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THE BATTLE FOR TEST DOMINATION

India start their mammoth Australia tour with the 1st Test on Boxing Day. This series has received considerable hype owing to a variety of reasons. The Indian squad is as follows:

Bowlers: Yadav, Ishant, Vinay Kumar, Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Mithun, Ojha

Batsmen: Dhoni, Sehwag, Gambhir, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Kohli, Sharma, Rahane

We might be on the verge of seeing the end of a rare influential Indian fast bowler

Zaheer Khan’s fitness has a question mark over it but in the current tour match against CAC XI he bowled 10 overs and conceded 41 runs. According to reports Zaheer was not at his best and it seems he might not be an automatic choice in the playing XI. Whether Zaheer can secure a place due to his recent years’ performance remains to be seen. Zaheer last played in Australia in 2007 and in Australia he has played 3 Tests and taken 10 wickets so arguably he has wicket taking potential on Australian pitches.

As far as Test cricket is concerned this presents an opportunity for the likes of Yadav, Mithun and V Kumar. If they can take regular wickets they might become India’s first choice pacers and Zaheer Khan may have to say goodbye to Test cricket. Zaheer is 33 now and age is not on his side; if bettered by the young pacers it is likely we might not see Zaheer playing for India again. For Zaheer’s sake he will be remembered as ending his career on a very enviable high and his bowling contributed a great deal in India’s WC victory earlier this year.

Another reason why this series is crucial is because of SRT’s form and the sword of the 100thcentury dangling over his head. Tendulkar averages about 60 in Australia and this must be one of the highest averages for any international batsman in Australia. However, this year his average has been 47 and he has looked uncomfortable when batting. The million dollar question is whether SRT will be able to make that elusive century or not? This issue was blown out of proportion by the Indian media, so much so that there are been a noticeable restraint now in discussing this very

Tendulkar must call it a day if he is unable to perform

elusive century for fear of further pressurising SRT.

Finally this series is also crucial from the Indian perspective because of the current Test rankings and present form of the top 4 teams. This year Australia played 3 Test series- against Sri Lanka they won 1-0, against New Zealand and South Africa they drew 1-1. Australia are definitely not the force they were when McGrath and Warne were playing but they have still had a respectable 2011 compared to 2010. This year India beat West Indies 2-0 and 1-0, drew with South Africa 1-1 and lost to England 4-0. Form wise one might say that Australia has the slight edge, even though they suffered a totally unexpected collapse against New Zealand a few weeks ago. India took a drubbing in England and this will definitely be at the back of their heads when they are preparing for the Boxing Day Test.

Sehwag have Gambhir have not been at their best in Tests in 2011 and Tendulkar and Laxman have also been unable to deliver. This is the reason why India lost badly against England. Indian batsmen perform well on Australian pitches so this gives an opportunity for them to regain form. Australia is currently ranked no 4 in Tests and India, no 2. There is a difference of 15 points between the two teams so the chances of Australia overtaking India are slim and can probably only occasion if Australia whitewash India.

A good performance will help India in forgetting the disastrous England series of 2011

As for Australia, their batting and bowling both have lacked consistency this year and this might work in favour of India. Australia have their own fitness problems to worry about because Shaun Marsh and Shane Watson are not fully fit. Neither are Mitchell Johnson or Doug Bollinger available. Siddle and the impressive newcomer Pattinson will probably lead the bowling attack and they might spring a surprise for Australia. It seems there is a chance Australia might be unable to play their best XI whereas India will most definitely play their best XI. How much of an impact will this cause?

It looks like it is difficult picking a favourite. Australia have to their advantage that they are usually mentally strong at home, notwithstanding the domination of Indian batsmen on their pitches. Their young pacers can also surprise India because they are untested. This will work in India’s favour too when they try Yadav and Mithin against Australia. Both teams have drawn Test series with the South Africans this year, both teams have defeated weaker teams (SL and WI) but, whereas India got slaughtered in England, Australia also collapsed against a considerably weaker Test side, New Zealand.

Expectations are high from Yadav who has shown promise

From Australia’s perspective a good series will promote them to no 3 (a whitewash may propel them to no 2) in the rankings and from India’s perspective, a whitewash will take them to no 1. But more importantly, a good showing from the Indians will bury the demons of the England series earlier this year and may persuade the passionate Indian fans that the England mauling was a once-in-an-era event for a spirited team that may well have a dominating future with hopefuls such as Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Yadav and Mithun.

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A BALANCING EXERCISE

Graeme Swann feels ODI's should be scrapped

When T20 took over the world by storm many commentators questioned whether the 50 over format would last. The 50 over format has since received criticism and appears to be getting squeezed between T20 and Tests. Cricket reformists lobby for T20 while purists want cricket to maintain its traditional touch with teams regularly competing in Test cricket.

Graeme Swann feels that the ODI format is the least significant format and should be ended in favour of T20 and Tests. Is this the right mentality?

Opinions on this will be very personal but there cannot be any denying that, ODI’s are a great balancing exercise between the thrill and fast pace of T20 and the mental toughness and challenge of Test cricket. In some ways this format incorporates the best of what both T20 and Test can offer. Yet, one can understand why this format is losing popularity in the wake of T20 which has now become the most popular cricket format and is popular with women and children as well as men.

There seems to be a geographical divide in that whereas ODI’s are still popular in the subcontinent, Tests are more popular in England and Australia, who are still prominent members of the cricket fraternity despite the rise of India in the recent past and the improving stature of teams like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. So, any efforts to end ODI cricket should receive opposition from the subcontinent.

ODI cricket has provided some of cricket’s most glorious memories. Whether that is the Kerry Packer revolution, India’s World Cup 1983 victory, Miandad’s Sharjah sixer, Tendulkar’s general dominance etc, ODI cricket has balanced thrill and skill and brought a fresh and welcome outlook to cricket when it was introduced decades ago.

ODI's have shown us the best of special players like Tendulkar and Afridi

Certain heroic or dramatic events that have captured our hearts and minds can only happen in ODI’s. Shahid Afridi’s 37 ball 100 is one such event- this kind of milestone is unlikely to be reached in any format, but it has the strongest likelihood of being reached in ODI’s. Similarly, the suspense and drama of matches such as the Australia v South Africa semi final in the World Cup 1999 can also only happen in ODI’s.

The ICC needs to think very carefully whether it wants to dispose of ODI’s. Firstly this motion is bound to receive stiff opposition from the subcontinental lobby. Historically subcontinental teams have performed better in ODI and England and Australia have performed better in Tests. So, there might be a clash of opinions here. Secondly, cricket fans around the world may become frustrated with the fact that, T20 often seems to be a contest of luck rather than skill and fans do not get to see a lot of player development and strategy. Whereas they get to see player development, mental toughness and skill in Tests, there is no denying that due to changing trends around the world fans simply do not have enough time to follow Test matches like they used to.

If any format has to be scrapped then arguably it should be Tests. A cricket purist would call for axing for T20s, but that seems very remote because T20 is a money spinner and popular with fans and cricket players alike. So due to the thrill and excitement offered by T20 it will probably exist for a long time to come. However, scrapping ODI should not be the answer.

The ICC can intervene between cricket boards and organise matches evenly between teams so that some teams like India and England don’t feel they are playing too much cricket. They can also alter the rules of the game but this has to be done sensibly and timely. For example, the SuperSub rule introduced a few years ago was a disaster and one wonders how it even saw light of the day?

In Tests I have proposed that there should be some changes in order to make the format more stimulating in order to prevent teams from playing negative cricket which goes against the spirit of the game. I feel that after each session of 10 overs, a batting team should be penalised 50 runs if  it does not score a minimum of 25 or 27 runs. This means, that 50 runs are awarded to the opposition. If this happens in a 4th innings chase then the chasing team has to chase 50 runs more.

Such minor but eminent changes can create more interest in the game.

I feel cricket would lose out if ODI’s are ended in the future. Whilst the ICC should obviously consider changing times and changing demands of the fans, with some imagination they can definitely overcome this problem we are having today of players constantly complaining that they are playing too much cricket. Why not devise some kind of compromise rather than just scrap a format and damage cricket?

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HOW MUCH DO STATISTICS REVEAL?

Please see this table and compare great modern day batsmen. These are batsmen who are either still playing or retired within the past 5 years, and average 50 or more and have played 75+ Tests.

The first table explores how each batsmen did vs each Test team and how much they averaged in each country. These stats are separated by “/”. The next table explores players’ averages in all innings of a match which provides an insight into who played better whilst chasing or when the pitch had deteriorated, or had become more conducive to spin. It also shows average in won, lost and drawn matches, averages at home or away, the number of innings played and most importantly,  scores of 100 and 50 that led to victory for their teams expressed as a percentage of total innings played. Although we will discuss this in more detail below it is startling to know that Lara has the poorest record in this regard.

I would like you all to offer your thoughts and I hope Bichoo, Pawan, 420 and the others can also contribute with their views.  Stats have been noted from Cricinfo.

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