brutal innings of 81 of 46 balls though that set up the total of 208 for the Super Kings which in the end proved to be insurmountable. Whilst he played some of his characteristically audacious shots by coming down more than a few inches to the fast bowlers, it was his reverse shot for four through point of Pollock that showed his ability to improvise when needed.

The Mumbai team was always up against it. Chasing 209 of 20 overs on any surface was never going to be easy and they made things tougher for themselves when Luke Ronchi was run out after a direct hit by the local boy Badrinath who was fielding at backward point. The stand out performer on a day of big hitting was strangely enough a bowler. Manpreet Singh Gony’s four overs for 18 runs which included the crucial wicket of Sanath Jayasurya was the spell that changed the course of the match. All the other bowlers struggled to find the right length and Jacob Oram in particular had a very poor outing. Mumbai was left with the task of getting 19 runs of the last over from Joginder Sharma which initially seemed to be all too easy for Abhishek Nayar who carted the first two deliveries for boundaries. But Joginder somehow managed to hold his nerve in the end and the Super Kings emerged successful for the second game running. A word of mention must also go to Mahendra Singh Dhoni who was once again excellent in marshalling his troops. He seems to have the knack of bringing the best out of ordinary players which is a quality that all great leaders have possessed. But Dhoni will find it harder as the tournament continues if his bowlers continue to let the team down by failing to hit the right length on flat sub continental pitches. However the availability of Nitini and Morkel from the fourth game onwards is likely to bolster the weak Chennai bowling attack.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's Clay Court Time

I am really looking forward to the clay court season of this year’s tennis calendar. Matches on clay courts are probably not the most popular amongst tennis viewers, but I believe it invariably makes for enthralling tennis. This year’s clay court season is that much more attractive because of the competition that it promises to produce. With the advent of Novak Djokovic one could probably say that about all tournaments this year, but I believe it holds true particularly for the clay courts. The now familiar issue of whether Roger Federer will win the French Open is of course at the top of most tennis fans’ minds and as usual it makes the French Open worth looking forward to. But apart from Nadal who is by some distance the best clay court player in the circuit and no doubt the favourite to retain his title at Roland Garros, there are other barriers this time between Federer and the elusive French Crown.

It must be mentioned that the young Serb, Djokovic is going to be more than just a thorn in Federer’s quest for the French Open. He did reach the semifinals last year and his confidence is sky high after his conquest of Federer in
Melbourne earlier this year. He is a personal favourite of mine and I feel he has the potential to dominate men’s tennis for years to come. Andy Murray is another player whom I believe has it in him to be successful in the clay courts. He has a good all round game and with the help of Alex Corretja who he has hired as his coach, I would expect him to stand up with the best in this year’s French Open. The likes of David Ferrer, Richard Gasquet and David Nalbandian can also be more than a handful on their day.

It is also important to reflect on the fact that Federer has had a very poor 2008. He only recently won his first title of the year at the clay courts of Estoril and that too courtesy a retirement from Nikolay Davydenko in the finals. But then one must never lose sight of the fact that Federer is no mug on the clay courts. He in fact grew up playing on clay courts, which is something not known to many people. He has a great all round game which is well suited for the clay and his ever improving defensive game is likely to stand him in good stead come the French Open and all the other tournaments leading up to it. Unlike Sampras who never looked like winning the French Open, Federer would have achieved the same at least twice over by now if not for Nadal. It’s probably a bit too early to make predictions for the French Open considering that the Monte Carlo Masters tournament has just begun and that the Hamburg Masters is still to be played. Having said that I am going to stick my neck out and predict that Federer is going to lift his 13th Grand Slam title at Roland Garros on June 8, 2008.

Advantage Chelsea

A late own goal by John Arne Riise has given Chelsea the advantage, after the first leg of their Champions League semifinal match against Liverpool. Just as expected, it was a drab affair at Anfield with the two teams canceling each other out for most of the ninety minutes. Chelsea were set up with both Lampard and Ballack being deployed in advanced roles in the middle of midfield, but neither had any joy as Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano anchored the Liverpool midfield to perfection by breaking up virtually every Chelsea attack that came down the middle. Didier Drogba was double teamed by Carragher and Skrtel whenever possible and neither Joe Cole nor Florent Malouda on the flanks was able to create any chance of significance for the visitors as Liverpool dominated possession.

The first clear cut opening of the game fell to Dirk Kujt who in his characteristically clumsy fashion failed to control the ball and in the process let the chance slip. He did make amends for his earlier miss though when a Mascherano shot scooped up fortuitously for him as he slid in to give
Liverpool the advantage in the 43rd minute of the game. In the second half the home team started brightly and a Gerrard through ball gave Fernando Torres the chance to double the lead, but the star striker was unable to beat Petr Cech. Avram Grant sent on Salamon Kalou for the highly ineffective Joe Cole but this did nothing to sway the game in the visitor’s favour as Liverpool continued to press home their advantage. Petr Cech made a couple of good saves from Gerrard and Torres to keep Chelsea in the contest and late in stoppage time the immense value of the saves was felt as Riise stooped down to head past his own goalkeeper when he could have easily put his right foot through the ball and cleared it to safety. Riise’s stupidity undid all the good work of the team in the previous 93 minutes and means that Chelsea have the slender upper hand in the tie.

Rafael Benitez blamed the refereeing after the match and in particular he questioned the decision to play 4 minutes of stoppage time. Whilst his questions may be justifiable, I think Benitez has no right to complain about refereeing in Champions League games as it is the refereeing that has got
Liverpool to this stage of the competition. Besides Liverpool could have easily come out of the game with the advantage if only Rafa had done the right thing by replacing the injured Aurelio with Hyypia and moving Arbeloa into a left back position and playing Carragher in right back for the remaining period of the game. His decision to pick Aurelio as his first choice left back over Riise in the latter part of the season has worked wonders for him and I am sure he will be hoping that Aurelio is fit in time for the second leg at Stamford Bridge. Going into the second leg, although Chelsea have the slight advantage, they cannot take things for granted. I am sure Benitez who is a master tactician will have a trick or two up his sleeve. I do however expect another dull and dreary game of football at the Bridge as the two teams are likely to line up in much the same way for the second leg.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bowling Shane!

There is no better sight in world cricket than Shane Warne bamboozling his opponents with his leg break bowling. Watching the magician in action for the Rajasthan Royals against the Kings XI Punjab yesterday was an absolute pleasure. Warne’s spell of 3 wickets for 19 runs of his four overs is one of the best bowling performances in the league thus far. He could have had more had Darren Lehman not dropped a sitter offered by Yuvraj in his third over. Warne did ultimately nab Yuvraj in his final over by cleverly reducing the pace and trapping Yuvraj in front of the wicket. The famous ‘zooter’ was also in display with Warne grabbing the wicket of James Hopes by catching him plumb in front of the stumps. The word ‘genius’ is often used loosely while describing sportsmen, but Warne is one man whose genius is unquestionable.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

McGrath, Ewood Park and Styles

It was as if he was never away from cricket. Glenn McGrath was at his accurate best helping the Delhi Daredevils restrict the abysmal Rajasthan Royals to a meager 129 in their 20 overs. McGrath was bang on the money from the first ball itself. He hit the right length and kept the ball in the corridor of uncertainty thereby making it very difficult for the batsmen to get it away. His figures of a wicket in four overs for twenty one runs is a phenomenal performance in this form of the game even though he was only bowling to an incredibly poor Rajasthan batting line up. I said in my earlier post that it would be interesting to see how McGrath copes with the 20-20 format. Well, so far he has lived up to his legendary status. But the real test is still to come.

After having watched McGrath bowl his first spell, I switched my attention to the start of the game at Ewood Park between Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United. From United’s perspective it was very important that they didn’t lose this game so as to ensure that the title is still in their own hands. They managed just that through a late Carlos Tevez header. It was one of those games where the ball just wouldn’t go into the back of the net. Brad Friedel was superb in the Blackburn goal and he thwarted several attempts by United to get level after a rare defensive blip by Ferdinand had given Santa Cruz the chance to put Rovers in front, which he took with great composure. It was finally a flick on from Scholes from a Nani corner which gave Tevez the opportunity to head past Friedel and earn what could be a very valuable point for the Champions. Man United can now all but mathematically wrap up the title if they manage to defeat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. I would imagine that the title would be theirs even if they can manage a draw at the Bridge as they would only have to win one of their two remaining games against West Ham United at home and Wigan Athletic away.

And finally Rob Styles for my money should be banned from refereeing at any level of the game. After his horrendous blunder to award a penalty to Chelsea against Liverpool early in the season, the FA dropped him for one round of matches. I cannot understand how such a dreadful decision could be punished with a mere one round suspension. Again at Saint Andrews, in a game between Birmingham City and Manchester City, he seemed to compensate one poor decision by awarding a penalty to Birmingham when Sun Ji Hai had merely indulged in a legitimate shoulder-to-shoulder challenge with Gary McSheffrey. In the game at Ewood Park, he was back to his awful self and failed to award at least three blatant penalties to United. As Roy Keane said recently referring decisions do not even themselves out over the course of a season. There is no place for poor refereeing especially when the stakes are so high. The decisions at Ewood were probably not as bad as some of the ones that he had made earlier in the season. But that does not take away anything from the fact that Mr. Styles continues to make terrible decisions and that he should be banned from refereeing at any level of professional football.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Looking Foward to Nou Camp

The great Johan Cruyff recently termed Manchester United as a long ball side and commented that they expend all their energy on closing down and chasing long balls and that they can be beaten by playing the ball horizontally and around them. Like any other football fan, I have the greatest respect for Cruyff as a footballer, and there is no doubt that he is a living legend and a footballing god. People say that when Cruyff speaks you sit up and listen. I am not too sure I am ever going to do that again. To describe Man United as a long ball side is preposterous to the say the very least.

Along with Arsenal, Manchester United play some of the most beautiful football in the world. They are capable of fantastic wing play and some of the interplay between the front four, which is normally composed of Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo and Giggs is quite simply out of this world. I do however agree that when required they are not shy to play the ball long. Some times the nature of the game requires you to adapt and play the occasional long ball. Scholes and Carrick, the first choice central midfield partners both possess a fantastic range of passing and it would be stupid not to use their talent of picking out players from the deep positions that they tend to occupy. But even when the ball is played long, it is very rarely direct. It is usually raking balls played behind the full backs for the wingers to run into and set up the attack. Both Scholes and Carrick are also equally capable of threading balls through the opposition’s defence for the forwards to latch on to. I think it is this ability to adapt their game plan according to different situations that has helped Manchester United lead the race for the Premier League title and reach the Champions League semifinals.

It will be fascinating to see how Ferguson sets up the team against Barcelona at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night. I think he will play with Rooney up top on his own and Ronaldo and Park on the wings. Carrick and Scholes will sit deep in midfield and Hargreaves will be given the job of closing down Xavi inside Barcelona’s half. Or like he did against Roma in the first leg, there is a chance that Ronaldo may be asked to play as a center forward with Rooney being given a role on the left. Barcelona is no doubt a magnificent team with highly talented individuals. The Champions League is the only competition that they are still competing for, which will mean that they will be pumped up for the game at the Nou Camp. I expect to see lots of goals much like the last time these two teams played home and away in the Champions League when both legs ended 3-3. Irrespective of the formation employed by the teams, it’s going to a truly fascinating tie. I cannot wait for Wednesday night.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Review of the Squads

Virtually every conceivable news medium in India has had their say on the strengths and weaknesses of the 8 teams competing in the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League. With the competition getting underway tomorrow in Bangalore, I thought I must add to their comments and opinions. I believe it is the quality of the domestic players present in a squad which will determine its effectiveness considering that only 4 non-Indian players from a squad may be present in the final eleven. Therefore whilst analyzing the players in a team, particular emphasis needs to be placed on the Indian players that the team has managed to obtain.

Bangalore Royal Challengers: Most people are of the opinion that the Bangalore team owned by Vijay Mallya has far too many players unsuited to this version of the game. Agreed, Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Shivnarine Chanderpaul (in spite of his recent brilliance) and Wasim Jaffer might not be the world’s best 20-20 players, but I certainly have my doubts as to whether all these four players will find a place together in the final eleven. 20-20 cricket is not all bang-bang and the presence of one or two of these players in the eleven will certainly stand the team in good stead. It must be remembered that the Bangalore team does posses the dangerous Misbah Ul-Haq who has one of the coolest heads in world cricket and Cameron White, the Victorian captain who is a massive hitter of the cricket ball as well as a useful leg break bowler. They also own Mark Boucher who is capable of wonderful improvisation as the wicketkeeper batsman.

Bangalore’s bowling attack is one of the most formidable in the Indian Premier League. Dale Steyn can be lethal under the lights and his new ball partnership with Zaheer Khan could serve the team wonderfully well. It will be interesting to see how Praveen Kumar who had an excellent series in Australia recently performs in this shortened format. They also have Kumble and Kallis to call upon to apply the breaks in the middle overs (Although I am not quite sure what exactly qualifies as ‘middle overs’ considering the format of the game). However as a fielding unit the Bangalore team does not inspire the greatest confidence and I don’t see them saving the necessary 15 or 20 runs in the field which could be crucial in this format. The pool of local players at their disposal seems to be decent and the likes of Virat Kohli and Shreevats Goswami who are both talented young players may well get a chance to showcase their skills in front of a wide audience.

Chennai Super Kings: Although Mathew Hayden may not be available for the entire tournament, I think he is one of the best buys made by any team. He loves the conditions in India and he is capable of demolishing any bowling attack and the start that Hayden provides along with Fleming could work wonders for the Chennai team. The middle order is extremely strong with the likes of Michael Hussey, Subramaniam Badrinath, Suresh Raina and Parthiv Patel offering solidity and the likes of Dhoni, Albie Morkel, Jacob Oram and Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan offering the firepower that is vital in the 20-20 format. Dhoni’s captaincy has been very impressive and it will be interesting to see the tactics that he employs once the tournament gets underway.

Whilst the players present are more than decent fielders, the team’s problems are primarily contained in the bowling department. With Morkel and Ntini likely to miss the first few games, the team is extremely short of new ball options. Lakshmipathi Balaji who was once considered an excellent prospect for India is returning from a lengthy spell on the sidelines and Oram is not amongst the quickest bowlers doing the rounds. I cannot also for the life of me imagine why a team would have actually spent money to buy Joginder Sharma. If at all you must be paid to have him in your team. For me he ranks as the worst buy made by any team in the league. The team does however have Muralitharan in its ranks and I don’t think anything can be said about Murali that hasn’t already been said. Although I am hoping the Super Kings emerge victorious, I think their lack of new ball options might cost them dear.

Deccan Chargers: They have by far the most exciting team on paper. An explosive batting line-up and superb bowling options make them the team to watch out for. Assuming that Gilchrist and Vaas are automatic choices considering their availability for the entire tournament, the other two spots open to foreign players needs to be filled up from a list which includes Afridi, Symonds, Styris, Chamara Silva, Nuwan Zoysa and Herschelle Gibbs. VVS Laxman, Rohit Sharma and Venugopal Rao offer excellent middle order options. Gilchrist in spite of his age and retirement is the best wicketkeeper batsman in the world and is likely to open the batting with Gibbs or Afridi which is mouthwatering to say the least.

The presence of RP Singh who had a superb time at the T-20 World cup as a new ball partner to Vaas could prove to be extremely important. Pragyan Ojha, the young left arm spinner who may be called upon to apply the breaks is one for the future. As a fielding unit the Hyderabad team is right up there with the best in the league, but the lack of adequate local bowling options barring RP Singh and Ojha is a cause for concern. Sanjay Bangar may well have to be called upon to bowl his military medium dibbly dabblers. I think the team could have well done with a good local first change bowler. But with the options that Styris, Afridi and Symonds offer, this might turn out to only be of marginal concern.

Delhi Daredevils: The team boasts an excellent mix of foreign and local talent. Sehwag and Gambhir at the top of the order are potentially the best opening pair in the IPL. With the presence of de Villiers and Dinesh Karthik the team has first-rate choice for the position of wicketkeeper batsman. The one that doesn’t make the cut is likely to be used in the middle order in any event. Shoaib Malik and Dilshan are both intelligent middle order batsmen with the latter also having the reputation of being one of the best fielders in the world. Local options in the form of Mithun Minhas, Manoj Tewari, Rajat Bhatia and Shikar Dhawan are likely to further boost the middle order.

The bowling attack contains the legendary Glenn McGrath and the phenomenally accurate Mohammed Asif. It will be interesting to see how McGrath adapts to this format of the game. Although McGrath was the Man of the Tournament at the 2007 ODI World Cup in the Caribbean, we did see some of the batsmen launch into him in a manner that we were not accustomed to seeing. McGrath does however have the necessary experience and the guile to be successful in this format. In Daniel Vettori the Delhi team probably possesses the best spinner in this version of the game. Assuming McGrath is an automatic choice, I think one of Asif and Vettori will be picked, which would mean that the team needs to pick two bowlers from its local pool. I would expect Yo Mahesh and Amit Mishra, both of whom are not the most consistent bowlers to get the nod. Overall the Delhi team boosts an excellent blend of local and foreign talent and all things going well they are a certainty in the semifinals.

Kings XI Punjab: A sensational middle order and a compact bowling attack make Kings XI Punjab one of the stronger teams in the IPL. However it is the lack of adequate batting options from the local pool of players that is concerning about the team. The likes of Ramaresh Sarwan, Kumar Sangakarra, Mahela Jayawardene, Shaun Marsh, Simon Katich, Luke Pomersbach and James Hopes are all superb batsmen but all of them cannot be picked in the same eleven, which is what makes the need for local batting talent crucial. Barring captain Yuvraj Singh, the team lacks world class Indian batsmen and this could well cost them dear once the tournament gets underway. The lack of opening batsmen in the squad makes me think that Irfan Pathan may well be asked to don the role of an opener alongside Katich or Sangakarra.

However, the bowling attack seems to be very solid. Brett Lee and Sreesanth are likely to share the new ball with Pathan offering a good choice as a first change bowler. Ramesh Powar and Piyush Chawla are the spin options that are available to Yuvraj. Although the team possesses Kyle Mills, I don’t expect to see him being used too much in view of the restriction on the number of foreign players in the eleven. The presence of Powar does however have a negative effect on the fielding as the presence of a singe poor fielder in the eleven could cost your side valuable runs.

Kolkata Knight Riders: The team probably contains the largest ensemble of star players amongst all teams in the IPL. In Ganguly and Gayle the team possesses an explosive opening pair which is capable of denting the bowling attack of any team in the world. In the absence of Gayle, the team can make use of Salman Butt who seems to revel in Indian conditions. The presence of Ricky Ponting and David Hussey greatly boosts the middle order. In Brendon McCullum they have one of the best wicketkeeper batsmen in the world. For a small man he packs quite a punch. I do however believe that the team needs to pick two players from the group of Aakash Chopra, Cheteshwar Pujara, Siddharth Kaul, Rohan Banerjee and Iqbal Abdullah in the final eleven with the first two likely to get the nod. Whether these players rise to the occasion will be crucial to the hopes of the Kolkata team.

The absence of Shoaib Akthar due to his ban might well turn out to be a blessing in disguise as the team can make use of Ishant Sharma and Umar Gul who are both far more consistent as new ball partners. The inconsistent yet at times brilliant Agarkar offers a nice blend to the pace attack while the presence of Murali Kartik means that Ganguly has an intelligent spin bowler in his arsenal. As a fielding unit the Kolkata team is not the best, although their strengths in other departments might well compensate for this.

Mumbai Indians: I am extremely surprised at the composition of the Mumbai team. Although they have an explosive top order in Tendulkar, Jayasurya and Uthappa, the middle order is lacking in top quality players. Ashwell Prince of South Africa is simply not suited to this format of the game. The rest of the middle order will have to be filled up by local players none of whom barring Abhishek Nayar are worthy of mention. The Mumbai team also lacks an established wicketkeeper batsman although Luke Ronchi has been highly successful in Australian domestic cricket. The teams strength lies in its top order and its bowling attack which is potent with the presence of Shaun Pollock, Dilhara Fernando, Lasith Malinga, Ashish Nehra and Harbhajan Singh. Pollock’s performance with the bat in the lower middle order is of great importance if the team is to be successful. Jayasurya’s left arm spin may also be extensively used by the team. All cricketing fans will be watching with keen eyes to see how Tendulkar performs in this format of the game. The start that he and Jayasurya can give at the top order is of crucial significance to the team’s chances.

Rajasthan Royals: On paper, probably the weakest team in the competition. Justin Langer is likely to open with Graeme Smith whenever the latter is available and the starts that they provide are of vital importance. The middle order contains decent quality in the form of Younis Khan, Mohammed Kaif, Shane Watson, Dmitri Mascarenhas and Yusuf Pathan. The likes of Watson and Mascarenhas need to click for the team to be successful. Kamran Akmal is a useful wicketkeeper batsman and may even be used as an opener in the absence of Smith. In spite of the presence of Kaif, as a fielding unit the team looks rather ordinary especially with the presence of Munaf Patel. The lack of quality local players in all departments might cost the team dear. Pankaj Singh, Ravindra Jadeja and Taruwar Kohli none of whom are established players might have to perform important roles for the team. However, the team does possess decent bowling options. Munaf Patel, Morne Morkel and Sohail Tanvir are all good quick bowlers. The guile and astuteness of Warne as both bowler and captain is of vital significance. Warne needs to be at his best for the team to even enjoy moderate success.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Kanpur Pitch, Dhoni's Captaincy and More

The pitch at Kanpur made for enthralling cricket. There have been several critics who have raised issues about the state of pitches in India. I believe when a country like South Africa visits us, this is the kind of pitch we must prepare. This is based on simple logic. When India visits South Africa or Australia, we aren’t made to play on dustbowls, are we? The test match at Kanpur did get over in three days, but it served up some excellent entertainment for the watching masses. And of course India emerged victorious and ensured that they remain second behind Australia in the ICC Test Rankings.

For a test match to be interesting, the pitch must necessarily have something in it for the bowlers. The pitch at Madras for the first test was awful. I cannot believe commentators went on about how Sehwag’s innings was a great advertisement for test cricket. It was no doubt, an outstanding knock, making 300 runs in an innings is no joke, but it can hardly be considered as an advertisement for test cricket. The pitch had absolutely nothing in it for the bowlers and it was the worst pitch ever prepared in Madras for a test match in my living memory. For my money, Ganguly’s 87 at Kanpur is a far greater advertisement for test cricket than Sehwag’s 319 at Madras.

Moving on, Dhoni’s captaincy has been extremely impressive. I thought he led the side superbly during the recently concluded CB Series in Australia and he was exceptional once again at Kanpur in his first test as captain. It is remarkable to see such calmness and composure on the field from someone who is captaining his team for the first time. He rung in the bowling changes at the right time and was not afraid to experiment with his field placements. His decision to use Sehwag more extensively than Piyush Chawla and to open the bowling with Harbhajan Singh worked brilliantly and every decision that Dhoni made on the field seemed to yield results. I was one of the many cynics who felt that the selectors were making a grave mistake by appointing Dhoni as captain of the ODI team. After his performances in Australia and at Kanpur, I am glad to accept that I was wrong.

Whilst on the subject of the Kanpur test, I cannot fail to mention the truly fantastic knock played by Sourav Ganguly. It almost seemed as if Ganguly was playing on a different pitch. He went about his business unperturbed by the conditions and if the ball was there to be hit, he readily obliged. Some of the strokes, especially a magnificent square drive of Steyn were reminiscent of his wonderful innings’ at Lords and at Trent Bridge in 1996. Like Dravid once said, on the off side first there is god and then there in Ganguly. However more than the crisply struck cover drives and the superb shot over midwicket of Harris for a six, it was the singles that he took to keep the strike rotating that really stood out in what was a princely knock from the Prince of Calcutta.

Friday, April 11, 2008

How Good is Frank Lampard?

The name of Frank Lampard, one of the foremost midfield players plying their trade in England is conspicuously absent from my previous post. Whilst there is no doubting Lampard’s effectiveness on a football pitch, there is no place for him in the England line up alongside Steven Gerrard. There are lots of football pundits who continually opine that Lampard and Gerrard can play alongside each other in the center of England’s midfield. I for one cannot get myself to agree with such a viewpoint.

Both Lampard and Gerrard are at their best when played in the heart of midfield and I believe they are far too alike to be deployed together, as doing so would only result in both of them getting to similar positions on the pitch and in all probability coming in the way of each other’s game. I also have my doubts as to the ability of either player to adapt to different systems so as to suit the needs of the England football team. Gerrard for instance has never quite looked comfortable playing anywhere but in central midfield for Liverpool.

Rafael Benitez one of the leading tacticians in European football has tried to deploy Gerrard in various positions including out on the wings, but the only position where Gerrard is at his most effective is in the center of Liverpool’s midfield. When Gerrard is played out on the wings, he has a tendency to drift inwards leaving a lot of room for the opposition’s full back to make attacking runs. Benitez seems to often doubt Gerrard’s ability to track back effectively from central midfield and has off late used him in the ‘hole’ behind the terrific Torres. However as I had mentioned in my previous post Capello must refrain from using Gerrard in the ‘hole’ as long as Joe Cole is fit and healthy.

There is also no question of playing Lampard and Gerrard as partners in a two man central midfield as neither of them is capable of anchoring the midfield. Therefore there is the need to play either Carrick or Hargreaves alongside either Lampard or Gerrard in the middle of midfield. Ultimately Capello has to make a choice between Lampard and Gerrard for one of the positions in central midfield.

Luis Aragones, the manager of the Spanish national team for instance has the enviable task of having to choose from Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, Marcos Senna, Anders Iniesta, Mikel Arteta, Iván de la Pena, Guti, Ruben Baraja, Juan Carlos Valeron and Marti for two positions in the center of midfield. We have often seen the likes of Fabregas and Xabi Alonso being left out of the starting eleven. English football fans therefore must realize that it is commonplace in international football for national teams to have to choose between two quality footballers. How often have we seen Italy have to choose between Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti, both tremendous footballers in their own right?

Having said that, I believe it is a fairly easy decision for Capello to make as Lampard for all his effectiveness is quite simply not in the same league as Gerrard when it comes to pure ability. Gerrard is a far superior passer of the football and is technically more gifted than Lampard. When playing against the big teams Lampard often seems to go missing, whereas Gerrard seems to rise to the occasion much better. I am not for one moment suggesting that Lampard is a poor player. It’s just that I believe he is not good enough to play a starting role for England.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Don Fabio, Mortal?

I have never been a fan of Brian Glanville, but for once I agree with what he has written in last week's edition of the Sportstar. Fabio Capello's selection decisions for England's game against France were nothing short of ludicrous. Sentiments apart, I cannot see any reason for the choice of David Beckham for the outside right position, especially when England are blessed with the talent of David Bentley of Blackburn Rovers who at the moment is one of Europe's finest wide right players.

I am not trying to undermine Beckham's great talents or his contribution to the England outfit, but he quite simply does not have it in him to play a starting role for England. The move to LA Galaxy has resulted in him not playing against quality opposition day in, day out and someone who is not doing that cannot be picked to play for England. No doubt Beckham still has the ability to bend the ball whichever way he pleases, but when the quality of Bentley is available there is no place for Beckham in the England football team, at least not in the first eleven. Bentley is blessed with good pace and the ability to dribble past defenders, both of which are qualities that Beckham has never possessed, not even in his prime. And to add to that he has a wonderful right foot which is evinced by the superb free kick he scored at Wembley, whilst playing for the Under 21s, which incidentally was the first goal by an English player at the new Wembley.

Some might argue that Beckham was picked for the friendly against France so that he could have his 100th cap and that it was only fair to someone who has been a magnificent servant to English football. However the post match statements of Capello, lauding Beckham's performance suggests that he is going to be a regular feature of Don Fabio's teams. I believe Capello as Brian Glanville comments may just join the group of several successful club managers who have failed to make the cut at the international level.

Having said this I must add that I am not in complete agreement with Glanville as regards the other points he makes in his article in the Sports Star, particularly his criticism of the decision to play Rooney up front on his own. I for one do not see too much wrong in the decision especially considering the success that Rooney has had playing as a lone striker for his club side, Manchester United. I would however like to see Joe Cole being played in the 'hole' behind Rooney with Gerrard being deployed in a more conventional central midfield position alongside Carrick or Hargreaves. Although Gerrard is used in the 'hole' by Benitez, there is no doubting the fact that Gerrard's best position is in central midfield from where he can either make his powerful attacking runs or chose to play the raking through balls that we are so used to seeing from him. Gareth Barry or Stewart Downing must be played on the left wing with DB (the new and more effective one) being used on the right wing.

I think further disasters are waiting to happen for England if Capello continues to ignore players such as Bentley merely to accommodate heroes who are well and truly past their prime.