Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why KP should go

Those wicked guys at The Spin, are they really Englishmen? Bad enough they support Kevin Pietersen, but in the face of such incontrovertible evidence? After everything that has happened, The Spin argues that England needs to find a way to keep its only consistently genuine star as happy as possible ahead of the Ashes. But why? And at what cost?

The Spin will do well to remember that it operates from the land that introduced the wonderful game to all of us. The one game that embraces defeat as much as, if not more than, victory. It’s about playing the game, ain’t it? It’s about the spirit of the game, did I hear you say? Sign up here for an ECB life membership.

Look at what KP has done. Forget that he gave up his native South Africa and agreed to represent the English. Forget that he averages 51.09 after 50 tests and 46.65 after 91 ODIs, with a strike rate of 87.24. Mere numbers these. Even if they are better than that of any English player on display today. Playing the game is not just about batting and batting well, is it? The English of all people ought to know this better.

Look at what KP has done. He is bestowed the ultimate honour of the land, the English captaincy (rated above the knighthood in certain quarters) and he gives it up for petty reasons as conviction and not seeing eye-to-eye with the coach. So what if he still scores a century at the next opportunity? Hardly proves he is a team man, just plain a selfish one.

Look at what KP has done. He actually wanted to go home for a couple of days between two test matches. And when denied, he turns petulant child and punishes the West Indies with yet another century. Come on now, even the benevolent Englishmen can’t ignore this taunt.

Look at what KP has done. He speaks his mind, even if it is not the same mind as the wise ones who run the game. At the end of a tiring tour, he actually complains of tiredness. Surely he should know better? Surely he realises that cricket is not all about batting, not even batting better than any bugger in sight? It’s an all-round game, especially off the field.

The Spin’s argument is so self-serving it’s pathetic.

Yes, Pietersen contradicts himself; yes, his stream-of-consciousness interview technique throws up headlines; yes, he puts his foot in it. But, boy, can he bat: England's only hope of surprising the resurgent Australians is if he is in the right frame of mind.

What if England, God forbid, win the Ashes? How will they justify it?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Er, who’s the captain now?

(Drat, I knew I missed a trick when I discontinued ‘The future cricket’ series after just five musings. I touched on the toss and just when I was on to something big, I let go. And now this man has beaten me to it. I can’t prove that the idea crossed my mind earlier, so I won’t take him to court but I am compelled to share the conversation I had with John Buchanan sometime last year when I was in Kolkata.)

Me: Hi, John. Good we could catch up like this. I know I don’t have the kind of experience you’ve had, coaching one of the most successful cricket teams ever, but…

John: Hold on there, mate. Just get your sequence right – I wasn’t the coach of the most successful team, I made it the most successful team ever.

Me: Warney had me believe otherwise, just after the 2005 Ashes loss.

John: I knew you’d come to that. Read my book If Better Is Possible to understand the reasons for that defeat. I just let Jamie (Siddons) lose it for us. It was an important stepping stone for him.

Me: Oh yes, I remember reading that book. You also had some convincing explanations for the loss to India in 2001, didn’t you?

John: I don’t quite remember what I said then, my agent said that we needed a compelling explanation, and I think we came up with some reasons that night over a few drinks.

Me: Interesting… any way, John, I wanted to sound you out on an idea I had while I was working on a series of posts on my blog on cricket reforms.

John: Ah, you write a blog, do you? Do you think something like that will help my consulting business? I don’t mind re-releasing my book in the blog format if it helps.

Me: Er, I don’t think I’m quite the best person to answer that, being an amateur blogger myself.

John: Oh ok. I think I’ll check with my agent on this. Thanks for bringing it to my notice. Let’s move on. You were talking of some cricket reforms. What are you thinking?

Me: I am wondering, why should a team have only one captain? I can understand a team having one wicket-keeper, but just as there are three departments in the game, why can’t there be multiple captains?

John: What a crazy idea! Why would you want that?

Me: Well, I was just thinking. There used to be this criticism about bowling captains either under-bowling themselves or over-bowling themselves.

John: Nah, bowling captains are just too fat and obsessed with their cell phones.

Me: And some batting captains are so worried about the team, it tends to affect their personal performance as batsmen.

John: No no, Mark Taylor was a genuinely bad batsman, but go on.

Me: Moreover, nowadays there are so many roles captains have to play – selector, player, media relations…

John: Brand endorsement, representing the country in inane ICC meetings… I get the drift. But I still don’t know how it will work out.

Me: Me neither, but if there is one person who can carry this off, at least on an experimental basis, it’s you I reckon.

John: That is absolutely correct, mate. No one else can even talk of this with a straight face. Hmmm… these Englishmen don’t seem to want to win the Ashes – they’re not calling me to coach their team. They could’ve made good guinea pigs.

Me: Do you think you can perhaps write an article about it and get some views from other experts?

John: No, I’d rather leave copies of the article in hotel rooms accidentally, that strategy works better, but hey, wait! I wonder I can try it out with the Kolkata Knight Riders at the next IPL. I can kill multiple birds with this one stone.

Me: Er, how?

John (visibly excited): I can make Sourav the mascot captain. So he can wear those funny costumes (or may be take his shirt off) and cheer the team. That way I can get rid of him from the eleven. I can get Ponting to do some field placements. Now that should make the game more competitive and push our bowlers hard. Chris Gayle deciding the batting order should pose some problems for the fielding side – he will take so much time with his decisions on the batting order that it will affect the over-rate. Brendon McCullum can do some pitch reading, Brad Hodge can be the captain of the reserves… the possibilities are endless.

Me: Er, that’s quite not what I was thinking…

John: I think I’ve cracked this. This innovation should take the cricket world by storm. I can see the next ICC captain’s conference being held at the pitch at Lord’s, just to ensure there’s enough for all the captains from the different sides. Thanks for being a sounding board for my ideas, mate. You want to pick up the tab?

(To avoid the public glare wherever we go, John and I were in disguise at an undisclosable bar in Kolkata. Hence I cannot prove this conversation happened. Lucky bugger, John!)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The First Test

(On the occasion of the 132nd birthday of test cricket, I look back at the first test I watched live on television.)

It was the days when I had just got initiated into this game called cricket, the days when the names of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev (G R Vishwanath was my favourite though) were beginning to become familiar when we played street cricket.

I had listened to some radio commentary earlier with some friends, when Pakistan toured India, and to our delight, India won. But the concept of watching cricket on television (and live cricket at that), was still not even a thought in our minds. It was the days when television was not an assumed appliance in all households, at least not whereabouts I lived, this town called Tiruchirapalli, in the heartland of Tamil Nadu.

School closed for Christmas on Friday, 18 December, ‘81 and was scheduled to re-open on Monday, 4 January ‘82. The plan for the fortnight was the usual – play cricket on the streets until we get dirty and tired, come home to wash and eat, repeat process until the sun decides its time to stop. Then sit outside the house of one of us and talk about what we played until it was dinner time. Except that my dad had a surprise in store for me.

It was Sunday evening, and we had just had our dinner. Then my dad said to me, ‘I am going to Kumbakonam on Tuesday. Do you want to come with me?’ I was wondering why I should go to Kumbakonam of all places. Yes, a couple of my uncles lived there, but the children of one were much older than me and those of the other, mere tots. So what will I do there? ‘Raju uncle [the older uncle] has a television at home and you can watch the England-India test match there.’ Ah, now he was talking.

On the evening of Tuesday, 22nd December, I was packed and all set to travel the 150 kilometres that separated me and a live test match on television. The uncomfortable bus journey barely registered as we reached Raju mama’s home at some nine in the night.

The third test match of the series was due to begin the next day. I remembered reading about India’s victory in the first test. I recalled how I felt Madan Lal was the better bowler in the England second innings because he conceded only 23 runs in 12 overs while Kapil Dev was profligate in giving away 70 runs in 13.2 overs, and they took five wickets each. The difference between dismissing David Gower and Graham Dilley had not sunk in yet. I also remembered the drawn second test for Krish Srikkanth’s first test half century (65 off 88 balls – a rapid-fire innings for those days, especially for that series) and Gavaskar’s monumental if dreadfully slow (even for those days, even for that series) 172.

I woke up on the morning of Wednesday 23 December 1981, bright and eager. My first test of live cricket on television, and I was justifiably excited. Morning coffee, bath, dressing up, brunch, all done by 9.30 am, well in time for the 10 o’clock start.

It didn’t strike me then, but later years made me reflect on it, it seemed like I was not the only one who was excited with the prospect of the test match. Raju uncle’s son, Ashok, much older to me, was also enjoying his Christmas vacation, so he was also all set to watch the game. Ashok’s grandfather also was a cricket freak and he was with us as well. So were a couple of uncle’s assistants (uncle was a lawyer), for whom, I suspect, it was a way to be at work but not work.

So, the clock slowly crawled to 10, and Doordarshan brought cricket to the drawing room. Keith Fletcher won the toss and, expectedly, chose to bat first. Graham Gooch and Geoffrey Boycott were the openers. The little cricket I knew then told me that Gooch was the more watchable of the two. But on that monumental day, there wasn’t much to separate the two. How I wish by that I meant Boycott played aggressively! But no, Gooch decided to emulate his senior partner and ground his way to 71 runs of 176 balls. But even then he outscored his partner, the score being 132 when he got out. Who should succeed him but the Boycott-clone Chris Tavaré, and between the two of them they batted the day out, England finishing on a rather pedestrian 190 for 1, Boycott having inched along to 86 with Tavaré on a relatively quick 25.

It wasn’t a great day of cricket in terms of the action, but for me it was still exciting. Of course, I had a sinking feeling that India won’t be able to win this test. But this was the 1980s, so a draw was still good enough, and I fancied our chances on that front.

Day 2 was relatively breath-taking. Boycott got out soon after reaching his century, and I guess even the English must have felt relieved to see him go, making as he did 105 in 285 balls. But what followed next was even more exciting for me. That stylist, David Gower made his way to the crease, and I was looking forward to some exciting stroke-play from him. But he lasting only three deliveries, falling leg before to Madan Lal. If it was a dodgy decision, Doordarshan didn’t explain overmuch. But two wickets on the same score had me salivating. And I knew Fletcher, who walked in next, was on a second wind, and hence should not be difficult to dislodge. However, it was the featherbed called the Kotla, and Fletcher stayed. Tavaré played perhaps the most aggressive innings of his life as he ended the day with 133 (his maiden test century), having made 108 runs on this day alone – he must’ve gone to confessional that night. With Fletcher making 51 off 107 and then Ian Botham coming in and taking the bowlers on with a frightening innings of 47 not out, England finished the day on a comfortable 428 for 4.

The next day was December 25 and was thus the rest day. It was the longest day of my life until then. Sure the cricket was not riveting, but when there is no cricket, what do you do? I was in a new city, I had no friends, I had no books. It was worse than watching Boycott bat. But, like with all things good or bad, the day got over.

The third day made for good viewing because England kind of collapsed, losing five wickets for 17 runs, Tavaré ending on 149, a career-best as it turned out in the ultimate analysis. To protect Bob Willis from the frightening pace of Madan Lal, Fletcher very kindly declared at 476 for 9. Time for India to bat. Srikkanth started with a boundary, but flattered to deceive, falling for 6 off just four deliveries. Dilip Vengsarkar struggled to 8 off 43 before perishing to Derek Underwood. Gavaskar was marching serenely albeit slowly at the other end when his brother-in-law Vishwanath joined him at 41 for 2. And Vishy was class itself. He lost Gavaskar at 89, but that didn’t deter him as Sandeep Patil joined him. The two were comfortably established as India closed the day on 172 for 3, Vishy on 67 and Patil on 30. Draw was already loudly written on top of this test match.

Day 4 did not start very comfortably for India. Patil perished after adding just a single to his tally, Kirti Azad made a quick 16 and departed, Vishy reached a classy hundred and decided enough’s enough, and Kapil Dev went for 16, out to his all-rounder opponent Botham. At 254 for 7, India was even in danger of being asked to follow on. This was when Syed Kirmani joined a young Ravi Shastri. Neither of them were mugs with the bat, but they weren’t great batsmen either. Shastri was in his early days, and his batting skills hadn’t come to the fore just yet, and Kirmani was but a useful scrapper lower down the order. But today was their day. It wasn’t pretty cricket, but they hung on and took India to 376 for 7 at close, behind England by 100, but close enough to ensure a draw. Shastri not out 48 and Kirmani on a more belligerent 67.

Kirmani fell early on day 5 when that perennial bits-and-pieces man of Indian cricket, Madan Lal joined Shastri with India still 94 runs adrift of England. But the two carried on from where Kirmani left off, and took the score past England’s, before, at 486, Shastri fell to the gentle medium pace of Gooch, seven agonising runs short of what would have been his maiden test century. Immediately afterwards, Madan Lal also fell to Gooch and India ended at 487, a first innings lead of 11. Gooch finished with flattering figures of two for 12 off 8.1 overs. There was just about 90 minutes of play left in the test match, and Gooch and Boycott indulged in some batting practice, stroking 72 off 19 overs (with Gavaskar and Srikkanth turning their arms over as well) before the umpires decided to pull the stumps.

Thus it was, my first test match. Utterly unforgettable, utterly forgettable. Poignantly summed up by who the man of the match was: Christopher James Tavaré. After such a debut, why do I still follow test cricket, you may ask. Well… ask yourself that question too.

The scorecard

Saturday, March 14, 2009

That over

Twenty-eight years ago this day...

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Running amok

Am reading the autobiography of a cricketing great and was planning to come back to blogging here with a review of that book but events on a few cricket fields prompted me to rush my comeback. Not that any one was waiting with bated breath, but hey, this is my blog and I am entitled to my delusions of grandeur. But I digress.

At the AMI Stadium in Christchurch, India serenely marched to 392 for 4 in 50 overs. With a score like this, you’d expect the bowlers to just turn up and sew up the match. No, not in today’s times. New Zealand roared off the starting blocks, Brendon McCullum was outscored in a rumbustious opening stand, and the Kiwis lost not because of the formidable total they were up against; they lost because they had an inexperienced middle order. They still managed to score 334, in just a ball over 45 overs.

Over at Kingsmead, Durban, Mitchell Johnson treated us to a rare frightful spell of hostile fast bowling on Saturday. (No malice intended, but the sight of blood spilling from the jaw of Jacques Kallis must have been heartening to bowlers the world over.) But normal service resumed today as a rookie playing in just his second test managed a century in each innings.

The anodyne series between England and West Indies continues at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain, and while England might just win this game and square the series, it does not take away from the batsman-friendliness of the series barring the one session of shame for England. Paul Collingwood averaged a shade under 46 before the test started and Matt Prior was at 40.42. Graham Gooch ended his career with an average of 42.58, Allan Lamb finished with a Himalayan 36.09 and that epitome of grace, David Gower managed 44.25. You decide the pecking order of English cricketing greatness.

To borrow a phrase I heard Ian Chappell use long ago, is run inflation well and truly on? Do we need to recalibrate cricket the way we knew it? Or is the game on its last legs? Only the likes of Johnson and Dale Steyn can help preserve the balance. But how long can they fight the elements?