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Despite two wins, fifth bowler remains India’s concern in World Cup

Makarand Waingankar

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India's two victories at the World Cup were not error free.

Toss played a crucial role in shaping the India-Australia matches outcome. When India skipper Virat Kohli won the toss he had no hesitation to bat, knowing full well the onerous task of negotiating the dangerous Mitchell Starc.

Starc swings the ball both ways and he is deceptively quick. The tall left armer is also able to extract steep bounce from the wicket. Yet under the clear blue sky at The Oval, none of that happened.

The ball neither swung nor cut, forcing Starc to immediately opt for his Plan B of bowling back of length. When a bowler bowls back of length then he sends out a message of containment rather than attack.

Both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma took time to assert their dominance. They were not overtly aggressive but there was intent in their approach.

They slowly build up a partnership by rotating the strike. As soon as the Indian openers realised that the pitch was tailor made for batting, they shifted gears swiftly.

Virat Kohli (left) and Shikhar Dhawan forged a solid partnership in India’s win against Australia.

In limited over cricket, particularly at the World Cup, you have to assess the situation of the match quickly and act accordingly. Youhave to put pressure on bowlers because on such run-oriented tracks, anything less than 330 is easily chaseable.

In the middle overs, Indian batsmen ran like a hare, which puts the Aussies under pressure. Yet they saved atleast 25 runs, which gave them a slim chance of chasing down a huge total.

India’s vastly improved running between the wickets is due to the team management’s insistence on attaining supreme fitness levels. When the Yo-Yo test was made mandatory, criticism poured in from all quarters.

But India’s two victories have proved that its introduction has been a game changer for Indian cricket.

After a solid opening stand, Virat Kohli and Dhawan batted freely. Their task was made easier by the inconsistent Adam Zampa, who failed to strike up any rhythm, spraying the ball all over.

As the great EAS Prasanna once famously said: “Length is mandatory, line is optional.”

Modern bowlers tend to experiment too much. Some Australian bowlers also tried too many things and went for runs on a batting-friendly pitch.

The five-time world champions have a strong batting unit, studded with several all-rounders, and began well during their run chase. They benefitted from David Warner’s lucky reprieve when the ‘zing’ bails failed to be dislodged even after the ball hit the stumps.

This is the fifth time these electronic bails haven’t been dislodged on impact. It is quickly becoming a joke. The ICC must discuss this issue ASAP.

The ‘Zing’ bails have become a joke at the World Cup.

Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s disciplined bowling kept the Aussies under leash. Kumar, primarily a swing bowler, bowled cunningly, and ensured that Warner is kept quiet. They cramped Warner of width.

India might have won two matches. But India’s fifth bowling option remains their biggest worry. Hardik Pandya’s medium pace and Kedar Jadhav’s slow spin form India’s fifth bowling option.

On flat pitches, if India lose the toss and the bats opts to bat, they would score heavily of these 10 overs.

India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun has to work overtime on Pandya, who has no control over line and length.

Pandya has the mentality of a fast bowler but doesn’t have the pace of one. So Arun has to instill more discipline within Pandya, India’s preferred third medium pacer.

India can’t afford Pandya to go for runs because scoring anything over 300 on English pitches won’t be a fancied task.

The spinners were not at the top of their game against Australia. Yuzvendra Chahal bowled a leg stump line to left hander Usman Khawaja. As is common knowledge, any left hander loves to sweep and bowling a leg stump line was providing fodder to Khawaja.

All-rounder Hardik Pandya’s bowling has left a lot to be desired.

But Kohli kept his cool and didn’t tinker much with Chahal’s line of attack. One important aspect of this Indian team is that they are quietly effective.

They control the game. They stick to their game plan and every member of the team are aware of their roles. This approach has paid dividends so far.

Kohli also endeared himself when he requested the Indian crowd not to boo Steve Smith for his ball tampering guilt, a mark of classic sportsmanship at international level.

Some experts call Kohli arrogant. But he is not arrogant but straight forward. He reminds me of former Australia captain Ian Chappell, who is not afraid to speak his mind and act accordingly.

Cricket Lounge

India’s tour of West Indies to begin from August 3

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St. John’s (Antigua): India will begin its ICC World Test Championship campaign with the two-Test series to be played in the West Indies in late August.

The two Tests will be played at the Vivian Richards Cricket Ground in Antigua (August 22-26) and at Sabina Park in Jamaica (August 30-September 3).

Before that, both the teams will play three T20I and three ODIs. The tour kicks off with two T20Is at the Broward County Stadium in Florida, US – played on August 3 and 4. They will then travel to Guyana to play the final T20I on August 6 at the Guyana National Stadium.

After that, both the teams play the first ODI of the three-match series at the same ground in Guyana on August 8, followed by the remaining two 50-over matches to be played at the Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad on August 11 and 14.

And after a week’s gap, the teams will play their first ever World Test Championship match.

The ICC World Test Championship (WTC) will be played over the next two years in which nine of the 12 Test-playing nations will play a Test series against six of the other eight teams.

Each series will consist of between two and five matches, so although all teams will play six series (three at home and three away), they will not play the same number of Tests.

Each team will be able to score a maximum of 120 points from each series and the two teams with the most points at the end of the league stage will contest the final in June 2021 in England to crown the first ever World Test champion.

Some of the nine WTC teams will play additional Test matches during this period which are not part of the championship.

They are, however, part of the ICC Future Tours Programme for 2018 to 2023 and are designed mainly to give matches to the three Test-playing sides – Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe – not taking part in this competition.

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Opinion

THE DIRTY DOZEN: REDEFINING MASTERY

Karthik Swaminathan

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Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates his 12th French Open victory. Photos: Twitter @rolandgarros

Rafael Nadal maintains his dominance over clay with a record 12th Roland Garros trophy, beating Dominic Thiem of Austria 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 in the final

Toronto: Don’t let that headline above fool you.

Winning a point—just ONE point—in tennis will greatly test your physique and energy levels. You then have to do it at least four times to win a game. Far from over, because you need to win a set, and then—if you are still holding up well and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—the match. Rinse and repeat with the hope of making progress in the event.

Oh… To those planning to retort, “Hit a big serve, easy, win the point.”, yeah, go on, try it… Get the ball cleanly over the net first, then within the permitted service box, whilst imparting enough speed and spin such that it is out of your opponent’s reach. Is your shoulder still in place? Just checking.

Winning any tournament, therefore, is in itself a huge accomplishment. Might I add that I didn’t even get to entry requirements such as rankings, or the quality of opponents in this ultra-competitive era, one’s own fitness/stamina, etc.

Given its demands, clay court tennis is perhaps the ultimate test for any player.
As is the prospect of facing this chap from Mallorca, who answers to the name Rafael Nadal.

And when you put Nadal on a clay court—let’s say, the final of a prestigious tournament such as Roland Garros—you are up against every possible odd. A gargantuan ask, if there ever was one.

Towering above the competition

Since 1995, twelve different players have won the coveted Coupe des Mousquetaires and reigned on the terre battue. And one of them alone has now won it twelve times. Just by himself. Which, in essence, translates to single-handedly winning a little over 9% of all titles since the first staging of the event 128 years ago (back in 1891).

Roland Garros is, clearly, not just Rafael Nadal’s backyard. And it is much more than just a palace or even a second home. It is his citadel. A fortress so secure that it has been breached only three times since 2005.

And while the three who did manage to write their names are decorated champions themselves, two of them who in fact compete with the Spaniard in the perennial “greatest of all time” debate, they have—more often than not—been forced to bite the red dirt on numerous occasions. The crushed earth is unforgiving and has seen many names fall victim to its demands.

Win / loss records (and win percentage) of the “Big 4” at the French Open:
» Roger Federer 70–17 (80.5%)
» Rafael Nadal 93–2 (97.9%)
» Novak Djokovic 68–14 (82.9%)
» Andy Murray 39–10 (79.6%)
*Please note that walkovers do not count while taking win/loss into account.

If there’s one thing clear while talking about Nadal’s exploits at this venue, it is the undisputed fact that his only opponent is history. Or perhaps just himself. Because only two other legends of the sport have, in the past, made Roland Garros their own but the Mallorca-resident has long since eclipsed both of them.

» Bjorn Borg 49–2 (96.1%) and 6 titles (1974-75, 1978-81)
» Chris Evert 72–6 (92.3%) and 7 titles (1974-75, 1979-80, 1983, 1985-86) and 2 runner-up finishes (1973, 1984)
*Please note that walkovers do not count while taking win/loss into account.

Stratospheric

Such is Nadal’s surreal mastery of the surface that he is a perfect 105–0 in best-of-five-sets matches played on clay when he wins the first set. In other words, to even stand a chance to compete, the opponent must win the first set. But it doesn’t end there because while he lost the first set on just 14 occasions over the course of his career, he has still bounced back to win the match 12 times.

Furthermore, at the French Open, Nadal has been pushed to five sets just two times (R128 against John Isner, 2011 and semi-final against Djokovic, 2013) and none of his 12 finals on Court Philippe-Chatrier have ever gone the distance. In fact, he has dropped just 27 sets across 14 editions between 2005 and 2019. And lest we forget, he did not drop any set in three victorious campaigns (2008, 2010 and 2017).

They call him King of Clay for a reason. Just ask Federer who had this to say after being put to the sword on semifinals day (June 7), “There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him.”

“Tearing up the clay”

When he lost at the US Open in 2016 (l. Lucas Pouille), many pundits and onlookers felt retirement was imminent. After all, Nadal, who had turned 30 that year, had last won a major on his beloved clay two years prior. Between winning the French Open in 2014 and returning to his first Grand Slam final since in 2017 (at the Australian Open which ended in defeat to Federer), he made just nine finals across all events: winning five, of which only two were Masters 1000 tournaments.

‘Talks’ therefore were inevitable. It isn’t without reason that they say writing off a champion is not the smartest of things…

Ever since Federer prophetically stated that his legendary rival would go on to “tear up the clay…” in 2017, following the pair’s faceoff in Miami, the southpaw has gone on to do just that. And how.

Commencing with the 2017 Monte Carlo Masters, Nadal is a staggering 71–5 in clay court tournaments. In the 15 events that he has participated during this stretch, he swept 10 of them—three Grand Slams, five Masters 1000 and two ATP Tour 500—and did not lose a final. What’s even more staggering? None of those five losses came before the quarterfinal.

The final: a mere footnote

And finally, we come to today’s story: poor Dominic Thiem, playing his second Grand Slam final, was firmly shown his place.

The World No. 4 wasn’t new to this stage, having reached the final here last year as well—losing to, yes, that man again in straight sets. While he may have been a year wiser this time around, his punishing semifinal against Djokovic (which stretched over two days) wouldn’t have helped. And yet, the brave 25-year-old fought. After all, he has earned the right to be seen as the second-best clay court player over the last three years.

Thiem, who wields a single-handed backhand, is more Wawrinka than Federer when it comes to style and he knows how to rip the felt off a tennis ball. Heading in to Sunday’s clash, the 6’1” challenger was a respectable 24–5 at the French Open. Three of those five defeats coming to Nadal alone where he wouldn’t as much win a set. He had also beaten the famed incumbent a few times (at the Masters 1000 and ATP Tour 500 levels), that too on clay. But not quite on the clay and surroundings of Court Philippe-Chatrier.

Adrenaline and the powers of youth helped Thiem break in the first set, which he’d surrender soon after, and he even managed to sneak the second set. But instead of prolonging the contest, as it might have seemed at that point, it only brought a swifter end. And how: trod on and pounded to a pulp. Nadal barely breaking sweat as he stopped grinding and, instead, upped the aggression.

“I just came from heaven to hell…,” the vanquished Austrian would later reflect. “I closed [the second set] out 7-5… but Rafa stepped on me and that’s why he’s too good.”

Thiem’s 3–6, 7–5, 1–6, 1–6 loss was an encapsulation of the challenges of playing tennis, playing tennis on clay, playing tennis on clay against Rafa, and then playing tennis on clay against Rafa at Roland Garros. Gargantuan in every sense.

‘12afa’, as social media saluted, is surely one of the greatest feats ever; irrespective of the sport. And a lasting testimony to the King of Clay’s other-worldly prowess on the terre battue.

World Rankings as of June 10:
1. Novak Djokovic (Serbia)                             11. John Isner (USA)
2. Rafael Nadal (Spain)                                   12. Juan Martín del Potro (Argentina)
3. Roger Federer (Switzerland)                      13. Daniil Medvedev (Russia)
4. Dominic Thiem (Austria)                             14. Borna Ćorić (Croatia)
5. Alexander Zverev, Jr. (Germany)                15. Marin Čilić (Croatia)
6. Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece)                        16. Gaël Monfils (France)
7. Kei Nishikori (Japan)                                   17. Nikoloz Basilashvili (Georgia)
8. Kevin Anderson (South Africa)                   18. Milos Raonic (Canada)
9. Karen Khachanov (Russia)                          19. Stanislas Wawrinka (Switzerland)
10. Fabio Fognini (Italy)                                  20. Roberto Bautista Agut (Spain)

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Opinion

Lucky & plucky India must iron out their flaws from the South Africa game

Makarand Waingankar

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India got off to a positive start in the World Cup.

New Delhi: Though a pleasing victory, India rode an overwhelming slice of luck against South Africa for the win. But the best part of India’s triumph was that they worked hard to seize the initiative once the rub of the green went their way.

The pitch was dicey, it had a bit of a moisture. South African captain Faf du Plessis decision to bat first was surprising. As things turned out, it was evident that he had misread the pitch.

To add to their woes, the Proteas didn’t have a strong bowling attack, which was our strength. Not only did they miss their spearhead Dale Steyn (ruled out of the tournament with a shoulder injury) but promising pacer Lungi Ngidi’s absence made matters worse.

They, at least, needed one of them against India. Steyn would have exploited the favourable conditions at Rose Bowl and would have made an immense impact on the game. But cricket is not a game of ifs and buts. South Africans deserve credit for making a match out of a small target of 227 runs. They fought admirably against India’s settled top seven batting line-up.

Kagiso Rabada was impressive for South Africa.

Rabada shines

Kagiso Rabada, who was expected to bowl quick and sharp, excelled despite being under pressure to take wickets in the absence of Steyn and Ngidi.

Rather surprisingly, Rabada got support from Chris Morris, who is not known to be economical. Morris has gone for runs in the Indian Premier League (IPL) too. But on Wednesday, he conceded only 36 off his 10 overs, picking up the vital wicket of Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

All three South African pacers, Rabada, Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo bowled consistently in the corridor of uncertainty. They packed the offside field and gave little away to India’s strokemakers.

Once skipper Virat Kohli was dismissed to a brilliant catch, India were in a scary position at 54-2 in 15.3 overs.

‘Hitman’ takes centrestage

India’s ton-up hero Rohit Sharma was lucky twice (at 1 and 107), unable to negotiate steep bounce from length on both occasions. The ball kissed his glove and ballooned in the close-in area. Yet he survived.

When he got those reprieves, he thought like a typical Mumbai batsmen, who believe in making your good luck count. “Pura khelna hai.”

Even in Mumbai school cricket, when a team would be half down with hardly anything on the scoreboard, the kids will shout from the stands “pura khelna hai”.

Realising it was a tricky wicket to bat on, Rohit curtailed his drives, flicks and pulls. He took matters in his hand when KL Rahul, after getting an encouraging start, was dismissed in the 32nd over with the scoreboard reading 139-3.

Rohit Sharma scored his 23rd ODI century.

Rohit played some exquisite strokes, mixing aggression with calculated percentage cricket. His innings not only displayed the hallmark of class but also grit and determination when the going got tough.

He changed gears quickly during the last three overs, when the Indian dressing must have communicated to him and Hardik Pandya to finish off the match quickly, for the need of a healthy run rate.

Boom Boom Bumrah spells SA’s doom

As far as India’s bowling is concerned, Jasprit is truly “Boom Boom” Bumrah. He is so good that despite playing and analysing his bowling style and action for the last two years, batsmen haven’t been able to decipher which ball comes in and which one straightens out.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar is gradually developing into a very cunning bowler. When he realised the bowl is not swinging, despite bowling in overcast conditions, he immediately went to Plan B. He shortened the line and attacked the ‘fourth’ stump with a packed off side field.

Spin twins to the fore

But the real surprise came from these spin twins–Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.

Both of them bowled beautifully in tandem, spinning the bowl viciously. Their rhythm was good, using the crease beautifully to deliver their variations.

Kuldeep Yadav (centre) and Yuzvendra Chahal were instrumental in setting up India’s victory.

More importantly, they made those varieties effective. Chahal bowled his heart out. Kuldeep lost confidence and was dropped after being carted for runs in the IPL.

But he was full of confidence against South Africa, displaying a lucid body language.

What is praiseworthy of India’s performance is that they seemed to have a set game plan for each and every player and situation. The fielders were well positioned to cut down the angles. They adjusted to the positions accordingly.

And Kohli’s bowling changes were spot on. The Indian players were laughing and enjoying themselves on the field.

I am very happy for the win because it was a tough game. Had they won the opening game at a canter, it wouldn’t have helped the team much. It is always good to be playing in tough games, particularly the first couple of games in the World Cup.

Players receive a wake-up call when they are made to work hard for victory. Their body and mind get tuned with the demand. This was a wake-up call. Well done India. Keep going. This is what the entire nation would like to see throughout the tournament.

The Indian media’s love-hate relationship with the team again came to the fore when they boycotted a press conference of two net bowlers. The young bowlers would have loved to explain what they have learned during the two weeks they practiced with the team.

Jasprit Bumrah has become India’s pace spearhead.

As per the BCCI, a media interaction was not to be held two days prior to India’s opener against South Africa on June 5. And when they were offered only two net bowlers, the humiliated media boycotted the event.

Had I been there I would have asked Avesh Khan and Deepak Chahar what was the specific instructions given to them at the nets. That would have revealed much more.

But the story-hungry Indian media, often miss out on the finer technical aspects of journalism which journalists of foreign countries do follow.

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