Friday, December 21, 2007

Four stumps for a free hit

Should we call this cricket 2.0? Getting players involved in running the game? Well, that’s what the Australian Cricketers’ Association seems to be trying, by asking cricketers what can be done to improve the game. Well, the concept is interesting. Some of the findings (the focus was on Twenty20) are even more so. Of course, they seem to fly in the face of logic and certainly contravene tradition (as all change tend to), but out of such fantasy comes progress.

First up is the suggestion to have four stumps. Aesthetic and terminological (Which one is the middle stump? Which the off and leg?) challenges apart, anything that is even loosely pro-bowler appeals to me tremendously. (An easier solution could be to just increase the size of the stumps to give bowlers a better target to aim at.) For the same reason, giving a bowler an extra over if s/he takes a wicket is a thought. And abolishing leg byes is a most sensible idea Steve Waugh had mooted long ago – a leg bye is neither a function of the batsman’s skill (like a run off the bat is, for the most part) nor a failure on the part of the fielding side (as in the case of a bye or a no-ball or wide).

Giving a batsman a free hit off the first ball s/he faces is a curious suggestion. Who came up with the idea? What were they thinking? And what was the question that led to this?

A couple of minor suggestions came up as well. Like players wearing shorts in matches. Well, honestly, I’ m not too sure I agree with that. Especially with all the protective equipment players wear, they may look a wee bit odd with just a bit of skin peering between those pads, thigh pads, etc. And whether players have names or nicknames on the back of their shirts is unlikely to affect their performance or their marketability, so it’s one of those questions that can be ignored.

The use of microphones has registered a high degree of acceptance. I see a lot of opposition to this, especially from coaches. Will talking to the media distract a captain or a fielder? And will it capture sledging a little more clearly? As a viewer, I’d rather not hear what goes on, and stick to just watching the game.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Steyn versus Edwards & Taylor

I almost missed the story yesterday, the one by Tony Cozier on the forthcoming West Indies – South Africa test series. So what does he reckon will make the series competitive? The presence of three exciting fast bowlers between the two teams. What was that again? South Africa, one can understand having exciting talent, but West Indies?

Well, Cozier was talking about Dale Steyn (who isn’t talking of his recent phenomenal run of late?) and two West Indians, Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor. And Cozier’s comments are based on performances in the one tour match the West Indies have played and the abridged Twenty20 game (why would you have an abridged version of an abridged version anyway?) between the two teams.

Cast your memory beyond the immediate past (or present), Tony. Steyn has a test bowling average of 24.38 over 15 matches, comparable with the best in the trade. At the other end is Edwards with 43.01 in 27, while Taylor turns in a much a more respectable 39.68 in 13.

Cozier’s parting line about the series is perhaps telling.

Who knows, it might even be exciting and competitive.

A plaintive cry of desperation more than a statement of hope, I read it. May be he has a responsibility to keep us fans enthused about the series. Unfortunately, West Indies against South Africa is hardly a close contest. And with South Africa as one side of the equation, it is unlikely to be exciting viewing either. But we are nothing if not inveterate cricket fans – we will follow the series (I almost said contest there). And hope that Kallis bats like Ricky Ponting. And Taylor is the new Michael Holding. And the West Indies draw at least one match.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Perfect timing

The essence of VVS Laxman’s batting has been his exquisite timing. And he displayed it again today. The reference here is to the blow he copped on the elbow against Shoaib Akhtar in the test match earlier today.

If the injury is serious enough to force Laxman to miss the Australia tour (and I sincerely hope it is not), it could not have been timelier for so many others.

Anil Kumble and the selectors don’t have to worry about the middle order composition, made complicated by Yuvraj’s incandescence in the first innings of the said test. Rahul Dravid can heave a sigh of relief because he doesn’t have to be forced into opening the innings to create a slot in the middle order. A window of opportunity opens up for two of Aakash Chopra (my pick for the second opener’s slot), Dinesh Karthik (the second innings fifty must surely help?), Gautam Gambhir (not my choice for any slot in the test squad), Virender Sehwag (well, one can hope, can’t one?) and Parthiv Patel (the Indian selectors, they move in mysterious ways…). And Brett Lee and company may have one less Aussie-basher to worry about.

Now to sit back and wait for cricinfo’s list of freakest / oddest / most (un)timely injuries in cricket history.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Worth reading, again and again and again

It’s an article that’s more than nine months old; it’s about a cricketer who retired about eight months ago; and it’s about the cricketer’s lesser abilities. But this article on Cricinfo keeps resonating in my mind. It’s perhaps the best article I have ever read, for its sheer ability to tickle the funny bone without stating anything except the bare facts. Even the adjectives are not over the board and are always substantiated by numbers. It’s a glorious example of brilliant wit using simple statistics, this piece on Glenn McGrath by Tim de Lisle. Stop everything and read this, if you haven’t already. If you have, another read (and another, and another) won’t hurt.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Misbah’s captaincy credentials

Pakistan’s captaincy challenge ahead of the Bangalore test has offered enough juice for former Pakistan players to offer their considered opinions. In the true spirit of the unity that characterizes Pakistani cricket, there are as many opinions as there are opiners (a word I just made up). So Younis Khan has a backer (even if he doesn’t want one); so does Mohammed Yousuf; and Shoaib Akhtar, Salman Butt, Kamran Akmal and Misbah-ul-Haq. (Danish Kaneria is apparently miffed that his name has not been mentioned so far – so searches are on for a former cricketer who is ready to recommend Kaneria’s case. Interested candidates may please apply to the nearest media house.)

The most original of all the recommendations must be from Rameez Raja, who is pushing for Misbah’s candidature. According to a report in The Times of India, Rameez thinks that Misbah is the man for the job because of his “form and his educational qualifications.” (Misbah, apparently, like Rameez himself, is an MBA.)

The future of cricket has been well and definitely ushered: the captain has to be an MBA, the wicket-keeper will need to be a financial controller, the openers will need to be operations managers (handling dull but important tasks), the spinners will be the creative sorts, and the fast bowlers, well, I suppose they’ll be the sales types – low on predictability, high on returns when they hit it right. The corporatisation of cricket is well and truly upon us.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Book Review: Men in White by Mukul Kesavan

The most interesting and unusual insight that emerged for me from Men in White is the distinction Mukul Kesavan draws between the Australians and the South Africans on the subject of match-fixing.

When Cronje was first photographed after his confession, he had his pastor with him for insurance… It’s hard to imagine Warne or Waugh turning up with their priests in tow; blokes don’t do that… they’d be laughed into the Tasman Sea. If they did bring anyone along, it would be their lawyers.

It seems to sum up the way they played their cricket even. Think of Jacques Kallis at the crease. Now think of Ricky Ponting.

Oh, oh, did I do a comparison? Kesavan strongly advocates against it, especially in the what-might-have-been sense. When people compare Graeme Pollock and Sunil Gavaskar, for example. Kesavan argues, and persuasively at that, that this comparison does not hold water because Pollock did not actually get an opportunity to play much at the highest international level. If he had, who knows, he may have turned out like Graeme Hick. (Well, may be Hick wonders whether he should have stuck to Zimbabwe – he may have evoked comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar later on.)

Having made such a persuasive argument, it’s a pity really that Kesavan falls into the what-might-have-been trap, comparing Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. Sure, both played at the apex level, but the times were different, the circumstances were different, the pressures were different. So to say that Gavaskar never copped a hit on the head while Tendulkar did, does injustice to protective equipment – Gavaskar’s skull-cap could not have afforded a rap on the nut; not so with Tendulkar’s fibreglass helmet. May be counting the number of times the two padded up deliberately would’ve been more relevant. Or may be not even that – today’s umpires have a different attitude to deliberate padding than those of the past.

When Kesavan starts off the first piece by arguing that test match spectators are the modern world’s last audience for epic narrative, you know you’ve got an unabashed lover of test matches. And you approve of it. But when he goes on to say “Like war, Test cricket allows you to fill days and weeks of television programming with reliable action that pulls in reassuring viewership numbers,” you long for a more decisive editor. And the longing is for more than just that – Men in White is really a lazy book.

To begin with, there are no date stamps on the different pieces. This robs valuable context from the book. There does not seem to be much thought given to the sequencing of the pieces – there are two back-to-back pieces of the betting scandal, and another couple on Mohammed Azharuddin. And then there are the printer’s devils. Sanath Jayasuriya is referred to as Jayasuriya and Jayasurya, not across different passages, not across different pages, not across different paragraphs, but in the same sentence. And Gavaskar is credited with having scored 220 in the famous Oval test match, when in reality it was 221. The difference is just one run, but ask any cricket lover how much it matters.

Considering it is a collection of articles written over time, the book is rather predictable in flow, feel and ideas. Some praise here, some insight there (“Among the many things the West Indies have given to world cricket, being not-England was an important gift” is my favourite line in the book), some reform recommendations thrown in, some childhood reminiscence elsewhere, the odd comparison (Bradman and Shakespeare, in a predictable combination, with a rather schoolboyish wordplay of Bradman and Bardman), some idle (and sometimes specious, especially the one around hockey’s fall and cricket’s rise in India) speculation for variety. Mostly familiar stuff for the avid cricket fan.

The hard truth is that a cricket book reader is quite likely a test match aficionado – his expectations are bound to be quite high. Unfortunately, Kesavan does not deliver. There’s one thing Men in White demonstrates: A compilation of blog posts (with introductory paragraphs explaining why each piece was written) does not make a book.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

‘Cook’ed up headlines

The ECB (or at least their web site, at any rate) has begun England’s tour of Sri Lanka on an ominous note – their headline summing up the last day of the practice match against the Sri Lanka Cricket Board President’s XI ran: Delicious entrée from Cook. Considering the England line-up for this tour, we are bound to be served (apologies; that was not a deliberate usage, I assure you) more than a fair share of plays on people’s names. Well, imagine possibilities like “The Bell tolls for Sri Lanka”, “England Broad-minded today”, “Sri Lanka don’t cut the Mustard”, “England’s Swann Song” and the like. And I don’t even want to venture in the direction of Sidebottom. Small relief then, that the likes of Joyce, Maddy, Read, Trott and Yardy, to name just five, are not part of the team. No thank you, we would have lost our Onions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In search of the perfect cricketer (and the perfect cure)

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) has commissioned a couple of experts to build an ideal male tennis player. And while they were at it, The Telegraph decided to take the concept further in this story: Search for perfection: the ultimate sportsman.

Derek Pringle did his bit of gene-mixing and came up with a combination of Mike Brearley’s brains, Sir Don Bradman’s steely will, Sir Ian Botham’s (I almost forgot to genuflect here) legs, Shane Warne’s right hand and wrist and Wasim Akram’s left arm. It’s impressive that Pringle has one non-English non-Australian name and two Australian ones; and only two Englishmen out of the five. You can read the full rationale of his choices here. As also the ingredients of the perfect tennis player, golfer, footballer, and rugby player. I wish cricket involving England would start soon – it’s not too safe to let these English cricket writers loose on non-play days.

On a different note, a friend forwarded me this story: Cure for Sachin’s nervous nineties. I’m sure it is a humorous piece, though there’s no indication anywhere on the page. And if it’s not, it’s really funny.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Duality to trinity

Long has test cricket been referred to as the “longer form of the game.” Now, thanks to Twenty20, the media has begun referring to it as “the longest form of the game.” Well I never…

So does that mean that the language of the game will have to change? May be not all of it, but yes, cricket writing and commentating will have to jettison some oft-used expressions from the past and find new ones. Much like the game itself, the vocabulary also needs some refreshing. Which is just as well – it may help eliminate some trite, tired and over-used expressions. However, the phrase-challenged pundit may just find it a bit tough for a while.

Classical economists for whom cricket is a second love can no longer say “on the one hand, and on the other” because they now need a third hand to hold up the new baby. Unless, of course, one day cricket dies out (as some cricket futurists have forecast) and we return to the old economy again.

Old English scholars who write about cricket in their spare time will have to resist using expressions like “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” when referring to the similarities between test cricket and one-day cricket. Of course, they can extend it and say “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander but not for the swan” but that’s not quite as succinct as the original, is it?

While the formality of the toss will perhaps remain unchanged, bean counters need to toss out terms like “two sides of a coin” when referring to the forms of the game. They can become philosophical, though, and refer to the three forms as “two sides of a coin, plus the truth”, thus setting into motion an interesting argument on what truth is.

Punters will continue to play an invisible part of the game in all its forms, but the game is not a “two-horse race” any more. And you can be sure no one will bet against it.

The pedantic commentator can no longer use trite expressions like “the long and short of it”, and that is the long and short of it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Great Indian Captaincy Challenge

So Sachin Tendulkar has given us a good topic to chew on. Should MS Dhoni be India’s test captain and thus ensure one captain across all forms of the game? Should Anil Kumble be offered an opportunity to show us what might have been? Should Saurav Ganguly be given another tilt at the world champions in their backyard? Or should VVS Laxman be chosen because he has a track record for tormenting the Aussies?

Well, the debate will go on, and any decision is bound to disappoint three-fourths of the cricketing pundits and fans in the country. Are there different ways of looking at the Indian captaincy than just considering some individuals?

Greg Chappell showed us one way, when he kept mixing up the Indian middle order – one day Irfan Pathan came in at No. 3, the next day it was MS Dhoni, and Rahul Dravid came back on the third. Is there a learning from here? Can we have captaincy by rotation? Imagine a core group, let’s call it the Board of Captains, comprising the four contenders mentioned above (add a couple more if you want). The captain for each game will be picked from this committee. Surely Ricky Ponting and gang will be stumped because they won’t know what to expect?

But how would we select the captain for the game? Well, there are a couple of ways of doing this.

The simplest approach would be to draw lots in the press conference the day before. This would ensure a filled room, and more than a bit of excitement. Dilip Vengsarkar goes, “The captain for tomorrow’s test match is…” and Shantakumaran Sreesanth struts into the room. “Oops, sorry, wrong room. I was looking for the dance floor.” Of course, a draw-of-lots approach could mean the same person getting lucky twice in a row, but in the long run, the laws of probability should even things out. After all, we need a long-term orientation in captaincy.

A second approach could be to select the captain on the morning of the match, based on the pitch conditions. So Saurav is the captain for the Melbourne opener, Kumble leads the team at spinning Sydney, Laxman calls the shots on the Perth trampoline, and Dhoni takes over in the dead rubber game at the Adelaide Oval.

May be there is an alternative way to look at the captaincy, with a small tweak of the laws of the game. Law 1.1 says, “A match is played between two sides, each of eleven players, one of whom shall be captain.” Perhaps the BCCI can negotiate with the ICC and get them to change the law to enable a 12th man to be named captain of a team. Look at it this way: the player-as-captain is relevant only when a team is fielding. And it is increasingly true that the 12th man is almost always on the field, especially when India is out there – if Ganguly is not tired, then a pace bowler has just finished a spell or someone else needs to be hidden. And by virtue of being the 12th man, the captain will be spared the pressure of bowling or batting, and can thus concentrate on the captaincy. A focused captain is what we need for the tough Aussie tour.

Extending this logic to having a non-playing captain is a thought, but then we would still have Sunil Gavaskar captaining the Indian team, so may be we shouldn’t go that far.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The graceful left-hander

And speaking of left-handers, it has also been long said that they are so naturally graceful that it is rare to find an inelegant left-hander. But that, thanks to the all-seeing eye of television, has proved to be a myth. More on that in the next post perhaps.

Thus ended my previous post. Here’s the next one.

When I grew up listening to radio commentary and reading cricket magazines, left-handers were always a pleasure to watch at the batting crease. Neil Harvey was described as somewhat of a ballet dancer in flannels, David Gower was grace personified, and even Clive Lloyd, while characterized as strong, was referred to as Big Cat, and the feline reference connoted its own image. And while the odd right-hander was described as elegant (Gundappa Vishwanath was right up there in this department), most of them were either technically correct (like Sunil Gavaskar) or brutally powerful (like Sir Vivian Richards).

So has the demands of the modern game made left-handers more utilitarian and less elegant? Or is it thanks to (or may be not) the ruthless eye of television technology, the scales are coming off our eyes? We seem to have become Gulliver to the televised world of Brobdingnag, conscious of every little detail and deficiency in the players. And no one has suffered more than the left-hander.

The Dravids continue to me “immaculate in defence,” and the Pietersens march on, murdering opposition fast bowlers with their brute power. So who is the most elegant left-hander in the world today? Saurav Ganguly? Ever watched him handle a short ball aimed at the ribs? You still call him elegant? Matthew Hayden? As elegant as a pugilist in leotards. Sanath Jayasuriya? With a nickname like the Matara Marauder, what would you expect? Name anybody else, and chances are your lasting image is an ugly swipe or an ungainly poke. So is the elegant left-hander an urban myth? A creation of primitive cameras and imaginative radio commentators?

On what turned out to be a related note, I had this conversation with a fellow cricket-fan at my office late last week, and we were trying to identify the most inelegant batsmen we have seen in action. The top three names that came out were Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jimmy Adams, and Ejaz Ahmed – two left-handers in three. And Allan Border wasn’t far behind.

How television kills those pictures in our mind.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Left out in India

After India eased to victory in the first one-day international (scorecard) against Pakistan today, the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni said that he promoted himself ahead of Yuvraj Singh in the batting order to keep a left-right combination in the middle. Which got me wondering.

Almost every cricket-playing nation has had at least one or two left-handers who could lay claim to being among the top 10 test batsmen of their country. The West Indies have Sir Garfield Sobers and Brian Lara, Australia have Allan Border and Matthew Hayden, Sri Lanka have Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya, New Zealand have Glenn Turner and John Wright, England have Frank Woolley and David Gower, South Africa have Gary Kirsten (and could have had a couple more if they had not been banned for all those years), Pakistan have Saeed Anwar. What about India?

Saurav Ganguly would probably be deemed India’s best left-hander in history, but, with due respect, not too many people would consider him among the top ten all-time test batsmen in India. Why did India have such a paucity of southpaws? The small town I grew up in, if it were to be considered representative of India, could offer some hints.

I grew up playing cricket on the streets of a small town in Tamil Nadu in South India. Because of the layout of the street (we used to play diagonally across), there was (from a right hander’s position) no fine-leg or square-leg, and not much of a mid-wicket either; the most productive shot was the on-drive (ironically considered one of the most difficult to play in international cricket); and the odd single could be had if the cover-drive or off-drive is played gently enough so the ball doesn’t ricochet into a fielder’s hands.

Quite often, the fact that we had a limited number of players (about ten between the two teams) meant that shots in the arc covering point through to the wicket-keeper were not allowed. This led to an unwritten rule: left-handers not allowed. This was because they would, we right-handers reckoned, be quite a nuisance if they have the habit of playing off their hips down towards fine-leg, which, apart from fetching no runs, would also cause a delay in play because some one would have to run and fetch the “dead” ball. Even when we included left-handers into the team, they were openly made fun of and referred to as lottai, local vernacular derogatory slang for a southpaw.

So while we went into raptures imagining the languid grace of David Gower or the awesome power of Clive Lloyd (as recounted by the radio commentators of those days), we didn’t want a southpaw in our team. Rather conveniently for us, the Indian top order of those days (I am referring to the early 1980s) did not have a single left-hander, comprising as it did Sunil Gavaskar, Chetan Chauhan, Dilip Vengsarkar, Gundappa Vishwanath, two from Yashpal Sharma, Sandeep Patil and Mohinder Amarnath, and Kapil Dev. Unconsciously, I suppose, this made us feel justified in our discrimination.

Of course, things are changing now, and we have a steady flow of left-handers into the Indian team. May be it has to do with all those old houses being combined into apartment blocks and separate playing spaces being created for budding cricketers. But when I reflect on those days, I wonder how many talented left-handers India missed out on, because of the design of our streets.

And speaking of left-handers, it has also been long said that they are so naturally graceful that it is rare to find an inelegant left-hander. But that, thanks to the all-seeing eye of television, has proved to be a myth. More on that in the next post perhaps.

Monday, October 29, 2007

English losers

The way the English can laugh at themselves is perhaps one of the most distinguishing characteristics of that nation. However, I am not so sure how they’ll take it if someone else were to laugh at them. Well, they’ve opened themselves up, so I suppose one can at least comment on their shortcomings.

Yesterday (October 28, 2007), The Times sponsored a debate: Are we a nation of sporting losers? Interesting, how they focus on their downside – may be because they have more examples of that than of the other variety. And a few days before the event, on October 23, 2007, Times Online put together a list of Top 50 great British losers. The concept of a “great loser” may not be quite easy to understand in some nations and cultures, but it should be no trouble at all for some.

Any way, let me delve into the list and examine the cricket entries, of which I assumed there would be plenty. Surprisingly, there weren’t. May be England’s performances in other sports have been even more “loserly” than on the 22-yard strip. So what are the cricket entries that sneaked through, as it were?

The English cricket team of 2006-07 that visited Australia to return the Ashes came in at No. 34. May be they would have come in higher in the list if they had not blotted their copy books by winning the one-day tournament that followed.

Mike Atherton made his entry two places above, at No. 32. Now that sounds a bit harsh. Set aside the dirt-in-the-pocket incident, the not-so-glowing captaincy record and the absence of a century in one-day internationals (something even Nasser Hussain managed, much to the surprise of many and chagrin of some), Iron Mike was not quite such a loser, at least in comparison with some of his contemporaries. (I don’t really need to name them, do I?) May be Athers should have dressed better, and shaved every playing day.

The England cricket team of 1992 takes 29th place in this august list. Now this is a bit harsh really. This is a team that reached the final of the limited overs World Cup. Sure they lost to a scrappy Pakistani outfit in the final, but the team just lost to Zimbabwe (a rout, to be honest) and New Zealand (who triumphed against all comers until that fateful semi-final against Pakistan) en route to the final. The English media is unforgiving, I tell you.

Graham Gooch achieves 27th place by virtue, I reckon, of his girth and for being the first moustachioed English cricketer in decades. Well, how else will you explain the entry of England’s most prolific test batsman in a losers list? Of course, the list has qualified Gooch as an entry only for his performance in the period 1990-95, but in that period, the poor soul averaged upwards of 50 (a full eight more than his career average of 42.58). Apparently, Gooch’s entry is because “he could not persuade his countrymen to be more like him.” Well, if that were the reasoning, a few other names come to mind just as easily.

And that, believe it or not, sums up the cricket entries in the list: just four out of 50. Surely, the rest of English sport is worse off. A list of 50 losers for England (or for any other cricketing nation, for that matter) just in cricket could be interesting. The challenge would be in getting the sequencing right.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Strauss's Waltz

“I have been a victim of some poor umpiring decisions, some unfortunate dismissals and a few incredibly good balls delivered at just the wrong moment.”

Thus spake Andrew Strauss when asked about his omission from the English test team for the Sri Lanka tour. Indeed, Andrew.

Poor umpiring decisions you can be forgiven for, but pray, what is an unfortunate dismissal? And while we are at it, what is a fortunate dismissal? Dismissed by the pace bowlers before the spinners can have a go at you on a sub-continental dustbowl? It might also help Harmy, Broad, and the other English bowlers if you could explain to them what is the wrong moment to deliver incredibly good balls. And what is the right moment.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The shifting goalpost

As I write this, Pakistan are mounting a strong response, chasing 457 to beat South Africa in the second test of their two-test series (to call a two-match sequence a series is perhaps stretching it a bit, but I digress). The match might (and probably will) still end up as a draw, but that’s not the point.

Remember, this match is taking place at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, on a pitch where Paul Harris (no relation to Mutthiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne or Daniel Vettori) is turning the ball square. Notwithstanding that, Pakistan seems to be making a fair fist of chasing such a huge total on the fifth day of a test.

Have the “safe” targets (for the bowling team changed)? Sure there haven’t been too many 400+ chases in test cricket (I can remember just three or four in all), but teams have started coming desperately close. And captains are becoming increasingly chary of setting targets under 500.

A fourth innings target of 400 used to be the benchmark for test matches. Has it become 500 now? And is 600 in sight?

A similar trend seems evident in one-day games as well. There was a time when any target above 250 used to be considered absolutely safe. Then it shifted to 300. Now, it appears to be 325 or thereabouts.

Is it that batsmen have become better? Or have bowlers gone down a notch or seven? Or is it, as many experts claim, the impact of one-day cricket? (If that is indeed so, then where will Twenty20 push it?)

While it is perhaps a bit of each of the above factors, there are a few other factors that could be at play as well.

One is the way bats have changed over time – heavier, broader and with wider sweet spots and such like enable even mis-hits to carry to the fence.

A second reason is changing rules. And since most rules seem to be unequivocally in favour of the batsmen, increasingly higher scores tend to be the outcome.

Another aspect that has led to the increase in scores is perhaps the growing commercialization of the game. Which means more crowds, more advertising breaks, more need for entertainment and therefore, more runs. After all, you can take only 40 wickets in a test match.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Twenty vignettes from Twenty20

It was hastily organized, it was coming so soon after perhaps the most insipid and shambolic World Cup of them all and it was a format that had (and still has) more critics than dot balls in a 50-over game. But it turned out to brilliantly organized, marvelously action-packed and unbelievably competitive. The World Twenty20 tournament has been a fairytale success from almost all perspectives, including that of the bowlers, whose requiem it was supposed to be.

Yes, bowlers still won matches for their teams, though more batsmen walked away with man of the match awards. Tellingly, Irfan Pathan’s spell in the final won him the man of the match award, and Shahid Afridi was named the man of the series solely for his bowling, and in spite of his forgettable batting.

As with any success story, this tournament also had those little revelations, those interesting sub-plots, those telling cameos and those sudden twists and turns that are so part of any successful big event. Here’s my pick of twenty interesting gems from what was truly an exhilarating fortnight.

  1. A wide opening (Game 1 – West Indies versus South Africa) The date of the start was ominous to begin with – September. The first ball was even more ominous – Shaun Pollock, the pasha of parsimony, being slapped for four through point by Chris Gayle. But the story of this game to me was how West Indies insisted on losing it. You don’t concede 23 wides in 17.4 overs and expect to win, do you? Not even if you have a score of 205 to defend.
  2. Bowlers, take a bow (Game 2 – Kenya versus New Zealand) The first signs that bowlers also play actively in the hyperactive version of the game. Sure, it was a slaughter of the innocents, but a scoreline that read 4 for 1 (note: wickets first) in two overs, a team bowled out for 73 and a bowler returning figures of 4 wickets for 7 runs were promising signs for the long-suffering bowlers. Some said it was a one-off, others like me were heartened. We were not to be disappointed.
  3. How do you play this game? (Game 4 – Australia versus Zimbabwe) Yes, the entire match was a fairy tale, but the defining moment of the game comes right in the first over of the match, when Mathew Hayden demonstrates that he perhaps hadn’t quite come to grips with the requirements of this form of the game. He seems to think that the minimum requirement of the game was four runs per ball. So he promptly pulls the first ball he faces for a boundary, but then plays an ugly swipe at the second to perish caught behind. Hayden recovers quickly to become the top run scorer in the competition, but Australia do not, in the match. And as it later transpired, in the tournament.
  4. Rasel rustles the West Indies (Game 5 – West Indies versus Bangladesh) One wicket for 10 runs in any form of the game is a tidy spell. And if it comes at the beginning of a game, of a player from a less-fancied team, with a wicket maiden to start with, and the wicket is that of the man who made a century just two days ago, it certainly is more than creditable. Take a bow, Syed Rasel. And all ye bowlers who came to the party in the tournament.
  5. Scotland survives (Game 7 – India versus Scotland) The first non-starter. India still to get off the mark. They soon will, and how!
  6. Shape of things to come? (Game 8 – Zimbabwe versus Sri Lanka) A victory margin of 172 runs in a 20-over game? Surely you’re not serious? Well, detractors of this form of the game nodded knowingly, “This is how this game is going to turn out.” Thankfully, the match (such as it was) remains a one-off in terms of extremely one-sided contests.
  7. The engine starts purring again? (Game 9 – England versus Australia) The old rivals square off, and Australia show the first signs of getting back to ruthless normalcy. It seems like just the beginning…
  8. Dot dot (Game 10 – Pakistan versus India) Forget the bowl-out, forget Sohail Tanvir and his wrong-footed delivery stride that caught the Indians unawares. The image of this game was Shantakumaran Sreesanth, that Malayali metronome, delivering two successive dot balls (the latter leading to a run out) at the toe end of the Pakistan innings to ensure the tie and the bowl-out.
  9. A good start is everything (Game 13 – India versus New Zealand) 76 for no loss in 5.3 overs, chasing 191 for victory. Surely the chasing team can’t lose from here? Well, India go ahead to prove that anything is possible in this game. And they are just embarking on this journey…
  10. Flintoff bowled Snape (Game 15 – England versus South Africa) England need 40 runs off 3 overs. Their only hope is for Andrew Flintoff to launch a few into the stands. Except that he can’t quite do that from the non-strikers end. England’s Twenty20 specialist Jeremy Snape struggles for three deliveries to get Morne Morkel off the square, then perishes off the fourth. England hopes drop. They finally sink when Freddie loses his stump to Jeremy Snape, er, sorry, Johann van der Wath.
  11. 64 off 4 and not man of the match? (Game 16 – Sri Lanka versus Pakistan) When a bowler goes for 14, 12 and 20 in his first three overs, what are the odds he would get a fourth? Well, Sanath Jayasuriya did, and it was the last over of the Pakistani innings to boot. Pakistan’s new ul-Haq, Misbah sends the ball over long-off a couple of times, Jayasuriya ends up with a record 64 runs off his 4 overs, and Sri Lanka lose the match by 33 runs. If deciding the outcome of the game is the criterion for man of the match, Jayasuriya would sure have fancied his chances here.
  12. Shaken and stirred (Game 17 – England versus New Zealand) England need 20 runs off 2 overs with five wickets in hand. Owais Shah and Luke Wright, both having scored bright 20s, are at the crease. After six deliveries, England need 16 off one over, with two wickets in hand. Shah gets run out by the merest hair’s breadth off the first ball, Dimitri Mascarenhas perishes first ball, caught by the substitute Jeetan Patel, who repeats the feat to see the back of Luke Wright off the fifth ball. Did I mention that the bowler’s surname was Bond?
  13. 4 for 46? No worry, Afridi’s still to come. (Game 18 – Australia versus Pakistan) Australia post a competitive 164 and then promptly reduce Pakistan to 4 for 46. But Shahid Afridi is still to come. But hold on, it’s Misbah-ul-Haq who strides in to join skipper Shoaib Malik. And Afridi does not even need to bat as Pakistan canter to a six-wicket victory with five balls to spare. It affects Afridi so much he goes on to win the man of the series award for bowling. As for Australia…
  14. If Morkel, doesn’t get you, Morkel will (Game 20 – New Zealand versus South Africa) New Zealand get off to a good start and reach 67 without loss in 8 overs. Morne Morkel, who conceded nine runs in his first over, then comes on to bowl his second and snares two wickets. After Johann van der Wath snaps up a wicket in the next over, Morne is replaced by his brother Albie, who promptly gets Scott Styris with his seventh delivery. South Africa are on top until the inevitable choke when it mattered most.
  15. Dhoni holds one end firm (Game 21 – England versus India) As Yuvraj Singh was busy becoming a six symbol, MS Dhoni was in the best seat in the stadium. The captain and his deputy shared a 61-run partnership in 3.1 overs. Dhoni’s contribution? 3. It is destined to remain the most unnoticed support act in cricket history.
  16. The Clark and Clarke Show (Game 22 – Sri Lanka versus Australia) It was always bound to happen. caught Clarke bowled Clark. But for it to happen twice in the same game is certainly worthy of mention? A pity that the Australian attack is so potent in this game that Michael Clarke doesn’t need to bowl at all.
  17. What’s the target? (Game 24 – South Africa versus India) South Africa have attacking batsmen and aggressive all-rounders. A pity really, that none of them could count. Unsure on whether they need to score 154 or 126 in this game against India, they ended up with neither, and get knocked out of the tournament that they looking like winning up until today. No, your team didn’t choke, Graeme. They just forgot their calculators at home.
  18. Who caught that? (First semi-final – New Zealand versus Pakistan) New Zealand had quietly reached 46 in seven overs of largely non-threatening Pakistan bowling. Then the young debutant Fawad Alam comes on to bowl his left-arm spin. Of his fifth delivery, he lures Vincent into an uppish straight drive. Fawad reaches out to his left, the ball sticks, and the bowler is more surprised with the dismissal than the batsman.
  19. Play yourself in (Second semi-final – Australia versus India) Australia keep India quiet, and when Gautam Gambhir falls, India have just crawled to 41 for 2 off eight overs. Yuvraj Singh comes to the crease to join Robin Uthappa. Surely Yuvraj would knock a few singles to get his eye in and then try to play some big shots? First up, he is beaten by a short delivery. Second ball, he carts over deep square leg for a six. He’s got his eye in.
  20. That’s Twenty20 (The final – Pakistan versus India) A lot will be said and written about the finals, Misbah-ul-Haq’s fatal shot at the end, MS Dhoni’s courage in handing the ball to the rookie Joginder Sharma for the last over, the incisive and decisive bowling spells of Umar Gul and Irfan Pathan, Yusuf Pathan’s selection ahead of Dinesh Karthik (and even perhaps, Ajit Agarkar), Mohammed Hafeez dropping Rohit Sharma in the final over… But to me, there was one passage of play that epitomized the swings and fortunes of this game. That was overs 2 and 4 of the Pakistan reply. Sreesanth’s first over that looked like this: 4, 6, 6, 0, 4, 1. That was 21 runs. His next over: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0. It said as much about the bowler as it did about the game.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A mini-masterstroke

After having scored 157 for 5 in their innings, India look all set to lose (surely this target is at least 20 below par for the ground?) the finals of the World Twenty20, but full credit to India’s new skipper M S Dhoni for the intrepid selection of Yusuf Pathan for Virender Sehwag.

A conservative mindset would have felt that blooding a new player in the finals of a marquee tournament is not a good idea. But Dhoni went ahead with the choice instead of opting for the safe but tried-and-failed options – Dinesh Karthik and Ajit Agarkar.

The idea may not have succeeded completely, but Dhoni has made his point – captain courageous he sure is. It remains to be seen how much the establishment will let the skipper have his way, at least on the field.

Why do the counties exist?

Charlie Randall writes about Bob Willis expressing his disapproval over the English county system in the October edition of Wisden Cricketer. I haven’t laid my hands on the magazine yet, so am going by what Charlie has reported.

Willis believes that county cricket is no place for ex-international players like Graeme Hick, Mark Ramprakash and Dominic Cork; so-called English players like Nic Pothas and Stuart Law; and the crowd of Kolpaks and overseas players.

Willis argues that these players clog up county cricket and this acts against the interest of the national side. Which may perhaps be true, but then the question begs: What is the role of the counties in English cricket?

Are they supposed to be feeders to the national team? Are they like local government departments, set up with the objective of fulfilling the national vision of building a consistently successful national team? In that case, are the counties non-profit organizations supported in funding and organization by the ECB? If so, they can perhaps be told to operate with allocated team members, transferable through a centralised decision-making.

Or are the counties expected to exist on their own? Like private enterprises, with an eye on profit and maximising available resources? With contribution to the national cause akin to a corporate planting trees and building traffic islands at busy intersections?

I do not claim an inside knowledge of the English county system, but I reckon that the latter of the two cases above is closer to the truth. And in such a case, as the man running a county, I would be well within my rights to choose whoever I can to maximise the returns to my county, wouldn’t I?

Sure, developing a national player would increase the fortunes of my county. But at what cost and risk? If I can get a not-so-expensive fading star and the odd Kolpak or overseas player at a throwaway price and produce the results, why shouldn’t I? If the argument is that my team is not performing, then it’s a different matter. But, and apologies for sounding brutal here, why should I care about the English national team? If Ottis Gibson delivers for me (and how he has for Durham this year!), how does it matter to me that he will never turn out in English national colours? If Graeme Hick still draws the crowds at Grace Road, why would I not take him on instead of betting on a newcomer of unproven stock? And if Adil Rashid looks shaky to me (and he does, in the odd game I’ve seen him in Yorkshire colours), why would I be constrained to hold on to him when I can get a good spinner from Asia at a much lower cost?

I have deliberately taken an extreme position, but so has Bob Willis. If he is arguing for a governmental organization, I am arguing for a free market private sector. And county cricket seems to be a bit of both – which is perhaps the nub of the problem.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Hoist by his own petard?

I know it’s not quite cricket to talk or comment about people’s names, but this entry in the scorecard of the First Division County Championship game between Kent and Durham just cannot be ignored.

SJ Cook c Mustard b Onions

I wonder what the commentators had to say when the dismissal actually occurred.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Oh really?

Is the ICC World Twenty20 for real? No, I am not joining the ever-growing gang of Twenty20 baiters. I am referring to an article by Peter Roebuck, where he writes as follows.

By the way, it appears that this is not, after all, the first T20 World Cup. Oh, it looks like a World Cup, feels like a World Cup, is organised along those lines and features all the major teams, but it is a trial run.

The victor will not be acclaimed as T20's first champion. That recognition awaits the winner of the tournament to be played in England in 2009.

I have been reading quite a bit in the media about the Cup, but I don’t recall any reference to the fact that it is a trial version. Do the players know about this? Are we watching net practice telecast live?

(Thanks for the lead, Shantanu.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An ominous start? Or a flash in the pan?

ICC World Twenty20: Game 1: South Africa versus West Indies. First ball: Shaun Pollock to Chris Gayle. Slapped through point for four. Pollock finishes with figures of 1 for 52 off four overs. Gayle scores 117 off 57 balls. Pollock’s team wins comfortably, chasing down a target of 206 off 20 overs with more than two overs to spare.

So, are the pre-tournament predictions coming true? Does Twenty20 herald the death of the bowler? Or is this match an aberration?

I reckon the latter. I think that the two teams just fell for the pre-match build-up on how Twenty20 is a batsman’s game, and so just didn’t try anything on the bowling front. Sure, the batsmen batted as if they didn’t care about their wickets. Unfortunately, so did the bowlers bowl. I watched almost all of the West Indian innings and five overs of the South African chase. And I don’t recall seeing a single wicket-taking delivery, including the ones that got the wickets. It was all about the batsmen – they made the runs, they got themselves out. Of course, the West Indies bowlers contributed – with 23 wides.

I suppose it will take some time for players (more so the bowlers, it appears) and teams to come to terms with this new version of the game. And for us spectators to settle into a watching rhythm. To be honest, I was bored to tears with yesterday’s game, notwithstanding (or because of?) Gayle’s non-stop six-hitting. But New Zealand’s bowling today is encouraging, though it has come against the minnows Kenya. There is hope yet.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A game of glorious certainties

So there you are, the game has been redefined for all of us innocents who believed that the game is unpredictable, that on a good day anything can happen, that one good spell or one good innings can turn a contest around. Cricket has just succumbed to the third and ultimate lie – statistics. A new statistical model called Score Wizard can predict the results of a cricket game – it claims a 78% success rate during the 2007 World Cup and has apparently been accurate in five out of the six games in the current Natwest one-day series between India and Pakistan. Here’s the story on this revolutionary redefinition of the game.

May be this is just what cricket needs. Take away the uncertainty of the result, and you can enjoy the game, the minor moments, the beauty of the contest (such as it is). English county cricket would love this invention.

Unfortunately, the model still has some uncertainties. Sacrilegious, isn’t it? Apparently, the model cannot account for “unpredictable noise” (what a delicious phrase!) like dropped catches, rain and a batsman getting out on a no-ball. That ensures that matches involving India and those played in England cannot come under the radar of the nifty model.

And horror of horrors, the model also has complaints about “unpredictable” players. Velamakanni, the co-founder of the company that created this model bemoans that the firm does not use the model to predict the scores of players like Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. “We have a problem predicting their performance, but we do very well with Sachin (Tendulkar), Saurav (Ganguly) and (Rahul) Dravid,” he says. May be Pakistan will be banned from the game. And “unpredictable” players from other teams will probably be sent to statistics institutes so they can learn to lose this undesirable aspect of their game.

The cricketing world waits with bated breath – when will the official Score Wizard World Cup be be launched?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Book Review: You Must Like Cricket?

Saumya Bhattacharya has stolen this book idea from us. You Must Like Cricket? is a book many cricket fans would have loved writing, we who belong to that section of the population whose “minds the day after a game… are like photocopy machines gone berserk, spewing out identical images over and over again.” The sub-title, Memoirs of an Indian Cricket Fan, is like the scorecard of a game, the dry facts demonstrating the reality of what the effort is about.

A quick breezy effort, You Must Like is a chronicle of author Soumya Bhattacharya’s life, seen through the lens of the key cricket matches he has either followed on the radio, watched in person or covered as part of his media job. An unusual approach, but not one that would disappoint you, not if you are a diehard cricket fan from India, or may be even from any other cricketing nation.

If you are cricket fan, you are unlikely to be a soccer fan. And if you are a fan of Sachin Tendulkar, then David Beckham is unlikely to mean a great deal to you. Therefore, you are bound to exult when Saumya asserts that “unlike David Beckham – perhaps the one sports star with a similar global media profile – Sachin makes the news only for his cricket.”

You Must Like covers a gamut of interesting incidents and matches, most of them the popular ones, like the Golden Jubilee test of 1980, the 1983 World Cup, Anil Kumble’s 6 for 12 in the Hero Cup final (and Sachin’s heroics in the semi-finals), VVS Laxman’s test of 2001 (the year the author’s daughter is born)… So a normal cricket follower from India should be able to relate with the book quite easily. There is the odd reference to happenings which can only be recollected by (and be of interest to) the cricket-mad fan – incidents like Alvin Kallicharan dropping his trousers on the cricket field at the Eden Gardens in 1979 and Chetan Sharma’s lone century in one-day internationals at Kanpur against England in 1989 – which would perhaps excite the more crazy of us. The equivalent of the changes of pace and other variations that punctuate a good spell of disciplined bowling. And they add credence to the author’s claim to cricket craziness. A claim a few million of us can make, just in India.

The odd inaccuracy, when the author recounts the great 325 chase at Lord’s and mentions that the winning hit was a boundary from Kaif, which in reality was an overthrow off a Zaheer Khan defensive push, is galling. Especially considering this comes right in the initial pages of the book. Thankfully, it turned out to be a one-off mistake. The other little irritation is when the author becomes a little too glib and philosophical with statements like “Indians need cricket to remain an exception. We can’t allow the players to slip – it would be too much of a worth to our sense of self-worth.”

Well, as with a good cricket match, the odd mis-hits and bad balls can be forgotten. The real strokes and wickets of this book are sumptuous and worth savouring.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A “tale” of two coaches

I am not much of a magazine reader, except for Cricinfo Magazine. And if my newsagent is to be believed, it is probably going out of circulation. That would be a real shame, but that is not the reason for this post.

On a lark, I picked up the latest copy of Outlook, a general interest magazine in India. And it carried an opinion piece that made me wonder whether I was missing out anything at all by not reading magazines.

The piece is titled Only One Bully Here, and it compares Greg Chappell, the former Indian coach who led India nowhere in the Cricket World Cup, and Kabir Khan, who coached India’s women hockey team to victory in the World Cup. Before you begin to wonder when India won the Women’s Hockey World Cup, Kabir Khan is the hero of the Bollywood film title Chak De India. And while the author admits at the beginning that the comparisons “seem almost ludicrous,” he goes ahead and does a serious job, analyzing “how and why the two men achieved such different results, how both tried similar lines of attack, but one ended up with a triumphant smile and the other left his job in absolute disgrace.”

Well, there is a simple reason the results are so different – one is real life and the other is reel life. The rest of the reasoning is purely a function of that. Kabir Khan can afford to tell his prima donna Bindia, “this team can have only one bully and that’s me,” and it is sure to have the right impact because the film’s director would have scripted Bindia’s response appropriately. But if Chappell had tried the same with Saurav Ganguly, who would have played director?

I kept checking back and forth to figure out whether the article was written tongue-in-cheek, but it does not seem to be. One possible opportunity could be to get the film’s director to coach the Indian cricket coach (if and when there is one). Except that the person will have to coach the Indian players also to get them to respond appropriately to the coach. And the opposition so they fall for the coach’s plans and let India win.

I don’t think I’ll pick up another magazine in a hurry.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Whose side are you on?

A reflection on my closing thoughts from yesterday’s post. I had suggested that we as spectators may end up following games from the stable of the Indian Cricket League (ICL) just as passionately as we follow international games. On second thoughts, I am not so sure.

One of the key aspects of following cricket (or for that matter, any competitive activity) is that we end up taking sides. Even if our home nation (or county/state) is not involved, we support one of the teams. This support could be based on different reasons.

Some people tend to support Australia nowadays (or the West Indies in the 1980s) because they are more likely than not to win, and to be part of a winning side is not such a bad feeling. Especially if your country does not win too often, this could be your best chance to experience a winning feeling.

Some others lean towards the underdog because they think that their support gives the underdog a much-needed shot-in-the-arm. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more people in this category than in the first. Who would’ve got a greater thrill? A neutral fan who supported Australia in the 2007 World Cup final or one who backed India in the 1983 version?

Then there are those who back a team for the way the team plays the game. At various times, Pakistan had a fan following for their mercurial performances. What greater thrill than watching a destructive spell from Shoaib Akhtar followed by a comic run out of Inzamam-ul-Haq?

There are also those people who stand by one team because they can’t stand the opposition. There are just too many instances to cite here, and I am sure you can imagine some of them, and then have some of your own.

I can also think of people who take a team’s side because of one or two key players in that team. At one time, I used to support the West Indies team for the sake of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

The last group is the only one that could conceivably exist in the ICL format. But is that enough to sustain the ICL? Will that generate a big enough following for them to earn advertising revenues to compensate for the huge sums they are reportedly forking out to the players? I am not too sure. Unless the ICL forms teams around clubs and sells memberships to those clubs. Now that may be an idea.

So which team would you support when watching an ICL game? What would be the basis for that support? And if you don’t back a particular team, how much of the ICL games would you watch?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

At the entrance or at the exit?

The first list of players contracted by the Indian Cricket League (ICL) makes for interesting reading. The half-dozen international players include two South African cricketers – Lance Klusener and Nicky Boje – whose international career seems over. The other four, Pakistanis all, seem to have been snubbed in some form or the other by the Pakistan Cricket Board – Inzamam-ul-Haq being denied a central contract; Mohammad Yousuf and Abdur Razzaq being dropped from the T20 squad; and Imran Farhat running foul of the selectors by questioning his omission from the squad earlier in May.

But the interesting part is the list of Indian players. Included in it are six international discards, none of whom has had any significant level of success at the apex level, and a whole set of youngsters who may or may not have made the grade for the senior team in the near future.

So how is the ICL recruitment strategy likely to pan out, assuming they don’t get legitimacy status from the ICC? Of course, right now they would just grab anyone they get. But in the long run, will they wait at the entrance gate of international cricket or at the exit gate?

If they end up at the entrance gate, it may end up putting a lot of pressure on many stakeholders. The players themselves will have to decide which side of the fence to sit on. The ICL will have to make judgment calls on who is worth hiring and who is not – their talent scouts will have to match up to those of the official cricket boards. (Going by past evidence, that should not be tough to match though.) The boards will have to hike up salaries to ensure the good talent does not go away. Is it similar to the public sector and private sector battles for talent that has long existed in India?

If the ICL ends up at the exit gate, it may just about ensure that the stars don’t overstay their welcome in the national teams. At the same time, those stars may be able to extend their financial playing career as well. It could also pave the way for more youngsters into the national squads. Except that this strategy may cost the ICL a bit more.

Irrespective of the strategy it adopts, is the ICL likely to succeed? Will the matches have the same intensity as the official inter-country battles? What kind of pride will the players have at stake? Or will it be the international equivalent of that celebrity team from the England (I forget the name)?

Will we spectators turn up to watch a motley crowd of hopefuls-who-have-given-up-hope, international discards and one-step-away-from-retirement superstars battle it out in unrecognized games and series? Well, we moved from whites on five days to colours over 100 overs and now to the tamasha of Twenty20. We are nothing if not flexible in our cricket mania.

Dinesh Mongia said this about the ICL

My clear thought is, as a cricketer I want to play cricket. I play club cricket in Chandigarh, in Madras I play in corporate tournaments, I play Ranji Trophy for Punjab, and league cricket in England. Here again I get a chance to play with youngsters who are good, and foreign players.
As spectators, we perhaps are not unlike Mongia in sentiment when it comes to cricket watching. Any time, any where.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The fear of winning

Many questions have been asked about India’s performance on the fourth day of the Oval test. Should they have sent England to bat again, especially considering the lead and the cloud cover? Why did Rahul Dravid bat like a much slower version of Chris Tavaré, especially considering the fact that India had the upper hand in the overall context of the game? And by delaying the declaration for so long, were India being too safe and thus denying themselves a possible 2-0 score line?

Many answers have been opined as well, by many distinguished analysts of the game. Irrespective of the result today (and I write this just after lunch on the fifth day, with a draw looking the most likely result), it is highly unlikely that Dravid will ever share the reality behind what went into the Indian think tank’s mind as they made those difficult decisions.

In what can only be termed a delicious irony, Dravid’s partnership with VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh’s subsequent demolition of Australia in that match seems to have redefined the way a captain looks at an opportunity to send the opposition back to the batting crease. Was that Dravid’s reasoning? Could be, except that that is too templated an approach, as in, “come what may, I will not enforce the follow on.” A twist to the old WG Grace dictum of what to do when you win the toss. Words to the effect of “Bat first. When in doubt, think, then bat first.”

Is 2-0 a better result than 1-0? That is a question that might well have passed Dravid’s mind. And if the decisions are any indication, 1-0 is good enough, and 2-0 is not worth even a hugely remote chance of a 1-1 score line, thank you. The latter would perhaps have cost Dravid his job. Fear of failure is perhaps one way to classify it. So the decision was made in the context of the series, not of the match. Battle versus war, and all that stuff.

Were the Indian bowlers tired after bowling more than 100 overs? It’s a reason often given, more often on the shirtfronts of the sub-continent. But with the cloud cover on Sunday morning, surely Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and RP Singh would surely have fancied their chances? And Kumble too, as the pitch would have started breaking.

Or was it that the Indians were just plain lazy? They know that if they just draw this test, the series is theirs, and so is the (totally deserving) encomia that would follow. So was it just the lack of the much-talked about killer instinct? One remembers the 1981-82 series between the same two teams, when India won the first test and then aggressively played for draws in the following five. (Of course it didn’t help that Keith Fletcher’s England wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring either.) It was perhaps the most boring test series I remember following, but as Sunil Gavaskar, the Indian captain, is well likely to remind you, India finished on the right side of the series score line.

A more closer-to-home truth in this whole picture is that India just starting freezing as they sighted the end. A series win within sniffing distance, too unbelievable to be true, too scary to handle. Remember the Lord’s Test of 1986? Chasing a not-so-imposing 134 for victory with a full day ahead (not accounting for rain, of course), India seemed almost unwilling to win, Kris Srikkanth plodding uncharacteristically for ten balls before departing without disturbing the scorers, Mohinder Amarnath struggling to 8 off 50 balls (admittedly faster that what Dravid managed yesterday, but only just) and Mohammed Azharuddin getting run out, before captain Kapil Dev came and banished the devils in the collective Indian mind with a blink-and-you-miss it 23 off just 10 balls. I remember a reporter using the term “fear of winning” to describe that performance. Day 4 at the Oval reminded me of that expression.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

England’s team effort

It seems to be an innings where every played his part. I’m referring to the first innings of the current Oval test between India and England. Yes, the Indian team surprised themselves more than anyone else (none more so than Kumble, of course) by such a massively brilliant team effort that every individual got into double figures with the bat. But that wasn’t the only team effort on display.

Every one of England’s bowlers got among the wickets. Including their new bowling find, Kevin Pietersen, who so very expertly bought Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s wicket and finished with a return of one for 41 in 6 not-so-threatening overs.

Ryan Sidebottom was unlucky, both in terms of not getting returns off his good deliveries and the, ahem, side strain that kept him out of the attack when Kumble was busy establishing himself as the official all-rounder in the Indian team. But Arnie’s son had already kept the scorers busy by getting Dinesh Karthik with so faint an edge that only the batsman and the umpire were privy to it – Snicko didn’t catch it, so bully to technology. Ryan’s figures? One for 93 in 32 overs of hard large-hearted effort.

Chris Tremlett was the man marked as England’s Big Hope for the game by no less a soothsayer than that old wizard, Steve Harmison. But Tremlett seemed to think that he was in the team just to bowl short to Sachin Tendulkar. Tremlett did, Tendulkar countered him patiently, and the Big Hope had to settle for just the wicket of VVS Laxman and figures of 40-6-132-1.

Monty Panesar, ah poor Monty! This was probably the harshest test for him. And that he had to be removed because he was distraught with the treatment meted out to him sums up his performance. He bowled longs spells without particularly being threatening, and to be honest, the two wickets he picked up (Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth) were no consolation really, when you have figures that read 45 overs, 5 maidens, 159 runs. 2 wickets. The next man in this list prevented Monty from entering the record books for a not-so-glorious achievement.

James Anderson. He was both England’s best bowler and worst. He started as if his ambition in life was to emulate Harmison of the 2006 Ashes – wide, wider and even wider. Wasim Jaffer (or is it Salim, as the Indian manager apparently referred to him as?) gifted Anderson his wicket to get things started. Then came that peach to Rahul Dravid. Tendulkar’s was a tame dismissal and the RP Singh return catch was a good reflex effort. And along the way, Anderson kept leaking runs at 4.5 runs an over, and picked up the record for the most prodigal returns for an English bowler against India – four wickets for 182 runs in 40 overs. Monty sits second on that list with his consummate performance.

Even Paul Collingwood was not to be denied. He managed to convince umpire Ian Howell that an inside edge is no impediment to an lbw decision, and thus ended with the wicket of Ganguly, amidst figures of one for 11 in seven otherwise eventless overs.

As I write this, England are all but all out in their first innings, and it hasn’t quite been a team effort on the batting front. May be if India enforces the follow-on, England can take a shot at that in their second innings. If they fail, they can at least console themselves with the fact that all their bowlers came to the party. Just that India perhaps ended with 300 runs more than England would have liked.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The coach that crossed the road

Trevor Bayliss, who used to coach Stuart Clark at New South Wales, is now the coach of Sri Lanka. And as Sri Lanka and Australia square up in the coming months, Clark had this to say of his recent interchanges with Bayliss.

He’s told me that he knows my game inside out and that the Lankans will smash me around the park. I’ve told him that they’ve no chance if he’s basing that on his useless coaching tips.

Hmmm… now that’s a problem with coaches being shopped across the world. The man who spent three years shaping you goes off to coach your opposition, and now he can use all that knowledge against you. Of course we have county colleagues who are national opponents (and vice versa), but a coach is different – he works on tightening a player’s (and team’s) technique and addressing weak spots, so how would a player feel if his coach for a long time were to move over to the opposition? Will he become over-conscious of his weaknesses? Will his old insecurities resurface? In view of this possibility, can countries start getting coaches to sign non-compete clauses for defined time intervals, as tends to happen in corporate scenarios in some circumstances?

On a speculative note, if John Buchanan had been shopped midway through his contract with Australia, would the team that contracted him had better chances of beating Australia? I suppose we’ll never know.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Mushtaq and Mushtaq Show

Watching Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq bowl in tandem for Sussex against Kent in the second semi-final of the Twenty20 Cup yesterday evoked a feeling of what might have been had the selection policy in Pakistan cricket been a bit more, er, logical.

Sure the Mushtaqs ended up on the losing side, but during the period of eight overs when they bowled through their quota, there was only one team playing cricket in the middle. Ahmed started with an expensive over and Saqlain ended with one, but the six overs that separated these two were just plain outstanding. Not a single boundary was scored (remember this is Twenty20, not good old test cricket), why, not a single genuine stroke was played. It was a miracle that the Mushtaqs grabbed only one wicket each. May be the Kent batsmen were not good enough to get out to them.

You may argue that Robert Key is no Kevin Pietersen. He most certainly is not, but don’t forget that Key is an English international of recent vintage, has played 15 test matches and has a test double hundred against his name. You may argue that Martin van Jaarsveld is no Graeme Smith. He most certainly is not, but don’t forget that Martin played for South Africa not too long ago. And you can’t argue against the fact that this was Cup semi-final night and that the game was played in right earnest.

Apart from their bowling actions and the fact that one turns the ball into the right hander (as his stock delivery) and the other turns it away from the right hander, the similarities between Ahmed and Saqlain yesterday were amazing. Bushy salt-and-pepper beards proclaiming their religious fervour, supreme confidence in every step, impish smiles after forcing the batsman into a false stroke (which was about 36 times in six overs, give or take the odd defensive shot) and, coincidentally, absolutely identical figures – 4-0-21-1. (To complete a day of spinning coincidences, that other magician Mutthiah Muralitharan had delivered exactly the same returns for Lancashire against Gloucestershire in the first semi-final, also in a losing cause.)

The other noticeable aspect of this passage of play was the way the Kent players approached the Mushtaqs. They had just two shots for them – the sweep and the reverse-sweep. Sure Graham Gooch did the orthodox one famously in the World Cup semi-final in 1987, but so did Mike Gatting, infamously, with the unorthodox one in the final of the same Cup. Surely the MCC coaching manual allows more shots to the turning ball?

On a different note, it is quite heartening that a team can bowl six absolutely unplayable overs in a Twenty20 game and still lose the match. That’s 30 per cent of the innings and 15 per cent of the game. It suggests that the Twenty20 is not such a slam bang game after all – there can be quiet passages of play in a winning cause as well. Ah, the possibilities are tantalising. Thanks – Mushtaq and Mushtaq.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


It’s a pity really, that umpires at the Twenty20 World Cup will “officiate in their normal, stock-standard way,” according to tournament director Steve Elworthy. And here we were, expecting umpires to give seven-ball overs, penalize bowlers for bowling dot balls, send batsmen on their way for conceding maiden overs, disallow direct hit run-outs, award runs for sledging and slam fielding captains for restrictive field-settings, among others.

Twenty20, by virtue of being one-day cricket on steroids, is likely to produce high octane cricket by itself. So why is there so much focus on the trappings? The game can take care of itself, thank you. What next? Cross-dressing match referees? Purple-striped pitches? Psychedelic sightscreens? Variable boundary lengths for different batsmen?

Wake me up when the game begins please.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Getting it "over" with

In its characteristic spirit of introspection and self-flagellation, the British media has been identifying reasons for England’s inability to grab the one final wicket that would’ve given them victory in the Lord’s test against India. The Spin has an insightful collection of “miniscule” reasons in this week’s edition. Some of the reasons are plausible; but I’m not sure I agree with point 4.

England can hardly complain when they bowled only 55 overs between 11am and 3.35pm, which is when they left the field for the last time. Granted, that kind of rate is par for the course these days, but England in effect cheated themselves out of five or so overs, even with Panesar bowling 13 of them and Michael Vaughan four. With clouds gathering, urgency ought to have been paramount.

Quite a few others in the British media have picked this point up as well. But the truth of the matter is that England’s over-rate in the fourth innings was not any worse than that of either team in the match – India bowled 91.2 overs in 395 minutes in the first innings at a rate of 13.9 overs an hour and 78.3 overs in 360 minutes in the second at 13.1; England bowled 77.2 overs in 352 minutes in the first innings at 13.2 and 96 overs in 414 minutes in the second at 13.9. Sure, Monty Panesar bowled quite a bit for England, but so did Anil Kumble for India.

The numbers, nevertheless, tell only one side of the story. The other argument is whether rushing through your overs in a bid to bowl more is necessarily effective. Sure, if you bowl more, you stand a better chance of grabbing wickets. But that is only if you’re bowling with a purpose. Remember how Sir Richard Hadlee used the over as a unit to plot batsmen out? Remember the rhythm of Waqar Younis (or Shoaib Akhtar) as he pounded in with his mile-long run-up? Remember Shane Warne working out his opposition? And remember the golden era of the West Indian quicks? They never seem to have bowled more than 80 overs in a day, but they still managed to regularly grab the 20 wickets required for their team to win, more often than not with time to spare. Taking wickets in test matches is about scheming, about adjusting your field incessantly, about keeping things changing. About taking your time.

England is beginning to play inspirational, effective cricket. Give them the space and time to do so. And if the weather denies them the odd victory, so be it. The world knows they can handle disappointment. At least at Lord’s, it was in an almost-successful pursuit of victory.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Pictures of cricket

The splayed legs of Gundappa Vishwanath as he executed yet another of his exquisite square cuts; an almost mystical Abdul Qadir in mid-stride, fingers reaching for his lips; the flying stumps behind the batsman with a menacing Michael Holding still in his follow-through; an agile Ian Botham celebrating yet another catch at second slip, the dramatic appealing of Dennis Lillee as he nailed yet another batsman… these were some of the images that initiated me into the game of cricket in the late 1970s and the early 1980s.

Images that came to us not through cricket web sites, not through dedicated cricket channels, not through 24-hour sports channels, not even through the inconsistent coverage of the national television channel, but through grainy black & white photographs in the daily newspapers and in exciting colour ones in the sports magazines of those days – The Sportstar (the only one still standing, albeit without the definite article), Sportsweek, and Sportsworld, and back copies of the defunct Sport & Pastime.

Of course, most of the dailies only carried postage-stamp-sized photographs of Sunil Gavaskar or Kapil Dev while reporting yet another of their centuries or five-wicket hauls, but considering the scarcity of imagery in those days, even these pictures were priceless and found their way into our scrapbooks – last year’s notebooks filled with all the pictures we could get hold of from the daily newspapers. (I remember having at least 10 identical pictures of Kapil Dev, beaming smile, drooping moustache and all, in one of my scrap books.) And every time a new picture was stuck (with glue or with particles of rice, never with adhesive tape), the entire scrap book was lovingly perused, the picture count made all over again, and the scrap book carefully put back in its place on the shelf.

Naturally, all our attention was on the cricketers and the action (such as there was), but even then we did not miss the fact that most of the pictures that came in from games outside of India were from one of three sources – All Sport, Adrian Murrell and Patrick Eager. The last named, Patrick Eager just covered his 300th test when he took his regular position behind the lens in the just concluded test at Lord’s, where the weather ended up denying England the one wicket they needed to beat India to go one-up in the series.

Thanks, Patrick, for bringing the game alive in our minds.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Australia’s Twenty20 vision

I wrote about England’s selection for the Twenty20 World Cup in a post last week, about how they seemed to have dusted the who’s who editions of the past and pulled out people from the middle of their benefit games. Now Australia have announced their Twenty20 squad. And guess what they have done?

They’ve stuck to the tried and tested – taken the victorious World Cup squad, replaced the retired Glenn McGrath with the fit-again Brett Lee, and left the rest of the team intact.

Does this say anything about the difference between Australia and England (or any other cricketing side, for that matter), in terms of how they approach the game? It does, to me. Not just how Australia approach the Twenty20 version, but their attitude to cricket itself. The goal is to win – the best team will be chosen, the proven will be preferred.

It’s almost like a corporate organization – every project is equally important, every client is pursued zealously, every product has to hit home.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Comparison or . . .

As the India-England series gets underway, the media is awash with the expected admixture of nostalgia, all-time team lists, predictions and hopes, speculations on individual head-to-heads, wishes, superlatives and hype. And that one activity that cricket writers can never tire of – comparisons. Among the recent is the one comparing Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid on Times Online.

Much has been said against comparisons. They are odious, they are speculative, they are unfair, they are biased, they do not consider context appropriately, numbers aren’t everything… the rants go on. Of course most of this is true. But does that mean we stop doing comparisons?

Cricket, or for that matter any other sport (or entertainment even), loses a lot of its charm if you don’t compare players – within teams, across teams, across generations, across different forms of the game (I don’t remember reading a piece on whether Tendulkar in whites is better than Tendulkar in coloured clothing, but I’m sure there is one, or may be more than one)… the comparison parameters can be endless. And so can the debates.

Can you even talk cricket for any meaningful length of time without making comparisons?

For the rabid Tendulkar fan, Sachin is the No. 1 player, only because there are others who takes up slots No. 2 downwards. Which is comparison in itself, isn’t it?

For the Statsguru seeking number cruncher, Mutthiah Muralitharan is the best spin bowler in the world because his average is better than any one else’s. In his mind, there is no, er, comparison.

For the cricket-crazy connoisseur, David Gower is a better batsman than, well, any one else you care to name, for reasons only another cricket-crazy connoisseur can understand. What a waste that connoisseurship if he can’t make statements like that?

Of course, a comparison piece in the media is bound to evoke counter-arguments and denials, heat and fury. One reason for that is perhaps that a comparison is a personal opinion, so people react strongly when a journalist (who, for the most part, is expected to be fair and neutral) indulges in a comparison piece.

But may be there is more to it. Any comparison is not likely to find more than fifty per cent of readers supporting it; the other half are likely to go the other way. And what good is a comparison if it does not invoke that polarisation? And what good is a comparison if you do not get an opportunity to counter it?

Compared to a comparison, what would you rather have?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Cowdrey Lecture 2007

It gave me great pleasure to note that a cricket commentator was invited to deliver the Cowdrey lecture by the MCC this year. Chris Martin Jenkins takes pride of place as the first non-cricketer to deliver the lecture in its seven year lifetime so far. In retrospect, it is quite surprising that this is a first. But that is not the focus of this piece.

The full script of the lecture is available on the Lord’s website, but let me pick up a few excerpts to comment on.

When a batsman is bowled; he walks; when a batsman hits the ball in the air to mid-off and is caught; he walks. When a batsman snicks Monty Panesar to slip via the wicket-keeper’s glove and is caught by slip; he walks. But when a batsman snicks it into the keeper’s gloves only – and not into a fielder’s hands – he doesn’t walk – in the hope that the umpire might not be certain. Again, when he snicks it off the inside edge via his pad to short leg and is caught, generally speaking these days, he doesn’t walk either, for the same reason. Where is the logic, or the honour in that?

The argument is a bit like Swiss cheese, I’m afraid.

A batsman walks when he is bowled because he knows the ball has hit the stumps and the bails have been dislodged, and the spectacle is visible to every one. A batsman walks when he hits the ball in the air to mid-off because he knows he has hit the ball in the air, and the evidence is there for all to see. A batsman walks when he snicks Monty Panesar to slip because he knows he has snicked it, and the world knows it too. (Though I’m not sure every one will walk if the snick went off the wicket-keeper’s gloves, but that’s not quite the point.)

However, when a batsman snicks to the keeper or inside edges to short leg, he does not walk. The reasons are one of two – he does not know whether he has actually snicked it, or he is not sure whether the rest of the world, especially the umpire, has caught him snicking it. The first is a question of logic, and the second, that of honour, if you will. We can appeal to the honour of the batsman perhaps, but if, “at the professional level players’ livelihoods are at stake”, honour is more often than not likely to come a poor second. It’s perhaps the harsh reality of professional sport, but reality it is.

Now let me turn the argument around. How many times do fielding teams appeal for leg before decisions on inside edges and on obvious down-the-leg deliveries, and on bat-pad decisions where the bat and the pad were a cricket ground apart? How do we appeal to their collective honour? If the umpires need help from the players, they do so from both sides, don’t they?

And even if we want to implement Jenkins’ suggestion, how do we do it? Fines for dishonour? Penalty runs or wickets? Warnings and bans?

On to a different point. To begin with, Jenkins argues that the overrate in test cricket has to be improved: “90 in a six-hour day HAS to become a minimum for a game.” Stepping up the pace, he advocates that we should stretch it to 100 overs a day and make test matches four day affairs.

The beauty of test match cricket is its slowness, in a relative sense. You have one-day cricket if you are in a hurry; and Twenty20 if you're just passing by. Speeding up a test match means you lose on the nuances. The spinner adjusting his field minutely; the batsman doing a bit of gardening to let his mind forget the dropped chance off the previous ball; the fast bowler walking ponderously back to the top of his mark – these are the non-active images that fuel the test match.

There are more such interesting and provocative suggestions and arguments in the lecture, none more than the reference to a bidding system suggested by David Harris, a coach from Herefordshire, to replace the toss. I’ll let you access the original lecture to read it.

And Jenkins ends with the ominous prediction that every one has been cavilling about:

“They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing” (The Merchant of Venice)