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Indian Cricket: Back to negative tactics? June 28, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Cricket.
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Since it’s inception in the 1930s, Indian cricket has always been known for it’s negative tactics. The sole aim was not to lose test matches . A draw was considered to be almost as good as a victory. Indians always played to save the test, right from day one. And if playing abroad, a draw was the equivalent of a victory. After all, how can you expect Indians to win abroad? That would be such an abuse of the hospitality of the host team. Such digression was unacceptable from the ‘gentlemanly’ Indian cricketers. And it was this negativity that took us 20 years to win our first test & 15 more to win our first test abroad.
Indian test captains were always known for their negative approach to the game. Right from Merchant, who introduced this approach to both Bombay & Indian cricket, followed by Hazare, Mankad, Borde, Wadekar, Bedi, Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and a few more. It is no surprise that the last two in this list hold the record for most number of draws as captain. In between, Tiger Pataudi came as a breath of fresh air with his positive attitude towards the game. But normal service was resumed right after his retirement and Indian cricket went back to the boredom of negative cricket. Even 5 match series’ would end 0-0 and 14 tests between India and Pakistan during the 70s and 80s produced no result.
All this seemed to change with the appointment of Sourav Ganguly as the captain of the Indian cricket team. He, along with John Wright, seemed to change the team’s attitude towards cricket. Swashbuckling players like Yuvraj Singh & Virender Sehwag found a place in the test team, something which was unthinkable in the past. Attacking bowlers like Harbhajan Singh got much needed support from the attacking tactics of Ganguly. No wonder that in a 5 year span as captain of India, he led India to more test victories than anyone before him. His outspoken tactics totally changed the face of Indian cricket and overseas test victories in Australia, England, West Indies & Pakistan proved that Indians were no more lions at home and chickens abroad. But his batting deteriorated & soon came the time when the selectors felt that he could contribute no more to Indian cricket and dropped him from the team, leaving the captaincy in the hands of Rahul Dravid. The board also appointed the brash and outspoken Greg Chappell as coach in place of John Wright and it was believed that he would ensure that the aggressive streak brought into the team by Ganguly would not die. Unfortunately it has. And the test series in the Carribean is a sorry reminder of this grim reality.
In the first test, India was on the back foot after conceding a huge lead. But a timely second innings fightback gave the Indians a great chance of victory. However, they failed to bundle out the West Indies’ tail and the match was drawn. They held the upper hand for most of the second test but the weather ensured that the match ended in a draw, though one gets the feeling that if someone like Waugh was captain, he would have seen the weather forecast and might even have declared early. But that didn’t happen and the series was still 0-0 when the third test began. The Windies dominated the 3rd test right from the beginning but a sporting declaration from Brian Lara gave the Indians an attainable target of 392 and a result seemed likely.
The hardest part of such run-chases is getting off to a good start. The Indians had a great start, thanks to a century partnership between Sehwag & Jaffer who took India to lunch with all ten wickets in hand. Sehwag departed immediately after luch but the arrival of Laxman at no. 3 showed that the Indians were going for the win. The arrival of Dravid didn’t slow the innings much and at tea, with India at 200 for 2, a victory seemed probable. The fall of Laxman brought Dhoni to the wicket which showed that the Indians meant business. And a six from Dhoni off the first ball he faced made this clear. But what happened after that was totally incomprehensible to say the least. Dravid withdrew into his shell and left the task of scoring to Dhoni. The singles dried up and the asking rate which was a gettable 6 during Laxman’s stay at the crease suddenly rose to above 7. Then Dhoni was dismissed and the Great Indian Run Chase came to a grinding halt, despite the fact that India’s two best One-day players, Yuvraj & Kaif, were yet to come. India (read Dravid) decided to go in for the draw when the only two possible results were either an Indian victory or a draw. A Windies victory was very unlikely, after all Harbhajan Singh & Kumble are no mugs with the bat and Dravid was still at the crease. But Dravid decided to be satisfied with a draw . What hurt most was not the fact that the match was drawn, indeed a win was never a total certainty, but the Indian approach & the time at which the Indians gave in and settled for a draw. This was just another proof of Dravid’s negative approach to captaincy which was evident throughout the series.
Hard questions have to be asked now. Has India gone back to square one? What has the aggressive and hard-talking Chappell contributed if India still settles for a draw from a winning position? And is Dravid, with his negative mindset, both while batting and captaining, the right choice as captain? Indeed it wouldn’t be too harsh to say that it was his batting that cost us the game. These questions have to be answered right now. We might go on to win the last test & then all this will be forgotten. But these questions will soon arise again, and Indian cricket cannot go ahead without providing a satisfactory answer to them.

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The big upset June 18, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Football WC.
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Just when it seemed that the African challenge at the world cup was coming to an end with Ivory Coast crashing out, Ghana showed the world that there is a lot of talent in Africa & that no african side can be considered to be easy meat. Their 2-0 win over the Czechs, who were outstanding in their first match, means that they have taken a huge step towards qualifying for the last 16 & in the process have thrown the group wide open.
    Early goals always make a huge difference to any football game & today was no different. The Africans caught the Czechs off-guard by scoring as early as the 2nd minute – a brilliant strike from Gyan Asamoah. After that though the Czechs attacked occasionally, Ghana seemed to be in control & never had any serious trouble till halftime. After the break, the Czechs appeared refreshed and had a few good chances but good defending from the Africans, along with some outstanding tackling, meant that a goal remained elusive for the Czechs. Ghana never stopped attacking though and if it weren't for Petr Cech's brilliance in goal, it could have easily been 4-0 or even worse. They even won a penalty which Gyan failed to convert but didnt make much of a difference. However, here Ujfalusi got sent off for needlessly arguing with the referee & the Czechs were down to 10 men. The Czechs still carried on attacking with Ghana content to counter-attack. And on one such well built-up attack, Ghana got their second goal via a well struck shot by Sulley Muntari. After that, even the Czechs knew the match was gone, though they did get two good headers on goal towards the end, both of them were saved by Kingson, the Ghanaain goalie who seemed pretty reliable.
    What this means is that Ghana now seem to be favourites to qualify while the Czechs will have to win their last game against Italy to stand a chance of qualifying. The Azzuris shouldn't have too much trouble against the Yanks but they should try to score as many goals as possible, as there is a possiblity that the group may be decided on goal difference. But a win for the Czechs seems to be an uphill task, as they will be without Lokvenc, Koller & Baros for the last game. That leaves them without a good striker upfront and the Italian defence is not exactly known for its generousity. So the Czechs might well be going home very soon, but for today lets celebrate a great Ghana victory and a great game of football. 

The NBA finals June 18, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Basketball.
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While the rest of the world is busy watching the football world cup, for most americans there is another more important event going on. And that is the 2005-06 NBA finals .
    For years, Dallas Mavericks have had a strong squad but somehow never made it to the finals.  But sterling performances from their German import, Dirk Nowitzki, meant that they reached the NBA finals after a long gap. While in the eastern conference, the Heat always looked favourites to win with Shaquille O'Neal & Dwyane Wade putting in great performances. What remained to be seen was who would win the final clash between East & West and be crowned champs.
    For the first two games, it seemed that the Mavericks could do no wrong. They won the first game of the best of seven finals at home & travelled to Miami full of confidence. And in game 2, they produced an outstanding performance to stretch their lead to 2-0. With Nowitzki, Terry, Howard & Stackhouse all coming good for the Mavericks, it seemed game over for the Heat – only two teams had won the finals after conceding a 2-0 lead. The low morale in the Heat side was obvious, with Shaq converting only 2 out of his 16 free throws.
    Game 3 seemed to be going much the same way. But a great performance by the Heat in the second half and a superb display by Wade who scored the double of 40 points & 10 rebounds took the Heat to a great cmeback win. Wade became only the 4th player to achieve such a double in the finals, after Jerry West, Magic Johnson & Michael Jordan. The Heat were striking back.
    Game 4 began with both teams playing well. But in the second quarter the Heat opened up a lead which would last till the end. Their attack, led by Wade & O'Neal, kept their score ticking while their defence led by Alozo Mourning & James Posey had the upper hand over the Mavericks who seemed to be clueless. The Mavs could score only 7 points in the 4th quarter – the lowest ever in finals history – and that gave the Heat a convincing 98-74 victory. This tied the series at 2-2 but now the momentum definitely seems to be with the Heat. But dont count out Nowitzki & co. yet, there is still a lot left to play. Game 5 is on Sunday at Miami.

Bouncing Czechs June 13, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Football WC.
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Before the world cup began, the whole world was busy putting together a list of teams who might be able to win the trophy. The likes of Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France & England were on all such lists. But after today's match against the USA, another team deserves to be added to this list – the Czech Republic.
    They proved in today's 3-0 thrashing of the yanks that they are a force to reckon with. Such was their dominance of the game that the yanks never looked like scoring whereas the Czechs seemed like scoring from every attack they made. They made accurate passes, great interceptions & ran the yanks ragged. And remember, this is the same US team that had reached thge quarters in 2002, beating Portugal on their way. But today, the Czechs made them look like a bunch of bumbling amateurs.
    Though this shouldn't come as much of a surprise to most football fans. The Czechs were by far the best team on display at Euro 2004 and with their attacking football were favourites to win after teams like France, England & Italy had been knocked out. It took a very obdurate Greek defence to finally deny the Czechs a victory in the semis. The team seems to have moved on since then and under the guidance of Karol Bruckner seemed to have improved during the last two years. The team thrives on their sharp passes & quick counterattacks which often leave even the very best defences stunned. The team also has a fine balance of youth & experience with experienced players like Jan Koller, Karol Poborsky & Pavel Nedved playing alongside youngsters like Petr Cech & Milan Baros, most of whom were an integral part of the Under-19 European Championship winning side in 2001.  And in Tomas Rosicky, who has signed a contract with Arsenal, they have found a player who can well be amongst the stars of the world cup. He scored two goals against the yanks and that might well have been three had his long range effort, an old speciality of his, gone into the goal rather than strike the crossbar. He is surely the player to watch out for.
    But the Czechs do have their worries. Milan Baros is not fully fit as yet and Jan Koller limped off with a hamstring problem during today's match which might mean that his world cup is over. This would severely damage the team's attack & put more responsiblity on the midfield duo of Nedved & Rosicky. Also, the defence seemed pretty good against the yanks but whether it can face the onslaught of teams like Brazil remains to be seen.
    Despite all that, after today's match, the Czechs have made the whole world stand up & take notice of their talented side. Theirs was by far the best performance by any team in the World Cup till date. This teams looks like it can at least reach the semis. And after that , who knows?

Germany ’06 : My Predictions June 6, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Football WC.
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Once again Football Fever is going to infect the world. Over the next one month, the entire world will be keeping a close watch on the events that unfold in Germany. For the time has come for what is possibly the greatest sporting extravaganza known to mankind, barring the Olympics (though some may challenge this). It's time once again for the best players of the beautiful game to come together & fight for a single aim – the FIFA World Cup Trophy.
            This is the third World Cup that I would be watching & only the second which I would be following closely. I was a 10-year old cricket obsessed kid during France '98 & the football World Cup meant nothing much to me. I only saw the finals & immediately took a liking to the game. Zidane became my new hero & Croatia my favourite team. But a lot has changed since then.
            By the next World Cup in 2002, I was a complete football nut. I looked forward to the event with great anticipation & had the privilege of being able to watch almost all the matches live, since the matches were broadcasted after school hours & before the prime-time soaps. By then Spain had become my favourite team, a choice that holds good even today. Hence I was extremely disappointed when they lost in the quarters to Korea. But the World Cup was a greatly enjoyable experience for me.
            Four years on, I look ahead to Germany '06 with the same anticipation. And I'm sure that the World Cup will live up to it's reputation of being the greatest spectacle on earth. Here are my predictions for Germany '06:

Group A:
Germany, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Poland
     Pretty straightforward, I expect the Germans to go through with the Poles & Costa Rica fighting for second. But Ecuador might well spring a surprise.

Group B:
England, Paraguay, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago
     England & Sweden are favourites to qualify. Paraguay can do it only if they manage to beat one of those two. As for T&T, well, look forward to the Trinidad test against India – that's your only hope for any sporting success.

Group C:
Argentina, Ivory Coast, Serbia & Montenegro, The Netherlands
     The group of death. Normally you'd expect the Argentines & the Dutch to qualify. But both of them have very young squads & at the World Cup, experience counts for a lot.  Thrown in the resurgent Serbs, who went unbeaten through qualifying, & the Ivory Coast which is possibly the best african team in the tournament, & you have a very complicated situation. But I see the Dutch & Argentina making it out of this one.

Group D:
Mexico, Iran, Angola, Portugal
     Seems easy on paper – Mexico & Portugal should go through. But Iran are capable of producing a shock & so too are Angola.

Group E:
USA, Czech Republic, Italy, Ghana
     Possibly the toughest group after Group C. The Azzuris should go through but even that is no certainty. The other spot can be easily taken by any of the other three but my favourites are the Czechs. In fact I expect them to top the group, with the Azzuris coming second. The match between these two, on the last day, will be vital.

Group F:
Australia, Japan, Brazil, Croatia
     Brazil are most likely to go through but the race for the other spot is wide open  . Japan has had a good run-up to the World Cup with some good performances in the friendlies. Croatia have many quality players & with Guus Hiddink in charge, it is likely that the Aussies might create an upset or two. In fact, I fancy them to take the second spot.

Group G:
France, Korea, Togo, Switzerland
     I expect the French to get through this group without much discomfort. The Swiss failed to impress at Euro 2004 & hence I expect the Koreans to beat them to the second spot. As for Togo, it's the same as for all African teams – you never know.

Group H:
Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia
     Another easy group with the Spaniards progressing to the next round. Ukraine would have been favourites for second place but without Shevchenko, they are not the same team. Tunisia have a chanced of qualifying while for Saudi Arabia, qualification for the knockout phase is as likely as a flood in Riyadh.

Knockout phases:
      It gets tricky from here on, as one small mistake is all it takes for a giant to be knocked out. According to the draw, the quarters will throw up interesting match-ups like France-Italy, Brazil-Spain, England-Argentina & Netherlands-Sweden (yes, I expect the Swedes to beat the Germans). My prediction is that England, Netherlands, France & Brazil will make it to the semis & that Brazil will go on to win a sixth World Cup.

Upcoming Stars:
     I had expected Wayne Rooney to emerge as the biggest star of Germany '06, but given his current condition, that seems very unlikely. Amongst the others, I expect Arjen Robben, Petr Cech, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Joe Cole, Rubens Baraja & Mateja Kezman to dazzle at the World Cup. And no, I don't expect Theo Walcott to even get a game.
     I guess the stage is set for a great tournament. Let's keep our fingers crossed & hope for the best.