As 2009 dawns, the Indian cricket team faces its lightest international schedule for years. Following the cancellation of the Pakistan tour, India is scheduled for only five Tests and 21 ODIs, its lightest itinerary this decade. The other notable change is that India is now expected to win when it travels overseas.
Young gun: South Africa’s Duminy is a talent to watch out for in 2009. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP
India’s first assignment, in New Zealand in March, will be its first trip there in six years. Last time, the Indians were swept 2-0 in a low-scoring series amid insipid batting on seaming tracks. This time, a depleted Kiwi outfit will meet an Indian team with a vastly improved pace attack and a stable opening pairing. With Gautam Gambhir having broken through at the international level, and Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan a class above the likes of Ajit Agarkar and Ashish Nehra, India should win comfortably in both forms of the game against a fragile batting line-up, missing the likes of Lou Vincent, Craig McMillan and strike bowler Shane Bond, who have all defected to the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL).
India will enter June’s Twenty20 World Cup in England as one of the favourites, although this abbreviated form of cricket is most unpredictable and last-over thrillers await all teams. The second season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) will precede it, allowing the Indians thorough preparation for their title defence. With each IPL team needing to field a quota of youngsters and local players, shrewd recruiting and manipulation of greenhorns and unproven players is needed, rather than just international stars.
Last year, Delhi Daredevils and, most of all, champions Rajasthan Royals extracted a great deal from their nominally weak links. For the Royals, Siddharth Trivedi took 13 wickets, ably supporting the internationally capped players, while the diminutive Swapnil Asnodkar frequently seized the momentum with audacious top-order attacks. For Delhi, Shikhar Dhawan and Amit Mishra put in a series of productive displays that have earned them contracts with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Kings XI Punjab was able to manipulate its team in order to shield its quota players from the action, but Royal Challengers Bangalore and Deccan Chargers of Hyderabad were not. Despite being among the fancied teams, they sank to the bottom, with an array of locals and young players who were forced to see front line action and were unable to deliver. This year, careful consideration of the “weak links” will again be needed for success.
Kris Srikkanth, the chairman of Indian selectors, is aiming for the top of the ODI rankings by year’s end. The Twenty20 campaign will be followed by four ODIs against the West Indies that India should win. With the already-delayed Champions Trophy in Pakistan unlikely to proceed due to insecurity, the focal point of India’s build-up to the 2011 World Cup will be its home series against Australia and Sri Lanka late in the year.
Although Australia has declined in Test cricket, mainly due to a monotonous attack unable to regularly take 20 wickets, it remains strong in a format where accurate bowling will yield wickets and results against batsman looking to force the play.
All five ODIs between M.S. Dhoni’s men and the hosts Down Under last year were closely fought, and the seven this October should be no different. With Virender Sehwag revitalized after a long period of ODI struggle, and Suresh Raina now appearing comfortable, India can be hopeful of prevailing.
The home Test and ODI series against Sri Lanka will offer India another chance to decode Ajantha Mendis in the hope that the Asia Cup debacle will not be repeated in 2011. Sri Lanka has never won a Test series in India, but in the few years that Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan will have together, with batsmen still puzzled by the former, it will be their best chance yet.
Clean sweep: For the first time, India looks capable of winning every match it plays this season. Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP
On a more general note, India will soon have to deal with the departure of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman from its Test batting line-up. India’s light schedule is inopportune then as their likely replacements—Rohit Sharma and Raina—will be deprived of ODI matches that would help them to settle into the international arena before their likely ascension to the Test team. On the bowling front, India will need to reinforce its fast bowling. Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma are a fair way ahead of their backups and both have been susceptible to injury. Sharma’s quality in 2008 has been as good as any quick, but he has been used relatively sparingly. With increasing physical strength, India will hope he can pressure the opposition for longer periods. If he does, it will propel India a long way in a year in which they are expected to win every series they start.
Aside from matches involving India, South Africa, Australia and England will also be staking their claims for Test supremacy. Stinging from their first home series loss in 16 years, Australia will want to redeem themselves in South Africa. The Proteas will be looking to augment their first series win in Australia and will be favourites at home. England play the West Indies home and away in early-2009, giving it an excellent opportunity to amass rankings points and momentum leading up to the Ashes. With an Australian attack shorn of Glen McGrath and Shane Warne, England will fancy their chances of regaining the urn.
Among the emerging players to watch this year, J.P. Duminy of South Africa is a batsman with a Saurav Ganguly-like stance and an impressive temperament, concentration and defence. Recently, in his first two Tests, he played two match-winning innings when his team was facing defeat. At 20, opener Phillip Hughes has been one of the leading scorers in Australian domestic cricket, breaking a record set by Don Bradman for the highest proportion of runs in a team’s match total, and is close to Test selection. Both are worth looking out for in a season that will see continuing power shifts in the world of cricket.
B.L. Nguyen is a freelance cricket writer based in Adelaide, Australia. He blogs at monkeyatthecricket.blogspot.com
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