Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Health of Indian Cricket

A couple of months ago a certain maverick Indian wicketkeeper batsman hit a massive six and with a magical twirl of the bat brought the World Cup to India after 28 long years. Fast forward a few months before that and you remember the images of VVS Laxman defying South Africa and it’s mighty pace attack on a green, seamer’s paradise in Durban and granting India the victory that would ensure India would retain 1st place in the Test ratings.

By current ratings, the Indian team is the world’s premier test side and the number 2 ODI side. This in itself is quite an impressive feat without mentioning the fact that they’re the reigning World Champions as well. It would be quite easy to say Indian cricket is in the rudest of good health and looks in good shape for many more years. But one must remember that, the same was said about Australia, only a few short years ago. Over the last few years “analysts” have always insisted that the structure and the policies of the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) are examples to be followed by the rest of the World. I beg to differ.

Replacing a certain Shane Keith Warne and his partner in crime Glenn McGrath was never going to be an easy task. But the alarming lack of ability in the new generation of bowlers in Australian cricket has really been a huge setback to the Australian National team. The once famed domestic structure has failed to deliver bowlers who are both fit and capable of winning test matches for Australia. But where did they go wrong? Wasn’t Australia the country with the model structure? What happened?

Some say every cricket team will ebb and flow and this is just a trend that will last for a few years. This could possibly be true, but in my mind Australian cricket through all its’ success had one major flaw and that was its’ bench strength. Bench strength in fact, might be the wrong term to use. What I mean by bench strength is the flow of good, young, talented players into the fold. There were some worrying signs initially, when Mike Hussey returned to the fold at the young age of 30. Then when Warne moved on, Australia replaced him with Stuart MacGill (his long time understudy) and then subsequently Brad Hogg, both once again on the wrong side of the 30’s. And yet again, with McGrath’s retirement, the replacements that flowed through were Stuart Clark (30+ again), Gillespie (On the verge of career end himself), Michael Kasprowicz (near the end as well), Shaun Tait (Proven completely unfit), Nathan Bracken (Injured himself and never returned), Doug Bollinger (Good but consistently injured), Mitchell Johnson (Highly erratic) so on and so forth.

It’s understood that great players will always be difficult to replace, but the way Australia have struggled is something India must learn from. Ahead of the tour of the West Indies, it pleases me that India have taken advantage of the senior players’ requests for rest and sent out a side of youngsters eager to test the waters of international cricket. On the batting front, India always seems to be a healthy nation. A score of batsmen are waiting in the wings ready to take advantage of any loss of form on the part of those in the team. However, like Australia, India is only a few years away from facing a big challenge in their bowling department. In fact, the challenge may have already begun.

Zaheer Khan is currently without question THE lynchpin of the Indian bowling attack. He has been absolutely remarkable not just with the ball in his hands, but standing at mid off and mid on, in the ear of his compatriots, as well. His importance to this Indian team is unquestionable. In both the test format, as well as the limited overs formats, Zaheer’s performances have ranged from brilliant t other-worldly. One might even say most of India’s successes in the last couple of years, have been down to him.

Analysing the rest of India’s bowling attack isn’t as simple. The game has evolved over the last many years into one where the requirements of bowlers now vary strongly from Tests to ODIs & T20s. For example take India’s pace bowling stock of Sreesanth, Ishant Sharma, Ashish Nehra, Praveen Kumar, Vinay Kumar, Umesh Yadav, the young and quick Varun Aaron, Rajasthan’s up and coming duo of Pankaj Singh and Deepak Chahar, Munaf Patel and others. One look at this group and already you start arranging them unconsciously into Test and LOI bowlers.

The likes of Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma would be difficult to pick for a LOI squad simply because they are quite capable of spraying the ball around and leaking runs uncontrollably. In tests however, when they are bowling in rhythm, they are must haves because of the bucket-load of wickets they can generate. On the other end of the spectrum you have the likes of Ashish Nehra (deemed unfit for 5 day cricket) and Munaf Patel who you can bank on for a solid 10 overs of “within the stumps”, but not for picking up a five-for to win a test match. It is possible that this trend will reach acceptance and teams will have different attacks for different formats. But the fact that there doesn’t seem to be one real top quality bowler who can one day fill in Zaheer Khan’s shoes, is a very worrying sign for Indian cricket.

A look at the spin department is only slightly more positive. Harbhajan Singh, in my mind, has stretched his test career out for too long. His strike Rate which was once in the early 60’s is now threatening to reach the 70 mark. He seems to be used in more of a containing role than a wicket-taking role. His pace, line and length are of course well-suited for the limited overs games. Even in tests when he had an equally frugal Anil Kumble at the other end, his bowling served its’ purpose since pressure was being built at both ends. Now with a Sreesanth or an Ishant Sharma being his bowling partner he’s got to be more attacking with his bowling, something he seems unable to do. The problem now is who, to replace him with. Ashwin is another bowler dependant on wearing out a batsman. Iqbal Abdullah made his name being the stock bowler for Mumbai’s Ranji team. Piyush Chawla without a doubt has been a spectacular failure. Pragyan Ojha again, is a stump to stump bowler. The only real attacking spinner on the horizon seems to be Amit Mishra who while being a good attacking bowler, struggles with inconsistency. He is definitely a man who should be given more opportunities, but for that the Indian selectors must be ready to ignore reputation and performances a long while ago. Harbhajan Singh has only four 5-wicket hauls in the last 50 innings and 12 four-wicket hauls in that period. Being our premier wicket taker along with Zaheer Khan, you would expect a lot more from Bhajji wouldn’t you? Of course you might argue that his record might have suffered from playing abroad more. That would be incorrect, since only 10 off these 50 innings have been in South Africa and England. The rest are in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh places where you’d expect Bhajji to pick up 5-wicket hauls with more regularity than one every 6 tests or so.

One thing Australia was famous for was their emotion-free selections. Steve Waugh was asked kindly to retire gracefully. The same happened too, for his stylish brother Mark. The list of dumped Australian players, who contributed to the cause immensely, is quite long. India on the other hand kept a struggling Kapil Dev on board till he finally took down Sir Richard Hadlee’s record. At this time where India’s fabulous batting line up is in transition, the Indian selectors must be careful with the likes of Rahul Dravid. Dravid is in a bit of a lean patch and some may even say he’s over the hill. The selectors after the tour of the West Indies must look at his position seriously, if he fails to perform. The only two untouchable batsmen to be are of course Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. I feel any Indian batting line up must be able to bear the burden of an out of form Sehwag, simply of what damage he can cause when he gets going. Sachin of course has earned the right to choose his path for himself. MS Dhoni might be on his way to making this list but it is a couple of years too early to say so for sure now. The point I’m trying to make is that India have got to approach transition with care and not be forced into it, like Australia were when Warne and McGrath retired.

India’s cricket team, in my opinion, should permanently remain in transition, with new players getting chances every now and again. This will serve in not just unearthing new young talents, but ensure that established cricketers are constantly reminded that only their performances count. In the past, Indian cricketers have lulled themselves into a slumber thanks to the hesitance of the Indian selectors in dumping an “established name”. If India are to remain a champion side they must constantly reinvent themselves.

In conclusion, I’d say Indian cricket is in pretty good health. However, the bowling unit could use some freshening up. Also, the team must continue to be in a state of permanent transition with new players coming in all the time to ensure that India always has a strong pool of talent to pick from. This will hold India in good stead when the likes of Sachin, Zaheer, Sehwag etc decide to hang up their boots. As Australia discovered, talent doesn’t just show up every time you want. India must find, collect and cultivate talent, to ensure long-lasting dominance of world cricket.

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