Sunday, February 7, 2010

Role Reversal

If this was the nineties, and you were told that India was playing South Africa and that one team had posted a good total with contributions all round, but no single batsman had dominated, while the other had ridden on the back of a superb performance by one cricketer with a few unexpected contributions from a handful of others, but still ended up losing by the narrowest of margins, you wouldn't need a PhD in cricket to figure out which team played which role.
However, this is not the nineties, and India are no longer a one-man army. It was as neat a little role reversal as cricket has seen. In fact, in a startling statistic, the last three times that Sachin Tendulkar has gotten out for a single digit score, India has won each time. Such a statistic would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago, and speaks volumes for the progress the side has made. Factor in the abscenses of Gambhir, Yuvraj, Zaheer and Harbhajan, and the achievement of winning the first ODI against South Africa is even more praise-worthy.
The role reversal was even more stark when the score-card is probed and the dismissals analyzed. India's highest scorer was Suresh Raina, who made 58, and they had only two fifty-plus partnerships and not a single century stand. In fact, every time India looked set to run away to a big total, South Africa got a wicket. And yet, India ended up with almost 300 on board, as batsman after batsman came in and contributed. Some of them didn't contribute much, some of them got out to silly shots, some of them got out when they looked set to explode - but for every batsman that got out, one came in and seamlessly kept the scoreboard moving. In the middle, one batsman took a minor lead role (Raina) and for a while the team total was built around his innings, but he too fell with an appreciable number of overs left. More telling is the fact that except for Tendulkar, every batsman got to double figures. Sreesanth didn't, but he didn't get to face a ball.
And yet, India actually ended up with a total that was below what they should have got. Tendulkar was needlessly run-out, Sehwag unluckily so, while Dhoni and to a certain extent Karthik got out to poor shots. Had Tendulkar or Sehwag stuck around, India's total would probably have been well over 300. But in spite of both of them falling early, the other batsmen went about their business, and in spite of eventually getting a total that was less than what they could have, the Indians played like a team during the second innings too, and the bowlers and fielders chipped in with valuable collective contributions, to choke the South African chase and strangle the batsmen. After the openers had put on 58 runs at better than a run-a-ball, the initial fears about India's total being a touch below par seemed justified, but India found their bowling hero in Ravindra Jadeja. Just as Suresh Raina had done while batting, Jadeja was the bowler whom the others bowled around.
That South Africa got so close in the end, was down more to Indian complacence than South African batting skill.
The fact that this was a team effort was nicely encapsulated by two facts: India's highest scorer, outscored the next highest by just over 26 percent - Raina scored 58 while Sehwag got 46, while the corresponding figure for South Africa was close to 82 percent, and South Africa's second highest scorer was their Number nine (Kallis scored 89 while Wayne Parnell got 49).
However, three people might still look on this match as something of an opportunity lost. Before the match started, Mahendra Singh Dhoni had said that this would be a good opportunity for the youngsters, since the Indian team was missing so many of its regular players. For three batsmen in particular, an outstanding performance here would have been likely to have ramifications beyond just this match - but neither Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli or Yusuf Pathan played the match turning innings that the match situation had set up the potential for.
With India losing wickets at regular intervals, each of these batsmen had the chance to ensure they stayed in, weathered a potent attack, and scored enough runs to remind the selectors that they were ready for the next step. For Raina and Kohli it was a spot in the Test squad, while for Yusuf it was a permanent spot in the ODI squad.
Rohit Sharma was chosen ahead of both Raina and Kohli as a standby for the first Test against South Africa, and that fact should have hurt them. They had a wonderful opportunity to ensure that the next time a spot was available, theirs would be the names the selectors thought of first, but they didn't quite grab it. Yusuf was coming off the back of a stupendous innings in the Duleep Trophy, and he could have shown that he had it in him to be the finisher India needed in ODIs, but he too flattered to deceive.
India has already taken a good step forwards by winning against quality opposition due to a team effort rather than individual brilliance; they will take the next decisive step in their quest for world supremacy when opportunities for pushing cases are not passed by.