Sunday, 31 January 2016

The flame still flickers

Sports is no stranger to comebacks. Both the good ones and the bad ones.

On one end of the spectrum, there is Jordan who came out of his retirement and led the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive titles between 1996 and 1998. There is the near mythical tale of Nikki Lauda, who came back to the racing track a mere 42 days after being pronounced "almost dead" due to the infamous crash at the German Grand Prix. He even went on to win his second world title in 1977.

However, not all comebacks have a fairy tale ending. Schumacher, who had created almost every single record there was on the racing track, came out of retirement in 2010 partnering with Mercedes in a bid to recreate his magic but sadly, it was no happy second coming.

The recently concluded T20 series between India and Australia saw a number of comebacks in both teams, of which the most scrutinized one was that of Yuvraj Singh. 

Yuvraj Singh was literally on top of the world in 2011 following India's world cup triumph where he was adjudged as Man of the Series. He was scoring runs; taking wickets and winning matches for his team. All at the same time. He was a burning inferno at the top of his game, scorching down the opposition at will.

And then it hit him. A disease so deadly, that a complete cure has not yet been found despite the rapid advancements in the field of medical technology. It takes a lot to just lead a normal life after being diagnosed with cancer let alone play again. But he rose like the metaphorical Phoenix and staged a comeback into the Indian team.

He was drafted into the T20 squad for the 2012 world cup held in Sri Lanka and he emerged as the leading wicket taker for India in the tournament but had a poor showing with the bat. Later in the year, it was in the second T20 against Pakistan in Ahmedabad that he showed glimpses of the old Yuvraj with a blistering 72 at a strike rate of 200, knocking Saeed Ajmal, the then best bowler, all over the park. There were a few more knocks against Australia in the shortest format but consistent failures and lack of fitness plagued his comeback. The 2014 T20 final seemed like the final nail in the coffin.

Not one to bow out easily, he trained hard and harder in the domestic circuit and scored runs heavily. 341 runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy at an average of 85.25 helped him in his comeback to the T20 team. He was supposedly the "balancing act of the team". He brought in vast amounts of experience, the ability to roll his arm over for a few overs and above, all the "big-tournament player" tag.

Irrespective of all the ups and downs in his career, there can be no bigger "big-tournament player" than Yuvraj. Batting for the first time in his career, he scored a match-winning 84 against world champions Australia in the quarterfinal of the 2000 ICC Knockout trophy. India's triumph in the maiden T20 World Cup in South Africa rode largely on his exploits where sixes rained out of his bat like the July monsoon. The best of them all was the 2011 World Cup where he was adjudged 'Player of the Tournament' turning in crucial performances for his team both with the bat and the ball. 

This T20 tour was effectively to be a dress-rehearsal to get the right team combination before the marquee tournament in India in a few months time. Though he did not get to bat in the first two matches, he showed glimpses of what he can do with the ball. Dhoni had been strongly advocating for the need of players in the top 6 who are also able to bowl. He likes his team with players who are able to not just bat or bowl. And that's what Yuvraj has to offer. In the second T20, he effectively derailed Australia's chase when they were cruising along. By the time his two overs ended, he had picked up a wicket for just 7 runs. 

Yet, the large question of his batting remained. The team and the management had to know if he still had the ability to bring back Yuvraj of the yester-year. The first T20s saw him sitting in the dug out without facing a single ball and though the series was decided already, he was pushed into a pressure cooker situation in the final match with India needing more than 10 an over with 5 overs to go. A perfect situation to cement his position in the team. Except, things did not start well.

He struggled to get bat on ball, especially against Watson, who had him in a tangle with a judicious mix of full-length and short balls. He was on 5 off 9 balls with 17 more needed of the final over. The ghosts of the 2014 final had come to haunt him. A painstaking 11 from 21 balls  had  then shut India out of the game and Yuvraj out of the team. There was every possibility of that happening again. A poor last over would have effectively closed the doors on Yuvraj but a four and a six off the first two balls in the last over and an ensuing victory exorcised the demons of the past and has given him one more lease of life. One more chance at redemption for a swansong.

Yuvraj is not the burning inferno that he once was. But the flame in him still flickers. It will bode India well if it burns brightly. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

When Adelaide turned into Chepauk...for a brief moment.

It is said that India never plays an away game. The 30 million strong Indian diaspora, the largest in the world, of which there are a fair number of cricket crazy fans, see to that. And today was no exception. The 45000 strong Adelaide stadium saw a full house today with the vociferous Swami Army coming out in huge numbers to support their "home team".

That being said, India is one of the poorest travelers in the modern era. No matter how "desi" the crowd and the adjoining food-stalls are, the pitches and the home team are always alien. And down under, it is as alien as it can get. It remains to date, India's least favorite place to tour. And this time was no different with ODIs ending up with a scoreline of 4-1 in Australia's favour. 

The ODIs witnessed true batting pitches where record totals and chases were racked up in succession. 300 became the new par score. A record 11 centuries and 3159 runs were scored in the 5 matches- the most scored by teams in a bilateral series of 5 matches or few ever. India batted brilliantly in the series with Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli further establishing their credentials among the best limited overs batsmen in the world.

However, it was the bowling, as usual, that let down the team in spectacular fashion. However, what was surprising was the fact that spinners were rendered toothless, mostly by the flat bouncy pitches and partly by the Australian batsmen. Ashwin and Jadeja, two canny operators in business today, combined together,  took just 5 wickets and Ashwin's poor performance in the first two matches, by the high standards that he sets himself led to him being, somewhat unjustifiably, dropped for the rest of the series.

The Twenty 20s are usually seen as a not-so-serious entertainment at the end of long arduous tour with teams giving fresh faces a chance to prove themselves. But with the T20 world cup looming close by, it meant serious business and both teams decided to infuse a mix of old hands and new faces in a bid to find the perfect combination for the big tournament in India.

The match started off in an eerily similar fashion as the ODIs. India, put into bat, scored freely with the ball coming nicely onto the bat and posted a strong 188, largely riding on Kohli's unbeaten 90, whose love affair with Adelaide has become stronger by the day. The target was a tall ask but given India's profligate bowling, no target was safe as they had found in the series before. Unsurprisingly, Australia raced off the blocks with the scorecard reading 82/1 at the end of 8 overs. The wicket was on the flatter side and with the ball coming on to the bat nicely and runs were scored at a brisk pace. Even the Ashwin gamble did not pay off with his first over being taken for 17 runs. The fast bowlers were leaking runs. Boundaries were scored off every over. Australia threatened to take the game away. And then it happened.

The game changed for a brief period of time, 6 overs to be precise. Just 36 balls. But that was all was needed to take the game away from Australia. The match which had previously been going at a frenetic pace slowed down. The rut started with Smith's wicket. And that was when, Adelaide turned into Chepauk. Dhoni immediately turned to his spinners and Jadeja and Ashwin bowled in tandem hurrying their overs in manic pace.  The ball stopped coming on to the bat. There was some grip and turn on offer.The boundaries dried up. The dot ball counter rose. The Swami Army became louder.

Dhoni brought  the fielders closer. This was his forte. When the ball begins to show even the slightest hint of turn, he is a changed captain. He who often looks like a man bereft of ideas when his fast bowlers bowl transforms into an innovative captain once the spinners begin to turn the ball. A template begins to appear. The spinners bowl in quick succession. The screws are tightened on the opposition with the spinners suffocating them out of the game. Before the opposition realizes, the overs fly by. He has done it countless number of times in the yellow jersey of his now-defunct Chennai Superkings team and with Ashwin and Jadeja bowling, it was akin to watching the stringent display of spin bowling that has won the Superkings many a match. The catch by Nehra only added to the scheme of things. 

Between the 9th and 14th over, just 30 runs were scored with 4 wickets falling down. Lynn and Head who had made a name for themselves with their Big Bash exploits had not been exposed to spin bowling of this quality and were caught like deer in headlights. Watson edged out trying to up the scoring rate. And before long, the required run rate had increased from under 9 to nearly 13- the game effectively sealed. 

After that, it was Adelaide once again. The pacers were back on. The ball came nicely on to the bat. Boundaries were hit; Sixes smashed; Wickets fell. But the match was already over. In Chepauk.