Thursday, November 22, 2007

‘Cook’ed up headlines

The ECB (or at least their web site, at any rate) has begun England’s tour of Sri Lanka on an ominous note – their headline summing up the last day of the practice match against the Sri Lanka Cricket Board President’s XI ran: Delicious entrĂ©e from Cook. Considering the England line-up for this tour, we are bound to be served (apologies; that was not a deliberate usage, I assure you) more than a fair share of plays on people’s names. Well, imagine possibilities like “The Bell tolls for Sri Lanka”, “England Broad-minded today”, “Sri Lanka don’t cut the Mustard”, “England’s Swann Song” and the like. And I don’t even want to venture in the direction of Sidebottom. Small relief then, that the likes of Joyce, Maddy, Read, Trott and Yardy, to name just five, are not part of the team. No thank you, we would have lost our Onions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In search of the perfect cricketer (and the perfect cure)

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) has commissioned a couple of experts to build an ideal male tennis player. And while they were at it, The Telegraph decided to take the concept further in this story: Search for perfection: the ultimate sportsman.

Derek Pringle did his bit of gene-mixing and came up with a combination of Mike Brearley’s brains, Sir Don Bradman’s steely will, Sir Ian Botham’s (I almost forgot to genuflect here) legs, Shane Warne’s right hand and wrist and Wasim Akram’s left arm. It’s impressive that Pringle has one non-English non-Australian name and two Australian ones; and only two Englishmen out of the five. You can read the full rationale of his choices here. As also the ingredients of the perfect tennis player, golfer, footballer, and rugby player. I wish cricket involving England would start soon – it’s not too safe to let these English cricket writers loose on non-play days.

On a different note, a friend forwarded me this story: Cure for Sachin’s nervous nineties. I’m sure it is a humorous piece, though there’s no indication anywhere on the page. And if it’s not, it’s really funny.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Duality to trinity

Long has test cricket been referred to as the “longer form of the game.” Now, thanks to Twenty20, the media has begun referring to it as “the longest form of the game.” Well I never…

So does that mean that the language of the game will have to change? May be not all of it, but yes, cricket writing and commentating will have to jettison some oft-used expressions from the past and find new ones. Much like the game itself, the vocabulary also needs some refreshing. Which is just as well – it may help eliminate some trite, tired and over-used expressions. However, the phrase-challenged pundit may just find it a bit tough for a while.

Classical economists for whom cricket is a second love can no longer say “on the one hand, and on the other” because they now need a third hand to hold up the new baby. Unless, of course, one day cricket dies out (as some cricket futurists have forecast) and we return to the old economy again.

Old English scholars who write about cricket in their spare time will have to resist using expressions like “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” when referring to the similarities between test cricket and one-day cricket. Of course, they can extend it and say “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander but not for the swan” but that’s not quite as succinct as the original, is it?

While the formality of the toss will perhaps remain unchanged, bean counters need to toss out terms like “two sides of a coin” when referring to the forms of the game. They can become philosophical, though, and refer to the three forms as “two sides of a coin, plus the truth”, thus setting into motion an interesting argument on what truth is.

Punters will continue to play an invisible part of the game in all its forms, but the game is not a “two-horse race” any more. And you can be sure no one will bet against it.

The pedantic commentator can no longer use trite expressions like “the long and short of it”, and that is the long and short of it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Great Indian Captaincy Challenge

So Sachin Tendulkar has given us a good topic to chew on. Should MS Dhoni be India’s test captain and thus ensure one captain across all forms of the game? Should Anil Kumble be offered an opportunity to show us what might have been? Should Saurav Ganguly be given another tilt at the world champions in their backyard? Or should VVS Laxman be chosen because he has a track record for tormenting the Aussies?

Well, the debate will go on, and any decision is bound to disappoint three-fourths of the cricketing pundits and fans in the country. Are there different ways of looking at the Indian captaincy than just considering some individuals?

Greg Chappell showed us one way, when he kept mixing up the Indian middle order – one day Irfan Pathan came in at No. 3, the next day it was MS Dhoni, and Rahul Dravid came back on the third. Is there a learning from here? Can we have captaincy by rotation? Imagine a core group, let’s call it the Board of Captains, comprising the four contenders mentioned above (add a couple more if you want). The captain for each game will be picked from this committee. Surely Ricky Ponting and gang will be stumped because they won’t know what to expect?

But how would we select the captain for the game? Well, there are a couple of ways of doing this.

The simplest approach would be to draw lots in the press conference the day before. This would ensure a filled room, and more than a bit of excitement. Dilip Vengsarkar goes, “The captain for tomorrow’s test match is…” and Shantakumaran Sreesanth struts into the room. “Oops, sorry, wrong room. I was looking for the dance floor.” Of course, a draw-of-lots approach could mean the same person getting lucky twice in a row, but in the long run, the laws of probability should even things out. After all, we need a long-term orientation in captaincy.

A second approach could be to select the captain on the morning of the match, based on the pitch conditions. So Saurav is the captain for the Melbourne opener, Kumble leads the team at spinning Sydney, Laxman calls the shots on the Perth trampoline, and Dhoni takes over in the dead rubber game at the Adelaide Oval.

May be there is an alternative way to look at the captaincy, with a small tweak of the laws of the game. Law 1.1 says, “A match is played between two sides, each of eleven players, one of whom shall be captain.” Perhaps the BCCI can negotiate with the ICC and get them to change the law to enable a 12th man to be named captain of a team. Look at it this way: the player-as-captain is relevant only when a team is fielding. And it is increasingly true that the 12th man is almost always on the field, especially when India is out there – if Ganguly is not tired, then a pace bowler has just finished a spell or someone else needs to be hidden. And by virtue of being the 12th man, the captain will be spared the pressure of bowling or batting, and can thus concentrate on the captaincy. A focused captain is what we need for the tough Aussie tour.

Extending this logic to having a non-playing captain is a thought, but then we would still have Sunil Gavaskar captaining the Indian team, so may be we shouldn’t go that far.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The graceful left-hander

And speaking of left-handers, it has also been long said that they are so naturally graceful that it is rare to find an inelegant left-hander. But that, thanks to the all-seeing eye of television, has proved to be a myth. More on that in the next post perhaps.

Thus ended my previous post. Here’s the next one.

When I grew up listening to radio commentary and reading cricket magazines, left-handers were always a pleasure to watch at the batting crease. Neil Harvey was described as somewhat of a ballet dancer in flannels, David Gower was grace personified, and even Clive Lloyd, while characterized as strong, was referred to as Big Cat, and the feline reference connoted its own image. And while the odd right-hander was described as elegant (Gundappa Vishwanath was right up there in this department), most of them were either technically correct (like Sunil Gavaskar) or brutally powerful (like Sir Vivian Richards).

So has the demands of the modern game made left-handers more utilitarian and less elegant? Or is it thanks to (or may be not) the ruthless eye of television technology, the scales are coming off our eyes? We seem to have become Gulliver to the televised world of Brobdingnag, conscious of every little detail and deficiency in the players. And no one has suffered more than the left-hander.

The Dravids continue to me “immaculate in defence,” and the Pietersens march on, murdering opposition fast bowlers with their brute power. So who is the most elegant left-hander in the world today? Saurav Ganguly? Ever watched him handle a short ball aimed at the ribs? You still call him elegant? Matthew Hayden? As elegant as a pugilist in leotards. Sanath Jayasuriya? With a nickname like the Matara Marauder, what would you expect? Name anybody else, and chances are your lasting image is an ugly swipe or an ungainly poke. So is the elegant left-hander an urban myth? A creation of primitive cameras and imaginative radio commentators?

On what turned out to be a related note, I had this conversation with a fellow cricket-fan at my office late last week, and we were trying to identify the most inelegant batsmen we have seen in action. The top three names that came out were Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jimmy Adams, and Ejaz Ahmed – two left-handers in three. And Allan Border wasn’t far behind.

How television kills those pictures in our mind.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Left out in India

After India eased to victory in the first one-day international (scorecard) against Pakistan today, the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni said that he promoted himself ahead of Yuvraj Singh in the batting order to keep a left-right combination in the middle. Which got me wondering.

Almost every cricket-playing nation has had at least one or two left-handers who could lay claim to being among the top 10 test batsmen of their country. The West Indies have Sir Garfield Sobers and Brian Lara, Australia have Allan Border and Matthew Hayden, Sri Lanka have Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya, New Zealand have Glenn Turner and John Wright, England have Frank Woolley and David Gower, South Africa have Gary Kirsten (and could have had a couple more if they had not been banned for all those years), Pakistan have Saeed Anwar. What about India?

Saurav Ganguly would probably be deemed India’s best left-hander in history, but, with due respect, not too many people would consider him among the top ten all-time test batsmen in India. Why did India have such a paucity of southpaws? The small town I grew up in, if it were to be considered representative of India, could offer some hints.

I grew up playing cricket on the streets of a small town in Tamil Nadu in South India. Because of the layout of the street (we used to play diagonally across), there was (from a right hander’s position) no fine-leg or square-leg, and not much of a mid-wicket either; the most productive shot was the on-drive (ironically considered one of the most difficult to play in international cricket); and the odd single could be had if the cover-drive or off-drive is played gently enough so the ball doesn’t ricochet into a fielder’s hands.

Quite often, the fact that we had a limited number of players (about ten between the two teams) meant that shots in the arc covering point through to the wicket-keeper were not allowed. This led to an unwritten rule: left-handers not allowed. This was because they would, we right-handers reckoned, be quite a nuisance if they have the habit of playing off their hips down towards fine-leg, which, apart from fetching no runs, would also cause a delay in play because some one would have to run and fetch the “dead” ball. Even when we included left-handers into the team, they were openly made fun of and referred to as lottai, local vernacular derogatory slang for a southpaw.

So while we went into raptures imagining the languid grace of David Gower or the awesome power of Clive Lloyd (as recounted by the radio commentators of those days), we didn’t want a southpaw in our team. Rather conveniently for us, the Indian top order of those days (I am referring to the early 1980s) did not have a single left-hander, comprising as it did Sunil Gavaskar, Chetan Chauhan, Dilip Vengsarkar, Gundappa Vishwanath, two from Yashpal Sharma, Sandeep Patil and Mohinder Amarnath, and Kapil Dev. Unconsciously, I suppose, this made us feel justified in our discrimination.

Of course, things are changing now, and we have a steady flow of left-handers into the Indian team. May be it has to do with all those old houses being combined into apartment blocks and separate playing spaces being created for budding cricketers. But when I reflect on those days, I wonder how many talented left-handers India missed out on, because of the design of our streets.

And speaking of left-handers, it has also been long said that they are so naturally graceful that it is rare to find an inelegant left-hander. But that, thanks to the all-seeing eye of television, has proved to be a myth. More on that in the next post perhaps.