Play with the crowd at your peril

Renshaw graced the boundary late on day two. He played with the fans over the fence, clapped, entertained and danced a jig. This went on for forty minutes before Cummins and Hazlewood took the new ball for the final four overs.

It was a critical time in the game and a period of pace and fire from the quicks could secure Australian supremacy. Cummins steamed in and snicked up Saha. The edge flew to first slip and Renshaw spilled a sitter. Renshaw has been great this series but the young man lost focus on the fence at a critical time and it may have contributed to the drop.

India were sixty behind Australia at the time and Saha and Jadeja put on 99 runs for the seventh wicket and India were able to set a lead of 32. Australia will need to score at least 250 to push India.

It’s hard to ignore the crowd. They’re young, keen and many of them love the Australian players. Glenn Maxwell is hugely popular. Recently named the new captain of Kings XI Punjab, the locally based IPL team, Maxwell’s name has been chanted and his every move applauded.

It’s hard to imagine an Australian crowd treating a foreign BBL player the same during a heated international Test series.

But India is different. In many ways. There’s an intoxicating vibe here, something is happening everywhere, all the time. It’s a country on the move. There’s a clear vision of a bright future and a progressive, nation-wide march. It’s evident in the conversations you have with people, you see it on the television and hear it in the streets.

Don’t get me wrong. India has massive challenges. Inequality, poverty, environmental issues, technical challenges, the list is long. But stuff is getting done and India is rising.

This contrasts sharply with Australia, which has ground to a halt. India is thriving with fresh energy, excitement and aspiration and Australia is stuck on a roundabout.

Cyclone Debbie and north Queensland

It’s a little difficult to concentrate on the cricket today. My family, friends and home in north Queensland are feeling the first winds of Cyclone Debbie. The cyclone has continued to track further south toward Bowen and my thoughts and best wishes are with my fellow north Queenslanders. Stay safe everyone.

 

 

 

 

O’Keefe blasts shot of the day in snowy mountains

It’s the 78th over and Umesh Yadav screams in. Steven O’Keefe steps froward and smashes him straight back down the ground for four runs. Shot of the day.

What about Smith’s innings though? Supreme quality once again. Noted for his ungainly, stepping across and squaring up technique, Smith just gets it done. His balance and stability is exceptional. The shots that emerge at the end of all the fidgeting, squatting and stepping are as good as anything you’ll see in the modern game.

He was irate at himself for his dismissal but probably not as frustrated as he was at his fellow batsmen. The standard he sets and demands of his troops is high. Hard work, vigorous dedication and fight for momentum. Some of his mates let themselves down today but let’s not forget the bowling.

India surprised a few by not picking a back up batsmen for the injured Virat Kohli. They didn’t even pick Mohammed Shami. Instead they chose Bhuvinesh Kumar for Ishant and debuted the Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav.

Bhuvi was unlucky. Snicked up Warner first ball of the Test. Dropped by Karun Nair. But Kaldeep did the business. Trapping four wickets and stunning a few of the Aussie batsmen.

A moment in Kaldeep’s performance stuck out. Four wickets into his career, as fans chanted his name (literally), he delayed the game and called skipper Rahane and senior spin partner Ashwin in for a mid-pitch conference. Arms waved about. The young fella set demands and the field changed.

The kid could be a keeper but the Aussies hadn’t seen him before and admittedly, I have a soft spot for the oft harshly treated leggy, even if he is a lefty.

Back to O’Keefe’s drive for four in the 78th over.

The shot showed the wicket is good. That should concern Australia, just a little. Three hundred was a good result after a disastrous second session where India’s bowlers crashed through five top order players. The Aussies had been 1/131 at lunch.

Locals at the ground were happy with India’s position at stumps, thinking that after the first session Australia would be 400 by day’s end. But they lamented the Cummins-Wade partnership, feeling that once Ashwin removed Smith circa 208/6, they should have had Australia all-out for about 225.

Wade batted well though and the tail produced an invaluable wag.

What was it like at the ground?

I’ve seen every Test venue in Australia except Adelaide, probably the best one I hear? I’ve seen Lords, Chester-le-street in Durham, Edgbaston and Kensington Oval in Barbados and Queens Park Oval in Trinidad.

Dharamshala is the best ground I’ve seen. Actually. It’s the best ‘thing’ I’ve seen. Fans of Newlands may disagree, but Dharamshala must be the best? It seems unreal. Many fans I chatted to both from India and Australia mentioned dreamy periods throughout the day where they simply forgot the game and stared at the backdrop.

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The crowd was confusing though. Disappointingly small, but young in demographic and certainly loud and enthusiastic. They knew their stuff.

Unfortunately there is no beer at Indian grounds. But that made the climb back up the hill and the arrival at our 270 year old heritage hotel pretty special. Ice cold beers were cracked and plans were made to see Hazlewood and Cummins rip in tomorrow (today for most of you).

Could Kohli miss the Himalayan decider?

High up the mountains in McCleod Ganj the Indian team ate. Word broke among the people and they came to hold vigil and chant Kohli’s name. Armed guards thronged the square and held back crowds of locals, Indian tourists, Buddhist monks and taxi drivers.

Hundreds gathered in the hope of seeing Virat Kohli and Team India. They waited patiently and were rewarded with a glance and a wave before Kohli and the other players escaped to sleep further up the Himalayas.

It was the night before last. We had taken a taxi to a striking restaurant spotted earlier in the day. A mountain pine tree grew through its small front balcony, which fronted the main square of this small township connected to Dharamsala and myriad other towns by busy spiraling lanes full of people, traffic, markets and stray animals. We didn’t know it would be the same restaurant chosen by India.

Unable to enter until the team had finished we took up residence at a bar high above the square, on a level opposite the Indian team. Absorbing the scene while sipping the 8% ‘extra strong’ Kingfisher beers we chatted cricket, the IPL, the popularity of Test Match and the scandals of the series. It was great fun.

The Indian team departed amid huge cheers, screams of joy and chants of Kohli and India.

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Himachal Pradesh has exceeded our expectations. It is a thoroughly striking landscape and its towns, people and infrastructure unfold all around you in a topographic labyrinth.

Although it has been warmer than expected, snow still caps the highest peaks. Home to the exiled Buddhist Tibetan Government – which was invaded and been under Chinese control since the 1950s – the region has a strong Tibetan and Buddhist influence. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple and Monastery and other sacred sites, military bases, Anglican churches from the British era and natural beauties define the area. An extraordinary setting for one of the most highly anticipated Test Matches this century.

In big news today, a replacement has been called in to cover Virat Kohli. Mumbai bastmen Shreyas Iyer will arrive in Himachal on Friday in case Kohli does not recover from a shoulder complaint. Mind games or not it has stimulated anxiety among locals. Surely Kohli will play.

In other news, which no doubt has reached Australia and beyond, the pitch is expected to favour quick bowling. Fast and bouncy is the word and India has also brought in Mohammed Shami who has had success this season on the Dharamsala pitch.

Australia is claiming that all the pressure is on India. But that card no longer seems valid. Before the series Australia were not expected to win anything and the pressure was on India to prove their vast superiority. But the Pune thrashing changed the game. Australia is under pressure because the holy grail of a series victory in India is within its grasp. Both sides are under the pump.

We’ll make our way down to the ground for the first time tomorrow to pick up match tickets and perform a reconnaissance of the area ahead of day one. Probably have a few more of those ‘extra strong’ Kingfishers too!

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Dharamsala dreaming

Few expected Australia to be here. Heading to the fourth and final Test Match in India with a strong chance of winning the series. Actually. Nobody predicted this.

India are red hot at home and they are frothing to beat Australia. They had a massive chance to go 2-1 up today in Ranchi. Personally I thought we were done. 2 wickets down, 130odd behind on 1st innings and heading into the fifth day. Chances were Jadeja and Ashwin were going to murder our top order.

After touring the Taj Mahal at dawn and then heading to the Agra Fort we headed to a shop to examine some marbel scultpures. All out of our price range. Conversation soon turned to cricket. Away from the hotel’s wifi we had no internet and needed a source of information. It wasn;t far

I spotted a young lad supposed to be selling gifts, but preoccupied by his phone. He was grinning. I guessed he was either talking to a flame or he was on CricBuzz and India were taking wickets. It was the latter.

A few blokes laughed after they saw our faces when the news broke. Smith was gone and we had lost 4/75 and were still 70odd runs behind on 1st innings. Surely we were gone.

Five hours and 124 runs later we were still alive. Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb had batted defiantly and resisted the predatory Indian spinners. The record books will show a draw, but this partnership and the performances by Smith and Maxwell then Pujarra and Saha were of supreme quality. On a pitch that had looked like rolled mud on day one we were treated to memorable batting.

Virat Kohli certainly wasn’t interested in offering an easy hand shake for a draw near the end. As the minimum overs remaining fell below 10, and Australia’s lead grew past 40, one might have expected the call for a draw. But Kohli pressed on, perhaps dreamily imagining that his bowlers could finish Australia and then chase 40 odd from 4-5 overs. A fanciful idea that demonstrated his competitive spirit and desperation for a result.

So here we are at 1-1. Kohli and India are under huge pressure to win. For Australia, a win here is the holy grail. Imagine having a life long dream to watch Test cricket in India, gambling your travel on the last Test of the series and it materalising as the great decider in the foothills of the Himalayas. What a thing!

We all head to Dharamsala in the far north of India in the coming days for what will be an explosive climax.

Shortly after celebrating the draw and relishing the prospect of the decider I peered out my hotel window and saw some kids playing cricket in a field. I hesitated for a moment and then scrambled to get my shoes on to head down and ask to join in. The kids were delighted, they tossed me the ball straight away. I was lucky enough to have a bat and a bowl before heading off buzzing from the experience of playing some backyard cricket in India. I only stayed about 15 minutes as more kids were coming down from the surrounding building and racing across the fields.

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Bully the Bully

That’s the hashtag trending on twitter in India. Promoted by the nation’s major sports cable television station.

It’s an indication of the sentiment among at least some Indian cricket fans about the Border-Gavaskar series and it has supported the rise of another controversy between Smith and Kohli.

A cropped picture of Steven Smith ‘clutching his shoulder’ after the wicket of Virat Kohli stimulated anger among a few Indians here today. Depicted as ‘mocking an injured player’ and the ‘character of a nation’ the image shows an animated Smith celebrating Kohli’s wicket with one arm drawn across his chest gripping his shoulder. Kohli had left the field the day before with a shoulder injury and Indian fans have leapt all over the image in outrage, believing that their celebrated captain and national hero has been mocked.

But he wasn’t.

The image that appeared on twitter, which stimulated the madness was cropped. The arm and the hand, which gripped the shoulder actually belonged to Glenn Maxwell who was caught mid embrace with Smith seconds after the Australian captain had caught Kohli at slip. It’s a beat up. India’s Star Sports acknowledged this but the fire has already started.

Indians want to beat Australia. Some of them are desperate for a result.

That is evident on the confronting streets of the Indian capital, where most of the people you meet are acutely aware of the unfolding cricketing drama in Ranchi.

From passport stamping immigration officers to carbon dioxide sucking rickshaw warriors and your Kashmir textile salesmen, the fate of India’s innings in Ranchi was never far from relevant. It wouldn’t be right to paint a picture of an India where everybody cares for cricket though. Many millions don’t have the time for such a frivolity as they scrap to make a life in a difficult but amazing country.

Bullying the bully is a celebrated ambition though. Many Indians perceive Australia to be a bully. Their response is to be fight back with similar tactics. This is one of the most aggressive and extroverted Indian teams ever. Things have escalated since India beat England 4-0 and victory here against the Australian ‘bullies’ seems to mean so much more.

The bully the bully hashtag reveals a ferocious nationalism among young Indians. But misunderstandings lead to miscommunication. Worse still, deliberately manipulated images or stories can stimulate misguided controversy. On the flip-side, they suck interest inwards and the magnetic appeal of the series is increasing.

This is cricket between two proud nations. And there’s plenty of evidence of its popularity on India’s crazy streets.

India fire back in ferocious contest

India have leveled the series by ripping through Australia’s fragile batting. The ferocity of the Bengaluru contest was stunning and demonstrated again why Test cricket is the game’s best format.

Frantic tension ran through each session and the match turned on its head every few hours. India looked more aggressive than I have ever seen.

Virat Kohli has accused Australia of cheating. Struck on the pad and given out during the frantic fourth innings run chase, Smith appeared to seek guidance on a review from the pavilion. Umpire Llong recognised this and immediately dismissed Smith.

It was not appropriate or within the laws of the game and Smith acknowledged this describing it as a ‘brain fade’ after the match. He will learn and change. But will Kohli change his own often over-the-top approach?

Kohli’s passion and qualities as a batsman are clear, but he must gain maturity and develop humility and tact to be better leader.

The Indians were incensed by Smith’s glance and this will add more rage and drama to the series.

The one that got away

Australia nearly pulled off a miraculous victory. After losing the toss and bowling first it seemed likely India would make amends for their humiliating loss in Pune but Australia’s bowlers tore through their resistance.

The Australians knew  that batting last would be tough and the bulk of their batting had to be done in the first innings. They amassed a handy 87 run lead.

But it wasn’t enough.

In the second innings India seemed on the rails again when Kohli was dismissed cheaply for a fourth time in the series. He was absolutely seething at the third umpire’s decision to dismiss a DRS appeal and support the on-field umpire’s LBW decision.

It was close, but it was correct.

Strangely, Jadeja was sent out to bat at five. A handy number 8 at best, it was never going to end well while Australia’s quicks were tearing into the blood mist.

After Jadeja’s stumps were shattered India were 4 down and only 33 ahead. The normally raucous Indian crowd was stunned into disbelieving silence. Australia were rampant.

The next partnership changed the game though and Pujarra and Rahane’s 118 run stand – the biggest of the series by either team – took the lead into dangerous territory for Australia’s  collapsible batting.

It seemed the lead could go well beyond 200 but after taking the new ball on the fourth day Australia took 4 wickets from 11 balls and finished off India’s tail.

They needed 188 to win the Test, go two nil up and secure the Border-Gavaskar trophy.

It was always going to be tougher than it seemed. As I wrote before the series we knew Australia’s bowlers could expose India’s batting but it would come down to how well Australia could resist Ashwin and Jadeja and bat long and bat big.

India’s quicks, Ishant and Yadav, have also bowled well and have rarely offered Australia notable reprieve from the constant pressure of the spinners. Despite this there were signs that Australia’s batting had improved, playing a more patient and disciplined game as demanded by Smith.

The First Test 333 run thumping of India was a shock. It was a remarkable achievement for Australia and Smith’s fine century was made sweeter by the fact that the match referee reported the wicket to the ICC for failing to meet international standards.

But the the quick pre-series paint job started to crack and Australia’s corrosive batting was exposed in the Begaluru run chase. It needs to be stiffened again if they are stay in the series because Kohli is unlikely to keep failing and India are due to score big runs.

 

What next?

He has some supporters but Mitchell Marsh is not good enough at this stage to be batting in Australia’s top six. With Wade at 7 averaging only 29 in Tests, Australia needs six proper top order batsmen. Not a bloke that averages 22, fewer than number 8 Mitchell Starc.

Having a fifth bowler is a luxury Australia cannot afford. Some prefer Glenn Maxwell but I prefer Usman Khawaja. That may require an order reshuffle, so be it.

India are unlikely to change their winning formula unless Murali Vijay recovers from injury.

Surprisingly the wickets presented so far have not supported long innings. But that may change, the final two venues will be flatter and tougher work for the bowlers.

The next Test begins on 16 March in Ranchi.

Cricket Froth will be on the job in India for the final two Tests. See you soon.

 

 

 

 

 

Two Reasons India will spin webs around Aussie batsmen

Next week the first Test between kicks off in Pune. The contest will be dramatic. The war of words strident and the crowds big and loud. Can Australia compete?

India’s form is irresistible. Undefeated in 18 Tests. Most were at home and recent series provide clues. They beat Bangladesh 1-0 in a solitary Test and England 4-0 across five Tests.

The England series was compelling for Australian fans.

England posted 400 and 500+ totals on three occasions. In the first Test they had India on the back foot, but India held on for a narrow draw.

India then found rhythm and England were thrashed. Despite having five of the series’ top ten run scorers England were routed by superior batting.

Virat Kohli scored 655 runs at an average of 109. India passed 400 five times, their biggest total was declared at 7/759.

Meanwhile, Australia’s batting has been a widely publicized problem. Series losses to Sri Lanka and South Africa were papered over by resurgence against Pakistan. 

New faces adorned the top order. Handscomb and Renshaw provide hope.

But India away is next level. Difficult conditions, big crowds, lots of noise, falling wickets, men around the bat, blunt words and pressure to hold on.

Can Australia avoid past mistakes?

The common phrase ‘play your natural game’ is a pitfall.

It is bandied about too often. It’s a license to throw your wicket away in difficult circumstances. Chase a wide one in the hope you’ll get a few, before they get you.

Steve Smith has forecast change. Aggression is not the only tactic. Counter-attack has often failed. Australia’s batsmen need to be prepared to go to war in the dusty trenches. For hours, even days.

For Australia, the question isn’t how do we take 20 wickets?

But rather, how do we score 600 every time we bat.

Warner’s quick 100s need to be converted into bigger, longer scores. The top order must bat long and wear down bowlers down, who won’t be intimidated by one-off rapid scoring.

Ashwin and Jadeja need to be stopped.

They spun webs around England. Ashwin bowled 300 overs and took 28 wickets at 30. Jadeja bowled 290 overs and took 26 wickets at 25.

It was all about spin.

The leading fast-medium bowler on the England tour was India’s Shami. He took just 10 wickets. Each of England’s pace bowlers took fewer than eight across the series.

The point here is spin. It’s all about spin. And batting big. Really big.

Starc and Hazlewood will play a role. But Lyon, O’Keefe, Agar and Swepson will be important. But nothing is more important than runs and Australia will be tempted to cram as many batsmen into its XI as possible.

Enjoy the ride, this series will be awesome. Cricket Froth will be there for fourth Test in Dharamshala. So stay tuned for up-close analysis.

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Himachal Pradesh Cricket Stadium in Dharamshala. Situated at the foot of the Himalayas in northern India. Hosts the fourth Test between Australia and India in March 2017.