Indian Fan’s Surreal Experience

Watching the Indian team yesterday in the first match of the Indian Oil Cup was a surrealistic experience. Looking back 12 hours and a good night’s rest later, one’s first feeling is one of a strange sense of the unreal. In no way – be it outlook, the mood, the emotions it evoked in one or the lack of intense reaction at the negative result – has the experience been any thing like what one has been used to.

To start with was the sight of Sehwag walking out to open with Dhoni. Although one knew, with more than a degree of certainty, that this was the most likely combination, it still was weird to see the brashly confident Sehwag trot out without the graceful felinity of a Ganguly or the commanding presence of a Tendulkar by his side. Somehow, the presence of either of those two stalwarts had provided a kind of solidity , nay – a sense of insurance against disaster, an impending sense of which Sehwag going out with, say, a Kapil Dev would have invoked. Dhoni with Sehwag presented a similar sight.

This is not to demean the effervescent Dhoni who may, inshallah, produce a gem at the top of the order to match his 148 of not so long ago. But somehow, seeing Sehwag saddled with the responsibility of being the senior and, God forbid, more responsible opening partner, was not as mouth watering a prospect as the media and some others, who should know better than the new brigade of sports scribes of India, seemed to make it sound like. India can do without two Sehwag’s at the top, let alone a Sehwag and a Dhoni. One realizes that within a few hours, these two may put up a display of fireworks against the Windies to give the lie to what has been said above but it won’t change the basic validity of the argument. Not, at least, till Sehwag revises upwards the price he puts on his wicket. Needless to say, such an eventuality, in the unlikely event of its ever coming through, might turn out to be worse than the problem we are trying to address.

Next there was the handsome southpaw from Punjab walking in at number three to join Dhoni. There has been a lot of talk of Yuvraj and Kaif being given more overs to play. While one can not deny the exciting talent of Yuvraj and the admirable fortitude of Kaif, there is a tendency to downplay the importance of the number five to seven positions in the batting order. In the stats-driven ambience of modern day cricket parleys, the number of centuries and/or the overall number of runs seem to determine the stature of a batsman even in the vastly different format of the limited overs game. Thus Tendulkar’s 37 odd centuries (and Ganguly’s 22) seem to count for much more with the public, the media and, one daresay, with the players themselves than the invaluable contributions made to a team’s success by those who come in lower-middle or the upper-lower order and clinch games or secure a teams position.

A Bevan is an exception amongst these unsung heroes and that too thanks to yet another stat – his astounding one day batting average. We seem to forget that had he been not out less often (having scored exactly the same number of runs) his average could have declined sharply and to more mortal levels. However, it would not have taken away from his contribution to the Aussie performance in the limited over game. He would still be a limited overs game great.

But, the modern cricket enthusiast does not believe in non-statistical criteria for deciding which of the presiding cricketing Gods he would wish to deify. The media, particularly in the sub-continent, does the same. Perhaps it is easier to understand statistics than the many nuances of a game of the technical complexities such as cricket. Unfortunately, the players finally fall into the trap too. Thus one witnesses a Yuvraj joining the chorus for pushing his own case to open the innings with no one amongst his legion of well wishers to advise him that it was neither in the interests of the team and definitely not in his own personal interests.

But we digress. So Yuvraj joins a ‘debuting-as-opener’ Dhoni.

One is totally clueless as to why it wasn’t Dravid who came in at that stage. Even if Yuvraj was padded up to come in at three, once a wicket fell off the 13th ball of the match, the skipper should have walked in to join Dhoni. Neither Chappell nor the skipper can defend the decision to go ahead with Yuvraj. If Dravid did not want to come in himself, it should have been Kaif. Yuvraj was a total misfit in the role that he now proceeded to play. He decided to become Rahul Dravid.

Having lost Dhoni within just six balls of his own coming to the crease, during which he himself had flicked a ball delightfully to the fence, one can understand that he was loathe to play a Sehwag or a Dhoni – but a Dravid.

In actual practice he did worse. He scored 7 runs in the 28 or 29 balls he faced with Dravid as his partner as they added 22 runs in 60 deliveries. Playing responsibly and playing a game totally alien to oneself are two different things. If playing responsibly was what Yuvraj was trying to do, then pulling at the Dilhara Fernando ball on a wicket with dual bounce and varying speed was the last thing he should have tried. Having exhausted 33 deliveries, and with only Kaif as an experience batsman to come, with almost 37 overs yet to be played and a miserable 44 runs on the board, he will be hard put to explain what he was trying to do.

In came Kaif and tried to steady things with Dravid but fell playing early to another delivery that came slower than expected and India were bereft of any experienced batsman left to stay along with the skipper and Delhi was still much too far.

Someone has asked, on this forum, what is the logic of sending in a rooky at the fall of the fourth wicket at 63 with less than 19 overs bowled. The answer is simple. The team at this stage was left with two rookies and four bowlers. Where was the choice? If they had done as many have advised and played Kumble too, they would have been left with one rookie and five bowlers! The only choice was which rookie to send first. Not having seen either of them before, one prefers to reserve comments on whether the choice of Raina over Rao for number six was appropriate. Enough to say that it made no difference whatsoever. Venugopal too had to come in with still almost 37 overs to go!

One can understand that Raina was making his debut. One can understand that he was going in at a very tense moment for his team. One can understand that he was facing Muralitharan, arguably the greatest off spinner the game has produced. One may also concede that Raina can not read Murali’s ‘doosra’. After all much bigger names than the hapless UP’ite have failed to decipher this devilish gift to the game by Saqlain and taken to a new level altogether by the grinning Tamil assassin from the emerald isle. But, what one can’t understand, is for a batsman making his debut, for a batsman coming in at a critical juncture, for a batsman faced with Muttiah Muralitharan, for a batsman who can’t read the doosra, to try, off the very first ball he faces, a horizontal bat shot. To try to cut Murali, off the first ball he ever faced was absolutely ridiculous. The only reason for not seeing the comic side of it was that it was so tragic. Tragic, not just because a teenager making his debut had been felled so mercilessly but also because one’s loyalties were with the batting side. Maybe if it was Kevin Pietersen falling trying to cut Harbhajan’s doosra first ball in an ODI, one would have been rolling on the floor. As it was, one continued in the stupor that this match had induced from the very first delivery.

In came Venugopal and one got to see this youngster for the first time. He did very well considering the circumstances and showed his mental toughness but to see his cricketing skills in a light bright enough to talk of him as a prospective India player, one will have to see him in better situation as far as displaying his one day wares is concerned. He did no harm to his prospects, nevertheless, and showed he had one vital attribute of a good sportsman, fortitude.

Dravid and Venu put on 58 runs in 13.2 overs. It was the only time during the game that India seemed likely to come back solidly into the match since the fall of Sehwag’s wicket. And then came the big, but totally expected blow.

If there is one thing in Dravid’s batting which is ugly, it is his attempts to sweep, to square leg or (Gawd-help-us) to point. If there is one thing in his batting which leaves huge scope for improvement, it is his ability to sweep. If there is one shot that he plays pre-determinedly it is the sweep. If there is one cricketing shot where he appears not to be in control it is the sweep. And if there is one shot in the game that is alien to the rest of his pristine and tremendous cricketing skills, it is the sweep. Why in blooming Dambulla does he not leave it well alone?

One can clearly recall the time around which Dravid started playing the sweep shot. He was being roundly criticized as not being good enough for the one day game. He was trying desperately to make his place in the side secure. He tried many things but finally what worked for him was the realization that if he stayed at the wicket long enough, he had the game to modify his natural strengths of playing straight batted cricketing shots along with his back foot play with a perpendicular as well as horizontal bat, to make up the run rate. As he succeeded more often than he failed in this slow-start-flurried-finish strategy, his confidence grew in the playing of his innovative straight batted shots. The drives over cover and extra cover executed with the perfection of a Wally Hammond but which went for maximum started coming earlier in his innings and he even started playing cameos on the few occasions that he came in with a handful of overs left.

However, during this period of change he tried to master one stroke which he never played at any level with any certainty and very infrequently if at all. Not that he needed it one bit.

After all, here was a batsman who had stepped out to the leg side attack of the likes of Shane Warne and carted him, with immense certainty of footwork technique and timing, to or over, a wide arc from mid on to mid wicket. Only Laxman and Tendulkar had done this to Warne with success (Siddhu preferring the straighter field fence).

Dravid had no need for this stroke. His repertoire was not incomplete without it as isn’t Laxman’s. But, one suspects, being the incurable perfectionist that he is with a dogged streak to show that he can do with the bat what any one else in the world can, he has pursued this stroke long after his one day credentials have been firmly established as impeccable. What’s worse, he is doing it with increasing regularity. One will not be surprised if he is not spending long time in the nets trying to perfect this shot. Dravid being Dravid, he is not one to easily give up. However, for his sake and for the sake of Indian cricket one hopes the coach will firmly counsel his skipper to forget about the stroke square of the wicket on his knees just as he should counsel the former skipper to forget about the stroke played in the same direction to deliveries closer to his ears while in a standing position!

Dravid’s choice of stroke deserves condemnation in much stronger terms than that of the rookie, Suresh Raina. Not merely because he was also the skipper.

After the fall of the valiant Venugopal who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself by now, one got to see the first view of the Indian team of old in this match, barring the brief partnership between Kaif and Dravid. Harbhajan and Zaheer were in the middle playing the way they have always done irrespective of the runs on the board, especially Harbhajan. One continues, however, to be confounded by the Indian team’s preference of Harbhajan over Zaheer in the batting order.

In between one saw a much more mature batting display by Irfan Pathan. Clearly the brief county stint has done his batting a world of good. He always looked elegant but more than a tad impetuous. Yesterday he seemed to have suddenly grown from a talented boy to a responsible young man. This augers well for the Indian team and it is something which needs to be quickly worked at and we may have the seedlings of an all rounder we so desperately need and have so badly been denied by umpteen false starts and over hyped one match wonders.. If he does blossom, as he certainly looks capable of, Irfan may provide his country with much more than the bits and pieces players that go around in the modern limited over game masquerading as all-rounders.

As Sri Lanka came into chase a modest score, the sense of unreal continued. Not because Jayasuriya was not accompanying Atapattu but because the Indian team seemed to have got out of the set pattern that they followed on the field under Ganguly!

The new skipper asked his opening bowlers to virtually bowl through the initial 15 overs and they did it – with credit. Not only did it show that Dravid was clear in his mind that lasting 50 overs was not an option for India and getting Sri Lanka all out was India’s only hope, but he also went about it with the determination of a captain who believes it can be done irrespective of the situation. Right till the end, with just a run or two left for Sri Lanka, Dravid attacked. This was not what one was used to from India, not when things started looking hopeless.

He also showed that he had confidence in his number three and four bowlers (Nehra and Harbhajan) to bowl the same long spells as his opening bowlers had done so surprisingly well.

The Indians bowled with sustained discipline which was admirable. Wickets fell at regular intervals but never in a heap. Every single Sri Lankan batsman got a start. The fact that none converted it into even a 30 till Jayasuriya came in didn’t cause irreparable damage to the Sri Lankan cause chasing, as they were, a modest 205 to win.

When the 7th Sri Lankan wicket fell, India looked partially in the frame but the veteran Marauder of Mathara had other ideas and those Indians like yours truly who had stayed put at home (not that Mumbai this week allows one to venture into the gloomy outdoors) were left wondering what was happening. The tail-enders of Sri Lanka, including those making there debut, batted with an authority that was missing from our handsome models.

It was not so much the defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka, a worthy opponent even without Vaas and Zoysa, but the feeling of the same old gloominess of the last year or so which now seems to have set in just as the grey of Mumbai skies seems to have been with us for ages.

Its possible that tomorrow, against a West Indies team which is a tragi-comic show by itself, the Indian bench and the existing ‘stars’ may put up a display of pyrotechnics but it seems like we will not see the sun shine again until the likes of Sachin, Sourav and VVS brighten the crease with the incandescent stroke play we have been spoilt silly with over the last decade or more. This is not a hankering for the ‘old’ stars but for a class which we have had about the Indian batting line up which has been undisputed irrespective of the overall performance of the Indian team. Average fielding, poor running between the wickets, lack of penetrative bowling, poverty of containment-bowling skills in the final overs, lack of lower order contributors with the bat, choking at the final post are all tags we are familiar with and drawbacks we have come to associate with an Indian one day team. Surely an average batting side is not one we need to add to these for then there shall be nothing left for a billion Indians to even shout about.

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