Monday, September 19, 2011

England vs India - NatWest Series 2011

Par for the course - another Indian player falls

The World Champions of 2011 have slumped to fifth position in one day ranking following their win-less stint in the limited-over leg of the tour. This is in itself worth making headlines for the team that ascended to the top of the world when Mahendre Singh Dhoni, captain of Team India, lifted the most coveted trophy in cricket - World Cup trophy. It was 2nd April, 2011, when along with the entire nation of 1 billion, Team India celebrated the day of lifting the trophy that had eluded them for 28 years. The cruel part is that, after nearly 6 months, it seems as if that day never existed.

After a spineless performance (barring Rahul Dravid) in the 4-match Test series by visiting team, Sunil Gavaskar had this to say before the start of the NatWest One-day Series when asked about India's chances:

“I believe that because India has new players in their squad and they don't have the trauma of defeat (in the Tests, and) they will be coming in with ideas and brimming with enthusiasm and bring fresh energy to the squad. And I still do believe that if India (would) do the little things right, like the players in 30-yard circle, the players outside (the 30-yard circle), the batting order may be, I think then India can win the series.”

These were said by him after he had predicted that India would win the one-day series against the English side, primarily because they are World Champions, but even the great man had his doubts.

As a matter of fact, there was little to suggest from the way the Indian side played in the NatWest series that they are current World Champions and would be looking to pose like one for the next 4 years. For starters, one would agree that this Indian side was a fairly depleted side to what featured in the World Cup 2011, with the likes of Sehwag, Gambhir, Sachin, Zaheer, and a few more during the course of the series, falling on the wrong side of their fitness. There were even murmurs from different section of media of a possible rift within the Team India, where Mahendre Singh Dhoni failed to receive 100% support of his team-mates, with further reports of Harbhajan Singh perhaps faking his abdominal strain, during the Test series, that would never show up on the scan in the first place. Or may be it was a blessing in disguise because even if Amit Mishra didn't make an impact with the ball, in the final test at The Oval's he played a grinding innings to prolong the inevitable. Similarly, the contribution made by Ravichandran Ashwin in the limited over format also gave positive signs of what he can do if he gets a permanent place in the squad, if Harbhajan Singh’s to be replaced, that is. But more to follow on performances later, for now a look at how the series fared in general.

It is very important that one does give its due to this English side for winning the 5-match series as they did by 3-0, where one game was tied at Lord's (again between the two sides) and the other at Durham being washed out. The one-day may have started with India comprehensively battered and bruised in the 4-match Test series, but limited over is India’s comfort zone. India is a team who would look to win the toss, elect to bat first, put a decent target with its strong batting line-up, and look to tie-down their oppositions with their spinners and tight fielding. However, much to the shock of MS Dhoni, India didn’t manage to win a single toss during the NatWest Series, which meant they couldn’t execute their plans which had brought them so much success over the last 24 or so months. On the contrary, a score line of 3-0 emphasizes the point that England’s performance and commitment in the entire series was commendable as well as a breath of fresh air, having seen them struggle in the shorter version for almost ever. But for England the real struggle starts from here.

Apart from the series being big and the most-awaited one, there was also a hint of emotion attached to the series, not only for Indians but for all those genuine cricket-lovers who are generally called as purist. It was a series which was announced by the man himself to be his last one day international appearance for India – Rahul Dravid. So before we sit down to dwell on the series, I think Rahul Dravid reserves a right to be mentioned almost separately here. His call-up for this series was under quite peculiar circumstances as he had last appeared for India in colored-clothing in 2009 and perhaps he forgot to mention it or the BCCI (naturally) forgot it completely that he had given up on limited over cricket, for the obvious reason to concentrate on 5-day cricket. Rahul Dravid’s call-up into the side was already a major point of debate as the selectors sought to move forward in cricket by calling an aging stalwart who had actually given up one-day cricket. That aside, no one can doubt the level of commitment and contribution a player like Rahul Dravid made to Indian cricket. In fact he was the epitome of selflessness and grit when the situation demanded the most. A player, thought by many, not to be a suitable commodity of one-day cricket, Rahul Dravid managed – agreed, after some time – to make his own mark in this ever-evolving version of the game. His numbers are there for every one to look and admire, but what those numbers don’t tell is the amount of sweat and blood he has put in for the game, in general. The point most to be admired in Rahul Dravid’s cricketing career may not necessarily lie in what he did on the field, but rather off the field. He is a pure gentleman, a thorough professional and perhaps the best technician at work when the going gets tough and the reason we use present tense for him is because much to our delight, he will be seen around in the longer version of the game for some time now.

That may have a calming influence on Indian cricket, but truth be told, they can’t hide that this Indian side was badly exposed when they set out to play this away-from-home cricket. Some might argue, and quite correctly, that this Indian side was a far cry from what featured in the World Cup but then that is not to be taken as an excuse. According to Captain Dhoni, he had never seen so many men fall due to injury in a single tour and he kept arguing that he didn’t had much luck either. Come to think of it now, he may well have proved a point that most of his critics had against him that he is perhaps the luckiest captain rather than being any thing that could have made him a great captain. Not that he isn’t claimed as a great captain (mostly in India) ever since he took over the reigns from Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, but he seems to rely too much on luck and during this series, his luck sat bare.

The glaring issues of Indian team might look all sorted out the moment they land and play a home series in India but with England, things would rather be different as they have lately struggled in subcontinent. As a matter of fact, England still struggled in the bowling as Graeme Swann is the only bowler among all, who has an average of less than 20 and a respectable economy rate to go with it. The fast bowling that heaped so much praise during (and after) the test series looked rather ordinary which should be a massive point of interest for Andy Flower and his management. This bowling attack would find it difficult in Indian conditions, even with the psychological advantage over India, leaves little doubt as in subcontinent the ball neither swings nor seams which the English fast bowlers heavily rely on apart from the bounce which might open up more issues for them. Having said that, the young brigade of exciting and exuberant players in the ranks of this English side has perhaps kick-started their ascent to the top in the limited-over format – a format that didn’t come naturally to them. The absence of Kevin Pietersen (rested) and Eoin Morgan (injured), who have become a vital cog in the middle-order for England, didn’t really soften their approach.

It would be correct to say that if it was the bowling between the two sides in the test-series that made a telling difference to the result, then it was the batting which did the same in the NatWest Series as it’s evident from the results. The 3-Lions won the 3 matches by chasing down whatever India had to throw at them. Though admittedly, the matches weren’t as straight forward as one would have hoped for, with usual English weather showing up, but it was the manner in which the home side romped its way to victory in all the 3 matches it won. The batting importantly remained calm and collective rather than crooked and cumbersome, especially in the 1st ODI where Cook (the captain) took his side home with a brilliant unbeaten 80 off 63 deliveries and in the 5th match, where the likes of Boparas and Bairstows snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by blowing away the miserable bowling of the opponents.

Talking about misery, one has to admit that the Indian management did make some appalling blunders during the series, which even left some of the closest associates of the Indian team dumbfounded. The selection lacked conviction and strategies gave a look of resignation, especially by the captain MS Dhoni. He may have deservedly earned the ‘Man of the Series’ as he did bat really well throughout the series, with 3 half centuries at a fantastic tick but his attitude and captaincy have raised questions now. He was the blue-eyed boy for the whole of India but because he tends to favour luck for things to go his way, the series was cruel reminder that one does run out of luck. With the number of injuries to his key first-choice players did open a Pandora’s Box for MS Dhoni, however, it should had been all down to strategies and tactics that would had bailed him out. Earlier having touched upon Ravichandran Ashwin, he was the only bowler for India that looked like being a threat to the England batsmen and his stats prove that as well. In the last match at Cardiff, Ravi Ashwin bowled less overs compared to RP Singh, Vinay Kumar and Virat Kohli - all of them were more expensive than Ashwin also. This does beg a question as to what was MS Dhoni exactly thinking to give his dibbly-dobblers a go who have no credentials of bowling in tight situations, whereas a bowler of Ashwin’s caliber only bowls four overs who has a proven track record of bowling in pressure-cooker situations. This may be one of the many points that made MS Dhoni’s strategies look ordinary but then he didn’t do much favour for himself in the selection department either. Experts found it difficult to fathom the reason why a bowler who could bowl over 140kph – Varun Aaron – and was also the need for the hour for Indians, doesn’t get a single game to prove himself. An act like this from the captain himself accentuates the lack of confidence he had in the bowler’s abilities. Sunil Gavaskar made the point before the start of the series that the young players would not carry the trauma of the loss inflicted in the longer version of the game, however he forgot that the person who matters the most here was the captain and he certainly looked out of sorts.

The series for both the teams had contrasting results, apart from England’s 3 is to nil victory. While England may have all the reasons to be happy about this series, India undoubtedly would also look to return the favour when the former travels to India, in October, for a 5-ODI series and a solitary T20 match. England, in order to prove a point, needs to seriously sit down and come up with a strong strategy to bowl in subcontinent’s lifeless bowling conditions, whereas India is a force to reckon with at home where they haven’t lost a home series since 2009. And a resounding victory by India against the England team might actually make it look as if this NatWest series never happened.

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