Friday, August 26, 2011

India's Tour of England 2011

Facing down the barrell, Dhoni has a lot to think about

On 22nd August 2011, England not only completed an astounding drubbing of 4-0 against the Number 1 ranked team, India, but also toppled them, atleast for some time now. In fact, by the looks of things, India would be glad their period of suffering is over with the conclusion of this Pataudi Trophy series and with that perhaps Team India's honeymoon period is all but over.

The series, as most of the cricket-lovers would be aware of, was touted to the clash of the titans, with England doing commendably well over 12 months – not to forget their famous Ashes win in Australia – while India was ranked Number 1 Test side in the world, along with their World Champions tag that they won on 2nd April 2011. Truth be told, it certainly was a mouth-watering line-up for all cricket-lovers but unfortunately it didn't live up to the hype that one expected it to be. All the brouhaha before the start of the Test series vanished the moment the espresso was poured all over the curry to make a mess of it. Literally it did make a mess of a team that was on such a high that was claimed by most as the “Golden period in Indian Cricket”.

The series depicted the level of intensity, fitness and sheer preparedness of both the teams in stark contrast. India was coming into the series with a one-nil victory in a 3-Test Series over a much weaker West Indian side, which was in a way enough to raise a few eye-brows, especially when Mahendra Singh Dhoni decided to call for the day's play on the last day of the 3rd Test at Roseau with his team needing 86 runs in 15 overs with 7 wickets still in the tank, thus ending the match in a draw. On the other side, England's summer was underway with a series victory over a formidable Sri Lankan side by one-nil in the Tests and a closely fought one-day series that was also won by England by 3-2. However, while England took the series against the Sri Lanka with all it's seriousness to prepare for the long summer, the Indian side look rather half-cooked for such a big series because most of their big names, like Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, and Virender Sehwag, were not featuring in the West Indian series, citing personal reasons or injuries.

MS Dhoni would be the first person to admit that his side was not at all prepared for this highly-anticipated clash, neither mentally nor physically. Beside that, reports of strife were also emerging from the Indian camp, mostly surrounding the controversy of an advertisement that featured MS Dhoni and a spoof of Harbhajan Singh for a liquor commercial. All things aside, when it came to the field, what was more evident to the viewers was that MS Dhoni had resigned to the fact that his team won't be able to match up against the English side. The body language of the Indian captain, and his team-mates alike, looked very negative from the outset. And the injury to Zaheer Khan on the opening day of the test made things even more difficult for the captain, though things kept turning bad to worse for him. There is no doubting about the skill and talent of the Indian side, but it was more to do with the intensity, or rather lack of it, that mattered the most, more so when your Number 1 spot hinges on your success or failure over the subsequent period.

It would be worth pointing out that ever since the ascent of India to the top of the tree, in 2010, there was always a debate among the experts, ex-cricketers and cricket-lovers that whether this Indian side was worthy of the Number 1 tag and is this Indian side the same as the Australian side in 2000s or West Indian side of 1970s and 1980s. The point in favour of the Indian side was that they hadn't lost a series since 2008, which was against Sri Lanka when a certain Ajanta Mendis wreaked havoc of the much-acclaimed Indian batting line-up. The point against Team India was that they didn't had a bowling line-up to unsettle oppositions as did the West Indies and Australia in their hey-days. Apart from Zaheer Khan, who really is a very fine bowler, the Indian fast bowling factory looks rather slight. Although in the past India won matches because of their spin, but with the retirement of Anil Kumble, even Harbhajan Singh hasn't been able to weave the same magic as he did earlier or as he was expected to do. Furthermore, the concerns over the fitness of players has raised questions over the attitude of the team also, as Harbhajan's part in the series ended when he was injured during the Second Test at Nottingham with nothing to write home about but with complains of abdominal muscle strain. The list of fallens kept swelling during the series with Gautam Gambhir first missing out in the Second Test because of a blow on his elbow while fielding at short-leg and then in the Forth Test, he was forced to bat lower down the order because of a minor concussion while back-pedalling to take a catch only to trip and thud his head badly on the ground and drop the catch as well. Yuvraj Singh, though, looked good in the first innings of the Second Test when he scored a fluent 62 laced with 10 delightful boundaries but was almost immediately sorted out by the ruthless bowlers of England in the second innings when he was peppered with short-pitch stuff, resulting with a hand injury, then his dismissal, for good measure.

Apart from injuries, the lack of character and intensity from the Indian side was also the key factor why India lost this badly. Never during the series did it ever strike to any one that this was a Number 1 side fighting to keep the spot. In fact this Indian side looked reminiscent to the side of yester years that would get on to the field not to lose a match. Barring the colossal effort of Rahul Dravid and a couple of half-centuries from Sachin Tendulkar, the batting seemed frail and feeble to the extent that India was able to build a score in excess of 300, only once – and that too was exact 300, nothing less, nothing more. VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina, all were exposed to some hostile and relentless bowling by the English bowlers where a barrage of bouncers and penetrative swing and seam bowling found batsmen clueless, resulting in their tame dismissals.

The bowling, with an injured Zaheer Khan out as well as a desperately out-of-form Harbhajan Singh gone due to injury, was always going to be exposed - and so it did. One would not actually point out at the lack of effort that was put in, as there were spells by Ishant Sharma, noticeably in 1st Test where he took 4-59, or by Sreesanth, but to be found only sporadically. The problem with India's bowling was that, if there was a good spell from one end, the other bowlers couldn't keep up resulting in letting the pressure off the English batsmen. However, Praveen Kumar did a fine job, even bagging his first five-for at Lord's, throughout series where he not only thwarted the notion of being a limited-over specialist but he belongs in the Test arena with his superbly controlled swing bowling. After the departure of Zaheer Khan, it was Praveen Kumar who asked questions to the batsmen with his incisive bowling in conditions that suited him a lot, ending with 15 wickets in the 3 Tests he played. And because he was the final resort for MS Dhoni to get wickets, he had a  heavy workload in those 3 Tests he played in, so it was a real shame to see him miss out of the last Test at The Oval, unsurprisingly, due to an ankle injury.

For England, it was business as usual. The summer for them had started with the touring side of Sri Lanka and they played a good series to win it in the first place. But, it was this series that brought the best out of the English side. Many experts hail it to be the “Best English line-up,” however if this was an exaggeration, there is little doubt that this was the best prepared side in recent times many have seen. It did not come as a surprise when English side's strategy came out in public how to handle the Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar, as he was coming into the series looking for his 100th international centuries and England looked to prevent him from getting there, which they did. The level of preparedness was one thing, but this English side showed a lot of intensity and character throughout the series. In cricket, it's always said that it is important to identify and capitalize on key moments, and unlike India who had their opportunities, England made sure they didn't let go of such situations. There had been instances in the series when a rare session belonged to the India and England had their backs to the wall – be it, 107-6 at Lord's or 124-8 at Nottingham – the English batting line-up had the depth to weather any storm. If the likes of Cooks, Bells and Pietersens failed, then they had Priors, Bresnans and Broads to bail them out. The batting effort of the English team was so extraordinary that they had 7 centuries, including 2 massive double centuries, compared to only 3 centuries from India, all by Rahul Dravid, and 11 half centuries compared to India's 9.

The telling difference between the two sides, as often has been the case in any series, was the bowling. In fact, it was secretly touted as a series where English bowling came face to face against the Indian batsmen. To put things into perspective, the stats between the two sides reveal that England had 10 century partnerships while India had only 2 and that was primarily because the Indian bowling was less robust and England had done their homework thoroughly on the Indian batsmen. The effort of Stuart Broad against a world-class batting line-up of taking 25 wickets, that includes a hat-trick, with 182 precious runs down the order at almost run a ball would be a performance that he would remember for some time. It was not how many wickets he took or how many runs he made, but it was the manner in which he carried out his job that struck every critic or admirer of his, especially considering that he had a fairly ordinary series against Sri Lanka, where he took only 8 wickets, and his place was in doldrums at the start of the series. Beside Board's heroics, one can't help noticing the fact that this was a thoroughly team effort by a very professional side. The individual performances – be it Cook's 294, or Pietersen's 202, or Bell's 235 – not only outshone their more acclaimed opponents, but also served a lesson to cricketers that no one is bigger than the game and the team as this was only proved by Rahul Dravid - when he kept wickets as well as opened the innings in the absence of the regular openers.


The matches were played in the right spirit as it was expected from these two teams, which was evident during the Nottingham Test match, when MS Dhoni decided to withdraw his appeal for a run out and recall Ian Bell in the 2nd innings considering that on the basis of rule book, the latter was out.  Although it was a matter of debate among cricketers and alike, whether Bell was attempting to take a run or no; whether Asad Rauf, the umpire, had called for the end of over and tea, subsequently; whether the run out was really against the spirit of the game; or whether England would had withdrawn the appeal and recalled the batsman had it been Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid. These were a matter of hypothetical questions to which there are no answers, BUT importantly at the end of the day, it was unanimously agreed by every one that India and MS Dhoni had taken the right decision, for which he was duly appreciated by one and all.

The other talking point has been, especially after the conclusion of the test series, that whether with so much of T20 being played, more so with the emergence of Indian Premier League (IPL), has that affected the cricketers adversely. It is also no secret that the English side has purposely avoided the excitement that surrounds the IPL as it wants to concentrate on Test cricket – and the results are there for everyone to see. England has climbed to the top spot, while India has dropped two places to 3rd. The argument is that, Indian players, with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan and Gautam Gambhir, were too busy to play in the IPL while they opted out of the West Indian series, leaving them ill-prepared for the tests that laid ahead of them in England. It may well be a valid argument because all three players that are mentioned did play the IPL with all their dedication but couldn't repeat the same for their national sides, when needed the most. Zaheer Khan, after the conclusion of IPL back in May, didn't feature in any sort competitive cricket for nearly 2 months, as a result of this the fast bowler broke down on the opening day at Lord's. One thing is for certain, this IPL may have its own merits – mostly within India – but it has started to show its ugly side as well. Cricketers' attitude have increasingly become an object of criticism for ex-cricketers and cricket-lovers, as they feel cricketers have started to give more importance to T20 cricket and less to Test cricket. The falling fitness level among the Indian players have been alarming, with players like Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag spending more time in the sidelines, either taking unnecessary rests or having untimely injuries. These cricketers have to sooner rather than later choose between club cricket and international cricket as one cannot have everything in their lives, but one also feels this malarkey would continue for as long as it can, until BCCI itself gets serious about such issues.

As far as England is concerned, the worthy Man of the Series from their side, Stuart Broad has done a world of good for himself as he has re-invented himself by bowling full and fast, letting the bowl to swing and seam, while using his lethal bouncer judiciously, much to the displeasure of the batsmen. However, I feel it was the inclusion of Tim Bresnan that added more variety and gave stability to the side as the big fast bowler with his muscular built used to send down those heavy balls and gave a real whack to the red cherry when facing it. He looks more hungry, supremely fit and has the right attitude towards the Pinnacle of the game to do well, and certainly his numbers suggest the same. One of his wickets to pin down Rahul Dravid could possibly be the “Delivery of the Series.” This also shows the England has a strong bench-strength because Tim Bresnan came in as a replacement for the injured Chris Tremlett. The only hurdle in England's way is their rather dismal record in sub-continent that could be their undoing. As seen in the World Cup 2011 held in sub-continent, James Anderson struggled the most, even when bowling to the likes of Ireland and Bangladesh. The bright spot in this Test series was their bowling, but quickly it becomes a bane for them in sub-continent. Having said that, England side is a thoroughly professional side and one expects them to keep improving and prove their critics wrong.

It is pretty well documented the reservations BCCI has had over the years on the use of technology, namely Decision Review System (DRS). It was decided before the start of the series between the two boards that the DRS would be used only for caught-behind and close-in catches decisions. However, as the series progressed, it was India who found itself on the wrong side of most decisions, like Harbhajan Singh and Suresh Raina were adjudged leg-before when the ball had clearly hit the bat first and then on to the pads. Perhaps, with such an experience and ex-cricketers like Nasser Hussain being the most vocal in not using the complete version of the DRS, the Indian board might soften their stance on the use of DRS for future series, as they have decided to incorporate it for their home series.

As a cricket-follower, the series did turn out to be fairly one-sided but that is not to say that the matches were a disappointment because that would take the gloss off the England's effort, as they us treated to some charming strokeplay and thrilling bowling. Unfortunately, we can't speak in the same breath for India's effort.

Match Result & Key Performers:
1st Test: At Lord's - England won by 196 runs
·         India won the toss, elected to field

1st Inning: England - 474/8 dec

Kevin Pietersen 202*
Praveen Kumar 5/106
2nd Inning: India - 286/all out
Rahul Dravid 103*
Stuart Broad 4/37
3rd Inning: England - 269/6 dec
Matt Prior 103*                        
Ishant Sharma 4/59
4th Inning: India - 261/all out
Suresh Raina 78
James Anderson 5/65

2nd Test: At Nottingham - England won by 319 runs
·         India won the toss, elected to field

1st Inning: England - 221/all out           
Stuart Broad 64            
Praveen Kumar 3/45
2nd Inning: India - 288/all out
Rahul Dravid 117
Stuart Broad 6/46
3rd Inning: England - 544/all out
Ian Bell 159
Praveen Kumar 4/124
4th Inning: India - 158/all out
Sachin Tendulkar 56
Tim Bresnan 5/48

3rd Test: At Birmingham - England won by an inning and 242 runs
·         England won the toss, elected to field

1st Inning: India - 224/all out
M.S. Dhoni 77
Stuart Broad 4/53
2nd Inning: England - 710/7 dec
Alastair Cook 294
Amit Mishra 3/150
3rd Inning: India - 244/all out
M.S. Dhoni 74*
James Anderson 4/85

4th Test: At The Oval - England won by an inning and 8 runs
·         England won the toss, elected to bat

1st Inning: England - 591/6 dec
Ian Bell 235
Sreesant 3/123
2nd Inning: India - 300/all out
Rahul Dravid 146*
Tim Bresnan 3/54
3rd Inning: India - 283/all out
Sachin Tendulkar 91
Greame Swann 6-106

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