Friday, June 22, 2007

The next fortnight

I am off on vacation so the Cow Corner will remain unoccupied for the next couple of weeks. Before I go, some predictions for the forthcoming fortnight, and a bit beyond.

South Africa beats India 3 – 0 in the one-day international series in Ireland. The sparse crowd of 100, all Indians, sportingly applauds. India manage a total less than 200 in each of the first two games. Sachin Tendulkar, after failing in the first two games, scores a tortuous century in a losing cause in the third game. Saurav Ganguly pitches in with a pedestrian half-century in the same game.

England and West Indies share the Twenty20 series over at The Oval. Considering that it is still considered festival cricket at an international level, it is important that teams share the spoils.

Notwithstanding terrible team selection, England manage to beat the West Indies 3 – 0 in the regular 50-over series. This West Indies team cannot beat England A. And that’s not just owing to current form – take away Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, and none of the others deserve a place in the one-day team.

Sri Lanka play Bangladesh in a three-test series. Is anyone interested?

Bye for now.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Whither West Indies?

Now that the test series is over, the predictable noises about the decline of West Indies cricket have cropped up again. It’s a refrain we’ve been hearing for quite a while now – decline of a great team, attitude to play well, developing a winning habit, consistency, commitment, where have the quickies gone… Jonathan Agnew bemoans the West Indies’ fate here, Daren Ganga spouts brave-but-hopeless words here. Pitiable really.

Without denying the truth of it all, is there hope for the West Indies? Are the players interested in winning at all or are they just turning up for their pay cheques? The way Marlon Samuels and Chris Gayle celebrated yesterday after getting Kevin Pietersen out, when the horse had long bolted, told a depressingly insightful story. Are these cricketers playing for irrelevant, personal, cameo victories alone? Is that all they are capable of?

These are questions that are not easy to answer, there probably aren’t any answers even. And while we leave the worthies to sort out the mess, it may be worthwhile to just take a step back and examine what made the West Indies a world-beating team in the 1970s and 1980s.

To begin with, they had a great bunch of players. A lot has been said about the West Indian fast bowlers of that age, and without doubt they defined the West Indies of those days. Superbly talented, relentlessly aggressive and wonderfully complementary, they were able to take on all comers.

While one half of their cricket was taken care of by the fast bowlers, the West Indies also had a great set of batsmen. They were fortunate to have as contemporaries, batsmen of the stature and durability of Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharan, Sir Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Roy Fredericks, Desmond Haynes and Larry Gomes, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few others. Intersperse these with the short-term exploits of batsmen like Collis King, Lawrence Rowe and Faoud Bacchus, and you have a batting line-up that will have any bowling attack queuing up – in the opposite direction. Some longstanding glovemen like Deryck Murray, David Murray and Jeff Dujon (with their more-than-useful batting) did not hurt either.

While the fact that the West Indies had such great players is well-known, what were the other differentiators that the team had?

For one, I think the fact that they (specifically Lloyd) ushered in the era of the all-pace attack took a lot of the opposition off-balance. This remorseless pace barrage was an innovation of the highest order, and it took West Indian cricket to the next level. You look at Australia’s dominance today – it’s a function of an all-round aggression on the field in every act – openers scoring at close to four runs an over in test matches, fielders pouncing on the ball like hungry lions on scampering prey, captains playing mind-games with brittle opposition captains or star players, spin bowlers with the face cream and aggression of fast bowlers – total cricket, anyone? West Indies cricket perhaps needs to bring in an innovation to change the way the game is played. Do they have it in them? Well, if they do, it is a very well hidden secret, indeed.

A second aspect that differentiated the West Indies of the halcyon days was that almost all the worthies in it played full-time English county cricket with a passion and commitment that saw them perform as well there (if not better than) as in the international arena. Be it the batsmen or the pace bowlers, they are as much legends in the counties they played for as they are in their native isles. Greenidge was (more than) half an Englishman with Hampshire, Richards and Somerset, Lloyd and Lancashire, Marshall and Hampshire, the list is endless. This drive to play cricket through the year is what characterized them. They earned their keep, did those West Indians. How many of the current crop play English county? And with what degree of success? The West Indies don’t have much of a domestic set-up and are unlikely to, so why not utilize the cradle of English cricket?

One final sobering thought: the great West Indies teams of the 1970s and 1980s did not emerge because of any great cricketing system in the islands – it came out of some great cricketers who came together at the same time. So duplicating their success is not likely to happen at a systemic level. That is where a mature, organized cricketing set-up like Australia looks more likely to stay on top at a more sustainable level. As for the West Indies, I suppose they can sit and pray. I fear they will disintegrate.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Who next?

So the hoped-for has happened – Michael Vaughan has stepped down as England’s captain for one-day internationals. The selectors must has heaved a huge sigh of relief, because it saves them the task of having to carry him in the one-day squad – you can’t drop a self-appointed captain, can you?

So who are the alternative candidates?

Paul Collingwood is touted as the favourite and he is well likely to end up with the job. He has been the model of consistency in the English team (in both forms of the game) over the last few seasons. But is he captaincy material? He looks more like a capable foot-soldier, someone who was perennially in the fringes until he blossomed over the last two seasons. So will he provide the kind of overt leadership that England needs in one-dayers, a form of the game they seem almost reluctant to master? Moreover, considering that all three facets of his game will come to the fore in one-dayers, will captaincy be an additional load on Collingwood?

What do we make of all the talk about Kevin Pietersen being in the running? Now this could be an interesting choice. England desperately need to invent themselves as far as one-dayers go. So it may be worth considering someone who comes across as so unorthodox, as KP certainly does. His lack of experience (he has played only 51 one-day internationals so far) may be counted against him, but perhaps that is precisely what England needs. Someone with too much experience may just continue with the old mindset.

If he gets back to full fitness, can Andrew Flintoff walk back into the one-day team as captain? Well, Vaughan did that in the test arena, didn’t he? After a promising start, Flintoff’s captaincy came apart in Australia. But then, Australia is Australia, and the Ashes may not have been any different if England had had a different captain. Of course, it is an additional load on Freddie considering the all-round expectations from him, but the one-day game is more his métier and he has the personality to garner the troops, so he may just be an option.

Is there a fourth candidate? Not within one’s sight, but you never know with England and one-dayers. Remember Norman Gifford? Remember Adam Hollioake? It’s not just the weather that is unpredictable in England.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A team of Bonds

When I was growing up, James Bond was my biggest hero and I’ve never really worked out why I’ve never got the part.

Thus spake our new cricketing knight, Sir Beefy.

So how would it be if we were to compose a cricket team of players who could potentially play the role of the immortal secret agent? (Just to make the exercise manageable, I consider only current players or players who have retired in the last year or so.)

The straight-talking, hard-as-nails New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming gets pride of place at the top of the order. And as captain, notwithstanding the presence of another worthy in the team. Fleming seems such a natural leader that one can’t see him playing under anyone else. May be Ponting can take over in the one-dayers, if Fleming so prefers.

Forget the century on debut, forget the six centuries before the age of 23, forget the still-not-quite-there-but-working-hard-on-it fielding, Alastair Cook justifies his selection by virtue of his serene demeanour and his school-boy looks. We can re-launch Bond for a different viewer audience, can’t we?

Would have been the captain if not for Fleming, Ricky Ponting walks into this team for his ability to pick up a fight wherever he goes, and come out triumphant. Except that he demolishes his opponents so ruthlessly, there may not be much of a contest. So may be just for one film or two.

I was tempted to pick Graeme Smith here, but I am not sure he would like to be in the same team as Fleming and Ponting, hence let’s go with Hershelle Gibbs. Gibbs’ athleticism would enable him to dodge those bullets and other missiles that Dr. No’s henchmen would hurl the Bond’s way. But watch out, he may just “drop the bomb, mate” on to his own feet, might Hershelle Gibbs.

India’s representative into the squad, Yuvraj Singh comes in for his smooth aggression (notice how the new Yuvraj scores aggressively but mostly in the “V”?) and his mercurial fielding.

Dwayne Bravo, and Fleming earlier, are names that were suggested by a follower of Cricinfo’s running commentary. His sauve looks makes Bravo a good candidate for the role. And his new-found consistency with the bat doesn’t hurt either. His slow ones with the ball are perhaps a good cricketing equivalent of “shaken, not stirred.”

The wicket-keeping Bond, Kumar Sangakkara comes in as much for his cricketing ability as for his erudition and the ability to get under the skin of his opponent.

Can we leave Mr. Hollywood out when discussing the ultimate macho man? Of course, we won’t give Shane Warne a cell phone. Or even if we do, he won’t be able to text from it.

This Bangladeshi has really come a long way as far as his cricketing prowess is concerned. And the strong shoulders, courtesy his swimming across the Padma river every day, will come in handy when Mashrafe Murtaza as Bond has to swim across the Atlantic Ocean to nab the villains.

Will a smiling assassin make a good Bond? This blogger thinks so. Tall, gentle-looking but lethal with the ball, Mohammed Asif’s reported off-field shenanigans adds colour to his character.

With a name like that, can we miss this Shane out? And Shane Bond’s smooth, splendid bowling action and the corresponding results don’t come in the way either. It’s just that he may not be fit enough to do too many films.

The twelfth man, A B de Villiers comes in as much for his electric fielding as for his one-legged exploits in the World Cup game against the West Indies. After all, Bond will have to fight when the chips are down.

Picking the umpires was easy – Simon Taufel and Aleem Dar almost pick themselves up, what with their (mostly) flawless judgments, elegant presence and fire-freezing glares. Another one with a similar glare, Steve Bucknor, would be the third umpire – not all his decisions may be impeccable, but the “slow death” he hands out to batsmen can chill the bones of even Dr. No.

And considering that his statement started off this post in the first place, Sir Ian Terence Botham would be the coach of this Bond XI.

Now if only we can find a team of Bond villains to pit this squad against.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sir Terence

Ian Terence Botham is to be knighted by the Queen in her birthday honours this year. This BBC Story mentions that Botham is being conferred the knighthood for his services to charity and to cricket. The fact that charity has been mentioned ahead of cricket is perhaps insightful. Be that as it may, what makes Botham Sir Botham, as far as the noble game goes?
Is it his test performances against Australia? But then, his batting average against them is lower than his career average.

Is it the swashbuckling nature of his batting? But then, his performances in one-day internationals is quite ordinary – no centuries, an average of under 24 and a strike rate of less than 80. (Well, considering England as a nation does not seem to have learnt its one-day ropes, I suppose we’ll let that pass.)

Botham is Botham not for his statistics and records but for the totality of the impact he has had on the game. His performances seem to linger in the public memory forever.

He dominated the 1980-81 Ashes all right, but think of any other test series (let alone Ashes series) that is referred to as a player’s series. Botham’s Ashes is unique on that count. There is a possibility that the 2005 epic may end up being remembered as Flintoff’s Ashes, but don’t bet on that yet.

The Golden Jubilee test against India is another example. Yes, he dominated the test match with his batting and his bowling, so it is only fair that it be referred to as Botham’s Test. But I don’t recall a Hadlee’s Test or an Imran’s Test.

Another feature that characterised Botham is his ability to take wickets with virtually nothing deliveries. Regularly. Remember his first test wicket? Or his last? And the many more in-between? He certainly does have a powerful fairy godmother, and this facet of his performance makes him an endearing hero with the crowds, much like the action heroes of popular movies, who always get that spot of luck.

Botham also seemed to have hired God as his scriptwriter. Remember his 355th wicket with the first ball of his comeback test? Or his last one-day international against Australia in the 1992 World Cup?

A legend is someone who makes life difficult for people to follow his footsteps. The clearest evidence of this in the case of our new knight is England’s perennial search for “the next Botham.” Some names that roll off the top of my mind include, in no particular order, Philip DeFreitas, David Capel, Dermot Reeve, Chris Lewis, Ronnie Irani and, of course, Andrew Flintoff. Of course, only the last-named looks worthy of that tag, but the search in England seems endless. What are the odds that the next all-rounder will be referred to as “the next Flintoff”? More likely “the next Sir Ian.”

Friday, June 15, 2007

Well Cooked

A lot has been said about Alastair Cook and how he is the first English cricketer (or cricketer representing England, to be precise) to make six test centuries before his 23rd birthday. What makes the achievement especially noticeable is that England is not necessarily known for blooding its players young. Or is it?

A look at the current team suggests that England is beginning to change this trend. Cook himself started at 21, as did Andrew Flintoff; Ian Bell was 22 when he made his debut. Even a look at the others suggests that the oldest debutant in the current squad is Andrew Strauss, who was a ripe, old 26 when he walked out in England colours for the first time. Just to complete the numbers, Mathew Hoggard and Ryan Sidebottom were 23, Kevin Pietersen, Monty Panesar and Steve Harmison were 24, while Paul Collingwood and skipper Michael Vaughan were 25 when they made their debuts. Not quite Sachin Tendulkar, Shahid Afridi, and Mohammed Ashraful, but not a senior citizens’ parade either.

Back to Cook. Inasmuch as his batting has been impressive, his thinking also seems to be in the right direction, if this delightful ramble is any indication.

While his conversion rate of fifties to hundreds is quite impressive (five fifties and six hundreds), Cook’s six hundreds read as follows: 104 not out, 105, 127, 116, 105 and 106. He is still due a real big one. And his analysis of why he hasn’t got there is interesting.

Sometimes I perhaps tense up after passing a hundred and put pressure on myself by thinking I've got to go on and get a big one. But I just need to enjoy the moment more as that is the best time to be batting.

Of course, Cook is not a man after statistics.

Stats are interesting but they do not drive me. The one thing it does, I suppose, is put me in a different category as no other Englishman has done it before.

He has the whimsy, does the young lad. But he may just want to watch it and not cross swords with divinity.

We had a bit of a celebration after winning the series at Old Trafford. Vaughany got a bit of stick in the papers for enjoying himself too much and falling asleep outside a bar. But he was just a bit tired. It was a bit late for the old man and past his bedtime.

Cheeky, chef, but watch out for Vaughany’s response. “Cook is an extremely smart and earnest lad, but his comments did give sleepless nights to the team. We were all a bit tensed up and tried to stop sleeping – we tried a bit too hard. But Vaughan is fine now, he hasn’t taken offence at what Cook has said. Let’s go, Chef.”

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Unfinished business

With Brian Lara’s statements about intending to come back to international cricket, we are likely to be bombarded with opinions from all quarters on whether Lara’s comeback plans are sensible or not, and I would like to venture that most experts would veer towards the latter. Anyway, let me leave that debate and judgment to the experts and dwell on the possible reason for Lara’s apparent volte-face.

“It’s all very well for you to say goodbye to your profession and come back home. But what about the mortgage payments for all those houses we’ve bought? Who’s going to pay for them?” barked the wife when Lara entered home, with his clothes covered in confetti, after yet another triumphant World Cup campaign (they actually won a few games). So he floated his résumé into the market.

Coach? “Wanna coach an Asian nation?”

Write an autobiography? “Sorry, no ghost-writers around – they’ve started writing under their own names. Moreover, autobios are not hot any more, especially after the recent spate of flops.”

Commentator? “No thank you, how can we think of another West Indian when Holding rules the mike?”

“Oh well, you can always go back to the West Indies team.” “Yes, honey.”

So when he said, “I think I am going to play cricket again. If I go six or eight months without cricket I would lose it and I don’t want to lose it yet” to the media, you know what he meant with the “it”.

On a more factual note, Lara probably missed out on a couple of calculations and landmarks. He currently has 11,953 test runs. May be he just wants to cross the 12,000 barrier. He also needs just the one more one-dayer to complete 300 limited overs internationals. Of course numbers don’t matter to Lara, but if they come in, they are good, aren’t they? After all, the 400 not out just happened by the way, didn’t it?

And yes, while Lara has four wickets in ODIs, he is yet to open that account in test matches. So that’s a small matter to address there as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


June 11 was quite a mixed day for cricket-related alliances. It was a day on which one potential alliance came unstuck while another, perhaps more important, got inked. Just as Graham Ford was reaching the conclusion that Kent was more attractive than India as far as coaching jobs are concerned, ESPN announced its acquisition of Cricinfo. In a sense, it is a logical move, a coming together of two unquestioned leaders – one in the television medium and the other in the online space. Enough will be said about the synergies, the challenges, the culture clashes and the like. So let me ponder over something else.

Cricinfo editor Sambit Bal, in an eloquent letter to the site’s readers, admits that one of the big reasons for the move is the fact that the site needs, “let's not be coy about it, fresh investments.” I would love to see how cricinfo uses this infusion of funds to create new products that are exciting for the reader while being remunerative for the site and its investor.

This is a very personal thing (and I know Sambit Bal’s letter does not refer to it as a focus area), but one of the areas that cricinfo can perhaps focus on is their print offering. The Cricinfo Magazine is the only magazine I read regularly, and it is a total delight to read. And this is not just because it covers the subject of cricket. It is to do with the language, the tone, the wit, and the statistical analysis – quite often I’ve even recommended the magazine to colleagues who are not particularly into cricket just for the language. Unfortunately, they don’t get around to reading it because it is just not easily and commonly available.

Of course a lot of the content that is available in the magazine finds its way into the web site, but the pleasure of reading the magazine is unbounded. It’s the test match to the web site’s limited-overs game, in a sense.

Considering that there is no cricket magazine of note in the country, the Cricinfo magazine could just blaze a new trail in cricket journalism. And extend the concept into book publishing, of course focused on cricket.

On a different note, I hope ESPN does not use the cricinfo format (and team) to get into tennisinfo, soccerinfo and such like. While those are definite business possibilities, I believe the cricinfo format is not a generic sports format – it has evolved from the game of cricket and its inherent characteristics. So while extending the concept may work, the formats will have to be different. You can’t play tennis with stumps, or have lbw’s in football, can you?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Courting different pitches

The French Open concluded yesterday with yet another victory for Rafael Nadal on clay. The opponent may have been the top-seeded Roger Federer, but Nadal has been well-nigh unbeatable on clay – this was his third successive win at Roland Garros, and his zillionth victory on the surface over the last three years. However, Federer has been close to unbeatable on all other surfaces. And if you look back at men’s tennis over the last few decades, take away Andre Agassi and no one person has won all the Grand Slams in his career – not the incomparable Bjorn Borg, not the feisty John McEnroe, not the phlegmatic Ivan Lendl, not the seemingly invincible Pete Sampras. No, this is not a post about tennis champions.

Tennis is the only game that seems to be played formally on different surfaces. And while true champions tend to play well on all of them, you do have four formal Grand Slam championships every year, played on distinctly different surfaces. It certainly adds to the beauty of the game. Watching a Lendl play those marathon games with Mats Wilander on the red clay of Paris was very different from watching the same Lendl struggle against Boris Becker on the sylvan lawns of Wimbledon. No, this is not a post about tennis champions.

Inasmuch as tennis has clay, grass and synthetic surfaces, cricket has the bouncy wickets of Australia, the swinging conditions of England and the dustbowls and shirtfronts of the Asian sub-continent. I sometimes wonder at the hue and cry about the differences across pitches – especially the “expert” view of the need to prepare bouncy wickets in the sub-continent. Why is there no demand to prepare absolute shirtfronts in Australia? Or spinning dustbowls in England? Why should the Asian pitches alone have to change? Is the trampoline of Perth better for cricket than the dustbowl of Barabati?

So why can’t we leave pitches the way they are? And introduce the concept of playing on different surfaces in the formal sense in cricket? The administrators want to promote the game aggressively. Wouldn’t a pitch-defined definition work better for drawing up schedules than organizing random series at arbitrary times of the year in unsuitable locations? (Of course, this might tempt the ICC to have a World Cup every year, on different pitches!)

It will also preserve the sanctity of the pitch and weather conditions in different nations. For a real cricket fan, I would imagine there is a charm in watching different contests on different conditions. It also preserves an unpredictability that is supposedly inherent to the game.

An approach like this could also lead to different possibilities in terms of team selection. Just as there are clay court specialists and grass court specialists in tennis, cricketers may also prove themselves to be adept on some kinds of surfaces more than on others. Thus leading to interesting team selections and opportunities for different kinds of players. Just as teams increasingly have test specialists and limited-overs specialists (and Twenty20 specialists soon), they may also have pitch specialists. There are odd occasions when teams (especially England) have followed the horses-for-courses approach to team selection, but if we have a formal set of “Shirt Front Series” and “Dust Bowl Tournaments”, we might just have formal specialists for each of these.

And the real world champion emerges out of a composite calculation of performances across all surfaces, not just performance in one World Cup. (Though for now, Australia win every which way, England can at least hope to be the Swing Champions some day. And India, the Dukes of the Dust Bowl.)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Look ma, no coach

Take Monty Panesar’s performance of yesterday away and there isn’t much to talk about in cricket. Virender Sehwag makes another quick start and throws his wicket away in that most-watched tournament in the history of the game, the Afro-Asian Cup. And Saurav Ganguly is busy proving that one-dayers can be played the test-match way (as I write this post, he has made 13 runs of 31 balls; in contrast, Sehwag made 52 of 38, Sanath Jayasuriya made 11 of 16 and Mahender Singh Dhoni has made 13 of 13). Ho-hum.

So a pick from a different sport.

The seventh-seeded Ana Ivanovic from Serbia faces top seed Justin Henin from Belgium in the French Open women’s tennis finals today. For Ivanovic, it has been a great run, what with a win over Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarter-finals and an upset victory over favorite and second seed Maria Sharapova in the semis. Of course, beating Henin in the final will be quite a challenge. More so, because Ivanovic will get no advice from her coach, Sven Groenefeld.

Now why would that be? Well, the reasons are purely commercial. Ivanovic and Henin are both contracted to Adidas. So is Groenefeld. And part of Groenefeld’s deal is that he cannot coach one of the company’s players against another. I’ve heard of non-compete clauses in employment scenarios, but this certainly is taking it to a new level.

You would think companies sign up players and coaches because they want them to perform well. I wonder how sports bodies let these companies get away with these clauses. The next thing you know, they may bar their contracted players from playing against each other. And considering how commercial interests have ruled cricket, is there a similar contractual bind that exists in cricket? Such stipulations may just make it easy for India to select their national coach.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The end of the tail?

Excellent tailend swishing this. Tailenders should do this more; swing and hope.

A scrap of commentary from the Cricinfo team covering the third test between England and the West Indies in Manchester.

It’s an aspect of cricket that can be a bit irritating for the fielders looking forward to some rest and relaxation and more than a bit painful for the batsmen if they are at the receiving end of some perfume balls. But it is probably a most relaxing watch for the spectators – when the game is really a game and not a contest. A Courtney Walsh, a Curtly Ambrose, or a Muthiah Muralitharan at the crease were absolute delights to watch, not for their runs (or the lack of them) but for the way they handle their bats.

Unfortunately, tail-end batting is probably going to join the annals of history as a dying art, alongside touch batting, on-field expressions of dissent and walking after feathering the ball. With teams increasingly emphasizing on batting contributions from the tail, tail-enders (soon they may protest against that phrase; so what would you call them – bottom order? late order?) are increasingly becoming dour, defensive and, sacrilege, more than a bit proficient with the bat.

A Glenn McGrath could have been great entertainment, but what does he do? He goes and gets a test-match fifty. Anil Kumble (remember him chopping his own stumps like they were recalcitrant weeds in New Zealand eons ago?) looks so serious his ineptness is close to unwatchable. Monty could have been a great personality in the Jack role, but he clearly looks like a No. 10, if not a No. 9 (or is he England’s next great all-round hope?), considering his recent batting exploits. Even a Steve Harmison seems to be trying hard – he actually scores more runs than take wickets nowadays (may be that’s what keeps him still in the playing eleven).

Where have the real tail-enders gone?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

What makes a fast bowler (or a story)

First thing is the run-up. Then the pace of the kid. Then whether they have a cricket brain. Then the fitness. Then how hungry he is. With good fast bowlers you spot these qualities within a few overs.

This is what Wasim Akram said when he was in a fast bowling camp in Pakistan. An eclectic combination of attributes, spanning physique, attitude and technique.

Ignoring the mixing of the singular and the plural in the statements, is this really what you would look for in good fast bowlers? And can you really find these in a few overs?

Or do we lap these high-sounding statements just because they come from one of the game’s greats? Does greatness in one aspect permit an exaltation of the mediocre in another?

Mistake me not, I rate Akram as the two (the other being Shane Warne) most creative bowlers of the last 30 years. But does that mean he can spot a future Akram when he sees one? Even his own run-up was not particularly classical or optimized. And while he was fast, pace was not the reason he was what he was.

To be fair to the man, Akram himself admits, “It's my first time coaching, officially or unofficially.” My grouse is really against the thrust of the story. The title is promising – Pace lessons - past meets future. That, to me, is really the key story element. The fact that Akram, Aaqib Javed, Shoaib Akhtar (is he past or present or future?) and Mohammed Asif were rubbing shoulders with the potential stars of the future would have been sufficient inspiration for the bright-eyed lads. So why would Osman Samiuddin not drive with that? Or do stories get readership only if they are led by stars (past, present or future)?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Donald shows Harmy the way

Right then, the mystery of Steve Harmison has been solved, or at least analyzed successfully, at any rate. Thanks to the wisdom of Allan Donald. Don’t ask me why every one seems to think that Donald’s main job as England’s bowling consultant is to get Harmy back to his wicket-taking ways, but that seems to be the brief. And White Lightning has already cracked the problem. “It’s not that he is out of form right now - it’s just that every now and again he has been a little bit inconsistent,” said Donald sagely. So there we are – Harmy’s problem is not that he is inconsistent, but that he is inconsistently inconsistent. I can imagine the conversation between the two: “C’mon son, you can’t bowl one at the middle stump and one towards Paul at second slip. Stick to one line.” “OK coach.” Wide.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The cup that slipped

The truth is out. England’s non-performance in this year’s World Cup had nothing to do with their cricket – it had to do with their inability to hold their drink. In particular, the inability of a certain Andrew Flintoff to hold his drink.

Oh, what a deliriously delicious possibility! If only Freddie had not slipped off a pedalo, England would have been the World Cup holders today. Thus spake Michael Vaughan, that unquestioned master of the one-day game, that Mike Brearley of the one-day game (in terms of being in the one-day team mainly by virtue of his captaincy), to the Guardian.

Freddie’s antics seemed to have had such an impact on the team that even the captain and coach Duncan Fletcher were not spared.

I was more tense than I’ve ever been as a captain. Duncan Fletcher was more tense than he’d ever been as a coach. And sometimes the captain and coach have to look at the way they're acting because the team follows. I didn’t captain as well as I should’ve done because of the pressure I put myself under. I’d admit that. But I couldn’t switch off because away from the field there was so much going on - with Bob Woolmer and ‘Fredalo’.

Now we know what it takes to make Vaughan a great captain (and England, a world-cup winning team) – a Flintoff standing on his two feet. Australia, Sri Lanka and others – please watch out.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The (un)predictable game

At least for inveterate fans like me, the charm of cricket lies in its unique amalgam of predictability and unpredictability. And I am not referring to the events that unfold on the pitch, but to those that precede it. Which is why I felt a little disappointed to read what John Carr, director of England cricket, said when he released England’s cricket calendar for 2008.

The 2008 season will include a Wednesday start as well as four Thursday starts and two Friday starts for npower Test matches. In a busy summer we feel that this sequence gives the players the maximum opportunity for rest and recuperation.

One more of the game’s predictables falls. There was a time when all test matches in England used to start on Thursdays. In the earlier days, they used to have a rest day on Sunday, three days into the game. However, the rest day gradually disappeared and so Sunday used to be day 4, thus giving us viewers time to watch the middle part of a test match without affecting our weekday schedule.

It was part of the beauty of the game, the predictability of the scheduling of the game in the English summer – a Thursday start to a test match, a 11 am start to the day, a few scattered showers, an English defeat, some incredulous excuses and on to the next test.

Not any more – the scheduling is about as predictable as Steve Harmison’s bowling (apologies for using Harmy as an example so often – he just seems so appropriate for so many aspects of the game so accurately) and matches can start on any day of the week and end on any day as well, not necessarily on the fifth (but that was the case when England were getting beaten by the West Indies with monotonous regularity in the 1980s as well, so I’ll take that).

On the other hand, one of the interesting pre-match unpredictables, the final choice of the playing eleven, seems to be disappearing as well, with England announcing their playing eleven a full four days before the toss.

This was another of those great events one used to look forward to – who would be in and who would carry the drinks. It was a great indicator of how the captain expects the pitch to behave. Watching the toss and waiting for team names to be announced was as exciting as watching the first ball of a test match.

On average, I suppose these two changes cancel each other out, but I’d rather go back to the earlier system. Let a test match start on any day, as long as it’s a Thursday. And let Michael Vaughan tell me after the toss than James Anderson will be accompanying the drinks trolley for the game. On, you said it, Thursday.

Friday, June 01, 2007

More batsman-friendly recommendations

The new-look ICC Cricket Committee has just concluded its first meeting in Dubai and has come up with a list of recommendations for consideration by the Chief Executives Committee.

A couple of recommendations are intriguing.

That the idea of the captain of the batting side being able to choose when to take one of the power-plays be trialed in Australia and any other Member that wishes to do so

So the batting team literally decides the fielding placement during this phase, eh? Isn’t the game sufficiently batting-friendly? What next? Batsmen deciding that a certain lot of overs should be bowled only by the slow bowlers? Or a speed limit for bowlers?

On the other hand, how about some bowler-friendly measures, for a change? Why not let the fielding team decide who the next batsman should be? Or mandate that each team should have a mix of right-handers and left-handers? Or define that for a lot of five overs, batsman cannot score on the off-side? Or offside runs count only for half for that period?

A free hit should be introduced for the delivery that follows a front-foot no-ball

I know this is operational in domestic cricket in England and in the Twenty20 game, but why would you penalize a bowler for a past transgression? Will the same bowler get a free bowl if he has taken a wicket with his previous delivery? Or if a batsman runs on the pitch?

It’s surprising that recommendations like this have come up from such a distinguished group of experts, including bowlers like Michael Holding, Ian Bishop and Tim May, and all-rounders like Tom Moody and Craig Wright.