August 06, 2007

Plan A, B & C for the Oval

Appeared in The Hindustan Times on 8th August, 2007.

What India must do to win the test series in England?

Plan A

Throughout the Oval test, India must play for a win and at no point give England the impression that they are content with a draw. That is bound to backfire.

Indian batsmen must play their “new” natural game without being over-attacking. At Trent Bridge, in spite of India’s modest run-rates (compared to England) and restrained top order, the final result was a win. There is no need to change tactics now. Continue to make the English come at you, rather than the other way round. This is in-sync with India’s new thinking which appears to be “Win Ugly rather than Lose Pretty”. So, even if you miss out on some flashy Tendulkar trademarks and VVS specials, there are always the Sports’ archives.

Do not target Kevin Pietersen with banter - he is at his most vicious then. It’s common knowledge that KP is his own worst enemy and often self-destructs. Stick to a conservative plan - do not set over-attacking fields, nor get too defensive too early. But always have a few players in the midfield for that mistimed heave. Sree Santh should stay out of KP’s way; it can cost India dearly.

Target Michael Vaughan. After KP, the English captain is the team’s strongest link. Looking back at the Trent Bridge test, Vaughan was even more stirred after Sree Santh’s beamer to Pietersen. With his reputation of not losing a home-series under siege, Vaughan does not appear his usual cool self. Someone should get under the English skipper’s skin – it may not be a bad idea to have Zaheer Khan or one of the youngsters assigned this job.

Target Monty Panesar. After the new ball, Monty is England’s biggest weapon. Though Tendulkar and co came down the track at Trent Bridge, at no point did they hit him out of the attack. If Panesar is ripped into, Vaughan will be forced to over-bowl the three seamers or even bowl part-timers Collingwood and himself. That’s when it can all go terribly awry for Vaughan. Also, India could even promote Dhoni to target Panesar. The game can be won and lost depending on how the Indians handle Panesar.

Do not ignore strategy on key players like Collingwood, Strauss, Cook, Bell or even Prior. Even though these players haven’t had a remarkable series yet, they are capable of big scores, and have done so in the past. Collingwood’s stature in English cricket is on the rise – a street fighter to the core, he can counter attack, and win a match on his own. Be it with bat, ball or in the field with that match defining catch. India should be weary of him. He has an intensity that makes him ideal for pressure cooker situations. He is also England’s new ODI captain, and could be the next test captain. After KP and Vaughan, he is the wall to breach.

Lastly, India must have a Plan B. And that doesn’t mean Brad Pitt’s film production company.

Plan B

If Kevin Pietesen gets away, India should not hesitate to pull off a Naseer Hussain or Ashley Giles on him – that is, have Anil Kumble or another part-time spinner bowl a negative leg stump line to him. The English have in the past tried it with a more prolific Tendulkar. It often frustrates attacking players and causes them to alter their game. It is no use attacking KP for long periods, watching him zip from 50 to 100 to his favourite score of 158. The Aussies will vouch for that.

Dravid should be alive to key periods in the game – when the balance is shifting towards England. That’s the time for him to refrain from overzealous 7-2 fields and realize that Zaks is no Pigeon. Or for that matter, Jumbo is no Warnie.

Also, India must have a Plan C.

Plan C

On the fifth day, if it appears England is closing in on a win, India must not hesitate to do all it can to secure a draw. And if that means playing downright dirty, so be it. It’s worth remembering, the Australians did not become the world’s best test team by playing pretty.

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