Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fun, yes. Serious?

The opening ceremony, which I caught only in snatches, seemed to have been organised impeccably, putting to the shade the chaos of the 1987 World Cup and the ordinariness of the 1996 version. The Bollywood touch was unmistakeable; the cash, unmissable. Ravi Shastri’s exuberance as a host complemented Charu Sharma’s lack of it. Sunil Gavaskar was lackadaisical, reading off a boring script. Ray Mali was anodyne, Lalit Modi, evangelical. Laxman Sivaramakrishnan’s pitch-reading was as banal as ever (The pitch will have something for the bowlers for the first eight overs. Why eight? And how?), while Ajay Jadeja’s inane questions were only saved by Vijay Mallya’s classy responses. Sample this.

AJ: I’ll ask you a question. If the Bangalore Royal Challengers need 20 runs to win and have about 5 overs to go, will you rather Rahul Dravid hit a couple of sixes and entertain the crowd or are you fine if Dravid and co. get it in singles and twos?

VM: Obviously, the focus is on winning… … … … let them focus on the game; I’ll take care of the glamour.

Or words to that effect. He has class, does Vijay Mallya.

Rahul Dravid s nervous, Sourav Ganguly s relaxed. It's business as usual. Dravid wins the toss and opts to chase. Sourav plays his first card by saying he would have batted first. Round 1 to the man they call dada.

Praveen Kumar bowls an excellent first over (and second and third); Zaheer Khan and Ashley Noffke have nightmare beginnings. Brendon McCullum looks too anxious to begin with; and Sourav hardly faces a ball in the first 10 per cent of the innings. In the second over of the innings (Zaheer’s first), something snaps. McCullum thumps two fours past midwicket; Zaheer’s shoulders sag. He comes round the wicket and, truth be told, has McCullum in a tangle, but the ball hits the back of the bat (even as McCullum attempts a flick) and flies over third man for a six. Pace of the ball, reinforced bat, or a hugely reduced ground? I suspect the last. Some more shots later in the innings, including a paddle sweep for six, reinforce the uneasy suspicion. Have they made the ground really small to ensure more batting entertainment? I desperately hope not.

McCullum continues his merry way, starring in 50-run partnerships with each of his four partners, and finishes with a scarcely believable 158 not out at the end of the innings. Teams have defended 158 in the past, and here is one man who makes so much. However good his form and great his talent, it’s hard to believe he would have made this if bowlers were not handcuffed so much. Any way, that’s a rant for another day.

The Kolkata Knight Riders finish at 222 for 3 in their 20 overs. We’re halfway through the match, and the match is over. So I step out to catch some dinner.

When I come back and turn the television on, the scorecard reads 46 for 7. I expected a one-sided affair, but not this bad. The Bangalore Royal Challengers stumble from there to 82 all out, with Praveen Kumar (who was their best bowler, notwithstanding a horror of a last over) top-scoring with an unbeaten 18. Has the search for Kapil Dev’s (not a name to throw while talking of an event like this, is it?) successor ended? On the other side, Ajit Agarkar finishes with 3 for 25. Want to bet on his recall to the national side for the 21st time?

But a small incident towards the end worries me. Dravid’s men are down and almost out at 71 for 9 in the 14th over. Ganguly bowls to Kumar, who has a go at it. The ball goes high in the air between mid-off and cover. It isn’t a difficult chance, but Ricky Ponting spills it. What are the odds Ponting would have dropped what was a relative dolly by Aussie standards in a one-day international between Australia and India and the bowler was Brett Lee?

So what’s the IPL about? I don’t know yet.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The future cricket 3 (Limited over tests)

With the current trend of test matches producing results (and in well under five days, as Ahmedabad and Kanpur proved), this change may not quite be required, but to prevent recurrences of the Chennai Test of last month and the featherbed sleepathons of the 1980s, why not limit the number of overs a team faces in a test match?

I remember this being tried out in some unofficial games, so the idea is not particularly new or original, but to the extent that it has not been implemented in official games yet, let me give it a shot.

Test cricket is about strategising, planning, taking your time in implementation and countering the vagaries of the deteriorating pitch and a tiring opposition. So it is key we don’t lose these elements in the proposed format. And while the toss brings in an element of luck, it tends to play a role in determining who initiates the strategy process. We make the toss a more important factor now.

In this version of the game, both teams get to play two innings, both restricted in terms of overs. The team that wins the toss decides (a) whether to bat first or second and (b) what the composition of their two innings is to be. The opposing team will also have to adopt the same composition.

For simplicity of calculation, a test match will be considered to be worth 400 overs, net of innings changes, slow over rates and other inevitable delays. Each team is allowed 200 overs. And the toss-winning captain decides how to split the overs. For ease of calculation and a semblance of balance, we give a minimum of 50 overs per innings and allow splits in lots of 25. So if the captain fancies a wearing pitch, he can choose 150 overs for the first innings and 50 for the second. Except that the opposition will also get the same break-up. If a team gets bowled out earlier, the remaining overs lapse. On the other hand, if the captain fancies early juice on day 1 and a featherbed from day 2, he can opt for a 50-over first innings and a long stint the second time round.

Sounds insane? Surely we want more masterpieces like this Don classic?

Part 1 – 50Fifty

Part 2 – More new balls

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Book Review: If Better is Possible: John Buchanan

I did not pick up John Buchanan’s book because I expected it to be a cricketing classic along the lines of The Art of Captaincy or Beyond a Boundary. I picked it up because I wanted to peek into the dressing room of the Australian team; I picked it up because I wanted some inside stories and trivia on some of those legends whom Buchanan strung together into arguably the greatest team ever to step on to the cricket ground; I picked it up because I thought Buchanan would throw light on some of the whispers that came out about his relationship with Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and some of the other Aussie luminaries.

Talk about over-expectation. If Better is Possible is not even a book on cricket. Yes, you read that right: It is not even a book on cricket. IPL notwithstanding, it is common knowledge that Buchanan intends to focus on a non-cricketing career as a business consultant. If Better is Possible is his calling card for that profession. The cover page descriptor, The winning strategies from the coach of Australia’s most successful cricket team, is as revealing of the shaky language in the book as it is of the book’s subtle attempt at a crossover from cricket to business.

The book is a loose collection of Buchanan’s reflections on different aspects of coaching, and his attempts at tying those to business management. The constant jump from cricket to business is unsubtle, irritating, interfering and forced for the most part.

Buchanan’s career as Australia’s coach (1999 to 2007) has been fairly uninterrupted by failure. The two big blips they’ve had in this streak were the 2001 series in India and the 2005 Ashes. Here’s Buchanan’s take on these two.

First the 2001 series in India, specifically the Kolkata test.

The Aussies take a first innings lead of 274 and Steve Waugh decides to enforce the follow-on, because Australia, as is their wont, want to “be aggressive, dominate and bury the opposition.” Every one knows what happened, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, and then Harbhajan Singh. So what does St. John have to say?

There were some factors outside our control which conspired against us, such as India changing their batting order which allowed VVS Laxman to open after being 50 odd not out in the first innings, some dubious umpiring decisions, a rampant and highly charged Eden Gardens stadium, incessant heat, and ultimately two players, Laxman and Rahul Dravid, who played possibly the best innings of their careers.

Sounds a bit like the Englishmen after yet another defeat, don’t you think? Well, to be fair, the Englishmen put one past Buchanan’s Aussies, didn’t they, in the 2005 Ashes? How does Buchanan explain that?

Jamie Siddons had just taken over as assistant coach from Tim Nielsen for the Ashes. And to facilitate Siddons to get to understand the players better, good old John decided on a strategy: to pull back from the players so I could spend more time being strategic about our preparation, our opposition and about finding tasks and experiences to expand the horizons of the players. One part of his strategy succeeded: Siddons got to know the players well. But it turned out to be a case of winning a battle but losing a war. As the great man confesses, “the situation demanded the opposite approach.” There is something about some sight being 20-20, isn’t there? Of course, there were other reasons as well, as always.

We began the series not fully prepared for a range of reasons – some in our control, some not.

When you lose, there are always factors outside your control, aren’t there?

To be entirely honest, Buchanan does throw light on one character who plays but a cameo in the book. Before you start salivating, the character in question is not an Australian, but an Englishman. Buchanan had just taken over as coach of Middlesex in 1998. Mark Ramprakash had also been made captain just that season, and John and Mark meet for the first time. And Mark says: “You don’t change the rules of the club. The players don’t change the rules of the club. If there are to be changes, I am the only one to make them!”

The Buchanan staples are all there – the emphasis on processes over results, the obsession with “taking the game to the next level”, the importance of rituals, the elevation of Justin Langer to the same level as Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath and such like. The staples of a bad writer are in full evidence as well – a zigzag disjointed narrative, repetition of incidents, incomplete examples, careless language, the cardinal sin of telling-not-showing…

That the most interesting statement in the entire book is not John’s own, but a quote from Glenn McGrath (on the eve of the final of the 2007 World Cup, Pigeon says, “the final is why we are here”) tells its own story. If Better is Possible is a book begging to not be written.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The future cricket 2 (More new balls)

Originally, the game of cricket was conceived as a battle between the bat and the ball. Insufficient protection for batsmen and for pitches in the early days made it more in favour of the bowlers. So the administrators took over, bringing in covered pitches, the bouncer limitation, the leg side fielding restrictions, the front-foot no-ball rule and many more. Protective equipment for every conceivable part of the body (and elsewhere) made batsmen even more intrepid.

Today, the hand that holds the bat holds all the aces. Michael Holding’s plaintive cries echo that, Javagal Srinath’s baleful expressions confirmed that, Jason Gillespie’s test double hundred drove the point home, Daniel Vettori’s progress as an all-rounder tells its own story and every run that Monty Panesar makes is another nail in the bowler’s coffin.

It’s time to tilt the balance, a bit to begin with. A regulation that is very overtly bowler-centric is an urgent need of the hour, Twenty20 or no Twenty20, ICL or IPL, sponsors or boards. Here’s something that helps the fast bowlers. How about halving the time to the new ball in test matches? So the fielding team can opt for a new ball after 40 overs instead of the current 80?

The likes of Brett Lee and Dale Steyn would surely relish the prospect of coming back for a second spell midway through the second session of the first day to take a tilt at the middle order. Of course, if there is an expectation of reverse swing in the afternoon, the fielding team can delay taking the second new ball. And if a certain Muthiah Muralitharan is in your team, you’d probably pass that red cherry for a few more sessions.

Consider the effect on the batsmen. A Sourav Ganguly will have to face up to the new ball in test matches, something he normally does not prefer. A Jacques Kallis will settle down to the spinners and the seamers (and plot yet another anonymous hundred) and then will suddenly come up against the quicker ones in the midst of a somnolent (for himself, for the fielding team, for the spectators) afternoon session. Ah!

Here’s a more complex alternative. The second new ball becomes available after 60 overs, the third one after a further 40 and subsequent ones after every 30 overs. Sounds complicated? Well, we have power plays of different durations in one-day games, don’t we?

Part 1 – 50Fifty

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Another MoM rant

When a team gets bowled out for 76 runs in 20 overs on the first day of a test match and goes on to lose by an innings and plenty in just three days, one would think that the opposition bowlers won the test for their team. And therefore one of them would have been named the man of the match. Dale Steyn returned match figures of 8 for 114, while Makhaya Ntini ended up with 6 for 62, including 5 top-order wickets (the most decisive performance, in my view). But AB de Villiers walked off with the man of the match for his unbeaten double century in the Ahmedabad test.

Sure a double hundred is a significant contribution, but look at the circumstances. When de Villiers strode in to the crease, his team was already 41 runs to the good, the man at the other end was Jacques Kallis, the pitch had lost its juice and the opposition were already looking forward to the next match. So how critical was de Villiers’ innings in the context of the game?

More often than not, bowlers win matches and batsmen save them. And when two out of the three innings read 494 for 7 declared and 328, the 76 stands out in stark contrast. And one of the people who engineered that devastation would’ve been the decisive force in the match? Well, it’s a batsman’s game, isn’t it?

One more piece of mine on individual awards here – And the award goes to . . .

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The future cricket 1 (50Fifty)

From timeless tests to five-day tests. From 4-ball overs to 8-ball overs to 6-ball overs. From test cricket to one-day cricket to Twenty20. For a gentleman’s game, cricket has seen quite a bit of change over its 131 year international existence. So what transmogrifications can we expect in the future? Some idle speculation here, over the next few posts.


This is possibly the most logical extension one can imagine. The five-day test match version was producing too many dull draws. To artificially generate a positive result in the game, the one-day game was introduced. Then when the middle overs of one-dayers started getting boring, the game’s administrators just knocked them off and pop came Twenty20. What can Twenty20 lead to?

Well, quite a few celebrities from the business world and from tinsel town are involved in the Twenty20 game, thanks to the IPL and the ICL. What is the key characteristic of celebrities? Coming late for an event, of course. And the game cannot start without the celebrities making their grand appearances and their world-changing inaugural speeches, can it? Now that leaves us with even less time on our hands. So what do we do?

Introducing (drum roll and cheerleaders waving whatever they wave) 50Fifty, where each team gets to face 50 deliveries. Fifty is not divisible by six, you say? Come on, let’s not let such trivialities come in our way, shall we. Let’s just eliminate the concept of the over as a unit. Each team has to bowl 25 balls from one end of the wicket and 25 balls from the other end, that's it. The order is irrelevant, the number of balls at one stretch does not matter; but ends change when bowlers change. And each bowler can bowl a maximum of 15 deliveries in a game. Sounds crazy? Well, did you think of Twenty20 twenty years ago?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Beau who?

If there’s one aspect of the game the Englishmen have bettered the Aussies in over the last few years (no, seriously, there is something), it is left-arm spin. Monty Panesar may not have had a very successful Ashes series the last time over, but if you consider him and Phil Tufnell and Derek Underwood long before that, they surely have had better international success than the Aussies have had, notwithstanding the odd turns of Allan Border, Michael Bevan and Michael Clarke. And in the anodyne tradition of Ray Bright, Murray Bennett and Tom Hogan (Am I missing someone? That tells its own story, doesn't it?) comes Beau Casson, a left-arm finger spinner from that Mecca of spin bowling, Perth.

Beau has been named as the second spinner to that fitness fanatic, Stuart McGill, so it is fair to imagine he won’t be in the starting line-up for the first test at Kingston, Jamaica on May 22. But what are the odds that he may be in the fray for the second test? Well, McGill can injure his wrist again; or he can miss practice and upset the team management; or he can show dissent on the field for being given out 48 short of a well deserved maiden test half century. And hey presto, test player number 401, Beau Casson. The only thing about it is that the opponents are the West Indies, and so before Beau comes on to bowl, the tail will be in. A few days ago and one could have bet on Shivnarine Chanderpaul holding one end strong, but now he may well have gone off to attend an awards ceremony in one of the other islands.

Speaking of Chanderpaul, Australia have included their version of the West Indian (in terms of batting elegance), Simon Katich in the squad. Surely this is a serious message to Ricky Ponting, considering Peter Roebuck’s suggestions not so long ago that Katich should take over as captain of the Australian team? Considering Ponting has not been in the best of batting form of late, this added pressure will surely be a test to his character and leadership skills. Oh, what an exciting series this is going to be!