Sir Ravindra Jadeja’s Excalibur: It cuts. It cuts deep

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November 5, 2009 brings back bittersweet memories for every Indian cricket fan. In a cliff-hanger against the mighty Australians, Sachin Tendulkar produced a modern age classic. Chasing 351 runs to win, Tendulkar scripted an epic knock of 175. But India fell short. India fell heartbreakingly short. India lost the game by mere three runs.

The superhero’s carnage made it into the history books but that night India found a new villain. A 20-year-old. He didn’t do much wrong. He scored a 17-ball 23 and looked steady. He almost took India home. He faltered at the finish line. He ran for a non-existent single and became the whipping boy for a billion people.

That was the start of a hate story.

It gathered wind in 2009. While chasing 7.5 runs an over, he blocked his way to a 35-ball 25 against England. It became worse in the 2010 World T20s. First, a walloping against South Africa. Then, an Aussie chastening. Finally, a pestering in the hands of the Windies. He single-handedly confirmed India’s exit from the tournament.

The ‘Rock star’ label peeled off and Sir Ravindra Jadeja became a cult figure. With every failure the legend grew. So did the boos. Sir Jadeja became the toast of the internet, the darling of the Twitteratti.

The axe came down in 2011. India won the World Cup and Sir Jadeja began his journey towards oblivion. But fate wouldn’t have it. Yuvraj Singh’s health gave in and India needed an all-rounder — a player who can blast the ball in the end overs and can chip in with valuable breakthroughs. Yusuf Pathan failed. As did Piyush Chawla.

The selectors turned towards MS Dhoni and the man from Ranchi fixed his gaze on IPL’s ‘rock star’. He threw Jadeja into the deep end. He made Jadeja swing his bat. He made his left-arm fall off his shoulders. He made him cover every blade of grass. Jadeja dropped short. ‘Aage daal Jaddu‘ – shouted Dhoni. Jadeja threw darts. ‘Ek chakka khake dikha’ – screamed the skipper. Then, Jadeja turned one off-the-track. ‘Howzaattt’ – Dhoni whipped the bails off in a flash. Jadeja failed. Dhoni pushed. Jadeja failed again. Dhoni pushed harder. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ – The nation wanted to know. But Dhoni never answered.

He didn’t because Merlin had found his Arthur.

He took him to England. With India struggling, Jadeja walked out at Lord’s. Moeen Ali was spitting cobras. Liam Plunkett had his tail up. Then, there was Jimmy Anderson. India needed a partnership but Jadeja decided to make a statement. Out came the sword from the scabbard and the ‘Saurashtra Bradman’ tore into the English bowling in true Rajput style.

That was the start of a new love story. Sir Jadeja’s cult was now official.

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“Some time ago people didn’t consider me a Test bowler. This season is a good response to them”, said Jadeja after picking up his Man of the Series award.

In December 2012, he was ranked 89 in Tests as a bowler. December 2014, he was at 20. 2015 saw him at 23. Then, he took off. December 2016, he chased Ravi Ashwin. Now, he isn’t Ashwin’s plus one anymore.

Sir Jadeja has finally taken over.

The ‘Jadeja story’ should be widely celebrated. It should be because he is scripting our story. He’s fighting those scorns after failure and the disapproving nose twitches. He taking on the bullies for us and explaining what m*d**c**d really means. He’s teaching us a power packed lesson on improvement and self belief. The best part, he’s doing it with aplomb — he’s put his arm on auto mode, picked up his Excalibur and is swinging it.

He’s swinging it bloody hard.

Rahul Dravid – a flop mentor but the one that Team India needs

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Rahul Dravid: Flop as a mentor but still the man for Team India

2013 – Play-offs
2014 – Group stage
2015 – Play-offs
2016 – Group stage

That’s Rahul Dravid’s CV as a coach/mentor. Add a Champions League final loss and a defeat in the World Cup U-19 final to that.

The problem with Dravid, the mentor, is that his teams don’t win trophies. In fact, when the big match arrives, they do a South Africa, every time.

So, when he was appointed the mentor of Delhi Daredevils this season, you knew what to expect — a team brimming with young talent that will play exciting cricket but will fail to deliver on the most important day.

The major problem with the Dravid, the mentor is that he is fantastic at nurturing skillful young players but fails to create ‘badass’ superstars who will bully the opposition and deliver the trophy.

Look at the teams he has mentored. Rajasthan Royals was called the ‘nursery’ for Indian cricket. Except Ajinkya Rahane, they have done nothing for Team India. Three years back, Sanju Samson was supposed to be India’s heir-apparent to the ‘MS Dhoni’ throne but even now, he’s struggling to decipher his role in the side.

Take the Delhi Daredevils, Karun Nair and Shreyas Iyer were the men to look out for this season. While Nair offered flashes of brilliance, Iyer was canned after a string of bad performances.

Now, look at the Indian U-19 team. For the first time in the last 15 years, an Indian underage team has failed to deliver a big name. Every season whether India wins the U-19 World Cup or not, we hear at least one name ready to romp into the senior side. Yuvraj Singh, Md. Kaif, Virat Kohli, Ambati Rayudu, Sanju Samson, Unmukt Chand, Baba Aparajith, Kuldeep Yadav — the names buzzed after every youth World Cup.

This season, even after making it to the finals, not a single player has staked a claim for promotion. The U-19 captain has vanished, Sarfaraz Khan has been sidelined due to ‘weight’ issues and every other player, including Rishabh Pant, has looked half-cooked in the IPL.

Dravid is a bit like Arsene Wenger. Like the Arsenal manager, he has an eye for young talent, has revolutionary ideas, encourages an exciting brand of sports but somehow, cracks at the moment.

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Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan did things differently for Delhi Daredevils

Yet, as the BCCI head, Anurag Thakur should draw up three contracts, right now. Rahul Dravid as head coach. Paddy Upton as assistant coach and Zaheer Khan as the bowling coach.

He should because even after his failure to deliver a trophy, Dravid is the one for the Indian coaching job. He should because Team India and Rahul Dravid cancel each other’s deficiencies out.

With Team India, Dravid doesn’t need to worry about creating ‘badass’ superstars. In Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin, they have quite a few. They are skilled. They are bullies and they know how to win.

However, those superstars need a man to fix their problems. Remember the England series when Kohli couldn’t put bat to ball? Remember the Australian ODI series where he kept struggling with hard hands and wobbly front foot?

That’s when you need a Dravid. You need him to correct Shikhar Dhawan’s weakness against off-spinners. You need him to sort out Suresh Raina’s jammed feet against the short ball.

You need a Dravid because a Kohli can’t be fixed with a Bangar.

But most importantly, Team India needs Dravid to aid Virat Kohli, the captain. For all his batting exploits, Kohli is an ordinary captain and loses the plot too fast when under the hammer. He doesn’t have MSD’s poise and he’s no where near Ganguly’s tactical acumen.

That’s where Dravid needs to float the ideas just like he did with the Daredevils. Let’s be honest, Delhi didn’t have a champion side yet they caught the attention. They did things differently. Stupid at times, but different. They didn’t know their best eleven, hence went for the ‘horses for courses’ theory. It worked, it didn’t work but it was different.

In Team India, the nucleus is settled and solid. Even the fringe players have quality and in MS Dhoni, Dravid will find a strong ally in the limited overs format.

And in Test cricket, with Dravid with Kohli at the helm, India can replicate a Hesson-McCullum partnership. Not replicate but do better because Team India has players who can handle crunch moments way better than New Zealand.

This IPL has been boring but Kohli’s prolific form and Dravid’s toying around with the Daredevils might have given Indian cricket a new direction all together.

Remember what happened when Arsene Wenger led a team of skillful ‘badasses’?

MS Dhoni and his race to the finish

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As Jaspreet Bumrah walked away after the 19th over, Virat Kohli ran up to Hardik Pandya. Kohli left after a couple of pats on his back. Suresh Raina arrived. After a brief neck massage, Ashish Nehra was in his ears. By the time Pandya reached MS Dhoni, everyone had a twitchy bum. They knew what was coming. A famous Dhoni punt.

***

Harbhajan Singh went for 36 in his three. RP Singh was done with his overs. India’s best bowler Irfan Pathan had capped off a brilliant spell. The options left — Yusuf Pathan and Joginder Sharma. India’s new captain didn’t seem flustered as he tossed the ball to the man from Haryana. While entire India screamed -“WTF” in anguish, India’s long-haired captain shouted – “Upaar daalna” and walked back to take his position behind the wicket.

***

Dhoni walks back after a long chat. He didn’t want this. It came to this. He would have preferred Bumrah or Ashwin or Jadeja or Nehra or anyone but a spunky 22-year -14 games-old medium pacer. Bangaldesh had played it perfectly. They pressed India. They have forced Dhoni’s hand. He had to bring Ashwin early. Soumya Sarkar’s assault has messed with his plan. As Pandya ran in, the nerves jangled. Wide and full — Mahmudullah steers it past point looking for a two. Rohit Sharma sprints like a gazelle and keeps it to one. Nehra sprints up with his advice. Dhoni prowls behind the stumps. His discomfort visible, surprisingly.

***

It’s never comfortable when you have Ishant Sharma on the other end while you’re chasing 15-runs in the last over. MS Dhoni had been farming the strike — pushing singles, denying singles. He wanted to take the game deep. He had. Now, he had to deliver. Shaminda Eranga ran up. Full and wide outside off-stump. Dhoni swung. Dhoni missed. Dhoni tightened his velcro.

***

The pressure showed on Pandya. Wide half-volley outside off-stump. Mushfiqur Rahim goes deep into his crease and away she went through covers. Pandya needed help. Hardik needed Mahi bhai. Time for a mid-pitch conference.

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Six off three — Vinay Kumar on strike. Lasith Malinga steamed in. Dhoni at the non-strikers end looked calm. He hadn’t been timing it. He had missed the first two. Kumar got one. Dhoni got one. Kumar ran himself out. Dhoni on strike. Umesh Yadav had walked in. Four needed to win. Dhoni had to muscle it out, somehow. Malinga fired it in, wide. Dhoni stretched out on one leg, reached it and scooped it over extra-cover.

***

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Dhoni doesn’t like talking. With Pandya, he has to. He wants him to listen to the plan. Memorise it. Execute it. Pandya – sporting a dazed look – runs in and delivers. Back of length. Mushfiqur swivels, gets a bottom edge. Dhoni dives, in vain. As the balls rolls over the boundary, Dhoni lies flat on the ground. Mushfiqur lets out a roar, punches the air and celebrates. Bangladesh isn’t losing this. Bangladesh can’t lose this. Surely, not from here.

***

13-runs needed off the last over. Xavier Doherty had bowled a gem of an over — got wickets, kept runs in check and bowled dots to Dhoni. Clint McKay read Ashwin’s movements. Dot. McKay followed Ashwin again. Single. Dhoni on strike. McKay made the mistake. Length.

***

Nehra’s talking. He talks some more. A little bit more. Mushfiqur loses his cool. Slaps the ball high up in the air. The Bangla tigers let off a desperate cry. Wasn’t needed Mushy. Shikhar Dhawan settles under the ball. Mahmudullah has crossed. India still can’t win this. India shouldn’t win this.

***
Dot, six, wide, wide. What is wrong with Dhoni? – the crowd yelled – Why Ishant? England was romping home with Eoin Morgan guiding the ship. Then, the English fleet hit the iceberg. Morgan, Bopara, gone. Both caught by Ashwin. Hang on. When did MS move him from mid on to square leg?

***

Two runs off two balls — surely Mahmudullah has got this. Pandya has to get it right. Full toss. Knee-height. Mahmudullah goes for glory. Six? Four? Will it land safe? Ravindra Jadeja runs, turns and pouches it. Super catch under pressure. Heck, brilliant. Hang on. When did MS swap Dhawan with him?

What happened next will be played on a loop in every TV channel, for years to come. In international cricket, you don’t win games. You win moments. MS Dhoni is a master of moments. He senses it before most. He sees it coming and when he does, he pounces on it. Just like he threw away his keeping gloves before the last ball. Just like he asked Pandya ‘not’ to bowl a yorker. Just like he beat a young fast bowler in a 30-yard sprint.

Call him lucky. Call him smart. Call him whatever you want but in a race to finish he seldom comes second and the legend of Dhoni grows richer with every passing game. He is the ultimate finisher — with bat, with the keeping gloves and with his supercomputer brain. Forget the fat lady, it’s not over until MS Dhoni decides to finish it.

Virat Kohli vs Sachin Tendulkar — the greatness debate

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India loves Virat Kohli. India loves Sachin Tendulkar. And India loves to agrue. So, it’s time we declare the house open for the engrossing – “Is Kohli better than Tendulkar?” – debate.

I never understood how two players playing different roles can be compared. I never found a common yardstick because the variables – conditions, bowling attacks, situations, team compositions, injuries – seem too widespread. I, in my minuscule capacity, have never found enough correlation.

Reading the recent Kohli versus Tendulkar debates made me realise that Indians will never let Tendulkar off-the-hook. Even after his retirement, he has to be a part of every cricket conversation. Let’s make it clear at this point that I am not a butt-hurt Tendulkar loyalist. I surely am a big fan and before keying this in, I scanned through various comparison articles.

Here’s what I found – Why Brian Lara is better than Tendulkar? Why Ricky Ponting is better than Tendulkar? Why Rahul Dravid is better than Tendulkar? Why Jacques Kallis is better than Tendulkar? Basically, everyone is better than Tendulkar. But he’s the one who ended up with 100 international tons. And for the latest – why Kohli is greater than Tendulkar  – even ESPNCricinfo couldn’t stay away –

“Tendulkar, at least to this observer, never gave off that particular vibe. He gave off many others, and is responsible for many of the best cricket-watching experiences of my life. But he never, to my eyes, gave off that almost chilling aura of stone-cold certainty. That, I think, is the crucial difference. Tendulkar gave you hope. As long as he was there, the match wasn’t done. But Kohli gives you certainty. When he comes in, the match is done.”

The author states Tendulkar lacked an aura of certainty. Clearly, he fails to fathom the hold Tendulkar had on Indian psyche. Tendulkar gave you hope and that’s why a man unaware of the score always asked, “Sachin hai na?”  It didn’t matter to him if India were five down, he had hope because Sachin Tendulkar was still battingKohli gives us certainty but we don’t lose hope even if he fails because we know Dhoni hai na.

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“There are others with that Kohli-esque aura; Michael Bevan and MS Dhoni spring immediately to mind. But Bevan and Dhoni played the role of finisher, where it’s much easier to be Mr Wolf. Not because the task is easy, but because the opportunity is frequent. That’s why I want to compare Tendulkar with Kohli; why I think Kohli is remarkable. It’s a lot harder for someone in the top three to make you think: he’s going to fix this.”

There’s no run chase that Kohli can’t fix. His job is to anchor a chase. Sachin Tendulkar, on the other hand, wasn’t Mr. Wolf for India. He went after the bowling early to get ahead of the chase. He was the first runner in the relay who sets the pace of the performance. Kohli has the licence to push for singles for a late flourish but Tendulkar had to take on the McGraths and the Akhtars to throw caution to the wind.

As must happen with all adolescent phases, Tendulkar gradually grew out of the punk. He got a steady job, ascended the company ladder at a dizzying rate, settled into a comfortable middle age. Not for him any longer the mad incandescence of youth. He was no worse, on some scales even better, but he was different. He became a kind of cricket supercomputer, processing match situations, conditions, his own form, and doing what he thought all those factors together demanded. He became, in a word, a reactive cricketer.

Here, the naivety  shows through. It’s humanly impossible to play for 24-years in the same mode. A batsman’s biggest asset is adaptation and acceptance of the changing peripherals. Tendulkar, in his prime, was supremely attacking. He  changed his game-play to suit the demands of a dodgy elbow, an unreliable back and an unforgiving left toe. Kohli, touch wood, haven’t suffered a major injury setback, yet.

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Of course with age, Tendulkar’s powers waned and he handed the ‘mauler’ role to Virender Sehwag and moulded himself into a consolidator. Moreover, he was a part of a side that challenged. Dada’s army for all its swag hardly won anything. Kohli, on the other hand, plays for a team that wins. India, under Dhoni, is an unstoppable force in any LOI competition. They set the mark. They rule the roost. No wonder, their star player is the biggest bully in the yard.

I can go on but it defies logic. Kohli isn’t comparable to Tendulkar because from their mindset to game-play, everything is different. But in India, we love a comparison, especially if it belittles success. It’s in our psyche because all of us have fought off a Sharmaji’s son and have grown to hate the guy who comes first in class. For us, he is the teacher’s pet. He mugs up without understanding and he’s the guy who our crush chooses to go to prom with. To demean him, the new kid on-the-block is the favourite bet.

Virat Kohli is already a LOI legend. He’s getting there in Tests but even when he does, he will not be a Sachin Tendulkar. He will win us games but he won’t bat for our insecurities. He will win us World Cups but he won’t fight the bullies for us. He might crush every  record in the world but he won’t be the guy who will inspire a generation to shake off mediocrity and aim for excellence. Virat Kohli will be our Ricky Ponting. Being Tendulkar, is a different ball game all together.

 

Indian cricket : Time to reboot the ‘process’!

Fletcher and Dhoni - End of road?

Fletcher and Dhoni – End of road?

When Rahul Dravid was appointed as the batting consultant before the Test series in England, every Indian fan, including yours truly, was overjoyed. Suddenly, the atmosphere was electrifying and you got a feeling that BCCI has finally played a blinder in hiring a ‘cool’ customer.

And after 28 years, the victory at Lord’s was sweetly timed with Dravid returning home thinking that the result will do India’s confidence a world of good during the rest of the series!

Then, it all collapsed dramatically as Cook’s men threw the kitchen sink at India. It went bad at Southampton, worse in Manchester but the Oval saw the worst. There were no half-measures from England – they took the aerial root, tightened the screws on India and bounced back like a tracer bullet to win the series!

However, after the annihilation at the Oval, we all got a feeling that something’s gotta give and if you aren’t tired of the clichés already and are still reading this, the news from the centre is that, BCCI is all set to end their ‘foreign coach’ honeymoon as Joe Dawes and Trevor Penny have been awarded well deserved ‘breaks’.

Sorry for all of the above but when the God of clichéd commentary becomes the head of Indian cricket, it’s a little hard not to go overboard. However, before I get rapped on my pads with too many Shastrisms, let’s get back to the matter in hand.

For the upcoming ODI series in England, India would feature an entire new set of support staff.

Ravi Shastri – Director of cricket

Sanjay Bangar, B. Arun – Assistant coaches

R. Sridhar – Fielding coach

BCCI has flashed and they have flashed hard!

But is it what the doctor ordered for Team India? (Sorry, just couldn’t help myself!)

Will these changes fix the leaks and transform the mentally battered Indian unit into a winning squad?

The answer is NO.

The changes are mostly cosmetic and they have been incorporated to appease the Indian fans. Nonetheless, these moves can be productive if persisted with. Then again, BCCI did persist with Duncan Fletcher and we all know how that panned out. In fact, the persistence has taken Indian cricket a couple of steps back and now, it needs a complete reboot.

That means, bidding goodbye to Duncan Fletcher and MS Dhoni.

Often during the England series, Nasser Hussein has heaped praise on Fletcher as being the best man to iron out technical deficiencies in young batsmen. Hussein kept raving about how Fletcher masterminded the Ashes triumph back in 2005 and converted the English tail-enders into better batsmen.

Fletcher made Harmison and Jones better with the bat but he couldn’t sort out Virat Kohli’s technical glitches. Neither could he improve Che Pujara’s batting record overseas. He has failed to cure Shikhar Dhawan’s poking syndrome and hasn’t been able to put a lid on Gautam Gambhir’s jumping jack rendition.

Two whitewashes in a row and now, another English embarrassment – Fletcher needs to go, period. He might have turned England into a potent force, back in the beginning of 2000s, but has done nothing for Indian cricket to argue his cause.

When Gary Kirsten left in 2011, Fletcher had the job to see-off the smooth transition of Indian cricket. The legends were entering the sunset of their careers and a host of exciting young talent was making all the correct noises in the horizon.

He botched it up miserably and has failed to deliver on that promise.

MS Dhoni - Time to go... skip!

MS Dhoni – Time to go… skip!

MS Dhoni, however, is a different case but he needs to take moral responsibility of this recent failure. As a batsman, he performed remarkably well in adverse conditions but as a captain and a wicket-keeper, this England tour has to be his poorest.

He is a leader of a kind and India will never have a captain like him. India might get captains with better cricketing acumen, but MS Dhoni is a different breed.

His unusual ways have brought both success and failures. While he has mastered the art of marshalling his resources brilliantly in the shorter versions of the game, he’s always run out of depth in Tests. He elevated his show with the willow with immense gumption but has failed in inspiring his team to cross to the next level.

MS Dhoni needs to step down from the longer format because right now, he doesn’t have anything more to offer as a leader.

In 2011, he had a mission of rebuilding Indian cricket with new players. When Rahul Dravid retired, Pujara was the answer, Virat Kohli was the heir to Sachin Tendulkar’s throne and Ajinkya Rahane was to slip into the VVS mode! MSD picked his soldiers, laid his ‘process’ in place and asked the fan to hang in.

After three years, the ‘process’ has failed. There is nothing to rebuild because there’s nothing new available. The one’s that failed are the best that he’s got! No wonder, the excuses suddenly lack steel and the sarcasm misunderstood.

However, India is not ready to let him go because the man, who was being groomed for the job, is now clouded with self-doubts. India can’t let him go because we don’t yet have the answer to the question – “Who’s next?”

Still, MSD has gone past his expiry date as a Test captain.

Shastri the saviour?

Shastri the saviour?

One would normally point fingers at BCCI for being unprepared, but this time we need to understand the problem they face. BCCI hasn’t got a replacement for Dhoni; neither do they have a new man for the coaching job. They didn’t expect the ‘process’ to fail and after Lord’s they, like most of us, actually expected the ‘process’ to bore results!

Now the wheels have come off the ‘process’, so, they have done what they do best – play the ‘Shastri’ card!

That’s been BCCI’s quick fix for the last decade. Whenever they run out of ideas, first, they pull out either Shastri or Gavaskar to get a hold of the situation. Then, they arrange a home series against a weaker opposition to get the team back on its feet.

The contingency is in place but Indian cricket is losing the plot, thick and fast. Right now, BCCI needs something (or someone) that’s more result oriented. By clipping Fletcher’s wings, BCCI has showed some intent but for the fans, it’s going to be a really long season.

The questions are tough and the answers unavailable. BCCI needs to mount a time-bound ‘process’, rotate the strike and keep the scoreboard moving until they can find the right answers and the right men for the job.

Till then, hope that #ShastriTheSaviour sees us through the crucial phase so that at the end of the day……