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.