Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Twenty vignettes from Twenty20

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24, 2007

A mini-masterstroke

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

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

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

Why do the counties exist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 21, 2007

Hoist by his own petard?

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

SJ Cook c Mustard b Onions

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

Friday, September 14, 2007

Oh really?

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

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

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

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

(Thanks for the lead, Shantanu.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An ominous start? Or a flash in the pan?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A game of glorious certainties

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

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

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

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

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