The ugly truth behind disappearance of world-class Test spinners

The 1st Test of the 1993 Ashes series, played at Old Trafford in England, introduced the world to a spectacle never been witnessed before, and it has not been surpassed hence. After the Australians posted a competitive 289 on a spinning track, and England opened with a solid 80/1, approximately two hours into their innings, Aussie captain Allan Border tossed the ball to a relative newcomer playing his first Test on English soil. Facing up to him was Mike Gatting, a man in the twilight of his career but definitely good enough for a rookie – or so he thought. An innocuous run-up was followed by a perfect side-on action with a snappy release sending a loopy delivery towards the heavy-set batsman.

An observer would have seen the initial release push the ball towards the leg-side of the batsman, with drift taking it even further down, and attributed the seemingly wasted delivery to nervousness, inexperience, or a combination of both. What followed is not likely to have been predicted by anyone: the ball pitched nearly a foot outside the leg-stump and turned square to beat the batsman’s half-extended front foot and a relatively straight bat to crash into the outside half of the off-stump. As wicket-keeper Ian Healey exulted, umpire Dickie Bird looked shaken, and Gatting stood in disbelief, the world bore witness to leg-spinning legend Shane Warne dishing outthe ‘ball-of-the-century’ on one of the biggest platforms of world cricket.

End of a golden era?
Over that decade and a better part of the next, he was to torment batsmen around the world, along with worthy rivals Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) and Anil Kumble (India), forming an indisputable triumvirate occupying the top 3 spots in the list of all-time highest wicket-takers in Test cricket. After their retirement, the world has been bereft of a spinner of their caliber; yes, there have been occasions where contemporary spinners have provided a whiff of that magic, but sustaining it over a consistent period of time has been a challenge. In the current era, where audiences have been titillated by the pleasures of T20 cricket and awed by aggressive fast bowlers like Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson, the art of quality spin bowling appears to have quietly stepped into the shadows. With one of the potential successors to the genius spin generation that seems to be beyond us, Saeed Ajmal, getting banned for an illegal action, one begs to ask the question: where have all the world-class Test spinners gone?

Scanning the current landscape

Without shooting arrows in the dark, it is important to scan the current global landscape for quality spinners. If I am found to be overtly critical, do bear in mind that the benchmark against which they will be measured is not average or above-average, but world-class.For better clarity, I will segment the Test playing nations into two categories –  outside and within the subcontinent –  and proceed to assess how their current spinners match up.

Outside the subcontinent: Had Graeme Swann been active in Test cricket today, I would have rated him the best in this segment and comparable to the tier 2 of world-class spinners (one which includes Harbhajan Singh, Daniel Vettori, Saqlain Mushtaq, etc.). Post his retirement, I find this segment pretty barren in terms of quality spinners. Australia’s current spin twins Steven Smith and Nathan Lyon are not likely to give batsmen nightmares, and leg-spinner James Muirhead, touted as promising by the Courier Mail, is fairly untested, even in the lower echelons of the game.

England do not have any world class spinner in their current ranks, or on the horizon, as admitted by The Telegraph. Imran Tahir (South Africa) and Ish Sodhi (New Zealand) have occasionally displayed glimpses of magic, but, with 40+ averages, both fail miserably on the consistency scale. This brings us to the final name in consideration – the mystery spinner from Trinidad, Sunil Narine; while the man has tied up batsmen in knots when it comes to the shortest format of the game, he has not exactly set the Test scene ablaze with his tweakers. Only 6 Tests old, his bowling average of 40.5 should reduce with experience, but, for now, his inability to bamboozle batsmen not looking to attack prohibits his entrance into the elite group of world class Test spinners.

Within the subcontinent: If I had embarked on this journey a couple of weeks back, Ajmal would have been a certainty in my list. However, post the ban and a very valid query by Indian spin legend Bishen Singh Bedi – “All those batsmen who lost their wickets to him, all those teams which lost a game because of an Ajmal spell, should they now come forward and say we have been wronged”, my options get limited. I do not see another Test spinner of Ajmal’s quality in Pakistan’s ranks, as of now. Coming to India, with a supreme effort at impartiality, I will have to admit that we do not currently boast a world-class Test spinner. I would still rate Harbhajan Singh, who is the only spinner among the top 10 Test wicket-takers besides the Big 3, as the best Test spinner in the country, with Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha following.

The turbanator’s performance in the few Ranji Trophy matches he played in the 2013-14 season indicate, as he keeps saying, that a couple of years of cricket may yet be left in him. For all his chutzpah, I cannot see Ravindra Jadeja breaking into or near-about the class we are seeking. The final nation under consideration, Sri Lanka, gives me the only current Test spinner I would rate as world-class: Rangana Herath. The stocky left arm orthodox spinner, who has developed multiple mystery deliveries of his own, has an almost identical Test bowling record as Swann but scores over him in the ability to run through a side. The man former skipper Mahela Jayawardene picked as the best spinner in the country, after Muralitharan, is arguably the only current exponent of the flight, guile and mystery associated with the golden preceding era.

So, where have the world class spinners disappeared?

The easiest answer to that question would be to bury my head in the sand and say that the Big 3 are once in a generation spinners, and the world was just privileged to witness all of them in the same era. So, expecting current spinners to match up to them would be like expecting another Don Bradman every couple of decades. The Big 3 were undoubtedly special, but what is worrying is the apparent lack of quality even a rung below them. So, it would be worth exploring some of the possible causes of this ‘disappearance’:The rise of T20: Decline of quality spinners coincided with, not surprisingly, the rise of the shortest format of the game, particularly the marquee ones like the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the Big Bash. The combination of unhelpful tracks, short boundaries and batsmen baying for bowlers’ blood almost every delivery resulted in an over-reliance on variation by current spinners, to survive the onslaught. Unfortunately, variation usually translated to bowling flatter, shorter and quicker, as captured aptly by former Indian cricketer Aakash Chopra in a Cricinfo article.

For bowlers not blessed with variation skills akin to a Narine, this has been the mantra for survival, and also for picking up wickets, usually when batsmen miss-hit and hole out (3 out of the top 4 wicket-takers in the history of IPL are spinners). While it is perfectly fine to adopt a defensive strategy in T20s, a cardinal error would be to carry on this mindset to the longer format, as well, which, unfortunately, most current spinners do. To emphasize my point, it is perfectly acceptable for an Ashwin to bowl quicker and flatter after being carted for a six in an IPL game, but to do the same as a response to a couple of boundaries in a Test match would be unpardonable.

Missing the ‘Test bowler’ mindset: The Big 3 did grace the IPL with their presence, and, while they were not as successful as during their glorious Test careers, their mindset was always to get wickets, much like their hunger while playing in whites. They did get carted – respect is not a sentiment often associated with the IPL, but their mindset did not change over the course of their respective stints. Besides them, the only bowlers exhibiting a similar mindset have been Pragyan Ojha, especially in IPL 2010, where he emerged as the highest wicket-taker, and Amit Mishra, who is the highest wicket-taking spinner and the second-highest overall (behind Lasith Malinga) in the history of the IPL. The short clip below and Mishra’s record are proofs that one can be successful in IPL with a Test bowler mindset, but the reverse, i.e., success in Tests with an ‘IPL bowler’ mindset, is unfortunately not true.

Negative captaincy: There are a lot of memories associated with the famous India v Australia Test match in Kolkata, 2001, mostly related to the superlative batting of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, and India’s fantastic bowling on the final day to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, not many may recall that, with Laxman well past a double hundred and India already with a substantial lead, Warne continued to bowl with men in catching positions and majority of the fielders within the 30-yard circle.

While the move may have resulted in an infamous defeat for the Aussies, one cannot but help doff the hat at the positive captaincy of Steve Waugh, who led the ‘Invincibles’ at the turn of the millennium. How many captains today would have, in that situation, not banished fielders to sweeper, extra-cover, long-on and long-off positions, etc.? Not many, I would imagine. This would encourage a spinner to bowl short and wait for a batsman to make a mistake, as opposed to the classical approach of pitching the ball up with plenty of flight and loop in a bid to deceive the batsman.

Focus on medium pacers: While most non-subcontinental teams have always cultivated medium pacers as opposed to spinners, the last decade or so witnessed, even among subcontinental teams, a disproportionately higher interest in seamers as opposed to tweakers, probably to target more overseas victories. Considering India as an example, between 2003-date, 16 medium pacers and only 6 spinners debuted at the highest level: a clear indication of the shifting focus. While this did usher in a golden decade in terms of overseas victories, it also saw the home fort being breached on several occasions: a sign of dwindling quality in spin bowling. Even at the domestic level, 8 out the top 10 wicket-takers in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy are medium pacers, indicating that the situation is not likely to change in the near future.

Is there a recipe for a world-class spinner?

Unfortunately, there isn’t. What can, however, be done is nurture and protect the ones who do exhibit a potential for greatness. Throwing them into the deep end of a crocodile-infested lake (read: expose them to quality batsmen in unfavourable conditions) could destroy their Test career even before it begins. Herath and Swann are prime examples of quality spinners who have been protected from the travails of highly competitive T20 tournaments.

While both have been exposed to domestic T20s, the batsmen they would have encountered there are not likely to leave long lasting scars, the ones frequently meted out in the IPL or the Big Bash. While protectionism is a possible solution, it may be easier said than done: a quality spinner is always on the watch-list of a cash-rich franchise, and financial lure is something few are able to resist. The best case scenario would be a quality spinner who can seamlessly transition between a run-restrictor in T20s to a wicket-taker in Tests, but, in the event of this scenario not materializing, boards around the world need to think out a plan to protect the precious few spin reserves we have left while providing for their financial security as well. It is gradually becoming difficult to distinguish between a spinner and a medium pacer bowling good leg and off-cutters, and that is not an evolution cricket needs.

Disclaimer: The article considers only the current generation and the previous one; spinners prior to the 1990s are not considered for the analysis

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:

Among alleged successors to the big three, Ajinkya Rahane for VVS Laxman appears the most promising

India are still struggling to fill the void left by the retirement in relatively quick succession of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar; this has resulted in endless discussions across multiple media channels about the successors to this famed trio. This particular analysis will try to examine how alleged successors of these three are measuring up; the analysis compares statistics, technique and temperament of each pair, taking into account only that many number of matches played by the predecessor which the successor has currently completed.

I am not including Ganguly in the list of predecessors for two reasons; firstly, his retirement came much earlier than either of these three. Secondly, there has not yet emerged a successor, even rumored, for the no. 6 position which Ganguly made his own. Several players like Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Stuart Binny, etc. have been tried at this position, but till date, none of them have cemented their slot there.  This analysis will therefore focus on Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, and Virat Kohli, the alleged successors of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar, respectively.

Pujara vs Dravid
The Stats: At an overall level, after 23 Test matches, Pujara is slightly ahead in terms of runs and centuries scored, while Dravid has a better average. The view drastically changes when we compare the ‘away’ statistics; after 10 ‘away’ Tests, Dravid’s average is more than twice of Pujara’s, indicating the gulf between the two players when it comes to overseas performances.
Technique: Rahul Dravid, in my opinion, had the finest technique among players I have followed (post 1990 era); his poise at the crease, and the finesse with which he defended or attacked, was a treat to

the eyes. His final couple of years of international cricket did expose some chinks in his defence, when he was bowled frequently, but other than this late-life blemish, Dravid’s technique has been impeccable. I have gathered from commentators, and various articles, that Pujara has an excellent technique. While I may not be the best judge of technique, I can vouch for the fact that Pujara’s shot execution, poise and overall finesse pale in Dravid’s comparison. He might be effective, but he does not look pretty, when compared with the Wall, in execution.

Temperament: Perhaps, the only thing better than Dravid’s technique is his temperament, and I rate him among the best of all time in this department. Even in his initial Tests, rarely was it seen that he threw away his wicket, or got flustered by on field antics of the opposition. Pujara too has done well in this department, particularly at home, where he has shown the penchant for grinding oppositions to compile big centuries, but whether he can do it consistently over a longer period of time, and on foreign soil, remains to be seen.

Verdict: Long way to go before Pujara can emulate the Wall.

Kohli vs SachinThe Stats: At an overall level after 28 Test matches, similar to the Pujara-Dravid stats, Kohli is slightly ahead in terms of runs, while Sachin has a better average. There is not much difference between ‘away’ runs scored, but Sachin has a much superior average after 15 away matches; to be fair to Kohli, his ‘away’ average prior to the England series was a very comparable 43.1.

Technique: Sachin Tendulkar has always had a rock solid technique, and in this aspect, is second only to Dravid among Indian cricketers of this generation I have seen. The lighting footwork, and the punched on-drives have been a delight to watch. I would say that Kohli’s technique, particularly during offence, is comparable to the maestro. Since this analysis is restricted to Tests, I will have to discount some of his brilliant ODI and T20 innings; even so, his 6 Test centuries bear witness to his free strokeplay and impeccable footwork, when in aggressive mode. However, his technique, when trying to defend, or save a Test, is still questionable.

Temperament: Kohli has been giving Sachin a good fight across other parameters, but in this department, Sachin wins hands down. His match saving maiden century at Old Trafford at the age of 17, gives an insight into his temperament even at that age. He was always positioned as the aggressive hitter, believed to be only capable of creating fireworks that dazzled momentarily before fizzling out; that day he announced to the world that he was capable of so much more. In stark contrast, during the last innings of the 2nd Test match played between India and New Zealand at Wellington in 2014, when India were cruising to victory at 222/2, chasing 407, Kohli threw away his wicket and the match, by displaying a bout of overconfidence as he took on Neil Wagner with a shot, which can at best can be described as disrespectful. While these are singular examples, an overall analysis after 15 away matches does paint a similar picture.

Verdict: Promising, but temperament in Test matches is a concern.

Rahane v Laxman
The Stats: As Rahane has only played one ‘home’ match, the analysis is made on the basis of Rahane’s 8 ‘away’ matches. By way of comparison, Rahane’s figures are far superior to that of Laxman, though the latter was definitely a late bloomer, and it remains to be seen how their stats compare post the Laxman ‘blooming’.

Technique: VVS Laxman was never cited as someone with the best technique; elegance is perhaps the adjective best suited to his gameplay. He has been accused several times of playing loosely away from his body, and I remember the long pauses of surprise he usually gave after playing back to a ball he should actually have played forward to, and getting bowled. Rahane’s technique is definitely compact, though of late, he seems to be nicking regularly to balls outside the off-stump. If the minor aberrations are ignored, Rahane scores higher in this aspect as well.

Temperament: It requires a superhuman effort from my side to forcefully forget the several immensely valuable innings Laxman played during the latter half of his career, and restrict the analysis to only the first 8 ‘away’ matches of his career. On doing so, I will have to conclude that he did not display much promise temperament-wise, in the early days. Rahane, on the other hand, has played some fantastic innings in adverse conditions, be it South Africa, New Zealand or England, where his century at Lord’s on a surrealistic green track laid the platform for an Indian victory.

Verdict: Definitely ahead of his predecessor at this point in time.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:

The curious case of Ishant Sharma: decoding the stats

There is one thing I am quite certain of as I start on this article – Ishant Sharma, on his day, can be an excellent Test bowler; the challenge, for his captain, currently MS Dhoni, is to accurately identify that particular day. Before the knives are out for me for bracketing Ishant as ‘excellent’, and some statistician tells me that he is fighting it out with Fidel Edwards for the worst bowling average among current specialist bowlers with at least 50 Tests to their name, I would like to forward this analysis on Ishant, attempting to present a case for him by diving deeper into the very parameter which is currently his scourge – bowling average.

Flashes of brilliance
Ishant made his debut against Bangladesh in 2007 after an injury to Munaf Patel ruled the Ikhar-born bowler out. But Ishant shot into prominence during the Australia vs India 2007-08 Test series in Australia, particularly in the 3rd Test at Perth, where he practically toyed with Aussie captain Ricky Ponting, beating him regularly with quick, controlled seam bowling, before finally taking his wicket. This was the second instance of a youngster demolishing a superstar in the sporting arena in January 2008, the other being the absolute demolition of Rafael Nadal by a relatively unknown Jo Wilfred Tsonga, in straight sets at the 2008 Australian Open semi-finals.

Besides my soft corner for the game of tennis, the reason for drawing a comparison to another player is the relative similarity in their careers – Tsonga, who on his day can beat anyone, is yet to win a Grand Slam; he had one of his days, or I should say weeks, during the Rogers Cup last week, where he beat four top-10 players including Roger Federer in the final to clinch the cup. Ishant has run through oppositions several times, the most recent being the second innings at Lord’s, while looking utterly pedestrian on other occasions.

Getting back to his bowling average, Ishant, at the end of the Lord’s Test during the Investec Series against England in 2014, averaged 37.04 after 57 Test matches and 103 innings (of which he did not bowl in 3), which is not good by any stretch of imagination. As part of the analysis, I have broken down this average into smaller segments, in a bid to identify the number of innings where he performed excellently, was average, and instances where he was downright pathetic.

A mediocre record
A consistently mediocre bowler is expected to hover in the range of 30-40 in terms of average, and I expected a majority of Ishant’s innings’ averages to be in this zone. However, as the graphic alongside indicates, this segment accounts for only 8 out of his completed 100 innings. The first slice of the pie came as the biggest surprise, with the graphic indicating that the 25-year-old has had a bowling average of 20 & lower in 29 innings, and 25 & lower in 37 innings, figures which are almost Steyn-esque in nature.

In that case, what is bloating the average? The answer is equally surprising, or a better word in this case, shocking – 13 innings with a bowling average between 60-100, and even 3 instances of innings with bowling average in excess if 100. If we combine this with innings of No Average (NA), i.e. when he went wicketless and gave away runs in excess of 50, then we have a total of 31 downright pathetic innings; in a nutshell, Ishant operates in extremes – when he is good, he is usually excellent, and when is bad, he is usually terrible.

So, what does this analysis tell us about Ishant? Not much, except for the fact that he is an enigma, who cannot be bracketed as mediocre, given the number of times he has single-handedly turned Test matches in India’s favor, when in rhythm. This brings up the more interesting questions – should he be persisted with? If so, how to deal with his stark inconsistency? The first answer, based on a healthy cocktail of empirical/statistical evidence, and the lack of quality replacements, is a resounding YES.

To answer the second, I will enter the realm of speculation, backed by observational data. Ishant Sharma is very much a rhythm bowler, and he usually performs better when he gets early wickets. I remember that in the Durban Test in late 2013, Dale Steyn went wicketless for more than 100 runs against India, but came back to take 6 wickets in a fiery spell to win the game for South Africa. I do not recall such instances in Ishant’s case; if he goes wicketless for the first 50-60 runs, and is struggling rhythm-wise, the probability of him suddenly snapping into form is low. This is where the captain has to identify if it is Ishant-the-excellent or Ishant-the-pathetic who has turned up on that particular day.

How MS Dhoni could help Ishant
From his wicketkeeping position, Dhoni is in an excellent position to understand the rhythm Ishant is in, and if he is struggling, it would be a mistake to make him keep trudging in, with the hope of a wicket somewhere, because, given his track record, that is highly unlikely. A better option would be to use him in short bursts of 3-4 overs, rather than keep him on continuously at one end. This ploy may still not get India wickets, but it would keep Ishant relatively fresh, and might contain him in the ‘mediocre’ zone without crossing over into the ‘pathetic’ zone.

The solution may be easier to preach than to practise, given that India usually bowls with one less specialist bowler, requiring more of the workload to be shared among the four specialist bowlers. However, there is no denying the fact that Ishant needs to be preserved, and persevered with, given that when on song, he brings to the table a combination of height, speed and skill which is a rarity among Indian fast bowlers.

The performances in the ‘excellent’ zone will keep coming; the challenge will be to push as many performances in the ‘pathetic’ zone as possible to the ‘mediocre’ zone. If handled correctly, Ishant, who is still below 26 after more than 7 years of international cricket experience, will be a force to reckon with, for several years to come.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:

Why Alastair Cook desperately needs lessons from MS Dhoni in learning to control his emotions


Alastair Cook came up with a series of illogical statements while defending his position on not stepping down as England’s ODI captain, post the team’s humiliating defeat in the 4th ODI at Edgbaston. Clearly running out of ideas, Cook tried to relate England’s recovery from 0-1 to 3-1 in the just concluded Test series to the mauling they are currently receiving in the ODI series. The point he was trying to make – ‘things change very quickly in  sport.’With just one match remaining in the ODI series, there is no scope for ‘quick change’, and the best England can do is to equate India’s 1-3 result of the Test series. To make things worse, he came close to outright lamentation, grumbling that irrespective of which team he plays in, his place is always in question, and that is a hard situation to work in.

Considering this latest outburst, which comes just days after his vociferous expression of disappointment on Graeme Swann’s observation that England have no chance to win the 2015 World Cup, the English captain would do well to take a crash course from Indian captain MS Dhoni on learning to rein in his emotions.Going by his highly unemotional standards, Dhoni had a relatively weak moment in England during the Test series, when he stated that he was ‘deeply hurt’ over Ravindra Jadeja being fined 50 percent of his match fees, the initial verdict in the long-running Jadeja-Anderson saga which grabbed more eyeballs than several on-field events during the series. Even so, there seemed a definite tactical motive to this statement.

That of exerting additional pressure on the ICC before the Anderson verdict; the move, if intentional, may have failed, with England walking way the happier of the two warring parties. But even while displaying emotions, Dhoni’s logic was firmly in place – he argued that such a fine would encourage players to resolve matters in an ungainly fashion as opposed to reporting it to authorities. This is where he differentiates himself from several other captains on the international stage, and highlights the gulf between him and Cook when it comes to channeling emotions in the right direction.

Cook needs to get his facts and his logic correct before embarking on crude statements, which, if they continue coming, will seriously undermine his credibility. Although he had a poor average in Test matches in 2014 (prior to the Southampton Test, when Jadeja dropped him on 15, and seemingly gifted him and England a new lease of life, the 29-year-old averaged 14.33 in 5 Test matches in 2014).

Cook’s pedigree in the longer version of the game was never suspect. His achievements in Test cricket – 25 Test centuries in less than 100 matches, 2nd youngest to reach 5000 Test runs (behind Sachin Tendulkar), youngest to reach 8000 Test runs (beating Tendulkar’s record by 21 days), etc., are no mean feats; irrespective of where he goes from here, he will always be hailed as a great Test cricketer. This is why, despite a lean patch in 2014, though some people were baying for his blood, I never thought his place in the English Test squad was seriously in doubt, at least for a couple more series. Therefore, it was that much easier to inspire confidence in the rest of his team-mates to lift their game when they got an opportunity, and stage a spectacular comeback.

The story is completely different in ODIs; his overall statistics, 3,039 runs in 85 matches at an average of 37.51 are not really impressive by any stretch of imagination, given the abundance of current players in the  40+ and even 45+ batting average bracket. If we remove the most fruitful years of his ODI career, 2011 (600 runs at an average of 46.15) and 2012 (663 runs at an average of 47.35), his batting average over the remainder of his ODI career (2006-date) is below 33, which is definitely not worthy of an international captain.

Since 2012, England have won only a single series against another Test playing nation, and lost the previous four ODI series at home. Unless he hits a purple patch like 2011-12, he is unlikely to inspire his team-mates to reverse their ODI fortunes, and therein lies the difference between his Test and ODI credentials. In Tests, team-mates believe that he is among the best, and a slump in form is an aberration; in ODIs, he will be considered mediocre or above average at best, with good performances being considered an aberration.

His illogical arguments are getting further accentuated by his recent abject whining – his disappointment at ‘friend’ Swann’s straight talk, or the difficulties of being constantly under pressure to secure his place. Dhoni has gone through some immensely difficult moments in his cricketing, particularly Test career, especially after getting blanked 0-4 by both England and Australia during the 2011-12 season, and even now, post the humiliating series defeat in England; handling the amount of criticism being hurled at him from all possible quarters is a testimony of his mental strength – and that is what Cook needs to learn from his counterpart.

I wouldn’t necessarily endorse Dhoni’s unemotional demeanor at all times – Sourav Ganguly never minced his words, and his words were often emotional, but on no occasion did he whine. Taking inspiration from Bruce Lee’s words, it’s high time Cook differentiates between ‘emotional content’ and actual emotions like anger; in this case, disappointment.

To conclude, Cook deserves every bit of flak he is currently getting, and outside the field, his communication can take either of these routes – the Dhoni care-a-hoot methodology, which entails a deadpan expression, occasional smiles, measured conversation and logical quips; or, if he has it in him, he could follow the Ganguly methodology, expressing his opinions strongly and explain why he still needs to be a part of the team.

What he definitely shouldn’t do in public is whine about the ‘injustice’ being meted out to him. Irrespective of what happens on-field, he continues to be the representative of his country at an international level, and an exhibition of his disappointments to the general public would just be perceived by his teammates as a sign of weakness.

In this context, my memory throws up the image of Virat Kohli complaining about the Wankhede crowd booing him during an IPL 2013 match against Mumbai; he is a fantastic cricketer, but this incident exposed his limitations as a captain capable of keeping his emotions under check – which is why, I am never in doubt when it comes to the Dhoni vs. Kohli captaincy debate.

Getting back to the original debate, Alastair Cook’s stocks are currently very low, and the least he can do is be honest about his evident failings, especially in the shorter format; whether he steps down or not is left to him or the Board, but such parading of personal insecurities can further demoralize the team and go a long way in making Swann’s prediction coming true.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:

Why the 2014 US Open is Federer’s best chance to win a Grand Slam

 by  Marianne Bevis 

Roger Federer has been in sublime touch in the run-up the 2014 US Open final. He wrapped up the Cincinnati Masters, the final ATP event prior to the US Open, without breaking much of a sweat. Prior to that, he breezed into the finals of the Rogers Cup, where he ran into the enigma called Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, who had already eliminated three top-10 players in Novak Djokovic (destroyed him 6-2, 6-2), Andy Murray and alleged ‘Baby Federer’, Grigor Dimitrov. The final was a close affair, but the Frenchman outgunned Federer 7-5, 7-6(3); this minor blemish notwithstanding, there is no arguing the fact that Federer is currently in great form.

One of the biggest factors tipping the scales in Federer’s favour is the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal from the 2014 US Open due to a wrist injury. The man is undoubtedly Federer’s nemesis, having an overall head-to-head advantage of 23-10; the statistic becomes even more powerful when we consider that Nadal has won six out the last six meetings with Federer in Grand Slams.

In fact, the last time Federer beat Nadal in a Grand Slam was in the finals of Wimbledon 2007; such has been the vice-like grip Nadal has had over Federer in recent years, especially in big matches. Though Federer may deny it, in cricketing terms, he is Nadal’s bunny; he just doesn’t seem to find a way past the scrambling, muscular Spaniard. His absence may take the sheen off a victory, if it does happen, but after a two-year wait for a Slam victory, I do not think Federer’s fans, yours truly included, will complain.

The absence of Nadal also ensures that Federer is seeded second at the US Open, as opposed to third if Nadal was playing. Keeping numerological aspects firmly aside, this lays out a much easier path to the final for Federer, where the major players he is likely to encounter are David Ferrer and Grigor Dimitrov, none of whom are likely to ouster Federer in his current form. His likely opponent in the final, Djokovic’s path is strewn with potential giant killers, including Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, John Isner, etc.

If Federer does make it to the final, his opponent is likely to have been on court much longer, having battled through the tougher opponents in that half. Fitness will be a major hurdle in Federer’s path, as was seen during the epic Wimbledon 2014 final, where Djokovic outlasted him in 5 sets. The draw has definitely been kind to Federer, and if things go as expected, we can expect to see a fresher Federer in the final against more worked out Djokovic or his conqueror.

Destiny has presented Federer with a triple opportunity – excellent form, Nadal’s absence and a perfect draw, as he heads into US Open 2014. At 33, Federer, if not on his last legs, is gradually getting there. A loss here, in the most favourable of conditions, on one of his most favourite courts, could be a massive blow from which he may never recover. For his sake, and for the sake of the rare brand of magical tennis he plays, fans around the world would be rooting for him; the next two weeks will tell us whether the maestro will rise up yet again in the twilight of his career, or if this could signal the beginning of the end.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:

An analysis of India’s overseas Test performances over the past two and a half decades

While MS Dhoni and his men were being crucified for an abject surrender during the 2014 Test series in England, I reviewed a few cricketing archives which stated that India had won only a single ‘away’ Test match during the entire 1990s decade. On closer scrutiny, I found that the ‘away’ match was the one played against Sri Lanka in Colombo, 1993.

The question which immediately cropped up was if we were being unnecessarily harsh on the current Test team, given that we went through an entire decade without a single overseas Test victory. This question was immediately transcended by another: did the golden decade of Indian Test cricket during the 2000s, ushered in under the captaincy of Sourav Ganguly and followed up impressively by Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, raise expectations to a level where even a reasonable record was considered abysmal?

In order to rationally get to the bottom of this, it was important to plot a comparative analysis of India’s Test performances across the decades. The following parameters were considered over 1990s, 2000s and 2010s (till date): Overseas (outside the subcontinent) Tests played, won, lost, drawn, innings defeat, and draw %age. The final couple of parameters were included to highlight India’s ability, over the decades, to limit damage in adverse conditions. The results are captured below:

There is no surprise that the 2000s are a shining beacon when it comes to India’s performance in Tests overseas; 11 Test victories, which included wins over Australia, England and South Africa, in their own backyard, were undoubtedly spectacular, coming after a decade-long drought. Although India began the decade with overseas victories against Zimbabwe (a far cry from their current team, including players like Alastair Campbell, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Heath Streak and Henry Olonga) in Bulawayo in 2001, and West Indies in Port of Spain, 2002, I would pick the Test at Leeds win in 2002 against England, as a turning point in India’s overseas Test fortunes.

The match was an exemplary demonstration of India’s batting firepower, with 3 of India’s Big 4 making huge scores (Rahul Dravid 148, Sachin Tendulkar 193, and Sourav Ganguly 128) in a mammoth first innings total of 628. A solid bowling performance from both seamers and spinners ensured that India did not have to bat again. The final result – victory by an innings and 46 runs, would have instilled confidence that India had the ability to beat any team in their own home conditions.

As the decade progressed, India only got better. They should have had their first overseas series victory against Australia during the 2003-04 series, but a poor performance on the 5th day of the final Test at Sydney ensured that Australia managed to escape with a 1-1 draw in Steve Waugh’s final Test series. Ganguly passed on the baton to Dravid, who ensured that the overseas wins kept coming; the first overseas win against South Africa was registered in 2006, and in 2007, India secured its first overseas series win against England in 21 years.

Under the leadership of Kumble, India ran Australia close during the controversial and emotionally draining 2007-08 series, and Dhoni rounded off the decade with an overseas series victory over New Zealand in 2008-09.

Now that the golden decade is glorified, it is important to focus on the problematic decades, the 90s and the current phase. A key differentiator between the 90s and the 2000s was the quality of India’s fast bowling talent. Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, India’s mainstays in the medium pace department, were good bowlers, but not consistent match-winners, even in helpful conditions. Absence of a reliable third seaming option was another reason why India struggled to capture 20 wickets of the opposition overseas.

The 2000s saw impactful performances from several medium-pacers, some of whom were around even earlier, but got their act together only during that decade. While Zaheer Khan was a mainstay for much of the decade, other medium-pacers like Irfan Pathan, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, Rudra Pratap Singh, Ajit Agarkar, etc. were instrumental in several of the victories outlined earlier. So, while there is fair evidence to conclude that India was short on quality seam bowling options during the 90s, a draw percentage of 54.5% and no innings defeats speak highly of India’s batting quality during that period.

While the Big 4 only got together post the mid 90s, even earlier, batsmen like Mohammad Azharuddin, Sanjay Manjrekar, Vinod Kambli (briefly) and Tendulkar himself, ensured that strength in the batting department was not found wanting. It is indeed credible that India did not suffer the ignominy of an innings defeat even once during 33 overseas Tests during the decade.

With that in mind, when we examine the current curtailed decade/half-decade, a few disappointing facts are immediately thrown up – 14 losses in 23 overseas matches as opposed to 15 in 33 during the 90s, a draw percentage of only 26.1% and a shocking stat: 7 of the 14 losses were innings defeats. While two out of three victories during this period are memorable (against South Africa, Durban in 2010-11 and the recent victory against England at Lord’s), it does not erase the humiliation of the crushing defeats, which included 0-4 blanks against England and Australia during the 2011-12 season.

While India has continued to cultivate reasonable talent in the seam bowling department, it is the decline in quality of our Test batting which is the root cause of such huge defeats. The beginning of the decade saw the gradual exit of the Big 4 (Ganguly had retired even earlier) and the new crop – Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, etc. do not meet the high standards laid down by their predecessors, as yet (10 years down the line, if this statement is proven wrong, I will be happy).

Before jumping the gun, and accusing the IPL of destroying young Indian Test batsmen, I will reflect on the South Africa and New Zealand series during the 2013-14 season – though we lost both the series, there were phases when India’s new batsmen indicated that they possessed the talent to handle aggressive seam bowling in overseas conditions. There are very few positives to take from the England Test series in 2014, but for the hope that this was just a major aberration in the course of India’s rebuilding process after the dismantling of their batting backbone.

To answer the question this article began with – the current Indian Test team does deserve every bit of flak currently bestowed on them, and it is not due to a hangover of the glorious 2000s. Though we did not win a single overseas Test during the 90s, the grit and determination on display manifested itself in the high draw % and no innings defeat; it is that grit which has been missing during the 2010s – 7 innings defeats out of a total of 14 losses highlight the tendency to surrender as soon as the going gets tough.

The current batting talent, though perhaps not at par with the Big 4, is still good, and with an improved temperament, and an infusion of grit, can still resurrect the team. With the Australian series looming large, the Indian team needs to forget the recent horror-show, and draw inspiration from the previous decade, where no overseas challenge seemed unsurmountable.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda: