Monday, April 24, 2006

So will the real number one please stand up?

I like Mahendra Singh Dhoni much, and wish him the very best in life and career. In fact I am a fan of him. If I were to be sealed off in a remote island for 3 months and then be asked to guess ‘the world’s best ODI batsman now’, Adam Gilchrist and Dhoni must be two of the first names that would occur to me. The ICC ODI world #1 ranking for his batting, as such, is an expected return that no one should grudge him.

But incidentally I have been watching cricket for the last three months, and there are two one-day players today who seem to be batting on the 3rd floor while all others, Dhoni included, are fighting it out on the 1st to win a ticket to the 2nd. The Australian skipper and #2 batsman Ricky Ponting is one. The other is Dhoni’s team mate and winner of three consecutive man-of-the-series awards, Yuvraj Singh. He is ranked number 10 though.

In the 2nd of the two-match DLF Cup series versus Pakistan at Abu Dhabi, everyone except Yuvraj in either team had a struggle during their respective stays at the crease. Dravid played more than 100 balls and yet never looked entirely comfortable with the stroke making. It would be ditto with Inzamam in their innings. The older ball was clearly causing problems.

India’s nemesis Mohammad Asif returned with Rana Naved during Indian ‘slog overs’ to strangulate the Indian innings and the two were largely successful at that. Exit set batsmen Dravid and Dhoni and enter new player Yuvraj Singh, coming in at twilight, against two very accurate seamers, bowling in a groove with the virtually unhittable old ball. He plays a few balls in typical fashion and then breezes 18 runs from 4 balls in an Asif over. No brawn, no power, no luck; just pristine timing of the ball. It becomes the single largest reason that India go past 260 with the decisive extra runs that prove to be too much for Inzamam and the Pakistan lower order in the final analysis.

The quality of the innings was put in perspective when the two bowlers regained full control immediately after Yuvraj departed. In recent memory only Ricky Ponting exhibited such clean hitting in the
Johannesburg record-breaker but he got great competition from South Africans Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith on a batting beauty. Yuvraj’s surgical dissection was a one-off in the four innings played during the series and even Rana Naved’s inspired assault on Indian off-spinners during Pakistan’s chase was no patch on it.

Cricinfo’s Dileep Premachandran summed it up thus:

“The innings lost momentum towards the end, with Naved bowling a fine spell full of subtle changes of pace. Mahendra Singh Dhoni played with great intelligence for his 59, but the disdainful manner in which Yuvraj Singh thwacked 24 from just 10 balls made you wonder whether he would have been a better option at No.3. On a pitch where the vast majority of strokes were mistimed or heaved off the square, Yuvraj's wondrous sense of timing stood out, and the three fours and a six off Asif's penultimate over transformed a competitive total into an imposing one.“

That brings us to a few questions. Just how much of these rankings is based on past and present statistical records? [It is common knowledge, after all, that prior to this phase Yuvraj had precious little in the ‘achievements’ column to even dream of getting near at the top.] And, to what extent do they weigh in non-statistical factors like impact of scored runs on the game and match situation when runs were scored?

Let us face it: no ranking methodology is ever going to offer an explanation that satisfies all, and any brewing debate on the topic is best abandoned on that futile note. There are certain occasions though when our eyes tell us so much more than the stats pages. The present batting form of Yuvraj Singh is a case in point.
[cross posted at Different Strokes]

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