Indian Cricket – A fan’s wishlist

I started watching cricket in 1997. Although there were many skillful players in the late 90s and they have provided many joyous moments for fans like me, I have always wished that they played certain kind of cricket. I wished to see some skills displayed by players of other teams  to be exhibited by Indian players too. Some of those wishes have been fulfilled over the years by various players from the noughties generation.

1. The rampaging batsman
One of the early painful experiences as a fan used to be seeing a fearless opposition batsman tearing into the Indian bowling. People like Jayasurya ans Afridi would knock off fours and sixes at will and the bowlers and the captain would be left gasping. India would have batted first, huffed and puffed to 220 . You would be hoping for a tight game only to see it evaporate in the first 15 overs. Of course India had Sachin Tendulkar, but he would always play the percentages. Yes, there were instances when he went after the bowling as the match situation demanded but those would be calculated risks amounting to not more than 15-16 runs an over at best. Even at his most aggressive, Sachin would respect a good ball. He was more a Kaveri than a Brahmaputra.
Then came Sehwag. Boy! What a player he was! Two triple hundreds and a 290 and a bunch of double hundreds all at almost a run a ball or better, an utter disregard for spinners and also an attitude of gay abandon. His shots were not glances or caresses, but were slashes and slaps. He truly  was a rampaging bull with the bat.

2. The calm finisher
In the 90s we used to see India stumbling in so many run chases. If the target was above 250, you could almost forget an Indian win. So many games that should have been won after a good start from the top order couldn’t be won because the lower middle order could not get 60 off 60. The pain would get worse when we saw a Michael Bevan finish a run chase against India like a walk in the park.
Then came Dhoni, the ultimate finisher. He remains so calm that we fans feel he is too calm sometimes. The required run rate is hitting 9 and 10 and he calmly works ones and twos. When a bowler bowls yorker after yorker, he simply takes the singles and pounces on the one slightly off the length all and wacks it for six. If it is six or less to get, you are more likely to get the win with a six than not. People like Yuvraj and Kohli have orchestrated brilliant run chases as well, but I think Dhoni must have had a great influence on their approach to chases. His self-belief has slowly got into fans as well. When he is there, no chase is too steep.

3. The suffocating fielding
In the 90s almost every other team except Pakistan was a better fielding team than India. Slow legs and weak throw characterised an Indian fielder.Our hearts filled with envy when we saw the fielding units of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand etc. Fielders would pounce on the ball like tigers, chase it like a cheetah and throw it like cannons. But Indian fielders would be pointing at the others in the field. This started to change slowly. Initially we just had two fielders who were of international quality (Yuvraj and Kaif) and slowly as the old generation moved on, almost every one who came into the team was a fantastic fielder.  It was such a great joy seeing India’s fielding against South Africa in the league phase of the World Cup.  Tight lines from the bowlers backed up fabulous fielding created that suffocating effect during the chase. So tight was the squeeze that AB de Villers went for a tight second run. A quick run, pick-up and a flat 60 yard throw from Mohit Sharma – and AB was on his way. So accurate that Dhoni barely had to move his hands to break the stumps. This brought more joy to me than Sachin’s back-foot punch of Wasim Akram in the 2003 World Cup. This is saying something. The reason is that it came from an Indian pace bowler who traditionally couldn’t be bothered if the ball was a metre to either side. Think of the ‘great’ fielding efforts of Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan and the like. This greatly illustrates how much the Indian fielding has improved. Now you can say there just 1 or 2 fielders who are not of international quality. This might have a lot to do with improved outfields in Indian grounds which have allowed the youngsters to learn the art of diving and throwing themselves around and also improved fitness.

4. The bouncer barrage
Another common sight for Indian fans used to be opposition fast bowlers peppering the Indian batsmen with bouncers and the batsmen hopping around and eventually fending a catch or playing a feeble pull shot to give a dolly of a catch. (This changed a lot with Sachin, Dravid and Laxman who handled the short ball really well.) When it came to India’s turn to bowl, they were seldom really sharp enough to repeat the dose. Srinath used to be quick. Zaheer was crafty. And both of them did pick up wickets with bouncers but that was mostly due to setting the batsman up with good lines and then surprising them with a bouncer. We never saw sustained short pitched bowling from the Indian team – until recently. The performance of the Indian fast bowlers (Oh, YES! They are actually fast, not medium fast as before) in the 2015 World Cup has been a pleasant surprise. Even more surprising is their effective use of the bouncer. They used it judiciously against stronger teams like South Africa and unleashed a barrage against West Indies and Bangladesh. At one point a Bangladeshi batsman was receding in his crease, even as Shami was winding up to let the ball go – a sight we have usually seen with Indian batsmen. He knew what was coming, he prepared himself a bit, but could only manage a catch to Dhoni. Agreed that West Indies and Bangladesh do not have great players, but we never saw such efforts from Indian bowlers of the past even against minnows. I hope this fire is sustained.

5. Clean sweeps
A quality common to top teams like Australia but rarely seen with Indians is ruthlessness. Indian teams in the past slacked off when on top and did not usually achieve clean sweeps. For example, India led 2-0 with one to play against Australia in 1998. Coming from an innings win in Kolkatta, the managed to lose in Bangalore and that too by 8 wickets. This all changed in the late noughties. There have been clean sweeps in ODI series against England, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Test series against Australia. The Indian team is also often getting into streaks of 5 or more victories. If they are on top of a team, they simply hammer them down to the ground.

Wishes unfulfilled till now:
1. Test series wins in Australia and South Africa
2. Clean sweep in a Test series outside the subcontinent

Of late the Indian team has been struggling in Tests away from home. So these two seem extremely difficult to achieve, but so did the above five 10-15 years ago. I am optimistic.

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