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India vs Pujara

by Naked Cricket

"Pujara’s work is never done. Not after he’s made a hundred, not after the hundred becomes a big hundred or a double hundred or a match-saving hundred or a match-winning hundred. 
There will be those that will find faults with that hundred. Those on air, those off air, especially those on air. Pujara is far from being the chosen one of Indian cricket. If he’s anything, he’s the forgotten one of Indian cricket. He might well become the chosen one of world cricket before India acknowledges even half of what he’s done. Nothing he’s done, today or yesterday will ever be enough. He will have to do that extra something tomorrow."
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For the imperfect ones

by Naked Cricket

Dodgy shoulder meets dodgy knee meets dodgy form. Further, dodgy pitch meets dodgy reviews meets dodgy series opener. 0-1 down in the series, after losing his opening mate for a duck, it was up to KL Rahul, in Cheteshwar Pujara’s company, to make something out of a dodgy start. They did.
But after their partnership of 61 runs (also the innings highest), there wasn’t another fifty-run one. Dodgy little ones followed, India was bowled out for 189. A dodgy first innings’ score, with the fresh promise to go 0-2 down in the series.
In addition to Rahul’s 90, there was one unseen positive. India had batted 71.2 overs. In the two innings of the first Test, India only batted a combined 74 overs (40.1 and 33.5 overs).
And while Australia batted long, right into the third day, India kept Australia’s scoring down to a dodgy run rate of 2.25. Australia’s lead of 87, although significant, wasn’t quite backbreaking. And in spite of Rahul’s dodgy shoulder, Pujara’s dodgy knee, Rahane’s dodgy form, their spines were intact.
After joining Rahul at 11/1 in the first innings, Pujara joined him again at 38/1 – India still 48 runs in arrears. When Rahul was dismissed, India was ahead, and the two had stitched together the second highest partnership of the innings – on a dodgy Bangalore pitch, those 45 runs were gold.
Already in his short Test career, Rahul has brought criticism upon himself for being too loose to open the innings. While he is far from textbook outside off, when he creams them through the covers, the icing accompanies the cake with a lit red candle thrown in.
n the series so far, he has outscored openers on both sides – his 215 runs to next-best Renshaw’s 133 runs. He’s also the top scorer on both sides, next is Steve Smith with 172 runs. But backing Rahul isn’t an easy call in Tests – in addition to the dodgy shoulder and being dodgy outside off, he will play the odd dodgy shot. As he did in the first innings in Pune.
However, in addition to Kohli, he is the only top order batsman with active roots in India’s limited overs’ cricket (Pujara, Rahane, Vijay are not T20I, ODI mainstays, they may never be). It may be in the team’s best interests to accept Rahul’s adventurism – two of his three half centuries in this series have been scored at a strike rate of 60+ (match defining in these conditions)
After Rahul’s wicket, India found itself lost in the Kohli-LBW decision and the Jadeja promotion gone wrong. It was at 120/4, only 33 runs ahead, that Pujara was joined by Rahane on probation.
Pujara has in the past, flourished on return, after being dropped from the side. On this occasion, the Aussies dropped him, repeatedly. They paid, much as India has when they have dropped their number three man (Pujara has the most runs by any batsman at No.3 in Tests since 2016 – ahead of Joe Root, Kane Williamson and Hashim Amla; and at a much higher batting average).
Keeping Pujara company was Rahane, also dropped, though only once. That was enough for him to rediscover his range – gone was the dodginess of recent innings, replaced by a surety in defence, footwork and shot selection. What followed was strike rotation, and the first session in the series when a wicket didn’t fall.
In Pujara and Rahane, India found balance. One that was achieved by almost similar personalities, soft spoken, introspective, concerned for the well-being of the other – almost more than their own.
The two crept up on Australia, without a hint of the fatal damage they were causing them. It was quiet, workmanlike occupation of the crease. Barely an over went without a single being taken. Barely a maiden bowled. Bit by bit, these two bared the bowling.
In the post-tea session on the third day, India slowly deep-fried Australia and some pakoras to go – with a single in the 68th over, Rahane on one knee, swept India past their first 200 plus score of the series.
Here’s Kohli on Pujara-Rahane:
“After conceding the lead, that was a champion partnership. The only 100-run partnership in the series so far. Two guys stepping up, I would say two best Test players we have got in our side and showed so much character, technique and heart to pull the team out of trouble and to get the lead”
A few days back, after India’s first innings debacle, it was asked, "Can this team rise without its best man?
KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have risen, beyond their dodgy selves and squared the series. While Rahul was declared Man of the Match, Kohli’s words will push Pujara and Rahane on, as will their match-defining partnership.
It was their 118 runs across two days and 45.2 overs, right into the second new ball, that brought upon a new dawn in this series. A 188-run target on this pitch was more like the 300 runs Michael Clarke thought India needed. India knew that, and deep down Australia knew it too. Which is why they lost 6 for 11 in Bangalore after India lost 7 for 11 in Pune.
The fat lady was long done with her singing. But who would’ve thought a dodgy shoulder, dodgy knee and dodgy form would join in in the chorus?
First published here


Uncomfortably numb: Can this Indian team rise without their best man?

by Naked Cricket

There appeared to be some happiness on the first day of the second Test, it was when Virat Kohli won the toss. He looked cheery, that there could be a possible change in his team’s fortunes. He chose to bat. Why? Because that’s what you do when you win the toss in India. So, with a prayer on their lip, and a rosary in their hand, two Indian openers walked out to bat.

When things aren’t going your way, you start to believe that there is such a thing as ‘things not going your way’ – it makes more things go against you. You become negative. The opposition appears far too positive. They have the moves. You, you’re left standing there. As it was with India’s first wicket, the ball appeared to plonk itself on stand-in opener, Abhinav Mukund’s pad like some bird’s droppings. How did that happen? New ball bowlers don’t hurl yorkers at new ball batsmen, they bowl line and length. But Mitchell Starc is not your everyday new ball bowler. He’s thoughtful in an eerily menacing way, as if he shares an axe murderer’s joke with himself in the course of each ball.

That ball he hoodwinked Mukand with, had cruel joke written all over it. Comeback to Test cricket after all these years for this?

If the black holes of disbelief in Mukund’s eyes were anything to go by, you knew, at that precise moment, this team was still very much in Pune. Uncomfortably numbed by the enormity of that defeat, kneaded like dough, baked and knifed, one by one, into 11 equal slices.

It didn’t matter how many you made, how long you lasted in Pune, your misery was infectious and it had infected your mate – you were brothers in need of an urgent balm.  

There was a stink to that defeat. One that doesn’t go away, definitely not in a few days. That stink had accompanied this Indian team to Bangalore. And had latched on to someone who did not even play in Pune. Being a witness on the bench was close enough.

The relative calm of close to two hours when Australia went wicketless was overshadowed by Australia’s menace – it was a prelude to a kill. One that daunted India, much as it propelled the Aussies.

On the stroke of lunch, Pujara became the first of Nathan Lyon’s eight kills. Possibly, the most significant. Pujara, and not Kohli, is the time delay, before the inevitability of this series, wraps its pythonlike grip on the rest of the batting.

After KL Rahul’s 327 balls faced so far, its Pujara’s 147 deadpan deliveries faced that have meekly stalled the Aussies. Followed by Rahane’s 118 largely troubled deliveries. In three innings so far, Virat Kohli has lasted 56 balls – that’s less than ten overs.

And with all those stats churned out of Macs and computing staring them in the face, these fantastic Indians faced the inevitability and sadness of listening to Leonard Cohen speak in their ears – “If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game, if you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame

Cohen is dead and in all likelihood so is India’s dream homerun.

It died some more with Kohli’s lack of judgement or possibly, excess of judgement. When ‘to play or not to play’ is the question burdening the captain, he will either not play at one he should play at and vice versa. If Kohli’s leave wasn’t macabre enough, the subsequent review and premature walk off was the icing on the EEK!

For a brief moment, India was trapped on 94/3, reminiscent of the ruins of Pune, when 94/3 morphed into Ravi Shastri’s infamous, “7-11 show” mentions.

Rahane hung around long enough to earn himself more ridicule, and comparisons between his overseas and home records. His stay at the crease would’ve made Umesh Yadav of one First Class-100 fame cringe.  But this home series too shall pass, and Rahane was a mere part of a freefall, as were the ones to follow.

Except 303* who made way for Rahane just the other day. Karun Nair played spin and Starc better than any Indian batsman – until, he decided his camaraderie was with his comrades, and he too was stumped like Rahane.  And in the end there were none.

Not long ago, just the other day in fact, there was one. Virat Kohli. The one-man show. The others’ shone in his floodlight. The floodlights a tad dim these days, what the other ten do through this swamp of a series will either sink this bunch further or make them badass, hardened cricketers – players that shine in adversity, and don’t just go down fighting but take the enemy down with them. This could be the series to remember. Or forget.

First published here


Is Virat Kohli ready to do the dirty work again?

by Naked Cricket

Virat Kohli's Test match: Played at one he should've let go, and let go one he should've played at. With two tiny scores from Kohli, the team was out of their comfort zone. It was as if the sole breadwinner of the family had left the others to fend for themselves. What should they do? Scrap and scratch for a few runs but bat time?
Or should they, do what their leader would’ve done - what would their leader have done?
Off late, the predictability has gone out of Kohli’s Test game, he can be both the sustainer and destroyer - he has clocked a draw, he has rocked many a double.
Evidently, the team was clueless. They were mindless, and they batted like headless chickens. Without Kohli in the middle, no batsman was prepared to take on a leadership role. Perhaps, there is no leadership after Kohli. Such has been Kohli’s dominance, with mind, bat and word, the others dare not step in. Or speak up.
It’s all too obvious in the middle during DRS chat-ups. Kohli speaks, asks, the others appear to be shoe-gazing. So Kohli replies to Kohli - “Should we take the review, Virat?”“Yes, Virat, I think we should take this review.” So the team takes the review.
On a rough Day 2, when India was zapped out for 105, India went on to blunder, one mindless review after another. There was no belief in them, they appeared to be taken more out of boredom. Virat was bored.
If indications of the first Test are anything to go by, Kohli’s single-mindedness could be challenged as the series chugs along. Already before this match, he had decided to play his trusted batsman (albeit going through a poor run), Ajinkya Rahane against Bangladesh. Nothing in that Test, or in this one, indicated Rahane had regained his composure.
His last 10 innings have seen one 50, an 82 against Bangladesh. In his nine other innings, his highest is 28. Losing his ODI spot hasn’t helped matters. He’s lost his touch catching and fielding close-in. While Kohli was vocal in his defence of Rahane (as was coach Anil Kumble) - it’s a good time to take a reality check. If the pivotal position of a batting No. 3 can be compromised for an alleged loss of form, why not a far more flexible No.5, where Rahane bats?
Will Kohli now revert to a safer option to pad the batting some more with Karun Nair at 6, so as to accommodate Rahane in the side - and that too at the cost of a fifth bowler? Against Australia, in Pune, India played five bowlers but Ishant Sharma and Jayant Yadav were mere passengers.
Playing four bowlers will only overburden Ashwin, Jadeja and Umesh, after an already long home stretch. In Pune, fresh from his fastest 250 wickets’ world record, Ashwin looked jaded. Clearly, he and Jadeja need more backup, fresher fingers, longer breaks between spells.
After Kohli’s backing of Rahane is his questionable backing of KL Rahul, more so on top of the order - even though he top scored for India, he’s way too loose to open the innings on a sustained basis. Then there’s the uncanny similarities with Rohit Sharma - KL Rahul has already played 14 Tests.
He too got off the blocks fast, with a century in only his second Test. While Rohit’s Test average is 37, Rahul’s is 38. Much like his senior, Rahul comes with much promise and potential. Much like Rohit, Rahul’s batsmanship is very pleasing to the eye. And daresay, much like Rohit, Rahul could be India’s next big thing - in ODIs and T20s.
The similarities don’t end there. Already in his short career, Rahul has shown that he can be very susceptible to injuries. Both batsmen have a huge fanboy in the Indian captain.
They’re also the type of batsmen that very rarely make exceptional Test batsmen but always make the selectors punt on them - forever making their backers live in that eternally optimistic state of “what if?”
Before the end of this series, there could be some drastic shuffling of the batting order, as there once was to accommodate Rohit Sharma. Brace yourself for KL Rahul at 3 and KL Rahul at 5 as the series goes on.
Opening with Cheteshwar Pujara could be a definite long term plan; he and Murali Vijay have been prolific batting together, sustaining the innings, while Rahul and Vijay have failed to as an opening pair.
0-1 down, 3 to go, there’s much to play for the No. 1 Test team. But a different India will have to turn up. In more ways than one. Yet again, it’s up to Virat Kohli. Can he be ruthless with his team yet again?

First published here


Why Rs 14.5 crore for Ben Stokes is a bargain

by Naked Cricket

Rising Pune Supergiants (RPS) didn't buy Ben Stokes for Rs 14.5 crore. They bought electricity. Something that was missing all of last season. From a team that just didn't come together, first with its purchases, to a team that eventually fell apart, as its big buys fell like flies, falling to injury, one by one.
Forget Stokes' strike rate, forget his batting average too. Forget his economy, his bowling average, just picture Stokes, as you remember him from the recent India-England series. What do you see? Or rather, what don't you see?
It's hard to say whether Stokes is the sum of his astonishing parts or way more than them. To dismiss his ability with a cliché will be incorrect. If cricketers were meat, he is the leanest, meanest cut out there - one that bedazzled the carnivore in each franchise. How could they not have him?
Stokes was the prey. A prey in its prime. And a prime cut at that. He elicited such ravenous desire, a Nat Geo clip of a cheetah stalking its prey should've accompanied the bidding.
Befittingly, Stokes has been picked as the predator. One that will not only run after its prey, but also pounce on it pronto - he is to be the finisher. Both with that outstretched hand that plucks balls out of thin air at first slip, or tonks one over long on, with zero movement, Kluseneresquely. He will bowl too, and prepare for Shastri to pipe in with, "Stokes can go for a few but he's a wicket taking bowler."
In a team that appears almost comatose at times, Stokes will inject edginess. He will sledge. He will take on Virat Kohli. Or he will compel ViratKohli to take him on. He will, in the blink of an eye, be expected to make things happen.
He is, in every way, to the IPL born.
With Stokes' purchase, both India and England have opened themselves to what Kevin Pietersen's been saying forever - that England's players should play in the IPL. Isn't it strange then, that one foreign-born England player takes over from another? Both June born, one from Natal, the other from Christchurch.
What RPS expects of Stokes could define how much he accomplishes for them - they could, hold him back to a fault, as the Mumbai Indians often did with Kieron Pollard or unleash him, earlier on, spreading fear and chaos, as the best in the biz do, much like David Warner.
RPS' new captain, Steve Smith, their ex-captain, MS Dhoni, and South Africa's skipper, Faf du Plessis should rally around Stokes, as Stokes is allowed to simply let go. Letting Stokes go, could well be what the more introspective threesome needs - who knows, it could nudge them a bit to raid the opposition.
Last season, it took one captain, David Warner and one coach, Tom Moody to set in motion an expedition that defied all logic - a team bereft of superstars and one on the wane, Yuvraj Singh, three seamers, one aging Ashish Nehra, one forgotten Bhuvneshwar Kumar, one Bangladeshi Mustafizur Rahman, all somehow added to one trophy in IPL 9.
While Pune lacks Hyderabad's bowling, it ticks quite a few boxes that won the IPL last season. In coach Stephen Fleming and MS Dhoni they have the know-how of how to win the IPL. Even though that was with CSK, and that seems a lifetime away, Fleming's new collaboration with Steve Smith on top, will only rejig the team in a positive way.
In his last match, Dhoni scored his first T20 international fifty - surely stepping away from captaincy will account for something, even more so in the IPL, against hapless Indian bowlers on flat decks. Even if Irfan Pathan is missing, Axar Patel must still remember what Dhoni did to him last summer.
Now, if only Pune provides its home team with grounds like Chennai provided CSK - spinners, R Ashwin and A Zampa, could have a field day, and the qualifiers could be a lot closer than they appear.
If everything goes as per plan (and you can be sure, with Fleming there will be some devious plans cooking), prepare to hear Ravi Shastri repeat himself many a time, "Ben Stokes will be stoked" - even when he drops a catch, as was the case only recently. After all, it's the IPL, and everything goes.
But to begin with, Benjamin Andrew Stokes must go nuts. And electrify the IPL. The rest will follow.

First published here


Why you should look to buy a captain at the IPL Auctions

by Naked Cricket

On the face of it, KXIP (Kings XI Punjab) appeared to be beyond repair when they went into the IPL Auctions. Also on the face of it, what they needed was just one player – a T20 captain. What they were making do with until now, was an excellent Test batsman, doubling up as their opening batsman and T20 captain. Don’t let Vijay’s twin T20 hundreds fool you, they were made a long time back – in 2010 and 2012. Well before he harnessed his powers as a supreme Test batsman for India. With Vijay at the helm, KXIP were forced to play him, have him open the innings, no matter what.

Murali Vijay and T20s are an odd couple, somewhat like Suresh Raina and Test cricket.

IPL Season 9’s numbers, however, tell a different story: Vijay knocked 453 runs at an average of 35, striking at 124. For three years prior to this he was striking at less than 110 with an average in the early 20s.

Season 9 could well be an exception. Vijay’s scoring is by and large built on boundaries. When the boundaries dry up, the runs invariably dry up. This was the precise reason, Vijay failed to cut it as an ODI batsman. A strike rate of less than 70, only one half century, that too, in his last series, against Zimbabwe. An ODI batting average of 21 isn’t too flattering either.

With all this limited overs’ baggage, KXIP made Vijay their captain. Possibly, because after the rough run with David Miller and Glenn Maxwell, they didn’t know where else to look.

Not until this IPL Auction, with former KXIP captain, Virender Sehwag as their mentor. For all his brilliance with the bat, Sehwag was never meant to be captain. Not for India, not for Delhi Daredevils, and not for KXIP either. Captaincy never sat on his shoulders as a bat did in his hands.

One of Vijay’s IPL centuries will vouch for that. As Daredevils’ skipper, Sehwag opened with a spinning rookie, Sunny Gupta, playing his first IPL match against Vijay – in a Qualifying Final. A demolition followed. Not to be outdone, Vijay as KXIP skipper, bowled Axar Patel in the last over against MS Dhoni – 23 runs later, MSD won Pune the match. There is still the odd chance that Sehwag-Vijay could be running the show at Punjab, and you fear for them.

But they don’t have to. At the auction table, Punjab bagged England captain, Eoin Morgan and former West Indies’ captain, Darren Sammy. There are two World T20s in there, both under Sammy’s watch. Sammy doesn’t turn up for the Windies, and there’s a good chance he may not for Punjab. He makes an exceptional cheerleader, and may only play once Morgan flies back home to play South Africa.

Perennial contenders for the wooden spoon, Delhi Daredevils (DD) appear to have purchased a lot of goodies at the auction. What they still haven’t got though, is a captain who can guide the team independent of coach, Paddy Upton and mentor, Rahul Dravid’s remote control.

There’s some progressive thought brewing behind DD lines – thought that almost disregards the outcome because of the significance attached to the process. In JP Duminy, Angelo Mathews and Zaheer Khan, they might have readymade captains – but DD needs to ask themselves some tough questions, do these players always pick themselves in the playing XI.

It could well be a repeat of when then DD captain, Mahela Jayawardene rested himself so another overseas’ player could take his place in the middle.

Then again, underestimate Upton and Dravid at your own peril. They’re fully capable of making 19-year-old, Rishabh Pant captain. After all, he’s just taken over Delhi’s one-day captaincy from Gautam Gambhir.

As with T20 cricket, so too with T20 captaincy, it’s better to go with the gut than overthink it. Who knows, Sehwag might finally have applied his ‘see-ball, hit-ball’ policy to an all-new ‘see-captain, make-captain’.

KXIP have nothing to lose but the last slot.