Johnny do-goode !!

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Published in Yahoo! Cricket, February 7, 2011

There are milestones and then there are milestones. And waiting for them can run the gamut of emotions. On one hand you have snooze-worthy and inevitable ones like whether Tendulkar will score 27,000 runs in Tests against Australia or if Dale Steyn will reach the mark of 600 wickets with a strike rate of 5.00. But the imagination is not tickled by them nor the cockles warmed up by them as much as the other kind.

That other kind was on offer this January. As New Zealand took on the nomadic Pakistani team in the first Test at Hamilton on January 7, 2011, all cricket fans with a pulse should have perched themselves on the edges of their couches with one seemingly improbable milestone looming: would Chris Martin really reach his momentous landmark of 100 career runs in Test cricket? And ridden the roller-coaster of intrigue of which would come first: his 200 wickets in Tests or the most elusive hundred runs in the history of Test matches?

And on day three, we were put out of our misery. Umar Gul’s poster now figures prominently in Martin’s bedroom as he did the honours in the 37th over of the Kiwi second innings. With an embarrassing Douglas Jardine-esque field set, Martin thumped (really) a Gul full toss through the blanket of fielders and triumphantly completed three runs to reach his hundred and the crowd erupted. For the man who is a dead ringer for Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and the owner of the enviable batting average of 2.53, it was a Viva la vida moment, for sure.

All that revelry was short-lived and brute reality descended two overs later when a miffed Gul wreaked his revenge on Martin, getting him to fend off his attempt at decapitation into the hands of Younis Khan. New Zealand had capitulated and crashed out at 110 to the inevitable defeat that came shortly after. In the pavilion, John Wright, who was kicking off his stint as the coach of the New Zealand cricket team had to stop humming Coldplay tunes and was now faced with the prospect of whittling away the last two days allotted for the Test match pondering how it all went belly up.

Welcome back John!

Quite the job John Wright has on his hands. Hope he realizes quickly that this Kiwi Test team is really on a dicey slope right now – of the slippery kind. Their performances in the recent past should be a clear indication to him that this is not just a typical period of trolling the depths that they are going through. Hopelessly lopsided results like their tonking by Bangladesh in the ODI series apart, he should realize that their Test team has been a very confusing one in recent times, with a penchant for appearing like a makeshift lineup at all times. In the held-together-by-duct-tape nature of this team’s composition lies Wright’s biggest challenge. He needs to get a semblance of order in place quickly.

As insane as it may sound at the outset, buried in the makeup of this New Zealand Test team are the clues that give hope. Compared to their rosters in recent times, they are in a position currently to really build on the present lot. “Rebuilding” is a platitude dished out with metronomic regularity by bottom scraping teams in sports. But more than rebuilding, what this Kiwi team needs urgently is repurposing. Daniel Vettori has started that off nicely. He probably got tired of hanging around mid-on, biting his nails, looking like an assistant professor worrying about his tenure. He’ll probably go and balance the budget and represent New Zealand at global warming summits now. John Wright can now focus on the rest of the lot.

All he needs to do is start with Jesse Ryder.

Now that you have stopped giggling and snickering to the obligatory “So, Jesse Ryder walks into a bar” joke, here is one way to look at it. At this moment, if the New Zealand cricket team is a jigsaw puzzle, Jesse Ryder is the biggest piece with the least convoluted shape. If it is a Rubik’s cube, Ryder is three sides of it. He is the drum in the conundrum. In fact, he represents all that can go right for Wright if he can solve the Ryder equation. Yes, John Wright needs to start with Jesse Ryder.

Literally.

In that Ryder has to open the innings. The recent dabbling with Brendan McCullum at the top of the order is not a strategy that will yield dividends. It is a wrong case of repurposing. The ploy of pairing him with the leaden-footed and even more leaden-eyed Tim McIntosh – seemingly to offset each other’s abilities – is wonky at best. Baz belongs in his traditional No.7 spot. And McIntosh, I am afraid, does not belong. This thinly veiled attempt at asking McCullum to play the role the one and only Virender Sehwag plays in his inimitable way is misguided. For if there is a Sehwag lurking in this Kiwi lineup, it is Ryder. If Sehwag is the refrigerator, Ryder is the mini-bar.

Yes, Jesse Ryder is the most Sehwag-esque cricketer in world cricket today.

“You know you are asking for trouble when you start talking in ‘esques'”, said director Danny Boyle correctly, but bear with this for a bit. Granted there is a lot of daylight between Sehwag and the next wannabe-marauder-at-the-top-of-the-order, but at the edge of that daylight exists Jesse Ryder. The similarities in ability, temperament and modus-operandi are many. Not to mention physique. We are talking here about Sehwag circa 2001-2005, the height of the John Wright era in India. If there is anyone who can and should harness the Sehwag-esque-ness in Ryder, it is Wright. Wright’s been there and done that. In spades.

Technically, the list of items to check off on Ryder’s card when comparing him to Sehwag is long. Dodgy footwork (frankly, Ryder’s seems better than Viru’s back then), excellent eyesight, tremendous bat speed, assuredness against pace, ability to read and play spin, power, timing…the list is long. And like Sehwag, Ryder possesses a full range of shots all round the wicket. Shots that he is not bashful to deploy – carving, scything and bludgeoning his way around the green. In defense too they share an orthodoxy that is seldom present in their attacking shots. And like Viru, he is the most under-rated and under-utilized bowler in the lineup.

Where Sehwag definitely has the edge over Ryder is in his balance and the surety of his minimal movements. And in his poker-faced calm and unflappability under fire. But you can’t have it all. Ryder may have a ways to go before he reaches Sehwag’s bhajan-singing state of equanimity between balls. But watching that cheeky look – like that of a kid who has raided the cookie jar successfully – after he has smacked one to the fence, he does appear to have an uncluttered mind. Just that it may be a tad too uncluttered at this point.

And this is where John comes in. It is time for him to have a sit-down with Ryder in his hotel room (after emptying out the mini-bar) and have a heart-to-heart with him. Drill it into his head that this is a responsibility that is being entrusted in him and it is time he starts cashing in on the oodles of talent and ability he possesses. In other words, a conversation that he had multiple times with Viru back in those days. Not the “How’s your mom? I hope she is doing well. What are you going to do today?” chat Wright claimed he used later on when dealing with Viru. Assure Ryder that he will be backed in this new role, but he needs to buckle down and evolve into the Kiwi version of the Indian pirate. Give him a DVD of Melbourne or Multan. And tell him he needs to work on his reactions after a bone-headed carve has nailed him. Stop cursing and slamming the bat all the way back to the pavilion. Go poker face. Just study Viru.

If Ryder lays off the sauce and gets his head in gear, things fall into place. Martin Guptill should open with him. He can and should be the Akaash Chopra to Ryder’s Viru. Next – no, it is not premature – should come Kane Williamson. This kid possesses more calm, temperament and technique than any Kiwi player to surface in eons. He is not the wall yet. Think of him as the speed-bump. Stick with him. And then Ross Taylor. Hopefully, the captaincy will jolt him into realizing that he risks being felled by a chronic case of Ashraful-itis if he is not careful. And you can’t hope for a better lower order than McCullum, Vettori and Tim Southee? Suddenly, the only experimentation or duct-taping that needs to happen is at No.5 and 6. Voila!

Time is short. The World Cup aside, there is only one distraction that stands between John Wright and a more stringent scrutiny by Kiwis and their well wishers worldwide: Mr. Coldplay is just one wicket short of 200 career wickets. When we sit back on our couches after the fast bowler with the trippiest and jauntiest action in world cricket has reached that milestone, we will be asking questions.

So get on it John.

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