Friday, November 22, 2013

Ashes 2013-14: Can Mitchell Johnson maintain his A-game through the series?

Photo Courtesy: The Australian

“He bowls to the left,
He bowls to the riiiiiight,
That Mitchell Johnson,
His bowling is shite!”

Mitchell Johnson knew that he would be in for some stick from the Barmy Army as soon as he took the new ball and marked his run-up in the second over of England’s innings on Day Two of the first Ashes Test. He had, after all, copped plenty of it during England’s last trip Down Under in the Australian summer of 2010-11. Here’s another sample (one of the Barmy Army’s most popular chants listed on their website, sung to the tune of The Adams Family):

“His mother hates his missus
His missus hates his mother
They all hate each other
The Johnson Family
de le la le de le la le de le la le” 

Ever since being named ICC Cricketer of the Year back in 2009, Johnson’s form as swung from the polar extremes of aggressively accurate to incomprehensibly wayward—Version ‘A’ and ‘B’. This was evident in the 2010-11 Ashes when he recorded contrasting figures of none for 66 and none for 104 at Brisbane, and six for 38 and three for 44 at Perth in successive Test matches. At Melbourne and Sydney, he conceded 134 and 168 runs respectively, picking up just six wickets in total, even as Australia went on to lose the series 3-1. That was when the Johnson chants were born.

Following a rather unremarkable 2011 and 2012, Johnson was dropped from the Australian Test squad for the summer Ashes in England in 2013. However, he took it upon himself to prove his detractors wrong and was the pick of the bowlers (24 wickets in 17 games) in the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2013, where his franchise Mumbai Indians went on to lift the title.

It was almost a reborn, reinvigorated Johnson on display in the limited overs circuit, for club and country. Johnson had added that extra yard of pace to his aggressive left-arm fast bowling and begun clocking speeds of 90 mph on a consistent basis. He troubled batsmen, the likes of Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, during the one-day series that followed the English leg of the Ashes, and then the superstar Indian batting line-up on sub-continental tracks that were flatter than a highway. It was a given that he would be picked for the return leg of the Ashes Down Under.

So evident was his transformation that even Sachin Tendulkar couldn’t help but put in a word of praise for him during his farewell press conference, when quizzed on the Ashes. Johnson was in every cricket writer’s ‘Men to watch out for’ lists for the Ashes, and rightly so. On seaming, lively tracks in Australia, Johnson’s version of frighteningly quick, aggressive, and short-pitched bowling spelled trouble for the Englishmen. If there was a chink, it was only his waywardness, his version ‘B’, which exaggerated when put under pressure.

Under pressure he was when England walked out to bat on Day Two of the first Test at the Gabba, having dismissed Australia for a rather unimpressive 295. The Barmy Army was up on their feet and chirpy as ever as he ran up to bowl to the left-handed Michael Carberry. His first delivery drew loud cheers from the English support as it drifted down the leg-side. He was hit for three boundaries by the English openers in as many overs, before skipper Michael Clarke replaced him with Peter Siddle. Same old story, different day?

After being given some time to compose himself, Johnson was brought back into the attack to expose Trott’s weakness for the short ball after the fall of Alastair Cook. Johnson responded straight away as he banged them in and had Trott hopping on his toes and protecting his visor. It wasn’t long before he found the right-hander’s edge, which was caught by Brad Haddin behind the sticks, moments before lunch.

The wicket set the tone for what was to be a spectacular session of Test match cricket, well, at least for the Australians. England did well for the first hour after lunch, cruising along at 82 for two, before pandemonium struck the tourist camp. In a remarkable 10-over spell before tea, England lost six wickets for just nine runs. England were to be all out for just 136, losing nine for 81, out of which Johnson accounted for four.

The way he set up Trott, followed by Joe Root, with a relentless line and length of short-pitched bowling, had the Gabba on their feet and in full song. The Barmy Army, meanwhile, had gone quiet, wondering if they had awoken a monster. Johnson finished with figures of four for 61, and even if it didn’t quite match up to those of the pantomime villain from the other side, Stuart Broad (six for 81), England were left hoping that this other side of Johnson’s maverick personality dies away soon.

After the day’s play, Shane Warne told Sky Sports that England's inability to play the short ball, and Johnson in particular, could be their folly:

“Australia had the X-factor of Mitchell Johnson bowling fast - he was bowling consistently around 90mph plus—and he got it right. He looked a completely different bowler; there was no-one who really looked comfortable against the short ball.

Carberry all but concurred with Warne, when he said in the post-match press conference:

“In terms of pace he’s up there with some of the quickest I’ve faced in my time, but more importantly he put the ball in the right areas.”

In the right areas. That’s where Johnson will have to ensure he bowls for the remainder of the series. He’s got the pace, he’s got the length, he’s got the aggression; he’s even got a menacing handlebar moustache look—his tribute to ‘Movember’; what he doesn’t have is the ability to maintain that threatening line for a prolonged period. That being said, when Johnson is up in the right spirits, as he was on Day Two, there is no stopping this rampaging freight train. But will he be able to subdue his ‘Version B’? If he does, England are in for some trouble, to say the least.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Has Phil Jones solved Manchester United's midfield puzzle?

Manchester United's 21-year-old defender, Phil Jones, put in an admirable and highly praiseworthy performance in the holding midfielder position alongside Michael Carrick in their 1-0 win over Arsenal on November 10. Given United's frailties in the middle of the pitch, Jones's performance has provided fans with some hope that the midfield puzzle is nearly solved. However, is it?

To say that Phil Jones was a beast is perhaps an overused cliché. But no other word could possibly do justice to his performance for Manchester United at Old Trafford against the top-placed Gunners.

Even though they were playing at home, United were well the underdogs coming into the fixture, with Arsenal dropping just five points in their opening 10 games and sitting pretty at the top of the table with a yawning eight-point gap between their opponents, who were languishing in eighth spot.

The battle, they said, would be won in the midfield. With United still not having found their right combination and approach, following a change in the manager's chair after their title-winning histrionics last season, Arsenal were favourites coming to a ground where they hadn't won since 2006.

Arsenal's midfield was boosted by the acquisition of Mesut Ozil over the summer, adding him to a potent formation including Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini. The Gunners were expected to boss the inconsistent and unsettled United midfield.

David Moyes decided to go in with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation with Jones partnering Michael Carrick ahead of the defenders. Jones was played out of his preferred position of centre-back, but lost no time in settling in to his team's requirement.

Like a ravaging bull, Jones barged into a stunned Arsenal and snatched the ball away at will. His interception, tackling and runs from box to box were exemplary and allowed United to hold the strings for majority of the match.

In the second half, when captain Nemanja Vidic left the field with an apparent concussion, Jones was shifted to centre-back, while Tom Cleverley took up the Englishman's position next to Carrick.

The difference was there to see as Arsenal began to snare more of the possession and threatened to equalise as the match drew to a close. But United managed to hold on to a priceless 1-0 scoreline and three points, which reduced the gap between them and their rivals to five points and pushed them up to fifth in the table.

Jones missed out on the Man of the Match award, which went to Wayne Rooney who provided an assist to Robin van Persie's goal and was his usual industrious self. But that didn't stop Jones from earning a lot praise from the local press for his gallantry.

It also raised the question whether, in Jones and Carrick, United had found their right defensive midfield combination. The duo complement each other in their styles—while Jones is fast, aggressive, can tackle and win the ball, Carrick is vision, touch and pass. To have that kind of a recipe to support the attacking trio in the midfield ahead of them, Moyes seems to have struck gold.

However, what United still lack is that touch of creativity—something they haven't possessed since they sold Ronaldo to Real Madrid a few seasons ago. It is still evident that United lack that penetration into the opposition's box, and that is not something that their five-strong midfield is able to provide.

Also, Jones himself prefers to play in the centre-back position, as he confirmed after the match to Sky Sports: "I'm happy with my own form. I'm pleased to be getting a bit of a run at centre-half.

"It's always nice to play in the position you feel most comfortable in. I played in midfield against Norwich in the Capital One Cup, but mostly it has been centre-back and that's where I want to be.

"When I came, it was always the plan to establish myself as a centre-back and I hope to do it this season. If the manager keeps faith in me, I'll make sure I can cement a spot there and get a good run there."

If United are to push for the title, they must look to find or infuse that creativity in the middle. Jones may have done well in this game, but do they have a fallback in case he is injured? Marouane Fellaini is still adapting to the Manchester United way of life, Cleverley has not shown the same promise as he did a couple of seasons ago, and Anderson remains average and sporadic.

United need to provide Rooney an assistant in his push towards the opposition box. Jones is good, but at the end of the day he is a defender at heart. What United need is an attacking playmaker, and a quality one at that.

Will Moyes find one in the January transfer window? If he wants to get his United career off to a good start, he would hope he does.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sachin Tendulkar’s final Test: The flame eventually extinguishes after a mesmerizing flicker

A slightly mistimed, cheeky flick aimed to go past the slips, but didn't — that’s all it took. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but as he trudged back to the pavilion for probably the last time ever, those seconds were excruciating for anyone who could distinguish the cricket bat from ball. The Wankhede was stunned for a few seconds, almost until he had reached the edge of the boundary, before it rose to salute and applaud their beloved son for one last time. Others, who couldn’t avail of their sick-leaves in offices and schools, flocked to the nearest television screen, radio or smartphone. Was it really true? Was he really gone? Unfortunately, he was. But not before he gave us around 150 minutes of sheer pleasure to remember him by.

His 74 from 118 balls, spanning the better part of two sessions, was neither his longest, nor best, innings out of the 781 he has played in international cricket. But then again, no one expected him score a century in his final Test, did they?

No, but we all hoped. And he teased us. He teased us with some glorious punches through the cover off the backfoot, some orgasmic straight drives placed perfectly wide of the fielder at mid-on and mid-off, some delightful late cuts to third-man and some lovely flicks down fine-leg — most of which resulted in boundaries.

He even teased the West Indians, especially fast bowler Tino Best, who he tried to upper-cut a la Centurion many a times, but just about managed to avoid the edge. Best wasn’t amused, and made his frustration evident. But the maestro just smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Better luck next time!

He reached his half-century with a crisp straight drive just wide enough to beat the outstretched hands of Best, before raising his bat to salute his faithful, most of whom had stood by him unwaveringly for 24 years through the longest of dry patches. Perhaps the longest was the one that started after the hysterics of THAT early April evening in 2011, when he had reached the ultimate pinnacle of winning the World Cup. It was at this very ground that he had been paraded on the shoulders of his teammates.

He was never quite the same after that, apart from the day he finally reached the momentous landmark of 100 international tons in 2010. Perhaps it came a full circle today at the Wankhede, in what was a hastily organized farewell by his country’s board. He had been told: It’s your final chance; make the most of it.

They say that a flame flickers brightest just before it extinguishes. He had once said in a television interview that cricket “was like oxygen” to him; without it, he would be dead. For him, retirement would be like death.

On November 15, 2013, Sachin Tendulkar’s career was on life support. His body and mind knew that the end was here. But he was not going to go away without a last few gasps at that heavenly oxygen. And just like the human body tries to fight its hardest before death, Tendulkar took to the crease like a possessed being. He was determined to prolong the end, and brought out glimpses of his best. Sourav Ganguly, who had batted with him so many times during the good ol’ days, couldn’t help but remarking in the commentary box: “I’ve seen him bat so well after a long, long time.”

And then, just when we had started to hope that the flicker would transform into a raging fire, it was gone — 26 runs short of setting the Wankhede alight. There was no question of reigniting it. There would never be an encore. There would never be any more schadenfreude at the fall of the second wicket. There would never be any more mini-squats before taking guard. There would never be any more magical flicks off the hip, paddle-sweeps and cover drives. No longer would schools and offices be empty on match-day. No longer would the television be switched off at his dismissal. We always knew it was coming, but nevertheless that didn’t prevent it from being the rudest of shocks. He was gone…for good. 

Sachin was gone.