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Even though India lost the Test series to South Africa 2-1, and even though their lone victory came after the series was already decided, the Indian team’s performance was commendable and the result as good we could have expected. Even in the first two tests, India were always in the game and had their catching been better and had they fielded the right team, they could have won at least one of the first two matches and taken the series 2-1. This is not to offer excuses or indulge in ” coulda, shoulda, woulda.” South Africa won the series all right but for Indian fans there is much to be happy about. Topmost among them is the lion hearted performance of our bowlers. In all three tests, India were able to bowl out South Africa in both innings, a feat rarely achieved by past touring sides from India. Before the tour started, I’d been very curious about how our pacemen would fare on  the fast sporting South African tracks. They did just fine. True, they did not always bowl the right lengths and were sometimes wayward in their deliveries but overall they acquitted themselves very well. When they were all bowling well, they mounted sustained pressure on the Proteas batsmen.  Bhuvaneshwar was magnificent, Ishant slightly less so. Shami and Bumrah were not always consistent in their lines and lengths but they had their moments. Overall, a very good performance by the unit.

The other thing that is praiseworthy is the fighting spirit displayed by the entire team, particularly the batsmen who stood up to a fiery pace attack in the second innings at Wanderers. On a pitch with unpredictable bounce with balls rearing up sharply, the entire team showed grit as they compiled a match-winning total of 247. This sort of stout hearted resistance has not often been seen in past Indian teams. Full credit to the batsmen and to Kohli for fostering this never-say-die attitude. Kohli also deserves accolades for his batting in the series, never more than in the second test when he gave a batting masterclass in the course of his superb innings of 153.

On the other hand, Kohli also deserves censure for the team selection. No matter what he says, I’m sure his was the decisive voice in selecting the playing XI. He has tried to justify his moves in selecting Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma over K.L.Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane but his reasoning doesn’t hold water. The first two have well deserved reputations for being vulnerable on seaming tracks. Meanwhile,  Rahane was not only India’s best batsman in matches abroad but India’s best slip fielder. To have persisted with this folly in the second test while also leaving out Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, India’s most successful bowler in the first test, was indefensible. I cannot help thinking that Rahane was omitted because Kohli sees him as a possible rival for the captaincy.

One wonders what would have happened if Anil Kumble were still the coach rather than Ravi Shastri who doesn’t seem to do much. Shastri  seems to go along with everything that Kohli wants and he also does not provide anything in the way of strategy or coaching. If Kumble had been in his place, one feels things would have been quite different. There would not have been these selection blunders and Team India would not have been so sloppy in the field. Kumble is just as committed to winning as Kohli is even though his style is different. When Kumble was let go, we were told that unnamed team members thought he was too much of a taskmaster. Well, perhaps a task master is just what was needed for this young team. Perhaps then we would not have seen spectacles like Pandya being run because he failed to ground his bat, Pujara being run out twice in the second test and Pandya and Shami colliding as they fluffed a chance for a simple catch. Kumble’s experience would also have been invaluable to the bowlers. And finally, Kumble would have reined in Kohli’s aggressiveness and his unnecessary abrasiveness. As it is, Kohli is not making any friends for India with his behavior and is a terrible role model for the team.

Still, this has been a good start to the tour and cricket fans will be waiting with bated breath to see what happens in the ODIs and T20Is. Having run South Africa close in the Test series will have immeasurably increased the team’s confidence.

Go India.

 

 

 

 

 

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Two weeks ago, there were three Test series simultaneously in progress: New Zealand- West Indies, India – Sri Lanka and the Ashes Tests between Australia and England. Three of us – all of Indian origin- were following the cricket on TV and all of us plumped for the Ashes over the other two series. Granted this was the most competitive of the three  series but, had it not been so, we would still have preferred to watch it. Why? What is it that makes the Ashes so compelling even when the teams are not evenly matched ?

Part of the charm can be traced to tradition and the regularity of these contests. England and Australia have been competing in these series for more than a hundred years and the prize for which they vie ( the ashes of bails used in a long ago contest) adds to the mystique. Even though, South Africa, India , Pakistan and New Zealand often have strong sides and play good cricket they do not play each other with any regularity; traditions and rivalries have not developed to the same extent. But there is more to it and, in my opinion, these are the reasons:

The pitches and the conditions make for a more even contest between bat and ball. In Australia,  pitches are hard and fast, a paceman’s delight. Speedsters are able to menace batsmen with sheer pace and high bounce. In England, the heavy atmosphere enables the quicker bowlers to move the ball in the air and confound batters. Spinners play a supporting role to fast bowlers but, when they are really good ( Warne/ Laker), are equally a threat to opposing batsmen. And yet,  when batsmen are up to the challenge, it is a delight to watch them master opposing attacks before cutting loose.  In contrast, pitches on the subcontinent are usually batsman-friendly featherbeds on which bowlers ( particularly pacemen) toil without reward. Whether by accident or by nature, the pitches tend to break up in the latter stages of a match so that winning the toss plays a larger part in determining who wins the match. Sometimes , as happened at Nagpur and Pune the past year, the pitches are prepared to be unplayable  minefields where the best batsmen in the world struggle against even ordinary bowlers. In either case, it is an unfair contest and not as interesting to watch –  unless you are one of those ” fans” who wants your team to win at all costs.

Because of the nature of the pitches in Ashes tests, the result is often in doubt until late in the match. In the test now being played in Perth, at the end of the first day’s play, England were in a great position at 305 for 4.The morning of the second day , Malan and Bairstow carried on where they had left off overnight and took the England total to 368 for 4. A huge total, 500 even 600, seemed likely. Then the unthinkable happened and the last 6 wickets fell for only 35 runs. England were all out for 403, a good total but not formidable. It looked even less daunting at the end of the day’s play with Australia at 203 for 4, and Steve Smith still unbeaten on 92. Suddenly, the Test which had appeared to be in England’s favor was dead even ( perhaps even slightly in Australia’s favor). Considering that Australia have to bat last, it is not possible to say with certainty what will happen next. Either side could win or it could end in a draw. Whatever the outcome, cricket fans will be captivated until the end. In comparison, particularly in matches in the subcontinent, the result is often a foregone conclusion by the second day’s play and, once one side has established an advantage, the result is never in doubt. Most often it is a victory for the side batting first; otherwise, it ends in a tame draw.

In Ashes tests, because the pitches do not deteriorate as fast, it is possible for underdogs to battle for a draw. That too makes for a compelling spectacle. Such tussles which feature dogged resistance and fightbacks against hostile bowling are full of tension. Runs may be slow in coming but that is immaterial. Defending one’s wicket is the order of the day and spectators watch every ball with bated breath. Such draws are different from those mentioned in the earlier paragraph where there was never a chance of a decision.

Finally, the Ashes usually feature good fast bowlers on both sides and, for me, it is a most exciting spectacle. It is thrilling to watch a genuine speed merchant gallop to his mark and hurl a thunderbolt to the crouching batsman. The latter has only a split second to decide whether to play the ball, duck or sway out of its path or leave it to thud into the gloves of the wicketkeeper. Every delivery is an adventure. Spectators feel a frisson of excitement because of the element of danger; a slight misjudgment on the part of the batsman could result in a catch or an lbw shout or , God forbid, injury. Helmets and pads provide some protection but a 145 kph delivery thudding into the ribs can cause severe damage.

And those are the reasons why I like to watch the Ashes.

P.S Some of the reasons I mention are, of course, generalizations. They are not always true. South Africa often has a good pace attack, Indian groundsmen sometimes prepare sporting pitches and Ashes contests sometimes result in 5-0 whitewashes. On the whole, however, my reasons hold good. At least I think so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After their runner-up finish in the just concluded Women’s World Cup, the Indian women cricketers came home to a rousing welcome from fans and unprecedented coverage on TV and newspapers. Hundreds of fans, more than half of them girls and women, were on hand to greet them at the airport, to cheer them and get them to pose for selfies. It must have been an unbelievable experience for the cricketers who have labored in obscurity for all these many years.

Prior to the WWC ( Women’s World Cup), most cricket fans in India would have been hard put to name any of these women cricketers.  I myself had only heard of two of them, Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami but I live in the U.S where cricket coverage  is almost non-existent. Once the WWC started , however, I quickly became familiar with all of the players, their stats and even some of their life stories. As the tournament progressed, my interest grew and their performances in the semifinal and final blew my mind… as it did the minds of cricket fans in India, male and female. Mithali Raj, the Indian captain, had only 7,000 Twitter followers at the start of the World Cup; by the time it ended, the number had swelled to 155,000. It was recognition long overdue for a player who has devoted over 20 years of her life to the game.  A former teammate has related how during training camps, Mithali’s day would start at 4:30 each morning and end only at 8 at night; in between, she would go full tilt all the time. Knowing that curries would not be available when touring abroad, Mithali would go on a diet of boiled vegetables and saltless food one month before the tour started. Now that is dedication.

What I’m really happy about is that the fans adulation  did not diminish in spite of the loss in the final. I hope that fan interest in women’s cricket will continue and result in TV coverage and financial opportunities for the women players.

The truth is  that Indian women cricketers have been shamefully neglected until now. Of the 15 players who represented India in the WWC, only 11 had been awarded contracts by the BCCI and of those eleven, seven had contracts paying them less than $ 1,500 per month. Such parsimony on the part of the BCCI is unconscionable when one considers its bulging coffers and the riches it  lavishes on the men cricketers and the opportunities it gives them in terms of TV coverage, fame and endorsements.

By contrast, the women’s game has no televised games or regular tournaments. The BCCI even refused to let the team participate in multi-discipline tournaments such  as the 2014  Asian Games where the Pakistani women won the gold. I can’t conceive of any reason for such step-motherly treatment except sheer bloody-mindedness and arrogance on the part of the BCCI. After the 2017 WWC, it is difficult to imagine the mistake will be repeated for the 2018 Asian Games to be held in Jakarta.

The lack of international experience definitely affected player performance in the WWC. Only two of the players had played abroad ( in Australia’s WBBL) :Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana. The former played one of the greatest ever innings in the emifinal against Australia and almost singlehandedly catapulted India into the final. Mandhana had two big scores in the first two matches before tailing off. Who knows but that with more experience against foreign players and big match opportunities India might not have held their nerve and pipped England in the final.

These women cricketers have it tough every step of the way. No financial security, poor coaching, no regularly scheduled tournaments and no TV coverage. Most of them got their starts by chance. For instance, some were noticed by perceptive coaches when they went with their brothers to the practice nets. Their parents made great sacrifices to give them the opportunity to compete at higher levels of the game. And , in order to do so, they themselves had to make considerable personal sacrifice,  forgoing education and putting off marriage to play the game they loved. A fortunate few got BCCI contracts or jobs in the Railways or other such organizations, the rest got nothing.

All this will change. There is no way things will go back to what they were before. The women’s  performances  have caught the imagination of the Indian cricketing public and you can bet the BCCI will be quick to capitalize. There is talk of an IPL type tournament for women. If it happens, the resulting TV coverage and financial perks will increase participation in the women’s game, create a larger pool of players who will be better equipped to challenge Australia, England and S, Africa and, down the road, bring greater glory to the country. Good for them. I can hardly wait.

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In a thrilling Women’s World Cup final this past Sunday, India’s women cricketers lost a nail biter to the England Women. They fell 9 runs short and the issue was in doubt until the last over. The sell out crowd at Lords certainly got their money’s worth. Congratulations to England on their victory and to both sides for a well-played match that should do wonders for women’s cricket worldwide. The game attracted more than 100 million viewers all over the world in addition to many more, like me, who followed it on ESPN  Cricinfo.

As a fan of Indian cricket, I am, of course, disappointed by the result but I am elated by India’s heroic performance and the way on which they conducted themselves throughout. Prior to the tournament, a semifinal berth would have been considered an achievement. To make it to the final and come within nine runs of victory was astonishing.  The group stage of the tournament had its share of close finishes, notably England’s squeaker over Australia, but it was the knockout stage of the tournament that really ignited fan interest. The semifinals and the final provided enthralling cricket with each match better than the previous one.

In the first semifinal,( Eng. vs. S.A), South Africa put on 218 for 6 in their allotted 50 overs. In reply, England keep losing wickets at regular intervals; the only batsman to cross the half century mark is Sara Taylor with 54. At the end of the 49th over, England are 216 for 7. With three runs needed off 5 balls, sheet anchor Jenny Gunn hits a single; two runs needed off 4. Next ball, Laura Marsh is clean bowled. Still 2 runs needed as tail-ender Anya Shrubsole walks in. No worries. She smacks a boundary the first ball she faces and England are through to the finals as South Africa lose yet another heart breaker.

Tournament favorites Australia were expected to defeat India handily in the second semi-final. They had trounced India in their group match and India had had to defeat New Zealand in a must win match just to make it to the semis.

What a match! Almost a week later, I still get goosebumps thinking about it . India batting first got off to a slow start; then, Harmanpreet Kaur took over, hammering an unbeaten 171 off just 115  deliveries, with 20 fours and 7 sixes. Despite mounting fatigue, she kept accelerating and smashed her last 103 runs off only 40 balls. Mithali Raj ( 36) and Deepti Sharma (25) provided able support but it was Harmanpreet Kaur’s show all the way. Australia tried everything they had , constantly varying their field placings, packing the boundary line, offspin, legspin, pace…. Everything. Nothing worked as Harmanpreet picked them apart, going the aerial route or finding the gaps between fielders. No wonder she was admiringly christened  Harmanator, Harmonster, Kaurageous and other such nicknames. With India piling up 281/ 4 in 42 overs, Australia faced a daunting task. It got worse when their star player was clean bowled off a snorter and wickets fell at regular intervals. At 169 for 9, the match appeared over but Alex Blackwell, the last recognized batsman, had other ideas. With the stout support of # 11 Kirsten Burns, she kept fighting until she was dismissed for 90 with Australia at 246, just 35 runs short of their target. A gallant display.

The final could not possibly match the fireworks of the semi-final but it was even more gripping with the issue decided only in the last three balls. At 145/3 in 32 overs, England looked poised for a big total when Jhulan Goswami ripped out the heart of the batting order with three quick wickets and England reeling at 164/6. However, useful contributions from the lower order got England to 228/7. In reply, India lost two quick wickets including that of captain Mithali Raj. With things looking bleak at 43/2, Poonam Raut was joined by the redoubtable Harmanpreet and they took the score to 143 before the latter holed out. Still they progressed steadily to 191 without further loss and victory seemed guaranteed. Then unbelievably they collapsed, with the last 7 wickets falling for only 28 runs. Kudos to the England players for holding their nerve and to Anya Shrubsole who finished with a six wicket haul.

It would have been a fairytale ending if India had won in what is certainly the last World Cup match for captain Mithali Raj and veteran medium pacer Jhulan Goswami. It would have been a fitting climax to cap 20 year careers in which they have struggled mightily for little reward. Still, I am not one of those who will moan about missed opportunities in the final, inopportune runouts, or questionable selections and suchlike. These women gave it their all, they displayed unbelievable grit and they won friends with their behavior on and off the field. They should be proud of themselves and what they achieved and we should be proud of them. India’s male cricketers could learn a lot from them.

Thank you, ladies! Bravo! Bravo!

 

 

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Since I don’t subscribe to any of the cricket TV channels, I rely on ESPN Cricinfo for my cricket news. Recently, however, I was visiting in L.A and got to see the India- England test match on TV. What a surprise to see almost all the Indian players with beards! Even some of the formerly clean shaven lads were sporting some serious facial shrubbery. Not like Moeen Ali  or Hashim Amla whose beards come down to the middle of their chests but nevertheless pretty thick.

Now, anyone has a right to grow a beard but these were scruffy and, in my eyes, unattractive. I have a beard myself, but it is short and I try to keep it well trimmed. I am at a loss to understand why the Indian team has gone in for these abominations.

I know that Muslims do favor beards but, other than Mohammed Shami, I don’t think there are any Muslims on the current team. (Even the Pakistani team, which is predominantly Muslim has only three or four bearded players). So if that is not the reason, what is?

One theory that I have heard, a ridiculous one, is that these players grow long beards to make themselves unattractive to the opposite sex . This , supposedly, is to enable them to concentrate wholly on their cricket. Poppycock! Other  than Virat Kohli, I don’t think anyone could be so dedicated to the game. And Kohli has a film star girlfriend. Other theories are 1) that it is a fashion statement  and 2) that it is Kohli’s diktat, meant to ensure solidarity, an us-against-the world attitude. None of these theories hold any water.

Myself, I think it is a good luck charm. Recently, the Indian team has been on a roll, thanks to some impressive all-round performances and some spin-friendly pitches. Having won the series against New Zealand they are now up 3-0 on England though the 5th Test is presently interestingly poised. It could be that they don’t want to jinx themselves by shaving. It has happened in other sports, whether ice-hockey or tennis or football.

If that is indeed the reason, I am in the horns of a dilemma. One the one hand, I can’t bring myself to root against India but, on the other hand, I don’t want to see the  Indian team  take the field looking like eleven Hashim Amlas.

 

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With one match left, the current Ashes Test series has already been decided as England has thrashed Australia 3-1. All four matches played so far have been blowouts and yet the series continues to hold interest for many cricket fans, including me. Even now, I exchange daily e-mails with four other fans: two in Pune, one in California and one in New Jersey. Previously, we used to make our predictions about the upcoming test and who should have been selected/ dropped. Now, our e-mails are more about what went wrong with Australia and what the future holds for the Baggy Green.

Why such interest in a Test series where none of us has any rooting interest,  between two sides whom we do not particularly like ?  It is a question I’ve been thinking about recently. While I cannot speak for my e-mail buddies, I think I know the reasons in my case.

The main reason is that Ashes tests usually end in a result. There are comparatively few draws because the pitches and, in England, the weather conditions make for a more even contest between ball and bat. In England, the vagaries of wind and rain combine for a damp atmosphere that favors swing bowlers; in Australia, the super fast pitches are a fast bowlers dream. The team that masters these conditions can pile up big totals but they have to be earned. Even when there are draws, they often occur with one team hanging on for dear life. Compared to other series, you have few matches in which mammoth totals are rung up and it is obvious halfway through the match that it is going to end in a draw.

What I also like about the Ashes is that they usually feature top class fast bowling with both sides often having packs of genuine quicks, not just one. It is thrilling to watch a fast bowler thundering in and hurling 90+ mph ( 145+ kph) thunderbolts at a batsman while seven or eight close in fielders wait to pounce on any chance of a catch. There are moments of rare beauty when a slip fielder launches himself sideways and grabs the ball as it streaks by him. These caught behind dismissals usually occur off fast bowlers and are  treasured by cricket fans. Who can forget Ben Stokes marvelous catch to dismiss Adam Voges in the fourth Test? Or Stephen Smith’s blinder that sent Moen Ali back to the pavilion? The aesthetics, as well as the intimidation factor and hostility in pace bowling, the clatter of the wickets when a paceman breaks through a batsman’s defenses are a treat to watch. No less enthralling are those occasions when a batsman stands tall and survives the early overs before launching his own assault and driving the ball to all corners of the ground. 

There is not nearly the same charm in watching spinners in action, skilled though they may be. I suppose , in all of us, there is an innate attraction to raw power no matter what the sport. That is why I prefer the serve and volley tennis matches at Wimbledon to the interminable rallies on the clay courts of Roland Garros. That is why, in baseball, home run hitters make more money than high percentage contact hitters.  That is why boxing fans are so fixated on heavyweights even though the best boxers, in terms of skill , are in the lower weight divisions. Power and strength above all.

Definitely, the newspaper coverage of the Ashes adds to their appeal for me. British sportswriters are among the best and the cricket coverage in the Manchester Guardian is outstanding. Such a pleasure to read: in-depth, thoughtful , well-informed with touches of playful humor. The  Aussie papers are pretty good too. In other countries, the coverage may be competent and informative but it is not as much fun to read. I find it too dry and humorless, too fixated on results and on the nitty gritty of the action.

My final reason is that Ashes cricket is, or at least it gives the impression that it is, a sport, not a business. As much as the matches are hard-fought. as much as the teams may dislike each other I get the feeling that , at the end of the day, they will meet at the pub to quaff a couple of beers together.  Well. maybe not after this series. And definitely, Joe Root and David Warner together is not a good idea! It is very different in other series, particularly those played on the subcontinent, where one is all too conscious of the money aspect of the game and the attendant sleaze.

I need not mention the history and tradition attached to Ashes cricket. As cricket fans, we are all well aware of the stories and the personalities that are part of this close fought rivalry. It is also amazing that even with one or the other side having been dominant for periods, the series overall is dead even at 32-32, with 5 series drawn. Test cricket elsewhere may be in the doldrums but the Ashes continue to delight. May it continue to be so.

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The ESPN Cricinfo headline read” Majestic Australia lift 5th World Cup” and, indeed, Australia were majestic as they trounced plucky New Zealand before the packed stands at the MCG. In an awesome display of hostile fast bowling, acrobatic fielding and assured batsmanship, Australia showed why they had been the pre-tournament favorites.

For New Zealand to have a chance, they needed a good start and a big innings from their captain, Brendon McCullum. When he was clean bowled by Mitchell Starc off the third ball he faced, New Zealand’s chances took a nosedive. Taylor and Elliot battled back to take the score to 150 for 3 and , as long as they were at the crease, there was some hope that NZ would be able to mount a respectable total. Then Taylor and Anderson fell and the rest of the team capitulated; the last seven wickets only added 33 runs.
A total of 183 was never going to be enough. Boult struck early to remove Finch for a duck but Warner and Smith weathered the early storm and Clarke took them home( almost) with a masterly 74. It was a fitting end to his ODI career and it was a pity that he didn’t get to make the winning hit.

New Zealand are a game team and should be proud that they made it to the final. Cricket fans everywhere are grateful to them ( and to South Africa) for having given us an unforgettable semi-final match, one that was exciting to the end and was played in the true spirit of sportsmanship. More than any other team, NZ showed us how the game was meant to be played. Well done, Kiwis.

The 2015 World Cup served notice to the rest of the world that we are in for a prolonged spell of Aussie dominance. Their superiority is based on their fearsome pace attack as they seem to have developed a regular assembly line for pacemen. If one goes down, there are three or four waiting to take his place. In the 2013-14 Ashes, it was Mitchell Johnson who wreaked havoc, ably aided by Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Shane Watson. Since then Ryan Harris has been sidelined by injuries and Peter Siddle has dropped off the radar but others have stepped up. In the World Cup, Johnson was as good as ever but it was Mitchell Starc who was the Man of the Series, with James Faulkner and Josh Hazlewood providing good support. Waiting in the wings are James Pattinson, Pat Cummins , Nathan Coulter-Nile and God knows how many others. The batting is just as solid with Stephen Smith showing us that he is in the mold of Michael Clarke, and Ricky Ponting before him. Haddin, Clarke and Watson may be nearing the end of their careers but still look like they have some cricket left in them. The rest are young, talented and still on the upswing. And to think that the number one sport Down Under is Australian Rules football and not cricket ! If not for that, even more athletes would be taking up cricket and making Australia even more invincible.

Looking down the road, it is difficult to see who can challenge the Aussies in the forseeable future. The teams from the Indian subcontinent are physically no match for the Aussies and do not have a quality pace attack. Nor do they have comparable depth. They may occasionally produce a Sachin Tendulkar or a Kumar Sangakarra but not a complete team. England are in the doldrums and likely to get worse before they get better. The West Indies are riven by inter-island rivalry and squabbles between the cricket board and the players. New Zealand performed admirably in the World Cup but this may be their high water mark. They are too small a country to churn out world-class players the way their trans- Tasman neighbors do. That leaves South Africa who have some of the best players in the world ( de Villiers, Steyn, Amla) already on their team and a sizable population to draw from. I hope they can build on their base and challenge the men from Oz soon. The Baggy Green are a great, great team but I wish they were not so hard to like.

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