D'Souza: Can India avoid another whitewash?

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All smiles: Phil Hughes' death has galvanised the Australia team to play some outstanding cricket against India.

The tragic loss of talented batsman Phil Hughes sent shock waves around the world of sport but most of it was felt in the Australian dressing room just a week before the tour.

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– Absence of top-class spinners a concern for India

There were questions of fitness levels and concerns of mental strength. While Australians were being condoled and readied, India had their own problems, mainly the fitness of captain MS Dhoni, a young squad with very little experience abroad and obviously the poor away Test record.

Virat Kohli, who will captain India for the first time in Tests, promised aggressive cricket, the opposite of what Dhoni was criticized, for being defensive during recent times.

Undoubtedly, it is rare India suffer huge losses on home soil but the mind games had already begun. Aussie great Glenn McGrath believes India will suffer a 4-0 whitewash, a score-line they infamously achieved during the 2011-12 tour.

That dreadful tour brought a sad end to illustrious careers of some of the finest batsmen in Indian cricket history – Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.

But the future was bright and showed signs of promise with emerging names like Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav to name a few.

Ever since India toured Australia in 1947-48, they have never managed to win a series but have drawn thrice during 1980-81, 1985-86 and 2003-04.

However, Australia have been so dominant at home and showed little or no mercy towards all visiting teams. India, too, were victims of humiliation and utter defeat, suffering clean sweeps 3 times.

Past Glory

Since 2004, India’s record Down Under reads P9 W1 L6 D2 – a win-draw percentage of 33.33. Only South Africa performed better with 66.67%, while Pakistan, Sri Lanka and West Indies are yet to win a Test.

The last decade has clearly been India’s most successful outing Down Under especially during the 2003-04 tour led by Sourav Ganguly.

'The first Test was drawn as rain played spoilsport but India played their best ever in the games that followed. India managed to win the second Test after Rahul Dravid’s hard-fought 72 runs helped them chase 230.

Not to forget, it was Dravid’s classy 233 and VVS Laxman’s special 148 that narrowed down Australia’s first Innings total. Anil Kumble’s 5-for and Ajit Agarkar’s 6 wicket haul were equally important as India led 1-0.

Australia won the third Test with relative ease thanks to Ricky Ponting’s double century, his second in the series.

Australia were expected to bid a fitting farewell to their retiring captain Steve Waugh, who would play his final Test at the SCG.

Nobody expected India to post 705/7, their highest score, with Sachin Tendulkar’s unbeaten 241 and Laxman’s classic innings of 178.

In reply, Justin Langer and Simon Katich scored tons but Kumble claimed 8 wickets and India did not enforce follow-on.

The nerve racking match went on till Tea on the final day with Australia four down and needing 238 to win. Waugh led the line with a patient 80 and stitched a 142-run partnership with Katich, who was unbeaten at 77, to save the Test.

India had moved on but those memories will live forever and a similar performance was expected from them during the 2007-08 tour.

Australia won the first Test by 377 runs and earned their 9th successive Test win at the MCG, the 100th Test played at the ground.

The hosts won the second Test with 9 minutes to Stumps, the most thrilling victory from the unlikeliest source of Clarke’s left-arm spin bowling.

But these historic wins were marred by controversy after the allegation that Harbhajan Singh had racially abused Andrew Symonds.

However, the series went on despite reports of cancelling the rest of tour and India not only emerged victorious in the third Test but also handed Australia their first Test defeat at the WACA in a decade. However, Australia drew the final Test and won the series 2-1.

Rahul Dravid scored a classy 223 during India's 2003-04 Down Under.
 

New Era

India suffered immense pressure having lost 4-0 earlier in England. But that pressure surged to higher levels when none of India’s batsmen were able to hang on to their wicket and bowlers toiled throughout the day without much success.

Critics blamed Dhoni for being defensive and negative while fans waved goodbye to legends Dravid and Laxman.

Having won the World Cup and too many seniors in the side, India were moving towards a massive transition but the tour had a few glimpses of positivity.

A young pace bowler Umesh Yadav had 14 wickets, one less than Zaheer Khan, including a 5 wicket haul and another youngster Kohli, scored the only century by an Indian in the last Test.  

A few retired while other players like Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh have been ignored for the current tour.

Dhoni, Kohli, Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha and R Ashwin are out there yet again to prove a point. It will certainly be hard but not impossible to emulate the heroics of the past decade.

The new young generation of players led by Kohli certainly has the quality to showcase but only time will tell if they can ever match their predecessors. 

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Absence of top-class spinners a concern for India

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Strange turn out events: India were bamboozled by the off-spin of Nathan Lyon in the first Test in Adelaide.

Not many would have expected to see Virat Kohli, of all people, acting as mediator trying to diffuse the tension in the Adelaide Test as players from India and Australia got involved in a heated exchange of words on more than one occasion. Virat too got in the thick of things but he also attempted to cool things down, which is a huge achievement for him and something Indian fans never thought they would see.

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– Warner, Dhawan, Kohli fined over Adelaide clashes

– #360debate: Should Cook be dropped as England's captain?

Many would also not have expected to see Indian batsmen crumble against a finger spinner on an Australian wicket, in both innings. When Nathan Lyon began to get the ball to kick and turn in the first innings, the wheels of doom were set in motion. 

Fans, and even some Indian batsmen, might have thought that Lyon’s offies would be threatening at best and would have spent most of their time planning against the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris and their reverse swing. But that was the entirely the wrong approach.

It all started in the first Test against South Africa at the end of last year. India were in control of the Johannesburg Test after taking a lead and were looking to push on in the second innings. Dale Steyn went wicketless and leg-spinner Imran Tahir was leaking runs at four an over. Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli added more than 200 runs for the third wicket. But just when India looked to push the knife further in, they got entangled in the part-time off spin of Jean-Paul Duminy. 

The tweaker bowled 24 excellent overs for 87 runs, got the wicket of Kohli for 96 and stopped India from piling on more than 500 runs. As it turned out, South Africa almost chased down the target. And more importantly, Duminy out-bowled India’s ace spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.

Then came the England tour. Surely here India would only have to contend with seamers who dart the ball in and out. Unfortunately, that was not the case. After India won the second Test at Lord’s, all off-spin hell broke loose. India were looking to save the third Test and had done well to keep the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad at bay. But on the final day, a genial bloke who had recently broken into the side – going by the name of Moeen Ali – ripped the heart out of the Indian batting as he picked up six wickets to seal a massive win. In the next Test, he picked up four wickets in another commanding performance. The funny bit is, he was selected mainly as a batsman.

So when the Indians struggled so horribly against supposed part-time spinners, a top-class practitioner like Lyon was always going to be a handful. The effort and thought he put into every delivery, making maximum use of his height, revolutions in the ball and disconcerting bounce off the pitch, would have accounted for the best in the business. And I feel India are not the best anymore. Good but not the best.

On paper, India’s stars are supposed to be excellent players of spin, any time, anywhere. The idea being that since they face so many of them on helpful conditions at home, any spinner that comes up against them should not pose too big a threat. Just look at what they did to Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan over the years.

But that was a different era. India had batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag – all-time great players of spin. They dominated the slow bowlers so regularly, it was assumed the next batsmen in line would also be at ease against them. But nothing in life is certain.

Another factor that comes into the picture is the quality of bowlers in the domestic circuit. During India’s golden years of batting – late 1990s to early 2000s – there were many spinners vying for a spot in the national team. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh were in a class of their own but right behind them were the likes of Murali Kartik, Sarandeep Singh and Ramesh Powar. They were good spinners and gave batsmen in the domestic circuit a feel of good slow bowling. 

But currently, there is not a single outstanding spinner in India. Ashwin is struggling to hold on to his place in any format, Ravindra Jadeja is more of a containing bowler while Pragyan Ojha is not even looked at for overseas Tests. In such a scenario, batsmen at the domestic level themselves aren’t challenged by good tweakers. 

They have to make do with what is in front of them. This had led to a situation where finger spinners have started to trouble Indian batsmen even on wickets which don’t offer much help.  

And don’t expect the situation to change any time soon.  Indian batsmen in the T20 age have almost forgotten the art of building an innings and coupled with the fact that there aren’t any good spinners to test their mettle, those coming through the ranks will have similar deficiencies against the slow bowlers. And the last bastion of Indian cricket – mastery over spin – might just fall with that.

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#360debate: Should Alastair Cook be dropped as England’s one-day captain?

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Feeling the heat: Alastair Cook has failed with the bat and is under pressure to hold on to his captaincy in one-dayers.

Another poor ODI outing against Sri Lanka has put a question mark on the England skipper’s World Cup hopes with plenty of people believing that his individual performances are having an adverse affect on what has the foundations of an exciting one-day side.

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– Sri Lanka thrash England by 90 runs to secure series win

Our #360debate today is: Should Alastair Cook be dropped as England's one-day captain?

Ajit Vijaykumar, Sub Editor, thinks YES

England have lost six of their last seven ODI series and nine of their last 12 one-dayers. Even for a team that doesn’t chase ODI glory with all its might, it is a startling statistic.

It’s not that England don’t have good limited overs cricketers. Moeen Ali and Joe Root have shown they can up the ante while batting in coloured clothing with Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara the experienced hands in the middle order.

England are also blessed with some outstanding all-rounders. Wicketkeeper Jos Buttler is a fearless batsman and adds spark to the team. Then come the Chrises – Woakes and Jordan.

Both are sturdy fast bowlers who can clear the ropes with the bat in hand and are exceptional in the field too. Add to the mix the wily off-spin of James Tredwell and the searing pace of Steven Finn, and you have a great mix for ODI success.

But something has gone terribly wrong. And it’s easy to pin point it – Cook the opener and Cook the leader. So unsure is the left-handed batsman about his form and place in the side that he seems preoccupied with worrying about his spot rather than looking after the team or think of winning a match.

Dismissed: Sri Lanka celebrate as England skipper Alastair Cook looks dismayed.

There is no denying Alastair Cook is batting poorly and his own individual performances are having an adverse affect on what has the foundations of an exciting one-day side.

Sure, he enters the field looking to win a game for England but the lack of conviction is so apparent, I feel sorry for him. And if you begin to feel sorry for a player, that generally is the beginning of the end.

England coach Peter Moores hinted as much after losing the series to Sri Lanka in Pallekele, saying he can’t guarantee Cook’s place in the World Cup. 

Forget leading the side at the showpiece event in Australia and New Zealand, Cook does not deserve a place in the side. One half-century in 21 ODI innings is shockingly poor and I don’t see any reason why England should head Down Under with a player who is almost guaranteed to fail.

The way England have fared under Cook in ODIs, I feel any other player can do a better job in his place.

James Piercy, Deputy Editor, thinks NO

There is no denying Alastair Cook is batting poorly and his own individual performances are having an adverse affect on what has the foundations of an exciting one-day side.

However, while it would be perhaps prudent to take Cook out of the starting XI for tomorrow’s final and dead rubber of the series against Sri Lanka (I’m sure a niggling injury could be ‘discovered’ to avoid him being actually dropped) he remains as integral to the future of this team as Jos Buttler, Joe Root or Chris
Woakes.

The average age of England’s batting unit in their provisional World Cup squad is 26, with eight of the 15 batsmen or batting all-rounders 25 or under; Cook turns 30 later this month, and for all the talk of potential and talent, that must be anchored by experience.

Outside of Cook the only others whofulfil that role are Ian Bell, Eoin Morgan and the erratic Ravi Bopara, none of which, incidentally, have a higher ODI average than their captain.

Cook has also been important in promoting Buttler, Root, James Taylor and Alex Hales into the full-side. Those players see him as an example of what can be achieved as well as their captain and team-mate.

Experienced: Alastair Cook made his debut at the age of 21.

Cook being just 21 when he made his ODI debut.

Confidence in cricket is just as important as a fluid technique or a robust forward defence. Cook’s now must be at a low ebb (witness him dropping Kumar Sangakkara in the last ODI) but all it takes is one innings and things could turn around.

It’s not as if he’s been scoring particularly poorly. He’s had starts in three of his last five innings – 20, 34 and 22, implying a 20th one-day half-century isn’t too far away.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to a question of timing and with the World Cup 62 days away, a possible six more ODIs to be played and a paucity of replacements (Morgan isn’t playing well either).

England must back him.

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