India need to take responsibility for their own failings

India’s series loss against England has raised questions about Dhoni’s future as India captain

England’s outstanding 2-1 series win over India in India, following a draw in the fourth and final Test in Nagpur, has raised the temerity of those who feel that now is the time for change within the Indian playing group.

With the benefit of hindsight (that old chestnut), England’s victory is not too surprising given how professional there set up is, and the way Alistair Cook has seamlessly taken over the captaincy following Andrew Strauss’ retirement.

For India, bar Cheteshwar Puruja and Virat Kohli who finally added aptitude in the fourth Test to talent following some brazen dismissals, they need to look inward and realise that all is not well. For Indian fans, it is disconcerting to see all the way from the southern tip of Africa that Mahendra Singh Dhoni and co have gotten into the nasty habit of believing their own hype, and excuses.

From blaming the ball, to the pitch to conditions, Dhoni and the likes of Virender Sehwag have refused to take the appropriate amount responsibility for a poor performance. Take no credit away from England, who deserved their first series win in India in 28 years, but India didn’t help themselves through the own performances on the field.

Sachin Tendulkar typifies this. Given that the last 18 months of Test cricket haven’t been the kindest to him, his continued presence within the Indian set-up seems to be reaching Ponting-esque proportions. No matter how much Michael Clarke tells us that Ponting’s presence in the team was beneficial, his presence at no.4 during their series loss against South Africa was a drag on the Baggy Greens, with normal Channel Nine flunkie Mark Nicholas requiring the freedom of a South African commentary booth to say as much during the recent series.

Perhaps even more frightening for Indian fans is the lack of a truly world class spinner. Harbhajan Singh’s ability to take wickets has been retarded by the constant grind of flat limited overs cricket, while Ravichandran Ashwin contributed more with the bat then he did with the ball during the series.

Pragyun Ohja had a fine series, being the leading Indian bowler with 20 wickets at just over 30. Given his accuracy and control, he looks India’s best spinner by some distance, even if he appears the type of bowler that won’t run through a Test batting line-up like the great Anil Kumble could on his best days.

Will Dhoni remain skipper? Probably. Will Tendulkar suddenly retire? Nope. Change is as good as a holiday goes the old English saying, but if India can’t see the need for change in the first place, they will continue to under perform at Test level.

Given India’s playing and financial resources, a higher standard should be demanded. While the monolithic BCCI continues to boss the world game in the boardroom it is on the field, their prioritisation of limited overs cricket is beginning to take its toll on cricket’s toughest format on the Indian sub-continent.

With a growing Australia set to travel to India early next year, now is a critical time for India to take stock otherwise they could be in for another nasty surprise.

Tendulkar should walk away before it’s too late

One of cricket’s greatest ever players is nearing the end. Could it be England or will he wait till he tours South Africa next year? Probably the latter

Seasons pass, rain comes and goes,  while the circle of life, to quote a fictional lion from a Disney movie, continues. Sachin Tendulkar, the man who has scored the most centuries ever on the international stage, the most runs, and is also the most capped international player of all time, has endured 23 years of international cricket.

That is a lot of seasons.

He has seen Test cricket get supplanted by first ODI cricket, and now the devil we know all too well, T20 cricket, as the game’s money spinner. He has seen the careers of Shane Warne, Wasim Akram, Shaun Pollcok, Gary Kirsten, Alec Stewart, Brain Lara, Martin Crowe, Rahul Dravid and Andy Flower come and go. He has outlasted them all. Heck, he was the very first batsman given out by the third umpire in Test crkcet way back in 1992.

He’s won a World Cup, played cricket around the world and was/is the game’s first true global superstar (Warne might argue with that, but Tendulkar got their first). He is adored by millions, anointed by Sir Donald Bradman as the batsman that most resembled him in style and technique at the crease and is even now a member of India’s parliament.

However, in Tendulkar’s last 16 Tests (and 29 innings), he has scored 951 runs, with no centuries and only seven fifties at a mediocre average of 32.79. He has very little of the fluency that used to inspire fear into bowlers, the assurance of movement that sent a message to the fielding team that he was in the sort of mood to build a house on the crease, he was going to be there so long.

During the T20 Champions League in South Africa this year, I was sitting in the press box at the Wanderers when the Highveld Lions’ Aaron Phangiso bowled Tendulkar, playing for the Mumbai Indians.

It was an ugly shot, with Tendulkar playing all round it. Phangiso was ecstatic, and I made the comment that “Tendulkar isn’t the batsman he used to be”. This caused murmurs and stirs, but why do we have to tip-toe around a subject that is clear to see. Sachin Tendulkar isn’t the batsman he used to be, and the longer he suspends his coming retirement, the more damage he is doing to his legacy, and arguably the Indian team the medium term.

India have been shown by England to be short of skill and hunger in their own conditions, which should be an embarrassment to the BCCI for the way they have neglected the first class game in India. Instead we hear excuses from the players and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, blaming everyone or everything else but themselves.

The Indian team, like Tendulkar, need to take responsibility for their performances. For the cricket world’s most populous nation to be losing so easily to an England team that is good but no where close to the level of Steve Waugh’s Australian side in the 2000s, something is wrong. Media reports today state that the selectors wanted to sack Dhoni only for the decision to be overturned by the BCCI president.

As India’s cricket exploits on the field, and the boardroom, get murkier, Tendulkar should like Ricky Ponting and Andrew Strauss this year, realise that by hanging on, the strands of rope that form his place in the history of cricket will only be stretched and distorted into a shape that a man of his once exceptional talent does not deserve.

Sachin Tendulkar should retire after the fourth and last England Test starting on Thursday. Will he? Rob Steen has an amusing crack at it…

Me? I doubt it very much.

New Zealand lambs to the slaughter on SA tour

Ross Taylor, New Zealand’s best batsman, has decided to skip his country’s tour of South Africa. A massacre looms

New Zealand arrive in South Africa as the world’s second worst Test side, the worst ODI team out of those playing Test cricket regularly, and their best batsman has accused management of lying regarding his dismissal as captain while deciding to stay in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Sounds like the recipe for a massacre.

With South Africa shiny from their series triumph in Australia, they could not have been served a more tantalising and tasty entree then the Black Caps. They were the team that Hashim Amla scored his first international century (149 in Cape Town in 2006), and the first team Dale Steyn took a fifer (5-47 at Centurion in 2006) and 10-wicket match haul (10-93 in Johannesburg in 2007) against.

It would not be strange if history repeated itself.

On the bright side, expectations of Brendon McCullum’s team are so low that anything but a white wash in each format will be viewed with some positivity. They have bowlers like Tim Southee and Trent Boult who know how to use the swinging ball, however it is their batting lineup that will be in serious danger of being gutted inside out by South Africa’s rampant seam bowling attack.

For South Africa, arrogance and complacency are the main risks against a team they have never lost a Test series to. Gary Kirsten, being the shrewd master of men that is, will surely eliminate all such thoughts.

On a different note, Steyn is one wicket away from the magical 300. It is remarkable Steyn, who will surely become the third quickest to the mark when the teams square off in the New Years Test in Cape Town, has not experienced the severe injury problems that have troubled other quick bowlers around the world.

His man-management, like Jacques Kallis, has been exemplary. He stands on the cusp of history, as he prepares to be the fourth South African to pass 300 Test wickets after his former opening partners Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and his current bowling coach, Allan Donald.

Alistair Cook destined for greatness

Alistair Cook has scored five centuries in his five Tests as captain, with three in a row against India on the current tour

Five Tests as skipper, five centuries. Alistair Cook has now established himself as an England legend by becoming the leading Test centurion for England, with his 23rd Test hundred in Kolkata surpassing Kevin Pietersen, Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey and Geoffrey Boycott. Pietersen might still catch up, but with Cook 27 and Pietersen 32, time is on the side of England’s latest Test skipper.

It is fitting that his record-breaking century be scored in the country where he got his first, in Nagpur in 2006 on debut. I lived in Australia during England’s all-conquering 2010/2011 Ashes tour where Cook scored over 700 runs, including a fine double century in Brisbane. The man’s footwork was sound and exact, his technique efficient and well-understood. The man never looked like getting out, and it has so proven since, where lean patches between 2008 and 2009 and mid-2010 have been coupled by a deluge of runs, especially when he has the (c) next to his name.

With a batting style reminiscent of Gary Kirsten in many ways, except slightly better (which is no insult to South Africa’s current coach), Cook understands his game inside out, which is the key to his batting. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses, making him an extremely difficult player to bowl into in that mistakes are rare.

While he perhaps underperformed when South Africa visited England earlier this year, like Michael Clarke, the captaincy has seemed to make him even more focused, with bowlers around the world giving a collective sigh.

Alistair Cook will soon be Sir Alistair Cook, no doubt. Especially if he leads England to victory in India, which is looking increasingly likely. interestingly enough, he is the youngest man to ever score 7000 Test runs. Whose record did he beat? Sachin Tendulkar’s.

South Africa look difficult to stop at no.1

South Africa legitimised their no.1 status in Perth

South Africa, in brutally crushing Australia in a fashion reminiscent of the way Australia dealt with the Shaun Pollock-led tour of 2001, have locked in their place as the world’s no.1 ranked Test side.

While they should count themselves lucky for Faf du Plessis’ unstoppable resilience in Adelaide (who know what might have happened at the Gabba if a day hadn’t been lost), their performance in Perth is one of the best by a South African side, if not the best, in the modern era.

Such was the efficiency and ruthlessness of Australia’s defeat, by over 300 runs, there has been barely a whisper from the Australian press, normally so strident when the Proteas visit their shores, contesting South Africa’s status as the best Test team in the world.

They came close twice, but in the end South Africa took their opportunity when it arose in Perth, where the bowling performance on the second day being the key one of the series. Australia, in bowling out South Africa for 225, could have perhaps done better conersidering it was South Africa’s lower order that bailed them out of trouble, with Du Plessis’ fine undefeated 78 supported by Robin Petersen’s 31 and Vernon Philander’s 30.

Then, Day 2 was where it all happened for Steyn, Philander and co, knocking over Australia for 163. Then by amassing 569, with Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers scoring big centuries, and assisted by captain Graeme Smith’s fifty, South Africa truly arrived, and subsequently bowled the hosts out 322 wining the game with a day to spare.

It seems Smith himself has grown more comfortable with the no.1 tag, and Gary Kirsten has re-energised him as a leader. South Africa’s leader now carries with him an aura of authority and achievement that South Africans have trouble seeing because he is their captain, but rest assured, the cricketing world sees Graeme Smith, and his team of cricket playing South Africans, as a looming juggernaut in the five-day game.

For Australia, Ricky Ponting’s retirement (and timed correctly), wasn’t enough to inspire them against their old foes. Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey aside, their is an element of inconsistency in their batting line-up, with it being not entirely settled, especially now that Ponting has gone.

Michael Clarke should really consider moving up to no.4 at least, if not no.3. Michael Hussey should stay at six with his experience vital to the lower and middle order. Ed Cowan looks to have the right stuff, scoring a century and 50 in the series against the Proteas. Dave Warner is explosive all right, but he doesn’t offer that consistency that a Justin Langer, Alistair Cook or Gautam Gambhir offer. Shane Watson personally should bat at five, if Australia want to be really serious about using him as an allrounder.

It would also suit Watson’s style of batsmanship, protecting him from the swinging ball early in the innings that often sees his front foot square in front of the stumps. Of the replacements, Usman Khawaja seems to have the best temperament, but whether he gets selected is another matter.

On the bowling front, Chris Pattinson and Peter Siddle look the right partnership, with Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson perhaps in the rear. Nathan Lyon has what it takes to continue as Australia’s best Test spinner, and will get better with experience.

South Africa next face New Zealand for two Tests and Pakistan for three over the African summer. South Africa will beat New Zealand, no doubt about that, regardless of Ross Taylor’s teams’ fine second Test performance in Sri Lanka. Many others have also dismissed Pakistan as a threat, which would be foolhardy as they have always proven tough opponents than South Africa give them credit for. South Africa should be able to beat Pakistan, but should not underestimate them one bit, considering that talent has never been a problem for the sub-continent nation, rather applying it.

Atlas Smith carries his team’s hopes…again

Graeme Smith’s 26th Test hundred once again gave South Africa hope after a terrible start to the second Test in Adelaide

Considering how badly South Africa were looking after Day 1, Day 2 ended with skipper Graeme Smith once again showing there was still plenty of room to carry the hopes of a nation after another nerveless hundred (111*) away from home.

If the statistics are to be believed, now that Smith has notched up his 26th Test century, South Africa will not lose. When Graeme Smith has scored a century, South Africa have not lost the game, and won the majority of them (17 ).

On a pitch so lifeless, making a graveyard look like a club with pumping house music, Smith went about his business knowing that with Jacques Kallis only coming in at number seven due to injury, it was up to him to ensure his side made it to the end of Day 2 with minimal fuss.

He had a couple of close encounters, with James Pattinson throwing his toys once again after Smith got his dismissal via an edge reversed, but all in all South Africa while still deep in the abyss, can see the light above.

217/2 would sound a lot better at 217/0 but due to Alviro Petersen’s careless and frankly unacceptable dismissal (how at international level can you be that naive and not ground your bat?), and Hashim Amla yorking himself against the part time spin of David Warner, Jacques Rudolph now has a chance to save his Test career with a defining knock where he can bat all day.

Imran Tahir’s Test career hang’s on a knife edge, following his dismal display of 0/180 in 23 overs at 7.82 runs an over. What is even more galling is part timer Faf du Plessis looked the better of the two leggies, registering seven over for 34.

Hats off to Michael Clarke for another outstanding knock (230), and to David Warner and Michael Hussey once again making South Africa pay with centuries of their own. The Proteas managed to haul themselves back by taking the last five Australian wickets in the morning session, but many will ask whether South Africa prepared hard-enough after their much publicised break between Test matches, where the squad went their separate ways.

However, I don’t think Gary Kirsten and the break is to blame, but rather the Australians entering the game the more motivated of the two sides, and following another disruption with Vernon Philander being unable to play on the morning of the match, plus Tahir who is suffering a confidence crisis (along with fellow bowling cohort Rory Kleinveldt), Kirsten and co will have much thinking to do before the last Test.

I doubt you will see Tahir play, with the calmer Robin Petersen given the spin duties.

For now however, if Smith and South Africa can continue their vigil, the Proteas still have a good chance of drawing this match and going to Perth for the third and final Test at 0-0 all, even though they will admit to themselves that Australia have had their number thus far.

Word to the groundsman, who should have done better than produce a tar road for a Test pitch, late spin or not.

Short balls to Clarke?

 

Michael Clarke…on a bad day

I’ve read talk about South Africa intending on sending down many a chin-warmer against Michael Clarke, the Australian skipper, following his fine 259* not out against the Proteas at the Gabba.

Something tells me that isn’t quite going to happen, more of a bluff perhaps? The best way to get Michael Clarke, is the same way you get the very best out, and he is now one of those. Put the ball into the channel, bowl a good length and keep probing away, ball after ball after ball. Fuller rather than shorter.

Yes, Clarke will receive some bouncers chin-music, there can be no doubt about that. However, to think that in his current form that they will pepper him with short balls all day, seems too blunt an approach for Gary Kirsten, Graeme Smith and the bowling attack in general. Yes, the Gabba was a bad day at the office, actually three, but South Africa have not become number through bowling the same way series by series.

There is a reason the Proteas haven’t lost an away series since 2006 especially. It’s because Smith’s attack has learned and more importantly learned to adapt to the situation around them.

The ball that will get Michael Clarke out will be fullish, outside or on off stump. Why would this happen? Because that’s where good bowlers get out good batsman.

On a separate note, it feels Ricky Ponting is only two bad scores away from being dropped? Of those batsman who made their debut in the 90s, Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar (89 for him), Mahela Jayawardene, and Jacques Kallis are left. While Kallis and Jayawardene have been more consistent, Ponting and especially Tendulkar have looked vulnerable. This could be Ricky Ponting’s last series if we’re not watching.