Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Premature optimism?

Over the last few weeks, Australia have shown a remarkable resurgence with three thumping wins over the touring Indians- a side that was rated the world's No.1 just six months ago. Their utter dominance shows beyond doubt that the Kangaroos are a vastly improved team from the one that was flogged 3-1 at home last season. The remarkable performance by Clarke's men, reminiscent of the predecessors a generation ago, has prompted the Aussies to state to target numero uno status before the next Ashes series in 2013.

The newly rediscovered optimism has got me worried. Admittedly I may be reading too much into it, but it seems to me that the people who matter most in Australian cricket have already started fancying that everything is well in Australian cricket and that their team is well on its way to regaining the crown it held for the best part of two decades. Such optimism comes across as unduly ambitious at best or plain complacent at worst when you take into account the fact that the team in question was shot out for 47 barely two months ago and was at the receiving end of its first ever defeat at the hands of New Zealand in nearly two decades just over a month ago.

There's no denying that Australia have walked all over India in this series but its equally true that results against India are no longer an indication of the strength of a side. England, who were even more dominant against the Indians at home a few months ago, have just had their shortcomings in Asian conditions brutally exposed by a Pakistan side that is excellent and even efficient, but by no means world beating. Australia's last series win before this one was against a side that has won just one test in the last 18 months- hardly the kind of opposition to give anyone sleepless nights.

Which is not to say that Australia have been filling their boots with easy wins against mediocre opposition, far from it. The manner in which they have exerted pressure on their opponents in the present series has been outstanding, but it must be kept in mind that the Indian batsmen have far from imposed themselves on the opposition. Will the likes of Hilfenhaus, Siddle and Cummins manage to exert the same kind of pressure on opponents who try to unsettle them?

An even greater concern is that most of the members of this attack have very limited experience of bowling in unhelpful conditions. The likes of Cummins and Starc have never once been to Asia and none of the current lot have ever been to the carribean. Can they replicate their dominance at home in unfamiliar conditions?

Only time will tell.
The question marks are not confined to the bowling alone. Not unlike their opponents, Australia have an aging middle order. Ponting and Hussey, who are both in their late 30s now, are surely not going to be around much longer. Add to it the fact that Haddin's batting and keeping alike have shown a marked deterioration in recent months. At 34, his future too looks precarious, which means that Australia have the challenge of getting at two to three youngsters ready to take over within the next 12 to 18 months and right now the likes of Marsh and Khwaja look far from ready to take over from their seniors.

There isn't the least doubt that there are several promising youngsters waiting to be picked, but the people in charge of Australian cricket need to ensure that those youngsters are given the opportunity to find their feet at the highest level before their seniors retire. The worst thing that can happen at this stage is a bunch of talented youngsters having to learn the nuances of life at the highest level all by themselves. Australia have already paid a heavy price of poor succession planning. It is imperative that they avoid repeating the mistake.
The Australians have every reason to take heart from their recent showing against the Indians. Nonetheless, there remains much work to be done before they dream of becoming the number one side. Rising up the ranks will require hard work, determination and an acceptance of the fact that they are going to face several failures along the way. they need to caution against undue optimism, for one series win does not a great team make. Its good to be ambitious, even better to be realistic.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A misadventure in the offing

As I write, a proposal to impose fresh sanction on Iran by the western powers is doing the rounds. Iran has already threatened to blockade the strait of Hormuz, which would effectively cut off oil supply from the Gulf (except Saudi Arabia). The current state of affairs is raising fresh fears of a military confrontation between the USA and Iran.

The entire disagreement centres on the nuclear programme, which Iran insists is for civilian purposes. The western powers, especially the USA have been continuously raising fears that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons in the guise of a civilian nuclear programme, although no credible evidence has emerged to support such claims hitherto.

To be honest, I fail to see what the entire fuss is about. As I recollect, Iran has not expressed  bellicose intentions against any of those countries anytime in the recent past, much less that of using nuclear weapons. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that the western powers are raising concerns about weapons which, given their recent track record, could prove just as potent as Saddam Hussain's WMDs.

If anything, the entire episode reeks of a neo-imperialistic attitude. Admittedly my views could be biased, coming as I do from a former colony. Nonetheless, it seems rather strange that countries, some of whom have developed nuclear weapons of their own, are now trying everything within their powers to develop another from doing so. To my knowledge, no objections were ever raised when those western nations were developing their own nuclear facilities. Given that background, its hard to understand why they should be raising the alarm, even if their fears prove to be true.

If one were to argue that there is a possibility of Iran not handling their nuclear weapons in a responsible manner, there arises the question, just who decides whether or not it is safe for a particular country to have them?  To me it sounds incredibly arrogant for a handful of countries to decide who should have nuclear weapons and who should not, especially when they are led by the only country to have ever used them in a war.

A Nuclear Explosion

Remarkably, another middle eastern state- Israel- is reported to have nuclear weapons of its own, although there is no official information on the subject. There is much less evidence of Iran having any such weapons till date and official sources have vehemently denied any intentions of using their nuclear programme for military purposes. Whereas Iran has not been involved in any major military confrontation in the recent past, Israel's track record in this regard is far from encouraging. Given that background, it seems a case of different measures for different people.

The USA has already burnt its fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan in the recent past. With an economy in the grips of the worst financial crisis in living memory and a burgeoning fiscal deficit, one only hopes that Uncle Sam has learnt its lesson. If not, the whole world will pay a heavy price.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

A terminal decline

A few days ago, I predicted a 3-1 win to Australia in the on-going test series against India. Just two days into the second test of the series, I'm beginning to feel that the prediction was wildly optimistic. On current performance, India will need nothing short of a miracle to escape yet another 0-4 flogging.

To be honest, I had my apprehensions well before the action kicked off. I never had the least doubt in my mind that the debacle in England was not an aberration, but the sign of a much deeper malaise. A middle order that boasts of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman- man who have over 35000 test runs between them collectively- should not be imploding with such regularity.

The statistics speak for themselves: in the last 11 innings abroad, India have not crossed 300 even once while opposition sides have raked up scores of 474/8d, 544, 710/7d and 591/6d. As I write, Australia are well poised to score well in excess of 600, which establishes beyond doubt that the pitches have nothing to do with the paucity of runs. The fact that India's openers have struggled to see off the new ball has hardly helped matters. That, however, is no excuse for such a consistently dismal performance from a top5 in which the most inexperienced batsman is currently playing his 46th test.

The bowlers have not exactly covered themselves with glory either. However, there exist mitigating circumstances, as its a largely inexperienced lineup. A group of under 25 bowlers can hardly be expected to flourish when they are perpetually under pressure due to the lack of runs from their batsmen (for the record, legends like McGrath, Ambrose, Muralitharan and Donald were well into their 20s when they finally came of age).

I have long been advocating the need to phase in younger batsmen like Kohli, (Rohit) Sharma, Pujara and Mukund and give them the opportunity to do their apprenticeship under the mentorship of the legends. Perhaps the best way forward could be to play any two out of the three on a rotational basis, thereby allowing at least two youngsters to play in their company at any given point in time. Moreover, having a newcomer at the pivotal no.6 position seems ridiculous to me. It would be much better to push him up a slot and have one of the experienced hand play that role.

If anything, India have a golden opportunity on their hands to manage the transition. They are not touring outside the sub-continent until their back to back tours of South Africa and New Zealand in 2013-14, by which time the trio of legends will almost certainly have retired. That gives a good two years to phase in youngsters and help them find their feet at the highest level in familiar conditions before tougher challenges beckon.

The lineup of youngsters waiting to grab their chance is a pretty long one. Its about time the Indian selectors gave the youthful claimants a chance. In the company of legends like Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, they can learn and develop much faster than they would if left to their own devices. Out of every adversity arises opportunity and right now, opportunity is knocking hard at India's doorstep. How the selectors react could determine the future of Indian cricket.