Careers on the line as India fly in Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur ahead of third Test

Navdeep Saini has flown in to South Africa so that he can bowl at Virat Kohli and the other Indian batsmen in the nets at The Wanderers. (Instagram)
Updated 21 January 2018
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Careers on the line as India fly in Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur ahead of third Test

JOHANNESBURG: As the crow flies, it is just over 8,000km from New Delhi to Johannesburg. That is the distance that Navdeep Saini has flown so that he can bowl at Virat Kohli and the other Indian batsmen in the nets at The Wanderers. Saini was one of the stars as Delhi reached this season’s Ranji Trophy final, and he and Mumbai’s Shardul Thakur were flown in after India’s defeat in the second Test at Centurion so that they could help with preparation for the final game.
Apart from giving the batsmen a workout ahead of what is likely to be the liveliest pitch of the series, the team management also want to look at both ahead of the challenges that lie ahead. This series loss was India’s first in 10, and just beyond the horizon lie Test tours of England, Australia and New Zealand.
A deeper fast-bowling pool can only be a good thing, but the temptation to look at Saini and Thakur also points to the fact that India still don’t know what their first-choice attack is. Bhuvneshwar Kumar took 6 for 120 in Cape Town, and was then benched for Centurion, where Ishant Sharma came in and took 5 for 86.
Mohammed Shami, despite his struggles with consistency, remains India’s most potent pace bowling threat. If there’s lateral movement as expected in Johannesburg, Bhuvneshwar – the most skillful of the lot – must play. And if comes down to a choice between Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant, the more experienced man wins every time.
Bumrah generates good pace, and can make the most of variable bounce because of his quirky action. But his stock ball is the inswinger to the right-hand batsman. “If your stock ball is the outswinger, you’ll get wickets,” said Michael Holding to this correspondent after the Centurion game. “The ball that comes in isn’t going to get too many quality batsmen out. He needs to develop more skills if he’s to succeed on flat pitches.”
South Africa have got their selection spot on. In Cape Town, they ignored the safe option of playing the extra batsman and went with four pace bowlers, supported by Keshav Maharaj’s left-arm spin. Despite Dale Steyn’s unfortunate heel injury, they still had enough firepower to blast out the Indians on the fourth afternoon.
At Centurion, they again had the option of bringing in an all-rounder — Chris Morris or Andile Phehlukwayo — to fill the Steyn void. Instead, they went for the attacking option and picked Lungi Ngidi, a 21-year-old with some pace to burn. Ngidi’s six for 39 in the second innings scuttled India’s run chase.
The fact that Umesh Yadav has not even come into the discussions is even more puzzling. His 25 wickets in Australia (seven Tests) have cost 44 apiece and come at an economy rate of 4.64. But you only need to look at Stuart Broad’s struggles in Australia this winter to recognize that using performances on increasingly lifeless pitches as a yardstick for selection is not necessarily fair.
Yadav is coming off the best year of his career — 31 wickets at 29.25 — and is a far more complete bowler than the one who toured Australia twice. Against the same opponent on home turf in 2017, he was the most successful pace bowler on either side with 17 wickets. The almost-Asian surface at Centurion would have suited his skiddy methods perfectly.
In bowler-friendly conditions, you simply cannot afford to give the batsmen any respite. This series was decided by two partnerships — the 114 between AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis at Newlands, and the 141 de Villiers added with Dean Elgar in Centurion. For their part, the home bowlers have been, to use a word Kolhi has employed frequently, “relentless.”
“But let’s be clear,” says Holding, even as he says the bowlers should do better. “It’s the batsmen who have cost India the series.” Take out Hardik Pandya’s chancy 93 in Cape Town, and Kohli’s sublime 153 in Centurion, and you are left with an almost-blank slate. Dead-rubber Tests can sometimes be listless affairs. But with some careers potentially on the line ahead of that trip to England in June, this should be every bit as spicy as the jalapeño-green pitch being prepared.


Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games opening clash against Iran

Updated 14 August 2018
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Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games opening clash against Iran

  • Young Falcons hopeful of a semifinal spot.
  • Under-23 players keen on making a name for themselves in Indonesia.

JAKARTA: There is a widely held belief that to succeed in sport, you must start early.
Officials from the Saudi Arabia National Olympic Committee will be hoping it rings true this month as the Kingdom’s Under-23 football team prepares to prematurely kick-off its Asian Games campaign this afternoon in Jakarta, three days before the continent’s largest multi-sport competition officially begins.
Similar to the Olympics, the football tournament starts before the opening ceremony and finishes on the competition’s final day, Sept. 2. The fledgling Young Falcons face Iran today at the 28,000-capacity Wibawa Mukti Stadium in the Indonesian capital.
The Saudi NOC have brought a delegation of 169 athletes, including eight females, and will compete across 22 disciplines, including athletics, shooting, taekwondo and volleyball. The three-week Asian Games operate both as a continental precursor and, at times, a qualifying tournament for 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Young Falcons made their football debut at the Asian Games in South Korea four years ago, reaching the quarterfinals in Incheon, before losing to Iraq. Their regional neighbors were inspired by legendary striker Younes Mahmoud, who had been included as one of Iraq’s three over-age players and scored twice in a 3-0 win.
Yet the impact of Mahmoud in Korea has not influenced the team’s selection. With the Saudi Pro League starting next week, coach Saad Al-Shehri has opted to forego athletes older than 23, instead selecting a squad consisting primarily of Al-Ahli development players and a smattering of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ettifaq-based youths.
“We haven’t brought any overage players because we are playing here as preparation for the U23 Asian Cup, which will offer qualification for Tokyo 2020,” said Faisal Almarashdi, a spokesman for the team.
“We have brought to Indonesia only players who are 21 or under as they will all be eligible for Tokyo. Many have already played at the Under-20 World Cup under coach Saad, so there was never any discussion to use the three allocated over-age slots.”
Abdullah Otayf is the model example of how Asian Games experience can help a young career. Four years ago, the deep-lying midfielder was part of the squad that traveled to Korea. This summer he was an integral part of the Green Falcons side that played at the World Cup in Russia. 
With national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi following the competition from afar, there will be chances to catch the eye for the likes of striker Haroune Camara and midfielders Abdullah Yahya Magrshi and Ali Hassan Al-Asmari ahead of January’s Asian Cup. Both midfielders have already made their full debuts for Ahli and featured in the Jeddah club’s Champions League campaign last season, while Al-Qadisiyah’s Camara was included in Pizzi’s provisional World Cup squad before being cut from the final 23.
“These Asian Games are very important for the young players involved,” Almarashdi added.
“They are the future of the senior team so if they play well here and at the U23 Asian Cup then, we hope, they will go to Tokyo 2020. From then on the pathway to the senior team is already very clear.”  
Much like the seniors, the U23 side is both short and slight, with only two of the 10 midfielders and forwards standing above 5 foot 8 (172m). Today’s opponents Iran are not only taller and more physical, they also have, in Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjčar, a manager who knows West Asian football after short spells in Qatar and the UAE. In their most recent preparation match, Iran lost 3-2 to China. 
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, beat the UAE last week in Malaysia following a pair of friendlies against local sides. Today’s match will kick-off at 4 p.m. local time, midday in Saudi Arabia.