Thursday, November 29, 2012

Good Bye Punter

Ricky Ponting announced his retirement from test cricket today, on the eve of the 3rd and last test match at Perth, in Australia's home series vs South Africa. It brings to an end, a remarkable career of an incredible cricketer. It also ends a few other things.
To me, in my own mind's cricketing mythology, for a long time, he was the ultimate arch enemy, the number one adversary, the man I loved to hate. When India was playing against Australia, his was the wicket that I celebrated the most. He was the man I wanted us to beat. He was to me, what I am told, Javed Miandad was for a generation of Indian fans. While I can't be certain, quite possibly I am not alone in having these feelings. If I think about it, why is it that Bhajji getting him out repeatedly in 2001, or for that matter Ishant dismissing him at the WACA bring a smile to my face. It is because, it mattered. He was that type of a player.
I am not quite sure, when Ricky Ponting started to get under my skin. I was a big Aussie fan as a kid, with Steve Waugh, a particularly big hero for me growing up. Ricky Ponting came into the team and somewhat slipped under the radar. Here was a talented batsman with a high backlift and a sensational pull stroke, making plenty of runs, but when Australia played, I used to have other stars in my eyes - the Waugh twins, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath. Perhaps it was the little scuffle he had with young Bhajji in Sharjah, 1998. Perhaps it was the horrible series down under in 1999-2000, when Srinath hit Punter on the helmet with a bouncer only to get a mouthful, that really enraged me. Perhaps it was just his eager, enthusiastic, spitting on finger demeanor on the field which came across as abrasive to me.
I sure had a great time the next time India and Australia played test cricket, Ponting made all of 17 runs in 3 test matches in the most epic of contests. However, not too long after 23rd March, 2003 happened. If ever there was a game I wanted us to win, this was it and to be beaten, no ... ruthlessly demolished was the stuff of nightmares. He inflicted pain that day and it hurts even today when you remember it.
Ricky Ponting was like that as a batsman. He came at the bowler, he had a high backlift, a big stride towards the pitch of the ball, a lovely stroke of his blade and a flourishing follow through. He was probably the best puller of a cricket ball that I have seen in the last 20+ years of watching cricket. He came to dominate attacks, he led from the front, scored generally at a terrific pace and was a brilliant batsman to watch. He was absolutely dynamic at the crease. And when he played his cover drive on the up, you knew that this was going to be painful for the bowlers.
As the awesome Australian team evolved over the years, there test match one, two and three became Hayden, Langer and Ponting. I am fairly certain that since Haynes, Greenidge and Viv Richards, this was the most fearsome top 3 in test cricket. When it came to ODIs, Ponting walked in after Hayden and Gilchrist would typically have given rollicking starts. The Australian batting line up was fearsome in those days.
My love hate relationship with Ponting continued through the last decade with Monkeygate and that Sydney test match being particular low points. Looking back at the last decade though, the India - Australia rivalry in test cricket is what defined my best years as a cricket fan, it is what has given me some of my best memories as a cricket fan and Ponting will forever be in my memory as a central character in these contests. And the Ahmedabad Quarter Final last year, the biggest game since 2003 W Cup final, the most surreal cricketing experience of my life, where Ponting did score yet another fuck you 100, but ended with a win, probably brought closure to this equation.
Ricky Ponting scored, nay, plundered runs all over the world, in his own unique way. He never became my favourite player, probably because I am a bit of a sucker for the type that plays well when the chips are down and mounts a fightback. Ponting rarely let these sort of situations develop because he ended so many contests early, like a heavyweight who has a penchant for knocking out his opposition in the first round.

And so, it took a rather unusual situation: the 3rd test of the 2005 Ashes series, that changed the way how I looked at Punter. After a routine first test victory at Lords, Australia were shocked by England in the second test at Edgbaston with Freddie Flintoff's incredible performance. The world of cricket sat up and took notice as one could feel that this was going to be an Ashes series like none other, a series where the English had a chance, a series that would go down in history as a special one. When the third test at Old Trafford entered the fifth day, Australia needed 423 to win with nine wickets in hand; an England victory was the most likely result. The shift in balance of power in the Anglo-Australian cricketing universe was in process, but Ricky Ponting went on to play one of the best fifth day test 100s that I have ever seen to delay the transition. He scored a magnificent 156 runs and was dismissed with just four overs left in the match (which McGrath and Brett Lee somehow survived to draw the test). I saw the human side of a player, who I had previously looked at as the archrival, the ultimate enemy. Till then, I had only grudging respect for the bloke, that day it changed into something more affectionate.

Ricky Thomas Ponting: Champion batsman and best all round fielder ever - You will be missed. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

India's Record at Home Venues

India has a very impressive record at home in test cricket. This article on cribuzz tells us that we have lost only 5 test series at home since 1980.
Unlike Australia and to a lesser extent South Africa and England, India does not have a fixed annual test match calendar. Also, with more number of test venues, test matches are a lot more spread around across a number of centres. As a result, the combination of venues and dates tends to be more dynamic and I for one have found it more difficult to pigeon hole test venues in India into neat categories. I mean, when I think of Brisbane - I think of bounce, Perth - pace and bounce, Sydney - some spin, Adelaide - flat, Headingly - swing, Durban - pace and bounce and so on. But what about India - Kanpur and Delhi - low turners - yes, Mohali - Pace ?, Mumbai - red soil and bounce - but the categorizations are a lot more difficult to make.
With India on the verge of losing the 2nd test to England at Mumbai, I wanted to see, in which venues have we done well and in which ones have we not done. I looked at the home tests since 2000 till the Ahmedabad match and the results are interesting. India have clearly struggled at Mumbai and Bangalore, which is a little surprising - given that these venues bring in quite large crowds and the home team is never short of support even in test matches [India has started winning at Bangalore only after I started going for matches there :) ]. What is not surprising is that India has a near perfect record at the Kotla given the nature of the pitch which helps spinners. Kolkata , Mohali and Chennai are the other major venues where India have been undefeated since 2000, and long may this little stat continue.
Two test venues that I would like to see have more test cricket are Chennai and Delhi, they seem to be good for India and have produced some riveting matches in the past.

One of the good things that I learnt from this table is that most Indian venues have a more than 50% result % record, which means that we are producing result oriented pitches for the most part. This is a sharp contrast to the high percentage of draws that take place in domestic cricket and the quality of the pitches for test cricket must have something to do with it.
MS Dhoni's continuous calls for turning pitches and then getting turned over on a turning track tells us that we have not quite figured what kind of pitch suits us the best. But a look at our records at different venues might just tell us where to host matches before a big series. If I were a board official selecting matches before a big 4 match series - I would play them at Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Mohali. But hey, that's me just being a little greedy.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Just a couple of tweets from our friends !

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Questions to be answered: India v England

With a four test series against England starting this Thursday, I am looking forward to it, with a mix of nervousness, curiosity and .....just a little bit of hope. After the two 4-0 defeats at England and Australia, I have become a lot less bullish about the Indian test team and despite our victory against New Zealand at home a couple of months back, there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered at the start of the series. So here's my set of questions :
1) Do Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have a future as test match openers ?  Sehwag's last test century was against New Zealand at the Motera in Nov, 2010. Gambhir's last was in Jan 2010 against Bangladesh in Chittangong. It is a long time since these two have made test match 100s and there form has not really convinced anyone. While we are starting the series with these two, I am not sure whether we will end with them as openers. Sehwag might have a future as a middle order player. Gambhir needs an even bigger turnaround and for starters he could stop with his poke to third man. There are no clear cut, consensus candidates for replacement however and that is probably working in their favor.
2) Will SRT regain his form ? Tendulkar's form remains a major concern, and his Ranji Trophy 100 notwithstanding, he hasn't "looked good" at the crease in a long time in any form of cricket. India will desperately need runs from him against a good English attack.
3) Does India get a permanent fix for the number six slot ? With Dravid and Laxman retired, Pujara and Kohli have stepped up and taken their positions in the XI. Both came into the team with the vacant position left by Ganguly interestingly. The initial impressions that one gets from Pujara is that he has most of the attributes to succeed at this level, while Kohli is quite simply India's best batsman right now. He might just be among the best in the world, along with Hashim Amla. However, coming back to the point, no one really has made the number six slot his own, with Raina being the latest disappointment. Yuvraj's return from cancer and into the Indian team has an incredible story and it is Yuvi who starts the series at six. I am hoping that he succeeds and nails that slot down for the next couple of years or else the revolving doors shall continue. India does have a number of talented players in reserves with Rohit Sharma, Badrinath and Manoj Tiwary - all possible contenders, and I for one, would like this to be sorted out as soon as possible.
4) Can Ashwin and Ojha bowl out the English twice ? With India's limited pace bowling options, the onus once again in a home series will be on the spinners and it is the first time that both together will be facing a quality opposition at home. West Indies without Gayle and New Zealand were not really tough nuts to crack for these two, but England will be a lot more difficult. A home series brings its own pressures for India's spinners as they are "expected" to win games and with the likes of Cook, Trott, Bell and Pietersen in the opposition, this will be the first big test for India's new spin combination.
5) Will we have result pitches ? It is hard to say, how will the pitches play. M S Dhoni has often asked for turning tracks, but it has been a long time since we have seen vicious turners in test matches in India. Apart from Kolkata, which is generally quite placid, I have a feeling that Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Nagpur will have decent bounce, which is quite crucial for the spinners so that the edges do carry to the fielders. Will the wickets spin a lot ? On that I am less certain. It would be too much to expect results in all four matches, but at least two of them should produce results.
Chennai, 2008: An epic win
Here's hoping for a great series of test cricket and an Indian win. And if we can get a match half as good as Chennai, 2008, it would be brilliant.

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