Taking big strides

The Indian Premier League has been a launching pad for a welter of talented cricketers. It has witnessed players from the periphery moving to the centre-stage, writes S. Dinakar.

Superb strikes decided the Super Over. Yusuf Pathan emerged smiling at the end of a gut-wrenching night. He had seized the moment. Twenty20 cricket has its limitations and can curtail a cricketer’s repertoire. Yet, the format can whip up edge-of-the-seat excitement.

It has also witnessed cricketers from the periphery moving to the centre-stage. Before the Indian Premier League’s first edition, Yusuf was just another name with possibilities. Now, he is a star and a finisher.

Indeed, the IPL has been a launching pad for a welter of talented cricketers. While Yusuf has cemented his place in the Indian Twenty20 and ODI sides, Rohit Sharma is gradually finding his way and feet after a spell of inconsistency and disappointments in the international arena.

Left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha has been a revelation in the game’s shortest format; he has bowled with precision, skill and heart. When an injured Harbhajan Singh was unavailable for India’s tour of Sri Lanka earlier this year, Ojha delighted against a fleet-footed bunch of sub-continental batsmen.

Kamran Khan, the rookie paceman from Azamgarh picked out of nowhere for Rajasthan Royals, holds promise. The lesser stars are taking off, chasing their dreams in the field of dreams.

Leg-spinners Piyush Chawla and Amit Mishra continue to impress. Consequently, Indian cricket has been blessed with greater depth and bench strength; qualities that made Australia a powerhouse for long.

A belligerent Abhishek Nayar of Mumbai Indians struck Chennai Super Kings’ Andrew Flintoff for three sixes in an over. He is a left-hander with the right attitude.

There is intense competition for places in the Indian ODI and Twenty20 teams. The fact that the younger Indian cricketers are getting a feel of the South African conditions during the IPL should accelerate their development. The exposure should improve their technique even if Twenty20 cricket is not really the best advertisement for following the right methods. Importantly, the confidence levels are bound to grow.

Someone like Yusuf backs his ability. The lanky lad has the rare ability to close out games. And in low-scoring games on seaming tracks, a quick 30 from him could make the difference. Men who can clear the ground are of immense value.

The thriller at Cape Town tested the nerves of Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders. It was a game of fortune swings and surprises. A gutsy last over from rookie left-arm paceman Kamran and Shane Warne’s inspirational leadership threw up an exciting finish — a tie.

Yusuf’s power-packed hits off spinner Ajantha Mendis in the Super Over included a tremendous blow off the first ball — the six over widish long-off is high on the scale of difficulty. The shot set the tone as Riders’ target of 16 was surpassed with ease.

The Riders’ think tank blundered by overlooking the dew factor which made it hard for a spinner to grip the ball. Yusuf was not complaining. He has the reach and the power to clear the ground. While Yusuf does collect runs with the old-fashioned slog over the country, he can also hit the ball pleasingly straight.

With Yusuf there are no half measures. Even mis-hits from his power-packed willow soar over the ropes. By his big-hitting standards, Yusuf has had a mixed start to the tournament on South African soil even if he nailed Twenty20’s version of a tie-breaker under the lights.

With the surface offering seam movement and bounce, a batsman’s technique was bound to be tested. He might not, for instance, be able to pull off a swipe after planting his front foot forward and across. Walking down the pitch to pacemen — the ploy often worked in India — can also be a hazardous experience on the South African tracks.

Consequently, the dynamics of the format in the competition’s second edition changed. A total of 160 was now largely defendable. Shot-selection had become the key.

Rohit Sharma, a natural with footwork and timing, has been spot on with his strokes. He is not a marquee name yet, but has the attributes to become one.

Deccan Chargers has been a transformed side this season and Rohit has sizzled with his bat speed and speedy efforts. His 30-ball 52 against Bangalore Royal Challengers was high on entertainment and quality. Rohit’s ability to innovate unsettles the bowler and his rapier-like strokes invariably find the gaps.

A maturing batsman in the game’s longer versions with a still head and a balanced frame — Rohit made a century in each innings of the Ranji Trophy final for Mumbai against Uttar Pradesh — he has lost none of his flair in the shorter version.

Rohit has batted intelligently in the ongoing IPL. Apart from the firm drives on either side and the lofted blows, Rohit has milked the bowling with soft hands; the ball, resultantly, travels slower to the fielder enabling the batsman to steal an extra run. Achieving greater consistency is now the foremost challenge before Rohit who has frittered away opportunities with the Indian ODI team in the past. And his fielding has lifted the Chargers on the field.

Rohit anticipates well, is swift on the ball and gets rid of it quickly. He can also hit the stumps from impossible angles. Rohit patrols the covers and his chemistry with the mercurial Herschelle Gibbs, manning point, has lifted the levels of his fielding. The young man has shed weight and it shows.

Spinners have been winners in IPL-II and Ojha has turned matches for Chargers at the crunch. He belongs to the ‘above-the-eye-level’ school of bowling and does a lot of damage with his flight and drift. The left-arm spinner can hoodwink the right-handed batsmen in the air with his flight — these deliveries have rip and revolution and are not merely tossed up — and consume them with turn. The spin on the ball creates the dip.

Selling the dummy to Kevin Pietersen and getting the Challengers’ captain stumped was a triumphant moment for Ojha. He can also vary his pace intelligently.

Spinners deny the batsman pace and if there is adequate ‘work’ on the ball, the batsman’s problems are compounded. The South African season is in its concluding stages and there has been a degree of wear and tear on the surfaces. While the conditions still favour pace bowling, spin has been a definite factor in IPL II. And, spinners have invariably been introduced after the pacemen have made the early inroads. The batsmen, under pressure, have attempted to attack the spinners and come off second best.

Piyush Chawla, who tends to push his leg-breaks and possesses a very handy wrong ’un in his repertoire, has caught the eye for Kings XI Punjab. The little leggie is undaunted by reputations. Amit Mishra, who rips his leg-spinners harder but lacks Chawla’s bite in googlies, actually progressed to the Test arena after impressing the National selectors during last season’s IPL.

“We felt, if he could bowl so well in Twenty20, he could be very useful in the longer version,” revealed the National selection committee chief Krishnamachari Srikkanth.

The IPL has also witnessed a completely unknown Kamran Khan moving into the limelight in a believe-it-or-not tale. The 18-year slinger was spotted and encouraged by Warne. The left-arm paceman has not let his captain down. In the cauldron of the Royals-Riders game, he sent down a terrific last over when a battling Sourav Ganguly was intent on delivering the winning blow.

Kamran needs to refine his action but he is young and should be able to rectify the chinks. Importantly, he has shown the heart for the humdingers. He varies his pace, can crank up speeds in the early 140kmph and can catch the batsman unawares with his bounce or skid off the pitch. Kamran is not the easiest of bowlers to pick — the leap is followed by a quick-arm action.

The logic of having the Super Over in the league phase — awarding both teams a point each appears more just and fair in the event of a tie before the knockout stage — can be questioned, but Kamran’s commitment and strength of mind cannot be.

While cricket’s abbreviated versions have not encouraged outswing of the classical variety, changes in pace, disconcerting bounce, inswing and yorkers have fetched wickets.

Yusuf Abdullah, rated high for his Twenty20 skills in South Africa, was a last-minute signing for Kings XI Punjab following an injury to Jerome Taylor. Abdullah — he looks more a rugby player than a cricketer — has revelled in the competition. The left-arm paceman hits the bat quicker than expected, is skiddy and fairly accurate. His switches in pace and the fuller length inswingers have put the skids on scoring and fetched wickets. Abdullah has this reputation of cleaning up batsmen and has rearranged several stumps at the IPL.

This said, reverse swing has not been much of a factor in the IPL. The ball does not become sufficiently old in 20 overs.

The IPL, so far, has been interesting. There has been a greater balance between the bat and the ball. Run-scoring has demanded a degree of application in the South African conditions. The ball has seamed, bounced and spun.

A gripping contest between the bat and the ball is more engrossing than a flurry of fours and sixes. In South Africa, bowlers have not been fodder — even in Twenty20 cricket.

And new stars might emerge. * * * Tactical timeout -- Is it necessary?

Lalit Modi’s addition to IPL-2 of a ‘tactical timeout’ — a seven-and-a-half minutes break after 10 overs — is the most transparent piece of commercialisation in sport since... well since the IPL re-branded a six as a ‘DLF maximum’.

The ‘strategy breaks’ were introduced, according to Modi, to reduce tactical discussions between overs that apparently in IPL-1 had meant games had regularly gone beyond schedule. Of course, this hiatus is supposed to be a means of increasing the excitement of the T20 format that so appeals to the supporters.

Nonsense! This lull is no more than an extended advert break.

The IPL reportedly generated as much as Rs. 300 crore in television advertising revenue in its first season. This time around each 10-second advert slot is reported to be worth up to Rs. 4 lakh. The strategy break introduces an extra 10 minutes of ad time per game, or to think of it in another way, Rs. 2.4 crore. More money is needed as attendances have been hit-and-miss in South Africa, but this is not the way to do it.

The break is unpopular with players and officials alike. “I think the strategy breaks are hampering the momentum of a team,” Mumbai Indians captain Sachin Tendulkar said. V. B. Chandrasekhar, Chennai Super Kings’ head of cricket operations, also feels the break is unproductive. “The break after 10 overs is quite a distraction and comes in the way of valuable momentum.”

Cricket is a game of rhythm and momentum. The beauty of the game is such that pressure can build on a side in a seemingly strong position. When pressure builds funny things can happen to a player — a world-class bowler can panic after seeing his first over disappear to all parts of the ground, a set batsman’s nerve can crumble on losing partners in quick succession, and in this way a cricket match can turn on its head. The 10-over intermission disrupts this natural rhythm.

Unsurprisingly the tactical timeout will not be utilised in the T20 World Cup in England this June. “It (T20) needs to keep the pace and the momentum going. The playing conditions don’t stipulate for a break in this World Twenty20,” said Steve Elworthy, Tournament Director, ICC World Twenty20. Why then does Modi believe he has the right to fiddle with the fundamentals of the game?

Revenue will increase for the IPL but the cost of this unattractive addition may be greater than money, as fans lose their patience.

Harry Catchpole