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.