Super 8 Round-Up: India vs. Australia

India played Australia today in the first Super 8 match-up of their group in a pretty one-sided match. Both teams looked pretty strong on paper but one team came out strong and played almost perfect cricket (Australia) while India faltered at almost every juncture. The only change Australia made was to play Mitchell Johnson in place of Ryan Harris. India made 3 changes: GG for Dinesh Karthik, Rohit Sharma for Piyush Chawla and Zaheer Khan for Praveen Kumar (who was injured, anyway). The extra batsman (Rohit) raised some eyebrows, but in hindsight ended up a good decision (more on this later).

A rare maiden followed by some ordinary bowling…

India started out really well with Harbhajan opening the bowling in an increasingly obvious “change-up” move. Bhajji started things off with a well-bowled maiden in an over that featured flight, variations in pace and length. While Watson and Warner were still getting their eye in, Bhajji stuck to the basics and bowled good line and length. That’s something no other bowler managed throughout the rest of the innings.

For one, all our bowlers save for Harbhajan had some sort of addiction for the long hop. I don’t know if it was because they were nervous and were letting go of the ball late or if they were just inept. Everyone from ZaK to Nehra to Ravindra Jadeja to Yuvi to Yusuf bowled rank long hops. Watson (who has modified his Twenty20 game to feature a baseball-like swing) and Warner made the most of it by taking advantage of the short boundaries to amass sixer after sixer. At one stage, Ravi Jadeja had given away sixes in six straight deliveries (although 3 of them were the end of one over and the other 3 the beginning of his next). It was particularly frustrating that I, the viewer, knew exactly what the problem was. Ball after ball our bowlers would pitch it short and the batsman would hoick it away for a maximum. The Aussies hit 16 sixes, which is just one short of the record for most sixes in a Twenty20 innings.

Pulling it back to make it a manageable target…

When I left to watch the rest of the game at the local Manchester United Pub in Phoenix Mills, the Aussies had about 160 in 16 overs. By the time I reached my destination, India had pulled it back to give only 25 runs in the last 4 thanks to some decent bowling by Yuvraj, Zaheer and Nehra (I didn’t get a chance to watch any of these overs). 185 against a quick Aussie line-up on a flattish pitch is no easy task, but it was certainly better than staring at a 200+ target. I was quietly optimistic, although my cousin had suggested before leaving that the Indian batsmen, having seen the Aussies smash short balls from their spinners all afternoon, would attempt the same unsuccessfully against the Australian fast bowlers. A more accurate prediction had never been made…

Poor shot selection leads to an ordinary start

Gambhir and Vijay seemed to start off on the right foot–the front foot, that is. I didn’t expect Australia to feed us with a barrage of delectable long hops, but it seems like our batsmen expected it. After a quiet, but safe, start, the innings began to unravel. Vijay, Gambhir and Raina fell within the space of 10 balls, all to pathetic shots. Vijay tried to force a delivery to the leg side that could have been comfortable hit down the ground, Gambhir hit an extremely ugly mistimed pull to mid-wicket and Raina top-edged a horrible pull shot off Tait that is guaranteed to get him some short bowling for a few more years of his young career. The three shots not only effectively gave us an extremely poor start to a difficult run chase, but demonstrate that even our batsmen hadn’t come to the game with their brains in their heads. First it had been the bowlers who seemed adamant to drop every ball short with their lack of pace, and now the batsmen were trying to pull 90+ mph bowlers across the line with all their power. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and it happened.

Rohit shines as the middle order collapses

At 17/3, you’d expect some sanity entering the proceedings and the batsmen at the crease trying to play themselves in. Unfortunately, that was not to happen. Yuvi was outdone by a brilliant yorker from Nannes (I think it was the first yorker of the day, too, I don’t recall our bowlers bowling anything but long hops) in what I thought was the only Indian wicket where the batsman could be given the benefit of the doubt. With Yuvi dismissed, I lost all hope of a miraculous comeback. Dhoni and Yusuf confirmed this, the former with a completely unrequired slog to long-on and Yusuf with a mindless swipe that caught an edge and flew in the air before being pouched smartly by Warner, running in from the deep cover-point boundary. At that stage, India were 42/6 and it looked like we would be bundled out for less than Bangladesh a couple of nights ago, and in fact less than 100.

Luckily, Rohit Sharma began playing a beautiful innings that allowed us to save some face and, more importantly, some net run rate (although we still ended the day with a NRR of -2.45). Sharma was the only top-order Indian batsman who tried playing straight (apart from Dhoni, I guess) and he was the only one who demonstrated how short the straight boundaries were. Rohit ended up with 4 fours and 6 sixes in his innings and even mistimed lofted drives were clearing the boundary with ease. While Watson and Warner played awesomely powerful innings, there’s no doubting that they were aided by the small field–something that no Indian batsman attempted to use to their advantage.

Harbhajan and Zaheer played cameo innings before the innings fizzled to a close on the back of a Shaun Tait over (Rohit probably should have sheltered the two instead of putting them on strike against Tait–but it would have taken a very optimistic and egotistical batsman to do that with 2 wickets in hand and 50 odd runs to get in 3 overs). In fact, Harbhajan was the second highest scorer at 13 runs (third was Extras) and he outscored Murali Vijay, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Yusuf Pathan and MS Dhoni. Combined. I think that statistic tells all, really–the Indian batsmen didn’t really apply themselves at all (except for Rohit).

Things to take from this game…

India still have 2 games to go and if we manage to win both of these, we could possibly still qualify to the semis. Of course, being beaten so strongly isn’t going to do any favours to our NRR. As I type, it looks like the West Indies will fall short against the Sirils, so we have to hope that they beat the Aussies and that the Lankans lose to the Aussies (and we win, of course, against both of these teams…that’s a necessity). It’s never nice to play the NRR game, though. In the two previous editions of this tournament, we have been in a similar situation–requiring victories of our final two Super 8 games to go to the semis. In the first edition, we won against England and South Africa and the rest, as they say, is history. Last year, though, we lost to those very teams and hence were knocked out. I would definitely take West Indies and Sri Lanka over England and South Africa, but it’s safe to say that it is an uphill climb from here.

Other comments I have to make are as follows. First, Ravindra Jadeja. I don’t know how this bloke still makes it to our Twenty20 team. He was a crap Twenty20 player last year and he is still an insult to many more qualified players in our country. The guy’s only saving grace is his economy while bowling (I believe his economy hovered around 7.00 before this game) and that went for a toss today. His batting just isn’t aggressive or imposing enough to be a factor in a Twenty20 game–he’s not going to win games as a finisher and he doesn’t rotate the strike well enough to recover from early wickets (such as today). As I remarked around this time last year, when Jadeja almost single-handedly lost us the game against England, he just does not deserve his Twenty20 cap. Today, he caused a massive momentum shift from a decent first 2 overs to one where he gave away 19 runs. I’m all for him playing in ODIs and Tests (in a few seasons, of course), where he has more time to work his game, but he’ s not a good player for this format.

Second, short-bowling. It is obvious that we have troubles with short bowling. This was evident in the game we played last year, against the West Indies, where all 7 of our wickets fell to Bravo/Edwards and our first three wickets had been snaffled out for 29 runs. Not a lot has changed this year. It seems our batsmen still feel like every short ball must be pulled, regardless of pace, line and (lack of) talent. Yuvi is the only batsman in our team who I can confidently say knows how to pull the ball. The other guys need to work it out in the nets, not in the middle of a crunch game against Australia. We will likely be tested with the short balls against the West Indies on Sunday with Kemar Roach and Jerome Taylor both 90+ mph bowlers. Sri Lanka will be slightly better, but we may well be out of the tournament by then (not to mention our old tormentor, Ajantha Mendis, seems to have hit some form).

Finally, opening is an issue for us. We have been spoiled by the ease with which Virender Sehwag dents opening attacks. Sehwag is good at using the pace of the bowlers he faces to get his runs. Although he struggles against the short balls, he is smart enough to know that he can’t pull a brisk pace bowler against the line and instead employs an uppercut shot. With the boundaries as short as they are, Sehwag could well have got a couple of sixes in that direction and made the Aussies rethink their bounce strategy. As it stands, our openin lineup right now is very weak indeed. Gambhir has looked like he misplaced his bats in his kit and Vijay only looked good against Afghanistan, against whom he only scored at a strike rate of a shade over 100. Our opening partnership needs to click if we want to survive till the next round of this tournament.

india-west indies post-mortem

India have just dropped their opening Super 8 game against Chris Gayle’s West Indies side and are now precariously placed in the last position of what is inarguably the the Super 8 “group of death”. What this means is they now have their backs to their wall and will be confronted with must-win games the rest of the tournament. Before I take a look at what they need to do, let’s take a look at what they did and didn’t do in this game.

Indian innings

MS Dhoni won the toss and chose to bat, in this game, a throwback to his “bat-first-no-questions-asked” policy of the 2007 World Twenty20. It seemed like the correct decision in the time and probably was, in retrospect, the correct decision, but the Indian batsmen came up a bit short, literally, against the West Indian bowling attack. Gautam Gambhir looked in decent enough touch but the in-form Rohit Sharma fell after just 3 deliveries, trying to pull his Deccan Chargers teammate Fidel Edwards twice in a row. The first one was not well-timed but ran down the hill for a boundary; the second was a touch fuller and caught the top edge, with a good catch being taken by Lendl Simmons to give the Windies an early breakthrough.

The batting didn’t get much better for a while, with Suresh Raina being sent in at number 3 for the first time since India has arrived in England. Gambhir and Raina didn’t last long, with Edwards snagging Raina as he played a nothing shot after being softened up by two bouncers. Gambhir fell an over later, trying to hook Dwayne Bravo out of the ground and becoming the second Indian batsmen of many to fall prey to the short delivery. Dhoni finally arrived at the crease, having sent Yuvi in at number 4, and the two built a slow, but steady, partnership. Unfortunately, it was more slow than steady, with the two adding only 37 runs in a ball short of 8 overs, before Dhoni played an awkward square cut straight to the fielder stationed at deep point.

India had a breath of good luck after Yuvi was dropped in the same over, and him and Yusuf Pathan breathed some air back into India’s innings, adding 64 runs in about 5 overs. Yuvraj was in great touch and leant into the Windies bowlers, including the nippy Taylor, before becoming yet another victim of Edwards’ short ball. With him, India’s hopes of posting a big enough total also disappeared, although a cameo from Bhajji at the end gave the bowlers something, 153, to bowl at. As it happened, it was not near enough.

West Indies innings

The West Indies got off to a lacklustre start, with Gayle looking a shade of himself from the Australia match earlier in the tournament. In fact, he played out only the second maiden of the tournament against Harbhajan Singh! Andre Fletcher fell pretty early while trying to smack Irfan Pathan away, and Lendl Simmons came in to replace him. The two didn’t do anything flashy, but added the runs at a quick enough rate to keep the Indians on their toes. Both players were taking too long to score the runs, though, and Gayle finally fell while trying to slog-sweep Yusuf Pathan away.

The team then pulled off their most critical move of the tournament, by opting to send Dwayne Bravo in ahead of Shiv Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan. Critics and pundits alike have been screaming hoarse for Bravo to be given a bigger role in the West Indies batting, and he showed today why they have been wreaking this pain on their throats. He played a brilliant knock that reminded me of these two match-winning innings he played in the span of 3 days against India the last time we toured the Carribbean.

Although the required run rate was hovering between 9 and 10 when Bravo came in, he and Simmons knocked the ball around intelligently and with a boundary every couple of overs to keep it manageable. When Simmons top-edged one trying to execute the final push and Chanderpaul in, the game was evenly poised. That is, however, when Dwayne Bravo took over. Seeing that Chanderpaul would be more of a liability, he took most of the strike and dispatched our bowlers all over the park. A booming six over cover to end the game showed what pretty batting Bravo exhibited on the day, and also showed his pure match-winning capabilities. All the sixes he hit were in the 90-100 m range, and would have cleared any ground in the world.

India’s bowling woes continue. After getting off to a good start and strangling the opposition in the middle overs, the death bowling again let us down. Dhoni is going to have to think seriously of bringing someone more accurate, such as Praveen Kumar, into the mix in place of Ishant, who has been, quite frankly, deplorable after a good spell in one of the warm-up games. Luckily Zaheer looks like he’s back, and Irfan is swinging it at 85+ mph, so getting our death bowler straightened out could be the missing key in our bowling attack.

A thought on the fielding

Our fielding today was horrible, in contrast with the West Indies’ who, although they dropped a couple of chances, took a couple of brilliant catches, including Simmons’ dismissal of Gambhir. In particular, their ground fielding was almost flawless, with only a couple of fumbles and I think no misfield. In contrast, India gave up 4 runs at least twice when a fielder misfielded the ball in the inner circle (the culprits I remember being Harbhajan Singh and Yusuf Pathan). Our ground fielding is already several rungs below South Africa’s and England’s, and if we don’t pull our socks up there, we have no hope of pulling off a miraculous jump into the semifinals.

A thought on the captaincy…

For a man whose gut instincts are usually pretty good, I thought Dhoni made several mistakes today. Obviously, he’s been under undue pressure from external sources (namely, the Indian media who continue to wrangle him about the Sehwag episode). However, the couple of oversights I would like to point out are as follows.

First, I think Dhoni should have come in at number 3 when Rohit fell. Not only has he habitually been coming in at number 3, but, in retrospect, a calming, nudgy innings is just what we needed at that stage (as Lendl Simmons proved later that evening). Sharma fell in the second over and both Indian batsmen already showed signs of struggling against the extra bounce and pace of Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards. Instead of exposing the young and aggressive Raina, Dhoni should have taken the onus to come in ahead of him and take some on the chest. Raina hasn’t had much batting in this tournament because of our opposition as well as the strength of our batting, so dumping him in at the deep end of the pool could potentially have been a bad decision.

Secondly, Dhoni mis-used Irfan Pathan. Pathan was the bloke who was getting the most swing and troubling the batsmen the most. He, ironically, brought home the best figures of 1/9 but bowled the fewest number of overs (2). Irfan should definitely have been bowling in the end instead of Ishant, who was coming on to the bat nicely. I was surprised Dhoni didn’t use him, in fact, since he has trusted Irfan with this role in the past, and since Irfan made his comeback into the ODI team. Again, maybe this was just an instance of the gut instinct going wrong.

What do India need to do?

Strangely, this result places us in almost the same situation that we were in the last edition of the cup, in 2007. Then, we had been placed in a group with England, South Africa and New Zealand. We dropped the first game to New Zealand by 10 runs (NRR of -0.5, here we have one of around -0.7) and then beat England and South Africa (in that order, which is the same order we have the games this time) to qualify to the semis ahead of both those teams. They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but this coincidence is a little too much for me to keep up with!

In my opinion, we definitely have to beat South Africa if we want to go through. We won’t be able to do this with just one win (over England) and let the NRR do the rest for us. We’re already at the bottom of the table when it comes to NRR. If West Indies beat South Africa tomorrow, they’ve all but guaranteed their spot (unless England/India drop all their games, in which case it will become a three-way tie). I expect South Africa to beat West Indies, though. This group is wide open, right now, with South Africa being the clear favourites. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out, but I have confidence in our team performing with their backs to the wall. It’s going to be a good few days of cricket!