Thursday, 21 February 2013

Clarkie Running Out Of Dancing Partners

MA Chidambaram Stadium,
left of centre, Chennai
Australia begins another tilt at India on its home soil, with the first of four Tests over five weeks starting in Chennai's MA Chidambaram Stadium tomorrow.

Chennai, located about a third of the way up India's east coast from the southern tip, is a seaside city facing the infamous Bay of Bengal and is deeply immersed in the oldest of the recorded history of India. It was the site where the British East India Company first set up its headquarters. Widely regarded as India's cultural focal point with art, music, theatre and film represented with a myriad of shade and influence, the source of Chennai's traditional name is as mysterious as the motives of the Australian selectors.

Called Madras by its colonial masters, that name lives on only in cheap curries in cheaper western restaurants. About five million people live in the city, most of them lucky enough to have the Chennai Super Kings as their IPL team. The Chidambaram Stadium, which overflows when the Kings are on their throne, will likely offer the highest level of spectator support of any of the grounds in the current series, thanks to the success of the CSK. If cricket in India is a religion, Test cricket alters are not lavished with the support they once were. Indians, these days, prefer their gods in coloured clothing.

Before the mid 1960's, international cricket in Chennai was played at the Nehru Stadium, on the north side of the Coovum River, beside the main railway station. It was the seen of many hidings for the hosts, with Australia alone winning all three of it's Test matches there. By the time Bill Lawry's team made their infamous tour here in 1969-70, Tests were being played across the slow moving Coovum River, at Chidambarram. Here the ball turned square, the pitch was a week old at the toss and the smell from Coovum was close enough to infest the pours of your skin. Dean Jones claims it was as much the stench of the sewerage sullied river as his dehydration that encouraged his liquid laughter into hurling hysteria during his heroic double century in the tied Test at Chennai in 1986/87.

The first Australia hundred at Chidambarram was scored by Doug Walters in 1969, when his 102 was not only the sole century of the match but twice as much as anyone else scored. Walters legendary twinkle toes against spin and Ashley Mallett twin pheiffer's ended what had been a lowly organised tour on a high note. By Chennai, Walters was one of the few not flattened by weight loss and dehydration caused by uncontrolled evacuations at either end of the alimentary canal. Bought on by the unclean cooking and sanitary conditions in the poor hotels the team was booked into and in the days before bottled water, most were ill by the final Test. Of course, KD "Freddy" Walters didn't drink much water.

Damien Martyn scored the last hundred by an Australian at Chidambarram, nearly ten years ago.

India have only lost two and a bit Tests here since 1978-79: against England in the mid 1980's when Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler made double hundreds and Neil Foster took eleven wickets; and against Pakistan in the late 1990's when Tendulkar made a brilliant last innings century after an early collapse, only to be the first out in a 4-4 collapse inspired by Saqlain and Akram when India needed less than twenty. The bit was the tie against Australian.

Australian haven't won in Chennai since the already mentioned Bill Lawry tour,  nearly 45 years ago.

Tendulkar - five hundreds
This is one of Sachin Tendulkar's happy hunting grounds - his five hundreds well clear of anyone else. The next best to him is Virender Sehwag, whose three centuries include 319 against South Africa. Of course, both are shadows of the men they were then and both, likely to be playing in their final series at home.

The Chidambarram pitch has more dust than all the Hoover's in Australia on a Monday morning. It will turn. It always has. Nine of the ten best performed bowlers at this ground are Indian spinners and all but one of them, finger spinners. The tenth is Kapil Dev.

So whilst the final Indian team has been shrouded in more mystery than a snake charmers convention, Ravi Ashwin and Pragyan Ohja were always going to play and Harbhajan Singh will also be a likely starter. With 39 wickets here @ 27 and two of his six man of the match awards at Chennai, its a surface he excels on. Twelve years ago he took 15 wickets in the two wicket win India inflicted on Australia.

Harbhajan 39 wickets in Chennai
To play three spinners, the Indian captain, MS Dhoni, has to take only one fast bowler into the match, the lanky and unpredictable Ishant Sharma. An ankle injury which looked to be ending his career three years ago is lurking about in the darkness that invades the late afternoon in India and Sharma is said to have paid a visit back to his specialist in Melbourne during the past two weeks. Such information could be a bit of dodge and bull by both sides. If India play another quick for insurance, their batting becomes dangerously thin with Dhoni batting at six. It's not that the robust skipper is inadequate at six but more the length of the tail that follows.

Above him, the Indian batting line up has been slowly eroding like a Pink Flloyd album sampled backwards. Instead of retirement providing a slow removal, India lost another wall from the bricks when Rahul Dravid left after being pummelled during his last visit to Australia. Gautum Gambhir has been dropped from the squad after poor form against England and his opening partner, Virendar Sehwag, is more buckle than swash these days. His hundred against England at Ahmedabad last November is his only century in the last two and a half years of Test cricket. Perhaps he is suffering from Ponting Syndrome ... the not retiring part of the illness, not the throwing stuff strain. Tendulkar no longer commands at home or away and is too often in a hurry when he comes to the wicket, aware his imperfections are not only on show but that bowlers have finally worked him out ... 34000 runs and 22 years too late. His impetuosity has lead to soft dismissals and although still too good to not be considered a danger, there is no longer the air of the divine about him.

Virat Kohli should be performing better than he is. In Australia last summer, he was a fierce competitor but since, he has been soft and too easily fooled into leaving the centre wicket. Being back against a foe he dislikes will raise his hackles. Peter Siddle should best remember Ian Chappell's advice to not rile the goodun's. At three, Chet Pujara is the goods and he will love the near all pace Australian attack as he's a rare Indian who doesn't particularly enjoy spin.

Add Murali Vijay to open and probably Jadeja at six and India have a nice mix of the new and the old: something which has taken too long to happen. With Jadeja, they also gain a fourth spinner.

Given the weak showing by Australia's batsmen against second and third rate spin in the two warm up games and a deck which will bite and turn, this could be a game which will struggle to get all the way through day four and the selection of the Australian team will certainly aid an early finish. In these days of improved wickets in India, where crowds are fed a constant diet of short form cricket in which batsmen are meant to dominate, the Chidambarram pitch is a throw back to forty years ago when Bedi, Chandresakar, Prasanna and Ventkatraghavan were regularly picked in Tests at home.

Warne's not too old?
Of course, Michael Clarke has had his selection hands tied behind his back by the lack of spin bowlers worthy of selection. Since Warne and MacGill left real cricket for hair transplants and red wine, the cupboard has been bare. Australia has no wrist spinners ... perhaps the price we paid for having two good ones at the one time. There is now a long queue of fingers spinners tried since then, who stretch back from the current Test bowling crease, beyond the boundary and out into the street. Nathan Lyon is the best of them at the head of the line, although if we were being honest, he is hardly more than half a step ahead in the queue of an all too readily discarded Nathan Hauritz. After that, just about every left arm Greek orthodox bowler in Australian first class cricket has had a turn at some stage. So English have our selections become, they are even asking kindergarten lads who bowl left arm round, to come on tour for a few weeks - especially if their blood lines give them a geographic advantage - in order to give them experience and allow an excuse for a "miracle rise" selection.

All of which leaves us with Lyon ... a thoroughly nice chap who gives it his all ... and who isn't as good as Roo Yardley, let alone Rowdy Mallett. He is an Indian batting massacre waiting to happen.

The selection of Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc is understandable and even reasonable as they are all quality performers. Siddle could bowl with wet soap on jelly and still snarl his way to wickets. First bowler chosen according to all that is sacred in thecricketragic long list of lores. Pattinson is our best quick so he gets a tick. Beyond that, its tricky. Starc has strong claims after an excellent and often restful summer but is far from fully fit, yet, no question of days in the spar for him. Jackson Bird, who started his Test career brilliantly, would have been well suited to bowl with nagging accuracy in much the same way as Trent Copeland did in the sub-continent. He looks more adaptive than Starc, is fit and looks like a man who wouldn't want to be told otherwise.

So if it was three quicks, Bird would be playing in thecricketragics XI, not Starc.

Faced with these liabilities, Clarke had to chose an allrounder because without Shane Watson at the bowling crease, he couldn't afford to go in with just four bowlers ... especially as none of the four are suited or capable of using the conditions. Five batsmen, Wade at six, an allrounder and four bowlers.

Why not Maxwell?
Why then choose a medium pacer? Perhaps the logic is he is Watson's replacement but wait a minute ... aren't we playing on a bunsen burner? The non selection of Glenn Maxwell is very, very odd. Henriques is a fine cricketer but if this was horses for courses, the selectors have chosen a six furlong sprinter to run  in the Grand National Steeplechase. If it was pace on the ball rather than off the ball you wanted, maybe Mitch Johnson might have been better off batting at seven? Regardless of who is picked, it would appear seven is now the allrounder's spot and the keeper will bat at six. Wade is certainly good enough but six batsmen and Wade at seven has a more reassuring ring to it.

At least the question of where Shane Watson should bat has been partially solved. It's always been a no-brainer since the retirements of Mike Hussey (I'm outta here) and Ricky Ponting (I don't wanna go, I don't wanna go). Australia has a middle order batting problem. Ed Cowan and Dave Warner deserve to keep their opener's jobs and to slot Watson in there would have sacrificed a player to the bench ... a luxury Australia doesn't have. Phil Hughes will bat at three but I bet he's not still there by the last Test in England. Watson, Clarke, Wade and then it should have been Maxwell.

For those who believe Clarke should move up a spot, the simple answer is a question ... why? That which requires no repair, should not be repaired. A peculiarity about great batsmen is they find a spot they like and stay there. Move them and batting pads fall off. Look what happened to Greg Chappell when he moved up to three. Steve Waugh was rarely as successful anywhere but five or six. Australia shouldn't be looking to solve a problem at three or four by moving the best No 5 in the game. It would be like repairing a leak in the roof and punching a hole in the tile beside it.

The first Test will expose a clash between two very different philosophies based on bowling: India's deep spin attack vs Australia's pace men. The Australians won by knockout at home, where even the best Indian players of the last twenty years failed against a rookie pace attack. Back on their own decks, both shoes may be on the one foot, making dancing down the wicket just one of the dangers that India can throw at the Australians. Only Michael Clarke has the necessary footwork to go dancing among the spinning stars and Mike Hussey will be the dancing partners more missed than Ponting. Aside from Clarke, Cowan has the best temperament for the job and Wade has shown enough to indicate he won't be intimidated by having to move out of his crease. The same can't be said for Warner, Hughes or Watson and Harbhajan may have a day out at some stage. Anyone below six will be facing a queue of Indian spinners begging for his captain's favour.

So much pressure on Clarke.
Just ask this bloke ...

In the end, the predicted hot and very humid weather may favour a new ball swinging but new becomes ancient very quickly in India and the pace heavy Australia attack will have less than eight overs to take new ball wickets. Thereafter, reverse swing is rare, as its hard to get enough moisture into one side of the ball.

Spin is the thing.