Monday, January 30, 2006

Overheard at the team hotel

Date & Time: 29th Jan 2006, 8 pm PST
Location: Inside an elevator of the team hotel at Karachi

We step into the elevator to find two familiar personalities conversing.

S: "...I am a former cricket captain, numerically the most successful one for my country in this sport. People say I have led my national side with distinction and the team treaded uncharted territories of achievement with me in command. I used to be a more-than-handy batsman too. Then I had a prolonged lapse of form with the bat. At around the same time I also stumbled with the captaincy and code of conduct. All hell broke loose and suddenly I was out of the one-day side, by all indications for good. Ever since that, any official declaration regarding me or my selection is invariably stripped of all transparency. Sometimes I feel there is one set of rules for judging the others and another unstated set for me."

I: "Hmmmm..."

S: "Even my inclusion in the Test side touring your country is not a recognition of my return to form in first class cricket but a compromise forced by a nationwide surge of protest against my unexplained omission in the midst of the last series. Here I am getting my first hit on your soil in the final Test of a series. This may be well be the match that decides the rest of my Test career. I come out to bat at 56/4 with my team nearly 200 runs in arrears and see off the tricky passage of end of day's play. I come back to pavilion expecting to unwind for the gruelling day ahead tomorrow, only to learn that the announcement of the ODI squad and my omission from it had to be made this very day. You got anything to say?"

I "Me? I got the captaincy around two years back. My form has soared since then while my team has been going from strength to strength for a while. No one in my country cribs about my batting form or my captaincy, not even the fast bowler that I chastised for being a deterrent to team building activities. Yet..."

They step out of the elevator.

I: "Yet you are playing in this make-or-break match and I am not. Both of us are carrying injuries, but mine is physical. You are lucky Sourav - at least you can be a part of this."

Both of them smile in agreement and walk away in opposite directions as the elevator door closes.
[cross posted at Different Strokes]

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

K-mystery: the little-known apparition

On my way to work I was self-exploring for a suitable New Year’s mantra. It was already the 2nd of January in 2006 and I simply could not delay it any further. I reached office toying with a few flamboyant options. A look at my table promptly evoked a largely acceptable though less romantic one: tidiness.

Half an hour later I was sitting at a somewhat cleaner desk (it took longer, to be honest). Now came the digital housekeeping; mostly the two and a half million e-mails. Shift-deleting through some age-old folders with scarce discretion I chanced upon this freak e-discussion about an Indo-Australian Test match at Mumbai in 2004, the one of pitch-controversy fame. The curious coincidence discussed in that string looked a bit creepier in retrospect of the horrors (on-field ones) that these Ashes held in store for the Aussies. I attempted to recompile the multiple bit contributions from participants. It shapes up roughly like this:

Rahul Dravid, the stop-gap Indian skipper for the 4th and concluding Test, was not one to waste precious time and energy in brooding over lessons learnt from the series already lost or theorising about the possible impact of being shot out for 104 in the first innings after winning the toss. It was time to salvage some pride. India came out with a positive outlook after the changeover and made a strong comeback into the game through a clinical field performance. Klinical rather – because they were aided by an inexplicable consonant in the Australian innings.
The Australians were sewn up for 203 in their first essay and the ‘k’ in that knockout was far from silent, as the scorecard here suggests.

India (1st innings) 104 all outAustralia (1st innings)

JL Langer c Dravid b Khan 12
ML Hayden c Kaif b Kartik 35
*RT Ponting lbw b Kumble 11
DR Martyn b Kartik 55
SM Katich c Kaif b Kumble 7
MJ Clarke st Karthik b Kumble 17
+AC Gilchrist c Kaif b Kartik 26
JN Gillespie c Kaif b Kumble 2
NM Hauritz c Harbhajan Singh b Kumble 0
MS Kasprowicz c Kumble b Kartik 19
GD McGrath not out 9

The abundance of k’s in the kredits (believe me it’s getting real tough to resist the k’s from ruling the dialect) there reminded some of us Indian viewers of a certain production house for local television. There were 5 non-k Indians playing that match and yet of them only Harbhajan could get on that scorecard. He looks like a standout pendant to that rather weird piece of jewellery. Am I missing Dravid as the 6th non-k? But then he was the kaptain!

Normalcy (along with normal ‘c’) prevailed thereafter and the only consonant sound that resonated when Australia came back to field was the ‘clunk’ of resurgent bat on ball as Sachin and VVS hammered vital partnership runs. The chilling clatter of mysterious k, however, was yet to be heard one last time in that innings. All those successful k’s from the Indian 1st innings fielding card - Kaptain, Kaif, Kumble, Karthik, Kartik along with the gatecrashing ‘Bhajji’ - were gobbled up by……Michael Klarke!

The new kid on the block capped off his fabulous debut series in Tests with a numbing bowling display of 6/9 and brought the Indian second essay to an all-too-rapid close. That the Aussies capitulated while chasing a 4th-innings 107 has little relevance to the current issue.

The Australian media folk are adequately world-beating in their coverage of supernatural oddities. Wonder how they managed to miss out on this unique spectre. In all probability the horror, coming as it did after the series was decided, was way too inconsequential to beat Symonds' new hairdo at attracting press.
'K-mystery' left the Australian cricket team alone thereafter, only to be back Terminator-like in the final Test match of a far more riveting series. Pietersen of the Kevin name, two k's adorning his nickname and dropped by Shane K Warne, went on to annihilate any last-minute Australian hopes of retaining the Ashes. He did it in the royal company of King of Spain.

Kool, isn’t it?
[cross posted at Different strokes]

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The two ends of history - will the twain ever meet?

Some people would love to see all production to be done in assembly lines. Not much of a problem there, unless these well-meaning folk extend their views to people and, to further amusement of consumers, insist that the line be modelled on themselves. It borders on refusing to acknowledge that people who are fundamentally different from their clan can also be perfectly all right.

Consider the situation that the man we know as Mansoor Ali Khan is born in the Sehwag family with working class family background, some distance from the privileges of royalty. And that he aspires to become the first reputed cricketer in his family, as against the son of another Test player. Going by Pataudi's expression of distress at Sehwag's ignorance of cricket history, surely even the suggestion of developing cricket skills by playing matches on the streets would be obscure humour to him until his family pays for a visiting coach from some far-off posh locality. In other words, someone to educate him about the history of Indian cricket. After all, selection in the big teams looming ahead in his career would be as much dependent on a knowledge of cricket history as an ability to bat like a dream...
OR that Dilip Vengsarkar grows up in a little-known suburban area of Delhi with little cricketing background associated for it and smiles sheepishly if anyone nominates him to become the first international cricketer in a million miles. Dreams of making it big notwithstanding, the most shocking thing for him during his under-19 days would still be the idea of commuting for hours by public transport to the Kotla. Why, he would much rather spend those hours reading about the great cricketers who played not less than 25 years before his birth so that he can answer questions about them, just in case he becomes a great player and dares break a record belonging to one or two of them.

Outrageous misplacement of priority? Pitiable furthermore, for India would have missed out on a fine skipper in the first instance and a dependable batsman in the second. Non acceptance of their less-than-ideal background would never have got them where Sehwag is today. And senior cricketers who are aware of the game's history and traditions and yet recognise that "stifling expression of the present by imposing awareness of history" does not feature up there do not become any lesser for it.

The beauty of Virender Sehwag is that day-after-criticism he would probably wake up in the team hotel, read the news of his 'shocking' comment in it and waste no more than a wry smile on it before walking off with a coffin on his shoulder and a new question in his mind: the name of the Indian skipper when he first played for India long back in 1999. He has problems remembering events that far back, an advantage while playing the long innings. Often it helps forgetting that horrendous swish attempted last ball. That, along with a few other not-too-meagre qualities like genius, makes him stand out from 'assembly line' men.

In all probability Sehwag would not think of responding to the ad hominem criticism with "Yeah, nearly as shocking as the two of them having a combined Test strike rate approximating mine, which shows an increased lack of urgency and commitment in cricketers of days gone by..." or a tongue-in-cheek "Some create history, others remember it".

This discussion has no intention to suggest, however, that the knowledge of cricket's past need not be imparted to generationext. To put things in perspective, it would not make anyone happy if a seventy year old Sehwag has to learn from 3D-media that some young Indian blazing the cricket world never knew him. We can certainly dwell deeply upon that pertinent aspect of an expression of alarm from the two ex-captains who inexplicably chose to weave it around a player. Ex-cricketers like them can do themselves proud in going ahead to try and spread awareness of the game's history beyond its conventional nurseries in this country where only a fraction of budding Sehwags are privileged to grow up.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

To see or not to see live

Rahul Bhatia (cricinfo) has a point about the television rights row here. The 3rd paragraph was especially hard-hitting and warns about the consequences of whetting the wrong appetites. It is dreadful short-sightedness on part of the state to even insist on such a thing. No compromises possible there indeed.
Reading through the column though, I had mixed feelings. Mainly from a realisation that in some ways this particular topic is far touchier than the regular commercial issue of rights invasion of some private business houses by a new state policy.
Some of us have no inclinations to win elections or secret desires to be the most popular guy around. (I am at my lowest ebb on that 2nd count at the present time.) But deep down we still would love to see our next generation kids, many hailing from families unable to afford pay channels, to absorb the anticipation in the air, the sudden bustle in the sporting discussions amongst the family elders and to witness live the thrills of their nation taking on its great rivals in the most popular sport of the land.
I find myself agreeing in letter to the SC ruling of allowing TEN sports to dictate the terms of agreement with DD. The judgement was fair, period. But the eventuality that a significant section of young boys and girls in India will now miss out on a chance to fall in love with a wonderful sport somehow weighs heavy on the eve of a potentially cracking and well-contested series.
After all millions of our kids will not be clapping to a Sehwag six, a Sachin four, a sharp Dravid catch or a successful Pathan appeal. Some of us might be bristling with excitement while rushing to a friend's house during the tea break to share the enjoyment of sure-to-be-thrilling last session of the 3rd and deciding Test while those children would play afternoon games of their own, oblivious of the drama getting enacted with their heroes playing principal parts.
All's therefore not fair even with an obvious statement of fairness. But then, so it is with life and cricket. Cannot complain at all. And after reigning in the emotions, even the imaginary picture described above looks much less depressing to people like me than the one Rahul paints in the last line of his 3rd para.
Another plus: Playing any game, as I imagined the kids to be doing there, is always better for young people than watching television. It makes them happy too - not for nothing do I continue to be amazed at the ease with which I could always get myself to switch off the live telecast of even the closest ODI final the moment I was called to the neighbourhood ground. [but it had to be one sport, compulsorily. It still works!]
Enjoy the cricket, then. Thanks for listening.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Eight and a half: A bit about Lahore pitch and Indian bowling

Movie connoisseurs may please return to other websites for there can be nothing but disappointment for them in this post if it showed up on their google search. This is not a review of the classic Fellini movie going by the same name.

That figure in the header is the simple answer to a simple question asked in various formats over the last couple of days by journalists, commentators, cricket viewers and cricketers alike:

After how many years are we seeing as batsman-friendly a cricket pitch as the one being used for the ongoing 1st Indo-Pak Test at Lahore?

As per my calculations, for the first time since that India v Sri Lanka Test match in 1997 we are witnessing bowler-killing of this magnitude. Then the Indians had batted first, battled extreme negative bowling from Sri Lankans to put up a seemingly formidable 537 after 5 sessions of play and declared late in 2nd day – only to run errands for over 3 days thereon in a trivial Sri Lankan Innings of 952/6. The 3rd and 4th days saw no fall of wicket. I repeat that incredible part – no wicket fell over 2 full days of uninterrupted cricket after Nilesh Kulkarni, the lanky, debutante left-arm spinner got a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket to end the 2nd day's proceedings.

Let us come back to Lahore 2006 & explore the reasons. The intimidating presence of great spinners and batsmen alike in the Indian contingent was always going to weigh heavy on Pakistan cricket establishment while preparing pitches. Any bias in the pitch on either direction would then need their team to depend a bit too much on the toss to capitalise on either a green top or a dustbowl.

Preparing a green top probably diminishes the advantage of the Pakistan bowling. Then, only Shoaib becomes marginally more dangerous (he always is due to his extra pace, on any pitch anywhere - even against Australia in Sharjah) while conceding some more runs. The other fast men of Pakistan are about as good as their Indian counterparts (and I exclude Pathan here), somewhat quicker but with little extra returns. [Gaurav Sabnis covers this aspect in detail on this post.] On the flip side, all Indian swing bowlers may cross the defining line if supplied with a helpful pitch and, like last time, become a handful for the often-flashy Pakistani bats.

A turning track, on the other hand, is a strict no-no in view of Kumble and Harbhajan. A curator's dilemma must have resulted from these considerations, end result being this neither-here-nor-there masterpiece.
The disappointment with the pitch notwithstanding, another aspect of the ever-critical-of-their-players Indian media prompts me to discuss the incorrect perception of the Indian bowlers’ ability. For that I would reveal a recent skeleton from my closet that would disgrace me a bit as writer of the ‘
2nd day preview’ post earlier.

Having seen these chaps bowling for India a few years now, it is time that we supporters give them more credit than the ‘Indian bowling is weak' stereotype. It is one thing bowling badly but it is another to be taken apart even on counts beyond their control.

I wrote that ‘2nd day preview’ post (and a ‘sleepwalking for 50 overs on pitch' bit in it) without seeing the game live or even the highlights package but taking a look at the end-of-day scoreboard and intermittently following online commentary. Our batsmen have now proved that assumption of a hard-work Lahore pitch to be true**, but it should be besides the point. What felt peculiar was that everyone else at office, including people I rate in the category that know their cricket, was already cursing the bowlers for a poor show by the time 1st day’s lunch was barely over.

The ‘fashionable’ lack of faith in Indian bowlers is not unlike the psychology of a parent who hands over a glass tumbler to a little child and immediately slaps him in anticipatory punishment assuming the kid will certainly break the tumbler. I mean, even a bad day’s performance by the present bowling side should perhaps have been thought worth more than 2 Pakistani wickets on a standard track but no one came out defending the Indian bowlers’ plight after the first day. Indian cricket followers need to come out of some premeditations and honestly appraise their bowlers’ worth.

There is need to respect them for what they are achieving in recent years rather than by how they are compared on TV against ‘all-star’ bowling sides. India have Pathan, Kumble and Harbhajan bowling together for them; and that is NOT a weak bowling attack by any means on any surface.
** Only I did not expect it to be this flat, and I hope that excuses my predictions there about the 2nd day’s developments for getting widely off the mark…
[cross posted at Different Strokes]

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

When WWW stood for Wasim Waqar and Wreckages….

Right, we are talking about the England v Pakistan 1992 series, the benchmark event for all subsequent official usage of reverse swing in international cricket.

14 years is a long time in evolution of this eternally self-enriching game and these days it is passé to link the doosra of swing with ball doctoring. Back then though, the return of swerve in the ragged red ball was greeted with an apprehension distinctly reminiscent of the medieval times when likening an unknown craft to black magic and evil powers was preferred to assigning logical explanation to it.

The cricket world outside Pakistan was as much prepared to appreciate this still-obscure bowling skill as the australopithecus would be for invention of the wheel or a 14 year old Lancashire kid going by the name of Andrew Flintoff would be for the 1993 Ashes. ‘Orangutans’, rather than ‘fast bowlers’, would be an expected answer if people were to be asked to link banana with swing.

Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis changed it forever in this crash-bang-thud festival from the summer of ‘92. The disbelievers reacted with prompt criticism and alleged malpractices with the ball. Some leading fast bowlers like Donald (who then went on to master the skill) actually joined the war-cry against ‘ball tampering’. Subsequently the scientific-minded came out with a study of the phenomenon and there was gradual, even grudging acceptance of the possibility that a skillful bowler can reverse-swing an old ball even without scruffing it up on one side with a soft drink bottle cap.

A lot of words have since been said, printed and aired on this series and its famous by-product. For a change we can cut out the words and look at some numbers that help comprehend the actual damage done to the lower order of English line-up by the Sultans of Swing at their respective peaks. A look into cricinfo’s records yielded the following info about the 2nd, 4th and 5th Tests of the series (screening out the other two Tests, which were drawn):

[for the crushing data, visit the full article at Different Strokes]

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Rahul Dravid: too

Let us now leave aside the organisational worries of Rahul Dravid and analyse Dravid the batsman in a larger context: his claim to the ‘world’s best batsman’ spot.
In his recent piece for The Courier Mail, Jon Pierik nominates Ponting as the best batsman in the world based on his recent form at the toughest batting position, no. 3. Not many can grudge Pierik his views on the Australian all-time great or debate the uncertainties associated with batting one-down. Some impressive career stats on the phenomenal consistency and all-conquering nature of Ponting’s form were quite awe-inspiring. The sole non-negotiable disappointment, however, regarding the point-wise comparison of Ponting with other greats in that story was the glaring absence of Rahul Dravid in the piece.
A look at Rahul’s career summary in tests showcases his gems one by one in a familiar manner reminiscent of Dravid’s varied skills embellishing themselves over a typical long innings. To borrow Pierik’s words, any doubters who believe that Dravid should not be in contention for the top batsman’s slot should try a potion of these for a gulp:
Dravid averages 61 at no. 3 (to Ponting’s 64 prior to the Sydney test) having played 121 innings (20 more than Ponting) there.Dravid’s lowest average against any team is a near-40 against South Africa. Better still, Dravid doesn’t average less than 40 in any of the lands he has visited.
Moreover Ponting’s career average falls marginally below 50 while playing away from home, tellingly unlike Rahul whose bat gets broader when the going gets tough (which it invariably does when India tours). The new Indian skipper averages 63 in away matches, no less.
Want some more? Dravid doesn’t have world’s best opening duo coming ahead of him (Remember how Ponting’s performance suffered when Langer-Hayden stopped normal services during these Ashes?) Nor does the Indian captain have any reason yet to shout from his Bangalore rooftop that one of these days a handy 5-down of his in the form of Parthiv/ Dhoni / Karthik is going to displace Gilchrist as an automatic selection in any “greatest ever XI” after the Don.
To top it all Rahul is armed with a last word quite equivalent to the one that did Viv’s claims to being the world’s greatest bat more harm than that last straw did to the proverbial camel’s back. Ricky Ponting never played the best team in the world in his entire career!
Mention must be made of a last bit of info regarding the importance of Rahul Dravid. After an eternity – perhaps ‘since his debut’ would be more accurate - India had to field a team without Rahul Dravid in Ahmedabad a few weeks back. It might only be a coincidence but in both innings of the match Team India failed to get on the right side of 100 without losing 5 wickets. The last time this happened was in the second test in NZ of that seamers-take-all series preceding the 2003 world Cup. And I cannot recall any match other than this above-referred Ahmedabad peculiarity from the recent past that saw such a double-ignominy being inflicted on the top order of this team on Indian soil.
To contrast that Dravid-less collapse with Australia’s ‘final frontier’ series win in India during Ponting’s absence last season would be an insult to the latter’s contribution to the World champion team, but the hammer would not be too far from the nail-head if it be said that Ponting is somewhat less valuable to the best team in the world than Dravid is to the best top order in the world.
Now we have probably had enough of that. Rahul has his shortcomings too. He is yet to prove that the crown rests easy on him. He averages 22 as skipper - the lowest average that any grouping of his stupendous international career data has returned barring his abysmal opening stints and the ICC Super test! In any case, the Rahul of last 15 months was a much more manageable player to the opposition than the Ponting of the last couple of years.
No one grudges Ponting’s current form and supremacy as a batsman. But it does look a tad unfair when a genuine great is denied mention as if he did not exist on the face of planet cricket.
PS: The Indian lower order however did an equally unprecedented job in that strange match at Motera in Dec 2005. Their first innings heroics are highlighted here, and then they added over 200 splendid runs after the fall of 5th wicket in the 2nd essay as well to make it a half-thousand for the lower half in that topsy-turvy Test! That just reminds me of something quite the ‘reverse’; promise to come back with that 1992 voodoo from the two W’s before the Indo-Pak first Test!

The importance of being Rahul Dravid: part one

If an avid follower of cricket were to be asked to sum up 2005 in the context of Indian cricket he would perhaps look into the distance for a few moments, tautly curved eyebrows accentuating his silence, and return with an honest answer: “Hard work.” The reasons require no further elaboration. Uneasiness surrounds the cricket lovers in this country who have been suddenly split into a number of camps. And this time it is an unprecedented split, quite unlike the ‘who’s right between Kapil & Sunil’ or ‘who’s better between Ganguly & Dravid’ squabbles from the past.
Assuming (1) the average Indian cricket fan to reserve an opinion on each of the six key characters – Ganguly, Dravid, Chappell, Kiran More, Dalmiya and Pawar - in the drama unfolding since appointment of the new Indian cricket coach, and (2) three types of opinions to be possible against each name (‘he is right’, ‘he is wrong’ and ‘he is not party to this’), the mad statistician can jolly well claim a possible 729 opinion sets resulting on the issue.
Even considering the unanimity of opinion of all followers regarding the latter three we are still having 27 kinds of statistically probable opinions. Too much? We narrow down further and eliminate the purely theoretical possibilities. The Indian supporters are still left with 8 or 10 palatable schools of thought to take their pick from. Unforeseen, indeed.
In this present state of anarchy my thoughts keep going back to the lone picture of sanity upon whom the future of Indian cricket must necessarily rest for the immediate future – Rahul Dravid. His ruthlessness and aggressive decisions have often been assigned to the coach at the expense of credit due to him, just as his deafening silence on an obvious farce has raised concerns. Importantly there, his stance on the issue matters. As the leader of a changing pack Rahul is assigned the dirty work of rebuilding these days, just as his predecessor was after the match-fixing scandal took its toll.
The big worries that can be associated with the Rahul Dravid of today are mostly on two counts: the continuation of his sterling batting form with the crown now placed firmly in place, and continuation (even with certain modified parameters) of ‘the skipper shall rule’ first principle during his regime in the face of a strong upsurge of 'coach power'.
(to be continued…in a changed context)
[cross posted at Different strokes]

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Prince of no frills

Ashwell Prince has generally projected himself well on most outings since the first we saw of him. He was initiated to international cricket in a much-awaited Test series in 2001-02 when South Africa were nightmarishly hammered at home by Adam Gilchrist and Australia. Amid the rubble of demolished reputations Prince managed to stay up for the part of this doughty newcomer not born with the silver spoon of phenomenal talent yet prepared to take the hard route to the next level.

Since that debut of his, Prince has done only moderate justice to the opportunities offered to him by the UCBSA. He has looked a better batsman than his average of 32 in Test cricket suggests. His batsmanship, though, is quite a loud shout away from that other Prince of world cricket, Brian Lara. Ashwell is, in some ways, a fill-in for the retired Gary Kirsten at another batting position. An analogy with the pre-2001 Justin Langer would perhaps be as appropriate.

Prince has been shaping up rather well in one-day internationals. The ODI average of 44 appears distinctly healthy if his more-than-fair share of not-outs are discounted. Ashwell's crisp fielding efforts inside the circle helps restore competitive edge to the traditionally supreme South African fielding unit that, in the recent past, took a retrograde step from the unearthly 90's regime of Jonty Rhodes Inc.

The big scores against leading teams were yet to come off Ashwell's blade in the Tests though. Quite unsurprising - he hardly ever played a Test against a top side since his debut series. In the current clash Down Under Prince completes a full circle on his spiral way up to the upper tiers. He is back facing the same world beating adversaries and, going by his response to calamity at a key juncture of the Sydney Test, making a stepping stone out of it - in their backyard.

Not too bad a feat by the gritty batsman notwithstanding the oddity that Warne, after scalping Prince nine times in the eleven innings that the South African has played against Australia, will continue to perceive him as a walking wicket of the Cullinan variety.
[cross posted at Different Strokes]