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Shridhar Pandey

You might have already come across a bunch of notes and articles about Shikhar Dhawan and his debut innings in the print media and many more floating all over the internet. He was also trending on Twitter for quite some time while he was batting on Day 3 of the third Test between India and Australia. When you come to think of it, it does not really sound like exaggeration at all; such was the class of that innings which is yet to conclude. It kept me up all night (owing to the huge time difference between India and USA). So I won’t be unjustified in putting together my thoughts about it in a few lines.

Alright, it was a Test hundred on debut, the fastest one at that. But what really makes it even more special is the manner in which those runs were scored. Shikhar Dhawan almost nonchalantly raced to his Tirst test ton at more than run-a-ball (85 balls to be more accurate) and in the process, breaking the previous record of 105 balls for a debut test century. Hardly did he hit anything in the air till he was there. He did hit a couple of lofted shots once he had scored the 100, but no real signs of slogging yet. He stood unbeaten on 185 at the end of day’s play and there are already ominous signs that he might go on to make a big one.

Just before the start of Indian innings, I was speaking to a friend about the possible outcome of this match and had predicted a probable draw. I had also mentioned to him that I was very interested in watching Dhawan’s batting. Mind you, I’m not laying any claims that I had predicted him to become a revelation in the very first innings he would play. On the contrary, I had my doubts. I had told my friend that I have heard a lot about Shikhar and also seen him play many T-20 games and a couple of ODIs and that he looked good but not great. His domestic records point very much in the same direction (over 5500 runs at an average of approximately 46 in 81 first class matches). Neither am I contending that he has already achieved greatness by virtue of that innings. But that exemplary display of batting will surely go down in the annals of history as one of the best performances by any batsman on his debut.

Almost every scoring shot that came out of his blade was breathtaking, the ones played on the off-side cover boundary more so. So good did he look playing those shots that some have already crowned him the new ‘God of the off-side’. That, according to me, is going a step too far. Taking nothing away from Dhawan, it is just his first innings at this level after all – that too on a sub-continent pitch against a relatively depleted Australian attack. Remember, he is replacing a heavy-weight in Sehwag who owned that place for quite sometime and with great success. Once Dhawan comes out of that so called honeymoon period, he might have to come face-to-face with the cruel reality of fast and bouncy tracks in South Africa, England and Australia where the same Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc would look much more venomous.

His composure and steadiness at the crease is what stood out to me as the highlight of his batting apart from the glorious drives and cuts. A lot has always been said and written about attitude and not just talent being reasons behind the success of a player. Proponents of that theory could not have found a better day to emphasize their point. He batted like he belonged there and has owned the place for years before this. The anxiety and nervousness of a debutant were far from what he showed signs of. A couple of pull shots that he played had confidence written all over them.

That innings was, in every sense, a connoisseur’s delight. With that innings, Shikhar Dhawan would have pleased viewers and critics belonging to all school of thoughts. Perfect balance, precise foot movement, exquisite timing and supreme placement were some of the key features of his innings as far as the technicalities are concerned. At the same time, it was an extraordinary display of flare as he stepped out and lofted the spinners a couple of times en route his 185 not out. To those who believe in the modern day style of Test cricket, this innings would be the one to emulate – scoring at a strike rate of over 100 without taking any apparent risk, thanks to some lovely text book cricketing shots.

To sum up, I would refrain from making any extravagant predictions about India discovering a new star and a permanent solution to the opening slot. I would just like to conclude saying that Dhawan should draw a lot of confidence out of his wonderful start and look to capitalize on it. This should give him a lot of peace and satisfaction when he would look back on this performance once the test match is over and times after that – for this is truly an innings of rare brilliance!


Shridhar Pandey

It is gradually becoming more difficult to put up with all the talks surrounding Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement. Therefore I decided to vent out my emotions on this subject and make an honest appeal to all those running their mouths to ‘leave him alone!’ But before I begin, let me put down a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, Sachin Tendulkar is the God of Cricket to me without any second thought. Yet I would use ‘he’ instead of ‘He’ to refer to him hereafter. For I don’t want this article to be classified as a testimonial; it should be viewed from a rather neutral standpoint. Secondly, this might also draw flak from a section of people who in my view are atheists (in a world where cricket is a religion). So if you are one, this probably is the right time to stop reading this any further.

Ponting's retirement announcement has renewed the Tendulkar retirement debate. © AFP

Ponting’s retirement announcement has renewed the Tendulkar retirement debate. © AFP

It would be a grave injustice to a cricket lover if I were not to talk about the recent conclusion of one of the brightest cricketing careers of all time – that of the former Australian captain Ricky Ponting, the most successful cricketer (three world cups and more than 100 Test victories) the world has ever witnessed. In my books, if there ever was a cricketing shot that would come second to Sachin’s backfoot punch down the ground past the bowler, that certainly would be Ponting’s crackling pull shot.

Arguably the second best Aussie batsman after the Don, Ponting for some reason could never win the hearts of majority of Indian fans. Nonetheless, deep down inside all of them knew that he was a brilliant operator. His records speak volumes about his achievements. He shall not be remembered for the last couple of years but for the decade before that, when at one time, people got the feeling that he might overtake the Master himself as far as runs and centuries were concerned. His retirement would leave behind a big void not just in Australia but cricket all over the world. What it has also done is add fuel to the time-for-Sachin-to-retire guffaw.

So without any further ado, let me move over to what I had begun with. What pains me – believe me it does – is watching the same people, who used to hail Tendulkar at other occasions, now question his place in the side. I suppose I would be within my rights to question their loyalty. It has been the most illustrious cricketing career so far and yet he does not have the liberty to have a lean patch! Is he the only one who is not living up to their standards in the team? If history is to believed, he would sooner than later orchestrate a comeback that would silence those detractors one more time.

The shame is every Tom, Dick and Harry has an opinion on this subject. People who hardly follow the game are also ready with a piece of advice to the one who has spent his life serving it. That reminds me of a scene from the popular American sitcom F-R-I-E-N-D-S. It goes something like this:

Joey (to Ross): Rachel is having Braxton Hicks Contractions

Ross: Thank God! That is no big deal; most women don’t even feel them!

Rachel: Okay, no uterus, no opinion!

That one line sums it up all. Former Indian spinner Bishan Singh Bedi echoed similar opinion when he said “Only those who’ve played at least 150 Tests should be analyzing Sachin’s game.

A whole generation might lose their interest in the game the day he calls it off. That day the game would become poorer than ever. Probably never to be replenished. Indian supporters would never again be able to say the famous phrase “Sachin hai na!” in almost every dire situation. This might be the twilight of his career, but this certainly is not the end for there would be one last flourish before it all comes to an end.

And lastly to all those who believe that “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain” – he is not living to see himself being called a villain; rather he is contemplating something of a much bigger magnitude. I refuse to call it a struggle. This might well be ‘the quiet before the storm’.

Shridhar Pandey

The Indian team has many reasons to be proud of the victory over England in the first Test at Ahmedabad. After all, this would be termed as their first legitimate victory post the consecutive 0-4 setbacks in England and Australia. This win clearly showed that the English were the second best team to India in almost every facet of the game over the last 5 five days.  Their skills and strategies to play in the sub-continent needs serious re-thinking. Without overruling the fact that England can bounce back from this situation, they will have to look ahead in a very optimistic manner – without being over ambitious of course.

India clearly had a hero in both batting and bowling departments – Pujara and Ojha respectively.  Ojha was clearly ahead of any other bowler in the match – yes, even better than Swann. Bowling tight lines has always been his strength. What he also did well in this match was tossing the ball up almost every time the skipper threw the ball into his hands, therefore bagging those many wickets in both innings. His successful stint with the ball also more than made up for Ashwin’s rare failure in Indian conditions.

Pujara is impressive on and off the field. Pic: The Hindu

I like Pujara more after every match. His knocks in both innings were flawless – if I might say so. He gave glimpses of both Dravid and Laxman at times. His forward defence is almost as solid as The Wall. The way he comes down the track to play the wristy drives toward on-side against spinners sure reminds me of VVS. Yet, it would be quite premature to compare him with those batting stalwarts.  But keen observes would have already started looking at a future prospect in the dressing room like they had done when two youngsters in Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly made their debut at Lord’s more than 16 years ago. The thing about Pujara that stood out (and he admitted that himself too) was the price he put on his wicket; he seldom played a shot in the air. That reminds me of another batsman who did well in the match but got out playing a needless shot in the air – Virender Sehwag.

Sehwag’s run-a-ball century in the first innings was a trademark Sehwag knock though he was a little slow early on. He must have breathed a sigh of relief after that. I would have loved to see him return to the dressing room unbeaten though in the second innings.  Yuvraj Singh played a wonderful innings before being dismissed cheaply off a full-toss from Samit Patel. That innings did show some resolve and was a clear indication of the man’s pedigree.

Another player that impressed was Umesh Yadav. The lad bowled his heart out on a pitch that hardly had anything in it for the seamers. He looks a promising young fast bowler (yes, you read that right – fast bowler!). He also extracts some reverse swing from the old ball that makes him a really deadly customer to deal with. Zaheer Khan, though not among a lot of wickets, looked like 100 per cent after a long time. The way he set up Nick Compton before dismissing him in the second innings speaks volumes about his ability with the ball.

MS Dhoni again failed to make any difference with the bat. It won’t be long before India would need his service in that area as well. Kohli was partly unlucky in the first innings, with the ball that got him out coming out of the rough area of pitch but looked good in second. Sachin Tendulkar got out quickly after he looked like being in a positive frame of mind – obvious from the two convincing boundaries in that small innings.

Despite the lost affair, England still have some hope to draw from the match. Spare a thought for the captain, Cook and their most successful spinner Swann. Alistair Cook’s century would certainly be rated among the top by a visiting batsman in this country. Swann strengthened his claim for the best off-spinner in the world at the moment. Matt Prior would have a lot of positives to take from the fact that he outshone his Indian counterpart in at least one area – that is no mean feat!

In all, India would be more than happy with their performance and would like to keep the momentum going with few improvements in a couple of areas. The English side, on the other hand, would like to learn a lot of lessons on how to play in the subcontinent from their Indian counterparts. For them there is certainly a ray of hope at the far end of the tunnel; but only the upcoming matches would decide whether that is of an incoming train or thanks to a stag with a torch in his hand!

Shridhar Pandey

Only a couple of days away from the beginning of the Test series between India and England, I realize that I have never before looked forward to a Test series with such desperation as this one. There is more than one reason behind the excitement. Whatever the score-line might read at the end of four test matches, one can rest assured that both teams will have some interesting challenges coming their way. Though this series has been constantly billed as the “revenge” series, I believe that would not affect the teams much, for they have far bigger issues at hand to deal with.

As far as the English line-up is concerned, the return of Kevin Pietersen will surely boost the morale of the side but they cannot afford to get carried away. Of late their middle order mainstay Jonathan Trott has not been able to keep up to the high standards he has set for himself over the last couple of years. Injuries to Stuart Broad and Steven Finn have given them more reasons to worry about. Nonetheless, flamboyant KP is always a force to reckon with. If he can successfully put his frailties against slow left arm bowling behind him, the English supporters will be in for a delight.

Yuvraj and Pietersen make comebacks in to their sides and their form will be watched closely by fans and selectors. Pic: NDTV

To add to that, they have not yet gotten to taste the kind of spin bowling they are about to face in the upcoming Test matches. I would not bother myself going into the details of the reason behind that (that sure is worth another story in itself). But that does bring me to an over-hyped issue about the fragility of English batsmen against spin bowling. This is not the first time they are touring the sub-continent. Neither is this the best spin attack that India has had in the recent times. So give them a break. They know what they are doing. In case they aren’t, they better do!

The Indian outfit, on the other hand, will take on a serious opposition without Dravid and Laxman for the first time in years (no offence meant to the Kiwis). This series shall prove to be the litmus Test for the likes of Gambhir, Sehwag and Zaheer. Gambhir will have to prove that he is not just good for small innings and that he can go on to score some big runs as well. Sehwag will have to make his followers believe that he has not lost his touch while Zaheer’s fitness will be tested once again.

Pujara and Kohli showed promise in the series against New Zealand. If they continue their form into this series, England sure would get a run for their money. Yuvraj has given the selectors reason enough to select him for the no. 6 spot. For some reason, he has not been able to do justice to his talent. By now he should have been a permanent member of the Indian test line-up. Ashwin will be the one to watch out for. He has done extremely well in home conditions. He might prove to be the eyesore to most English batsmen.

Inclusion of Harbhajan in the squad renders the equation pretty interesting and open to speculations. It would be interesting to see if Dhoni leaves out Harbhajan from the playing eleven to include Ojha. If he doesn’t, it would be a huge injustice to poor Ojha who did very well in the New Zealand series. Dhoni himself has a few questions to answer as far as his batting goes. A batsman of his mettle batting at no. 7 is always a huge advantage to any side provided he is in good touch – or at least in the kind of form he is in the limited overs cricket.

Moving on to the last and certainly the most talked about issue of late – would Sachin Tendulkar announce retirement after this series or maybe after the series against Australia? All these speculations have gained some credibility after Sachin himself hinted that he cannot keep playing forever (contrary to what I had been thinking for the last 16 years). He has always been known to hit back hard whenever he has been criticized. Now is one such time. How well does he come back will be a key factor in determining how long he keeps playing from now on. Though there is still some part of me that believes he would keep playing till eternity!

Shridhar Pandey

It would probably be very easy to get carried away following India’s win in the first Test match against New Zealand in Hyderabad. It sure would take a brave-heart to find shortcomings out of such an emphatic win. But let us not forget the consecutive 0-4 drubbings India has had over their previous two Test outings. At the risk of being called a cynic, I would like to take this opportunity to point out a couple of areas where the Indian team still needs to pay due attention. Before that, let us have a look at the various positives that can be drawn out of this victory.

Cheteshwar Pujara justified all that was being said and written about him so far. He, no doubt, is a class act. During entire course of the Test match, he never looked like an enforcer; neither did he look like a mere survivor. He completely looked like one who belongs at that level. He might not be as aesthetically pleasing as Tendulkar or Laxman; but to call him complete (at his own level) won’t be an understatement. Virat Kohli’s half century was like a breeze of fresh air. He must be very disappointed with himself at the way he threw his wicket away for he is one player who always likes to be in the thick of things.

Taylor has an uphill task in preventing a whitewash in Bangalore. © AP

Pragyan Ojha bowled like he always does – right on the money. He may not have been successful every time he has been given a chance, but I, for some reason, get the feeling that he is someone who has not always got his captain’s backing. Ashwin yet again showed that he is a lethal weapon on a track that provides some assistance. Though he is just seven Tests old, he has shown a lot of promise. Once again, his real challenge would come when he moves out of his comfort zone and goes to countries like South Africa, Australia or England. He did not fare very well in Australia the last time he went there, but that would have been a bit too much to expect from a spin bowler who had played just three matches before that – all in the subcontinent.

There were two aspects of Sehwag that could be seen in this match; one impressed and the other disappointed. First, his slip catching was exceptional. Let us hope that he pulls off similar catches when the pace bowlers are in action. Second was his batting which was not very impressive. Though he did hit a few of his trademark boundaries on the off side during his short stint, he did never resemble the Sehwag of past.

Moving on to the pace bowlers; though they did not get much chance to bowl or assistance from the pitch, they failed to impress in whatever opportunities they got. Their Kiwi counterparts did a much better job in comparison. Zaheer Khan, who has been India’s bowling spearhead over the last few years, went wicketless – that is certainly not a good sign. Umesh Yadav did manage a couple of scalps. But his overall bowling was by no means impressive.

Suresh Raina failed to hold on to another life given to him. He is doing his chances no good. This season may prove to be his last on the Test arena if his performances continue the same way. He cannot find a place in the Test side just by virtue of his good fielding skills. The overall Indian fielding was a real pleasant surprise though – maybe the injection of young and fresh legs would have done the trick.

To sum up, a pessimist might be successful in finding out weak links in however good a Test side. But taking nothing away from the Indian team’s performance, I would like to conclude with this: they not only need to keep up the good work, but also need to focus on a few other key areas if they are to do well in South Africa in 2013 and win back the coveted no. 1 Test ranking.