Thursday 29 March 2012

Sri Lanka Defeat England in Thrilling Test...

Well we hoped for a while, didn’t we?

As Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior expertly marshalled England to a score of 233-4 chasing an improbable total of 340 in what would have been the biggest successful run chase in the annals of English cricket, even the most pessimistic of England supporters, myself included, had begun to harbour a trace of hope. 

Herath - Destroyer in Chief
Bookmakers had by this point installed England as odds on favourites to claim victory, clearly more confident than those Englishmen simultaneously chewing fingernails to the bone and worrying that one more wicket would spark a batting apocalypse the likes of which only England are capable of initiating. 

The pessimists, as they tend to be when discussing England in the sub-continent, were of course correct. A collapse of stock market proportions circa 1929 ensued upon the rather unfortunate dismissal of Prior, resulting in the last six English wickets falling for a meagre 31 runs.

There were positives to take from England’s doomed run chase at Galle, an effort in which they ultimately fell short by 75 runs; not least the manner in which Trott and Prior vigilantly accumulated runs and successfully rotated the strike without undue risk against Sri Lanka’s spinners. Trott in particular highlighted the value of patience, technique and supreme concentration in such conditions. Such an approach was worryingly absent in the UAE at the beginning of the year, and there had been little evidence to suggest that had altered during the first innings here at Galle. The pre-meditated sweep shot in particular proved the downfall of many an England batsman.

It is surely now time for England’s batsmen to stow the broom away in the cupboard until bowlers request it to be used. A feature of the UAE humbling by Pakistan was England kindly offering an over-excitable pitch cleaning service that swept profusely and came free with ten wickets. It appears to still be in existence. 

The sweep shot should not be abandoned, as some are suggesting, and is a key weapon against spin bowling, indeed the great Muttiah Muralitharan despised being swept, but it is a dangerous shot to play to a ball pitching on middle stump. England’s batsmen were again all too keen to pre-meditate the shot here, and once more it proved costly.

As alluded to previously, Prior was perhaps the unluckiest of those to fall as a result of the sweep shot. Connecting well, he could only look on in incredulity as the short-leg fielder Thirimanne showed tremendous anticipation in covering the path of the ball, followed by commendable bravery in taking a blow to the midriff and instant reactions (to add to his rapidly expanding list of accolades) to hold on as it rebounded from his body.

Hope, now diminished from a trace to a mere wisp, still clung on by its fingertips. Debutant Samit Patel boasts a very healthy first class batting record, and being a competent player of spin offered some optimism that he could pick up where Prior had left off. The fact that he got out after reaching only 9 to a rash shot, perhaps borne of inexperience in such a pressured situation, firmly hammered the final nail in to England’s hastily constructed coffin. 

Credit where it is due to Sri Lanka, who relied upon a collection of magnificent individual performances to win this Test match. Captain Mahela Jayawardene batted superbly as others fell around him during a mammoth first innings knock of 180, and his un-related namesake Prasanna kept wicket with distinction along with making a crucial unbeaten 61 in Sri Lanka’s second innings as they endeavoured to set England an unreachable target. Most praise should perhaps be reserved for the unheralded Rangana Herath, though, whose twelve wickets in the match ultimately proved England’s bane and earned him the man of the match award.  

England must now win the second Test in Colombo starting next week if they are to take a share of this series and avoid being usurped by South Africa atop the Test rankings. Evidence compiled across the last four days at Galle would suggest that it may prove a rather difficult task, but the application shown by Trott and Prior on the final day should offer some encouragement that this rotten run of four consecutive Test defeats can be arrested.

What we have seen from England in 2012 thus far is not befitting of a side entitled the world’s finest, with many labelling Andrew Strauss’ side a flash in the pan. They now have one Test to prove otherwise and repair battered reputations, and Strauss himself may not have too much time to convince an increasingly sceptical public that he has what it takes to play international cricket any longer.    

Monday 26 March 2012

With Apologies to Mahela Jayawardene...

I've erstwhile been guilty of underappreciating Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene, and probably still am to an extent. Perhaps it is that he averages a modest 37.94 overseas in contrast to a rather more imposing 64.60 on home soil. Perhaps it has something to do with circumstance; after all, there is a similarly diminutive batsman just across the water in neighbouring India that persists to put the achievements of his competitors firmly in the shade. Whatever the reason, the performance of Jayawardene in Galle today was a stark reminder that it is high time I began to form an appreciation. 
Jayawardene - Oozed class

After winning the all-important toss Jayawardene, back as captain after initially resigning the post in 2010, had little hesitation in sending his charges out to bat and make first use of what looked to be a typically flat Sri Lankan first day wicket. Entering the fray with his side ailing at 15-3 inside four overs and having to negotiate a hat-trick ball from the magnificent James Anderson was not what he would have intended. 

Such situations are where great players distinguish themselves from very good players. That propensity for knowing when to dig in, knowing when to seamlessly switch between resolute defence and strategic aggression and more importantly possessing the mental strength to remain steadfast in the face of adversity are all major elements of a batsman’s game under such circumstances. Jayawardene has all of these in spades. 

The phrase “a captain’s innings” is one habitually referred to in cricket. If there is such a thing, then this was it. Captaincy evidently brings out the best in Mahela Jayawardene, averaging a lofty 70.75 when leading his country. Few in the history of the game have revelled in the responsibility to such an extent. 

From ball one the deep thud of leather meeting the middle of Jayawardene’s willow was every bit as rhythmic as the incessant musical ambiance conveyed from the terraces. Technically flawless defence complemented an assortment of classy strokes, combining poise and placement with power to send the ball sailing over the rope on three occasions, and racing across the outfield on many more. 

Jayawardene’s majestic 168 not out by stumps on day one was not without chance, being dropped on 64, 90, and then rather more fortuitously by the hapless Monty Panesar on 147 and 152. Regardless, it was an innings in which his domination of each and every England bowler was absolute. 

Watching Jayawardene in full flow today was a timely reminder that this is a cricketer worthy of great recognition. The inferior overseas record is a black mark against his name when comparing his achievements to those of other modern greats, and the key reason as to why I personally rank him slightly beneath the very top tier of greatness, but it certainly isn’t one to be scoffed at – just ask Michael Atherton. Jayawardene reminded the cricketing world today that he has the every bit the temperament, array of strokes and resilience of his fellow greats. I’m learning to afford him greater appreciation, and I can only apologise that I didn’t sooner.

Thursday 22 March 2012

England in Sri Lanka: 2nd Warm-up Report and Series Prediction

As England’s second three day warm-up match of this two Test ‘mini-tour’ of Sri Lanka culminated in an unexpectedly exciting finale, thus averting one of those all too familiarly insipid draws so often associated with this beautiful isle, a sense of foreboding ahead of the upcoming five day stuff had still managed to lodge itself deep within my admittedly negative psyche.

Up against a Sri Lankan Cricket Development XI containing plenty of experience in the form of Test capped Chamara Silva, the SSC stadium in Colombo produced a pitch that can only be described as a road, and as roads go this belonged more in the Autobahn category than cobbled side street. Had it not been for two rather generous declarations from the Development XI this fixture may well have been devoid of incident for its entirety. 

England's bowlers toiled
You will hear few complaints from struggling England captain Andrew Strauss, who went on to register a solid first innings century before retiring out. Having last returned a first-class three figure score in the first Ashes Test of 2010, Strauss will have been mighty relieved to spend some time in the middle. Jonathan Trott, Strauss’s makeshift opening partner in place of the rested Alastair Cook, also looked assured in reaching his own century. Trott, one of England’s consistent performers since his introduction to the side, will be quietly pleased after having his own somewhat less documented struggles than his captain of late. 

Kevin Pietersen looked in good order when making brisk contributions of 26 and 52, with the trio of Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel and Matt Prior all providing significant assistance. England’s key concern remains the recent form of Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell, who made just 14 and 11 following his second ball duck in the first of the warm-up fixtures. After enjoying a stellar 2011, Bell’s start to 2012 has been a forgettable one thus far, though it would be somewhat of a surprise should his name be absent from the line-up come the morning of the first Test in Galle on Monday. 

England’s bowlers, without the rested James Anderson and Monty Panesar, had struggled on day one as the Development XI scored with unabated ease. A lack of assistance from the benign wicket coupled with soaring temperatures in Colombo was largely to blame; Matt Prior kept wicket without pads such was the heat. Chamara Silva prospered at England’s expense, stroking an effortless 163 before eventually falling to Steven Finn. 

England’s management are probably quietly satisfied with their charges being made to toil in unfavourable conditions. Acclimatising to the heat and humidity is so often a key factor in a tour of Sri Lanka, and the dogged perseverance of England’s bowling unit paid tribute to the superb fitness regime currently in place under the stewardship of Andy Flower. 

The Development XI found life no easier upon taking to the field on day two following a sporting first innings declaration at 431-6. England’s openers coasted to 197 without loss before Strauss retired out in altruistic fashion. Indeed, if events in Colombo on Wednesday were anything to go by, England may have more than just their Sri Lankan humanoid counterparts to contend with. Clearly sympathetic with the plight of the Development XI in the field several local critters gallantly offered their services. At one moment, with Jonathan Trott just having reached three figures, the Development XI were aided by a monitor lizard fielding at point, along with a rather surly looking cobra sweeping the boundaries edge. 

My sense of foreboding happens to extend beyond the admirably loyalist local fauna, though. Sri Lanka is dubbed ‘the home of the draw’ for good reason, and pitches like that at the SSC in Colombo are a prime example as to why. In short, Test cricket does not need draws. Furthermore, Sri Lanka as a nation does not need draws. 

The travails of Sri Lankan cricket have been well documented of late. A country in the midst of civil war and subject to ineffable atrocities, cricket has so often awarded temporary solace to many, but with inner turmoil and players going unpaid for lengthy periods of time its captivating power may be on the wane in this cricketing hotbed. 

Scores of 600, inevitably resulting in drawn Test matches, will do little to re-captivate that audience. Competitive wickets with a propensity for nail-biting finishes are vital to re-igniting the fervour so often witnessed during the halcyon days of Muttiah Muralitharan. Muralitharan had within his person the power to unite a nation, and whilst no current Sri Lankan cricketer can claim to possess the widespread appeal of the legendary off-spinner, it is within the remit of the curators to produce pitches conducive to exciting cricket so that similar levels of interest snare the attention of the masses. 

Unfortunately, I speak in hope. The reality is that the atrocities are likely to continue, the country will remain divided and Sri Lanka’s cricketing hierarchy have some way to go before their own house is in order. Test cricket has the ability to restore a degree of national pride and unity, and it is for that reason that competitive wickets are essential in the forthcoming series. 

If recent fixtures tell us anything, England can expect to be playing on featherbed pitches offering little assistance for the bowlers of both sides. In such heat and humidity the cricket is likely to be of an attritional nature; one batting collapse or inspired spell of bowling could win or lose a Test match. For what it’s worth, my own prediction is a dull 0-0 draw across the two Tests. 

England’s batsmen, having shown good form across the warm-up fixtures, should prosper against an attack that is notably weaker than that of their Pakistani tormentors in the UAE. Sri Lanka’s own batsmen are naturally well adept in their home conditions and perennial stalwarts Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene may prove particularly difficult to dislodge. 

Both sides possess genuine match winners, but will the wickets produced make victory a possibility? England certainly hope so, and for the beleaguered nation of Sri Lanka there may be wider reaching effects than purely the result of a Test match.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Mohammad Amir: Not Quite Time to Forgive, or Forget…

Watching the fascinating interview between former England captain Michael Atherton and disgraced former Pakistan fast bowling protégé Mohammad Amir last night stirred a number of emotions. Renewed disbelief that such events actually unfolded was just one, accompanied by anger that here sat one perpetrator of corruption within the most gentlemanly of games and of course sadness that one of the greatest fast bowling talents of a generation has been all but wasted.

Mohammad Amir
For those that missed it, watch it, or cast your eye over one of the many transcripts readily available online. An enlightening interview at the least, Atherton accompanies Amir through his early career, unparalleled success as a Pakistani teenage sensation and ultimately to that fateful day when those two pre-arranged no-balls were bowled at Lord’s.

Amir produced a polished, if at times imploring performance throughout. My rather more cynical side says that Atherton’s questions could well have been vetted and pre-observed by Amir, such was the clarity of response and forcefulness of expression. A shred of liberal consideration that I somehow managed to retain countered that Amir’s prison sentence allowed for reflection enough to have his story well regimented in preparation for further inquisitions.

A prevailing sense of empathy dominated the interview, a luxury Amir would unlikely have been afforded had the inquisitor been a skilled QC in place of understanding, sympathetic former cricketer Michael Atherton.

To my mind, forgiveness is being dished out in exceedingly heavy doses from too many quarters. Yes it has left me saddened, not only at the corruption of the sport I love but at the demise of a potential superstar, yet for me the focus is all wrong. Age, nationality and ability should be redundant in such circumstances, with many claiming that the young, naïve Amir was misled. Maybe he was, but maybe Mervyn Westfield was, too, and you’ll see no such clamour for the lifting of Westfield’s ban.

One interview in which Amir, to his credit, tried to give reasoning behind his actions and explain how and why he was manipulated by more malevolent figures does not warrant forgiveness, nor does a short custodial sentence and a temporary ban from cricket. Indeed, many would argue that a lifetime ban and nothing less would have been a more suitable punishment.

One could perhaps be excused for buying much of what this young man from such humble origins told us. After all, Amir isn’t the first sportsman to have fallen after a swift and meteoric rise, and the sense that he was subject to manipulation persisted throughout. Despite much of this being true, Amir’s words were not without their flaws. Atherton enquired as to whether he had received any money for agreeing to take part in spot-fixing, a suggestion that Amir categorically denied. Further digging unearthed the revelation that Amir had provided a mysterious contact known only as ‘Ali’ with his bank account details, a rather strange gesture if the transfer of money was not on the agenda, one would think.

Likewise, Amir’s attempt to portray himself as a scared, naïve and altogether unwitting youngster amidst a world of adults fell somewhat short. Amir was happy to admit that he knew that his involvement was entirely wrong and cheating the game. The very definition of naïve suggests that this should not have been the case. Rather than express his fears to the team management, Amir opted to proceed, knowing exactly what he was becoming involved in, but not stopping for one second to consider the implications or indeed the possibility of being apprehended. It doesn’t instil a great deal of forgiveness, does it?

Compassion and forgiveness play a significant role in human society. The complex and diverse nature of the human being, so often confronted with bounteous choice, and possessing an unrivalled intelligence to act upon that choice, inevitably brings about mistakes in all walks of life. Most of those mistakes are forgiven, or the perpetrator given an opportunity to atone.

Amir is undoubtedly remorseful for his involvement in this spot-fixing saga. And why wouldn’t he be? A rare talent placed this young man with the cricketing world at his feet, the fledgling hero of a nation. Corruption spat at those same feet, and the cricketing world swiftly decided that they were no longer a place under which it wished to reside.

As mistakes go, this ranked at the catastrophic end of the scale. The inner workings of human nature will one day see the majority decide that Amir is ready to be forgiven. Some have already done so. For me, if he is indeed on the road to rehabilitation, Amir must now see out his cricketing ban that runs until 2015, and only then by virtue of his actions and not pleading, remorseful words may this ghastly affair receive some closure, and forgiveness be imparted. 

Friday 16 March 2012

Sachin Tendulkar: The Untouchable Feat

As my heartbeat begins to settle down to something resembling its regular rhythm I am eventually able to put in to writing what the cricketing world has witnessed today. Sachin Tendulkar, record breaker extraordinaire and demi-god to over one billion fanatical Indian cricket enthusiasts, became the ultimate centurion.

Tendulkar - Relief personified
One hundred international centuries; catch a breath and take a moment to absorb the magnitude of such a feat. Stupefying, isn’t it?

A shade over one year had elapsed since the ‘Little Master’ was last sighted removing his helmet, looking to the skies in gratitude and basking in the approbation of a doting nation. Today the wait was brought to an end with a clipped single beyond square leg, and as Tendulkar’s bat went up in to the air, so did a collective sigh of relief from all in the cricketing world. After all, had a Tendulkar innings passed by without mention of that Holy Grail ad infinitum?

Pressure has been a steadfast companion of Tendulkar since first making his bow in international cricket at the tender age of 16. The teenager hailing from Bombay entered international cricket amidst great fanfare of a prodigious talent, a messiah of Indian cricket ready to lead the fightback against the dominance of legendary Pakistani seamers Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram between the nations.

It is often said each time Tendulkar strides to the crease that he is “batting for a billion”, and the crushing pressure of such great expectation would have been sufficient to derail most mere mortals. Tendulkar might just be a tenuous descendent of Sir Donald Bradman, though, because he has emulated ‘The Don’ by laughing in the face of mortality, scorning the audacity of its very presence.

The Little Master was but 17 years of age when notching up the first of his century of centuries, and as the legend grew so did the expectation. Time and again he delivered. To the average international cricketer reaching three figures brings a release of pressure; a surety that their place is all but secure and a moment to bask in the ensuing plaudits. Tendulkar, as with many aspects of his career, was an exception to the rule. Century by majestic century only served to increase demand; Tendulkar’s failures have forever been more than just a personal chagrin. They have failed an adoring nation, too.

Cricket has never bore witness to as complete a batsman as Tendulkar, perhaps the peerless Bradman aside. If the rare ability to play every stroke in the manual with efficient aplomb, maintain perfect poise and balance at the crease and seamlessly switch between defence and attack has been the supercharged engine powering this inexorable run machine, the mind behind the diminutive batsman has undoubtedly provided the steering. Experts will often champion the importance of a clear mind when looking to score runs, and that Tendulkar has been able to do so despite such tribulations makes the man - and this extraordinary feat - all the more remarkable.

Retirement is looming, whether it be this year or the next for the most ruthless run scorer in the long history of cricket, and when that day comes many more eulogies will no doubt be lavished upon this most magnificent of careers. For now we should concentrate on a feat that, in my view, will echo through the ages every bit as much as Bradman’s 99.94, and for once load all of the plaudits that we can muster on to those little shoulders that have been carrying the weight of the world for the past twelve months, and the weight of India for so much longer.

Congratulations, Sachin, and may there be many more.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Happy Birthday Test Cricket - 135 Today.

Today, March 15th 2012, marks a very special day in the cricketing calendar. It is, of course, the 135th birthday of Test cricket.

C. Bannerman
The oldest and longest format of the game was born all those years ago on March 15th 1877, when Australia and England took to the field in Melbourne. Australia won the inaugural Test by 45 runs, with opening batsman Charlie Bannerman scoring 165 to record Test cricket’s first century.

Test cricket has greatly evolved since that day in Melbourne. Whether it be through the abolishment of ‘Timeless Tests’ to make way for the modern five day game that we all know and love, or the tinkering of laws as various flaws were ironed out, one thing has remained unchanged: the Test arena is one for only the very finest of cricketers; a place where each and every participant will face the toughest physical and mental challenges of their careers, and the stage upon which they have an opportunity to seize immortality. Plenty have taken that opportunity, achieving feats that have echoed through the ages and leaving devotees with more than just a transient memory.

To those that have entertained, to those that have left indelible memories in our hearts and minds, and to those that have given blood, sweat and tears for the glory of their nation: we salute you and are truly thankful.

In the modern era Test cricket is under ever increasing threat. A proliferation of limited overs cricket in particular has started to take its toll on this king of formats, and it is surely the duty of every single person in a position of power within cricket to ensure that the tradition, values and status of Test cricket that began on that day 135 years ago is cherished, preserved and enhanced. Test cricket remains strong, but with prudent remedial action those in power can do their part to ensure that, another 135 years from now, someone else is sat in my very place reflecting on Test cricket’s greatest moments over its 270 year life span.

To mark this special day, in ascending order, here are my five greatest moments in the history of Test cricket:

5) Don Bradman dismissed for a duck in his final Test innings

Whilst the retirement of the peerless Sir Don Bradman was a great moment to celebrate the career of the finest batsman that ever lived, it is also perhaps the most poignant in the history of Test cricket. In 1948, arriving at the crease needing only four runs to complete his career with a Test batting average of 100, The Don was bowled for a second ball duck by English leg-spinner Eric Hollies. Surely amongst the most memorable moments in the history of Test cricket.

4) Jimmy Mathews takes the only double hat-trick in Test cricket

Mathews, an Australian leg-spinner, took a hat-trick in each of South Africa’s innings during a Test match at Manchester in 1912. Incredibly, Mathews took both hat-tricks within the same day of play, and failed to take any more wickets for the duration of the Test. A feat that is unlikely to be achieved again.

3) Brian Lara scores 400 not out

In 2004 West Indian batting legend Brian Charles Lara became the first and only man in the history of Test cricket to score 400 runs in a single innings. Batting first on a placid pitch against England Lara hit a gargantuan 43 boundaries and four maximums. Again, a record that is likely to endure through the ages.

2) Jim Laker takes 19 wickets in an innings

Old Trafford, 1956. England’s off-break bowler Jim Laker took 19 of the 20 Australian wickets to fall, and became the first man to take all ten wickets in a single innings. Match figures of 68-27-90-19 provide the finest match bowling returns in the history of Test cricket – don’t expect it to be bettered any time soon.

1) The Ashes are born

Test cricket’s oldest series, and one that was named in 1882 after a mock obituary claiming that English cricket had died (with the body to be cremated and taken to Australia) was published in the Sporting Times following England’s defeat to Australia on English soil for the first time, has led to some of the greatest Test matches. The 2005 series, perhaps the greatest series in Test cricket’s long history, came close to making the top five alone. “The Demon Bowler” Australia’s Fred Spofforth took 14 wickets for 90 runs in the match as England capitulated to 77 all out chasing a second innings total of 85 to win at The Oval. Alleged to contain the ashes of a bail taken from that Oval Test match, a tiny urn was presented to England captain Ivo Bligh in Melbourne during the following series between the sides in Australia, a relic that has been awarded to the winner to this very day. 

Tuesday 13 March 2012

India: Best in all Formats by 2016?

Browsing various cricketing websites and forums, an almost religious tendency of mine during any given day, I get the distinct impression that many Indian pundits and fans alike are a little ‘doom and gloom’, shall we say, concerning the future prospects of their side in Test cricket. Indeed, some maverick heathens have even gone so far as to suggest that India should treat the game’s longest format as somewhat of a sideshow to high octane limited overs competitions.

As reigning One Day International world champions, and with the ever burgeoning success of the Indian Premier League seemingly gaining precedence amongst a number of supporters, players and of course the money men, the question of whether India are going to be sufficiently equipped to compete in Test cricket in the long-term is a valid one.

Naturally, with the recent retirement of Test batting stalwart Rahul Dravid, and the looming departure of fellow living legends Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, there is every reason for concern amongst the Indian cricketing fraternity. Augment that with recent Test performances packing all the punch of an alcohol free cocktail in a straitjacket and one could be excused in forecasting a rather bleak outlook.

Virat Kohli - Budding Superstar
But is the situation really all that dire? In fact, given the wealth of talent consistently performing to remarkable levels in first class cricket, would it be too preposterous of me to suggest that it is well within India's capabilities to become the world’s greatest side in each and every format over the course of the next five years?

Batsmen possessing the unique obdurate technical and mental qualities of the likes of Dravid are born and not made, but within a fanatical cricketing nation whose booming population exceeds one billion the talent pool runs both wide and deep. The conveyor belt of Indian cricket has historically produced exceptionally talented batsmen, and that is one trend at least that appears unremitting. Where Indian cricket aficionados shudder at the very thought of the retirement of their golden generation of batsmen, I would point them in the direction of domestic run-scoring leviathans Ajinkya Rahane, averaging 68.47 in first class cricket, Rohit Sharma (63.52), Manoj Tiwary (61.07) and Cheteshwar Pujara (53.50). After all, a top seven of Gambhir, Rahane, Pujara, Sharma, Kohli, Tiwary and Dhoni possesses a look as formidable as a rampaging Indian elephant commandeered by a tiger blood infused Charlie Sheen, does it not?

The gulf between Test cricket and Indian domestic cricket may be akin to a child’s progression from Subbuteo to playground soccer, but such records are not attained through inconsiderable talent. Of course, other highly talented Indian youngsters, Suresh Raina being a prime example, have come unstuck on quicker overseas decks, but with youth and talent in abundance there remains significant cause for optimism. Batting aside, the fielding standards of the Indian Test team will also undoubtedly be raised by the inauguration of these children of the IPL revolution. Fast bowling, India’s perpetual deficiency, is still very much the quandary.  

Powered by the financial juggernaut that is the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Indian cricket certainly has the wherewithal to address such a problem, and indeed is already showing signs of doing so. Umesh Yadav, a genuinely express bowler capable of reaching speeds of 90mph, garnered some success during India’s recent humbling on Australian soil, despite at times looking as economically sound as a Greek investment banking group. Varun Aaron, another young speedster, has recently been introduced to ODI cricket and looks to be a real find. Add medium pacer Praveen Kumar, a canny swing bowler that stood out for India in the 2011 tour of England in to the equation and India have a perfectly capable battery of seamers to complement promising spin bowlers in Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.

Consistency amongst India’s young seamers remains an issue, but sceptics should remember that the world’s two finest fast bowlers, Dale Steyn and James Anderson, did not find immediate success in their respective Test careers. In Yadav and Aaron in particular therein lies hope that a new breed of Indian fast bowler is arriving on the scene, and that money ploughed in to developing such bowlers by the BCCI is beginning to bear a rather wholesome fruit.

Amongst my suggestions I have of course neglected to mention current Test stars Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan. These two mercurial cricketers still have a significant role to play going forward, despite the advance of years, but if anything their omission here further highlights that India have greater strength in depth than those naysayers would have you believe.

England, South Africa and the re-emerging Australia will no doubt have something to say about India’s chances of ascension to the summit of world cricket, but one key element of my hypothetical Indian line-up is consistency. Those players listed possess the all-round skills required to succeed in each and every format of the game, ultimately creating the possibility of a situation where the Indian Test team mirrors the Indian Twenty20 team. Their adversaries have no such luxury, and it gives India a decided edge.

There are plenty of trials and tribulations ahead for India’s latest crop of hugely exciting youngsters, of that there is no doubt. Batsmen will need to adapt their technique for faster and swinging conditions, as the great Rahul Dravid did before them, and bowlers will need to alter their lines, lengths and variations to suit. India sit on the cusp of seeing another golden generation break through, and their emergence couldn’t be timelier if it’d come disguised as a Rolex watch.

Will they rule the cricketing world within five years? Only father time holds that answer, but contrary to the beliefs of a dispirited nation I for one envisage India being a considerable force for years to come. Like any new relationship, there may be doubts and hiccoughs along the way, but once the dust settles India should be feared once more.

Saturday 10 March 2012

The Wall in England: Five of the Best...

As news broke of his retirement from all forms of cricket on Friday, a tide carrying fitting tributes of the masterful heroics of India’s Rahul Dravid swept unabated through the cricketing world. Amongst the flotsam of such a rip-roaring tsunami are boundless statistics that never cease to amaze.  The most Test runs for a number three batsman. More balls faced than any other batsman in the history of Test cricket.  58 per cent of Test centuries scored overseas. These accolades all belong to ‘The Wall’, or should that now be ‘The Great Wall’, of India?

It is difficult to lavish further praise upon Dravid’s career as a whole, so I will attempt to do so from an English perspective, reminiscing of those times that the wall was relocated from its base in Indore and re-constructed in all its glorious defiance on English soil.

The Wall - Impregnable
England has never been the happiest of hunting grounds for India’s batsmen. Indeed, overseas tours in general haven’t. Between 1986 and 2000 India, in 48 attempts, managed just one overseas Test victory. Dravid’s accomplishments appear all the more impressive for this statistic, given that it covered some part of his early career.

The English cricketing fraternity are largely traditionalists, allowing for all the greater appreciation of the stoic qualities oft exhibited once Dravid strode to the crease. The sight of that immovable straight blade is one we have become all too familiar with over the years. Yes, at times it frustrated, but was always atoned for by bringing us Test cricket in its purest sense. Perhaps fittingly, Dravid’s defiant last stand on English soil amidst the most fragile of Indian batting line-ups, combining poise and class with a sturdy resoluteness that only he was capable of in a series in which he averaged 76.83 despite not winning a single Test, has left a lasting memory of just how much Test cricket, and English fans, will miss this king of batsmen.

 Averaging a lofty 68.80 with six Test centuries in England across his career, here are five of Dravid’s best:

5. August 2002, Trent Bridge – 115

Commencing their second innings with a huge deficit of 260, India faced an uphill battle to save the second Test at Nottingham and avoid going 2-0 down in the series. India’s magnificent triumvirate of Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly put together vital middle order partnerships after the early losses of openers Virender Sehwag and Wasim Jaffer, with Dravid alone of the Indian batsmen going on to reach three figures. Made in 244 balls, Dravid’s 115 in the face of high class fast bowling was a masterclass in obdurate defensive batting, allowing India to eventually save the Test.

4. July 2011, Lord’s – 103*

Following England’s impressive first innings total of 474-8 declared, India in reply crumbled to 286 all out. With no other Indian batsman passing 50 Dravid, opening in place of the injured Gautam Gambhir, carried his bat through the entire innings to be left stranded on 103 not out. Showing immense grit and technical skill in the face of high quality swing bowling that was perhaps his career trademark, Dravid frustrated England as his teammates fell around him. A masterclass in every sense of the word, this is a must see innings for any youngster learning how to bat against swing bowling.

3. August 2002, Headingley – 148

India’s imposing first innings total of 628 made a mockery of what were actually testing conditions on the first day of the third Test at Leeds. Described by then England captain Nasser Hussain as one of the finest centuries he had ever seen, Dravid amassed 148 runs as only Dravid could; watching each ball with all the patience of a waiting heron before striking whenever England’s bowlers strayed in to his preferred areas. Shrugging off blows to the chest, shoulder and helmet with barely a flinch, Dravid set the platform from which teammates Tendulkar and Ganguly could unveil their full array of masterful strokeplay against an ailing England attack en route to achieving India’s first overseas innings victory since the late 1970’s.

2. August 2011, The Oval – 146*

With their toothless bowling attack being put to the sword yet again during England’s first innings 591-6 declared, India’s batsmen found themselves staring down that all too familiar barrel. Again, Dravid was the only Indian batsman to pass 50. Opening once more, Dravid carried on where he left off at Lord’s and went unbeaten throughout the innings as his teammates capitulated, displaying those same powers of concentration and infallible technical ability to repel England’s relentless swing attack. Unfurling numerous exquisite drives with typical Dravid grace and poise, this titanic innings makes it in to second place.

1. September 2002, The Oval - 217

The number one spot is reserved for Dravid’s sole double hundred on English soil. Following England’s mammoth first innings total of 515 in which Michael Vaughan made a sublime 195, India had to bat big and bat long to stand any chance of saving the fourth Test and thus the series. Dravid, with the aid of those same old accomplices Tendulkar and Ganguly, did just that. Eclipsing Vaughan’s effort, ‘The Wall’ went on to spend over ten hours at the crease, making 217 in a colossal 468-ball vigil to ensure that India left England with a share of the spoils. Unfurling a mercilessly dead bat, and with barely a false stroke to speak of on a turning pitch, Dravid crawled to a third successive Test century. Frustrating, dull and without ambition; this was the type of innings that Dravid revelled in. Quite simply, he loved batting, loved making the opposition toil, and loved to score runs. Here, he fulfilled those criteria, and in the context of the match it proved the perfect innings. Vintage Dravid, and conclusive evidence that there has rarely been a better batsman for all conditions.

Throughout these five chosen innings Dravid frustrated us like no other, but as connoisseurs of Test cricket we endured it with begrudging admiration.  International cricket will be a lesser place without the eloquence, professionalism, class and sportsmanship exuded in spades by ‘The Wall’, but here in England the memories will endure. There really is, to quote Sachin Tendulkar, only one Rahul Dravid.