Thursday, February 22, 2018

Unselfish Team Man: The Missing Link Team India Needs

24 October 2015, Mumbai: Quinton de Kock and Faf Duplessis had flattened Team India before Abraham DeVilliers demolished them as South Africa buried India under a mountain of runs and won their first ever bilateral ODI series in India. That 214 runs margin of defeat was India's largest on home soil and more or less made sure M S Dhoni was on his way out as Captain of ODI team too.

More than MSD, that match in particular and the series in general also put a huge question mark before the future of another player. Suresh Kumar Raina, just 29 at that time had a miserable series due to his well advertised shortcoming against the short ball. In that match, he bowled 3 overs for 19 runs and took the wicket of de Kock. On a day when South African batters battered regular spinners Harbhajan, Amit Mishra and Axar Patel for 213 runs from 28 overs for just 1 wicket, Raina was the most economical bowler for India. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar was the only century maker for India, conceding 106 from his 10 overs.

But it was the batting that cost him his place in the side. Raina made 12 of 13 balls with a six and a four. Intimidated by the Rabada short ball, Raina moved too far across the stumps and was felled by that deadly leg-stump Yorker by Rabada. That remains the last ODI Suresh Raina has played. In those 28 months since then, Ajinkya Rahane, Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey, Hardik Pandya and many younger guys have crammed the middle order spot once Raina owned thanks to his value as a utility player.

Even in the shortest format of Cricket, Raina has been missing in action for long. When he arrived on our screens during IPL 2017, Raina had put on so much of weight, it was difficult to believe our eyes. There were jokes and memes. "Raina got married and now he's become pregnant instead of his wife." These were the jokes and Raina definitely looked like a lost case.

The 2017 - 18 domestic season was pretty ordinary for Raina. Rookie medium fast bowlers were digging it short at him in domestic Cricket and guys like Karun Nair were scoring 52 ball hundreds in domestic T20 championship. All of a sudden, ahead of Rahul, ahead of Karun, ahead of an explosive middle order all rounder like Deepak Hooda, Suresh Raina was given a recall. A lot of eyebrows were raised considering form, fitness and foreign conditions did not justify the selection of Raina for a T20 series in South Africa.

18 February 2018: 28 months after he last played an ODI against South Africa, Suresh Raina was back in the famous blue, the Indian color. Honestly, this writer was one of those who had written Raina off as an IPL Poney. His strike rate and averages were still good for a No. 6 batsman in international Cricket, in spite of many career slumps. But why go back to a thirty plus, overweight (or pregnant) Raina when we have a lot of younger players to take that slot ? That was the question many like me were asking.

The match last night gave us the answer to that question. Why the selectors, Shastri and even Kohli were going back to Raina ? Manish Pandey has been in and out of the team since 2014. He's played a few brilliant knocks and has flattered to deceive many a times. The way Pandey batted last night and the way Raina batted last night offers a stark contrast and explains why the team management loves Raina.

With an obviously struggling batsman like MSD on the other side, Pandey hit just one sixer on his way to 29 off 27 balls. He looked more concerned about his place in the side than accelerating the score in the slog overs. Compare this to the way Suresh Raina played. With the field restrictions on, South African bowlers taking the short ball experiment to ridiculous levels and an in form Dhawan at the other side, Raina had the freedom to play for his place in the side. He could have knocked the ball around to score a 35 or so off 30 balls to make his contribution look substantial.

Most people would have taken the safe route back into the team but then that isn't how Suresh Raina has played his Cricket all these years. There isn't a more unselfish player in this team today. He went bang bang because India still had Kohli, Pandey, Pandya and MSD behind him. Raina's unselfish act clubbed with Rohit's early blitzkrieg presented India with their highest 6 over score of 78/2 with Dhawan and Kohli still at the crease. 15 runs of 7 balls is all he made but what mattered was how he made those runs and that is what gives Suresh Raina the edge over others.

Cricket in this era is driven by fitness. Virat Kohli puts extreme importance of fitness. Raina would have flunked the Yoyo test in 2017. But this time around, he is leaner, meaner and fitter and he aced the Yoyo and booked his ticket to South Africa right in time. World T20 is around this year and the 2019 CWC is going to be the most important tournament for Kohli and Co. The No. 5 and 6 slots have remained unstable and unsettled. With his fielding still top notch, his immense experience, more than useful off spin bowling and totally selfless batting, Suresh Raina can still be a great asset for Team India if his zeal to play for India remains intact. Last night, we witnessed what Raina is capable of on the field when he made two relatively tough catches look ridiculously easy.

Raina has been frequently criticised as the blue eyed boy of selectors and team managements. Often the criticism has appeared justified too, especially when MSD was the captain. Only after Virat Kohli became full time captain, Raina's fortunes dwindled. But even Kohli - Shastri team recognise the value Raina brings to the team; that utterly unselfish team man nature.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Virat Kohli: An Armour of Amor

Rohit and Virat are almost of same age. They have played together and against each other in most age groups Cricket. They are a mutual admiration society in spite of their incompatibilities when it comes to running between the wickets. If we look at the talent aspect, Rohit was always rated higher than Virat in the early days.

When a young Rohit made a name for himself in 2007 T20 World Cup, Virat was nowhere on the scene. But a decade later, Virat is the best batsman in the world across 3 formats while 30 plus Rohit is still considered young and talented underachiever. In spite of his great average and towering sixers, Rohit still remains an enigma for the Cricket crazy Indians. He has this "All or None" phenomenon where he either flops or buries the entire opposition team under humongous scores. He scores a 200 not out in a match and precious little in next 5 and manages to keep his average above 40. It has almost become a ritual.

While Rohit is consistently inconsistent, Virat is monotonous and monstrously consistent. I have always wondered why is it like that ! I finally found my answer in the post-match interview last night. Virat told Shaun Pollock, "I am especially thankful to my wife, who has always been supportive but has faced a lot of criticism in the past." He was searching for words there because for once, he was emotional. He was definitely talking about the 2014 tour of England when he had a string of low scores and Anushka Sharma, his girlfriend at that time was blamed by many on the social media.

Rohit Sharma is married to a demure and innocent looking middle-class girl. Virat Kohli on the other hand was in love with a Superstar in her own right. In the early days of their romance, Anushka was more famous and must have been richer than Virat. The media and social media is always obsessed with celebrities and the atrocious acronym Virushka or Virushka was trending weeks after they finally became man and wife.

Indian middle-class isn't kind to lady celebrities and they are superstitious to their bone marrows. They still consider a girl walking into the life of a boy can bring good or bad luck. Thus every time Virat failed, Anushka was blamed. India's failure to win 2015 CWC too was placed at the doors of the Sharma home. People thought the Sharma who wasn't playing was a greater reason for the debacle than the Sharma who was playing. Virat is a man with elephantine memory. He is an honourable man and has remembered all the abuse heaped on his girlfriend then and wife now. His commitment and passion to his girl is no less than his commitment to cricket and his team.

Rohit has a relatively easier life. He needs to score a century on his wife's birthday and a double century on their second wedding anniversary. His wife was never blamed for his failures and will never be blamed in future too. The teary eyed beauty became the Darling of the nation on their wedding anniversary. Even if Rohit had failed on that day, nobody would have even thought of her, leave alone blaming her.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Freedom Series 2018: Battle of the Broadcasters

One of the most awaited series for India is now just minutes away. After a comprehensive victory over all-comers in the home campaign, the Indian Team heads on a long overseas campaign with the first stop being South Africa.

The cricketing relations between the two nations have been interesting. India boycotted South Africa on apartheid grounds for a long time. A justified call, as South Africa was banned from all sports for quite a long time. And then at the end of the regime, India was the first nation to host as well as tour South Africa. And in the entire course of 25 years, India have never managed to beat the Proteas in a series in their home.

So while we wait for the series to commence, here is a look at the promotional campaigns run by the broadcasters.

First by Sony in India who have focused their campaign on ending the 25-year wait and seeking revenge! Jingoism at its best!

And now from South Africa, who have focused on the shared history of the two nations, linked by two of the greatest personalities of modern times – Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and the cricketing history of the two nations!

What a beautiful promo!

Wish the Indian broadcasters also grew up and used sports as more than just a war and propaganda tool in their campaigns!

Nishant Kumar for DieHard Cricket Fans
Follow Nishant on Twitter @NishantSKumar

Cricket in "The Big Bang Theory"

I am a big fan of the Sitcom "The Big Bang Theory". However, found a very weird line in one of the recent episodes

Our favorite desi astrophysicist, Dr. Rajesh Koothrapalli, takes his friend Howard Wolowitz to a sports bar, where a cricket match is being telecast live. And while explaining the game to a bored Howard, comes up with this line."That's Ravichandran Ashwin, he is amazing. He makes Bhuvaneswar Kumar seem like Hardik Pandya!" A confused Howard replies with "thats too many syllables", while a confused me pauses the episode, rewinds and is clearly bamboozled by what the meaning of that line could be. A couple of attempts makes it clear that the statement has no meaning in the cricketing sense. 

However, the show goes on. And on the scene arrives Ruchi, who is equally cricket-crazy. And they get into a discussion on India's chances in World Cup (which one?) which solely rests on Kohli's form. (Now that is completely true). 

Ruchi meanwhile wants the bowler to break the batsmen's (who isn't mentioned) leg. I assume the over must have changed in the interim otherwise hollering Ashwin to bowl yorkers? And the duo discuss being present at the ground to witness Shoaib Akhtar's two consecutive yorkers in Eden Gardens to Dravid & Tendulkar (last few details assumed by me).

So three random names, Kohli's form being key to India's World Cup chances, yorkers, and their deadly use by Shoaib Akhtar in Eden Gardens (Video). Thats a whole lot of cricket in the Big Bang!

Nishant Kumar for DieHard Cricket Fans
Follow Nishant on Twitter @NishantSKumar

The Twenty17 LineUp

2018 has dawned upon us and the cricketing action continues in full swing with New Zealand completing a demolition of the West Indies and Vidarbha winning the Ranji Trophy for the first time ever. Before the action hots up further, time to take a look back at the Cricketing XI of 2017 (compiled by yours truly).

1. Afghanistan & Ireland get Test Status
After resisting for years, ICC decided to expand the Test arena. And thus we have two new Full members on-board – Afghanistan and Ireland (although both are yet to play a Test). Well-deserved reward for the yeoman service done to the Associate cause. Ireland by consistently upsetting the big teams at the major events and Afghanistan by providing a sporting fairy-tale even the best of Hollywood writers will not be able to script! Now they just need to play a Test each!

2. Women’s World Cup
2017 was the year in which women’s cricket became just cricket! The massive success of the Women’s World Cup provided the ultimate fillip. It also helped that India performed well and finished runners-up in a closely contested Lord’s final. But surprisingly after all the goodwill generated, BCCI hasn’t really cashed in and the Indian team hasn’t played a single game after the World Cup Final!

3. Pakistan 
If there is a team which can be trusted to do the inexplicable, it has to be Pakistan. It was another roller-coaster year (no surprises there!). They won the Champions Trophy in England and managed to lose a Test series to Sri Lanka in their adopted home! But the highlight would be the return of International cricket to Pakistan with a T20 series against an International XI (which inexplicably was given international status) and a one off game against Sri Lanka. Which brings us to…

4. The Sri Lankan Captaincy Revolving Door
Angelo Matthews, Dinesh Chandimal, Upul Tharanga, Thisara Perera, Rangana Herath, Chamara Kapugedera, Lasith Malinga – Seven different men captained the Sri Lankan team across different formats this year. Also showed in the overall results where they were hammered by all and sundry, including a series loss to Zimbabwe, who themselves were coming off from losses to Scotland and Netherlands!

5. Performance of the Year 
Will pick two this year. Marcus Stoinis’s incredible assault against New Zealand, which nearly won Australia the game. And Harmanpreet Kaur’s blistering 171* against Australia in the World Cup semi-finals, probably the defining innings for the women’s game in India.