Saturday, February 23, 2008

The buck does not stop

Steve Bucknor is nothing if not neutral – bat and pad are the same to him. You just had to see the first-ball dismissal of Mohammed Rafique off Morne Morkel (yes, Bangladesh and South Africa are playing out a test series, in case you care) to convince yourself of that. I’ve seen batsmen being given out lbw off a bat-pad, I’ve seen batsmen being given out lbw when the ball was either going too high or was missing the stumps, I’ve even seen batsmen being given lbw for being hit on other parts of the body, but Mohammed Rafique was perhaps the first to be given lbw for playing the ball with the bat – there was barely any pad in that defensive push of his. Well, ole’ Buck is just proving that those Sydney decisions were not malice-driven. Sigh!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The show begins . . .

Cricket has finally entered the market officially. Seventy-nine cricketers (including five pre-selected icons) were sold at the hectic auction of the Indian Professional League (IPL) today in Mumbai. No, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean “sold” in a cattle sense; I’m just using it in its basic meaning of exchange of goods or services for legal tender. A collective sum of more than forty-two million US dollars has exchanged hands. Funny isn’t it, for a game that barely crosses the Atlantic, that the legal tender should be US dollars?

Will the IPL succeed? Is it good if it succeeds? Is this the end of cricket as we know it? Questions that are being asked, and questions that are being answered with an admixture of romance, hope, nostalgia, doomsday-prophetism, unbridled optimism, never-say-live pessimism and many such. For the moment, I’ll leave the future for a later date and focus (assuming that all the players will play the tournament in all seriousness) on some of the interesting pictures that emerge from today’s purchases.

The Hyderabad team sounds like the IPL equivalent of Australia, packed as it is with explosive batsmen like Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds, Hershelle Gibbs and Shahid Afridi. Add to that the silken grace of VVS Laxman (though I still can’t imagine him doing well in this cramped form of the game), the under-estimated utility value of Scott Styris and the exciting new talent of Rohit Sharma and you have a potentially unbeatable team. The bowling line-up of Chaminda Vaas, RP Singh and Nuwan Zoysa may be one-dimensional, but they may just get away with that. Thanks to Laxman declining the icon status, Hyderabad is not even the most expensive team in the circuit. That honour goes to Kolkata (at $5.95 million), who are an interesting lot in their own right.

Ricky Ponting must be a relieved man, now that Ishant Sharma and he are on the same team. The moot question is whether Ishant is more than twice as valuable ($950,000 versus $400,000) as the Aussie skipper, but let’s not let money get in the way of the game, shall we? There’s more that’s interesting about the Kolkata team: old mates Ponting and Sourav Ganguly are in it together. So who will be the captain? And with Shoaib Akhtar in the side as well, I don’t know if either would want to put their hands up for the role. Another international captain, Chris Gayle, is also in the team, so will they pass the responsibility to him? And oh yes, did I mention that the coach of this potentially well-knit team is a certain John Buchanan?

The list of players who found it hard to sell themselves tells its own story. Metronomy (don’t waste your time scurrying to the dictionary; I just made up that word) obviously doesn’t sell in the IPL; hence Glenn McGrath really struggled before Delhi picked him. If any more proof is required that the West Indies are on the wane, here it is: two captains, a former one in Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the when-in-fit-current one in Ramnaresh Sarwan had to wait until the end to head towards Bangalore and Mohali, respectively. Just because your country selects you only for Twenty20 games does not mean much at the IPL sweepstakes; Loots Bosman had to wait forever before Mumbai finally ook pity on him. Considering his country didn’t even consider him for the more stately 50-over variety of the game, Justin Langer should be grateful that Jaipur took him without bargaining for a half-price sale. Finally, one small indication that the IPL isn’t quite cricket: Mike Hussey was among the last to find a taker. What do they call him down under, Mr. Cricket?

Monday, February 18, 2008

The business of cricket

Much has been said about the commercialisation of the game, about how there is too much cricket because sponsors and boards decree so, about how they are possibly killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without ignoring the grains of truth inherent in all of these moans, what we don’t seem to have is a solution. “Ease up the calendar,” is easy to say, but when there are thousands of pounds (or whichever currency you deal with) to be made with every meaningless (meaningless in what sense?) bi-lateral one-day series, why would administrators desist? It’s a bit like asking a business house to control their sales for fear of a glut in the market. On the other hand, we probably don’t want to Wal-mart’ise the game either. So what do we do?

I suggest we begin with the humble calendar. Let each cricketing nation declare a formal and immutable calendar for the home season. England and Australia already have it, though they have started to stretch into the adjacent off-season weeks of late. Depending on the weather and the probable playing conditions, each team gets a pre-defined three-month window in a year to play the game at home. And with each team playing a full home season and one or two away series, we have steady cricket for each country for about six months in the year. Of the other six months, they play in the IPL or wherever for about three months (call it their incentive time if you will). And they have to compulsorily rest for three months. In the years of the World Cup (any of the three as they exist today), the host nation(s) gives up part or all of its season for the Cup.

So what’s the big deal, you may well ask. This is nothing more than a detailed way of saying, “ease up the calendar.” Yes, this only satisfies the players, in terms of the rigour of the international circuit; it does not cater to the profit motives of the administrators. How do we address that?

Shorn of all self-righteousness and pretence, what do the administrators want out of the game? They want to make the most out of the game, right? Is more cricket the only option? Is the money only on the field and in the corresponding television coverage? May be administrators can bring in business consultants and innovation gurus to analyse how else they can make money from the game? How else can we get a larger share of the spectator’s wallet apart from more and more cricket? How can we increase revenue at the gates and the venues? How can we bring in money on non-playing days? How can we create newer revenue streams and recurring income from the game’s interested followers? I’m sure a tight, focused business brief will generate the right answers. I have some ideas in this regard, but I’ll save them for my own entrepreneurial venture.

It’s time for cricket to apply the theory of constraints. Freeze on the schedule and then focus on generating ideas on how to get more revenue out of the game. Don’t treat the game as being in a single industry; instead, look at it as a conglomerate. If cricket had many profit centres like corporate houses like GE, Tata and Samsung has companies and divisions, would the way the game managed be different and better? I think so.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Time for England

In the days they used to lose more consistently, there was one aspect on which England always scored over the other international teams: coming up with excuses for their defeats. If it’s not Delhi Belly one day, it’s the dust in Multan the next and the configuration of the stars on the third day. And when all else fails, they turned to the crowded cricketing calendar.

So when they started winning (just a little bit) in the last couple of years, I worried that they would lose that touch.

But all’s well with us Englishmen, assures Paul Collingwood. After getting mauled by New Zealand in the first two one-day games, the English one-day skipper revealed he has settled into the role and is here to stay when he said, “It would have been a good thing if we’d have had a week until the next game so we can really talk about things and get in the nets and do plenty of work.”

Well, they’ve had one day between their two Twenty20 games; they’ve had two days each between their first three one-day games (and a three-day gap coming up between numbers three and four); they have three days between the first test match and the second and a further four between the second and the third (assuming all test matches last the distance). In today’s ICC calendars (not to mention ICL, IPL and other assorted abbreviations), that could hardly be called a whistle-stop tour. But don’t forget, we’re talking England.

And to be entirely fair to the poor sods, they are doing their best to make more time for themselves. They finished the first one-dayer with 20 overs to spare and the second with a delivery shy of 18 overs to go. They lost, you say? The game’s not all about winning, is it?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Umpires as leaders

There’ seems to be more to him than just divine off-side play, abrasive combativeness and inspired captaincy. Sourav Ganguly looks set for a post-playing career in cricket administration or commentary, if this statement is an indicator of how his mind works.

As a cricketer, I feel that if the field umpires get a bit of help in the matter of the front foot no ball from the technology as they have in tennis, that they can concentrate and look only towards the batsman and that can reduce mistakes, because things happen fast in the cricket field.

It’s a comment that forces you to re-look at the role of on-field umpires in today’s technology era. The law book says that the job of the umpires is to control the game as required by the Laws, with absolute impartiality.

So how can we let the on-field umpires control the game? By only retaining the control aspects of on-field play with them. And removing the mechanical aspects of the job. Like announcing lunch and tea intervals. Like signalling mechanical landmarks like over completion. Like swinging or raising their hands for boundaries and sixes. Like giving batsmen out for being patently outside the crease in cases of run outs and stumpings. And like signalling front-foot no-balls. Simply put, remove from the on-field umpires job sheet anything that can be determined with absolute certainty by technology (and the third umpire).

So what will the on-field umpires do, you ask?

Well, for one, everything that technology (hawkeye, snicko, ultra-mo, etc.) speculates on. Like lbw decisions. Like feathers to the wicket-keeper. Like bat-pad decisions. But you may wonder, aren’t these really what the on-field umpires err on for the most part? Precisely, and that’s why they need to concentrate on them. These are decisions and judgment calls that a qualified and experienced human needs to take, and the on-field umpires need to concentrate on these to the exclusion of all else if they were to get more decisions accurate.

Secondly, all the control aspects of the game will be the responsibility of the on-field umpires. Like discouraging time-wasting tactics from either team. Like keeping sledging within limits of decency (it’s a different matter that sledging should perhaps be totally un-banned, but that’s meat for another meal). Like deciding on how much light is enough to continue playing. Like calling off a test match that is meandering meaninglessly. Like, well, being in control of the game.

Think of the on-field umpire as a leader rather than a manager. Who takes decisions on uncertainty and leaves the mechanical / process aspects to the minions. Or to technology.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

And the award goes to . . .

The man deserves all the accolades he’s got – upwards of 3500 runs in both tests and one-day internationals and more than 800 wickets between the two forms is no mean achievement. And to upstage an uncle of such calibre as Graeme takes more than just an elegant cover drive with the willow and nagging accuracy with the cherry. Yes, Shaun Maclean Pollock has to count (he may not agree with the choice of word here considering what happened in the 2003 World Cup) as the greatest all-rounder South Africa has produced, and one of the best in the world.

But there is one thing that perhaps should not have gone Shaun’s way. The reference here is to the man-of-the-series award Shaun received (albeit jointly) in the just-concluded one-day series between West Indies and South Africa. Figures of six wickets in 47 overs in the five matches and an aggregate of 43 runs surely didn’t decide the series? Of course, the man was parsimony itself, conceding just 131 runs in those 47 overs, but that’s hardly series-deciding material, is it?

The choice of man of the match and man of the series is one that can be as fascinating as it can be frustrating. Batsmen seem to have the advantage; wicket-keepers never seem to get noticed; and increasingly, a heroic performance in a losing cause doesn’t seem to attract much attention.

In the WSC games of the 1980s (as also in some tournaments at Sharjah around the same time), quite often the choice of the man of the match was made (and even announced) before the game was over. The World Championship of Cricket in 1984 tried a unique points system for deciding the man of the match. Thankfully, it was abandoned – no one outside of those who conceptualised it thought it would really work. And England still has the practice of announcing one player from each team for the man-of-the-series for test matches. (More often than not, that was the only way to fill up trophy cupboards in England, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.)

Rambling time over; it’s time for a stroll down memory lane. Here are five individual award decisions from the 1980s that stick in my mind.

The magnificently named Robert George Dylan Willis, if not for his commentary stints now, could well have become the forgotten man of English cricket. Yes, 325 wickets 90 tests in no mean achievement (especially considering he didn’t manage a single ten-for in a match), but the man seemed to be perennially battling his own demons and peers with more personality. But there is one thing Old Bob can dangle in front of his more publicity-savvy peers – a man-of-the-match award for captaincy in a World Cup game against Sri Lanka in 1983. Rum thing isn’t it, for he who was never really considered captaincy material before this game? And, as it turned out, after?

The fallacy in the points logic for deciding the individual award in the World Championship of Cricket in 1984 stood out starkly in the semi-final between New Zealand and India. Ravi Shastri bowled well enough to take 3 for 31 off his 10 overs, but Madan Lal had picked up 4 for 37 in 8 and Kapil Dev had bowled tightly as usual for figures of 1 for 34 in 10, and he had led the team astutely as well. And when Shastri holed out for a laborious 53 off 84 balls, India was left with 105 runs to get, at, if memory serves me right, close to eight an over – an unthinkable proposition in those days. May be Kapil Dev didn’t think – he just went after the bowling, finished with 54 off 37 balls, and with Dilip Vengsarkar contributing a relatively sedate 63 off 59 balls, India was home with plenty to spare. Man of the match? You got it, Ravi Shastri for his “all-round performance.” Well, he made the game competitive all right. And oh yes, he went on to pick up the man-of-the-series award as well, though that seemed a touch more deserved.

Cut to the Rothmans Cup at Sharjah in the same year. In a series where no batsman really got going, Sunil Gavaskar ended up as the man of the series. Surely 2 runs off 9 balls and 20 off 50 are not match-winning knocks? Well, the little master picked up five catches in the two matches, including four in the famous 125-87 game between the sub-contintental giants.

When Courtney Walsh picks up four wickets for 31 runs in 9.4 overs and Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes slam half-centuries in a nine-wicket rout of Pakistan at Sharjah in 1986, surely one of them should’ve been the man of the match? But a small man came in the way – Gus Logie pocketed three sensational catches (and was involved in the odd run-out as well), and the individual trophy in the bargain.

Chetan Sharma would probably rank as one of the more unfortunate cricketers to have played for India. He was the only one to take a test match ten-for in the golden tour of England in 1986, but that’s not even a trivia question in a local quiz competition. And when he takes the first hat-trick by an Indian in a one-day game (and a World Cup game at that, in the 1987 edition in the sub-continent), the victims are Ken Rutherford, Ian Smith and Ewen Chatfield, not quite tigers with the bat. And to rub salt into the wound, Sunil Gavaskar comes in and plays a thunderous innings, a one-in-a-lifetime affair, and walks away with the man-of-the-match award. But hold on, Gavaskar remembers poor Chetan’s feat, and the award gets shared. Now if only Javed Miandad had been half as generous…

Sunday, February 03, 2008

It’s an ill wind . . .

It wasn’t quite easy watching the proceedings at the ‘Gabba, and it was really a relief that the weather interfered rather more decisively than it tends to in England. It was a pointless game in a pointless one-day series. (It is a relief to remember that this is to be the last tri-series tournament in the annual Australian cricket calendar, at least until the BCCI realises how to make money off it). No, I’m not saying this because I’m an Indian and the Indians didn’t quite cover themselves with glory with their batting performance. Yes, I did watch Brett Lee bowl give yet another great exhibition of fast bowling. No, it’s not because the game ended resultless. But… you know what I mean.

Yet, and trust a die-hard cricket follower (especially on an otherwise eventless Sunday) to find something to talk about even in a game like this…

It was the third over of the Australian innings. Irfan Pathan was bowling to James Hopes. He starts with a dot ball; then bowls a real wide down the leg side, follows up with another good dot ball; and then disappears to the fence for the next three. Then he comes up to bowl the last ball of the over. It was another delivery on the leg stump, and brushed past the batsman’s pads. Hopes attempted to tickle it to fine-leg but missed. The umpire spread his arms wide. Groan. Pathan had to bowl that one again.

But the batsman’s reaction was instructive. Hopes was practising the shot again and berating himself for missing out on what could have been a certain boundary. If the ball was that close to being hit for a boundary, is it fair that it be declared a wide just because the batsman missed it?

I know it’s a tight call with these leg stump wides, but may be they should be treated like lbws? That is, the umpires have to decide whether the ball was really un-hittable rather than just going by the mechanical definition of a ball just going down the leg side? I know the current trend is to take away as much decision-making as possible from the on-field umpires but surely there are some things they can decide on? And only they can decide on?