Sunday, August 24, 2014

Test Series Review - England vs India 2014

 England did not quite turn the tables in the Test series as much as barged in to the room, raised that table by one of its legs, smashed it on the floor and shoved the pieces into the collective mouth of this Indian team. On that glorious evening at Lord’s, during the presentation ceremony Michael Atherton grilled Alistair Cook with the kind of uncomfortable questions which looked more like a father talking to his daughter’s boyfriend for the first time. At that point, it was more a case of When rather than If Alistair Cook would go. 28 days later he is a national hero, James Anderson is closing in on the record for England’s leading wicker taker, Moeen Ali is England’s best spinner and MS Dhoni still continues to lose overseas Test for fun. Here is how they did it

That old wine which keeps getting better and better

It was billed as a battle between England’s experienced bowling unit and India’s emerging batting stars. James Anderson and Co took some time to generate full steam, preferring to do the warm up in the first 2 Tests. While the Trent Bridge pitch nullified their skills, they were guilty of some directionless bowling on the first day at Lord’s.  All they needed was an ICC hearing to inspire them and since then they made it a habit to scythe through the Indian batting lineup. Since Lord’s, India’s first innings scores were 330, 152 and 148, an indication that they never had the ground stand and fight on.  It is hard to recover from low first innings scores unless you have Marshall, Holding, Akram, McGrath and Warne in your team.  All India had was Ishant (stood out for 2 Test due to Injury), Shami, Pankaj, Kumar and Jadeja. Shami and Kumar started the series brightly but the inexperience of playing a 5-Test series caught up with them eventually. As Cook pointed out, England managed to put a lot of mileage in the legs of Indian bowlers in the 3rd Test, which definitely showed in the last 2 Tests. Kumar appeared tired, Shami got dropped, Pankaj toiled and Jadeja was being Jadeja.  And all this while, James Anderson swung, seamed and bounced that red cherry.

Bell was ringing, Root was strong and Ballance was good

Except at Lord’s, England enjoyed marginal upper hand every time their middle order was brought to the crease, mainly because of India’s batting failures. And every time Joe Root made sure that they never relinquished that advantage. He was the link which connected the middle order and the tail. He, along with Butler, strung together a series of partnerships, which led to huge leads and India never looked like to recovering from them. Root ended up being England’s leading run scorer for the series with 518 runs which included 2 centuries and 3 fifties. Ballance was not far off, with 503 runs for the series, providing stability and composure at the top of the order. He never showed any after effects of that late night, half naked drinking binge.  There was no looking back for England once Bell found his groove too. They racked up huge first innings totals for the last 2 Tests which was good enough for 20 combined Indian wickets.

Dhoni got cooked

“Cook and Dhoni. Dhoni and Cook. Possible mates. Possible nemeses”. That is what Sidharth Monga wrote about them in the series preview, indicating that they could have been 2 sides of the same coin. Still trying to figure out their best combinations, still trying to fight their own demons and still trying to prove that they have got what it takes to captain at the Test level, after 187 Tests between them. At the end of the series, if Cook was one side of the coin, Dhoni appeared like something which belongs to the Barter system era. Cook did not need to make any innovative calls or inspired selections, as Indians pressed that self destruction button far too often. He, at best, was assured and composed in his captaincy. Dhoni on the other hand, except the Ishant Sharma move at Lord’s, was largely defensive, timid and uninspiring. Stuart Binny was a staggeringly poor selection, though not because of any of his faults, as he was never given a proper spell and batted below Jadeja in the batting order.  The continuous selection of Jadeja, in place of Ashwin did not work out at all, which, I believe, is partly because of the field set for him, forcing him to bowl on the off stump. Dhoni managed to grind out 4 fifties in the series, despite his technique and bowler friendly conditions, but none of them were influential ones. As the series went on, his keeping also disintegrated. But by that time the spirit was drained and series was long gone.


I don’t know which one was funnier, Stuart Binny playing 3 Tests or Moeen Ali picking up 19 wickets for the series, with match winning figures of 6/67. Indian batsmen, with a combination of recklessness and incapability, made Moeen Ali look like Muralitharan at his peak. When Cook attended his final presentation ceremony of the summer at The Oval, the effort to find out at least one decent spinner for England was replaced by the debate of who is the second best spinner in the country. I don’t think Moeen is going to be a long term solution, but he is doing his short term job exceptionally well.

“Catch me if you can” – A cricket ball to Indian fielders

I know that bread and butter is part of the traditional English breakfast. But I am not sure whether keeping the left over butter on your hands throughout the day has something to do with the tradition. Atleast, that is what Indian fielders made us to think. India’s slip catching rate hovered somewhere around 50% which says that they managed to drop as many as they caught. It was so amateurish that it appeared downright funny at times, which makes you think what is the role of the fielding coach if he can’t correct something which happened in the first Test, even by 5th Test. Ofcourse, it helped England that their fielders remained alert throughout the day as their bowlers created chances after chances. But then that is the kind of ability and temperament needed at slips. You may be crouching up and down for the entire day, with nothing coming your way. And then in the final over of the day you are supposed to catch the half chance which flew towards to your wrong side from that blind spot of the bat. It is fair to say that, if not in batting, India missed Sachin, Dravid and Laxman in this series in the slips.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

New era starts with a defeat. Manchester United 1 - 2 Swansea

Louis Van Gaal started his Old Trafford reign with an unwanted record, United losing the first home match of the season for the first time in 42 years. If ever he needed an indication that this squad needs addition, the 90 minutes at Old Trafford provided that. He had his share of injury problems which forced him to give debut to Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackett for the first game of the season. While Blackett had a reasonably good game (though he gave away the foul which led to the second goal ) at left back, Lingard had to come off midway through the first half, coming worse off a challenge.

I would like think that it was illusion, but there appeared to be lot off empty seats at Old Trafford, strange for the first game of the season. United started the game at a lively pace and bossed possession at 65-35 by the end of first half, but there was a lack of clear cut chances. Ashley Young appeared to have left his pre-season form back in the United States and Fletcher was largely ineffective in the midfield. Herrera managed to strike an understanding with Mata, who was playing behind Rooney, but Swansea kept their shape and composure. Van Gaal’s first half time talk in a competitive game had to be a morale raising one, as Kim Sung-Yeung gave Swansea lead on 28th minute, driving to the left of De Gea after he was given too much time and space, as he could literally walk into the position.

Adnan Januzaj who came on for Lingard, and Nani, a half time substitute for Hernandez, showed much needed urgency at the start of the second half. Januzaj had some incisive runs down the right flank, and one of them, resulted in the corner which led to United’s first goal. Swansea failed to deal with the first time ball which Jones could only head back awkwardly. By the time it reached Wayne Rooney, he was past it but his overhead kick was precise and found its way to the goal. Later Rooney’s freekick, from just outside the box, struck the outside of the frame and flew wide after Fabianski had already given up. Though he scored one and almost put in another, his passing was off the mark, resulting in breaking up a lot of attacks in the final third. The wave of attacks at the Stretford End did not arrive at all after Swansea regained their lead and United had to settle for second best at the end.

There is a long way to go before we can judge Van Gaal. Today showed that he is not afraid to make changes and ready to put faith on youth, something United are known for. But there is no doubt that he needs additions at CB and someone in the holding midfield role too. It may turn out to be a blessing in disguise that United are not playing in the Champions League this season. We would have been badly exposed in Europe with this squad and that would have affected the League form and confidence as well. Now it is all the more important that United get hold of some decent players before the transfer window closes, and make strides domestically.

A word on Swansea too. Not many survive a player – manager role in League, especially when it is done midway through the season. Gary Monk had done a good job last season achieving survival, albeit with only 2 games left, and he seems to have grown in the role of a full time manager. There will surely be tougher days and tougher tests to face, but he looks like he has the belief and ability to face them. His players put in some heavy challenges today, high on intent though none of them can be termed as malicious. They seem to be responding to his instructions and absorbed his calmness and composure in their play as well.

It was the first Premier League game since its beginning when Ryan Giggs is not a player! Let that sink in and hope that he will see better days as an Assistant Manager.