Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Dying Art of Slip Fielding

The palpable decline in the standard of slip catching is taking away from the fans one of the most pleasurable sights in world cricket. Even the mighty Aussies (or should I say once mighty Aussies) who not too long ago boasted of a superb slip cordon consisting of Mark Taylor, Mark Waugh and Shane Warne are lacking in quality when it comes to slip fielders these days. The erudite Bob Simpson once wrote in an article in the Sportstar that the good and the great slip catchers are judged by the number of catches they drop as opposed to the number that they grasp.

Notable modern day slip exponents such as Rahul Dravid, Mathew Hayden and Graeme Smith can never be considered as great slip fielders, as for all the fantastic catches they snatch, they drop the odd clanger. Andrew Flintoff and Mahela Jayawardene are more the exception than the rule in so far as the correctness of their technique is concerned. As Graham Gooch points out, the trick to being a successful slip fielder is to ride the ball. The hands mustn't reach out for the ball as the ball comes towards you. Soft hands, terrific concentration powers and slick movement are all vital ingredients of a good slip fielder, all of which are sadly on the decline in modern day cricket.

Across nations, young upcoming cricketers possess superb athleticism and are exceptional when fielding in the covers or at backward point, but very few of them can be considered as potentially good slip fielders. In India, the likes of Rohit Sharma, S. Badrinath, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina are all fabulous in the outfield, but seem like unlikely candidates to replace Laxman and Dravid in the slips. Of course, the world may never get to witness a catcher like Mark Waugh again, who with his languid grace and elegance made slip catching look ridiculously easy at times. But at least by emphasising on the importance of slip fielding and imparting the virtues of a correct catching technique in cricketers from a very young age, the quality of slip fielding, if not its beauty can be restored to its rightful state.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Martin the Magnificent

Commendable results at the Emirates and at Villa Park against Arsenal and Manchester United respectively have reinforced Aston Villa’s credentials for a top four finish this season. Martin O’Neill has been marvellous at the helm of Villa and his achievements so far seem all that more laudable when one considers the lowly sixteenth place finish of Villa in 2005-06, the season before O’Neill’s appointment as manger. The fact that only two players in the eleven that started against Man United were a part of the Aston Villa squad prior to O’Neill’s reign is testament to the tremendous effort that has gone into making the Villains a compact footballing unit. Although Villa do not possess the largest of squads, the basic nucleus around which the team is built is extremely impressive. O’Neill has got the team to play an entertaining brand of football without sacrificing on the solidity and organization required from a defensive standpoint.

From back to front, Villa possess players of excellent quality. The signing of Brad Friedel despite his age has been a masterstroke from O’Neill, one from which the likes of Spurs could have done well to learn from. At the centre of defence, skipper Martin Laursen and Curtis Davies compliment each other admirably with Zat Knight offering a more than decent back-up option. Nigel Reo-Coker is a big hearted footballer who will always work his socks off as he showed with his outstanding performance at an unfamiliar right back position against the champions on Saturday. Having been embarrassed by Ronaldo in the corresponding fixture last season, Reo-Coker showed superb awareness and ability in keeping United’s wing wizard quiet.

In the middle of midfield, the likes of Gareth Barry, Stiliyan Petrov and Steve Sidwell offer fabulous variety to the Aston Villa set-up. Barry was outstanding against Arsenal at the Emirates and O’Neill’s persistence in keeping the England international at Villa has been of crucial importance to Villa’s quests this season. Stiliyan Petrov’s role has been modified with O’Neill using him in a holding midfield role that ensures that Villa are never too stretched going forward. Steve Sidwell has brought a superior level of composure and technical excellence, which is certain to serve the team superbly in the coming seasons. In addition to the quality in the central midfield, the presence of the ebullient duo of Ashley Young and James Milner in the squad allows Martin O'Neill to play with two traditional wingers, which ensures the sort of balance that most teams would crave for.

But for all the merits of the other players in the squad, it is the dynamic Gabriel Agbonlahor who has been at the centre of most things good about the Villains this season. Agbonlahor has kicked off splendidly from where he left off last season and is probably the quickest striker in the Premier League at the moment. His partnership with big John Carew is a match made in heaven and if O’Neill can keep Carew fit, Villa can cause most backlines severe headaches over the course of the season.

There is no doubting that Martin O Neill has fashioned Aston Villa into an extremely organized and compact unit. However, the lack of squad depth in my opinion could well come to haunt Villa in their quest for champions league qualification. Even a fifth place finish though would be a super achievement for the Midlands club, who have been confined to mid-table mediocrity for more than a decade now. Whether Aston Villa can project themselves as a big club with big ambitions, which is necessary to attract the kind of players to the club that is required to ensure success over an extended period of time, only time will tell. What is certain though is that in Martin O’Neill, they have one of the world’s most capable managers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Tribute to the Prince

For all his abilities to outthink and at times irk the opposition into submission with his outstanding leadership skills, I will always remember Sourav Ganguly for his extraordinary stroke play on the offside. Those cover drives are a thing of beauty and in the modern era no man has executed the stroke with as much class and authority as Ganguly has. Indeed, there are so many facets to Ganguly’s character and cricketing skills that it becomes difficult to pinpoint one distinguishing feature of his that will be truly missed now that he has left international cricket. The aggressive captaincy, the gorgeous cover drives, the audacious strokes into the stands played against the spinners with the greatest of disdain, the shirt stripping retort to Andrew Flintoff at the Mecca of cricket, forcing Steve Waugh to wait at the toss and the insistence on doing things on his own terms are all aspects of Ganguly’s personality and cricketing abilities that made him so very special. But, the drives on the offside being so very inimitable and unique in both their execution and their elegance have always stood out.

Sourav has always been a fabulous player of spin bowling and he has been particularly severe on left arm orthodox spinners, which probably explains his dislike in having a spinner of the said variety in his own eleven. Ganguly was a master at coming down the track and clearing the long-on boundary when faced with slow bowling that turned into him. I still vividly remember a shot that he played of Chris Harris at the ICC Champions Trophy final at Nairobi. He came down the track to hoick Harris in typically domineering fashion and Geoffrey Boycott who was commentating at that time said ‘out’ and waited for a couple of seconds before following it up with ‘out of the ground’. Only the sheer grandeur and grace of his drives on the offside give it the slightest of edges over the imperious lofted shots played against the spinners. Ganguly’s timing is second to none and every time I have seen him from the stands, I have been awestruck by his ability to strike boundaries with the utmost of ease. Very often it would only be a gentle push, but the ball would pierce the cover point and cover fielders with the precision of a skilled marksman and race to the boundary at a rate of knots.

As a one day international batsman, Ganguly’s presence amongst the greatest is in no doubt. Apart from having shared inarguably the most supreme opening partnership with Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly notched up more than eleven thousand runs at an average of forty one which saw him amass twenty two magnificent centuries. As a test batsman, Ganguly’s record is the least impressive amongst the so called ‘fab four’. But Ganguly is one of those batsmen who cannot be judged on their records alone and his contributions in several important Indian victories are evidence of his fantastic inspirational abilities. India invariably seemed to do well when Ganguly scored which is proved by the fact that India have never lost a test match in which Ganguly had scored a ton. The fighting century at Brisbane, the half centuries against South Africa at Johannesburg and Kanpur under treacherous conditions have all been particularly special considering the circumstances and the nature of the opposition. Irrespective of the situation though, Ganguly never lost his sense of style and his batting was always pleasing on the eye.

Whilst his batting has been all about prettiness and splendour, save the handling of balls directed at his rib cage, his captaincy has been one of confidence and swagger. Ganguly might not go down in the annals of history as the most intuitive and tactically brilliant captain, but he will certainly go down as someone who had inspired his team to a form of success which was hitherto unknown to them. Playing at home on dustbowls with Anil Kumble in the eleven had never been anything more than a walk in the park for the Indian cricket team. Ganguly’s greatest contribution as captain was making the team believe that success away from home was not as difficult as it seemed and that with the right attitude and adequate effort it was certainly attainable. Ganguly stirred and stimulated the team into action and the Indian fans finally got to experience the joy of competing away from home at more regular intervals. With M.S. Dhoni showing superb tactical acumen and a Ganguly like ability to motivate and marshal the troops to excellence, we can be certain that India have found the right captain to take it to the next level. But getting to witness a batsman so attractive and stylish in his offside stroke play ever again is as unlikely an event as the Don’s batting average being surpassed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Wenger, Adams and the Masters Cup

I have always been of the opinion that a team can be successful without playing a conventional defensive midfielder in the Makelele or Gattuso mould. However, a central midfield combination does require balance and amongst other shortfalls, Arsenal are missing a solid midfield arrangement at the moment. Cesc Fabregas and Denilson are too similar to be paired in the middle of the park and Arsene Wenger certainly missed more than a trick by failing to sign Xabi Alonso for the sake of a few million pounds. Alonso has been Liverpool’s player of the season so far and his ability to dictate play from deep positions in midfield has been the driving force of most things good about Liverpool. Having failed to secure Alonso’s signature, Wenger did nothing to correct the lack of stability in Arsenal's midfield and that has led to calls for Wenger’s dismissal in some quarters, which is unthinkable for most Arsenal fans and unfair in my belief. However, I am of the opinion that Wenger needs to amend some of his ways, if Arsenal are to enjoy any success this season. His obsession with beautiful football is no doubt laudable and produces wonderful entertainment for both the Arsenal faithful and the neutrals, but his side’s inadequacies need to be corrected in the January transfer window (which, admittedly is not the best time to do business) to ensure that they are up there with the rest of the big four.
Tony Adams’ appointment as manager of Portsmouth has been greeted with an equal measure of optimism and cynicism. I think the English game deserves a greater number of home grown managers and Adams’s appointment should be welcomed. They say that great players don’t make the best of managers. Players such as Bryan Robson, David Platt, Glenn Hoddle and several others before them have somehow failed to carry their footballing prowess into the world of management. But that’s not always the case. Roy Keane has made a very good start to his managerial career with Sunderland and Laurent Blanc has been highly impressive at the helm of Bordeaux where he has got his team playing some extremely attractive football. The likes of Kenny Dalglish, Johan Cruyff and Vicente Del Bosque have all been successful as both players and managers. So I think to suggest that Adams would be a failure merely because he was a fabulous player is preposterous. Adams has completed all the required coaching badges and is as serious about the job as anybody can be. Being a natural leader of men, Adams should be given a fair chance to prove his coaching credentials before he is judged.
The Tennis Masters Cup which begins on Sunday should be exceptionally fascinating considering the openness of the competition. Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal due to a knee injury has no doubt removed some of the gloss from the event, but I still expect the tournament to produce some great contests. The result of the Masters Cup has always been difficult to foretell and this year is no different. Roger Federer enters the tournament as the defending champion, but he is by no means assured of success. Andy Murray is in fine form and so too is Gilles Simon who only makes it into the tournament because of Nadal’s absence. The only worrying feature of the competition is the fact that the players after a long and gruelling season would be quite drained and exhausted, which could somewhat diminish the quality of the tennis. But, the format of the competition and the fact that making predictions is as hard as it gets, makes the Cup almost as enthralling as the grand slam tournaments.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Promote Laxman

With the forthcoming retirement of Sourav Ganguly and the apparent decline in Rahul Dravid’s batting, the selectors and the Indian cricket watching public need to truly appreciate the class of V.V.S. Laxman's batsmanship. Over the last couple of years, Laxman has at times held the middle order together single-handedly and yet when the thought of playing an extra bowler arose prior to the Delhi test match, it was Laxman who was in contention to be left out. In spite of the shabby and at times ludicrous treatment that he has received from the selectors, Laxman has gone on with his game with minimum fuss and the greatest of elegance. Laxman’s batting average of 56 over the last couple of years is testament to his ever improving temperament and application, espescially considering the fact that most of these innings' have come with him batting at number 6.

Laxman’s wristy panache has always been a sight to behold and over the last few years he has tightened up his game to ensure that he is always there when the team most needs him. The famous double century at Calcutta, the stroke filled century at Adelaide and the sublime half centuries at Perth and Johannesburg stand out amongst the most regal of Laxman’s contributions to Indian victories abroad. His unbeaten double hundred at New Delhi against Australia in the third test was a reminder to one and all of both the beauty and the dexterity of his batting. In an era typified by the belligerent brutality of twenty-twenty cricket, Laxman’s artistry with the bat has been a throwback to the good old days of orthodox cricket.

Considering the imminent exits of some of the senior cricketers, Laxman in my opinion deserves a permanent promotion to the number three spot, a position from where he can dictate play and set the tone for the innings rather than salvage positions of distress. I am not suggesting that Rahul Dravid’s position is in any doubt. He has time and again demonstrated his immense value to the team and might still have a lot to offer to Indian cricket. But keeping in mind the fact that the test team as a whole is in a state of transition, it might be wise for Dravid and Laxman to swap positions in the batting order. Some of Laxman’s most memorable innings’ have come at the one-down position and I believe with his technique and temperament and his ability to score at a good clip, he will be perfectly suited for the vital spot. Laxman’s performances against the Australians shows that pressure rests easily on his broad shoulders and I am convinced that he needs to be entrusted with greater responsibility, especially considering the current state of the team.

Dravid’s retirement may not be immediate, but one can say with reasonable surety that it’s not too distant. The selectors would certainly not want to put additional pressure on the likes of Rohit Sharma and Subramaniam Badrinath by playing them right up in the order. This is where the precedent set by Australia can be used to good effect to ensure a smooth shift from the days of the ‘fab four’ to the younger generation of talented batsmen. Australia reaped rich rewards by promoting Justin Langer to the opener’s spot and Ricky Ponting to the crucial number three spot after the departure of Michael Slater. Similarly with Mark Waugh’s retirement came Damien Martyn’s promotion to number 4 which proved to be an exceptionally successful decision for the Aussies. I feel a similar tweaking of India’s batting order could ensure a fairly easy transition for what has always been India’s biggest weapon in test cricket.