Friday, December 21, 2007

Four stumps for a free hit

Should we call this cricket 2.0? Getting players involved in running the game? Well, that’s what the Australian Cricketers’ Association seems to be trying, by asking cricketers what can be done to improve the game. Well, the concept is interesting. Some of the findings (the focus was on Twenty20) are even more so. Of course, they seem to fly in the face of logic and certainly contravene tradition (as all change tend to), but out of such fantasy comes progress.

First up is the suggestion to have four stumps. Aesthetic and terminological (Which one is the middle stump? Which the off and leg?) challenges apart, anything that is even loosely pro-bowler appeals to me tremendously. (An easier solution could be to just increase the size of the stumps to give bowlers a better target to aim at.) For the same reason, giving a bowler an extra over if s/he takes a wicket is a thought. And abolishing leg byes is a most sensible idea Steve Waugh had mooted long ago – a leg bye is neither a function of the batsman’s skill (like a run off the bat is, for the most part) nor a failure on the part of the fielding side (as in the case of a bye or a no-ball or wide).

Giving a batsman a free hit off the first ball s/he faces is a curious suggestion. Who came up with the idea? What were they thinking? And what was the question that led to this?

A couple of minor suggestions came up as well. Like players wearing shorts in matches. Well, honestly, I’ m not too sure I agree with that. Especially with all the protective equipment players wear, they may look a wee bit odd with just a bit of skin peering between those pads, thigh pads, etc. And whether players have names or nicknames on the back of their shirts is unlikely to affect their performance or their marketability, so it’s one of those questions that can be ignored.

The use of microphones has registered a high degree of acceptance. I see a lot of opposition to this, especially from coaches. Will talking to the media distract a captain or a fielder? And will it capture sledging a little more clearly? As a viewer, I’d rather not hear what goes on, and stick to just watching the game.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Steyn versus Edwards & Taylor

I almost missed the story yesterday, the one by Tony Cozier on the forthcoming West Indies – South Africa test series. So what does he reckon will make the series competitive? The presence of three exciting fast bowlers between the two teams. What was that again? South Africa, one can understand having exciting talent, but West Indies?

Well, Cozier was talking about Dale Steyn (who isn’t talking of his recent phenomenal run of late?) and two West Indians, Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor. And Cozier’s comments are based on performances in the one tour match the West Indies have played and the abridged Twenty20 game (why would you have an abridged version of an abridged version anyway?) between the two teams.

Cast your memory beyond the immediate past (or present), Tony. Steyn has a test bowling average of 24.38 over 15 matches, comparable with the best in the trade. At the other end is Edwards with 43.01 in 27, while Taylor turns in a much a more respectable 39.68 in 13.

Cozier’s parting line about the series is perhaps telling.

Who knows, it might even be exciting and competitive.

A plaintive cry of desperation more than a statement of hope, I read it. May be he has a responsibility to keep us fans enthused about the series. Unfortunately, West Indies against South Africa is hardly a close contest. And with South Africa as one side of the equation, it is unlikely to be exciting viewing either. But we are nothing if not inveterate cricket fans – we will follow the series (I almost said contest there). And hope that Kallis bats like Ricky Ponting. And Taylor is the new Michael Holding. And the West Indies draw at least one match.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Perfect timing

The essence of VVS Laxman’s batting has been his exquisite timing. And he displayed it again today. The reference here is to the blow he copped on the elbow against Shoaib Akhtar in the test match earlier today.

If the injury is serious enough to force Laxman to miss the Australia tour (and I sincerely hope it is not), it could not have been timelier for so many others.

Anil Kumble and the selectors don’t have to worry about the middle order composition, made complicated by Yuvraj’s incandescence in the first innings of the said test. Rahul Dravid can heave a sigh of relief because he doesn’t have to be forced into opening the innings to create a slot in the middle order. A window of opportunity opens up for two of Aakash Chopra (my pick for the second opener’s slot), Dinesh Karthik (the second innings fifty must surely help?), Gautam Gambhir (not my choice for any slot in the test squad), Virender Sehwag (well, one can hope, can’t one?) and Parthiv Patel (the Indian selectors, they move in mysterious ways…). And Brett Lee and company may have one less Aussie-basher to worry about.

Now to sit back and wait for cricinfo’s list of freakest / oddest / most (un)timely injuries in cricket history.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Worth reading, again and again and again

It’s an article that’s more than nine months old; it’s about a cricketer who retired about eight months ago; and it’s about the cricketer’s lesser abilities. But this article on Cricinfo keeps resonating in my mind. It’s perhaps the best article I have ever read, for its sheer ability to tickle the funny bone without stating anything except the bare facts. Even the adjectives are not over the board and are always substantiated by numbers. It’s a glorious example of brilliant wit using simple statistics, this piece on Glenn McGrath by Tim de Lisle. Stop everything and read this, if you haven’t already. If you have, another read (and another, and another) won’t hurt.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Misbah’s captaincy credentials

Pakistan’s captaincy challenge ahead of the Bangalore test has offered enough juice for former Pakistan players to offer their considered opinions. In the true spirit of the unity that characterizes Pakistani cricket, there are as many opinions as there are opiners (a word I just made up). So Younis Khan has a backer (even if he doesn’t want one); so does Mohammed Yousuf; and Shoaib Akhtar, Salman Butt, Kamran Akmal and Misbah-ul-Haq. (Danish Kaneria is apparently miffed that his name has not been mentioned so far – so searches are on for a former cricketer who is ready to recommend Kaneria’s case. Interested candidates may please apply to the nearest media house.)

The most original of all the recommendations must be from Rameez Raja, who is pushing for Misbah’s candidature. According to a report in The Times of India, Rameez thinks that Misbah is the man for the job because of his “form and his educational qualifications.” (Misbah, apparently, like Rameez himself, is an MBA.)

The future of cricket has been well and definitely ushered: the captain has to be an MBA, the wicket-keeper will need to be a financial controller, the openers will need to be operations managers (handling dull but important tasks), the spinners will be the creative sorts, and the fast bowlers, well, I suppose they’ll be the sales types – low on predictability, high on returns when they hit it right. The corporatisation of cricket is well and truly upon us.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Book Review: Men in White by Mukul Kesavan

The most interesting and unusual insight that emerged for me from Men in White is the distinction Mukul Kesavan draws between the Australians and the South Africans on the subject of match-fixing.

When Cronje was first photographed after his confession, he had his pastor with him for insurance… It’s hard to imagine Warne or Waugh turning up with their priests in tow; blokes don’t do that… they’d be laughed into the Tasman Sea. If they did bring anyone along, it would be their lawyers.

It seems to sum up the way they played their cricket even. Think of Jacques Kallis at the crease. Now think of Ricky Ponting.

Oh, oh, did I do a comparison? Kesavan strongly advocates against it, especially in the what-might-have-been sense. When people compare Graeme Pollock and Sunil Gavaskar, for example. Kesavan argues, and persuasively at that, that this comparison does not hold water because Pollock did not actually get an opportunity to play much at the highest international level. If he had, who knows, he may have turned out like Graeme Hick. (Well, may be Hick wonders whether he should have stuck to Zimbabwe – he may have evoked comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar later on.)

Having made such a persuasive argument, it’s a pity really that Kesavan falls into the what-might-have-been trap, comparing Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. Sure, both played at the apex level, but the times were different, the circumstances were different, the pressures were different. So to say that Gavaskar never copped a hit on the head while Tendulkar did, does injustice to protective equipment – Gavaskar’s skull-cap could not have afforded a rap on the nut; not so with Tendulkar’s fibreglass helmet. May be counting the number of times the two padded up deliberately would’ve been more relevant. Or may be not even that – today’s umpires have a different attitude to deliberate padding than those of the past.

When Kesavan starts off the first piece by arguing that test match spectators are the modern world’s last audience for epic narrative, you know you’ve got an unabashed lover of test matches. And you approve of it. But when he goes on to say “Like war, Test cricket allows you to fill days and weeks of television programming with reliable action that pulls in reassuring viewership numbers,” you long for a more decisive editor. And the longing is for more than just that – Men in White is really a lazy book.

To begin with, there are no date stamps on the different pieces. This robs valuable context from the book. There does not seem to be much thought given to the sequencing of the pieces – there are two back-to-back pieces of the betting scandal, and another couple on Mohammed Azharuddin. And then there are the printer’s devils. Sanath Jayasuriya is referred to as Jayasuriya and Jayasurya, not across different passages, not across different pages, not across different paragraphs, but in the same sentence. And Gavaskar is credited with having scored 220 in the famous Oval test match, when in reality it was 221. The difference is just one run, but ask any cricket lover how much it matters.

Considering it is a collection of articles written over time, the book is rather predictable in flow, feel and ideas. Some praise here, some insight there (“Among the many things the West Indies have given to world cricket, being not-England was an important gift” is my favourite line in the book), some reform recommendations thrown in, some childhood reminiscence elsewhere, the odd comparison (Bradman and Shakespeare, in a predictable combination, with a rather schoolboyish wordplay of Bradman and Bardman), some idle (and sometimes specious, especially the one around hockey’s fall and cricket’s rise in India) speculation for variety. Mostly familiar stuff for the avid cricket fan.

The hard truth is that a cricket book reader is quite likely a test match aficionado – his expectations are bound to be quite high. Unfortunately, Kesavan does not deliver. There’s one thing Men in White demonstrates: A compilation of blog posts (with introductory paragraphs explaining why each piece was written) does not make a book.