VIEWPOINT – South Africa continue to raise the bar

  World champions South Africa completed yet another big win at Centurion – this time by an innings and 18 runs – to complete a 3-0 whitewash of Pakistan, and in the process finishing a superb home Test summer, a season where they won all five Tests to further widen the gap between themselves and the rest of the pack – they are now a good 10 points clear of second-placed England. Also, Greame Smith’s men have put to rest all doubts of them not winning as regularly at home as they have been overseas.

  Arguably, South Africa’s biggest strength is its awesome array of fast bowlers  We have indeed not come across such such a complete fast bowling unit in recent times. Even when the first-choice fast bowlers are out due to injury, someone or the other cashes on the rare opportunity provided. This can be aptly justified by Kyle Abbott’s breathtaking debut at Centurion, where he ended up with match figures of 9/68, including 7/29 in his very first innings. Last season, Marchant de Lange had made a similar start when he took 7/81 on debut against Sri Lanka at Durban. Rory Kleinveldt has also improved since his mediocre debut at Brisbane.

  Dale Steyn, the world’s best bowler, has meanwhile overtaken Allan Donald to become the third highest wicket-taker for South Africa, and it is just a matter of time before he becomes the highest, given is superb strike rate in Test cricket. Vernon Philander shows no signs of slowing down his wicket-taking rate, while the tall Morne Morkel and the ever-dependable Jacques Kallis provide ideal foil. Clearly, this problem of plenty has been one of the major reasons of South Africa’s utter dominance of late.

286148-graeme-smith       Smells like team spirit – South Africa’s success has been epitomised by the fact that they have a man for every possible s situation (source – news.com.au)

  Another factor in South Africa’s success has been their new-found never-say-die spirit. This was underlined at Cape Town in the second Test against Pakistan. The visitors were right on top with Saeed Ajmal in his element, but South Africa overturned the situation courtesy an unexpected knock of 84 from Robin Peterson. Quite often sidelined in the bowling attack due to the success of the pace bowlers, Peterson played the most important innings of his Test career and showed that he is indeed a vital cog of the side. Again in the second innings when Pakistan were settling well, he combined with Philander to wreck the middle order and eventually set up a series-clinching victory which seemed highly unlikely at one point.

  This spirit was shown most amazingly by Faf du Plessis during the tour of Australia, when he scored 110 of the most valuable runs on debut at Adelaide to script one of the greatest escapes ever seen. A buoyed South Africa went on to win by 309 runs at Perth, and with it the series. Also, with that high quality innings, du Plessis continued the trend of sensational South African debuts starting with Philander, de Lange and now continuing with Abbott; thus proving the side’s bench power.

  A point of view says that South Africa’s ascendance to the top has been facilitated by victories in conducive conditions, and that they are yet to be tested in the sub-continent. However, the conditions at Cape Town against Pakistan were no less different, and South Africa proved that they have it in them to counter the best of spinners on turning tracks. Things might have been different had Pakistan opted for Abdur Rehman to partner Ajmal in the game, but then one cannot rely on ifs and buts; in the end South Africa deserved to win after their fightback. Also, if England and New Zealand were able to achieve favourable results in India and Sri Lanka respectively a few months back, there is absolutely no reason why South Africa cannot succeed in the sub-continent – Steyn and Philander have proved their ability with the old ball, and Peterson is developing into an effective bowler. Plus their batting line-up is the best in the world as well. 

South Africa v Pakistan - 3rd Test Match          The great and the promising – Dale Steyn gives debutant Kyle Abbott the ball during the Centurion Test against Pakistan (source – espncricinfo.com)

  This achievement of South Africa needs to be celebrated and appreciated, and is arguably their highest point since readmission more than two decades back. Looking at this team and its camaraderie, it does seem that the days of the shameful apartheid and the dismal match fixing saga are a distant past. Many critics may like to say that South Africa continue to ‘choke’ in ICC limited-overs tournaments, but then they are taking Test cricket seriously right? And undoubtedly, unless a team is worthy of being a good Test team, limited-overs successes do not matter much.

  South Africa are not just worthy, they are fast setting a benchmark which will be very difficult for other teams to reach in the near future.

RECORD BOOK – Kyle Abbott and sensational bowling debuts

  Kyle Abbott, the 25 year-old Dolphins fast bowler, made a stunning entry into Test cricket by capturing 7/29 in his very first innings for South Africa yesterday at Centurion to put the hosts on the verge of a series whitewash. Remarkably, he is South Africa’s sixth-choice fast bowling option and was able to play only because of a late injury to Jacques Kallis. In this post we look at other such outstanding debutant bowlers, and find out some interesting numbers:-

List  1 – Best Innings Bowling Figures on Test Debut (Top 10):-

8/43 – Albert Trott, Australia v England – Adelaide 1894-95

8/53 – Bob Massie, Australia v England – Lord’s 1972

8/61 – Narendra Hirwani, India v West Indies – Madras 1987-88

8/64 – Lance Klusener, South Africa v India – Calcutta 1996-97

8/75 – Narendra Hirwani, India v West Indies – Madras 1987-88

8/84 – Bob Massie, Australia v England – Lord’s 1972

8/104 – Alf Valentine, West Indies v England – Old Trafford 1950

8/215 – Jason Krejza, Australia v India – Nagpur 2008-09

7/29 – Kyle Abbott, South Africa v Pakistan – Centurion 2012-13

7/43 – Dominic Cork, England v West Indies – Lord’s 1995

Albert-Trott         Albert Trott of Australia holds the record for the best innings figures by a Test debutant, back in 1894-95 (source – sportskeeda.com)

  The above list features two names twice, that of Bob Massie and Narendra Hirwani. Massie, the Australian medium fast bowler, had a match haul of 16/137 on debut while India’s leg-break bowler Hirwani grabbed 16/136 in his first Test, giving him the best ever debut match figures of all time. Massie holds the record of the best debut innings figures as well as match figures by a pace bowler (Albert Trott was a slow bowler). Abbott has taken up the 9th spot on this list, and now has the record of the cheapest 7-wicket haul on debut, bettering Dominic Cork’s feat of 7/43.

List 2 – Best Innings Bowling Figures on Test debut (only first innings):-

8/61 – Narendra Hirwani, India v West Indies – Madras 1987-88

8/84 – Bob Massie, Australia v England – Lord’s 1972

8/104 – Alf Valentine, West Indies v England – Old Trafford – 1950

8/215 – Jason Krejza, Australia v India – Nagpur 2008-09

7/29 – Kyle Abbott, South Africa v Pakistan – Centurion 2012-13

7/46 – John Lever, England v India – Delhi 1976-77

7/49 – Alec Bedser, England v India, Lord’s 1946

7/81 – Marchant de Lange, South Africa v Sri Lanka – Centurion 2011-12

7/95 – William Ashley, South Africa v England – Cape Town 1888-89

7/99 – Mohammed Nazir, Pakistan v New Zealand – Karachi 1969-70

  Looking at the above list, we find that Abbott’s figures are now the fifth-best figures by a bowler in first ever Test innings. From the players in List 1, we have seen already that Massie and Hirwani took 8-wicket hauls in both innings on debut, while among the others, Trott and Klusener went wicket-less in their first innings while Cork managed one wicket.

  Interestingly, more often than not the careers of bowlers on the above two lists have faded away after their sensational starts. The two 16-wicket starters, Hirwani and Massie, have played just 17 and 6 Tests respectively while Krejza has played only one more Test and is unlikely to play any more. The most curious case is of Ashley, whose debut match was not only the sole Test he played, but also the only first-class match he played – the match being his country’s second-ever Test match. Trott, who tops List 1 played just 5 Tests (3 and 2 for Australia and England respectively) before tragically killing himself in 1914. The exceptions are Bedser (51 Tests), Klusener (49) and to an extent, Cork (37) and Valentine (36). de Lange has played only once after his debut, given South Africa’s top-notch pace attack. It will be interesting how often Abbott gets to play for his country when all the premier South African pacemen are match-fit.

narendra-hirwani-080711     Narendra Hirwani had a sensational debut at Madras in 1987-88 – his 16/136 is the best match return by a bowler on debut (source – itsonlycricket.com)

List 3 – Best Match Bowling Figures on Test Debut:-

16/136 – Narendra Hirwani, India v West Indies – Madras 1987-88

16/137 – Bob Massie, Australia v England – Lord’s 1972

12/102 – Fredrick Martin, England v Australia – The Oval 1890

12/358 – Jason Krejza, Australia v India – Nagpur 2008-09

11/82 – Clarrie Grimmett, Australia v England – Sydney 1924-25

11/96 – Charles Marriott, England v West Indies – The Oval 1933

11/112 – Alfred Hall, South Africa v England – Cape Town 1922-23

11/130 – Mohammed Zahid, Pakistan v New Zealand – Rawalpindi 1996-97

11/145 – Alec Bedser, England v India – Lord’s 1946

11/196 – Sydney Burke, South Africa v New Zealand – Cape Town 1961-62

  This is the list that actually underlines the consistency of the bowler to put up a good show throughout his debut Test. Hirwani and Massie are by a distance the only ones to have taken more than 12 wickets on debut. Martin, an English medium pacer of yore, is the surprise at 3rd place followed by Krejza. Just like Krejza, Martin played only 2 Tests, and the 37 Tests played by Grimmett (who has the 5th-best figures), are ten more than the combined number played by the top four on this list.

305662header       Abbott has had a great start to his career, but his challenge will be to defy the trend of debut wonders fading away quickly (source – scoresway.com)

  As I write this, Pakistan’s second innings (following on) at Centurion has resumed on Day 3, and South Africa have 9 wickets still to take. Therefore, Abbott has a great chance to move upto as high as the 3rd place on the list of all-time best match bowling figures on Test debut (List 3). While equalling Hirwani and Massie is impossible, he has the opportunity to take at least 5 wickets and go past Martin on the list. And if not that, Abbott will almost certainly end up with the best match bowling figures on debut by a current player. As of now, India’s Ravichandran Ashwin (9/128 v West Indies, Delhi 2011-12) and Bangladesh’s Sohag Gazi (9/219 v West Indies, Dhaka 2012-13) are the only ones from the current crop who have taken at least 9 wickets on Test debut. To take the South African record (held by Hall – see List 3), Abbott will have to take at least four wickets in the second innings.

  Irrespective of how many wickets he takes in the second innings of his debut Test, Abbott has already achieved a wonderfully rare start to his career. But considering the careers of many of the debut wonders named above, his great challenge will be to defy the trend and ensure that he holds his own in the future, especially among his accomplished fellow fast bowlers.

REVIEW – ICC Women’s World Cup 2013

  The tenth edition of the ICC Women’s World Cup, which concluded last Sunday, was rightly regarded as the best played due to the quality of cricket played and the open nature of the tournament. Probably for the first time, the top teams like Australia and England were given serious competition by the second-rung sides such as the West Indies and Sri Lanka. In the end, it was fancied Australia that lifted the title by convincingly beating the West Indies by 114 runs, but not before they had been upset by the same team in the last Super Six game. The batswomen in particular had a good time compared to previous editions, with as many as 11 individual centuries being notched.

_65938784_161855990        The Southern Stars are a jubilant lot after beating the West Indies in the final to win their 6th World Cup (source – bbc.co.uk)

  Two teams which deserve all the adulation for the way they played in the tournament are the West Indies and Sri Lanka. The girls from the Caribbean reached the final for the first time ever, on the way defeating heavyweights like New Zealand and Australia, the latter for the first time in history. All rounder Deandra Dottin confirmed herself as the most devastating hitter of the ball in women’s cricket, but unfortunately she could not click in the final, where her team faltered in a stiff chase of 259. She boasted a strike rate of 127 in 7 matches and her rapid 60 in the must-win Super Six game against Australia paved the way for the West Indies’ entry into the final. Another hard-hitting West Indian, Stefanie Taylor, smashed the highest individual score of the tournament as she smashed 171 runs in just 137 balls against Sri Lanka to help her side to a mammoth 368/8, easily the highest team total of the tournament.

  Sri Lanka stunned everyone by clinching victories against England and India in the group stage, and in spite of a 209 run defeat to West Indies, made it to the Super Six at hosts India’s expense. This was the first time that Sri Lanka had beaten both England and India, and their surprisingly comfortable victory over India delighted many neutral fans. For long regarded as one of the weakest teams in women’s cricket, the islanders were admirably led by Shashikala Siriwardene. But the real star for Sri Lanka was Eshani Kaushalya, who struck 56 in 41 balls against England as her team scored a thrilling 1-wicket win. Against India, she was even better, thumping 56* off just 31 balls as the hosts crashed to a 138-run loss. She also contributed with 43 to help Sri Lanka beat South Africa in the play-off and finish 5th – a very commendable and heart-warming performance.

01b13vp094-1352362      Eshani Kaushalya hits one to the fence against England – the Sri Lankan all-rounder vowed all with her power hitting (source – ecb.co.uk)

  The other two Asian teams were disappointing and eventually took up the bottom two spots, with India and Pakistan finishing 7th and 8th respectively. India started off a bright note by easing past the West Indies, but back-to-back losses to England and Sri Lanka meant that Mithali Raj’s outfit was knocked out in the group stage itself. India recorded three individual centurions (Harmanpreet Kaur, Raj and Thirush Kamini), but could not translate into a good team showing. However the weakest-looking team in the competition was Pakistan, who lost four games, in which their highest total was just 192. Uncertainty over their participation due to unnecessary political squabbles before the tournament did not help their cause. South Africa were also very patchy, and finally settled for 6th place, with two wins in their kitty. Their total of 77 against England was the lowest of the tournament. 

  Defending champions England were robbed of a final spot in spite of defeating New Zealand in their last Super Six game, as West Indies upset Australia on the same day to qualify instead. Charlotte Edwards’ Englishwomen did manage to secure the third place though, by beating New Zealand again. Edwards herself was in good form throughout, finishing as the third-highest run getter with two hundreds. She was left to rue her team’s two very close defeats – by one wicket to Sri Lanka in the group stage and by just 2 runs (chasing 147) against Australia in the Super Six. These results ultimately cost England a chance at retaining their title. Their right-arm medium pacer Anya Shrubsole was hugely impressive, taking 13 wickets to finish as the second-highest wicket-taker including a haul of 5/17 against South Africa – the best bowling figures of the tournament. She made herself noticed by a great ability to swing the ball both ways, even on dry surfaces. 

8319297        New Zealand captain Suzie Bates had an outstanding tournament with the bat – finishing as the highest run-getter with a 407 runs  (source – stuff.co.nz)

  New Zealand lost three consecutive matches – to the West Indies and twice to England to eventually finish 4th after showing more promise earlier on. Their captain Suzie Bates had a great campaign personally, as she finished as the leading run-scorer in the tournament by some distance – she logged 407 runs in 7 games at 67.83, 93 more than anyone else. The leading wicket-taker was the Australian seam bowler Megan Schutt, who collected 15 wickets in 7 games at just 16.53, including two in the final. The bowling star of the final though was the ever-persistent  Ellyse Perry. The 22 year-old right-arm pace-woman’s participation itself in the final was in doubt after an injury, but she quelled all doubts by not only taking 3/19 in a breathtaking spell but also hitting a quick 25* to give the Australian innings much-needed impetus. In spite of not being fully fit, Perry’s hunger was symbolic of her team’s determination to win a record 6th world title, especially after the Super Six reverse against the Windies. Jess Cameron, who had an ordinary tournament until then, made herself count by making 75 in the final to lead her side to 259/7, which proved enough for the bowlers to defend. 

929648-ellyse-perry        Despite not being fully fit, Ellyse Perry dented the West Indian chase in the final with a brilliant spell of bowling (source – news.com.au)

  The 2013 Women’s World Cup, though watched by few in the stands, was well-followed throughout the cricket world, and the see-saw nature of the tournament hooked many fans. This should serve as a message to the ICC to further enhance the women’s game and arrange for more fixtures for all teams. In fact, given that the hitherto weaker teams have improved by leaps and bounds, this is the time to develop and promote the game in such countries. All in all, a very well-contested tournament and deservedly won by Australia, also known as the ‘Southern Stars’ – who were undoubtedly the most consistent and well-oiled team throughout the tournament’s 18 days. 

       

SPECIALS – Best of Australia v India Test matches

  The rivalry between Australia and India has been the most keenly-contested in Test cricket over the last two decades or so, and has produced some of the most memorable matches ever seen.

  As yet another Test series between the two teams gets underway today, let us go down memory lane to pick the best of the matches. Admittedly, it was a bit difficult to reduce the list to just five.

  Below are the five best Australia-India clashes over the last 65 years, in chronological order:-

1) 2nd Test, Bombay (Brabourne Stadium), 1964-65

  India were under pressure to fight back after Bob Simpson’s Australians won the first Test by 193 runs. Just before the start of the game, the visitors suffered a blow as Norman O’Neill pulled out due to stomach pains, leaving them a batsman short. Half-centuries from Peter Burge (80), Tom Veivers (67) and Barry Jarman (78) helped Australia recover from 53/3 to post 320, with Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (4/50) being the pick of the spin-heavy Indian bowling.

  India replied strongly, with captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi scoring a fluent 86, well aided by Motganhalli Jaisimha (66) and Vijay Manjrekar (59). The last four wickets added as many as 153, as India took a narrow 21-run lead. In the second innings, Bill Lawry (68) took charge early before Bob Cowper and Brian Booth (the duo put on 125 for the fourth wicket) took over.

  Australia were cruising at 246/3 when left-arm spinner Bapu Nadkarni had the former caught behind for 81. This triggered a startling collapse, as Nadkarni (4/33) and Chandrasekhar (4/73) spun a web around the rest of the batsmen. Australia lost 6/28 to be all out for 274, setting India 254 to win with quite some time left. Starting the final day at 74/3, the hosts looked set for defeat when they slipped to 122/6.

  A change in the batting order helped though, as Pataudi (53) and Manjrekar (39) put on 93 for the seventh wicket, but even at 224/8 the Aussies had the edge. Chandu Borde however scored an unbeaten 30, scoring a boundary off Veivers to bring up a two-wicket win with half an hour to spare, delighting the 42000-strong crowd. The series was drawn 1-1.

2) 2nd Test, Perth, 1977-78

385697-bob-simpson        Bob Simpson’s dogged 176 enabled Australia to score an exciting win at the WACA in 1977-78 (source – dailytelegraph.com.au)

  Another two-wicket win, but this time for Australia. The first Test at Brisbane had been a humdinger in itself, with the hosts winning by just 16 runs. The Packer exodus had robbed Australia of many big names, but that was no hindrance to them. After Bishan Singh Bedi decided to bat, Chetan Chauhan (88) and Mohinder Amarnath (90) added 149 for the second wicket, which was the cornerstone of India’s formidable 402.

  Captain Bob Simpson then proceeded to play a brilliant innings, scoring 176 as Australia replied with 394. He put on 101 for the fifth wicket with Steve Rixon, while his opposite number Bedi took 5/89. In India’s second innings, the second-wicket stand starred again, this time Sunil Gavaskar (127) joining hands with the in-form Amarnath (100). But on the fourth day, India, in the pursuit of quick runs, went from 240/1 to 330/9, upon which Bedi declared.

  Australia, chasing 339, ended the day at 25/1, thus setting up a riveting final day. Tony Mann, batting at number three as a nightwatchman shocked India with a brisk 105 in three hours, and he put on 139 with David Ogilvie for the third wicket. Bedi removed both of them to have the score at 195/4, but then Peter Toohey (83) added a match-winning 100 for the fifth wicket with Simpson.

  Bedi tried his best, taking 5/105 (10/194 in the match), but there was no further damage after 330/8, and Australia reached 342/8 to complete a pulsating win with 22 balls to spare. The five-Test series was one of the most thrilling played – India won the next two Tests easily before Australia took the decider at Adelaide, where India fell only 47 short while chasing 493.

3) 2nd Test, Kolkata, 2000-01

  The footage of this match played at the Eden Gardens is sure to give goosebumps to every Indian fan even after nearly 14 years. Steve Waugh’s Australians came into the series having won 15 games on the trot, and duly made it 16 by thrashing the hosts by ten wickets in the first Test at Mumbai.

  They continued their ruthless dominance at Kolkata, first scoring 445 in the first innings, with Waugh getting 110 and Matthew Hayden 97. 20 year-old off-spinner Harbhajan Singh became the first Indian to take a Test hat-trick, and he finished with 7/123, reducing Australia to 269/8 before Waugh frustratingly put on 133 with Jason Gillespie for the ninth wicket, and a further 43 for the last wicket with Glenn McGrath.

  India had lost the advantage of the first day, and if that was not worse enough, they were shot out for 171 in reply. Only VVS Laxman (59), playing at number six, showed fight as McGrath (4/18) rattled the top-order. Forced to follow-on, India ended the third day at 254/4, still 20 runs behind and a 17th consecutive Australian win was just a matter of time.

  On Day 4, the unthinkable happened. Laxman and Rahul Dravid were the overnight batsmen – the former was promoted to number three while the latter batted at number six due to ordinary form. Between them, they scripted perhaps the most amazing comeback ever – they batted the whole of Day 4 without being dismissed.

laxman-dravid     VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid walk back after batting the whole of Day 4 in the epic Test at Kolkata in 2000-01 (source – cricketradius.com)

  Early on Day 5, they were finally separated when Laxman was out for a gargantuan 281 in 452 balls with 44 fours (then India’s highest individual score, and arguably the greatest innings by an Indian) while Dravid himself made 180. The duo shattered the Australian bowlers by adding a record 376 for the fifth wicket. When India finally declared at 657/7 (the second highest ever total after following on), they had 75 overs to stop Australia from getting the required 384.

  Australia, being themselves, began to attack but it would not last long. Harbhajan (6/73, 13/196 in the match) and Sachin Tendulkar (3/31) chipped away at the middle order, and Australia went from 106/1 to 212 all out, giving India the most amazing victory of all time in front of a crowd of more than 90000 at cricket’s then most imposing amphitheatre.

  This 171-run win (only the third by a team following on), achieved with 39 balls left, made India believe in themselves whereas Australia’s relentless march had come to the most unexpected of halts.  

4) 3rd Test, Chennai, 2000-01

  Just two days after the Eden Gardens epic, it was time for the series decider at Chennai, and it proved to be yet another thrilling Test match. The unstoppable Harbhajan was at it again, as he picked up 7/133 to restrict Australia to 391 after they were 340/3, the collapse of 7/50 starting when Steve Waugh was given out handled the ball.

  The burly left-handed opener Matthew Hayden made the bulk of the runs, smashing a wonderful 203 in 320 balls (15 fours, 6 sixes), and was last man out. India, now with the belief that the Aussies could indeed be beaten after their exploits at Kolkata, batted with confidence to reach 211/1 at stumps on Day 2. Five of the top six made more than 61 as Australia’s sapped bowling attack was milked with ease. Tendulkar (126) and Dravid (81) shared a 169 run stand for the fifth wicket, before India lost 6/48 to end at 501, a lead of 110.

  Harbhajan then reserved his best for the last, taking 8/84 to finish with an astonishing 15/217 in the match and 32 wickets in the series. His spell helped India bowl out Australia for 264, and the target was only 155. On the final day, the hosts were cruising towards a historic series win at 101/2 with Laxman (who blitzed 66 off 82) and Tendulkar at the crease. However Gillespie and Colin Miller decided to put one last twist in the tale, and India were suddenly reduced to 135/7, while the eighth wicket fell at 151.

  Wicketkeeper Samir Dighe was the unsung hero, scoring an unbeaten 22 as Harbhajan fittingly hit the winning runs off McGrath to bring up a two-wicket win and a 2-1 series win for India amid unbearable tension. India in the process regained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy they had lost in Australia just a year back. 

5) 1st Test, Mohali, 2010-11

  This Test, the first in a two-Test series, was one of the most exciting of all time, with Laxman yet again proving to be a thorn in Australia’s flesh. Australia batted first and rode on Shane Watson’s 126 and Tim Paine’s 92 to post a healthy 428, with Zaheer Khan taking 5/94 (8/137 in the match). India trailed by just 23 in reply, with Tendulkar (98), Suresh Raina (86) and Dravid (77) hitting fifties to ensure a total of 405.

  Watson and Simon Katich rattled up 87 for the first wicket in the second innings, but India fought back by taking regular wickets. 87/0 became 96/3 before 154/4 became 192 all out. India needed 216 to win and were on the backfoot at stumps on the fourth day, the score reading a worrying 55/4.

1729708    At it again – Laxman exults after helping India win by 1 wicket at Mohali in 2010-11 (source – dnaindia.com)

  On the fifth day, India were in danger of an embarrassing loss at 124/8, when Laxman began to churn out another special knock. Batting at number seven due to injury, he gallantly added 81 with a gritty Ishant Sharma for the ninth wicket, before the latter was out for 31 to make it 205/9 and anybody’s game.

  After some of the most nerve-jangling moments ever experienced, India scored a 1-wicket win, reaching 216/9 courtesy of two leg-byes. Amazingly, Laxman faced just 79 balls for his unbeaten 73. India went on to win the series 2-0.

VIEWPOINT – Michael Clarke’s biggest test yet

  Back in October 2004, a flamboyant 23-year old from New South Wales became the 389th player to don the Baggy Green. In his very first Test innings at Bangalore, he handled the likes of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh with scant regard, smashing a delightful 151 as Australia took the first step towards achieving a milestone series win in India. Michael Clarke had announced himself to the world then, and eight years later he is set to begin his fourth series in India, this time as captain. The ‘Pup’ has come a long way, and is now the central figure of this Australian team, which is a work in progress and is widely regarded as the ‘weakest’ to touch upon Indian shores. 

  Clarke did not have the best of support in spite of a blistering start to his career, mainly because the public could not simply relate to him due to his apparent ‘rash boy’ image. He also had his share of failures and his career itself was in question a couple of times when he was going through a rough patch, both professionally and personally. A mediocre 2010-11 Ashes series followed, where he averaged less than 22, and the Australian public and selectors could have easily made him the scapegoat once again. He was in fact, leading the side in place of an injured Ricky Ponting when Australia were thrashed by an innings in the final Test at Sydney to lose the rubber 1-3. Two years down the line, the selectors very much deserve a pat on the back for not losing faith in Clarke. In spite of the rising public opinion which believed that he was not fit to become captain and that he was ‘un-Australian’ compared to his predecessors, Clarke was named as full-time Test captain for the Sri Lanka tour of 2011. And since then, he has been growing from strength to strength, both as batsman and as captain.

  Overseas wins in Sri Lanka and the West Indies, a 4-0 thrashing of India at home, a mind-blowing calendar year of 2012 (1595 runs, averaging 106 with 4 double-tons) – slowly and steadily Clarke has won over the affections of the public. Captaincy has brought out the best in him, and he was at his sublime best against India at home, a series which was crucial for him to remind the fans that he was indeed long-term material. Not only did he bat brilliantly (he scored 329* at Sydney), he also proved to be a shrewd captain who tactically subdued his opposite number in a ruthless manner. Later in the Caribbean, Clarke displayed his penchant for bold declarations, attacking fields and a brave brand of leadership. And to say he was regarded as ‘un-Australian’ by many!

clarke_2004_18hgklr-18hgkm9         The pup arrives –  Michael Clarke after reaching his hundred on Test debut at Bangalore in 2004-05 (source – au.sports.yahoo.com)

  Starting tomorrow, Clarke embarks upon his toughest Test as captain. Four Tests in India, leading an inexperienced team with stalwarts such as Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey having hung their boots – it is  a challenge that he will relish. He might have already faced world champions South Africa a few months ago, but he himself has admitted that the tour of India has to be his greatest test yet. Captaincy has definitely improved his batting, and he will be expected to lead his side by example, given that he is easily the best player of spin in the Australian ranks. He has been quite a thorn in India’s flesh – he averages 54 in 18 Tests with 5 hundreds, and has developed into one of the best batsmen in the world today – a Test average of 52 in 89 matches speaks for that.

Michael-Clarke-007 (1)    7 years after his debut, captain Clarke stunned India with a knock of 329* at the SCG, kicking off a record-breaking year of 2012 (source – guardian.co.uk)

  India are no longer the same invincible side at home, and fortunately for Clarke he will be up against a side which has been much beleaguered in recent times. He certainly knows that India are at their weakest in quite some time, and the main challenge for him will be to marshal a side with limited resources into a team of winners. History though, is against him – Australia have won only once in India in the last 43 years, and that too was under a stand-in captain (Adam Gilchrist, who led instead of an injured Ponting in the 2004-05 series. Ponting came back for the final Test which was duly lost). Ricky Ponting presided over two series defeats in India, while the ever-tough Steve Waugh won everywhere in the world except for India, where his rollicking Aussie bully-boys famously faltered at the ‘final frontier’ in the most epic series of 2000-01. Having been part of the 2004-05 team, he will be looking to utilise all his experience of playing in Indian conditions, and I will not be much surprised if he manages to pull off what his two illustrious predecessors could not. 

  The final Australian eleven for the first Test at Chennai has already been announced as I write this, and the look of it quite bears Clarke’s hallmark. Despite all the talk of the pitch turning from the first day itself, Australia have selected the team on the basis of their strengths – which is pace bowling – thus stating that the visitors will not add a bowler just because he can spin the ball. The pace attack will comprise of the energetic Peter Siddle, the highly impressive Mitchell Starc and the equally talented James Pattinson, besides debutant all-rounder Moises Henriques. The sole front-line spinner in the team will be the off-spinner Nathan Lyon. And of course, Clarke with his left arm spin can be a wily proposition. Before India think of taking his bowling lightly, they would do well to remember that Clarke in 2004-05  took 6/9 at Mumbai on what was  a deadlier version of a ‘raging turner’. Whether or not the hosts manage to tame this ‘Pup’, will be known in a month’s time. Over to the Test matches now.

IN FOCUS – The Border-Gavaskar Trophy (Australia in India) 2012-13 : Preview

  Two teams in a rebuilding phase will lock horns against each other in the latest round of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, which will be a 4-Test series from February 22 to March 26. Australia are the current holders of this coveted trophy, having ruthlessly crushed India 4-0 at home in 2011-12. Clashes between the two nations have always been great to watch, and this time it should be no different, the relative inexperience of both teams notwithstanding.

india-vs-australia-2011-12

The Matches

  The series will commence with the opening Test at the MA Chidambaram Stadium (Chepauk) in Chennai from February 22-26, closely followed by the second Test at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad from March 2-6. Battle will resume after a week-long break with the final two Tests at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali (March 14-18) and the Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi (March 22-26). Chennai, then Madras, was the venue of the tied Test between the two countries in 1986-87. The second Test was originally slated to be hosted by Kanpur, but lack of adequate facilities meant that the game was shifted to Hyderabad. The last time Australia won a Test at either of these four venues was back in 1969-70, when they won at Chennai. Two of India’s last four Test wins over Australia have come at Mohali. 

Head To Head and Recent Record

  Of the 82 Tests contested between Australia and India, Australia hold a clear edge, winning 38, losing 20, drawing 23 and tieing 1. Of these, 42 Tests have been played in India, where the hosts hold a small advantage, winning 15, losing 12, drawing 14 and tieing 1 (comparatively, India have a woeful record in Australia, winning only 5 of 40 Tests). The latest edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy was played in Australia last season, where the hosts regained the trophy they had lost in 2008-09 by whitewashing India 4-0. India themselves had regained the trophy after successive home wins in 2008-09 (2-0 in 4 Tests) and 2010-11 (2-0 in 2 Tests). The last time Australia won a Test in India was 7 Tests ago, when they won by 342 runs at Nagpur in 2004-05 to clinch a series win in India after 35 years.

Form Book and Ranking

  I might have said earlier in the post that both teams are in a rebuilding phase, but their respective recent form could not have been more different. Australia are coming off a 3-0 sweep of Sri Lanka at home, and even though they lost the home series to South Africa 1-0, they had clearly controlled the two drawn Tests and could well have been the Test champions by now had it not been for South Africa’s resistance. Under the dynamic Michael Clarke, Australia have lost only one out of seven series, and only one out of eight overseas Tests. They are currently ranked 3rd, with a mere one rating point away from taking England’s 2nd place. On the other hand, India (ranked 5th), plummeted to a new low when they lost the home series to England 2-1. As if the twin overseas disasters of last season were not enough, this home loss was India’s first such instance in 8 years. MS Dhoni’s side has lost 10 and won 5 out of its last 17 Tests, with their only wins coming at home against lower-ranked West Indies and New Zealand.

vbk-Ojha_jpg_1274281f         Pragyan Ojha will lead the Indian bowling attack, and is expected to play a huge role in the series (source – thehindu.com)

Players To Watch Out For

  India’s left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha was expected to play second fiddle to offie Ravi Ashwin in the series against England, but the end he was the one who was the only Indian bowler whose performance was up to the mark. Ojha took a joint-highest 20 wickets in that series, and is now regarded as India’s first-choice spin option. In fact, he can be expected to open the bowling on the turning tracks in this series. Given how they struggled against spin in the warm-up matches, the relatively inexperienced Australian batting line-up has to be at its very best if they hope to master Ojha. If there is one man who can on his own be the difference between the two seemingly even sides, it is Michael Clarke. The Australian captain had an outstanding 2012, and he is also much more well-versed with the Indian conditions compared to the rest of his teammates – he had indeed scored a hundred on Test debut on the 2004-05 Indian tour. Plus he was in red-hot form the last time he played against India. Easily the best player of spin in his team, it looks as if captaincy has enhanced his batting capabilities. Not to mention his slow left-arm spin, which can prove to be tricky for India’s shaky middle-order.

aap_3433_15Nov_MichaelClarke_800x600    Australia skipper Michael Clarke will look to achieve what Alastair Cook did in India a few months ago, both as batsman and captain (source – sbs.com)

Prediction

  It would be absolutely foolish to write off Australia’s chances even after their mediocre showing in the practice matches, because the Test series will be a fresh start. India, who perhaps underestimated England’s ability to play spin a few months back, would do well not to repeat that mistake. While both the batting line-ups look fairly evenly matched, it will boil down to which bowling unit is more capable of taking 20 wickets – spin and pace clearly being India’s and Australia’s respective strengths. I expect a well-contested series, and a possible 1-1 result. 

Famous Test Matches – India v Pakistan, Bangalore, 1986-87

  Arch-rivals India and Pakistan, while playing each other, have been historically so keen to avoid defeat that Tests between the two nations have ended in dull draws more often than not. Indeed, 38 out of the 59 Tests between them have ended in stalemates. The last eleven India-Pakistan Tests preceding the fifth and final Test of the 1986-87 series at Bangalore had ended in draws.

  This deciding encounter was played between March 13 and 17, 1987. To avoid a third successive 0-0 series result, Ramaswamy Mohan, the curator of the Chinaswamy Stadium, prepared a rank turner akin to a ‘minefield’. Though it did not make for high scores and easy runs, the cricket itself was thrilling and finally a result was achieved.

  Pakistan captain Imran Khan won the toss and decided that his team would bat first on the unprepared turf. The ball seemed to be turning square almost immediately, and Rameez Raja decided it was best to play a few aggressive shots after his fellow opener Rizwan-uz-Zaman was cleaned up by Kapil Dev for a duck.

  However it was too good to last and he too fell to Kapil. Saleem Malik (who top-scored with 33), played steadily and took the score to 60/2. But from thereon, the 21-year-old left-arm spinner Maninder Singh stole the show and induced the batsmen to panic on a pitch tailor-made for his spin.

ManinderSingh_17669

             Maninder Singh grabbed 7/27 in the first innings, and 10/126 in the match

  He had Javed Miandad and Manzoor Elahi caught off his own bowling in the space of three balls, and then snared Malik and Imran to reduce the visitors to 68/6. He had taken four wickets in 13 balls and the pitch was showing its true colours. The last two wickets added 42, but the final total was 116, below-par even by the pitch standards. Maninder captured a career-best return of 7/27 in 18.2 overs.

  Off-spinner Tauseef Ahmed then took the wickets of the Indian openers as India ended the first day at 68/2. Early on the second day, he also removed Mohinder Amarnath, but Dilip Vengsarkar was fast mastering the pitch. India were in control at 126/4 when Ravi Shastri edged one to Saleem Malik.

  Four runs later, Vengsarkar perished too, out for 50 to hand Tauseef (5/54) his fifth wicket. The Indian innings collapsed thereafter, with left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim (5/48) ensuring a fifer of his own. India were all out for 145, and the lead of 29 was far less than what they would have liked. The two spinners took all the wickets, between them bowling 57 out of the 64 overs. 

   Pakistan began their second dig with better application as the openers wiped off the deficit. They ended day two at 155/5, with Rameez scoring a crucial 47. India chipped away on day three, but were again frustrated by the tail. Wicketkeeper Saleem Yousuf, batting at nine, made an unbeaten 41 and added 51 for the ninth wicket with Tauseef – runs that were worth their weight in gold on the crumbling pitch.

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         Iqbal Qasim had a great Test match, ending with match figures of 9/121 (source – cricket-freaks.com)

  The innings terminated at 249, with Shastri picking 4/69 and Maninder 3/99 to earn himself 10/126 in the match. There was ample time for India to score the required 221 runs but on a pitch like this, patience can be of little help. It was the pace of Wasim Akram that dented the chase early on as he trapped Kris Srikkanth plumb in front before having Amarnath caught behind to reduce the hosts to 15/2.

  At the other end, Sunil Gavaskar was beginning to give his team-mates a lesson on how to bat on such raging turners, in what turned out to be his final Test. Tauseef took two wickets before the close, India ending the third day at a wobbly 99/4, Gavaskar (51 not out) being their only hope.

  When play resumed after a rest day, young Mohammed Azharuddin was starting to provide valuable support to Gavaskar. However, when their stand had reached 43, Qasim caught and bowled Azharuddin – the score now 123/5. Again, Gavaskar found a gritty partner in Shastri and again Qasim struck at a crucial time, this time having Shastri caught and bowled to make it 155/6.

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          In his last Test for India, the legendary Sunil Gavaskar came up with a gem of an innings, but his 96 was not enough to prevent defeat for his team

  The Indian ship was slowly sinking. Qasim further continued his dream match by bowling Kapil six runs later, the Indian captain playing an unnecessarily bold shot, and now it seemed that even Gavaskar would not be able to save the hosts. The score was 180/7 when the great man’s masterpiece came to an end as he edged one to Rizwan at slip off Qasim.

  In what is rightly regarded as one of the best Test innings, Gavaskar scored 96 off 264 balls, batting for five hours and 20 minutes. Roger Binny then tried to stick around a bit, but it was too late. India were dismissed for 204, falling just 16 runs short of a famous win. Qasim (4/73) and Tauseef (4/85) starred again, giving them match-figures of 9/121 and 9/139 respectively.

  In the end, Pakistan’s spinners proved more effective than the home spinners, and the final margin would have been much more had it not been for Gavaskar’s masterclass. That no one else managed more than 26 in the innings speaks of the quality of that knock under extremely tough conditions.

  Gavaskar was named Man of the Match in his last Test, but sadly he found little support as Pakistan won only their third overseas series. A great career had come to an end even as many wondered why he was retiring when he could play better than anyone else in the team. For the record, Pakistan’s next tour of India came as many as 12 years later, in 1998-99.

Match Scorecard