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Kane Williamson’s World: What if India had dared to embrace it themselves

by Naked Cricket

What’s left to write? Is there anything unsaid? Kane Williamson is on his way to cricketing sainthood. People who don’t know him want to buy him a beer. Does he drink beer? Won’t he be happier with some oriental herbal tea concoction of his own?

As all three, Williamson, teacup and saucer levitate on some higher plain.

As he strokes his beard a tad, contemplating the slowest, most precise way to partake of the tea. Waiting for it to cool down to an accessible warmth, wherein a sip is followed by yet another sip and still another sip – not too dissimilar to all those dots he played out at the beginning of his innings. Waiting for the ball to cool down. For his bat to warm up. For bat and ball to be paired at an equitable temperature. For singles to follow dots, for twos to follow singles and so on.

The coolness of Williamson moulds with his warmth. There is neither searing heat nor icy cold. It’s a balance that sinks itself in the journey; a journey that lasts 100 overs – or if need be, 102 overs.

Uncertainty and an early wicket embrace the preparation. That it’s time to embark on that arduous uphill trek with a millstone to boot. There would be something lacking if it weren’t so.

So 29/1 in 6.1 overs builds almost lackadaisically to 102 in the 23rd over. Williamson falls for 30. After the semifinals, another innings built on denial. Against India, Williamson started his climb at 1/1 in the fourth over.

Sometimes, the burden is more, sometimes less, sometimes it may appear to be missing; but it’s Williamson’s acceptance of this burden that makes it so much less cumbersome. Almost Cumberbatch cool on the contrary.

With paltry strike rates of 70 and 56, Williamson led an ascent in the two knockouts. Scores of 67 and 30, at three, in a team score of 241 and 239 – with those boulders of patience, Williamson won the world, nearly the World Cup.

His opposing No 3s wangled 9(22) and 1(6) in the knockouts.

Somewhere in his preparation, was a prior understanding and acceptance, a nullifying of greed, that contrarian scores will be enough.

Last year, I attended a presentation by journalist Paul Salopek on his multiyear, 21,000-mile walk across the world in the footsteps of our forebears. He was still standing, walking and talking after all those miles; with more to go.

In focus was Slow journalism an offshoot of the Slow Movement. Carl Honroé, a commentator on the “Slow Movement,” writes that, “Today we are addicted to speed, to cramming more and more into every minute. Every moment of the day feels like a race against the clock, a dash to a finish line that we never seem to reach.”

It appears that somewhere down the line, Kane Williamson and a few others have not just rediscovered Slow Cricket but given weight to its importance in the shorter formats of cricket.

Kane Williamson, man of the series in the 2019 edition of the World Cup with a tournament strike rate of 75.

And by the look of it, he still had some time on his hands. There was no finish line he had to catch.

Before the tournament, it often struck me that in its quest for one-day and T20 top order batsmen, India was missing a trick to play a Test mainstay. India’s first match was on June 5, still early in the English summer.

As the injuries struck, and the No 4 position remained largely unresolved, I still had hope that they may look the other way.

With two wicketkeepers and two leggies in the playing eleven, none of who were gun fielders, would India dare to accommodate a specialist top order Test batsman even though fielding wasn’t his strong suit?

What if he was one of the best leavers of the cricket ball? What if his edges hid from the seeking, moving ball?

In hindsight, it’s those leaves that were not to be that ate India in the semifinals. Rohit edged, Rahul edged, Kohli nearly edged. India edged out of the contest at 24/4.

Cheteshwar Pujara has played 5 ODIs in all, from August 2013 to June 2014. The numbers are not flattering.

He was the man of the series in India’s maiden Test series win in Australia.

Pujara’s Test numbers are not too dissimilar to those of Williamson’s – he’s played 68 to the Kiwi’s 72 Tests; his batting average is 51 to Williamson’s 53; and a strike rate of 46 to Kane’s 51.

Dinesh Karthik and Kedar Jadhav may not play for India again. At best, they were lower middle order. Unlikely Vijay Shankar will turn up either. Wasn’t he lower middle order himself?

Before this World Cup, like Pujara, Rishabh Pant had also played just 5 ODIs. He was more a lower middle order batsman who was being shoehorned as India’s No. 4. A book called Great Expectations could be written on what India expected of Pant and Pant alone. But that’s another story.

The story here is that most likely Rohit Sharma will make the playing XI in the first Test vs West Indies on 3rd August. A Test career with enough stops and starts to make a rainy World Cup day in England proud, Rohit’s ODI form translates into Test picks.

Nearly six years since his debut for those 27 Tests. (with a lion’s share of the innings at No. 6 and 5)

What if the selectors had shown the same belief in a top order Test batsman who’s accustomed to playing the moving ball?

Guess we’ll never know.

Then again, a journalist asked Kane Williamson if he would play MS Dhoni in his XI for the World Cup semis. Would’ve been interesting to have heard his reply for Cheteshwar Pujara in his XI?

Or for that matter, Ajinkya Rahane?

But then that would’ve been plain, old fashioned. And Indian cricket doesn’t have the time for that kind of thing.

First published here


What if we decided not to blame anybody?

by Naked Cricket

Is that even possible? A World Cup semi-final exit, and not blame anybody? What’s there to write? How will we exorcise our cricketing demons?

Put yourself in at 4/1 at the fall of Rohit Sharma’s wicket in the second over. You were there, weren’t you? Did you not chase that wide one outside off along with Virat? Were you not breathing heavy after Rohit fell? After the assurance of those five centuries was snuffed out in four deliveries?

When Trent Boult was running in like some break dancer in a black hoodie -  with those precise moonwalking steps and that gleeful glint in his eye, he had it all worked out. And Matt Henry, more mid-management banker than break dancer, what was he doing making the ball dance. Such deception broke the back of India’s batting. Slip sliding away.

9th July, 2019 seemed eerily familiar. It could be anywhere in the world. It had the stamp of Glenn McGrath bowling academy vs India in one of those games you were hoping to snap out of by now. But it crept up on you. India had no choice but to sleep on it, what else was there to do?

To overcompensate, Virat went across. And again. He plays these angles. Seven balls after Rohit fell, one snuck through, into the pads and out. When Virat is nervous, he wants to review. When he’s the captain, no non-striker will ask him not to. It delays things. It keeps him on the field longer. In the hope of the bowler overstepping, the ball missing, something. At 4/2, why wouldn’t you review? If nothing, just to stay on the ground a few moments more, to breathe, to feel alive in the game. If Virat could, he would munch on his protein snacks during those reviews. What did you do? Stare at the screen? Knowing only too well, it’s happening. Slip sliding away.

Much as Virat has a look that defies the slide, KL Rahul often wears one that is consumed by it. They are just a look and say nothing of what either batsman will do to push the slide back. But when Rahul fell, his dismissal had the stamp of slide-sucked-me-in. That’s what slides do, players have their ways to counter them – not often many succeed. Once in a freefall slide, the batsman is not on terra firma, instead, he’s being sucked into a whirlpool. Those padded up, waiting to walk in are waiting to slide through. Sacrificial lambs.

When Virat fell, did you not slide further. Did it not cross your mind, this could be over in a jiffy, in say, less than 20 overs? Why did the match not get over on the first day itself? Was it us who willed it not to go down to a 20 over shootout? Were we not responsible for the gift of the second day? Had we not asked for this? Running away from rain and Duckworth Lewis calculations? And here we were, in a similar 20 over shootout, with six fewer wickets.

So just as we blame the players, we blame ourselves. Our refusal to expect sport for what it is. A refusal to expect defeat.

When Kohli fell, Rishabh Pant walked in, somewhat cheerily, to play his 9th ODI, his 8th innings, his 4th in this World Cup. By now, it’s best to forget whose replacement he was, because from where we are now, that’s too much of a dwell on the past.

By the fourth over, Dinesh Karthik joined Pant. At 5/3 it appeared even gloomier than the day before. The Indian innings was not even 20 minutes old.

Were you still there? Were you mathematically calculating acceptable, face saving margins of defeat?

For 25 minutes, Karthik put on a defence-ballet class. He defended as you would, your honour, your cricketing journey, your cricketing life. For, in a way, that is what he was defending. There he was, wedged in between, the wicket keeping future and past; looking as India has, for a meaning to its elusive keeping present.

How do you play, when each innings challenges you to rewrite your cricketing world? But here was Karthik, with that chance. It’s another thing, he gave that chance to Neesham, who accepted single handedly, also wrong handedly with such brilliance, it reaffirmed the slide to almost mythical proportions.

Perhaps, Karthik slid into a crack, but nobody was looking. All they saw was Neesham’s hand that emerged from a crack.

The Pant-Pandya partnership, although three shy of fifty, and one ball shy of 13 overs, seemed removed from the slide. There was an early Pant chance but there was bravado too – from 24/4 where else to go? Somewhat fitting, they both made 32, and seemed unfazed by the slide. When Pant fell, though not before hitting four 4s, going for his first 6, he was miffed. The frame captured Pandya’s expression – it didn’t give anything away. Pandya was as far removed from it as later, Dhoni would be from balls wide outside off.

What else is there to do but to remove yourself from the slide?

As for Jadeja, he was not just removed from the slide, he appeared removed from the game and himself. He was, by all accounts, having an out of body experience.

It took India’s 8th match in the World Cup to play Jadeja. This was only his second match in the tournament. In the warm up match against New Zealand, when India was 39/4, Jadeja came in at 8, smashing 54(50) that day.

If there was any pressure, Jadeja had transferred it on to commentary. Reminders of his First Class triple hundreds were oozing out of the box. FC reminders that would’ve made Gavaskar proud on his birthday.

From Day 1, everything Jadeja had done was nothing short of an eloquent cricketing matrimonial – Attractive fielder, highly qualified bowler and now – changes not just his complexion but the match’s too.

There was freedom that was far removed from the situation. Dhoni at the other end was doing his usual Dhoni things, also far removed from the situation. Slide? What slide?

Jadeja was swiveling at the crease, Jadeja was coming down the wicket, Jadeja was making India dream again. Jadeja had banished the slide.

In the end, he scored more than anyone, faster than anyone. There was audacity moulded with thought – there was on display skill, intent, bravado and with it fortune too.

Jadeja made the match worthy. He raised the semi final. He raised himself, his swordsmanship. Jadeja had taken his hurt and made it into something compelling.

Jadeja wanted to be more than a perception. He counter attacked a comment as much as the Kiwis.

And while we may not blame anybody, will it be incorrect to thank someone?

If one man’s counter to a perceived ridicule was such, just imagine what fruit a word tearing into the other ten would have borne?

First published here


Of formats, doormats and Vijay Shankar – the one who came in unannounced.

by Naked Cricket

Oh dear, Vijay Shankar had a poor IPL. So poor, he went largely unnoticed. He hardly batted, he bowled even less. That he played as many as 15 games is an anomaly.

Just as Suresh Raina often appears to be India’s most enthusiastic player ever, Shankar could pass off as its least. He doesn’t pat players on their backside. What, he barely pats anyone. In return, it doesn’t appear as if anyone pats him. He seems far away, patrolling some boundary on a far off frontier, all by himself and his cutting chai. But if there’s an intruder, his eyes will shoot up from that chai and he will chase him down to the ends of the earth. Much like balls on the boundary. From his stupor, he instantly charges, chasing balls, much like cats chase rats.

They will say, if they haven’t already, that Vijay Shankar is an honest cricketer. That he is a trier. He gives it his all. That means little.

They said Vijay Shankar should never have been playing this World Cup. Not after the IPL he had.

Just as the IPL has created a supply chain of young, Indian cricketers, and forced us to take notice; it has forced us to scramble formats. Before the IPL, Virat Kohli commented that performance in the league will not impact World Cup selection.

Vijay Shankar’s name was in the World Cup squad. Nothing he did or didn’t do in the league altered that.

However, his name was not in the starting XI in India’s first match. Runs for KL Rahul in a warmup only added to his reputation. He slid in at number four, the position with a bamboo door.

But after Shikhar Dhawan’s injury, someone patted Shankar on the shoulder and said, “you’re playing tomorrow as a specialist fielder”. Shankar was drafted. Not as a player that India wanted but one they needed. He would be called upon much as one Subramaniam Badrinath was by CSK – if an opener and Raina fell early. The No. 4 batsman when the going wasn’t so good. Otherwise, you’re good to go when everyone else is gone. That could be as low as No. 6 or 7.

Against Pakistan, Hardik Pandya got groovy at four. Dhoni at five. Surprise, surprise, Vijay Shankar at six.    

Vijay Shankar’s beard is nothing like that of his teammates. His beard is more second year engineering than man in blue. On some days, Shankar leaves the hostel and shines.

Before that gloomy day in June at Old Trafford, Vijay Shankar had never played Pakistan before. But out of nowhere, the sun snuck through and so did he.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar walked off with more intent than Vijay Shankar walked on to finish that hamstrung over. What is intent? Shankar seemed secure to finish that fifth over. He didn’t have to worry whether his first ball should be quicker or slower, his speeds don’t have that variation. It would be either in the high 120s or the low 130s. It wouldn’t have the zip or bounce of Bumrah nor the exacting lines of Bhuvi.

Before Shankar was called to bowl those two deliveries, Pakistan was 13/0 off 4.3 overs. Two quicks at the top of their mental game were setting it up, ball after ball, more often than not, outside off.

Little did they know they were setting it up for Vijay Shankar’s first ball. It didn’t go past Imam-ul-Haq’s bat. It didn’t go past Imam-ul-Haq’s pads. It was fuller, possibly slower than anything bowled so far.

Haq went one way, the ball the other. Shankar’s arms appealed in a near perfect Y. Had it not been given, would it have been reviewed? Was it pitching outside leg? Was it hitting?

It didn’t matter. Pakistan did not review. It pitched in line and was hitting leg. Vijay Shankar had just taken his first wicket in a World Cup, his third in an ODI, in the fifth over versus Pakistan.

Virat Kohli could not believe it. In what will go down as the non-cricketing moment of the match, Kohli’s cracked up reaction summed it all up. in words, possibly –ISNE...Isne wicket lee...isne" (THIS…this has taken a wicket…this!”

Before Shankar, Kedar Jadhav’s wickets would evoke such hilarity.

Close to thirty overs later, Shankar took Pakistan’s sixth and last wicket – knocking over their captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed. In what could well be his last game against India.

Will Shankar play Pakistan again? Shankar only made his ODI debut in January this year. More in reaction to the gap left by Hardik Pandya’s misdemeanours.  

In 10 matches so far, he’s batted six times. Twice each at five, six and seven.

India is yet to lose a match where Shankar has not been called on to bat. When he bats, and is dismissed, there’s a Greek tragedy about his walk back.

Who more than Shankar would know, the opportunities coming his way will be no more than a trickle. What he makes of them will either define him as that first wicket guy against Pakistan or India’s wild card that came off at the World Cup.

Either way, Vijay Shankar has just the right lack of pace and aggression to be Venkatesh Prasad's true successor. Or Madan Lal’s? Or Roger Binny’s?

All had their World Cup moments and Shankar just had his. You know. You saw. As did that guy in his 3D glasses.

First published here