Friday, March 13, 2009

The importance of momentum

India will probably use tomorrow's fifth ODI at Eden Park as a chance to test its bench strength as part of the buildup to the 2011 World Cup. After all, the same policy has been applied in dead rubbers in recent past series. If this occurs, it could prove to be quite a mistake. With the exception of the matches against England, which was cut short anyway, India's ODI assignments in the last year have either come after the Test component of a tour, or were standalone tournaments.
This time however, India are really only half-way through the campaign.
The Tests are still to come, and India have not won a series in New Zealand for 41 years. New Zealand are palpably weak in the premier form of cricket, but all the pressure is on India, who are now expected to regularly win overseas despite failing to do so in the past. India currently have the momentum, and their batsmen would never have expected to do so well, especially after the insipid batting failures during the previous tour. Nor were New Zealand likely to have expected such a battering. As Daniel Vettori despondently mused after India sealed the series in Hamilton, perhaps 500 would not have been enough to withstand Virender Sehwag's assault.
India has never confronted the New Zealand bowlers in such a poor state on Kiwi territory. Given their past struggles in this part of the world, they are unlikely to have a better chance of a drought-breaking triumph in the near future. Now is not the time to cede their psychological gains by resting Virender Sehwag or another batsman, or allowing Rohit Sharma the opportunity to have extended batting practice tomorrow by elevating him up the order. Rohit and other young batsmen will have more chances after the T20 World Cup, when India play a bilateral series in the West Indies and tour Zimbabwe. This is particularly true for the latter engagement, which is likely to see the rotation policy used far more liberally. There is little that Rohit could gain in one match that could justify giving New Zealand's bowlers a chance to regain confidence before the Tests.
India must be ruthless and go for the jugular. On so many occasions, an aggressive and in-form batsman such as Adam Gilchrist has been able to demoralise a bowler to such an extent that their tail-end or out-of-form partners appear to be transformed into a much more formidable proposition. Question marks over the recent form of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman remain, the latter's customary form against Australia not withstanding. India's ODI batsmen have New Zealand on the run, and now is not the time to allow them to settle before the Tests.
The likes of Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly never had the satisfaction of recording a Test triumph in New Zealand to their CV. Now that they have been selected, Dravid and Laxman do not deserve the same fate, especially the former, who stood out amid the chaos six years earlier and has done so much in the past to rectify India's abysmal touring history. Now that the boot is on the other foot, it should not be lifted mid-fight.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Raina's golden opportunity

His talent has never been in question, but Suresh Raina’s international position has perpetually been questioned. Now he has a better opportunity than ever to prove his doubters wrong.

In his first stint in the ODI team, beginning mid-2005, Raina failed to convert his undoubted potential into runs. When he did make a start, he often failed to capitalise, usually through a lapse in concentration. In 36 matches he passed 40 on only three occasions, his time-truncated middle-order innings notwithstanding. However, Greg Chappell was a great supporter of Raina, and that was what counted. Raina had a longer run than others with his performance. This could hardly be unexpected, as Chappell was one the greatest fielders of all time, and as an Australian, was always going to value fielding and fitness much more highly than the Indian establishment. Nevertheless, criticism of Chappell’s inclusion of Raina rankled the Australian; during a commentary stint when Raina was in the middle of a free-flowing innings for Chennai Super Kings, Chappell’s flowing praise prompted Aamir Sohail to remark that his co-commentator gave the young man so many opportunities. Sohail didn’t directly criticise Chappell, but the mere hint of it was enough to palpably raise tensions and leave Chappell speechless for the next minute or so.

Since Raina’s return to the team, he has scored 887 runs at 43.50, and is clearly India’s best fielder. In the 26 matches since his recall, Raina has effected three direct hit run outs; most of his compatriots are too slow in getting to the ball, not to mention the errant aim of their throws at the stumps. He certainly seems to be working hard on this component of his game; when I saw the Indians train at Adelaide Oval last season, many of the others were busy joking during fielding practice. Some, most notably the seniors, were daydreaming when John Gloster was reading out the stretching regimen. It didn't seem as though I was watching a professional, let alone a world-level team. Raina was one of the few that stood apart. Little wonder that aside from a few of the youngsters, India's fielding is so mediocre and milked by the opposition.

Raina is a dazzling and attractive strokeplayer, but unfortunately for him, it's weight of runs that ultimately counts. Some will point out that his figures are inflated by two centuries against Hong Kong and Bangladesh. However, that still leaves 670 runs at 35.26. And what about the fact that all of Raina’s innings came in the familiar innings of the subcontinent?

True enough. Raina has only made 73 runs at 14.60 in limited opportunities outside Asia. Which is why this tour could be so important to his career. Aside from the prospect of establishing himself as an ODI player of world class, he also has an opportunity to stake a place for a Test batting position.

Aside from the traditional conservatism of Indian selectors, one of the reasons that Rahul Dravid has been persevered with for so long despite his barren form is his track record of excellence overseas. With India aiming for cricket dominance, and trying to exorcise its history of weakness on foreign soil, a Test series win against a weak New Zealand outfit was a must. India have chosen to retain Dravid, but with no Tests outside the subcontinent in the next nine months, it may well be his swansong, with a lengthy window in which his replacement can settle into Test cricket in friendly playing conditions. In this case, the ODI players have the benefit of opportunities to prove themselves in overseas conditions. With Rohit on the bench, and the likes of Virat Kohli, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara not in the squad, Raina has the audition stage to himself, an opportunity to shine solo.

It’s an opportunity that he would be loath to miss. If he does well, he could even oust Yuvraj from a middle-order berth before Dravid moves into the sunset. So far, he has started promisingly.

The innings in the first T20 was a composed and stabilising innings when many others around him, vastly more experienced, lost their composure. In the opening ODI at Maclean Park in Napier, Raina played a dynamic and momentum-changing innings after New Zealand had threatened to derail India’s powerful batting. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was awarded the man of the match, but he was struggling until Raina counter-attacked and broke the shackles. In reality, Raina’s innings was the decisive factor and could have been the difference between a score of 230 and 273.

One surprising facet of New Zealand’s bowling to Raina was the conspicuous absence of the short ball. Raina has often played bouncers in an ungainly way, and then appeared to lose his composure briefly afterwards. That Jacob Oram, who played alongside Raina at Chennai, either failed to notice or act on this, seems careless for international standards. Raina will no doubt be conscious of the need to improve this aspect of his play, but in the meantime, his opponents would do well to see that his full blooming is delayed, or stopped altogether.

Last year, Dhoni led an extremely young and inexperienced team to Australia, then coming off the back of a second consecutive World Cup campaign without defeat, and a 4-2 series win in India. Against the backdrop of widespread scepticism, India fashioned a victory in a series of closely contested matches. Leading the way was Gautam Gambhir, another highly regarded southpaw previously maligned for not fulfilling his potential. Gambhir subsequently regained his Test position, and hasn’t looked back since.

This year, Raina is in Gambhir’s position. The stakes are even more tangible, with impending retirements in the middle-order looming ever closer. The opportunity and rewards are greater, and Raina needs to make the most of it.