Venkat Ananth

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Destination Trent Bridge

A friend, agitated by India's apparent first Innings caving in at Lords quite asked me in exactly that tone (panicky, distressed), "Why does the Indian cricket team always somehow manage to struggle in the first Test of an important overseas tour?" and as cliched as an answer could have possibly sounded, I came up with a "We are always slow starters. Remember 2002, 2007?" recounting whatever little I could to justify India's poor record in the first Test of an away series. Though I must concede, it didn't suffice. Barring the "slow starters" defence, I find it inexplicable to understand why this cricket team has always tended to hit the dumps early, and quite inexplicably, ushered the inherent spirit within itself and turned it around as the tour progressed. Lord's, by all means and with due respect to doomsayers wasn't exactly the disaster they're making us believe it was. It was at best a culmination of under-preparedness (individually and as unit) and at worst, faulty execution of whatever little they could manage with fate having its say somewhere in between. The figures who performed at Lord's, the four-five of them, were already in the groove thanks to the preceding tour. While at one hand it suggests shoddy scheduling by the BCCI, it also reflects poorly upon how the cricket board sees important away tours, where the first Test match inevitably ends up as a warm-up game, and more often than not, the conclusion being a hapless performance.

What next? Presumably a bus-ride to Nottingham and a change of venue to a ground both surrounded by and steeped in history, sporting allegiances apart. A venue which might just be the right place to forge that very infamous and spirited fightback that this Indian team in particular has quietly become reputed for, not withstanding some of the baggage they might be carrying from London. If anything, their previous experiences in Trent Bridge (counts for little in the current scheme of things) have been significant in this team's apparent ascent and quest for continued excellence, the second chapter of which began right there. The difference this time around, is slightly more profound than the previous tours. An England side with a mindset they've never encountered before, a no-nonsense, well-drilled, clinical and professional at best, and disappointingly enough, the leader of what looks like a spirited pace bowling attack, Zaheer Khan in absentia from Lord's. And indeed, a batting unit that still is finding its groove in unfamiliar conditions. Add to that ground conditions, which might be heavily different from what they played on in London, with an acute possibility of a wicket that by all means assists positive pace bowling, with that infamous lateral movement.

 

However, I do believe India can do the bit over England at Nottingham. But, that would mean a partial review of the way they went about their business at Lord's. There was a severe lack of intensity, till the fourth day of the Test, where things gradually started happening, matched by a lack of intent - both tactically and in terms of execution, with an approach that just didn't cut a side aspiring to win and dominate. The bowlers unsurprisingly struggled with the prominent slope at Lord's, that visible anxiety and temptation to play against the slope than utilize it to their advantage, not for want of knowledge or skill (read: Duncan Fletcher) but for a lack of habit or conditioning largely thanks to the hangover the pacers were carrying from the Caribbean the lengths, the lines and all that. It almost seemed routine like, run up and bowl, with hardly any intention of making the batsmen play (at least on Day 1), the fear of being driven through the covers as a sign of insecurity than encouragement, and by the time they figured Lord's out, it was too late. On a positive note, better late than never - or to put it simply, nothing better than a pace attack in good form, in near-perfect rhythm ahead of a crucial Test in conditions that should ideally suit them. The pace-bowling unit seems to be in a ready shape ahead of Trent Bridge, with Ishant Sharma bowling almost like a dream and Praveen Kumar's languid disposition comes across as a man who is proficient in his skill of swing-bowling and an effort that best is industrial. At this stage, the Indian pace bowling unit doesn't necessarily lack resources that could help the cause, but leadership, with Zaheer Khan out is a certain problem. Sreesanth, as of now has emerged as the likely candidate to take Zaheer's spot in the eleven for Friday's test, and unassumingly, might be a good choice under the conditions too. Raise eyebrows? Hopefully not, given that Sreesanth bowls what is widely regarded as the "English" length, a lot fuller than his colleagues, though lacking in their consistency and focus. His brief, I think should be rather simple - to take wickets, draw batsmen forward, make them play and of course, force them to drive, rather than cut or pull. And with his ability to reverse the ball and work over batsmen comes in handy too. He comes with a prior warning which essentially translates to - if not debriefed properly, he could turn into a potential liability to this attack. Also, this Test would present Ishant Sharma with a wonderful little opportunity to renew his apprenticeship as leader of the pace attack, something he excelled masterfully at in the West Indies. Only difference this time, a technically and mentally superior batting line-up. Given that the statistics are stacked heavily in favour of pacers at Trent Bridge, particularly in the last ten years, this game could well be a Test of how a fledgling unit handles the unique pressure of bowling in familiarly tempting conditions.

 

The only visible weakness in the bowling attack comes through the lone-spinner, who all things considered, shouldn't be featuring in this line-up - be it for want of form, conditions, ground stats etc. But considering that they will in all probability play Harbhajan at Trent Bridge, more as a formula than anything else, I wouldn't expect much from him, and this despite the best defence of him being a 400+ wickets bowler. There is a clear lack of effort, and by that I don't mean the physical/mechanical business of bowling 30-40 overs, but a lack of attempt at creating a loop with a dip, the flight is missing, the lines are messed up and lengths that an amateur could bat against. Fundamentally, there's zero attempt at trying to give the ball a rip and turn - traits that are central to a spinner's success. To mask this, we're told he's a defensive bowler, keeping one end tight and creating pressure, when in fact, he's doing exactly the opposite. The round the wicket line to the right-handers is a curse at best, negating whatever little wicket-taking opportunity with the limited DRS in place and providing easy opportunities for batsmen to tuck the ball towards square leg and rotate strike. This isn't defensive bowling, I am afraid. Mirror that against England's Graeme Swann, who though not lethal, was reasonably effective - less bad balls, more effort at drawing the batsmen forward and making them drive, creating pressure whenever needed, and bowling with presumably attacking in-out fields. Conditions in England might never favour Harbhajan Singh, particularly Trent Bridge, where his previous outing was largely forgettable - match figures of 3/175, but he still has a job to do - as simple as that. It's getting to a stage where the threshold of frustration has been crossed, and unless he starts performing and with the consistency expected of a 400+ wickets bowler, a lead spinner, it's in Indian cricket's earnest interest to move on and start looking beyond him.

 

One of the minor positives, and I say that despite them being bowled out twice at Lord's would be the batting. The only major worry I would look at and improve upon at Trent Bridge would be the shot selection, which at times wasn't the best. Some of the batsmen got themselves out, which ideally shouldn't have been the case, and this is where the lack of preparedness comes in. Feet movement, especially in the intial half of the Test was all over the place with batsmen trying to play the swinging ball away from the body, walking into the shot when it wasn't needed, and that big, prominent stride forward was severely missing, barring Rahul Dravid of course. As it has always happened with the Indian setup, there was a quiet sense of improvement, if not an effort to undo some of the mistakes they made in their first essay. At Trent Bridge where lateral movement becomes a prominent factor apart from both swing in the air and seam off the wicket, the Indian bats might have to man up, respect conditions and try and correct some of these glaring mistakes they made at Lord's. Interestingly, the batting order features a few survivors from 2007, the old guard as they're called and their experience and inputs might well be critical to take a few of the newer members along. Sachin Tendulkar, with that added bogey of the 100th international hundred staring him should come into his own as the series progresses and the same with Gautam Gambhir. The form of these two players is critical if India want to end up where they do want to and the earlier they strike form, the better for the cause. I must confess that I am particularly impressed with the rookie Abhinav Mukund, who looked reasonably organized, showed the requisite guts and composure against a quality bowling attack and an equally imposing backdrop, that Lord's always has been, except for some of the shots he failed as far as execution was concerned. Equally impressive was Suresh Raina whose Test career and reputation as a Test batsman has been gradually progressing since the past two months. His gauging of conditions, situations with a near-astute response spoke of a degree of a never-witnessed before maturity and in the sort of form that he's in today, Trent Bridge could well give him the theatre to take this forward. If I do have a major concern about the Indian batting at the moment, it'd be the batting form of the skipper, MS Dhoni who, I think looks a total contrast to the wonderful batting role England's Matt Prior performs for his side. For the kind of player he naturally is, it's imperative that he starts playing the way he should be - attacking and with considerable impact, directing the innings towards a flourish or alternatively, in times of strife, bite the bullet become a busy batsman around which the lower-order or the tail bats (read: not at all times). It's rather disappointing to witness a Dhoni Test knock filled with balls going past the edge regularly or the man chasing slightly wider deliveries or generally, just scratching around without much direction or intent. His return to form would definitely enhance India's chances of doing much much better, not just in this series, but on an overall count.

 

Going by past records (especially the last decade), India have successfully found a way to buck the "First Test Syndrome" trend with that rare ability to move on from the mostly unfortunate events to turning up their best in the second and the tests thereafter. I expect Trent Bridge to be no different. Yes, conditions are slightly skewed in favour of England and India certainly lack leadership in some areas, but from whatever little we've been exposed to for a while now, they certainly don't lack the desire. And with that unflinching desire to get right back at England, it wouldn't be wrong to expect a much improved, much hungry and much intense Indian team that takes the field at West Bridgford, Rushcliffe, Nottingham.

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