Friday, November 22, 2013

Ashes 2013-14: Can Mitchell Johnson maintain his A-game through the series?

Photo Courtesy: The Australian

“He bowls to the left,
He bowls to the riiiiiight,
That Mitchell Johnson,
His bowling is shite!”

Mitchell Johnson knew that he would be in for some stick from the Barmy Army as soon as he took the new ball and marked his run-up in the second over of England’s innings on Day Two of the first Ashes Test. He had, after all, copped plenty of it during England’s last trip Down Under in the Australian summer of 2010-11. Here’s another sample (one of the Barmy Army’s most popular chants listed on their website, sung to the tune of The Adams Family):

“His mother hates his missus
His missus hates his mother
They all hate each other
The Johnson Family
de le la le de le la le de le la le” 

Ever since being named ICC Cricketer of the Year back in 2009, Johnson’s form as swung from the polar extremes of aggressively accurate to incomprehensibly wayward—Version ‘A’ and ‘B’. This was evident in the 2010-11 Ashes when he recorded contrasting figures of none for 66 and none for 104 at Brisbane, and six for 38 and three for 44 at Perth in successive Test matches. At Melbourne and Sydney, he conceded 134 and 168 runs respectively, picking up just six wickets in total, even as Australia went on to lose the series 3-1. That was when the Johnson chants were born.

Following a rather unremarkable 2011 and 2012, Johnson was dropped from the Australian Test squad for the summer Ashes in England in 2013. However, he took it upon himself to prove his detractors wrong and was the pick of the bowlers (24 wickets in 17 games) in the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2013, where his franchise Mumbai Indians went on to lift the title.

It was almost a reborn, reinvigorated Johnson on display in the limited overs circuit, for club and country. Johnson had added that extra yard of pace to his aggressive left-arm fast bowling and begun clocking speeds of 90 mph on a consistent basis. He troubled batsmen, the likes of Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, during the one-day series that followed the English leg of the Ashes, and then the superstar Indian batting line-up on sub-continental tracks that were flatter than a highway. It was a given that he would be picked for the return leg of the Ashes Down Under.

So evident was his transformation that even Sachin Tendulkar couldn’t help but put in a word of praise for him during his farewell press conference, when quizzed on the Ashes. Johnson was in every cricket writer’s ‘Men to watch out for’ lists for the Ashes, and rightly so. On seaming, lively tracks in Australia, Johnson’s version of frighteningly quick, aggressive, and short-pitched bowling spelled trouble for the Englishmen. If there was a chink, it was only his waywardness, his version ‘B’, which exaggerated when put under pressure.

Under pressure he was when England walked out to bat on Day Two of the first Test at the Gabba, having dismissed Australia for a rather unimpressive 295. The Barmy Army was up on their feet and chirpy as ever as he ran up to bowl to the left-handed Michael Carberry. His first delivery drew loud cheers from the English support as it drifted down the leg-side. He was hit for three boundaries by the English openers in as many overs, before skipper Michael Clarke replaced him with Peter Siddle. Same old story, different day?

After being given some time to compose himself, Johnson was brought back into the attack to expose Trott’s weakness for the short ball after the fall of Alastair Cook. Johnson responded straight away as he banged them in and had Trott hopping on his toes and protecting his visor. It wasn’t long before he found the right-hander’s edge, which was caught by Brad Haddin behind the sticks, moments before lunch.

The wicket set the tone for what was to be a spectacular session of Test match cricket, well, at least for the Australians. England did well for the first hour after lunch, cruising along at 82 for two, before pandemonium struck the tourist camp. In a remarkable 10-over spell before tea, England lost six wickets for just nine runs. England were to be all out for just 136, losing nine for 81, out of which Johnson accounted for four.

The way he set up Trott, followed by Joe Root, with a relentless line and length of short-pitched bowling, had the Gabba on their feet and in full song. The Barmy Army, meanwhile, had gone quiet, wondering if they had awoken a monster. Johnson finished with figures of four for 61, and even if it didn’t quite match up to those of the pantomime villain from the other side, Stuart Broad (six for 81), England were left hoping that this other side of Johnson’s maverick personality dies away soon.

After the day’s play, Shane Warne told Sky Sports that England's inability to play the short ball, and Johnson in particular, could be their folly:

“Australia had the X-factor of Mitchell Johnson bowling fast - he was bowling consistently around 90mph plus—and he got it right. He looked a completely different bowler; there was no-one who really looked comfortable against the short ball.

Carberry all but concurred with Warne, when he said in the post-match press conference:

“In terms of pace he’s up there with some of the quickest I’ve faced in my time, but more importantly he put the ball in the right areas.”

In the right areas. That’s where Johnson will have to ensure he bowls for the remainder of the series. He’s got the pace, he’s got the length, he’s got the aggression; he’s even got a menacing handlebar moustache look—his tribute to ‘Movember’; what he doesn’t have is the ability to maintain that threatening line for a prolonged period. That being said, when Johnson is up in the right spirits, as he was on Day Two, there is no stopping this rampaging freight train. But will he be able to subdue his ‘Version B’? If he does, England are in for some trouble, to say the least.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Has Phil Jones solved Manchester United's midfield puzzle?

Manchester United's 21-year-old defender, Phil Jones, put in an admirable and highly praiseworthy performance in the holding midfielder position alongside Michael Carrick in their 1-0 win over Arsenal on November 10. Given United's frailties in the middle of the pitch, Jones's performance has provided fans with some hope that the midfield puzzle is nearly solved. However, is it?

To say that Phil Jones was a beast is perhaps an overused cliché. But no other word could possibly do justice to his performance for Manchester United at Old Trafford against the top-placed Gunners.

Even though they were playing at home, United were well the underdogs coming into the fixture, with Arsenal dropping just five points in their opening 10 games and sitting pretty at the top of the table with a yawning eight-point gap between their opponents, who were languishing in eighth spot.

The battle, they said, would be won in the midfield. With United still not having found their right combination and approach, following a change in the manager's chair after their title-winning histrionics last season, Arsenal were favourites coming to a ground where they hadn't won since 2006.

Arsenal's midfield was boosted by the acquisition of Mesut Ozil over the summer, adding him to a potent formation including Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini. The Gunners were expected to boss the inconsistent and unsettled United midfield.

David Moyes decided to go in with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation with Jones partnering Michael Carrick ahead of the defenders. Jones was played out of his preferred position of centre-back, but lost no time in settling in to his team's requirement.

Like a ravaging bull, Jones barged into a stunned Arsenal and snatched the ball away at will. His interception, tackling and runs from box to box were exemplary and allowed United to hold the strings for majority of the match.

In the second half, when captain Nemanja Vidic left the field with an apparent concussion, Jones was shifted to centre-back, while Tom Cleverley took up the Englishman's position next to Carrick.

The difference was there to see as Arsenal began to snare more of the possession and threatened to equalise as the match drew to a close. But United managed to hold on to a priceless 1-0 scoreline and three points, which reduced the gap between them and their rivals to five points and pushed them up to fifth in the table.

Jones missed out on the Man of the Match award, which went to Wayne Rooney who provided an assist to Robin van Persie's goal and was his usual industrious self. But that didn't stop Jones from earning a lot praise from the local press for his gallantry.

It also raised the question whether, in Jones and Carrick, United had found their right defensive midfield combination. The duo complement each other in their styles—while Jones is fast, aggressive, can tackle and win the ball, Carrick is vision, touch and pass. To have that kind of a recipe to support the attacking trio in the midfield ahead of them, Moyes seems to have struck gold.

However, what United still lack is that touch of creativity—something they haven't possessed since they sold Ronaldo to Real Madrid a few seasons ago. It is still evident that United lack that penetration into the opposition's box, and that is not something that their five-strong midfield is able to provide.

Also, Jones himself prefers to play in the centre-back position, as he confirmed after the match to Sky Sports: "I'm happy with my own form. I'm pleased to be getting a bit of a run at centre-half.

"It's always nice to play in the position you feel most comfortable in. I played in midfield against Norwich in the Capital One Cup, but mostly it has been centre-back and that's where I want to be.

"When I came, it was always the plan to establish myself as a centre-back and I hope to do it this season. If the manager keeps faith in me, I'll make sure I can cement a spot there and get a good run there."

If United are to push for the title, they must look to find or infuse that creativity in the middle. Jones may have done well in this game, but do they have a fallback in case he is injured? Marouane Fellaini is still adapting to the Manchester United way of life, Cleverley has not shown the same promise as he did a couple of seasons ago, and Anderson remains average and sporadic.

United need to provide Rooney an assistant in his push towards the opposition box. Jones is good, but at the end of the day he is a defender at heart. What United need is an attacking playmaker, and a quality one at that.

Will Moyes find one in the January transfer window? If he wants to get his United career off to a good start, he would hope he does.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sachin Tendulkar’s final Test: The flame eventually extinguishes after a mesmerizing flicker

A slightly mistimed, cheeky flick aimed to go past the slips, but didn't — that’s all it took. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but as he trudged back to the pavilion for probably the last time ever, those seconds were excruciating for anyone who could distinguish the cricket bat from ball. The Wankhede was stunned for a few seconds, almost until he had reached the edge of the boundary, before it rose to salute and applaud their beloved son for one last time. Others, who couldn’t avail of their sick-leaves in offices and schools, flocked to the nearest television screen, radio or smartphone. Was it really true? Was he really gone? Unfortunately, he was. But not before he gave us around 150 minutes of sheer pleasure to remember him by.

His 74 from 118 balls, spanning the better part of two sessions, was neither his longest, nor best, innings out of the 781 he has played in international cricket. But then again, no one expected him score a century in his final Test, did they?

No, but we all hoped. And he teased us. He teased us with some glorious punches through the cover off the backfoot, some orgasmic straight drives placed perfectly wide of the fielder at mid-on and mid-off, some delightful late cuts to third-man and some lovely flicks down fine-leg — most of which resulted in boundaries.

He even teased the West Indians, especially fast bowler Tino Best, who he tried to upper-cut a la Centurion many a times, but just about managed to avoid the edge. Best wasn’t amused, and made his frustration evident. But the maestro just smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Better luck next time!

He reached his half-century with a crisp straight drive just wide enough to beat the outstretched hands of Best, before raising his bat to salute his faithful, most of whom had stood by him unwaveringly for 24 years through the longest of dry patches. Perhaps the longest was the one that started after the hysterics of THAT early April evening in 2011, when he had reached the ultimate pinnacle of winning the World Cup. It was at this very ground that he had been paraded on the shoulders of his teammates.

He was never quite the same after that, apart from the day he finally reached the momentous landmark of 100 international tons in 2010. Perhaps it came a full circle today at the Wankhede, in what was a hastily organized farewell by his country’s board. He had been told: It’s your final chance; make the most of it.

They say that a flame flickers brightest just before it extinguishes. He had once said in a television interview that cricket “was like oxygen” to him; without it, he would be dead. For him, retirement would be like death.

On November 15, 2013, Sachin Tendulkar’s career was on life support. His body and mind knew that the end was here. But he was not going to go away without a last few gasps at that heavenly oxygen. And just like the human body tries to fight its hardest before death, Tendulkar took to the crease like a possessed being. He was determined to prolong the end, and brought out glimpses of his best. Sourav Ganguly, who had batted with him so many times during the good ol’ days, couldn’t help but remarking in the commentary box: “I’ve seen him bat so well after a long, long time.”

And then, just when we had started to hope that the flicker would transform into a raging fire, it was gone — 26 runs short of setting the Wankhede alight. There was no question of reigniting it. There would never be an encore. There would never be any more schadenfreude at the fall of the second wicket. There would never be any more mini-squats before taking guard. There would never be any more magical flicks off the hip, paddle-sweeps and cover drives. No longer would schools and offices be empty on match-day. No longer would the television be switched off at his dismissal. We always knew it was coming, but nevertheless that didn’t prevent it from being the rudest of shocks. He was gone…for good. 

Sachin was gone. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

India vs Australia 2013, 2nd Test at Hyderabad — Preview


Different approaches, different results and different mindsets heading into Hyderabad would probably best summarise Australia’s tour of India so far. The hosts wiped the dust bowl at Chennai’s MA Chidambaram Stadium clean with their trump card, spin, as Ravichandran Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja shared all 20 Australian wickets among themselves. 

Australia, meanwhile, decided to stick to their guns and went with their strength, playing four pace bowlers and just the one specialist spinner in Nathan Lyon. James Pattinson bent his back on a pace-less pitch to justify the strategy as he went on to take a five-wicket haul in the first innings; at the end of the game, he had six of India’s 12 wickets that fell to his name. However, Lyon could manage just four and leaked 200-plus runs in India’s first-innings total of 572. 

In the end, a lead of 192 was too much for the Australians to overcome and set a good enough target for India to chase in the fourth innings. To their credit, rather, to debutant Moises Henriques’s credit, Australia did well to make India bat again and take the match into a fifth day after being at 137 for seven a few minutes after Tea on Day Four.

The pitch at Hyderabad isn’t expected to spit as many cobras as the one at Chennai. Local cricketing hero and recently-turned commentator, VVS Laxman, described it as “hard, firm and crumbling”. You wouldn’t think the Australians would be too ecstatic on hearing this, given Chennai behaved almost the same way. But indications are that Hyderabad would probably not turn right away from Day One, which would make the toss a lottery for whoever wins it.

It is to be seen whether Australia stick to their guts and play four pacers again around Lyon. But given the drubbing they received in Chennai at the hands of India’s spin trio, and how the host batsmen milked runs off their quicks, and spinner for that matter, coach Mickey Arthur would do well to resist the temptation of giving a third Test cap to left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty.

However, playing Doherty would mean leaving out one of Peter Siddle, Pattinson or Mitchell Starc. Henriques is definite to make the cut following his heroics with the bat (68 and 81 not out). Siddle is the most experienced of the lot and would be an automatic choice too. Between Pattinson and Starc, the latter seems most likely to be made the sacrificial kangaroo, since Pattinson was genuinely troubling the Indians. However, the 22-year-old Victorian could just be rested in Hyderabad, since he has recently recuperated from a lower rib injury and tends to break down if he exerts himself a lot.

Doherty is quite similar to India’s chief tormentor in the England defeat at home, Monty Panesar, in the sense both are quick through the air. After seeing how Panesar ran his way through the Indian batting on rank turners just a couple of months ago, playing the 30-year-old could just prove to be the right gamble for Australia.

India, on the other hand, look set to play the same XI come March 2, given they were so successful in Chennai. This means local boy Pragyan Ojha isn't likely to make the cut even in his hometown. Captain MS Dhoni likes the idea of playing two off-spinners, Ashwin and Harbhajan, who get the ball to turn away from Australia's four left-handed batsmen in the top six. Slow left-arm bowler Jadeja, who can also bat, unlike Ojha, provides the variation in the spin arsenal.

As for the batting, the openers’ slot looks the most unsettled, with Virender Sehwag and Murali Vijay sharing 37 runs between them in the two innings at Chennai. Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane are waiting on the sidelines for their opportunity, but Dhoni put his faith in Sehwag and Vijay in the post-match presser, saying the duo need to be given time to settle.

With the selection of the squad for the third and fourth Tests set to take place after the culmination of the Hyderabad rubber, the onus is on Sehwag and Vijay to perform. The rest of the Indian batting looks good enough to stroll their way through this series.

Both teams would love to get a win here. India would get an unassailable lead in the series if they win, whereas Australia will be gunning to do all that’s in their capacity to prevent that from happening and get back on level terms in the four-match series. The Australians hate to lose, wherever in the world they are, and India can expect a strong comeback at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium.


India (Probable): Virender Sehwag, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni (c & wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma.

Australia (Probable): David Warner, Ed Cowan, Phillip Hughes, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke (c), Matthew Wade (wk), Moises Henriques, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon, James Pattinson, Xavier Doherty.

(This article first appeared here)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tendulkar and Dhoni positives ahead of 2nd Test, Ojha’s exclusion a howler

On a typical Martian Chennai track, India thumped Australia by eight wickets in the first Test to open their account in the four-match Border Gavaskar Trophy. It was a win that everyone associated with and backing Indian cricket was yearning for following a torrid last 22 months. Whitewashes in England and Australia were followed with a humiliating defeat at home against the Englishmen. The win, notched up on February 26, was like a breath of fresh air for Team India.

As the teams gear up for the second Test in Hyderabad, here are the five talking points from the Chennai rubber:

1. 1.2 billion people breathe a sigh of relief as Sachin Tendulkar returns to form:

He may not have got to the magical three figures — something he hasn't done since the January of 2011 — but one could sense that something was on the anvil when Sachin Tendulkar walked out to bat at No 4 on Day Two of the Test, with India wobbling at 12 for two. 

Tendulkar's love affair with Chennai is well documented. The southern Indian city is as good as his second home, with the Little Master having recorded some terrific knocks here in his 24-year career. In the last Test that India played in Chennai, in 2008, Tendulkar's magnificent fourth-innings ton helped India chase down a mammoth 387-run target against the Poms. So, it was obvious to expect loud cheers when James Pattinson bowled Virender Sehwag early in India’s first innings to give Australia their second wicket. Enter the hero.

To say Tendulkar was struggling is an understatement. Ever since he helped India win the World Cup on home soil in April 2011, the runs had dried up faster than a pond in the Sahara. Several experts and pundits opined that the master's technique was faltering and his 39-year-old body creaking. The current series was predicted to be his last by editors in their newspapers in big, bold lettering.

When Sachin Tendulkar settled in at the crease on Day Two of the first Test, you could observe a distinct change in his batting © IANS
But when Tendulkar settled in at the crease on Day Two, you could observe a distinct change. Something was different. His feet were moving swifter than a tap dancer and his body was shaping up to play the shots like clockwork. It was vintage Tendulkar on display as he went on to share 90-run partnerships with Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. Just when you thought century no 101 was imminent, Nathan Lyon got the ball to pitch in the rough, take a vicious turn, beat Tendulkar and hit the stumps. He was gone for 81.

However, the innings gives a lot of hope for the remainder of the series. If Tendulkar has a successful stint in the middle in this series, who knows, you might just get to see him make the South Africa tour in November, where his experience will be vital.

2. India’s opening pair — the chink in the batting armour:

India piled on 572 runs in the first innings with Kohli scoring a hundred and skipper Dhoni hitting a spectacular double ton. Tendulkar and Pujara too looked in good touch, although unable to convert into big knocks. If there was one blemish in India's batting card for the first Test, it was right at the top against the two openers.

Virender Sehwag and Murali Vijay scored a combined 37 runs across the two innings, as a result of which Dhoni was showered with questions on whether the team will try a different combination in the next Test. The Indian skipper was, however, unperturbed, and rightly so.

Virender Sehwag has the backing of his captain to come good in the series © IANS
Dhoni said that both the openers need to be given more time and requested everyone to not judge them on the basis of one match. They need to be given the comfort that they are wanted in the team and that their necks are not on the line with a couple of poor innings. As this writer had suggested in an earlier article, the Indian team management and selectors need to give individuals, especially the newcomers, a longer rope to prove themselves. Sehwag and Vijay should ideally open in all four Tests, unless their performances horrid enough to warrant a change. 

3. Dhoni's newfound aggression in the longer format:

Apart from Tendulkar, the other distinct change that was observable within the Indian camp was the approach of Dhoni — towards his captaincy and batting. The 31-year-old had been under a lot of criticism and pressure due to employing a defensive approach in bygone tours, even as recent as the 1-2 defeat to England. But in Chennai, there was a different Dhoni who had walked out leading his team.

MS Dhoni was in his best elements in Chennai © PTI
Dhoni attacked Australia with his three spinners and crowded the on-strike batsman with close-in fielders for long durations. Even when Michael Clarke went on the counter-attack in both innings, Dhoni did not alter his strategy and stuck with an aggressive field. He seemed more involved, more expressive, and more proactive than he was in the last two years. One particular example that comes to mind is when a visibly flustered Dhoni reprimanded Ishant Sharma for not putting in his 100 per cent in trying to effect a run-out.

His 224 from 265 balls at 84.52 with the bat further reinforces this observation. Dhoni went from 97 to 201 in one session in a bid to increase India’s run rate and lead. While he has always been a quick scorer in the limited-overs format, such a brisk, attacking innings was on display in Tests after a long time.

“He has changed a bit from the England series. He is more assertive,” Sunil Gavaskar told NDTV after the match. An assertive captain is perhaps exactly what India need to come good in this series.

4. Why is India’s best spinner warming the bench?

India selected two pacers in the Chennai Test in Ishant Sharma and debutant Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Together, they accounted for only 33 of India’s 226 overs bowled in the Test. Needless to say, the duo went wicketless in the match as the spin trio — Ravichandran Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja — shared all 20 wickets among them, with Ashwin getting 12 himself.

So, one could say the move to underbowl the pacers was justified. But then, why select two pacers if you’re not going to use them? And more importantly, why bench your most successful spinner of late, Pragyan Ojha, when you have one of the most spin-friendly pitches in the country at your disposal?

Will Pragyan Ojha play in his hometown Hyderabad? © Getty Images
Ojha’s exclusion from the XI was a major drop-jaw moment on the opening day of the Test. Dhoni justified the move in the post-match presser saying that it made sense to use two off-spinners who would move the ball away from the four left-handers that made up Australia’s top six batsmen. Dhoni also said that Jadeja got the nod to be the variation spinner over fellow left-armer Ojha because the former can bat as well.

All that is well and good, and it must have been a tough call Dhoni and the powers that be would have taken. But sidelining your best spinner — the highest wicket-taker in the England series — was truly a bolt from the blue. With the Hyderabad pitch expected to turn less compared to Chennai, Ojha might, to no fault of his own, find himself missing out again.

5. Australia's bowling conundrum:

Australia's major concern ahead of this series was spin. Yet, they went ahead with four pacers and a lone spinner in the first Test. While skipper Clarke defended his team's call to play to its strength, even as Australia's pacemen took eight out of the 12 Indian wickets that fell in the game, playing just one specialist spinner in Lyon on a crumbling, spitting clay pit was always going to backfire.

Lyon picked up only four victims in the match, and also leaked far too many easy runs. He was targeted by the likes of Tendulkar and Dhoni, who picked his turn with ease. Dhoni himself scored 104 runs out of his 226 off Lyon, in just 85 balls.

Could Xavier Doherty be Australia's answer to Monty Panesar? © Getty Images
Australia have the option of playing left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty at Hyderabad. The 30-year-old had bowled decently in one of the the tour games, when he took three for 108 from 24 overs. However, the million dollar question beaming in front of Australia is who to drop if Doherty has to come in. Peter Siddle, the most experienced of the lot, and a fit James Pattinson, who took six wickets in the first Test, select themselves. All-rounder Moises Henriques had a stellar debut with the bat (68 and 81 not out), even though he could not inflict too much damage with the ball. So, the only viable option would seem Mitchell Starc. 

In the post-match presser, Clarke refused to be drawn into the debate whether Australia had made a mistake by choosing a pace-heavy attack and said better bowling performances from those selected could have helped Australia avoid defeat.

"Australian spin took three wickets in the first innings, fast bowling took a lot more," Clarke said. "That doesn't mean to say that playing three fast bowlers and a medium-pace all-rounder, we got that right. We need to assess, we need to look at conditions again and work out what we think is the best XI [in Hyderabad]. It's not just about selection, it's about how you perform, I don't think we bowled well enough in our first innings and we certainly didn't bat well enough in our second innings.

"We are not India. We are a different team, we have different fast bowlers to the Indian fast bowlers and we have different spinners to the Indian spinners," he added.

Point taken, Michael, but at this juncture, with the way India exploited the spin-friendly wicket in the first Test, it would augur well for Australia if they play the extra spinner. Even though Doherty may not be a Monty Panesar, it would be a fruitless task, as they experienced in the first match, to try and take the majority of 20 wickets with pace on the dust bowls that are likely to be served wherever they go.

(This article first appeared here)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

India A vs England: Tiwary steals the show on Day One

Manoj Tiwary scored a defiant 93 to guide India A to a competent 369 for nine at stumps on Day One of the first three-day warm-up match of England's tour of India at the Cricket Club of India (CCI), Mumbai.

26-year-old Tiwary, who has always been on the sidelines for a Test spot, gave the Indian selectors a right dilemma in a match that was billed as a slugfest between captain Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh for the coveted no 6 spot. The Bengal lad shared a 110-run seventh-wicket partnership with all-rounder Irfan Pathan (46) in the third session to wrest back the advantage from the visitors.

Earlier, England were asked to bowl by Raina on what seemed like a sporting wicket ahead of the day's play.The tourists, who started with three quicks (James Anderson, Steve Finn and Tim Bresnan) were left in a spot soon in the first session after Steve Finn hobbled off the field after bowling just four overs. However, the Englishmen made the most of their bowling arsenal and picked up wickets at regular intervals, two per session, even as the track lost its nip, to restrict India A to 224 for six at Tea. This, after Abhinav Mukund (73) and Yuvraj Singh (59) shared a 56-run third-wicket partnership following the early dismissals of  Murali Vijay (7) and Ajinkya Rahane (4). 

While Mukund was edgy to begin with before eventually settling into his 83-ball 73 (16 x4), Singh was merciless after being dropped first ball by Ian Bell. The southpaw greeted Samit Patel into the attack with two fours and a straight-lofted six, before bringing up his 50 with a similar maximum. The crack off Singh's bat as he found the sweet spot again-and-again was music to the ears of the crowd swelling by the hour at the Brabourne Stadium. In the 43rd over, Singh decided to have a change of angles and lofted Graeme Swann (23-6-90-3) over the long-on fence before being stumped two balls later.

Raina and keeper Wriddhiman Saha did not trouble the selectors much after being dismissed for 20 each to leave India A reeling at 190 for six in 47 overs. England would have expected a few overs of batting at this point on Day One, but Tiwary and Pathan had other plans.

The duo paced their innings well, clearing the fence 19 times in their 110-run stand and wrested control from the Englishmen. Tiwary was fluid with his strokeplay and seemed in no hurry to get going. The Bengal lad caressed the balls to the boundary, rather than heaving them and scored with a modest strike rate of around 60. Pathan (46, 83b, 5x4, 2x6), always the slugger, was also uncharacteristically patient with his innings and only punished the looseners. The left-hander was eventually to be trapped in front by Swann in the 75th over. The dismissal, however, wasn't to deter Tiwary as he carried on fighting and fending the English quicks into the nineties.

India A had been let down by batsmen who couldn't convert their starts into big scores and here was a man on the brink of three figures who knew that, in all probability, he still might not get that elusive Test cap. However, Tiwary's Terrific Tuesday was not to get the icing it deserved as Tim Bresnan (20-6-59-3) uprooted the former's middle stumps with four overs left in the day's play.

Tiwary might be the hero on paper, but the star of the day, at least for the 500-odd spectators in the North stand, was comeback-king Kevin Pietersen. The swashbuckling batsman, who made a return to the England squad following an autumn of controversy, evoked loud cheers from the crowd as he placed himself at mid-on and deep midwicket during the third session. Pietersen rewarded his fans, both Indian and English, with a few quick waves and even snuck in an over that went for seven runs.

At the end, both teams would be happy with their efforts. India A will hope to get as close to 400 as possible with Vinay Kumar (25*) and Parvinder Awana (11*) hoping to extend their 22-run last-wicket partnership. England, on the other hand, will look to complete their bowling formalities as soon as possible Wednesday morning and exploit Brabourne's small boundaries on a now flat batting track.

Brief scores: India A 369-9 in 90 overs (Manoj Tiwary 93, Abhinav Mukund 73; Tim Bresnan 3-59, Graeme Swann 3-90) vs England.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lights, Camera, Punches!

Founder chairmen of SFL: Raj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt (Pic Courtesy:
The Mumbai home of the Super Fight League (SFL), advertised as India’s only professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) organization, is an arena in a dark, dingy building hidden somewhere in the suburb of Saki Naka. The arena, located on the third floor of this building, is accessed by what looks like a 50-year-old elevator and a staircase that is littered with cigarette butts, wrappers, boxes and other paraphernalia. The smell of smoke is evident as you approach the arena, not knowing what to expect inside.

But that’s the beauty of MMA, isn’t it? It’s not football, it’s not followed by millions. It’s not something a kid will tell his parents he is following. It has its loyal base of followers who keep the sport confined to dingy arenas, basements and car-parks. Originally promoted as a martial arts competition with the intention of finding the most effective ways of unarmed combat, fighters are pitted against each other with minimal rules. As the sport grew, fighters employed multiple martial arts into their style, such as Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), Wushu and Shotokan Karate. It finally got mainstream acceptance with movies such as Never Back Down and Fight Club; and it’s finally made its way to India via the SFL.

It is said that marshal arts originated in India thousands of years ago in the akharas of North India where pehelwaans grappled with each other in the mud. The sport, along with other forms of Indian martial arts like Kalarippayattu was supposedly taken to the East along with the Buddhist culture where it was modified and excelled at. In India, however, the sport remained restricted to the akharas. “It is rather ironic,” says Kaushik Sen, a 35-year-old bantamweight participant of the SFL, “that the MMA scene in India has just been born. Even though martial arts originated in India, at the end of the day we are a peaceful and docile culture. We’re not a fighting kind of people.” 

That being said, the scene inside the SFL arena gives a lot of hope for the sport in India. Sure, it’s got its glitz and glamour with white, skimpily clad girls dancing away to the IPL tune during the breaks and participants entering the arena dressed like The Prince of Persia, but the quality of the fights inside the caged ring show that the sport is picking up. Raj Kundra, founder chairman of SFL, is excited and claims that SFL has caught the attention of the international audience. “From six months we’ve gone from people laughing at how amateur we were to international fighters tweeting to me that MMA has arrived in India and the quality of your guys is now up there. There are 3000 MMA organizations in the world; we’re the only one to deliver weekly fights all year round,” he says.

Kultar Singh Gill, a fighter in the main event of the evening—a welterweight bout against Egypt’s Amir Wahman—believes that the sport is bound to spread in India. “Aag jaise failegi (It will spread like fire),” he says. “Just wait and watch!” Sen, sporting a giant bruise under his left eye after losing to a 19-year-old in the only bout (out of seven) that lasted all three rounds, agrees: It (MMA) has a fantastic future in India. It’s already exploded in the West and now, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — which is the largest MMA promotion company in the world — is coming to India.”

Sen, who has been fighting since 2004, believes that MMA is an “excellent form of self-defense” and encourages women to learn it. “It should be made mandatory for women; it’s the best way to protect yourself on the street.” Sen plans to open a school in Delhi soon. “I want to become an MMA teacher. Delhi needs a (MMA) school. Me and Ricky, my corner man, are going to open something up,” he says.