Thursday, May 31, 2007

What England need in ODIs

Graham Thorpe suggests that Michael Vaughan retire from one-day internationals and England make Kevin Pietersen their captain for the limited overs version of the game.

Enough has been said about Vaughan’s performance (or lack of it) in the 2007 World Cup. His performance in one-day internationals overall hasn’t been glorious either. An average of a mere 27.15 over an 86-game career without a single century to his name speaks for itself. So may be he should do a Steve Harmison vis-à-vis the one-day game.

But should Kevin Pietersen be the captain? Will it be too early? (Memories of a certain Ian Botham come to mind.) Will the responsibilities of captaincy curb Pietersen’s free spirit? If Andrew Flintoff were to come back to full fitness, would he be a better candidate for captaincy? However, inasmuch as Pietersen (apart from Flintoff, when he is not on the surgery table) is the only automatic selection into the England one-day squad, may be his name should at least be discussed.

But captaincy is not the core of England’s concerns when it comes to the one-day game. Their bigger problem is that they just don’t seem to have grasped the gestalt of the game, notwithstanding the plethora of one-day games that are played as part of the county season. The so-called one-day specialists are too one-dimensional (Who was that opener who hit one swept six off the fast bowlers per game and nothing much else?) and journeyman-like; the test specialists are too rigid in adapting to the limited overs game (Vaughan himself and Ian Bell come to mind; Graham Thorpe in the past was not dissimilar either, with due respect). But its not about the players; the England management seems to be lost in terms of one-day strategies, team selections, and the like.

May be what England really need is a coach specifically for the one-day game. A coach who understands the one-day game. A coach who will build a one-day team for a few seasons and not tournament by tournament. A coach who will fill the team with the optimal mix of solid players and floaters. A coach who will get the team to take the one-day game seriously. And a coach who is not an Englishman.

It’s a challenge that can daunt a John Buchanan. And tempt him too. Imagine he takes up the gauntlet. And gets England to lift the big cup in 2011 (with a finals victory over Australia)? Won’t he go down the annals of cricketing history as the greatest coach ever?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey

That one line from Brian Johnston sums up BBC’s Test Match Special for me. Witty, wicked, irreverent, but without an extra word.

TMS has completed 50 years of existence. While the BBC has a matter-of-fact piece on it, Peter Baxter gives a personal perspective in Test Match Special – 50 not out.

It is a tribute to their quality that notwithstanding competition from newer forms of media like television and the Internet and a decline in the popularity of test match cricket (especially when England was so depressingly unsuccessful at it for a such a long time), TMS has survived and thrived for so long. And this without changing much – the commentary still has an old-world charm about it and does not rely on statistics and gimmicks to sustain itself. I reckon the key to their longevity and success is the depth of knowledge of the commentators and the joy with which they appear to be doing their jobs. Not to mention their wit and humour.

Granted cricket does offer its share of opportunities for innuendo, what with terms like no ball, wide, hook, slip, fine leg, third man and, if I may be permitted some shameless self-promotion, cow corner; but it takes a fine bunch to take advantage of these opportunities and make hay with them. And then take it to a different level with incidents like the classic “leg over” commentary.

The wikipedia entry on TMS provides a good level of detail on them.

Great half century, TMS. Hope you make it to three figures.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Well left

Steve James, writing in the Guardian, talks about the importance of leaving the ball, especially in the kind of conditions England and West Indies were up against at Headingley. He quotes Sir Vivian Richards: “You’ve got to do it in England,” he said, “In fact, in early season over here leaving the ball early on gave me more pleasure than it hitting the middle of the bat. You’ve got to show respect.”

Two interesting points being made here.

Leaving the ball actually gives Sir Viv greater pleasure than middling it. Counter-intuitive as it might sound, it seems perfectly sensible. It’s probably true in business as well – success is a function of not just what you choose to do but what you choose not to do as well. And it is not counter to aggression either – aggression does not mean going hell for leather against every delivery – it’s about choosing the right delivery to hit. A certain Mr. Sehwag can benefit from this advice.

Sir Viv talking of respecting the bowling? He who stepped inside the line of Mike Hendrick’s full-length delivery and flicked it for six over midwicket in the last ball of the West Indian innings in the 1979 World Cup Final? He who murdered bowlers across the world with shots all round the wicket? He who is still talked of in awe for his gum-chewing nonchalance and chilling stroke play? No, Sir Viv was talking of respecting the conditions. If the ball swings, it is a function of the nip in the air. If the ball wobbles, it has to do with the wind behind the bowler. Respect for nature is what Sir Viv is referring to. An interesting way of saying “adapt to the conditions.”

Monday, May 28, 2007

Will they? Won’t they? Should they?

Now that the Bangladesh tour is done and dusted, India face up to the challenge of the tour of England. There is bound to be a lot of speculation on the team selection, and whether the ones that finally get selected deserved to be in or not. Let me make my task easier, and ponder over some of the doubtful starters.

The captain of my not-bound-for-England team is VVS Laxman. No, let me confess, I am a big fan of Laxman. But while he has prospered on the bouncy pitches of Australia and the predictable ones of India, I am not sure the juicy English wickets are quite his cup of tea. Moreover, he has been a bit rusty for want of match practice for a few months now. Add to this the fact that he is bound to be a backup for the untouchable trio of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly – which may not make him too comfortable. And his fielding outside the slip cordon, er, what fielding?

For the first time in a really long while (when did it happen last?), India will probably carry two wicketkeepers. While I am not arguing the merits of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik, I would not carry Dhoni as the first ‘keeper. Not in England, surely. I would carry him though, but as a second wicketkeeper for the tests. His batting, of course, is never going to stand up to count in English conditions, except perhaps on the Oval shirtfront towards the end of the tour. Of course, Dhoni will be the first choice for the one-day internationals. And if I get Karthik to keep wickets, I will not open the batting with him. No sir, I would recall a certain Virender Sehwag – he of the slam-bang-sorry-ma’am school of batting. Harmy’s deliveries need to be directed, to the boundary, and who better than Sehwag to do that?

Munaf Patel is another person I’d prefer to give a rest. With his injury problems, his non-existent fielding and batting, and his much-reduced pace, his accuracy and line-and-length stuff is unlikely to count for much. And if he is injured, he can’t carry too heavy a drinks crate either, can he?

It may seem like stating the obvious, but Ajit Agarkar is another who should not make the cut. Agarkar seems to be the never-forgotten man of Indian cricket, and some wise man may remember his century at Lord’s (in a lost cause, in case you forget) and consider taking him as a specialist all-rounder.

They are unlikely to select him, but I do hope the selectors do not consider Robin Uthappa for the test matches. With a technique like his, being blooded in English conditions is a free ride to retirement.

Notwithstanding his (supposedly) useful batting, flashy sunglasses, and genuine flight, Ramesh Powar is not a man for tests in England. He is so slow in the air, the batsman can play two shots to his quicker one.

So which of these will make it? And who will be the other surprises in the squad? We’ll know soon. In Indian cricket, the selection phase is usually as entertaining as the real game; some times even more.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Defining cricket in the next decade

The print issue of Wisden Cricketer has come out with a list of 10 players who will define cricket in the next decade. CricketNext carried a brief report.

I am sure the magazine has detailed analyses and opinions on how each of these individuals will contribute their mite to the game over the next few years, but I haven’t read it yet. In that delightful ignorance, it’s interesting to spend an idle Friday evening speculating how each of these people will make a lasting difference.

Michael Clarke was apparently touted as Australia’s future captain even before he made his debut. So what kind of an impact when he becomes captain? May be he will preside over the Australian team as it falls off the pedestal it has occupied longer than anyone wants to remember? Thus making the game more competitive?

How do you describe Shaun Tait? As accurate as Harmy one ball, as wayward as Pigeon the next. So will Tait usher in a new rule for bowlers: If you bowl three straight balls in an over, you are allowed one wide? Now that should reduce the disparity between batsmen and bowlers! And extend Harmy’s career in the bargain.

Shane Watson may well come to define the new age versatile cricketer, currently known as the bits-and-pieces journeyman. Middle-order-slogger one day, first-choice-but-injured opener the next, and then fit-again-middle-order-slogger the third. And a sudden test match hopeful in the next interview. With a bowling arm that comes in handy when nine, ten and jack are at the crease.

What’s cricket without commerce? And what’s commerce without personality? We do need personalities for the future, don’t we? Reverse-sweeping the best off-spinner in the world for six in a test match or taking four wickets in four balls against the second best ODI team in the world (but the unquestioned champions in “choking”) in a World Cup game are fine, but where will be our “model” cricketers of the future be if their hair was straight and its colour, plain and monochromatic? Take a bow, Kevin Pietersen and Lasith Malinga.

A loose-limbed action and a test bowling average of 20.12 after 9 matches (as of today) is all interesting to note, but how can you improve on this and make a difference in the next decade? How about being caught in a drug scandal one day and then becoming the vice captain in the next series you play? That’s Mohammad Asif for you.

Playing for one of the weaker teams in the circuit has its own advantages. You need to make a century only once in a season to get noticed. It helps if you are extravagant in your stroke play or if you make the century against the right opposition. And sometimes, if you don’t mind, the result of the game matters. Little wonder then, that Bangladesh’s Mohammad Ashraful is a shoo-in into this list.

The West Indies re-defined fast bowling in the 70s and 80s, where their bowlers reputedly had three types of deliveries – fast, faster and fastest. So what you do say to a West Indian fast bowler (all rounder, at least in the relative sense) who makes his reputation because he also has three types of deliveries – slow, slower and slowest? Welcome him into the list of players who would redefine the next decade, of course. Ladies and gentlemen, Dwayne Bravo.

They are the eternal bridesmaids of international cricket, and their neighbours have always treated them with scant respect. So if New Zealand unearths a young exciting talent like Ross Taylor who spearheads a successful run chase of Australia’s 336 in his very first international season, how can he be ignored? Considering how he performed in the 2007 World Cup, may be Taylor’s role in the future will be only to score centuries against Australia in home ODIs when chasing imposing totals. Thus giving a totally new definition to the term “big occasion man”.

That leaves us with the man the magazine says “had the talent to be a left-handed Sachin Tendulkar but warns that he needs to be handled sensitively by the Indian selectors.” So does Suresh Raina represent the corporatisation of cricket, where the management takes accountability for the performance of individuals?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Running the game

The MCC World Cricket Committee’s meeting on May 14, 2007 seems to have touched on some of cricket’s most common themes of recent years.

International schedules and how hectic they are came up invariably for discussion. While the committee sounds noble when it “recommends a review of the international playing calendar, with the aim of striking a balance between financial gain, player welfare and audience satisfaction”, it is easier said than done. Balancing the needs of stakeholders something corporate organisations strive for all the time. May be we need to find avenues through which boards can make money on non-play days? May be the sponsorship models need to be reexamined? May be the definition of seasons should be more strictly adhered to and optimised? Basketball in the U.S. and football in Europe operate with hectic schedules in their seasons as well. Are there any lessons to be learnt from there?

The committee recommends “regular monitoring of bowling actions under match conditions.” This is a valid point because under test conditions, bowlers of dubious arm angles tend to be extra cautious with their actions. But there needs to be a clear process for and way of doing this, without disrupting the game. Can some technology akin to the hawk-eye be used to enable this?

The committee has also commented on a few other things – shortening of boundaries, gluing of pitches and the length of the World Cup. Nothing original in any of these recommendations either.

But to me, the key is really the composition of the Committee itself. It comprises 14 members, led by Chairman Tony Lewis. It is an interesting mix of players from most of the test cricket playing nations (except New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) and one umpire – David Shepherd. Another aspect of the committee’s composition is that there are only two bowlers – Courtney Walsh and Tony Dodemaide. Considering the kind of issues that have come up, the committee perhaps needs a rethink its composition.

Running the game is not just about managing the on-field action – it is akin to running a corporate organization. So they may do well to consider people from different specialisations as part of the management, like the board of a company. Here’s my mix.

  1. Former and current cricketers – one batsman, one fast bowler, one spinner and the odd wicketkeeper (at least two of them should have captained their national side for a considerable duration).
  2. An umpire
  3. A match referee
  4. A groundsman
  5. A coach
  6. A sports doctor
  7. A couple of senior corporate executives
  8. A couple of computer technologists
  9. A couple of administrators – one from European football and one from the NBA

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Bradman of coaches?

Is John Buchanan the best coach cricket has ever had? Apart from the seemingly endless sequence of wins that Australia have enjoyed under his coaching, the ways Australia have dominated (and continue to dominate) the game suggests an answer in the affirmative. Are there any composite numbers that can rank cricket coaches? For a game that thrives so much on statistics, it’s a surprise that we don’t have win averages, margin ratios and such like discussed on a consistent basis for coaches.

Back to Buchanan. Some may have questioned his coaching methods; some may have found his penchant for misplacing notes on the opposition a bit funny; but no one can question the fact that he has been the coach of the most successful cricket team of the past decade, and perhaps in all of cricket history until now. (Quiz question: who was the coach / manager of the 1948 Australian Invincibles? Or did Sir Don do that role as well?)

Rohit Brijnath of the Sportstar catches up with the Buchanan in this interview.

Buchanan’s stringent training routines and his focus on a corporate style of people management may have got more ink space in the media through his tenure as coach, but this interview brings out the little factors that characterize Buchanan’s success. Like the insistence on carrying their own bowling machine to West Indies during the World Cup this year, even though the West Indies Cricket Board had promised that there would be bowling machines at all venues, just because “it is one of the things we can then control.”

“Playing the percentages” is a term that gets used a lot in cricket. Buchanan does this too.

“Batting wise I looked at our scoring shot percentages, which is the number of balls we score from in an innings and roughly we average 150 to 180 balls an innings, so that means we're not scoring from 120 to 150 balls. And I said to the players I think it's realistic we can actually improve that by 5 to 10 per cent.

“The flip side to that is our bowling, we're in the vicinity of 50 to 55 per cent dot balls in an innings", and so again they tried to increase that by 5 to 10 per cent. In fielding it was the same. Buchanan looked at the opportunities created, the catches, throws at stumps, dives, and the numbers told him the team was successful about one in four times. So they tried to get it close to one in three.”

Buchanan almost seems to treat runs and numbers as entries in a Profit & Loss statement and work on them accordingly – increasing something here, cutting a little bit there, and thus improving the overall numbers successfully. (May be Peter Moores should just tell a certain Stephen Harmison to ensure that he gets the batsman to play at at least 3 deliveries in an over. Now that would be a start, wouldn’t it?)

Simply put, success (in cricket at least) is about doing the little things right, seems to be Buchanan’s mantra. Contrast this with coaches who talk of processes, long-term plans, “building a team for the future” and the like.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Is fast bowling fast bowing out?

Simon Hughes goes after fast bowling in Fast bowling suffers slow death in The Telegraph. Simon identifies some factors that have led to the decline of fast bowling – one-day cricket, too much cricket, flatter pitches and more protection for the batsmen. Simon also opines that fast bowlers today are probably trying to pick up too many skills – I’ll pass that comment lest I digress.

There are two points that Simon has left out. One is the changing nature of the rules of the game – limiting the number of bouncers in an over, fielding restrictions in one-dayers, the lbw rule for balls pitching outside the leg stump and the like. The second, which can be argued is part of the first, is the minimum over-rate requirement today. Back in the days when the West Indian pace quartets operated and before, they did not have the 90-overs-a-day requirement. So they were able to pace themselves, preserve their stamina and go at full tilt through the day. (As for one-day internationals, they were few and far between, and most of them happened in England and Australia, where you had light late into the day in the summer.)

Reasons apart, isn’t it time we stopped mourning the death of fast bowling? Sure we don’t have fast bowlers with averages under 23 runs per wicket. May be we don’t have too many great spells like the ones the types of Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee came up with. But is that only because fast bowling has fallen apart?

Perhaps. On the other hand, should our yardsticks change?

If so many rules have changed and so much development (such as it is) has been brought to bear on the game, should our yardsticks for measuring the efficacy of fast bowlers remain the same?

Let’s look at batting records for a moment. No longer is a score upwards of 400 an absolutely winning first-innings score in a test match. No longer is a sub 3.5 run-rate good enough in one-dayers. And how many centuries do we get in one-dayers today compared to the 70s, 80s and 90s? And look at the top five individual scores in tests. How many of them were scored in the last 15 years? Take away the almost unreal average of Sir Don Bradman, and almost all batting records are owned by modern day batsmen. Does that mean today’s batsmen are better than those of yesteryears?

The flip side is perhaps true for bowlers. Would Marshall have managed an average of 20.94 if he had come up against the power hitting of Mathew Hayden and Ricky Ponting on the shirtfronts of Adelaide, trying to rush through his overs in four minutes? Would Joel Garner have managed his miserly 3.09 runs per over in one-dayers if he had come up against the Powerplays and the power bats of today? On the other hand, would a Glenn McGrath have got so many wickets if he had played in an era when there were fewer test matches?

Well, I don’t want to compare players across generations, but considering the way the game has evolved, is a sub-23 average per wicket still a fair benchmark for tests? And a sub-4 runs per over in one-dayers?

I think it was Ian Chappell who once suggested that inflation happens in cricket. May be it’s time for us to inflation-adjust our measurement dimensions and redefine our benchmarks, and stop wallowing in memories of a different past.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Where it’s just a game

Mike Marqusee has been writing the Level Playing Field column for The Hindu’s Sunday magazine for as long as I can remember. In this week’s piece, Mike dwells on English county cricket, and while a lot has been said and written about the ills of the county cricket scene, there is definitely an unmistakable charm to the game in the countyside (and countryside) of England. And the key to that is perhaps the wholesomeness of the experience – the settings, the atmosphere, the tea and scones, the chilled lager, the colourful costumes of the spectators contrasting the pristine white of the players, the pace (or the lack of it)… ah, county cricket sounds like an idyllic Sunday afternoon!

May be there is a clue here for administrators – can we woo the spectators back to the game by creating a wholesome experience around play day rather than just the game and the players? May be Twenty20 is attempting something like that, albeit on a frenzied note. (But it is that frenzy that takes away from the charm, isn’t it?)

Apart from painting a (deservedly) charming picture of the county game, Mike raises a point that has been the bone of contention of many a former English (and non-English) cricketer, commentator, coach and administrator.

County cricket has long provided a handy scapegoat for England’s cricketing failures. An influential school of modernisers would like to do away with it altogether, and slim down English cricket to some half a dozen sides. The argument is that the comfort zone in county cricket is too great. What’s needed is fewer and more competitive games. But that would require un-doing a great deal of history and up-rooting long-established loyalties. It also presumes that the principal function of domestic cricket is to act as a nursery for the England squad.

Note the last sentence. The key argument here is that county cricket is not a means to an end; it is an end itself. Club football in Europe has pretty much been that way for quite a while now, and shows no signs of changing. So why shouldn’t county cricket be likewise? May be cricket should also explore the international league system a bit more deeply than it has done so far? Fancy a cup final between New South Wales and Transvaal at Lord’s? I’ll be there I reckon.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The beauty of monotony

It was interesting to see Monty Panesar bowling to the West Indies today, day 3 of the first test. Sure, this West Indies team does not possess the most frightening batting lineup in the world, but it was a great spell nevertheless. But the beauty of Monty’s bowling was the lack of variety. Just take a look at the tea-time scorecard.

C H Gayle b L E Plunkett 30

D Ganga lbw b M S Panesar 49

D S Smith b M S Panesar 21

R R Sarwan lbw b M S Panesar 35

S Chanderpaul not out 26

R S Morton lbw b M S Panesar 14

D J Bravo not out 14

Extras (2nb 14w 12lb) 28

Total (for 5 wickets) 217 (59.0 overs)

Plunkett set things going by sending Gayle’s off stump for a long walk. And Monty began as in a dream, bowling Smith with his first ball – a straight one that Smith played for the turn. But things got only better for Monty. He just kept bowling the arm ball – and what a golden arm it turned out to be today! All three batsmen who fell leg before to him, Ganga, Sarwan and Morton, were dismissed by arm balls, thrusting their pads in front of their bats. And there were a few more shouts of other arm balls as well. One of them almost went from Morton’s bat on to his boots before settling into the hands of the fielder at silly point.

A lot has been made about variety in bowling. But Monty today demonstrated that sticking to sameness can produce results as well. It’s a lesson Sir Richard Hadlee, Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock have demonstrated endlessly. Monty’s spell was one more lesson on the virtues of monotony.

Friday, May 18, 2007

New Stew at TMS

Alec Stewart is the newest blogger on the cricket circuit – he now blogs on BBC’s Test Match Special blog.

You’re not going to believe this, but the focus of Stewart’s first post (up yesterday) is on wicket-keepers, more specifically, England’s new wicket-keeper Matt Prior. “No wicket-keeper since I retired has put up an unanswerable case to be selected for England through weight of performance in either county or international cricket,” begins the Gaffer unselfconsciously. And goes on to a truly searing insight: “Whoever was selected therefore had to be picked on potential rather than results.” Ah, now that explains why England don’t seem to prefer youth – they need results before they get on to the playing field.

After a bit of praise for Prior, Stewart makes a small confession: “At this stage I must say I’m slightly biased towards Prior as he is a client of the management company I am part of,” sounding appropriately sheepish as he says it. Of course, his views on Prior are “based purely on my cricketing knowledge and not from any commercial viewpoint.” Stewart does seem to know Prior really closely though. How else would he “inwardly… know he is very nervous as any debutant will be”?

But Stewart saves his best for the unfortunate Paul Nixon. “I think deep down he will know that at the age of 36 it’s probably not the right time to make a Test debut,” he opines sagely. Patience, Nicko, may be 37 or 38 is like the right age.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Not Vaughan’ted?

After a small matter of six months, Michael Vaughan has mustered the courage to speak up about the establishment – he says he was shut out by the old England regime during the last Ashes.

He is an interesting man, is Michael Vaughan. “I'm an Ashes-winning captain with a huge amount of knowledge on a lot of things and I wasn't used at all,” he said. I could almost see him turn red with embarrassment . Such modesty, Michael. Especially after having won the Ashes so many times, your hands must be aching holding that urn for so long. And why was it that when Australia lost to Vaughan’s team (he’d prefer that usage, I reckon), a Steve Waugh or a Mark Taylor never made such statements? There was no old regime versus new regime then, I suppose. Or they hadn't won the Ashes often enough?

So is this Vaughan’s way of ensuring a smooth comeback to the side when (perhaps the word should be “if”) he recovers from his injuries? (I suppose I’ll be accused of initiating conspiracy theories for raising this question.)

I don’t remember England having any stipulations about players speaking to the media, so why is it that Vaughan chose to wait for so long to make these deeply insightful confessions? Well, I shouldn’t quibble about that – most revelations seem to come with more of an eye on the future than the past – sample the comments on Greg Chappell of late. I wonder what’s in store for Tom Moody after he moves on from Sri Lanka. And we are waiting for that eulogy on John Buchanan, aren’t we? Warnie, is your pen poised?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Players and roles

Allan Lamb has a novel suggestion: make Andrew Flintoff a selector. No, Lamb is not suggesting that Freddie’s playing days are over. He is just suggesting that Flintoff should be involved in the management of the team. Else, Lamb warns ominously, “Freddie he could drift off and not be the player he was.”

This is an interesting point: keep a key player involved in the team beyond his or her functional role. This tends to happen a lot in corporate circles. Apart from your regular job, quite often you are also part of some “company-wide initiative” or other – it could be a six-sigma project, a training or competency development assignment, the entertainment committee, the food committee… It is assumed that such involvement ensures the individual’s commitment to the company, makes them feel part of the company and gets them to think beyond the narrow confines of their roles. And for a large part, it works.

Can such an approach work in cricket? I reckon it can, and not just for the senior cricketers. And not just as an antidote to recalcitrance, as Lamb has suggested in Freddie’s case. It can be considered from a development angle, from an all-round team-building perspective.

I remember a couple of seasons ago, in the Indian team an Anil Kumble was “nominated” a bowling “captain” and someone else (Kaif? Yuvraj?) a fielding “captain” in the practice sessions. A good idea, I wonder why it seems to have been jettisoned.

May be we can look at different roles for different players outside the playing area as well. Why do we expect the captain to be the best person in the team to handle the media and to analyze the pitch, to name just two roles?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bev or Viv?

Today’s issue of Mint (the financial newspaper of the Hindustan Times group, in association with the Wall Street Journal) carries a story on how two actuaries have come up with a new system to calculate batting averages of batsmen in limited over internationals.

The most significant change that has been introduced is the treatment of unbeaten innings. The two actuaries Sanchit Maini and Sumit Narayanan argue, and rightly so too, that adding to the numerator but not to the denominator is not quite fair. Sanchit and Sumit use insurance principles like risk and exposure to play with the calculations.

“According to the new method, if a not-out batsman has played fewer balls than his own average (number of balls faced on an average in his career) up till that game, it is not counted as a not-out. For instance, if a cricketer has played 10 innings, facing an average of 41 balls in each innings, and remained not-out in four, but faced at least 41 balls in only one of these four innings, then he is counted as having been out in three of his ‘not-out’ innings. His average will fall because his score in this 10 innings will now be divided by nine (the number of innings in which he is considered out), and not six as it would have otherwise been.”

It doesn’t sound as complex as Duckworth & Lewis, for sure, so that’s a start. But if the ICC does take it up and starts adding more variables to it, you never know what may come out.

However, the question really is this: Do we really need different statistics to evaluate batsmen? Michael Bevan’s average is much higher than that of Sir Vivian Richards, but does even a rabid Australian think Bevan was better than Sir Viv? Sure, Sanchit’s and Sumit’s formula puts this pecking order in place, but isn’t that retro-fitting?

Any way, let me not quibble. The fun in cricket analysis lies in looking at the game through different lenses – and the number lens is perhaps one of the more interesting. Good shot, Sanchit and Sumit. Now if only you could find a useful way to measure fielding averages…

Monday, May 14, 2007

Breaking news! Winning is important!

In one of the most amazing turnarounds in sporting history, David Graveney has openly stated that winning is important for English cricket, at least in the upcoming series against the West Indies. A BBC report quotes Graveney, who, in a moment of staggering originality, said, “It’s vitally important to start the season with a victory. It’s important for Peter Moores in his first match as coach, for the fans, for the players, for everybody to start well.”

I never… So England has changed with the change of guard, after all. They think (blasphemy!) that winning is important.

Well, just to even things out, I hope the West Indies management believe they need to win too. At least the spirit of the game will be balanced out. And yes, we could be in for a fascinating contest this summer.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Service or a Profession?

I used to like Dinesh Mongia in his early days with the Indian ODI team. He had that tough, Aussie-like demeanour about him, his batting was crude but aggressive, and his bowling had a look of uselessness about it that made batsmen take one chance too many against him.

But that was long ago. Really long ago. When I saw him get out yesterday against Bangladesh, holing out to mid off, and in the first game, spooning a catch to midwicket, I wondered. Mongia just does not seem to put a price on his wicket. Sure, we don’t want him to become a grafter and just occupy the crease (and thus save his place, as a few others are alleged to have done). But surely, he has it in him to play a long innings? Unlike in the case of a Sehwag, who “just plays that way,” Mongia does not have a big enough image to be trapped in. So what accounts for his repeated failures?

As I replay the dismissals in my mind, what sticks is what happens after the dismissal. Mongia doesn’t seem to regret getting out. I wonder, is he not too keen to turn out in the national colours? No, I don’t mean to suggest that he is not patriotic. May be Mongia is happier just turning out for Leicestershire, where he has performed consistently well, where the pressures are much less, where the pulls and pushes of politics perhaps not as pronounced, and where he has a more stable place in the squad. He seems to be a regular, happy, journeyman, whose interests in the game are truly professional, in a personal sense. (As an aside, I watched a replay of a one-day game between Worcestershire and Nottinghamshire yesterday, and I can understand why Mongia may prefer the English county scene to turning out for India.) It’s a job for him, and he prefers an employer like Leicestershire rather than one like India.

For followers of English county cricket, this may not sound unusual – there are players legion who prefer the sanguine atmosphere of a game in the countryside to the hustle and bustle of international cricket. Why did a certain Steve Harmison retire from the international one day game at such a young age? May be the sub-text in Mal Loye’s interview recently also suggests something.

So is playing for the country important? Is cricket a profession or a service? (The days when it was just a game is way behind us, so let’s not even go in that direction.) Are you conscripted to play for your country if you take up the game? Can you choose to play only for a county and not for your country? As with any profession, don’t cricketers not have freedom of choice?

Are these actually considerations for the national selectors when they sit down to select the team to represent the country? Do they actually conduct interviews to find out whether players are really interested in playing for the country? Is it that difficult to figure out? In the corporate world, there are many ways in which the behavioral aspects of potential recruits are assessed. Is it worth thinking on the same lines for cricketers?