India’s Chequered Journey to the 500th Test

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Only three countries have played more than 500 Test matches. India is going to be the fourth when they take on New Zealand at Kanpur today. India is now number two in the ICC Test team rankings and a clear favourite to win the series against New Zealand to claim the number one spot. India has found an assertive and aggressive captain in Virat Kohli. Ravi Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja are two world class spinners in the side who also feature in the top 10 ICC Test bowlers ranking. Ajinkya Rahane would like to emulate his batting aptitude at home, what he has exhibited in overseas Tests sofar. When India celebrates this mammoth land mark event, here is a look back at its eventful journey and some snippets from the landmark Test matches.

1st Test, India v England, Lord’s, Only Test, 1932
Captain – 
C.K. Nayudu, India lost by 158 runs

The events that lead to India playing its 1st Test match were more fascinating than the match itself. In 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, India had won the Gold in hockey without any fuss. In the following European tour certain Dhyanchand had scored 75 goals. Indian hockey had done enough to draw attention in the international sports fraternity. In that opportune moment few Cricket evangelists from India and Britain initiated the idea of formation of BCCI in 1928. Both BCCI and ICC proposed a tour of the sub-continent by MCC in 1931 and a return tour in 1932. But At the start of 1930 Gandhiji had launched the civil disobedience movement, by marching to Dandi to break the salt law. He was arrested. There was a widespread movement all across India and the proposed MCC tour of the sub-continent was quietly shelved. Next year, British government had invited Gandhiji for a round table conference to decide on India’s future. The conference failed and after returning to India, Gandhiji was arrested again in early 1932. That year India toured to England for the 1st time and played the 1st Test at Lord’s. There were few notable players like Vijay Merchant, withdrew from the tour in support of civil disobedience movement. The royalties, who were supposed to lead India in the field sanely withdrew from the squad and let a commoner C.K. Nayudu to captain the 1st Test, much against some team member’s protest. India lost the 1st Test but not without a fight. Captain Nayudu and the fast bowler duo Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh (who went to the same Alfred High School of Rajkot as Gandhiji) were impressive in that tour. And thus, 25th June 1932 marked the birth of cricketing nation. It was indeed an achievement for BCCI and MCC to have the tour organised given the bitter and volatile political situation where 60,000 odd Indians were imprisoned by the British government.

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1932 Indian Test Cricket team. Back: Lall Singh, Phiroze Palia, Jahangir Khan, Mohammad Nissar, Amar Singh, Bahadur Kapadia, Shankarrao Godambe, Ghulam Mohammad, Janardan Navle. Seated: Syed Wazir Ali, C.K.Nayudu, Maharaja of Porbandar , KS Limbdi , Nazir Ali, Joginder Singh. Front: Naoomal Jaoomal, Sorabji Colah, Nariman Marshall.

100th Test, India v England, Edgbaston,3rd Test1967
Captain – Tiger Pataudi,
 India lost by 132 runs

By the time India played its 100th Test, Tiger Pataudi, the charismatic captain and the architect of modern India cricket outfit was at the helm of affairs. Pataudi had established himself as a seasoned captain instilling faith and cohesiveness that’s required for a team. Though India had won 10 Test matches in the previous 99, they were yet to win a match playing away from home. India lost the 3rd Test at Edgbaston and the series 3-0. But the 100th Test was the only match where the famed Indian spin quartet (Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Bishen Singh Bedi) played together. In the 3 match series the spinners took 33 of 36 Indian wickets, which is unheard of in a present day tour of England. The Spin quartet amongst them took 853 wickets in 231 Tests and were vital to India’s many memorable series wins especially on foreign soils. It was appropriate that, under Patudi, India registered their 1st away victory in their 105th Test a year after in Dunedin.

200th Test, India v Pakistan, Lahore, 1st Test1982
Captain – Sunil Gavaskar,
 Match drawn

Sunil Gavaskar was leading the team, when India played its 200th Test. India started wining Test matches under Tiger Pataudi. Under Gavaskar India mastered the art of not losing Test matches. India had so far played 35 Tests under Gavaskar’s captaincy and had lost just 3. India had won 8 and drawn a staggering 24 Tests. Sunil Gavaskar was 4 centuries away to equal with Sir Don Bradman’s record of 29. India’s 200th Test at Lahore, the 1st of the 6 match series ended in a draw. But the match produced some remarkable statistics. The most notable one was, Zaheer Abbas becoming the first batsman from the sub-continent to score 100 first-class centuries and Gavaskar the 5th player to score 7000 runs in Tests after Boycott, Cowdrey, Hammond and Sobers. This Test was tragically marred by poor crowd response because; to earn some quick money the Pakistan board had auctioned the entire series to a contractor who had fixed an exorbitant entry fee for public.

300th Test, India v South Africa, Ahmedabad, 1st Test1996
Captain – Sachin Tendulkar,
 India won by 64 runs

The 300th Test India played is remembered for many firsts and one one notable last. This was South Africa’s first Test in India. It was Sachin Tendulkar’s 2nd Test as a captain and 1st full fledged home series. When India landed at Ahmedabad for the match, Tendulkar had less than 3000 Test runs and Anil Kumble was the most experienced Test bowlers of the Indian attack with 28 matches. A 22 year old VVS Laxman was making his Test debut. But the match is fondly remembered for Javagal Srinath’s fast and accurate seam bowling in a spinner friendly pitch, which earned him his 1st five-wicket haul in Test cricket. He took 6 for 21 in the 2nd innings where South Africa lost their last six wickets for nine runs. Notably, this was the last appearance for Sanjay Manjrekar in Test as well as international cricket.

400th Test, India v West Indies, Jamaica, 4th Test, 2006
Captain – Rahul Dravid,
 India won by 49 runs

When India played its 400th Test, Sachin Tendulkar was the leading run scorer for India going past Sunil Gavaskar and Anil Kumble was the leading wicket taker going past Kapil Dev in Test matches. Rahul Dravid had taken the mantle of leading India in Tests after the golden era of Sourav Ganguly. Last time India won a Test Series in the Caribbean was in 1971. Anil Kumble was the only one to be born from the squad members of India’s 400th Test before 1971. India prevailed in the series deciding match at Jamaica. Captain Rahul Dravid guided his team home with two masterful innings of 81 and 68 in a 3 day affair. India won a series in the Caribbean for the first time in 35 years. In the course of the match Anil Kumble reached to 1000 wickets in first-class matches. Mohammad Kaif who had scored a Test century in the series and averaged above 55 runs never played a Test match for India again.

This is one the biggest home season for India, where they play 13 Test matches. India took the least number of years (84) to play its 500th Test. Given the growing popularity of T20 cricket and Test matches being replaced with limited over matches, it will be exciting to watch the growth and popularity of Test cricket. Will the 1000th come in a lesser time? Will it ever come, ever? 

The Blue Butterfly

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The last leg of the trip to Dudhsagar waterfall near Goa is to reach Kulem town. The trek is through a 12 kilometer dense rainforest in the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, where one would have to wade through numerous streams during the monsoon. In the midst of the jungle is a small tea stall placed in an open space, where one would likely take a break. It’s there during a cup of tea, that I happened to chance upon a photographer’s delight; a rain drenched mammoth sized Blue coloured butterfly fluttering over a bunch of fully bloomed Red Ashoka flowers as its backdrop. Call it my lethargy after the arduous walk or blame it on the constant drizzle, low light, and some enthusiastic ‘nature lovers’ anxiousness to catch the butterfly, I just managed to capture a blurry snapshot of the rare and beautiful sight.

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The blurry photo of the Blue Mormon at Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary

Six months later on a winter Sunday Morning, I made a visit to Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Park. Located at the outskirts of Mumbai in the suburbs of Thane. the Butterfly Garden is a secret few Mumbaikars are aware of. Maharashtra is home to 225 varieties of butterflies and accounts for 15 per cent of the country’s estimated butterfly population. Few years ago, enthused by a programme on butterflies conducted by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Rajendra Ovalekar a naturalist decided to convert his two acres of ancestral agricultural property into a butterfly garden. Amidst the fast growing bustling city characterized by non-stop roar of traffic and high rise concrete structures around, this place serves the purpose of an oasis in the desert. Today the park is a result of his deep rooted knowledge, dedication and perseverance.

Dark Blue Tiger

Dark Blue Tiger

The introductory session by Mr. Ovalekar consisted of visitors of all age group ranging from toddlers to senior citizens, where he explained about the various types of butterflies, their life cycle, and the variety of plants that are required to attract them around. He also mentioned the Blue Mormon butterfly found only in Sri Lanka, Western Ghats of Maharashtra, and the coastal belts of India  has been declared the State Butterfly of Maharashtra. Hence on, the Blue Mormon became the most sought after species for the various amateur and professional photographers gathered in the park.

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Unfortunately in the three hours I spent in the park, the exotic Blue Mormon did a no show. A fellow photographer who had turned up for the second time quipped that he had spotted and clicked a couple of blue Mormon in his last visit to the park. Out of curiosity, I requested him, if he would show me few of the Butterflies’ shots that he had captured. The first few looks at the photos made me ponder what I had missed six months ago in the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary. The butterfly I failed to click there was a blue Mormon four times bigger the size of the butterfly my fellow photographer had snapped. I exhaled thinking how I wish, I had known what a blue Mormon butterfly is and how it looks.

Red Pierrot

Red Pierrot

Nevertheless, I had a delightful experience at the butterfly park. I came back being a lot more aware about butterflies and the kind of plantations one can grow at home in a balcony garden that can attract butterflies. Apart from main attraction “The Butterflies”, the other draws were the backcountry unwinding atmosphere of the farm (Yes, you get a mat and can order home cooked breakfast like poha and idli). This is a place where you can just enjoy the winter sun lying down on the lush green lawn, gazing the blue skies, reading a book or watching the butterflies gliding through the flowers for hours. You will be transported to your childhood.

Red Pierrot

Red Pierrot

Grey Pansy

Grey Pansy

Tailed Redbrest

Tailed Redbrest

Chestnut Streaked Sailer

Chestnut Streaked Sailer

Mottled Emigrant

Mottled Emigrant

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The Scene at the Butterfly Park

The Scene at the Butterfly Park

The Curious Case of Cricket Coaches

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Role of a coach in a team is one of the most frequently aired debates in cricket which resurfaces time and again with the success and failure of each series.

Is Ravi Shastri the best cricket coach/team director/cricket manager, India ever had? The numbers suggest so. It would be imperative to mention here, not only has he made the Team bounce back in difficult situations but India has not lost a series under his watch. India won the ODI Series – a bilateral series win in England in 24 years –soon after the humiliating losses in the Test series. So, what is it that Shastri did, what Duncan Fletcher could not? The answer is not easy to find out. But, it’s almost certain coaching is not just about ironing out technical flaws. A modern professional coach at the highest level got to have assorted range of qualities – from being a motivational speaker to decent Frisbee player.

How does coaching matter at the highest level?  There are divergent and sometimes extreme views.

“Coaching is for children and not for adults” – goes Warne’s philosophy. “I’m a big believer that the coach is something you travel in to get to and from the game” – Thus spoke Shane Warne on John Buchanan’s role as a coach in Australia Cricket team.

“If I had a son, the last bloke in the world I would take him to for cricket coaching would be John Buchanan” said Ian Chappell, who famously had declined to be the first national coach of Australia Cricket team in 1986 because he doubted the necessity of a coach in a team.

On the contrary, there are other players who swear by the assistance they got from their coaches. The legendary Sachin Tendulkar heaped praises on Gary Kirsten’s contribution for India’s victorious World Cup 2011 stint. A poignant moment was when the younger members of the team lifted Kirsten on their shoulders and paraded him around the stadium in India’s victory lap at Wankhede stadium. Rarely have we witnessed such a sight which demonstrated the respect the Indian side had for Kirsten.

There are other breeds of coaches who have metamorphosed their role from a cricket to a life coach extending their influence beyond the 22 yards: Ramakant  Achrekar to Sachin Tendulkar, Neil D’Costa to Michael Clarke and Tarak Sinha to numerous players from Delhi are to name a few.

There are instances of a very successful coach to a particular team floundering in another team. When John Buchnan was at the helm of affairs, Australia dominated the world cricket winning more than 75% of ODI matches with two World Cups and an ICC Champions Trophy under its wings. In those eight years Australia lost just two Test series. But disastrous will be a mild word to describe Buchanan’s stint at Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League.

Bob Woolmer, who played a vital role to anchor the South African side after their re-entry into the International fold, had a troubled stint with Pakistan. Geoff Marsh coached the Australia team to a World Cup victory in 1999 in England but failed to stop the slide of Zimbabwe side in early 2000s.

There are instances too, how a team has performed well without having a coach altogether.

After Greg Chappell’s exit in May 2007 and before Gary Kirsten’s arrival in March 2008, India was under stop-gap coach/manager – Ravi Shastri and Chandu Borde. India won a Test series in England in 2007 after a gap of 21 years. They defeated Australia at Perth, bouncing back from a defeat in Sydney, becoming the only subcontinent side to do so in the midst of a huge controversy that almost jeopardized the tour. India also went on to win the following CB series in Australia. Some remarkable and committed captains lead India during that period without a full time coach.

Virat Kohli had a situation in England this summer with the manner he got out to James Anderson.  A batsman having 25 international hundreds to his credit, getting out in similar fashion to the same bowler-has nothing to do with coaching or lack of it. The best a coach can contribute in this situation is motivating him and pointing out minor technical flaws, if any. It’s up to the player in the middle, who has to quickly learn how to get out of that situation. It depends more on his mental strength than any coaching at that stage.

In a team sports, Coach is not the only person available to run to, players draw inspiration from their fellow team mates as well. But in the modern era of instant gratification, more often than not, coaches are in the first line of causality and the easiest scapegoats in a team’s collective failure. It is not surprising that very few coaches have left their respective team on a high and a sweet note. In many instances, reputed and accomplished coaches and players who have been asked to leave or sacked unceremoniously. The list goes on from Mickey Arthur to Greg Chappell to Javed Miandad.

Where are the Test Openers?

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Rome was not built in a day. Same analogy applies to innings building in Test cricket. In the battle between sides the foot soldiers who take most of the brunt from the opposition are the openers. The openers face the best bowlers from the opposition on an untested pitch and in the most difficult conditions. Sunil Gavaskar, arguably the best Test opener in the history of cricket says, opening the batting is a specialist’s job. Specialist openers must have techniques, patience, perseverance and approach to succeed at the highest level. The jury is still out on that school of thought. Many middle order batsmen have made the transition to open the innings in the 50 over format and have had great success. But when it comes to Test cricket barring few odd success stories like Virender Sehwag, many have been found tested. Sehwag is an exception. With audacious mental strength and “see ball, hit ball” approach, Sehwag compensated on his lack of watertight technique, an opener should have. An accomplished batsman like VVS Laxman declined to open and went on to say “I would never ever open again even if it meant sitting out” –  thus losing out a spot in the team to Shiv Sunder Das.

In the recently concluded 5 test match series in England, one of the many important factors that has been overshadowed amongst the collective debacle of team India is the abject failure of Indian openers. Test opening has been a perennial problem for India. Though Sunil Gavaskar holds the record of most runs scored by an opening batsman, his partnership only with Chetan Chauhan can be regarded as successful where the pair scored on an average of more than 50 runs an innings. Three decades later, India found another pair in the form of Gambhir and Sehwag who went on to become India’s most prolific Test openers.

Gambhir and Sehwag’s partnership started to wane during the England tour of India in 2012. In the home series against Australia that followed, Gambhir was dropped for Murali Vijay and two Tests later Shikhar Dhawan replaced his Delhi team-mate Virender Sehwag. In their first attempt the Vijay-Dhawan pair put up a record 289 runs opening partnership, and Dhawan made one of the most thrilling Test debuts, scoring the fastest Test century by a debutant. The Wisden went on to describe Dhawan’s knock as a ruthless, risk-free innings. The absence of Sehwag was soon forgotten. But the fall of the pair is equally spectacular. Apart from the 289, the pair has only one fifty run plus partnership in 17 innings.

Since 26 December 2010, playing overseas, Indian openers have scored a solitary 50 plus partnership (Lords 2011) in 44 Test Innings using 8 different combinations. The average opening stand is even more astounding – standing at paltry 18.73. Since the start of the “Farewell Tendulkar” Test series against West Indies last year, in 20 innings Indian openers have put up just one fifty plus partnership. At this juncture, going back to Gambhir again, who has not done anything spectacular in the domestic circuit, was a serious retrograde step for Indian cricket.

The dearth of quality Test openers is not a very unique problem that India is facing today. Rather, this problem is endemic for all other Test nations too. The last opening pair to have an average of more than 50 is Sehwag and Gambhir (minimum of 2000 runs). Australia which has the most robust domestic cricket structure, has dabbled with 15 opening pairs in 85 Tests, since Justin Langer’s retirement in early 2007. West Indies which produced the most successful and prolific Test opener pair (Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes) in the history of cricket have used 23 different opening combinations since 2007 in 68 Tests. The cherry on the top is that, only one pair has scored more than an aggregate of 500 runs. No pair from New Zealand has played more than 12 tests together since 2007. South Africa’s future in test opening is yet to be tested after Grame Smith’s retirement. England is the only team which has had relative success since 2007. The Strauss – Cook partnership lasted for 62 Tests at an average of 41.73. But after Strauss’s retirement in 2012, things have looked ominous. Cook has yet to find an able partner for the long run.

So, have the Test openers become an endangered species? There is no clear answer yet. But conjectures are many. As a race we humans are ever increasingly becoming impatient– the one most vital virtue a Test opener ought to have. Technology, instant messaging, life in 140 characters have not helped us to develop that trait either. Proliferation of many Twenty20 leagues, financial benefits, instant recognition attached to the success in the shortest format of the game has made Test cricket look tedious and un-glamorous. But it is certain that cricket will be poorer without quality Test cricket.  It’s a testing time for Test Cricket – and so for the breed of Test openers too.