Monday, February 28, 2011

India versus England - gripping, yet flawed

As narratives go, the tie at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore between India and England was as compelling as any. The sides scored 338 runs each in a match that remained on tenterhooks for much of its duration – especially in the final over in which England needed 14 runs to secure victory – and gave this World Cup its first thriller. But let’s not get carried away in the resonance of the tale – by calling it a great game – and ignore the teams’ respective deficiencies that was, in the first place, responsible for providing the game with the grip that enraptured the viewers. No doubt, the batting from both sides made for a fantastic sight – but the plaudits must be tempered in light of the poor quality of bowling and fielding that was on display.

We watch sport for a variety of reasons and a riveting story is often what we search for. In that sense, this game fulfilled our needs – constantly remaining on a knife-edge. But when you cut through the brilliance – admittedly there was a lot of that, especially from the two centurions, Sachin Tendulkar and Andrew Strauss – you are left to grapple with lots of dismal performances in the field. Easy catches were dropped, misfields were aplenty, the lines from the bowlers – barring Tim Bresnan – were wayward and the captaincy and the field settings from both M.S. Dhoni and Strauss lacked verve and imagination. All of this, while contributing heavily to the narrative, certainly did not make for pretty viewing. So to say that the contest was ‘a perfect advertisement’ for the one-day game – which it may well be, considering the general obsession with runs – veils the quality that both teams lacked.

On current form, regardless of their batting prowess, it looks unlikely that either India or England will be in contention towards the end of the tournament. Unlike test-matches, one-day games can, no doubt, be won on the strength, purely, of a team’s batting. But World Cups tend to be different – might in a single department has never been sufficient to lift the trophy. At least England was missing Stuart Broad, who is easily its best limited overs bowler. India had no such excuses. Its bowling – barring a brief yet stirring spell from Zaheer Khan – was uninspired and consistently poor, outdone in its sloppiness only by the fielding. India must, therefore, consider the option of playing five bowlers, a buffer that is necessary on sub-continental pitches for teams lacking sufficient bowling quality – an option that is particularly viable in India’s case, considering the strength of its batting. This would, of course, mean that one of Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir or Yusuf Pathan would have to be excluded; not an easy decision by any means. But the exigency of the situation calls for a bold move and in view of the form of Kohli (not to mention his fielding skills), Yuvraj’s usefulness with the ball and Pathan’s undeniable match-winning abilities, it may well have to be Gambhir who makes way.

Gambhir is a fine one-day batsman, whose worth to the team is undeniable. Yet, in a squad filled with as many batting stars as India’s is, it is inevitable that one of them will have to miss out. India could learn from Spain’s football team, which for much of the 2010 World Cup, started without Cesc Fabregas, favouring the more defence minded Sergio Busquets in the interests of team-balance. Winning a World Cup is no easy feat. And it certainly won’t be possible if sentiment is preferred over pragmatism.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dutch Dazzle brings World Cup to Life

Set in the backdrop of the I.C.C.’s decision to reduce the World Cup in 2015 to ten nations, the Netherlands’ showing against England at Nagpur yesterday glimmered brighter than their jerseys. Hopelessly poor defeats suffered by Kenya, Canada and Zimbabwe may have provided an element of justification to the decision to exclude the Associate teams – or the ‘minnows’ as they have come to be known – from the next World Cup. But the pitfalls of the ongoing tournament are not a product of the inclusion of these teams, but its format – the tedious two grouped layout – which has been designed solely to ensure that the big teams make it through to the latter rounds. India and Pakistan were both famously knocked out by lesser sides in the Group Stage in West Indies in 2007 and the I.C.C. clearly did not want a repeat of such a commercial catastrophe – the result, a format that denies the viewers of a consistently riveting tournament. But I’d rather see the present format retained than the incorporation of a system that excludes the Associate Nations. Removing the Kenya’s and the Netherlands’ from future World Cups would undeniably strip the event of some of its greatest mirth – of what joy would a World Cup be without the prospect of a mighty upset?

And the prospect of a mighty upset, yesterday, was what provided the ongoing World Cup with its first dash of allure. No doubt the track at Nagpur was placid, the English bowling hapless and their fielding disgraceful, but a sparkling batting performance by the Dutch unquestionably provided the delight and the merry that the ongoing tournament has thus far lacked. And by making the chase difficult for England, the Dutch ensured that the game remained tantalisingly poised for much of its duration.

At the core of the Netherlands’ excellence was a marvellous all-round showing by Ryan ten Doeschate, who scored 119 off 100 balls with the bat and just as importantly bowled with purpose and economy, finishing with figures of 2 for 47 from his ten overs. As all-round performances in World Cup games go, this is up there with the very best – the Imran Khans and the Kapil Devs would have been proud of a display of this ilk.

Coming into bat at 58-2, ten Doeschate took eleven balls to get off the mark, but not once during the period did he look ruffled, giving the impression of a man utterly confident of his talents. Once he got rolling, he set about his task with breezy ebullience, displaying a particular proclivity for the cow-corner, repeatedly finding either the gap between wide long-on and deep midwicket or the stands behind the fencing. The innings was by no means chanceless – James Anderson at long-on and Kevin Pietersen at long-off allowed a skier when, ten Doeschate was on 47, to fall smack between them – but it was paced to perfection. There was a time when Graeme Swann and Paul Collingwood operating in tandem allowed the batsmen little leeway to play a forceful shot, but ten Doeschate remained serenely disposed, knowing that his time will come. And when Andrew Strauss brought on Pietersen, in collaboration with his batting partner at the time, Tom Cooper, the off-spinner was ripped apart, taken for nineteen runs off his two overs.

After the loss of Cooper and Bas Zuiderant – one of the survivors from the 1996 World Cup – ten Doeschate began to up the run-rate, striking boundaries as and when he pleased. A flick off Graeme Swann for six over midwicket – easily England’s best bowler of the game – showcased the excellence of his timing and the suppleness of his wrists.

The very best batsmen often appear to possess a lot of time to play their strokes – ten Doeschate is no different, possessing an ability to alter his shots at the final moment. After his partnership of 64 runs with Tom de Grooth came to an end in the first over of the batting power-play, he ensured that the field restrictions did not go unutilised, plundering the English attack with disdainful alacrity. His century came courtesy an overthrow from Jonathan Trott that ricocheted off the stumps onto the boundary – an anticlimactic completion of a glorious landmark. After ten Doeschate fell to Stuart Broad for 119, the Dutch aided by some clever batting from their captain Peter Borren and some inept fielding from the English ended their innings on 292. Borren bowled by Stuart Broad in the 49th over was allowed to stay on the field as England had only three fielders inside the 30 yard circle, an incident that epitomised their dreadful day in the field.

Nevertheless, chasing 293 on a flat deck against a rather feeble bowling attack should have been a simple enough task. But England being England made heavy weather of it, needing fine hands from Paul Collingwood and Ravi Bopara to settle the tie in the penultimate over. The Dutch, for the most part, bowled sensibly, with ten Doeschate again proving the star act. It was his dismissal of Ian Bell in the final ball of his spell that made the prospect of a Dutch victory even more tenable. No doubt England ultimately averted defeat and retained an element of honour, but the prospect at the change of innings in particular – and at various junctures during England’s chase – of an upset, provided the World Cup with a sprinkling of allure that it has desperately required. Sadly, there will be no such charm to look forward to in 2015.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Five things India needs to do to win the World Cup

These are not all-encompassing, nor are they, especially, novel ideas, but they constitute fundamental elements, which India must fulfil to have a chance of winning its second World Cup.

1. Pick the bowlers that suit the conditions

Pitches in the subcontinent, contrary to general perception, are not all slow, dry and low. Different grounds across the stretch of the region tend to produce surfaces that are varied in subtle yet vital ways and therefore, part of M.S. Dhoni’s job will be to rotate his bowlers to suit the playing conditions. Where possible though – except on pitches that have a clear propensity to aid the quicker bowlers – Dhoni must try and incorporate two frontline spinners in his line-up, for spin is clearly India’s biggest weapon. With Harbhajan Singh’s position in the Eleven considered unassailable, Piyush Chawla and Ravichandran Ashwin will vie for the second spinner’s spot. Chawla’s exemplary form in India’s two warm-up games coupled with the fact that Ashwin like Harbhajan is an off spinner, could see the leggie make the cut. If Chawla is preferred, a case may also be made for Suresh Raina to be included in place of Yuvraj Singh, considering that India will have a full-time spinner who can turn the ball away from the right-handed batsmen. Some believe, rightly in my opinion, that Raina should play ahead of Yuvraj, in any event, based on his superior batting record in the subcontinent in recent times and his excellent fielding skills. But that said, Dhoni seems to view Yuvraj’s bowling as a key cog in the present set-up and he is unlikely to drop him unless his performances are monumentally poor.

Additionally, the opponent’s team composition must also be considered before choosing between Chawla and Ashwin. Against teams littered with left-handed batsmen, Ashwin should be the preferred option. And if Ashwin is picked, Yuvraj, perhaps, irrespective of his batting form should be fielded to lend variety to the bowling attack.

2. Use Yusuf Pathan as a Floater

It is crucial that Yusuf Pathan’s destructive ability as a batsman is used to its maximum potential. Pathan looks to be at his most dangerous when batting at number seven, but India mustn’t fall into the trap of pigeonholing batsmen into set positions. He should be used as a floater in the order and must be accorded enough time to inflict the most severe damage upon the opponent. Pathan, perhaps, doesn’t need the aid of a power-play to do his thing, but it wouldn’t hurt to ensure that the batting power-play is used, if possible, when he is in the middle.

3. Use the Third Power-Play with Purpose

The third power-play – a stretch of five consecutive overs to be selected by the batting team when not more than three fielders can be placed outside the 30 yard circle – has rarely been used with ingenuity. Very often we see teams waiting until at least the 40th over, and in some cases even until the 45th over, before calling for the power-play. This may be sensible in some cases, but when a team is seven or eight wickets down, the batsmen at the crease are ill-equipped to make the most of the situation. If India can use the option creatively, even between the 15th and 20th over where the situation so demands, it can add exponentially to its batting totals.

4. Endeavour to pick wickets in the middle overs

India got many of its strategies wrong in the disastrous 2007 World Cup where it crashed out in the group stages, of which the bowling tactics in the middle overs, particularly, bordered on the ludicrous. The spinners were sought to be used as mere containing acts and the middle overs were seen as a time to check the flow of runs, with the team rarely looking at wicket-taking options. What ensued, though, were neither wickets nor an improved economy rate. (Here is a table which shows that the economy rate in the middle overs during the 2007 World Cup was directly proportional to the number of wickets picked) The spinners, therefore, need to be utilised as attacking weapons and as we saw in the practice games, nothing works like wickets in containing the run flow.

5. Place the right fielders in the right positions

In a recent address at Calcutta, Sir Vivian Richards and Steve Waugh both opined that the best fielding side will win the World Cup. For India’s sake, one hopes that their prophecies don’t come true. Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina – who may not feature in the Eleven – are the only world class fielders in the Indian squad and it is quite improbable that the team would be among the better fielding sides in the competition. That being the case, Dhoni needs to ensure, perhaps more than most other captains, that he gets the right fielders in the right positions. The likes of Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Yusuf Pathan and even Sachin Tendulkar, are poor ground-fielders, which means that Dhoni will have a great deal of hiding to attempt. But unless an effort is made towards that end, India can wave its chances of lifting the Cup, a big goodbye!

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Mark Waugh's 110: The best I've seen at Chepauk

“When you are eight you watch cricket with a keener eye for detail than you shall ever summon again. Brief passages of play swell big and perfect in your head, almost as if you imagined them, maybe.”

This is Christian Ryan in reference to a David Gower half-century at Perth, which he reckons is the best he’s ever seen. I was ten when I watched the 1996 World Cup Quarter-Finals between New Zealand and Australia at Chepauk in Madras – the only World Cup game I’ve seen from the confines of a stadium – and my memories from it are abiding and particularly vivid. I watched the game, much like Ryan observed Gower, with almost pain-inducing intensity, with small pieces of action coming to represent weighty memories.

New Zealand’s Chris Harris, then a balding, dogged middle order batsman and bowler of dibbly-dobbly trash smashed Australia for 130 runs off just 124 balls, a once-in-a-lifetime innings that featured four big-ones. The last of his sixes – a slog over midwicket off Michael Bevan – I seem to remember, hit the roof of the stadium, a thought that I sought to reinforce when watching the highlights of the game for the first time, last week, only to realise that the cameras lost track of the ball midway through its trajectory. Perhaps, the distance of the strike is nothing more than a figment of my imagination, but it does make for a good tale, doesn’t it? Anyway Harris’s 168 run partnership with captain and wicketkeeper, Lee Germon helped New Zealand post 286, a total of considerable weight. Germon, a batsman of ungainly technique was nonetheless in inspired form, making 89 runs off just 96 balls, which like Harris’s 130, is his highest in one-day cricket.

The Madras crowd is known to be one of the most sporting in the country. On that day this facet was in full evidence. The crowd cheered boundaries and wickets by either team with equal gusto. As for me, I joined in the revelry, not quite sure even at the halfway juncture, which team I was supporting. I was, though, a big fan of the Waugh brothers – particularly of Steve – and I was hoping the pair would make enough runs to fulfil my ‘simple’ demands. And happily for me, make runs they did, in Mark’s case a sublime century and in Steve’s a tenacious half-century.

I have been lucky to watch several excellent knocks at Madras, including a few Sachin Tendulkar hundreds, Saeed Anwar’s 194, half centuries from Brian Lara and Mohammad Azharuddin in an ODI in late 1994 (innings’ which I wish I could remember more of) and an 83 from Neil Fairbrother, who is a favourite of mine, in a test-match in February 1993 of which my only enduring memory is Anil Kumble’s first-innings dismissal of Robin Smith. As it happens, this was Fairbrother’s only test-match half century – such a terrible pity that I remember diddly-squat about the knock. But I digress. The point is Mark Waugh’s 110 remains the most memorable innings I’ve seen at Chepauk, a magnificent treat to the eyes.

Australia’s target was imposing – only once had a higher total been successfully chased in World Cup history – but Waugh made light work of it, batting fiercely yet with an air of casual elegance. He square drove anything that was even a fraction wide of off-stump, and whipped through the on-side with typical grace when the bowlers straightened their lines. Off-spinners Shane Thompson and Dipak Patel were countered with consummate ease. Once he settled into a rhythm, Waugh didn’t hesitate to play the lofted strokes, clearing Patel for two huge sixes, one over wide long-on and another straight as an arrow over the sight-screen, landing a few seats wide of where I was seated. The one-day game may now be replete with centuries in successful chases, but considering the occasion and a pitch that was slowing by the over, Waugh’s innings must rank as one of the finest in its history.

The game was also notable for Shane Warne’s pinch-hitting pyrotechnics. Promoted to number four, Warne hammered 24 off just 14 balls, including two slog-swept sixes, before being trapped LBW by Nathan Astle. That, though, brought Mark Waugh’s elder twin, Steve into the middle, who nicknamed ‘Iceman’ for his ability to hold his nerve when bowling at the death, showed similar imperturbability in his batting and took Australia home with 13 balls to spare. In their 87 run partnership, Mark and Steve Waugh showcased an understanding that was coalesced in the backyard of their Panania residence, by nicking ones and twos with cheeky disdain. After Mark fell to a tired stroke off Dion Nash, the elder Waugh in partnership with Stuart Law ensured a mishap-free completion of the chase. But the day belonged to Mark Waugh. Easy and elegant, his batting was a joyous spectacle – a truly, great World Cup innings.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The joys of watching Damien Martyn bat

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There have been innings’ of superior significance and greater totals, but Damien Martyn’s unbeaten 88 in the finals of the 2003 World Cup must rank amongst the most elegant knocks played in the history of the Cup. Martyn at his best batted like an angel. At the crease he was always serenely disposed, making batting look like child’s play. A dreamy back-lift was often followed by smooth strokes executed with what seemed like wanton carelessness. But the truth couldn’t have been more starkly different – his hands were always tender, helping him find gaps in the field which we thought never existed. Like most great batsmen, Martyn was endowed with a sense of timing. Mere prods off his bat would send the ball scurrying to the boundary. But he wasn’t averse to using a flashing blade, especially to send the ball over point, a shot which as brutal as it may have been, was a pleasure to behold.

His innings in the 2003 final is often overlooked in favour of Ricky Ponting’s bludgeoned 140, perhaps rightly so. But frequently forgotten is that Martyn was the one who got to his half century first – in spite of a six over handicap – the one who provided the impetus to a partnership that set the tone for a victory of resounding brilliance.

The nine editions of the World Cup have provided many excellent batting performances. The nature of the shortened format, though, has usually meant that an innings constructed with graceful ingenuity is reduced in its prettiness by grotesque hitting that is seen as a necessity in the slog-overs. Martyn’s elegance, however, was never cheapened by the layout of the game – he could make a swish over extra-cover look like a stroke from Picasso’s paint-brush. That he played the 2003 Final with a broken finger was never apparent. A batsman couldn’t have looked calmer at the crease.

If one were to generalise, Australian batsmen would fall into a prosaic category, ‘the gritty and the determined’. But the country has also been blessed with some of the most artful batsmen in the history of the game – Doug Walters, Greg Chappell and Mark Waugh to name the finest of a class, in which Martyn, most definitely belongs. Peter English once wrote that ‘Martyn can make Mark Waugh’s strokes look ugly and hurried.’ The knock in the 2003 finals explicitly paraded the truism in English’s words. It was compiled with a perfect amalgam of crafty placement and sublime timing. Martyn played the spinners so late, almost after the ball had passed him, and yet not once did he look ruffled. Although punctuated by seven fours and a six, the hallmark of the innings was the manner in which he found the gaps off the spinners, rotating the strike with metronomic ease – an aspect of the game that is often ignored in highlights packages. The pick of his boundaries was a six over extra-cover off Zaheer Khan – a graceful six if ever there was one. He may have eventually only played second-fiddle to a rampant Ponting, but there was enough in his innings to leave an indelible mark in my mind. We will be lucky if the upcoming World Cup produces a performance half as elegant as Martyn’s was.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Lost Art of Defending

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The illustrious Italian journalist, Gianni Brera is reported to have once written that ‘the perfect football game would finish 0-0’. Going by his philosophy, yesterday’s seven Barclays Premier League fixtures in which forty one goals were scored would represent hugely imperfect contests. Goals, though, some would say, always make for a satisfying treat and it may be wise to shun the larger tactical causes and enjoy the occasions as it were. But even if we were to disregard the views of Brera, which may appear to border on the ludicrous, goals that result out of defensive lapses of amateurish magnitude and a lack of tactical acuity from the teams are of far inferior alluring value.

A significant part of football’s splendour lies in its low scores. Goals are meant to be a premium and a team’s ability to defend competently while not compromising on its attacking options is a vital element of the sport, and contributes towards much of its beauty. Spectacular as some of yesterday’s games were, they were marked by particularly pitiful defending. The Newcastle United–Arsenal fixture, for instance, embodied a typical game of two halves, only though for all the wrong reasons. Arsenal were no doubt irrepressible in the first period, spraying incisive passes that tended to beguile, but the nature of Newcastle’s defending must have had its fans cringing in anguish – the space that was allowed to each of the scorers to either stroke or head home their finishes was quite inexplicable. In the second half, it was the turn of the Arsenal fans to cringe as their team somehow contrived to let slip a four goal lead. Some would point to the red card accorded to Abou Diaby that preceded Newcastle’s goals as the basis of Arsenal’s failings, but the incident only served to mask their otherwise deplorable defensive showing.

At the Molineux, Manchester United, hitherto unbeaten and perched at the top of the league, scored inside three minutes before allowing Wolverhampton Wanderers to equalise and take the lead inside the first half by committing acts of footballing hara-kiri. Rafael’s decision to turn his back on Matt Jarvis and allow the Wolves winger to take a quick corner led to a free header for George Elokobi for the equaliser before Nenad Miljas’s floated free-kick was bundled in by a gratefully unmarked Kevin Doyle to give the home side an advantage that eventually proved insurmountable.

A glimpse at the highlights of the other games played yesterday and a reading of the match reports clearly indicate that wretched defensive performances pervaded across the league. Maybe this was nothing more than a flash in the pan, with a rare concoction of attacking brilliance and shoddy defending providing a day of nutty entertainment. But defensive frailties have been at the root of the problems of almost all teams near the top of the League. Nemanja Vidic has, perhaps, been the outstanding defender in England this season, but as a team United have looked dreadfully vulnerable from set-plays. Manchester City have been steadier than most at the back, but a centre-back pairing of Vincent Kompany and Kolo Toure does not always inspire the greatest confidence. Arsenal’s failings are far too well documented to hark back upon, while Chelsea have the found the need to splash twenty-five million pounds on David Luiz, a young centre-back of supposedly rich talent. Are these problems, though, a mere reflection of the quality of players or are they a product of greater tactical causes?

Zonal marking from set-plays – where defenders mark specific zones of the penalty box as opposed to an assigned opponent – has often been derided as a tactic incapable of providing success. Every time Liverpool conceded a goal from a set-piece during Rafael Benitez’s tenure, it was attributed to ‘inherent flaws’ of the zonal marking system that was in operation. Yet, when teams using a customary man-to-man marking method concede goals from set-pieces, rarely is it considered a result of the system, with only its poor implementation deemed as the cause – best exemplified by Liverpool’s own movement away from the arrangement.

For all the hostility against the method, in theory, zonal marking seems a sensible tactic. By stationing its best defenders in the most dangerous zones inside the penalty box, a team is quite likely to alleviate the pressures of defending its goal. One of the primary concerns against the system relates to a defender’s ability to deal with attackers who have a run on them. But as Howard Wilkinson says: “Attackers get a run on you whether you are zone defending or man-for-man marking. They always call the shots. You start from a standing position but once the ball is in flight, you’ve got the distance the ball travels to get yourself moving.” Of greater practical significance, though, is Alan Hansen’s statement that the use of the system by the hugely successful Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s of which he was a part, never weakened their ability to win Championships in England or in Europe.

An interesting parallel may lie in the larger movement towards zonal marking as a holistic defensive strategy. For many years, teams had defended by assigning a specific defender to deal with each of the attackers with the very notion of marking in zones considered antithetical to football strategies. Luis Vincio at Napoli in the mid 1970s and Nils Liedholm at Roma in the early to mid 1980s had tested a system involving zonal marking with variable success, but it found its perfect synthesis only under Arrigo Sacchi at AC Milan in the late 1980s. Sacchi’s system entailed pressing in zones and concentrating on marking space as opposed to marking in relation to the position of individual players. The success of his Milan side is often considered the last great tactical revolution, with almost all modern-day teams applying a version of the system. Yet, when it comes to defending set-pieces, a general opposition to zonal marking continues to persist. In almost all of the six seasons under Benitez, Liverpool were amongst the teams that conceded the fewest goals from set-pieces – a statistic that should be a celebration of the tactic as opposed to the misplaced indictments that are often served out.

On the face of it, a tally of forty one goals in seven league games is suggestive of a league that is brimming with attacking excellence. Behind the facade, though, lie the blighted defences that constitute the more telling cause behind the goal-glut. Any argument in favour of the Premier League’s quality must be softened by its defensive artlessness, which runs counter to one of the fundamental elements that makes football beautiful.