Monday, October 29, 2007

English losers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2007

Strauss's Waltz

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

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

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

Friday, October 12, 2007

The shifting goalpost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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