India stare down the barrel as Cook and Pankaj experience contrasting fortunes

A couple of days back, yours truly had blogged about the significance of the missed Cook catch and how it could end up determining two careers. Although written more out of anguish at a crucial catch being dropped than anything else, the prophecy now seems to have taken ominous proportions. Pankaj Singh ambled into record books today when he edged past little known Aussie leg spinner BE McGain to become the debut bowler to give away most number of runs without taking a wicket. McGain gave away 149 runs in 18 overs against South Africa in Cape Town during the 2009 Test Series, in an innings which witnessed centuries by Ashwell Prince, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. Pankaj now sits atop the list of unfortunate debut bowlers, having thus far given away 179 runs without claiming a wicket. By the way, that was the only Test match McGain played; I sincerely hope Pankaj’s story doesn’t end up in a similar way.
At the other end of the rainbow created by Sir Jadeja’s cloudburst, Alistair Cook looks like a new man. After his 95 in the first innings, he remained unbeaten on 70 even as four wickets fell around him in a bid to collect hasty runs. A week back, Cook, with a 2014 batting average around 14, might have himself laughed if told that his average in the Southampton Test would be 165. But such has been his new ‘lease of life’. The ball has started finding the middle of his bat again, and the famous schoolboy grin is bursting through more frequently. He will definitely have earned a few ‘captaincy’ brownies when he declared the innings after Joe Root’s dismissal, and did not attempt to reach the elusive three figure mark for himself. With England almost certain to win this Test match, unless rain or a similar miracle intervenes, Cook’s detractors may have to wait a while before the knives resurface.

Is Dhoni Finally Showing His Emotions?

I had not paid too much attention to the fact that Ravindra Jadeja was fined 50 percent of his match fees as a result of his run in with James Anderson during the ongoing India-England Test Series; on the contrary, I was slightly relieved, as certain news articles threatened the possibility of a ban for a match or two. What made me sit up and take notice were ensuing news articles splashing the headline : Dhoni ‘deeply hurt’ over Jadeja verdict, etc. Out of curiosity, I checked out one of the articles, all the while confident in my mind that the journalist was hyping up the situation – surely, Captain Cool would not be hurt over something like this. As I read on, it became clear that Dhoni had actually said that he was hurt, and being the logical guy that he usually is, presented a very good case for the same.
My research senses immediately forced me to scour the net, albeit quickly, to come up with a previous instance wherein the Indian captain came across as hurt – I could not locate a single instance. While Dhoni has always been unrelenting in his support for his young brigade, seldom has the captain displayed such fierce emotion for an off-field conflict. For the benefit of those who did not follow his comments, Dhoni positioned himself as a witness to the drama, stating that Jadeja was abused, and later pushed, his fault just being that he turned and moved in Anderson’s direction. Hinting at an ominous development, Dhoni also said that such a fine would encourage players to resolve matters in ‘ungentlemanly’ fashion than report it to authorities.  The captain’s strong words, while being a rare display of emotion, are tactical in nature, as it should definitely exert more pressure on the ICC when Anderson’s case comes up for review at the end of the third Test.

Getting back to the question at hand, while this was the first instance in my memory of Dhoni expressing strong emotional support in a media interaction, he has been displaying a touch more emotion on field these days, by his standards. Nothing highlights those standards better than his calm demeanor after he smacked Kulasekara for a six to lift the 2011 World Cup. While every Indian in the world was going berserk, the man himself was coolly collecting his favorite memento – a stump, not betraying the ocean of emotion that must have surely welled up in him. This year, I did notice a few instances at least wherein Dhoni let his emotions show on field, a recent example being his joyous celebrations each time Ishant Sharma picked up a wicket off the short ball at Lord’s; while the wickets are credited to Sharma, the brain behind the decision to make him bowl short, against his wishes, was that of the captain himself. The satisfaction at the ploy, at best expected to snare one or two surprise wickets, actually determining the match, was perhaps too strong to contain, even for Dhoni.

Does this augur well for India? The answer is as opinionated as the question itself, but being my blog, I will forward my opinion. I have always been a fan of controlled aggression, with my favorite cricket moment (outside WC victories) being that of Sourav Ganguly taking off and twirling his shirt at Lord’s after the unbelievable Natwest 2002 victory. While this particular incident may not come across as the best example of ‘controlled’ aggression, it remains a defining moment in the rise of Indian cricket under Ganguly, which was in doldrums post the match fixing scandal in the late 90s. While Dhoni’s calmness is often praised in limited over situations, he has been criticized several times in the past for letting things drift in Tests, a state of mind akin to being emotionless. Test cricket evokes and definitely demands emotion, particularly from the fielding captain. In the recently concluded Test match at Lord’s, Dhoni was willing to do just that – when on the last day first session, full length deliveries were tackled with ease, he switched over to the short-ball strategy, which almost immediately rewarded him with the wicket of Moeen Ali at the stroke of lunch. After lunch, when Matt Prior and Joe Root hit several boundaries off short pitched deliveries, Dhoni did not give up on his strategy. Instead, he set up a battlefield built on emotional ground – English batsmen were challenged to tackle the short ball, something they are supposed to be good at, with plenty of protection in the deep. England took the bait and perished, resulting in one of India’s most famous victories overseas.

It would be wrong to attribute the victory only to Dhoni’s new-found emotions, but the release of usually bottled up emotions seems to have rejuvenated the captain, and the team itself, based on the near-perfect victory they grasped in  adverse conditions. As far as expressing emotions go, a Ganguly he never will be, but Dhoni, by looking a bit beyond his ‘Captain Cool’ tag, definitely seems to have taken a step in the right direction.

Catches Win Matches..And Sometimes Decide Careers

At the end of the first day of the third Test being played between India and England at Southampton, the first thing I did was to check Alistair Cook’s 2014 average prior to, and after, today’s innings. Thanks to a popular cricket website’s statistical tools, I was easily able to filter out his performances in 2014. Before Southampton, Cook played 5 Test matches in 2014, one against the Aussies, and two each against Sri Lanka and India. He averaged 7.00 against Australia with consistent scores of 7 in each of his two innings, fared marginally better against the Lankans with an average of 19.50 and slumped further against the Indians with an average of 12.33. His cumulative average for the year, in 5 Tests, stood at a lowly 14.33. Cook seemed quite keen to maintain this average when, while on 15, he edged debutante Pankaj Singh’s delivery towards Jadeja for what was a regulation slip catch. Sir Jadeja made a hash of it, and in the process, may have influenced not one, but two careers.
The knives have been out for Cook for quite a while now, as evident from the grilling he was subject to at the hands of Mike Atherton during the post match conference at Lord’s. Atherton threw quite a few difficult questions at Cook, including the future of Matt Prior and Cook’s continuation as captain. While the former seems to have been addressed, with Prior making way for Jos Buttler, Cook continued to hold on by the skin of his teeth. Today, at the median point of the Test series, Cook was walking on hot coals. A failure here, on a relatively benign pitch, would have increased the clamor for his sacking, and with confidence at an all-time low, the probability of his performance being upped in the remaining five innings seemed questionable. The miss by Jadeja, with Cook on 15, resurrected his captaincy life-span to some extent, as he went on to make 95, pushing up his 2014 average to 22.40. The innings wasn’t pretty by any stretch of imagination, but he survived, and the 80 additional runs gifted to him will surely do his confidence and his career a world of good.

Casting an eye at the other end of the spectrum, debutante Pankaj Singh came into this Test after a frustrating wait during which he has captured 300 First Class wickets. Back in 2012, in an interview, he even lamented what more he needed to do to get selected for tests. Even today, he got a chance because Ishant Sharma, the hero at Lord’s, was out due to an ankle injury. Not the best reason to get your first Test cap, but given his wait, Pankaj would have taken it. After two overs, his figures read 2-1-1-0. After the first ball of his third over, his figures should have read: 2.1-1-1-1; amazing figures for a debutante, something which could have set him up for the rest of this innings, and perhaps kick-started his career. His wry smile at the spilled chance did not mask his disappointment, but he sent down his remaining overs during the day at a run rate of 3.5, while the overall England run rate was a little above 2.5.

England have had the better of the opening day, having trudged to 247 for the loss of only two wickets. Cricketing action over the next few days and the remaining series may well render this note irrelevant. Cook’s 95 may just be a blip on the horizon, and his form can slump again; Pankaj can come back strongly to pick wickets in this innings and the next, cementing his place in the Indian line-up. However, should nature take its course more on lines of the earlier described scenarios, one may have to pause and consider the implications of today’s drop, which might end up shaping two careers, albeit in opposite directions.