Archive for October, 2009

Pitch_1The second ODI of the closely-watched and fought India-Australia series, which in all probability may leave an indelible impression on the face of ODI cricket, has drawn everybody’s attention to an indispensible element – the all important 22-yard pitch.

The Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Jamtha, Nagpur, had been host to just one Test in Nov 2008 – also against Australia – before this ODI. Looking back at that test, it was apparent that batsmen are going to have a ball. In that Test, while Sachin hit a century in India’s first inning score of 441, half-tons were scored by as many as four other batsmen. For Australia, Simon Katich was the top scorer with 102, followed by Hussey who made 90 in a total of 355. While India won the match in the end, the most important note made was that the pitch was a belter.  

Coming back to this ODI, Both Ponting and Dhoni were wary of the dew factor at the toss and on the back of that, Australia put India in to bat. The pitch reporters had already predicted 300 to be the par score, guaranteeing value for money for the spectators. Indian stroke-makers found it easy to hit on the up and through the line, making life miserable for the Australians. Never did the run rate fall below six throughout the Indian inning and they amassed 354 – their 12th score of 300 or above in ODIs and the highest against Australia.

The euphoria created by Dhoni (124 off 107), Gambhir (76 off 80 balls) and Raina (62 off 50 balls) had its roots in the pitch. If it wasn’t for the true 22-yard strip in Nagpur, the spectators would not have witnessed post-Diwali fireworks by these three batsmen. If we add Australia’s chasing effort of 255 to India’s score of 354, it totals up to 609 runs in the day, which is what spectators want off ODIs.

It’s about time we realize that wickets falling don’t entertain as much as fours and sixes being hit. Although it’s unfair to the bowlers, that’s how it goes at present. Interestingly, pitches like the one witnessed in Nagpur ensure such entertainment: high score by team batting first is more or less guaranteed, which means the team chasing has to go for the big shots, resulting in entertainment unlimited.

So while the pundits ponder on the possible modifications to the ODI format, the importance of a batsmen-friendly pitch highlighted by this match is surely food for thought.

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Indo-AustraliaIndian bowlers and for the most part Indian batsmen too did little to generate interest among the public in the first ODI on Sunday. The pasting Indian bowlers got wasn’t one bit amusing and many started leaving by the time the seventh Indian wicket fell in their run-chase. Though Harbhajan and Kumar couldn’t win it for India at the end, they certainly have set the series up. A meek Indian surrender was on the cards but for Harbhajan and Kumar who almost did it for India with the willow in hand in a strokefilled partnership of 80 plus – a record for the eighth wicket for India.  

No doubt Australia would have loved to win far more comfortably, but it’s also true that a close finish was best suited to get this crucial ODI series underway; crucial because the future of ODIs more or less hinges on the success of this series. The only change needed in the script was in the climax, which should have ended in an Indian win instead of the usual Australian dominance. Anyhow, ODIs do need such edge-of-the-seat finishes to bring the viewers back and going by how the first ODI ended, the viewers will certainly plug into the series.

Sometimes, however, it seems that the matter is being dragged out of proportions. Phrases like saving the ODIs and dying interest in ODIs become overly frustrating. The only time people don’t talk about it is when a T20 series is going on, which, in a way, is another testimony to the fact that people enjoy T20s more than ODIs.

It’s interesting to listen what the experts opine about this burning issue when they discuss it while commentating. Some of the changes or innovations they suggest are worth giving a try. I have been making a note of what different experts have to say about it and will share it with you in my next post. Until then, enjoy the India-Australia battle, as it enters round two tomorrow.

One-Day-cricketOne day Internationals (ODI) may undergo a drastic revamp depending on the response 7-match ODI series between India and Australia receives, starting tomorrow. If there is a match-up after India-Pakistan that can draw crowd in hoards, it’s the bubbling rivalry between India and Australia.

Much has been said and written about the future of current 50-over ODI format that hangs by a thread after the stupendous growth of T20 cricket. People have found the 20-over format, finishing just in 3 hours, more easy to be accommodated in their respective schedules. Plus, the adrenaline that never ceases to rush in T20 cricket makes it a crowd-puller.

It’s no longer a secret that the two editions of the T20 World Cup and IPL and the recently concluded Champions League have set different benchmarks as far as revenue earnings from a tournament are concerned. The graphs of ticket-counter collections, sponsorships, broadcasting revenues and TRP ratings during ODIs and T20s have taken altogether different course, with the former descending and the latter gaining unprecedented ascendancy.

It can be said and has been observed by experts that ODIs in India are still well received and bring people to the stadium. No doubt T20 has had a global effect, but it’s less so when we compare it in the Indian context. However, that’s only true about attendance at the grounds in India. TV viewership of ODIs has certainly dropped considerably in India as well, since a one-fourth of the day is eaten up if one sits in front of the TV set to watch an ODI. That’s way too much time and way less excitement compared to T20 cricket.

Thus, considering all the above scenarios, this series may act as a stepping stone in either reviving the ODIs or initiate a change in the format. ICC will keep a keen eye on how well or how bad a series involving two of the heavyweights of world cricket, India and Australia, and that too in India, is being received by the fans.

So while fans will enjoy a bitter on-field rivalry and see which team becomes world’s No. 1 ODI team, this series between India and Australia may well hold the key for the future of ODI cricket.

NSW TrophyThe much-hyped Champions League concluded yesterday, with Lalit Modi adding yet another bullet point to the achievement section of his CV. He managed to bring together the domestic T20 Champions of leading cricketing nations, minus Pakistan, under one roof to find champion among champions. Pakistan’s omission can find its reason in bureaucratic battlefield and had no cricketing background.

Top three teams from the IPL; winners and runners up from Australia, South Africa and England; and winning teams from the domestic T20 leagues of Sri Lanka, West Indies and New Zealand slogged to win the inaugural event. Hosted by India, the IPL teams were considered frontrunners to win the trophy, taking into account the familiarity factor and home advantage.

It’s strange how often Indian teams always remain the frontrunners to win multi-team international events. It’s another story that more often than not they have to board an early flight back home due to infamous premature exits. This has been the norm for the Indian national team of late and same was on show in the Champions League as well. None of the IPL teams made it to the semifinals; so much so that the much-fancied Deccan Chargers couldn’t even reach the Super-8 stage.

Kieron PollardAustralian and South African teams were understandably considered favorites as well, more so the Simon-Katich-led New South Wales (NSW) Blues from Australia and Cape Cobras of South Africa captained by Andrew Puttick. Unpredictability, however, remained the buzzword of the tournament, with it being the first club event of international repute and most of the teams not being familiar with each other. The team that was probably the least known among all and took the most advantage of its unpredictability was the Caribbean team from the island of Trinidad & Tobago (T&T). They surprised all and sundry by their team spirit, Darren Ganga’s shrewd captaincy and Kieron Pollard’s breathtaking strokeplay.

Before the semifinal stage, three teams that looked apart were NSW, Victoria and T&T. While T&T won all their matches, the only match NSW lost was to T&T. The tournament was in a way sign of things to come as far as International T20 scene is concerned. The semifinal lineup clearly indicated that Australia was coming to terms with the T20 format and taking it into their dominant embrace.

The four semifinalists included NSW and Victoria from Australia, Cape Cobras from South Africa and T&T from West Indies. While the two Australian teams faced each other in the first semifinal, the other one was played between T&T and Cape Cobras. The presence of many players with international caps helped NSW blunt Victorian challenge and book a place in the finals. T&T, however, got a stiff fight from Cape Cobras before a Bravo flurry of sixes took them home and to the final.

Lee_WarnerA Caribbean victory in the final would have been a shot in the arm for a dispute-plagued West Indies cricket, while victory for NSW would have set the clock in motion for Australia to win next year’s T20 World Cup – the only ICC trophy missing from their glittering cabinet.

The islanders began well but they were up against a resolute team, out there to prove a point and tell the cricketing world that they have mastered the nuances of T20 as well. NSW seemed done and dusted until Brett Lee made his way in – not with the ball but with the bat – and launched an onslaught on T&T bowlers who were running for cover. After helping his team put up a competitive 159 on board, Lee came in running hard and broke the back of T&T batting with two quick wickets. Kieron Pollard was a threat but Brett Lee played a role in his dismissal as well by taking his catch just inside the ropes and then bagging the man of the match award.

As the last T&T wicket fell, a different breed of Men in Blue came running from all corners of the ground. It was the breed that belonged to Australia and one that announced that T20 too is now their domain.

Aus CaptainsOne Day Internationals (ODI) have hit a turbulent zone of late, partly due to T20’s growing popularity and partly due to voices being raised to change its format. It would be fair to add that the latter reason came to light only after T20 format was embraced globally.

Taking an altogether different path, I figured out that one team’s dominance in the ODI version is fast leading to its infamy. No cues are needed to comprehend that it’s none other than the indomitable Australian cricket team. Almost an era has passed seeing the Aussies summit atop a myriad of cricketing peaks, including numerous bilateral series and multi-team tournaments that  accounted for the last three ICC World Cups and last two ICC Champions Trophies besides others.

Nothing can be taken away from the way Aussies have raised the bar everytime they took the field. Their performance, both as a team and as individuals, has become the benchmark for other teams and players to follow. Even Lloyd’s lions of late 1970s and early 1980s didn’t enjoy as long a dominance as Border, Taylor, Waugh, Ponting and their personnel have.

But while the Australians kept ornamenting their cabinet with one trophy after another, a verity kept brewing and has now reached a point where it’s boiling over. The supremacy of the Australian team in the ODIs has negated any interest whatsoever when they play any of the other teams. Most of the matches they play become one-sided halfway through and the interest dies much in advance.

Now the interesting point! Why T20s remain unscathed? Answer: Australia is yet to master it and once they do that, I doubt it too will have to fight for existence as ODIs are doing currently.

Coming to facts supporting the above dogma, it took Australia three World Cups (’72, ’79, and ’83) to come to terms with the ODIs and once they did – barring the 1992 World Cup – they have been the team to beat. From 1987 to 2007, six World Cups took place and Australia was the winner of four (’87, ’99, ’03, ’07) of those and the losing finalist in 1996.

Trying to mull over the solutions to save ODIs from extinction, sorry to say, but I find none. You certainly can’t ask one team to mellow down and the onus of raising the performance level to meet that of the Aussies is completely on the opposite team itself.  The only thing that can be done is at the administrative level and that is to change the format to make it a first cousin of T20.

The idea to make ODIs either a 40-40 affair or a match of four innings of 25 overs each is already doing rounds. It doesn’t sound bad either, especially if it can garner support from all quarters, including the fans, and ultimately helps ODIs survive. But the question remains is what happens if the Australians even master that and other teams are found playing a catching game.  So the ultimate solution doesn’t lie in changing the format but to help other teams pull themselves up.

On that front, the Australian Cricket Board and its technicians, trainers, coaches and other staff now have a responsibility towards reviving ODI cricket. They need to share with other nations what procedures, structure, policies, etc., have they followed that has reaped such huge rewards and unending consistency for their national team. They now have a special responsibility towards the game of cricket to help other countries take it to a level that they have already achieved.

If that doesn’t happen and the aforementioned facts and figures are to be believed, time is not far when the T20 format would also fall prey to Australian skills of hunting.

Australia in jackets

All thoughts of Australia going through a rebuilding process, not as intimidating as before and not playing like champions were thrown out of the window on October 5 as the Aussies successfully defended their Champions Trophy title. Not only did they win the trophy for the second time, they did it in style, banishing any challenge posed by the Kiwis.

New Zealand faces evidently became long on the morning of the match itself. Doubts were raised over skipper Daniel Vettori’s fitness and dark clouds gathered not only over the ground but also over the possibility of his participation in the final. As it turned out, the hamstring pull was severe enough to end Vettori’s Champions trophy and Jeetan Patel was drafted into the XI as spinning replacement and McCullum asked to captain the ship.

The Kiwis – after winning the toss and electing to bat– were soon suffocated by some tight Aussie bowling. McCullum tried 14 times to open his account but the last attempt proved fatal and he got out for a naught.  Nobody really got going in the Kiwi batting line up and wickets kept falling apart. In between, there were two brief stands of 61 between Guptill (40) and Redmond (26) for the second wicket and 65 between Broom (37) and Franklin (33) for the sixth wicket. They were the only notable contributors in an otherwise dismal Kiwi performance that ended with just 200 as the final score.

The Australians shared the wickets with Hauritz taking three of those in his spell of 10-0-37-3, while Lee walked back with two to his credit. Siddle and Johnson took one apiece and two of the Kiwis were found short of their crease on direct hits.

A target of 201 seemed like peanuts for an in-form Australian team with batting lineup that goes as deep as Brett Lee at number nine. To reach that far, early breakthroughs were called for. That responsibility was on Bond and Mills who bowled with great valour, which paid off in the form of two quick wickets of Paine and the big fish Ricky Ponting. Reduced to 6/2, Aussie inning was in turbulence and needed two cool heads at the crease.

Watson and HopesThough Watson and White can’t ideally be considered cool heads, they undoubtedly were two of the many Aussies in form. The two avoided glancing at the scoreboard, which they could afford chasing an okay target. Compared to NZ’s 50 runs for the loss of solitary wicket in 15 overs, Australia were way behind at 34/2, with runs coming at a trickle.

Nevertheless, Watson and White prioritized preservation of wickets and raised the vigil of their stumps. Time spent at the crease and Watson’s confidence from his previous ton in the series saw them middling the ball and finding the gaps more often. The run rate started improving as the partnership swelled. It can be said that by the time NZ had their third success in the form of White (62) in the 35th over, Australia had safely gained lost ground and were cruising.

Hussey (11) couldn’t stay much longer with Watson and left it to Hopes to support Watson who was marching towards his second ton.  The manner in which he got to his ton signified the dominance of Australia in world cricket. He slog-swept the first ball of the batting power play for a six to reach 99 and muscled the next over long on for another six to give himself a century and his team the Champions Trophy.

Australia’s unremitting display of quality cricket added yet another coveted trophy to its glittering cabinet. Undoubtedly, the most deserving candidate to wear the Champion’s Jacket.

NZThe Pakistani flare that took them through to the semifinal was visible only in patches as they took on a much more focused New Zealand side in the second semifinal of the Champions Trophy.

God granted Younis Khan his wish to bat first, as he won the toss. Pakistan’s persistence with Imran Nazir and dillydally with openers continued, To his credit, Nazir (28) looked more in control of his instinct in a sedate but solid partnership of 46. His good work was undone by a scorcher from Bond. The awkward lift from a good length forced Nazir to fend off and glove a dolly to Ross Taylor.

The hope of a dream start became grimmer when the in-form Shoaib Malik edged another one to Taylor to mark the beginning of Butler’s best ODI bowling figures (10-0-44-4). Akmal and Younis failed to steady the Pakistani ship, as Akmal became Butler’s second victim and Pakistan was found disintegrating at 69/3. Younis Khan too failed to play a captain’s knock. He too was caught by Taylor – his third catch – off Vettori.

At 86/4, the promising Umar Akmal strode into the Bull Ring to partner experienced Yousuf.  While he looked unperturbed by the situation and NZ bowlers, Yousuf surprisingly found it tough to rotate the strike and in the process used up precious deliveries, failing to relieve the pressure. The partnership meanwhile grew up to 80 and the score to 166/4 in the 39th over. Looking to pick up the scoring rate, Yousuf  (45) couldn’t guard his stumps and was bowled by Mills.

Separating the last recognized pair of batters worked to NZ’s advantage as the Pakistanis decelerated and fall of wickets continued. Umar Akmal left for a classy 55, LBW to Vettori; and his departure triggered a collapse of the lower order. After making a dent in the Pakistani top order, Butler returned to the bowling crease and dented the lower order as well, removing Afridi and Gul to leave Pakistan at 198/9 with more than five overs left. The situation invited the youthful exuberance of Mohammad Aamer and Saeed Ajmal to the fore and the duo unexpectedly added face-saving 35 runs to finish at 233/9.

While 233 was never intimidating, Pakistani bowling was. This was proved when Aamer removed the dangerous McCullum to give his team an early breakthrough. Guptill couldn’t repeat his performance against Sri Lanka and walked back making just 11 runs. Ryder’s absence was palpable in the vulnerable Kiwi top order. Redmond – who replaced Ryder – looked good for a while but could garner only 31 runs and was take care of by Gul.

At this stage, the Kiwi inning was in need of a partnership and to the teams delight, it did come in the form of Taylor and Elliott who took the score from 71 to 126 in the 30th over. NZ would have dearly wanted both to carry on but it wasn’t to be as Taylor was bowled by Afridi. Pakistan spinners – more than the pacers – were a threat to New Zealand. After Taylor’s dismissal, Vettori courageously promoted himself instead of Broom to tackle spin.  

Seeing his captain leading from the front, Elliot too buckled down but only after he was given a life by Younis Khan while he drove one to the covers. The ball almost lobbed up asking to be caught. Younis – who chose to catch in an upper-cup position – ended up dropping it. I don’t know what’s it with the subcontinent players that they keep imitating their Western counterparts and not sticking to their grass-root basics. As it happened, it turned out to be the decisive moment in the match.

Vettori walked up to Elliott following this dropped catch, after which Elliott put his head down and raised his price tag. As both got their eye in and the runs needed came below 60, they decided to take the batting power play from the 42nd over. The powerplay turned out to be the key to victory for the Kiwis and opened the floodgates for Pakistan. Both the batsmen opened up and displayed their full repertoire. Looking to finish it up, Vettori (41) fell just 4 short of victory. Elliott (75 not out) and Broom completed the formalities and New Zealand reached home with 13 balls to spare.

That’s where we stand now, just one match away from deciding the winner of Champions Trophy 2009. The final will showcase the healthy rivalry – unlike India and Pakistan –between Australia and New Zealand. Nobody, including me, gave Kiwis a chance but as I found out, New Zealand’s record in ICC events advises never to write them off.