Return to colour and enhanced positivity win the day for India

by vijay_chennupati

There is a scene in the movie Sholay, arguably the most iconic movie in Indian cinema, where one of the protagonists, resplendent in ‘Holi’ colors, tells her future father-in-law what roughly translates to ‘if colors were not there, how bleak would this world be.’ (The word-to-word translation, ‘if colors were not there, how colorless would this world be’, could find its way into Ravi Shastri’s ever popular commentary some day). Jokes apart, the analogy is very fitting in the context of India’s big win in the second ODI at Cardiff. The dab of blue certainly seemed to bring out an upgraded version of the lot which had meekly surrendered just about ten days back. Before I continue, I know that it is too early to rejoice, but I also know that if the Test at Lord’s was an example, then ‘rejoice while you still can’ is not a bad idea either.

We will soon come to know in a few days time if this performance was just a flash in the pan; what will be difficult to decipher is if the super-show yesterday was the result of a sprinkling of color, or if the new boss (as per BCCI at least) Shastri came up with a magical pep talk which rejuvenated the team. While this debate can rage on, I am fairly confident that infusion of positivity was the key differentiator, something which I wrote about in the lead-up to the series. When the game started, India seemed to be very much in the hangover of the Test series, with the score 26/2 at the end of the first 10 overs.

Though Virat Kohli will be chastised for getting out for a duck, this is where I spotted the first instance of positivity. Kohli, who could hardly move his feet in the Test matches, moved down the pitch in a flash and made a perfect connection with the ball – the timing was great as well, but unfortunately, the ball flew directly to Alistair Cook at mid-off and he took a good catch. Ajinkya Rahane kept up the momentum, but it was Suresh Raina, who I consider the most positive player in recent Team India squads, after Virender Sehwag, who took the bowling by the scruff of its neck. It was a sheer joy to watch positive intent translate into runs – an example being the straight six of Chris Woakes; it did not seem that Raina was planning to be aggressive that delivery, but the positive mindset allowed him to immediately switch into an attacking mode on seeing a perfect half volley. The top-edged six a couple of balls later was yet another example of reacting to the delivery as opposed to a pre-emption. While Shastri may chide him by calling him ‘a compulsive hooker’, the oodles of positivity flowing through a very fresh Raina put India firmly in the driver’s seat. Dhoni was his usual reliable-in-ODI self, and the fact that India crossed 300 meant that, to win, England would have to do something they only managed twice before in ODIs in the country.

When England came out to chase the target, revised to below 300 after a brief spell of rain, Alistair Cook’s negative mindset set the tone for the rest of the match. While debutante Alex Hale looked supremely confident, Cook hobbled about in a manner reminiscent of Indian batsmen in the final three Tests. When he eventually got out to Mohammed Shami, he seemed to have passed on the negativity to Ian Bell, who for some inexplicable reason thought that it might be a good idea to leave a ball which from the beginning was heading towards the middle-stump. The dismissal of Joe Root, the in-form batsman, to an unplayable delivery from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, sealed the match, in my opinion. Towards the latter half of the Test series, the frustration was very evident on Kumar’s face; this wicket will go a long way in healing some of his scars.

English batsmen then proceeded to present a colorized version of their capitulation to aggression during their second innings at the Lord’s Test. (for India’s sake, I would hope that the similarity ends there, knowing well what came next). Ravindra Jadeja, who scarcely managed a wicket in his final match of the Test series, was suddenly picking up wickets at will, Ashwin’s couple would help his confidence, and even the hero of India’s batting innings, Raina, picked up a wicket. While this was an excellent victory for India, the irony lies in the fact that the team which was supposed to be down after a mauling ten days back, was in fact the one with a more positive outlook, and that in the end, made the difference.

India flatter to embarrassingly deceive

There was one activity I frequently conducted during the week immediately after the Lord’s victory; watch as many re-runs of the match as possible. There were several, across multiple channels of the same broadcaster, given that it was a victory at the Mecca of cricket after nearly 30 years. I watched most of them, and my logic for inflicting such strain on my eyes was simple: if things did not go well in the next games, this moment would be forgotten, at least for now, so better lap it up to the maximum till the euphoria remains. I am sure that the memory will be fondly relived in the annals of Indian cricket in the years to come, but at the moment, with India being crushed in the ensuing two Tests, the Lord’s victory is the last thing on an Indian mind.

Had I written this piece at the end of the 3rd Test, the title would have read, ‘India flatter to deceive’. Knowing India’s penchant for losing a Test immediately after winning one, I had mentally prepared myself for Southampton; I still strongly believe that had Jadeja taken the catch offered by Cook on 15, the story could have well be different; however, beliefs will not impact cricket statistics and England went on to build a mammoth first innings total of 569. The Indian reply, by Indian overseas batting standards, was not bad, but in the context of England’s huge first innings score, the Indian total of 330 was dwarfed. I remember Dhoni expressing concern at a lot of batsmen getting starts, and not going on to make big scores. Since that moment, Indian batsmen appear to have taken it on themselves to correct this concern, not by making big scores, but by not getting starts at all.

India were set a target of 445 in the fourth innings, and Murali Vijay set the tone for the shambolic performance to come, with a needless run out. What made the event even more unbearable was the fact that he made no desperate attempt to regain his crease – no fervent pumping of the leg muscles, no last ditch dive; just a regulation stretch which had him a fraction of an inch short. Out of India’s remaining 9 wickets, 7 of them went to spinners – 6 to alleged part-time/now specialist spinner Moeen Ali, and 1 to certified part-time spinner Joe Root. Indian players, considered to be among the best when it comes to playing spinners, were falling like nine-pins around them. Moeen Ali is a competent bowler, but even with no major variations like the top-spinner, doosra/teesra…etc. in his armoury, the manner in which he breezed to 6 wickets in the innings is a concern. The loss was dubbed as ‘abject’ by broadcasters and other media. If that was abject, I am sure they are now scratching their heads to come up with a superior terminology to describe the events of the 4th Test.

India were determined to force me to add ‘embarrassing’ to the article title right from the onset of the 4th Test. They were reduced to 8 for 4 at the end of 5.1 overs, and visions of a sub-50 score loomed large. India limped to 152 all out, thanks to healthy contributions from Dhoni and Ashwin; during the innings, India equaled the world record for maximum number of ducks in an innings (6) and the embarrassment was visually highlighted when the broadcaster’s mini scorecard showed Gautam Gambhir’s score of 4 as the fourth highest. Extras, unfortunately not part of the mini scorecard, would have won comfortably, with an aggregate of 12.

However, if it seemed that things couldn’t get worse, the embarrassment déjà vu struck back with a vengeance in India’s second innings as well. England made 367 in their first innings and India needed 215 runs to avoid an innings defeat. The match was more or less in England’s bag by then, with their only concern being the availability of Stuart Broad after being struck by a Varun Aaron bouncer. As things turned out, it was going to be a massacre even in the absence of their first innings bowling hero. India nudged along to tea for the loss of Murali Vijay, but the final session produced an embarrassing 9 wickets, resulting in defeat by an innings and 54 runs. The match was over in less than 3 days, even after more than half the second day was washed out due to incessant rain. Once again, Moeen Ali picked up 4 wickets and was also the chief architect of Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s inexplicable run out. A deeper analysis is not required, because the final session was a mere procession of players from the dressing room and back. I saw an interesting stat that India were 66-6 in both innings of the match. In Christianity, 666 is the devil’s number – this match was a definite tryst with cricketing hell for an Indian cricket fan.

In hindsight, the Jadeja appeal could have been a tactical error

Like most Indians, I was waiting with bated breath for the verdict on Anderson, which had metamorphosed into the most important current event in the wake of Jadeja getting fined 50 percent of his match fee post the infamous July 10 incident, and was utterly shocked to see that Anderson was found ‘not guilty’ at the hearing. The shock was less from a justice point of view, because I had not yet dived deep into the reasons behind Anderson being held not guilty, but more from the sheer loss of face in the midst of intense media coverage. Many news articles sensationalized the development even further, with headlines screaming that Anderson was found not guilty; some others tried the balancing act, by adding in their headline/sub-headline that Jadeja’s appeal against the 50 percent fine imposed on him was upheld.

Based on my quick analysis of cricket/news websites, in a nutshell, there is no video evidence of the ‘incident’ between Jadeja and Anderson, with the event transpiring curiously in the only small passage of space not covered by the ICC’s Anti Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) cameras. So the situation came down to one team’s word against the other – the main witnesses for India were coach Duncan Fletcher, captain MS Dhoni and physio Evan Speechly, while on the English side, representatives were Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes. After going through six hours worth of evidence (curious to see what that would be in the absence of video coverage), His Honor Gordon Lewis, Australia’s representative on the ICC’s Code of Conduct commission, pronounced both men not guilty.

The verdict comes as a huge psychological boost for Anderson and England, the former having faced the risk of being banned for the remaining two Test matches in the series with India, and perhaps a couple more, had the charge been upheld. He now heads to his home ground, Old Trafford, with tail firmly up. India, on the other head, need to dig deep down to come up with some positivity after this verdict, which, coupled with the crushing defeat at Southampton a few days back, is in short, devastating. The supposed ‘consolation’ prize of upholding the appeal against Jadeja’s fine did nothing to pacify my strong feeling of disappointment for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the fact that Jadeja was initially charged, again without any video evidence, indicates that Trial 1 believed that the Englishmen’s version of the truth was superior to the Indians’ in some way, because by the logic put forward in this trial, the earlier one should have also ended with an acquittal. Secondly, from a third-party perspective, being found guilty in a lower court, followed by a subsequent appeal resulting in acquittal of the defendant in a higher court, is in no way comparable to the situation wherein the defendant was initially found not guilty.

On that note, I couldn’t help wondering if the appeal to get Jadeja’s fine revoked was a tactical error made by the BCCI, as it gave the ICC an opportunity to balance out a difficult situation. Dhoni’s condemning of ICC’s fine on Jadeja, in a rare display of emotion, would have put immense pressure on the ICC to punish Anderson as well. Jadeja was also charged on the basis of word-of-mouth, and had the appeal not reopened his case, Lewis would have found it extremely difficult to justify a no-case in the absence of video evidence. Not being a legal person, I don’t know if the Hon. Lewis could still pull out a clause resulting in a no-guilty verdict for Anderson in the event of non-appeal against Jadeja’s fine, which would have caused India the double ignominy of a ‘not-guilty’ Anderson and a fined Jadeja. However, in what now unfolds as a high-stakes poker game, India appears to have blinked first, and irrespective of how we sugar coat it, the final verdict has been a crushing blow on the team’s morale ahead of the fourth Test.

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.

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